Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Spirituality as Spirit and Spirituality toward Spirit:

A Dialogue with Derrida
Transforming Theology Theoblogging Project

Continuing the project of blogging through Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008) – Chapter 16

There is a growing segment of the population that considers itself “spiritual but not religious.” By that they mean that they’re spiritual people, but they have no use for organized, institutional, traditional forms of religion. More often than not the object of this rejection is Christianity since it is and has been the primary form of religion in the Western World since the time of Constantine. My conversations with people who embrace this idea take a fairly eclectic view of spirituality – a rather new term (I remember Martin Marty speaking to this several years ago in a presentation made in Santa Barbara). It’s a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, a very individualistic mix of ideas and practices.

It is this debate about spirituality (or spiritualities) that came to mind as I read this second to last chapter of Philip Clayton’s book. He engages philosopher Jacques Derrida in a conversation about spirit and spirituality – using two German words: Geistig and Geistlich. The conversation is set in the broader conversation about the boundaries that lie between spirituality/theology and science. Clayton notes that in the minds of many theology, especially due to its encounters with science, “has grown old, somewhat lame, now weakened by the usurpation of his former powers, resting in his rocking chair at the edges of the action, no longer at the center of attention, sometimes a little melancholy, ready though to reminisce and to share his stories with anyone who will listen” (p. 245).

That picture of tottering theologian has been challenged in recent years by some who have sought to reengage science, but from a different vantage point than before. Of course, the science itself has changed – it’s not the “science of Bacon, Laplace, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, or even Karl Popper.” In order to make this engagement possible, Clayton suggests turning to Derrida, and through him to Martin Heidegger (neither of whom I’ve read in any real way). But according to Clayton, the key is to move from spirituality, which is rather nebulous, to Spirit, which has a strong particularity to it.

Derrida takes up a dichotomy set forth by Heidegger between calculative thinking and meditative thinking. The first is domineering and the second is acquiescent. One is concerned about efficient causes, and the other underlying physical laws. Calculative thinking objectifies the world (p. 247). The contrast here moves over to the contrast between science and spirituality, the former of which had been dominant for years, but more recently, spirituality, if not Spirit, has begun to assert itself. Thus, meditative thinking is beginning to emerge.

But what is spirituality? And how does it relate to Spirit? Thus, we’re back to the difference between Geistig and Geistlich – Spirit and Spirituality. And in this day, spirituality is deemed the more important. Indeed, its value is found in its breadth, it’s freedom from metaphysics – to cover just about all that humans do – with no particularity necessary. But, Clayton does not believe that such a thing will be able to withstand the challenges of science, without – Geistig – Spirit. We need both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Thus, the value of panentheism, for it provides for both.

To put this another way, theism tends to think of God’s relationship with the world soteriologically, that is, God enters into the world to save us from this or that. Clayton wants us to see this ontologically, so that the world always remains “within the being of God” (p. 251). That is, we should think o f the “divine Spirit as remaining intrinsically and pervasively present within the world, so that it’s within the divine that ‘we live and move and have our being’” (p. 251 – Acts 17:38).

The title of this book is Adventures in the Spirit, but the question that has long been with the Christian faith is the nature of the Spirit – the largely undefined third person of the Trinity. Clayton wants to give some definition to the Spirit, a “new theology of the Spirit,” one that is connected with the emergent science.

“Its roots lie in the one natural world that surrounds us and of which we are a part. As the ‘stuff’ of this world becomes organized in more and more complicated ways, new properties emerge. Although their existence is dependent on the properties of the underlying particles, their behavior is irreducible to any of its underlying levels. Hence the nature world evidences the emergence of genuinely new properties. At each emerging level, new structures are established and new causal forces are at work. One extends the structure of emergence downward to address questions of fundamental physical law, but one can also extend it upwards to come to a better understanding of consciousness, mind, and spirit. The emergent causal levels thus help to elucidate the meaning and semantic range of the idea of Spirit.” (Pp. 252-253).

What is he doing here? He’s providing us with a way to integrate our understandings of the Spirit and the natural world. He’s inviting us to decompartmentalize. While Spirit doesn’t “reduce to matter,” neither does it “float happily on summer breezes, cut adrift from all empirical moorings” (p.253). Even as Bultmann sought to demythologize the biblical story, Clayton and others are seeking to “re-enchant” nature.

“The beauties of our planet and the richness of its life forms are not distant expressions of a far-off and distant God. They continue to manifest the divine presence” (p. 253).
Our tendency, in the face of the challenges of science, is to retreat into a protective area that is science free, but Clayton wants to liberate us from our fear of this challenge. I’m not sure I completely understand all the ramifications, but I see the value of the dialog. What I appreciate about Clayton is that he’s not trying to change science to fit religious needs – Creationism and Intelligent Design. He’s not trying to fill unresolved gaps with God – but rather seeks to see the way of the Spirit as the flip side of what science is talking about.

To find this new direction, we must take a turn away from the Western focus on perfection and purity, and turn east with Derrida. Therefore, bringing together “the metaphysics of the Spirit” with panentheism, we have a “framework for theology that has both systematic coherence and a sufficient fit with science to avoid contradiction with its core results.

“Such ideas struggle to make the trembling transition from the geistlich – the human spiritual quest – toward the (always preliminary language of Geist or Spirit, where that quest finds its proper home.” (P. 245).

I haven’t read Heidegger or Derrida, so I can’t speak to their views. I can only speak to this journey, one that is challenging me to rethink the relationship of science and faith, but at the same time understand that the human spiritual quest needs a home – the divine. We still see the Source through a mist. The lines are blurred, but there is a direction to go. So, our journey continues, content not simply with the human quest, but a longing for its fulfillment.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Week in "Secular America" -- Sightings

This has been an interesting week in "secular America," so says Martin Marty. The headlines range from the WSJ coverage of sex in America to its essay on the demise of the Sunday School -- caused in large part by divorce and soccer Sundays -- to Mark Sanford's trysts and decision to cover himself with a little bit of Scripture (remember that David had his trysts too). Then there's the near idolatry that has gone on with Michael Jackson's death -- what Marty calls America's real religion (idolization of celebrity). Oh, and we've had another suggestion that science proves God's "non-existence," and an Assemblies of God celebrated the two foundations of America -- God and Guns! Amen, Praise God and Pass the Ammunition!!

What a week it was -- and Marty, with all of his wit and insight, offers his analysis!


Sightings 6/29/09

A Week in “Secular” America
-- Martin E. Marty

Internet print-outs overload my “in-bucket” of items about the public face of religion in America on a daily basis. Regular subscribers, however, know that the week comes to its climax as we scan the two national dailies, the Friday Wall Street Journal and New York Times, issuing from putatively secular Washington and New York.

What a week it was. Saturday’s WSJ crowned its front page with the banner words “Deadly Sins,” and gave the whole front page of the Weekend Journal to “Sex Americana.” Gerard Baker deduces there that citizens are increasingly tolerant when public officials “fall” to sexual infidelities—now known as “my mistakes”—but grow more intolerant of hypocrisy when those who preach against sexual sin “do it.”

Back to Friday, June 26: Most talked-about was the NYT cover story about an Assemblies of God minister, Ken Pagano of Louisville, who insisted that members bring exposed firearms into the sanctuary to celebrate “God and guns,” the co-founders of our country. The once anti-gambling Assemblies must notice, on the national level, that this local church is raffling off a handgun, but Pastor Pagano wants to celebrate and defend assault weapons. Critics charge that giving sanctuary to such weapons and carriers and blending them with the gospel is incompatible. Pagano says, “Baloney!” “The issue now is the gospel. So in a sense, it does become a crusade. Now the Gospel is at stake.” Some na├»ve folks were shocked, not having noticed that for millions, such theology is the real religion.

