Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Process and Punishment (Bruce Epperly)

What is the nature of justice and does God care about it?  That is a question that I raised last week as a way of starting a conversation about the way God's love is present in the world.  Since Bruce Epperly has been writing about Process Theology, I asked him if he would focus his attention on this subject.  Last week he wrote about the quest for justice from a Process perspective, noting:

 Just actions and social structures enhance beauty of experience, while unjust actions and social structures deface beauty of experience and limit personal possibilities. Accordingly, we can assert that God is on the side of beauty and justice and seeks relationships and institutions that promote creative, intense, meaningful, and beautiful experiences.
Following up on this topic, Bruce looks at the question of punishment -- whether God's justice requires punishment and what that might look like.  I think you'll find Bruce's ponderings thought provoking!


Process and Punishment
Bruce G. Epperly

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama proclaimed that justice was done.  While I recognized the necessity of this action (or the punishment and trial of bin Laden) and approved of it, the President’s words open the door for reflections on the nature of justice as punishment or retributive justice, especially from a process perspective.  Does God punish offenders? Should we use punishment as a deterrent or primary motive for relational justice-making?  What role does punishment play in a universe aiming at beauty of experience?

I will briefly ponder the following: 1) the role of God in punishment, 2) the “punishing” actions of nature, and 3) punishment in the justice system.  I will no doubt raise more questions than answers, some of which I may return to after my hiatus of lectures and retreats.

Many people claim God punishes us for immorality and misbehavior.  They base their position on selected bible stories – Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptian plagues, the Great Flood.  Typically they see God acting through natural causes to bring misfortune upon evil doers – Katrina and New Orleans and the Haitian earthquake, for example.  God punishes sin, period! You get what you deserve, maybe even better than you deserve, at the hands of a righteous God.
After all, God is the potter and we are the clay, this position asserts.  God owes us nothing and is completely justified in destroying a misshapen pot.

Process theology would oppose the identification of God’s will with natural disasters.  While we may limit the nature of God’s presence and the effectiveness of God’s actions in our lives by our actions and values, God still seeks the “best [possibility] for that impasse.”  Our turning away from God has consequences in terms of personal and community life, and this may feel like divine punishment (or absence), but God’s intent is always wholeness and beauty at every level of life.   Here, punishment may be seen as “self-punishment.”  We have, in some way, brought unhappiness, disease, and even weather changes upon ourselves by our habitual actions.  However, even our self-punishment is limited; 1) God still seeks our well being and 2) our quality of experience is determined by many factors, not just the impact of our actions.

Process theology recognizes that there is a type of justice-making in a nature. This is the law of consequences.  Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans was not the result of divine wrath, but a variety of factors, including natural causes such as the severity of the hurricane.  Yet, the severity of hurricanes has been identified with changing weather patterns, partly the result of human actions. Further, the destruction of New Orleans is also related to our nation’s failure to maintain the infrastructure of levees.  We are partly responsible for this disaster in the chain of cause and effect. Neither God nor humankind intended Katrina as punishment but the hurricane’s devastation emerged from human as well as non-human causes.

The question of punishment in the justice system is more complicated.  Process theology tends to oppose retributive justice simply for the sake of catharsis or to punish evil doers.  Acts have consequences and this may lead to the restriction of certain freedoms: 1) to protect others and 2) to teach a lesson.  But punishment for its own sake goes against the global quest for beauty.  Somehow retribution must be shaped by reformation.  Incarceration apart from a commitment to nurture growth in skills and personal responsibility serves neither the inmate nor the wider community.  It also betrays a failure in imagination and care.  While incarceration severely limits a person’s possibilities, it may also be the catalyst for new possibilities for personal and vocational growth.  In the spirit of positive parenting, and here the justice system is serving as a type of parent, “time outs” can be sources of education in terms of acts-consequences.  But, their goal in both cases is to encourage behaviors appropriate to the social context.

Incarceration may still be a necessity in certain crimes, especially those which involve violence and destruction.  Here limitation of freedoms serves the greater good of protecting innocent citizens.  We may forgive the offender, but we still must act on behalf of potential victims in the future.  Dependable security and appropriate (and flexible) order is necessary for the flourishing of both persons and society. 

Punishment is never the goal.  Even the punishing God of certain biblical passages is willing to change course, if behavior changes, and often regrets the severity of punishment and the pain inflicted.  Still, even from a process point of view, there are times in which freedom must be restrained among adults to achieve personal growth and social well being.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at bruceepperly@gmail.com

Monday, May 30, 2011

Humanism, Newt Gingrich and Sightings

Who are the true defenders of family values?  Too often in the past few years, we've seen politicians and preachers portray themselves as defenders of the family (that means being anti-gay marriage), but show little aptitude for family life themselves.  From Ted Haggard to Mark Sanford, Jimmy Swaggart to Newt Gingrich, partisans on the right have shown themselves less than consistent.  Of course, they all come with excuses, Newt having one of the best -- he loved his country so much he did bad things.  Of course, he repented, God forgave, and well the cycle starts again.  In today's edition of Sightings, Martin Marty points us to a critique of Gingrich by a representative of the atheist/humanist community.  PZ Myers has asked why he's anti-family despite being married to the same person for 31 years without ever straying, while Newt's pro-family and has been