For weekend balance, the WSJ provides a sophisticated and, yes, balanced editorial-review by Marc Arkin of Peter J. Thueson’s Predestination: the American Career of a Contentious Doctrine. Thueson revisits the verbally violent history of pro- and con- arguers over whether God predestines most of God’s creatures to spend eternity in hell. The review ends with comment that Thuesen “manages to capture the significance of their enterprise. It is nothing less than an unflinching commitment to living always mindful of the eye of eternity,” paying “noble tribute to that sense of awe before the divine that theology captures only through a glass darkly.”

Lawrence W. Krauss in a long editorial “proves” to himself that “God and Science Don’t Mix,” and tells of a debate which, framed the way he frames it, he could not lose. It’s a rather un-nuanced boast which offers nothing new. Science wins? God is dead?

Charlotte Hays in her “Houses of Worship” column reports on the decline in Sunday School attendance and the number of Sunday Schools nationally. Is this because God is dead? No— while boring experiences contribute, social factors are bigger. Parental divorces unsettle Sunday arrangements for the children’s schedules, and soccer wins out over Jesus almost always. Sunday sports and public celebrations are thus other phenomena which show that there are other sanctuaries for the “real religion” of millions

Any phenomenologist looking in on the idol-worship upon the death of icon Michael Jackson would say that in this celebrity-adulation she has located our real religion. And we have only a line or four left for the most religiously-covered event of the week: the confessions of Governor Mark Sanford, who came back from one of history’s most publicized trysts to apologize for his “mistake” and to announce that he’s been rereading the Bible. He’s used the Bible for years in his political efforts to smash everyone who reads it differently than he does. Now it’s a more personal issue: He calls in King David, to identify with that lecher-of-old. What a week!—in “secular” America.

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


In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum essay, anthropologist and legal scholar Mateo Taussig-Rubbo examines “how the destruction of property and life seems to [generate] a new form of value,” a value frequently identified as that of the “sacred.” Focusing on the wreckage from and sites of the September 11 attacks, Taussig-Rubbo considers issues of property law and conceptions of sacrifice in an attempt to understand how this concept of sacrality comes to be, and what meanings it holds within American culture. Invited responses will follow from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Kathryn Lofton, Jeremy Biles, and Kristen Tobey.



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

50 Ways to Help Save the Earth -- Review

50 WAYS TO HELP SAVE THE EARTH: How You and Your Church Can Make a Difference. By Rebecca Barnes-Davies. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 127 pp.

As the debate about climate change rages on, whatever our position, the challenge to be good stewards of the environment is ever before us. Green is the color of the future – new energy sources, conservation of existing resources, and cleaning of toxic sites. The question is – what can we do as individuals and as churches? According to Rebecca Barnes-Davies, a consultant for Environmental and Social Justice Ministries and a former director of Presbyterians Restoring Creation, there are at least fifty ways that we can go about saving the earth.

Reading a book like this, despite its slim size, readability, and useful graphics isn’t easy. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the feeling that there’s simply too much to do. You read a section, and before long you have this overwhelming sense of guilt. Or, you look at suggestions and taking them as commands, you feel like it’s simply not doable. But, while the author may envision our embracing every idea in the book, I expect that she understands that we will start small, and work way up to the more difficult and challenging possibilities. The point of the book is to get us thinking about our environment, to start thinking theologically and biblically in a green direction. So, we start we’re at, and move forward, knowing that this is part of our being disciples of Jesus Christ. So, here is our task:

“To learn to reshape our lives to honor rather than destroy God’s creation. To Participate in God’s saving work will be an ever-unfolding journey, one that has no definable end but that is both worthwhile and absolutely vital for the future of the planet.” (P. 8).

The call to action involves life changes, but also reflection and celebration. The author reminds us that as we move through the fifty ways of saving the earth, every seventh idea invites us to rest and celebrate, a reminder of Sabbath – something we Western Christians have difficulty experiencing. The final idea is an invitation to Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10-12) – a call to praise God, to rest before God, and even give back that which we’ve gained over time.

Barnes-Davies organizes the book around seven categories – Energy, Food and Agriculture, Transportation, Water, People, Other Species, and Wilderness and Land. Under each of these seven categories you’ll find seven possible ways of effecting a green revolution in our society. For instance, under Energy you’ll find suggestions to reduce energy consumption, support renewable energy, advocate for clean air laws, work to stop mountaintop removal, build and renovate green, audit energy us, and rest and relax.

Under each of the seven suggested ways of effecting a green lifestyle, the author offers ways of accomplishing this goal. So, for instance, under “support renewable energy,” you’ll find eight “how to’s” that range from “purchas[ing] part of your energy from a green source” to “buy[ing] a solar cooker for yourself or someone else.” You will also find a box called “Walking the Talk” that profiles a person or congregation living out this particular idea. Under this idea, we find the story of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, which has converted to 100% renewable energy for the congregation’s needs. Finally, under each of these ideas is a section called “Faith Matters,” which features either a prayer or a relevant scripture. Published using “30% post consumer recycled paper, processed chlorine free,” the book itself seeks to bear witness to a greener world. And if we needed any further reminders of the need to be green, the book is printed with green ink.

Some of the suggestions require little of us, beyond studying the issues and becoming aware of our role in climate change, such as learning about land use laws, or they involve advocacy for peace and justice. These are things that Mainline Protestants are good at – study and advocacy. Other suggestions will require more of us. These range from stopping the use of bottled water to reducing our water consumption. Under this latter idea, the author suggests such things as saving a flush, using low-flow technology, reusing gray water (“keep a bucket in the bath or shower to catch the water wasted while waiting for hot water to arrive” and then use it water plants or flushing the toilet (p. 60). We can walk or bike rather than drive our cars, use public transportation and car-pooling – steps like these make life more inconvenient, and are often difficult to manage in many of our suburban communities.

Rebecca Barnes-Davies has done a commendable job providing clearly laid out ideas for making a difference, one step at a time, so that the world we inhabit cannot only survive, but thrive. This is a book that can be used in study groups, in church-self-studies, and simply by individual Christians wanting to make a difference. The book begins with the premise that climate change is being fueled by human activity, and therefore we can, if we choose, make a difference. But, we must also remember who we are and what we can do. She writes this, in the closing section -- "Jubilee!":

We are not in charge of the earth. We are not, by our own human prerogative, going to save the world. We do not know enough. We do not have enough power or resources. (p. 124).

But, keeping in mind this admonition, the challenge remains before us -- what role will we play in God's work in the world?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Gun-Loving Church?

No, we didn't celebrate the American love affair with a blessing of guns or a raffle to give away a hand gun in church today. I expect that is true of most congregations across the nation, but at least church in Louisville, Kentucky did have such a service. Apparently Kentucky has one of the most liberal gun laws in the nation -- you don't need permits to buy guns, whether a rifle for hunting or to buy a handgun -- though you apparently need one to carry it on you. Guns are banned in bars, schools, or jails, but not in churches. It seems that no one anticipated that people would bring guns to church. I sure wouldn't have thought this would happen!

America has long had a love affair with guns. We love our Westerns, where everyone has a gun strapped around his waist (women might carry one, but generally they concealed a small gun in a hand bag). Clint Eastwood's The Pale Rider features a a gun slinging preacher -- though when he must kill to protect his friends, he trades his collar for a gun.

The Second Amendment does protect gun ownership -- though the meaning of "a well regulated militia" has long been debated. The NRA, which sees itself as the protector of every one's right to bear arms seems to think that any regulation is too much regulation -- so they even oppose bans on assault rifles. Now, I don't know about you, but unless you're intending to kill people, assault rifles have little use.

So, I must admit that I do find it a bit odd that a church would celebrate gun ownership during a worship service. I'm not sure why the pastor decided to do this -- though maybe he thought this would be a great evangelistic effort. Bring a friend and a gun Sunday -- what a thought.

According to the article in the Guardian (a British paper)

Ken Pagano, who packs a pistol of his own, wants his parishioners to openly wear their firearms at the New Bethel Church in Louisville to mark the 4 July Independence anniversary and celebrate the part guns played in the making of the nation.

The unusual service has brought a mixed reaction, welcomed by many gun owners but widely derided elsewhere with fellow pastors and victims of gun crime questioning whether it is appropriate to carry weapons in a church.

I guess I'm part of that group of pastors that finds this rather inappropriate. I wonder how it fits with Jesus' message to love your neighbor, to turn the other cheek, and be a peacemaker. Is America's love affair with the gun something we should celebrate or not?

As for my church, as a pastor, we'll refrain from such events!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Family Dynasties in the Church

I find it interesting that many large churches become family dynasties -- not always successfully. I also find interesting that in many of these large churches, the founding pastors find it difficult to let go.

A while back we learned that there had been a rift between father and son at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. Dad had anointed his son as successor, but never really let go of it. I was always a bit perplexed why Schuller Sr. decided to keep the church in the family, and why the son decided to take the job. You would have thought that when Schuller, Sr. retired that the board would look for a pastor who had the requisite credentials and abilities to lead a large church. Schuller, Jr. had been, earlier on, pastoring a smaller satellite congregation in San Juan Capistrano. As far as I know it never really became much of anything. I also always found it interesting that once the younger Schuller took the pulpit he tried to sound like and look like his father -- rather than try to develop his own style.

So, with Robert Schuller, now 82, back in control, it appears that he's passing the baton on to his daughter. According to an LA Times story, Sheila Schuller Coleman, the director of the church's family ministries, will now run the show, though she'll not be the primary preacher (she says she'll preach every 4-6 weeks, while they look for an evangelist to pick up the slack and get the ministry righted). Apparently in these past few years, giving down, viewership is down, and attendance is down. I would venture to guess that part of this is due to an aging congregation that is unable to adapt to the times as quickly as it might need to.

So, in light of this story, I'd like to pose a couple of questions:

1) Do you believe that a church should be in the control of one family (the pastor's family in this case)?

2) Can a megachurch survive into a second or third generation?

As you consider these questions, look around and see what has happened when the baton has been passed. There are many formerly large churches across the country that now are nearly empty, have gone out of business or they're a shadow of their former selves. Is this inevitable? As the pastor of a once large urban congregation, I can attest to its difficulty. Central Woodward was able to sustain itself at least into the second generation, but after that it became more difficult. Part of the issue was a changing community, but can a church sustain itself as a large church over time? I invite your thoughts.

H/T to Call and Response Blog; picture from LA Times article.

Iran in the Shadow of Michael Jackson

Just a few days ago, we were sitting in rapt attention waiting for the latest from Iran. Of course, there was little confirmed information, because the Iranian Government, having turned to martial law, had shut down the foreign media, and its own government controlled media only offering its own narrative. Still, there was information coming out here and there through twitter and YouTube. But, then Michael Jackson died, and now our attention has shifted, and Iran has stepped into the background.

Everything that is coming out of Iran suggests that the government, using a brutal crackdown, has managed to take control of the streets, quash open dissent, threaten the opposition (many of the campaign staff members of Mir Hussein Mousavi are in custody. That may explain why Mousavi has stepped back from the brink. If he's arrested, his staff, family, and friends are likely to face retribution as well. We're also seeing results of an effort that is either using tortured confessions or misinformation that is blaming the unrest not on the government, but on "foreign influences." And the government sponsored Friday sermon, delivered by a high ranking hardline cleric is calling for the execution of some of the protesters, especially those influenced by these foreign influences.

The article in today's NY Times describes a surreal scene, in which a normally bustling Tehran has become something of a ghost town. The streets are empty of cars, and the shops, though open, are empty. No one is venturing out lest they become victims of the militias and other government sponsored thugs.

There is little that the United States or its allies can do at this moment. Only time will tell where this leads. For now a hard line government has taken control, but the people have seen a side that many do not like. Over time the government's control might lessen, even as its legitimacy is challenged. Iran is a complicated place, and so we simply don't know what to expect.

However, while the attention given Michael Jackson is to be expected, let us not forget the bigger picture and push the Iranian people out of our minds and our prayers. They deserve better.

Reflections on the Human Quest for Meaning

Transforming Theology Theoblogging Project

Continuing the project of blogging through Philip Clayton’s, Adventures in the Spirit – Chapter 15

Having started with the question of the viability of a conversation between science and theology, and whether it was worth the risk for theology to enter that conversation, we have been seeking answers to these questions from a variety of vantage points. We began with the scientific questions, and whether the idea of emergence within science gave some hope to our quest. From there, in part three we considered whether panentheism was a workable theological model for this engagement – and whether it provided a firm grounding for a Trinitarian formulation. We also explored the idea of kenosis, God’s self-emptying, and how that played with God’s relationship to the universe and how it related to our Christological questions. Then in the fourth part of the book, we moved on to the crux of the science-theology discussion – does God act? That is, does science, as we know it and practice it, allow for divine agency? Clayton, as we should know by now, answers in the affirmative, but continues to insist that panentheism is the most viable path to take to find the solution. Now, in part four we come to the issue of application – how might all of this connect with where we are living?

The first question that Philip Clayton takes up, in chapter 15, is the “human quest for meaning.” While much of the previous discussion has focused on answering the challenges of the natural sciences, in this chapter he takes up the challenges posed by the social sciences, for they wrestle with the question of meaning and purpose. Thus, in this chapter we focus on questions of theological anthropology, and the conversation partners include anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

There is, he recognizes, a “hierarchy of meaning,” which ranges from “the raw data from the world and other humans” – those basic experiences of life that we must wrestle with – and up to the highest level, which involves “Making sense of existence as a whole.” In between there are all manners of questions of individual perception and social formation in cultural and social contexts. The question is, where does religion fit? Is it socially constructed or does it construct society? Clayton writes that when we approach faith from the perspective of the social sciences religious people get a bit uncomfortable.

“We like to think of our religious beliefs as directly reflecting rational reflection on the world and self-revelation of God, rather than as the product of social construction. Many become uncomfortable to consider their religious beliefs as being the result of social factors.” (P. 234).

But, the evidence is that our faith is socially constructed. By and large we are the products of our context – by and large we share the religious beliefs and practices of our families. Indeed, while I may have left the denomination of my childhood, I remain both Christian and Protestant.

From a sociological perspective the focus is on the function of belief. Again, religious people are uncomfortable with functionalist understandings of religion. But if it plays no function, then religion has no purpose. And what is its purpose? Well, at one level faith, religion, theism, establishes meaning – “thereby to make the universe meaningful for believers” (pp. 236-237). The problem is that a functionalist perspective often presupposes social constructivism. And, it is believed if faith is socially constructed, then ultimately it lacks validity. That is, we create religion, and thus God, so as to give ourselves meaning and purpose, whether or not there is any truth to these beliefs. Thus, they must be false.

Clayton offers a telling response:

“Functionalist accounts do not demonstrate the falsity of (say) core Christian beliefs. Believing that God exists does not become a mistake merely because that belief functions to make one’s life meaningful. Belief in God is sometimes dismissed as mere ‘wish fulfillment’, as in Freud’s famous critique. But is the fulfillment of things we wish for always a matter of make-believe? The functionalist critique may support agnosticism, but it provides no evidence for the falseness of religious claims.” (P. 239).

And, as for the question of revelation – the charge is that since God language is humanly created, and serves “particular personal and social functions,” it must have no divine component. The question is, why make this judgment? Why can’t humanly constructed language be a viable means of divine self-revelation?

The reality is this – we can’t run away from functionalist critiques and analysis. Religion is, at least in some ways, socially constructed. The evidence is there – in terms of the rites and rituals that we use. But, if we accept this social analysis, there will be a cost to pay. We’ll have to be more careful about our faith statements. It’s quite possible, even likely, that some of our God-talk will say more about us than it does about God.

“Theology and anthropology do not exist in pristine purity, worlds apart, and none of us practices a religion that is completely culture-free.” (P. 239).

Thus, we must recognize that some, if not much, of our religious language comes not from above, but is socially constructed. That doesn’t mean that it’s false, it’s just that we must recognize our role in this process. But, having said this, that doesn’t mean that theology has no role to play in the conversation. Indeed, it has an important role in giving “a theological account of what is occurring.” (P. 239). The question is, what kind of account should theology be giving? To give an answer, we must recognize that just as the natural sciences raise questions that theology must deal with, so do the social sciences. And one of the most important questions concerns why homo sapiens, as a species, are so concerned about questions of meaning – so much that they turn to religion as a way of answering this question? Why do we see the universe as being religiously meaningful? One answer is that it’s “meaningful because God has created the universe and wishes to be in relationship with intelligent life (or all life).” (P. 241).

It is the question of meaning that leads to theological conversation. The kinds of question that the social sciences offer to theology include, questions of meaning and whether the best explanatory models come from the natural sciences or the social sciences. There are two key questions that are raised – contrasting ones. Will human beings be explained in “distinctly human terms and predicates? Or, will the answers be found by going to “a trans-human level, for example, humans as made in the image of God and reflecting the divine nature and intentions?” (pp. 242-243). Is it possible that our answers can be found as we wrestle with the question of God, by studying ourselves? That is the question.

The natural sciences provide some boundaries for our God-talk. The social sciences offer a different set of questions – equally challenging – but in the end enlightening. We are, as a species, concerned about meaning and purpose. The question is, does God play a role? There is no absolute proof either way, but for millenniums the human species has looked to religion to offer explanations. They may not all agree, and the rites, rituals, beliefs and practices may be socially constructed, but that doesn’t mean that the very core there isn’t truth to be found.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Disciples -- A Cumulative Review

Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2009), ix + 146 pp.

I have been working my way through each of the chapters of Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn's very important book Disciples. Most Disciples, clergy at least, will know these two names quite well. Michael Kinnamon is currently General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, but years ago now, he stood for the position of General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). While having a plurality of votes, he lacked the 2/3rds majority needed to be sustained. It was a most difficult period of time in the church, but he and we have moved on from there. Jan Linn taught practical ministry at Lexington Theological Seminary -- being a colleague there with Kinnamon -- and no is pastor of a Disciple church in Minnesota.

They write a book that will prove challenging to all who read it -- not challenging in the sense that it is difficult to read or understand, because its not -- because it is a shot across the bow, attempting to get our attention at a crucial time in the life of the church that they and I call home. They write this not as part of some opposition movement, for both have been regular contributors to the life of the church. But they write out of a concern for our future, concerned that as we try to remake ourselves (something they agree we should do) that we not forget who we are as a people.

As I began to blog my way through the book, in anticipation of writing a more focused review, I did not address the first chapter of the book, which is entitled "Why We Are Disciples." That's not put in the form of a question -- it's a declarative statement. They are both committed to living ecumenically and affirming the universality of the church, but they understand that just as Jesus represents the particularity of God's presence, so does the church.

We are a paradoxical people -- we are a church, with all the trappings of a church, but we're also a tradition that never intended to become a denomination. The founders saw this movement as one of reform within the body of Christ, a witness to "the gospel of reconciliation" (p. 2). Our identity is designed to be non-sectarian and a movement of healing, and while we've developed our distinctive patterns and practices, we do not, at our best, see ourselves separating out from the rest of the body of Christ, but believe that what we bring as our particularities are a gift to the body. We are, as we've long held, "not the only Christians, but Christians only."

The authors declare their purpose is simply to "reclaim the identity of the Disciples movement in a way that encourages reform of our worship, fellowship, and mission" (p. 3). The make this offering at a most appropriate time -- the bicentennial of Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address, one of the founding documents of our movement. A century ago the Disciples gathered in Pittsburgh to celebrate the centennial of the movement, and set forth a series of statements concerning the nature of this movement, many of which still ring true today, though priorities and emphases may have changed here and there.

Our authors suggest that ours is a dynamic identity, that is able to adapt to new realities. That may be due to the fact that were born on the frontier. While we have a strong heritage to build on, there is also need of significant reform, both in structural terms and in terms of mission and purpose. The chapters that follow provide both an explication of the heritage, and proposals for reform. Reform that is rooted and couched in the belief that we are a free people living together in covenant relationship.

As they begin the journey through the heritage into the present and on to the future, they recognize the danger of focusing too much on who we are, but at this point, we seem more likely to lose our bearings than become overly focused.

We believe that strengthening our own identity as disciples of Christ can enhance our participation in God's mission of peacemaking and compassionate service. Surely Bonhoeffer is right: a preoccupation with self-preservation is antithetical to a faith that has the cross as its central symbol. In Bonhoeffer's words, "the church is the church only when it exists for others," only when it gives itself away in witness, service, and advocacy. May it be so for us, for this movement called Disciples. (p. 8).

With this as the introduction, I invite you to explore each of my reflections on the chapters that followed their claim of Disciple identity. You may click on each and read through at your leisure. I would invite you to return here to begin a conversation about the nature of the Church, and its mission, whether or not, you are a Disciples. If you a member of this community, then I especially welcome your thoughts and responses.

Chapter 2 -- Covenant

Chapter 3 -- Scripture
Chapter 4 -- The Lord's Supper
Chapter 5 -- Baptism
Chapter 6 -- Unity
Chapter 7 -- Mission
Chapter 8 -- Congregation
Chapter 9 -- Leadership
Chapter 10 -- Being Disciples in the Twenty-first Century

Farrah, Michael, and the Day the 70's Died

I'm a product of the 70s. Born in 1958, the same year as Michael Jackson, I grew up with Farrah on my wall, and Michael's music on my radio. I'm not a big Michael Jackson fan, but he has been ever present somewhere in the background for as long as I can remember. His first hit was with the Jackson 5 -- in 1969.

Farrah was a fixture in commercials -- creaming Joe Namath for a shave or offering her smile as the model of an Ultrabrite smile. Then came a one year foray on Charlies Angels. And off she went. I remember the debates we guys had with the girls we hung around with -- they accused her of having cardboard hair, while trying to emulate her style.

Both of these icons of the 70s died yesterday. Farrah, early in the day at age 62, from cancer. The death wasn't a surprise, considering her long and very public battle with cancer. Michael's death perhaps more surprising, and yet not so surprising. I was living in Santa Barbara during the big 2005 trial and I knew some of what was happening.

Anthea Butler -- a fellow Fuller alumnus (she was a M.Div. student while I was doing some adjunct teaching years ago at Fuller) -- and now a research scholar at Harvard, has written a very apropos remembrance of these two -- not forgetting that another 70s icon, Ed McMahon, died earlier this week (we all know that deaths come in threes).

Anthea opens her Religion Dispatch piece:

The 70’s died for me on Thursday, June 25, 2009. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, both icons, died on the same day. Entertainment folklore has it that stars die in threes; so adding in Ed McMahon’s death earlier this week truly means the 70’s are dead and gone. When icons die, questions arise about mortality—theirs, and ours. We don’t expect our worldly Tabloid Gods to die, ever. When they do, it is a 24/7 orgy of recrimination, speculation, and sadness, all with a creepy suspicion that we could be next. Their iconic bodies, stopped finally, speak to us in ways that call us to look upon their visages, and their lives.

Even while our attention is focused on these two pop icons and their rather tragic deaths at relatively young ages, another aspect of the 1970s is dying -- the Iranian Revolution. It's not that the regime is coming to an end, but the religious legitimacy is ending. Indeed, today, even as we're focused on these deaths, a leading hard-line cleric is calling for the execution of dissidents.

The 1970s was a different era, but it wasn't one of innocence. We had Vietnam, Watergate, an economic malaise, the Cold War, and an Iranian Revolution. Michael and Farrah, they were our escapes. But that was then, and with their deaths we realize that the 1970s was a very long time ago.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Resetting the American Faith Dialogue

Not so long ago there was an evangelical President who said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher. Many were concerned about the beginnings of a theocracy. Now, we have a President who talks about Jesus a lot more than his predecessor, but who also seems to have a broader understanding of what it means to be Christian in a pluralistic context. Some conservatives, who seem unable to allow for more than one way of being Christian, seem to believe that the current occupant of the White House is being less than honest about his faith. So, what do we make of President Obama's religious tone? Martin Davis comments on this today in a Sighting's post. I welcome your thoughts on this. I personally believe that Obama is a person of deep faith, but also a person who believes that one must live this faith humbly, without assuming that one is the only possessor of truth or a relationship with God. I find this refreshing, but that's me. Take a read and then offer your thoughts.


Sightings 6/25/09

Resetting the American Faith Dialogue
Martin Davis

After eight years of teeth-gnashing by journalists over President George W. Bush’s evangelical leanings and fears that he’ll bring his faith into play when making policy decisions, a new evangelist has appeared up the street from Capitol Hill: President Barack Obama.

First, he “threw open the doors” of the White House faith-based office to a wide array of spiritual voices and has encouraged them to bring their faith to bear on his administration. As Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners, noted of a meeting at the White House with him and other spiritual leaders: Obama “said you should feel free to disagree with me when you do, even publicly, because one thing that we can’t lose is your prophetic integrity.”

Now, journalist Eamon Javers at Politico informs us that our new president invokes the name of Jesus more often than our most recently term-limited president. “He’s done it while talking about abortion and the Middle East, even the economy. The references serve at once as an affirmation of his faith and a rebuke against a rumor that persists for some to this day.”

Evangelicals aren’t quite sure what to make of this. To them, he sounds like Bush, which makes them suspect his motives are less than sincere. Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, says “I applaud [the references to Jesus]. It gives people a sense of comfort. But I think it’s a veneer, a facade that covers over a lot of policies that are anti-Christian.” The same sentiment is apparent in the writings of former Christianity Today editor Stan Guthrie in his analysis of Obama’s Cairo speech.

But if they’re correct, then where’s the outcry from the left? The closest one comes is from the mouth of Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who understands Obama and Bush to be evoking the same Jesus. “I don’t need to hear politicians tell me how religious they are,” Lynn said. “Obama in a very overt way does what Bush tended to do in a more covert way.”

But does he? Javers doesn’t seem to think so. “For Obama, Christian rhetoric offers an opportunity to connect with a broader base of supporters in a nation in which 83 percent of Americans believe in God.” Just how broad is this base of non-evangelical people of faith that Javers refers to? Potentially huge. As many as eighty percent of people in America who profess to believe in God don’t identify as evangelicals, if the numbers at the Pew Forum are to be believed.

What Lynn fails to understand, and what evangelicals largely miss, is that Obama’s Jesus is not a more politically correct, dressed-up version of Bush’s. On the level of theology, they are one hundred and eighty degrees apart. Behind Bush’s faith lay a particular dogma that many feared, rightly or wrongly, was driving administration policies on everything from the War in Iraq to policies over disaster relief and education. Under Bush, to be on the side of faith in any of these discussions wasn’t enough. One had to be on the side of Bush’s understanding of faith. Any other opinion leaves one on the outside looking in. It’s a hallmark of conservative evangelical thought.

Christianity for Obama is more “civil,” in that it invokes Robert Bellah’s notion of religion as, at its best, a unifying force that contributes to society’s well-being. Obama is less concerned, one may assume, with what one believes than with respecting all beliefs and leveraging them for all the good they can produce. It’s a study in maximizing the power of faith that Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama’s self-professed favored theologian, would doubtless have appreciated.

In short, Obama is resetting the scales of religious discourse in America. He’s making it alright to be a person of faith—or not of faith—and not be evangelical. He understands that religion lies at the heart of what this country is and how it sees itself, and that religion is a significant player on the world stage. Success in his grand political agenda requires successfully expanding our understanding of faith and our ability to talk about it.

Whether he’s savvy politician or sincere advocate for this more open faith tradition remains to be seen. But this much is sure: Faith didn’t leave Washington when Bush moved back to Crawford. It moved into the White House with Obama, and may prove a more powerful player for good on the American scene than it has is some time.

Read Stan Guthrie’s comments on Obama’s Cairo speech at http://www.stanguthrie.com/2009/06/obamas-cairo-speech.html#comments.

Read Eamon Javers’ comments on Obama’s references to Jesus at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0609/23510.html.

Martin Davis is an independent journalist and founder of Davis Communications working out of Washington, D.C. He operates the blog Faith and Fumbles.

In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum essay, anthropologist and legal scholar Mateo Taussig-Rubbo examines “how the destruction of property and life seems to [generate] a new form of value,” a value frequently identified as that of the “sacred.” Focusing on the wreckage from and sites of the September 11 attacks, Taussig-Rubbo considers issues of property law and conceptions of sacrifice in an attempt to understand how this concept of sacrality comes to be, and what meanings it holds within American culture. Invited responses will follow from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Kathryn Lofton, Jeremy Biles, and Kristen Tobey.


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

Ideology and the Iranian Unrest

I don't know who actually won the June 12 Iranian elections. The winner was announced essentially before the votes were counted and confirmed. My sense is that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad either did not win or didn't get 50% of the vote. It is interesting that essentially only 2 candidates are given votes. But that hardly seems likely. One would assume that the other two candidates, one conservative and one more progressive (actuallyl the most progressive candidate) would receive so few votes, especially since Mehdi Karoubi was one of the primary candidates in the last go round four years ago.
So, what happened? I find interesting an article in today's NY Times, which notes how President Ahmadinejad, with the support of the Supreme Leader, has gone to great lengths to put allies, friends, supporters into positions throughout the government, both locally and nationally. He has replaced the governors, mayors, and down the line. His allies control the Interior Ministry (oversees the elections), Justice, Intelligence, the Basj Militias. And apparently, while he and the Supreme Leader don't see eye to eye on everything, they are tied together. What this article notes is that while Ahmadinejad comes off as a buffoon when speaking, he's a shrewd political operator with important connections.
Some of the things we're learning about Ahmadinejad -- and his ideological inclinations -- is that he and his allies emerged out of the Iran-Iraq War. They have been hardened by that war. We also learn that this generation (mostly in their 50s) is largely at odds with the older revolutionary generation -- such as Ayatollah Ali Rafsanjani and Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. They are more agressive, assertive, and wanting to continue a confrontational foreign policy.
We also learn from this article that Ahmadinejad has connections to a stream of Shiite thought that teaches that Islam and Democracy are incompatible.

At the same time, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, runs three powerful educational institutions in the holy city of Qum, all spun off from the Haqqani seminary, which teaches that Islam and democracy are incompatible. The ayatollah favors a system that would preserve the post of supreme leader and eliminate elections. The Ahmadinejad administration has provided generous government subsidies to the seminary, and its graduates hold significant government posts nationwide.

So what does this hold for the future? No one really knows. It's clear that Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will do whatever it takes to keep power. The president has a populist message, and has lower class roots, which may fuel anger against the political elite. If his ideological mentors are anti-democratic, then we learn more.
That stands one side of the ledger. At the same time, there is a growing sense that Iran needs to change, that it needs to become more democratic and more open to the outside world. Many of the key figures in the opposition emerged out of the Revolution, and have mellowed, seeing little benefit to be gained by hardline perspectives. In many ways this is a battle over the legacy of the 1979 Revolution.
The future likely will be one of unrest, simmering anger, and uncertainty. It is interesting to hear the Supreme Leader say that he won't be influenced or intimidated by protests and strikes. It's interesting because these are the tactics that brought about the 1979 Revolution, one that Ayatollah Khomeini and many of the current elite hijacked.
With this going on, America must be cautious. It's obvious, that for now we cannot have any real conversations with the government. We must not appear to be provacateers, which would give ammunition to the government, making this a nationalist issue. This is an issue that the Iranians must resolve themselves. But, we can do some important work on the outside. I saw that the US is sending back its ambassador to Syria. We need to pull Syria out of the Iranian orbit -- and Syria likely understands that Iran is no longer a stable ally. We also need to see how Iraq's leaders respond, for the leaders of the Shiite majority have had ties to Iran -- who are they aligned with?
None of this is easy -- we must keep our eyes and ears open, praying for peace and justice for a people living in difficult circumstances. The Iranians are not our enemies. They're not part of some axis of evil. But their current government is not good for them nor for the world iself. Let us remember this when we pray.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Being Disciples in the Twenty-First Century

Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn bring their book Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice (Chalice, 2009) to a close with a series of challenges, a call to action, and suggestions as to how the church might reform itself so as to be a witness to God's grace and purpose in the 21st century.

Before they get to the challenges and the suggestions they offer what I'm going to call a confession of faith that defines who we are in their mind. I find the litany compelling, for it affirms who we are and makes it clear that we do have an identity:

We believe we are Christians only but not the only Christians;

We believe unity and diversity coexist;

We believe the biblical message is accessible to all who desire to study it;

We take statements of faith seriously without insisting they define
the content of the Christian Gospel for everyone;

We believe no one has the right to judge the worthiness of another who professes commitment to the Lordship of Jesus;

We come to the Communion table at the Lord's invitation, not the church's;

We believe outward symbols can witness to inward transformation, chief among them baptism;

We believe in the ministry of all Christians while ordaining and licensing some who have been called to the more specialized task of teaching and preaching the Word;

We understand that we can do together many things none of us can do alone;

We believe the visible unity of the church is constitutive of credible witness to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. (p. 127-128)

These statements, together with that offered by the Disciple Vision Team --

We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord's table as God has welcomed us.
suggest that we are a Big Tent people, "open to all who claim the name of Jesus.

This being the case, how do we live out our identity? This question comes at a time when at the General level (I know that level isn't the correct word, but it'll have to suffice), work is being done to revision and revise how we live and work together. They hope to offer some guidance to this process -- from outside the process. With this in mind they offer two primary questions: 1) "What kind of church do we need to be to express who we are as a people?" 2) "What are we who are part of this church willing to do to build it up?"

Under the first question -- "what do we need to do?" -- they offer several suggestions, being with the ordination of homosexual candidates. At this point ordination policies vary from region to region. They would like to see a national policy affirming their place in the church. They would like attention given to licensed ministry -- soon to be called commissioned ministry. Again requirements and standards vary from region to region -- they would like to see educational standards strengthened. Another area needing attention is the use of financial resources -- we have gotten away from a unified budget, and thus agencies/divisions/regions are all going after a shrinking pie. Then there is the issue of new congregations -- while it is great that we are well on our way to establishing 1000 new congregations by 2020, many of these new congregations have only a tangential understanding and relationship to the Disciples -- they'd like to see this strengthened (and I agree). They address the status of the General Minister and president, suggesting that it be strengthened and that the various ministries of the church become more centrally located under the GMP. In difficult financial times, it's not surprising that the status of our seminaries is addressed. As a church we are organized as congregations, the General (essentially national church), and then regions. Our regions too are struggling financially, and thus some attention needs to be given to the way in which they are organized, funded, and purpose.

The first question has to do with areas needing to be addressed. The second question is addressed to us: What are we willing to do? They write:

The old adage that says there's no free lunch could not be truer than when it comes to the kind of church we want to be. As living organisms, churches grow and change according to the influence of their members. The way a congregation grows and what it becomes are the result of what all its members are willing to contribute to that end. Good church life doesn't just happen. It takes effort. Any member truly active in a church finds no neutral ground. Each is a member of a living body with something to contribute to is health and well-being. (p. 138).

It is not enough to simply point out areas of concern. If reform and renewal are to happen then we must commit ourselves to this task. Disciples have traditionally defined the movement in rather individualistic terms, which is no surprise considering the context of its formation and the influences that guided its formation (the American Revolution, John Locke, Common Sense Realism). While the individual remains honored, it's time to embrace a more organic understanding of church -- where we all hang together, so to speak!

The Disciples have an important message for the church at large. It is a reminder that unity is central and that we all have something to offer. Let us, therefore, reclaim our heritage and identity.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The President Speaks on Iran

We do not know where this Iranian uprising will go. It could come and go as quickly as the events of Tiananmen Square in China 20 years ago. There was unrest, but it was confined largely to that one square, and it was quickly suppressed, with much bloodshed. There are many endearing images, images that we who watched it unfold on TV, remember well, but China and the world has gone on pretty much as usual since. Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall fell, and soon after the Soviet Union collapsed. Eastern Europe is much different today than it was two decades ago. It is much freer. But today, Russia has returned to some of its old ways, and it is also offering at least tacit support to the current Iranian regime -- as has China.

President Obama spoke to this issue today in his press conference. He made the strongest statement yet, but made it clear that this is not about America. It's about Iran, and what the Iranians want. For us to become too involved will allow the regime to make this about us, and make opponents of the regime out to be traitors to their people. Most non-partisan observers who understand Iran believe that Obama has chosen the right path. With few exceptions Iranian Americans have commended his position. So, today we hear from him directly:

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Can Contemporary Theologians Still Affirm that God (Literally) Does Anything?

Transforming Theology Project

*Continuing to blog through Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit -- chapter 14

I’ve picked up speed as we near the end of this book I’ve been working my way through for some three months. And the point is becoming clearer – can we speak of a God who acts, really acts? The biblical text speaks in great detail of a God who is ever active – yes, in supernaturalist/interventionist ways, but still truly active, changing the game. And the most important act of all, is the Resurrection of Jesus. Clayton comments: “It would indeed seem strange to believe that God exists but never actually does anything” (p. 217).

Our problem is one that was long ago suggested by David Hume. If by definition a miracle is “an exception to the overwhelming experience of human beings in the world,” then where’s the evidence. If it’s normal experience to see people rise from the dead, how are we to believe these very old accounts? Clayton wishes to offer an answer to Hume’s challenge. (P. 218)

There are actually several levels of challenge to the idea of an active divine agent, the first of which is the ever present problem of evil. If God is all powerful and does intervene, indeed, God can intervene when God chooses, to change the course of events, then why does God permit evil to exist? And if God does permit it, is God then liable for suffering? The second challenge comes from the presence of religious pluralism – that is the major religious traditions differ as to how the divine acts – which is correct? Then, of course, as we’ve seen throughout this book, there is the problem posed by an interventionist God to what we know to be true from science.

Each of these challenges is equally problematic, but the scientific one is often the most difficult to get around unless we simply dismiss science or redefine it out of existence. Modern science, Clayton suggests, rests on at least four pillars. 1) It must explain all empirical events – that’s because these events occur in a unified system. 2) “A scientific explanation of an event can be given only if the full causal history that produced that event is accessible, in principle, to scientific research and reconstruction.” (You can’t separate certain parts of causal history and make them off-limits). 3) “Science presupposes regularities in the natural world that can be formulated in terms of natural laws.” These natural laws leave little if any room for divine intervention – or the system is undermined! 4) Finally, “science must assume that the natural world is autonomous, closed, and physically self-explanatory.” To introduce something from outside, undermines the system! In other words, science presumes naturalism or it cannot provide adequate explanations for natural phenomenon (pp. 219-220).

Conservative responses have been many – all defending miracles and divine intervention. Clayton, however, comes at this from a more liberal perspective. So, how have liberals responded? He suggests that the typical response is to look at divine action as metaphor or symbol. We are called to respond existentially – divine action not necessary to the Christian faith. Instead, the biblical texts serve as a call to live authentically in the world. But is this enough? Clayton responds:

“For when one speaks that way, one makes no literal claims about the world, no claims about what has actually caused specific natural events, and no claims about what God has actually done. As critics have pointed out repeatedly, to say that all language about divine action is figurative is tacitly to grant the validity of the critics attack.” (P. 220).

In other words, is this enough? Does it make sense to affirm the existence of a God whose own activities are nothing more than metaphor for naturally occurring events? For him, and for me, that is not enough.

So, what constitutes a special divine act? The key here is that any such action is intentional. There is divine decision and purpose behind it. And to explore this question, Clayton turns to the “Jesus event.” We have, of course, his many miracles, but also the resurrection to understand. How was God involved in these? Clayton does not accept the traditional resurrection explanations of a divine supernatural intervention to literally raise the body of Jesus back to life. But, he sees the resurrection as more than simply metaphor. To answer this question of divine action, he wishes to explore the question of who Jesus really is.

One possible answer is that he was a human being who happened to tap into divine power and knowledge, power and knowledge available to all humans. He calls this the “religious genius” view. In this view, there is no divine intention lying behind Jesus, he’s sort of (and these are my words) tapping into the Force (to use a Star Wars metaphor). As for the Resurrection, in this view “there is no resurrection of the individual Jesus, but one might well say that after his death the ‘mind of Christ’ – Jesus’ means of accessing the divine depths and the insights he gained – remained available to his disciples and later to their followers in the church” (pp. 222-223). But, like I said, how is God involved – intentionally?

Not finding this answer sufficient, Clayton returns to the idea of a kenotic Christology – that is, though in the form of God, he chose to empty himself and become a human being (Phil. 2:5-7). Thus, one the disciples experienced his presence they saw in him the divine presence in a way they saw nowhere else. When he died, however, it would appear that his power had ended. Indeed, the Father remained silent to his own cries – so what happened afterwards?

For Clayton, in submitting himself to God’s will, the divine action was incorporated into Jesus’ life, so that instead of two wills or two actions, there is one. Jesus chose to subsume his actions into the divine will, so as to become part of the divine act. Thus, what Jesus did, was an expression of divine action – fully human, fully divine? His life was an intentional expression of the divine mind. But this mind of Christ is more than philosophical commitment – a decision to follow a certain path. Rather, it’s a decision to participate in the divine action. And Jesus participation in this divine act was a conscious one – that is he was very conscious of the divine leading – from a Christian perspective, his consciousness of the divine presence and will was clearer than any other human being before or since. Of course the man Jesus “remains a human actor,” who mediates the divine action through his own understandings. (P. 225).

Clayton’s proposal is interesting and helpful in understanding how Jesus lived and worked and taught as a manifestation of the divine act, but we’re still left unsure about the resurrection. He speaks of room for “an eschatological dimension and a resurrected state. In the eschatological dimension it is even possible for persons to retain personhood, “but in the heavenly state they would submit those individual distinctive abilities to God in the way in which Jesus did – in short, they would have the mind of Christ.” (P. 226).

What I appreciate here is that Clayton pushes the discussion beyond metaphor and existentialism to assume that if God exists, then God must act – always cognizant of the “limits” that natural law provides. He hasn’t answered all the questions, but that wasn’t his purpose. Rather, Clayton suggests that his intent was to “develop a more-than-metaphorical account of divine action using ‘the mind of Christ’ as a guide” (p. 227). So, we wait for a fuller account, but the path forward has been set.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Actions Human and Divine: Toward a Panentheistic-Participatory Theory of Agency –

Transforming Theology Project
Continuing project of blogging through Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit

I’m heading down the last stretch of this rather long blogging project. Just three more chapters until the end. My hope is that we are thinking through the important questions raised by science and philosophy about divine agency.

In chapter 13, Philip Clayton asks the question: Does God act? And if so, how does God act? He suggests that we might start with an analogy to human actions – whatever we mean by divine agency would be similar to that which humans display. Thus, agency is by definition an action that involves –“spontaneity, intentionality, freedom, creativity, novelty. Believing that we can speak of divine agency, he suggests that it’s possible to speak this way only if we use a “participatory account of finite agency” (p. 204).

By participatory agency, Clayton means that the actions of a finite agent are also the actions of the divine agent. This occurs in a panentheistic context. To explain this perspective, Clayton turns to Alfred North Whitehead – the founding figure of Process Thought – and Friedrich Schleiermacher, often considered the father of a liberal theology. Whitehead “developed the most theologically open philosophy of the twentieth century,” while Schleiermacher “thought more deeply than any other modern theologian about how humans, encompassed by and within the divine presence, could still exercise distinctive agency of their own” (p. 205).

If one is to explore the idea of divine agency, then obviously the question of miracles must come up. One need only look at the Gospels to know that biblically speaking God is portrayed very supernaturally. But the idea of miracles is problematic, because it presupposes an interventionist/supernaturalistic God who contravenes natural law. But, if we’re talk about divine action then it has to be more than “empty religious rhetoric” that describe naturally occurring events (p. 205). But the Big Bang theory and the Anthropic Principle offer interesting jumping off points for discussion of conscious intelligence in the universe. While physics offers few possibilities of divine agency, there are a few points, biology offers a few more. There are, therefore, significant limits on what can be considered divine agency.

Both figures under consideration were experienced based, and both believed in principles of process and change when it comes to the universe. The two key elements in the discussion, according to Clayton are individuality and experience. But there are differences – Whitehead was more focused on the contingency of metaphysical reflection. Schleiermacher, unlike Whitehead, posited an “enduring agent, a subject whose creative activity extends over many moments in time” (p. 208). Whitehead’s understanding of the subject is not such a singular subject, but rather a “society of actual occasions” Finally, Schleiermacher’s theology provided for a “sharper contrast between human agents and the natural world.” For Whitehead the differences are more the matter of degree (p. 208).

With this as background, Clayton offers a “theology of participatory agency.” Clayton, like Process oriented theologians, presupposes panentheism, but makes some modifications. He sees particpatory agency proceeding in three steps:

1. “Schleiermacher’s Contribution to the Theory of Participation.”
From Schleiermacher – in his Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers – he takes the idea that “finite agents would not exist without our continual participation in the Infinite of which they are parts” (p. 212). This premise is the basis of belief that religion is at its core, a sense of “absolute dependence” on the infinite. Although he makes the distinction between finite and infinite, he places his emphasis on the infinite, the whole, upon which we are dependent. But, he understood that there was a dialectic going on – between the individual and the whole – with both having agency. What religion does is tie everything together.

2. “A Crucial Whiteheadian Correction” What Whitehead adds to this conversation is the sense of the consequent. Schleiermacher, not having a 20th century sense of panentheism tended to emphasize the whole, but Whitehead focused on the consequent nature of God. This nature allows God to participate with intentionality in the universe.

“God never simply causes (that is, coerces) another agent’s response. But the divine ‘lure’, the vision that God offers, can be as differentiated and as specific as needed for any given occasion. (p. 214).

Whitehead allows for God to be the agent, acting in the universe. Together, with the dual focus on the whole and the consequent, we have a rich sense of God.

3. “The Scientific Study of Agents in the Natural World.” In this third step we re-encounter science, for no theological statement should “trump scientific studies in scientific domains.” That is, theologians shouldn’t tell scientists how to do science, unless of course, you’re John Polkinghorne, and you’re both! However, a “panetheistic-particpatory” model might allow for an overarching framework for understanding the universe. Clayton offers eight implications of this position: 1) While “physical particles and forces exercise causal powers in a completely law-like manner,” they do so within God – thus these laws are expressions of divine agency. 2). Biologically, “variations between individual organisms influence outcomes.” 3) For higher primates and humans, actions happen in a “quasi-autonomous manner.” Our choices affect our development. 4) “Some degree of spontaneity in the behavior of natural entities is necessary for agency.” That is, everything can’t act with mechanical precision or certainty – need opportunity for a little uncertainty. 5) But, simply because there is some “indeterminism” doesn’t mean we should automatically insert divine agency. 6) God doesn’t break natural laws when “influencing the outcomes of conscious processes.” 7) Because there are analogous behaviors between humans and other animals, it is possible to presuppose the idea that they also exhibit “spontaneous agency.” 8) Biology offers evidence of enough spontaneity to allow for divine influence. (pp. 215-216).

In other words, if we allow for this dual understanding of divine agency that presupposes both a perfect whole and a continent nature of God, then we can assume that God acts, even if that action is limited by the laws of science. But, the point is, there is room to consider divine agency. And as for Christology, we can understand Jesus as the one who “acting in perfect harmony with the divine intent means sharing fully in the divine act, with the result that the action that ensues is fully divine and fully human (p. 216). In this statement you can see how he wishes to view divine agency as participation – unfortunately, but one person has lived in such a way. The idea, to which we all aim, but always fall short is to attain to the perfect – the idea – where we perfectly stand with and in the perfect.

Things might be getting clearer, but we still have a ways to go before we understand how we can participate in and with God in accomplishing the things of God! The reality is that, if we’re to both allow for natural law, and the principles of science to hold true, then for us to understand divine agency, supernaturalism and interventionism are at best problematic. But if we understand this happening with God, then God could be acting – at least in God’s contingent nature. And perhaps we as human beings can and do participate in this. Now, that likely raises some theological issues, but that is for a later discussion. Indeed, the next chapter offers some opportunities to consider how that might happen theologically.

Fatherhood -- Sightings

Yesterday was Father's Day, admittedly a lower level Hallmark/parenting holiday as compared to Mother's Day, but enough about that! We had pie yesterday at church, and that was enough for me!!

Today, Martin Marty offers his opinion on religion and fatherhood -- or rather the lack of attention to religion in a 250 page issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. Does religion play that small a role in the lives and relationships of fathers, or are these social scientists missing something? Marty offers his thoughts.

Sightings -- 6-22-2009


-- Martin E. Marty

“Fathering across Diversity and Adversity: International Perspectives and Policy Interventions” is the forbidding theme of the fat, 254-page July 2009 issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences (Volume 624). I am a Fellow of the Academy; I have written for The Annals and regularly read it. I was first alerted to the role of religion in fathering by hanging out at the edges of the Institute for American Values (founded and presided over by David Blankenhorn), and learning from scholars such as Morehouse College President Robert M. Franklin. He produced a relevant volume, Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities, for Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

Now for The Annals: Twenty-five top editors and authors focus on everything that looks important. Dozens of times, these scholars list the key factors they are observing, such as “race, ethnicity, social class, gender, age, and generation,” fathers’ “social, legal, and moral rights and responsibilities,” “government interventions, pandemics, political conflict, migrant labor, and ecological and technological disasters,” “income, education, family history, occupation, housing statutes, geographical location, and social network,” “sport, education, youth development activities (e.g. Boy Scouts, 4-H) Boys & Girls Clubs, [at last!] youth ministry,” “sports centers, social clubs, barbershops, community radio, and [also, at last!] black religious communities…”

Now I am going to do something odd for this e-column: suggest that the issue pays too little—in fact, almost no—attention to religious and spiritual elements on this important topic. This observation is uncharacteristic of Sightings. Regular readers know that this snooper, though writing for a publication based in a Center that looks for “public religion,” initially expected to find little material as he scans media for sightings of “religion,” and he was at first surprised to find myriad references to it, in a plenitude of sources offering a plethora of ideas. Sightings is genetically programmed to complain about the complainers who argue that religion is too rarely seen on the public stage. But today, with all due respect, I join them, and wonder: How devote 250-plus pages to fatherhood and have only five (5, V!) one- or two-word mentions of religion? Admittedly, some of the nations they study—especially Scandinavian—are quite secular, but others are religiously-informed and some are hyper-religiously influenced. Was there nothing to talk about and study?

I remember in 1988 when we began “The Fundamentalism Project,” we cited CIA leaders and important figures in State and Defense Departments who admitted that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 caught them by surprise. They monitored everything in Iran except religion, because everyone knew that religion had no power in the modern world. They’ve all “got religion” now.

Asking that religion be noticed is not to point to only salvific, soothing, positive factors. Observe people and cultures getting religion wrong in respect to “fathering” and you will find very, very wrong examples. Yet in the mixed bag of evidence, social scientists can and will find many informative elements. Maybe I am too impressed by what I learn from World Vision and Opportunity International-type emphases to let the presence or absence of religion go unnoticed. Maybe I am too awed by seeing fathers-and-daughters-or-sons in the mix at huge events such as annual “Gospel Fests” in the park under our window. Compensatorily, I admit to being benumbed by much of what Robert Franklin describes as “crisis in the community.” His African-American communities are not alone. There is more to be seen and counted by scholars. Let’s look.


For this issue of The Annals, see www.aapss.org

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


In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum essay, anthropologist and legal scholar Mateo Taussig-Rubbo examines “how the destruction of property and life seems to [generate] a new form of value,” a value frequently identified as that of the “sacred.” Focusing on the wreckage from and sites of the September 11 attacks, Taussig-Rubbo considers issues of property law and conceptions of sacrifice in an attempt to understand how this concept of sacrality comes to be, and what meanings it holds within American culture. Invited responses will follow from Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Kathryn Lofton, Jeremy Biles, and Kristen Tobey.



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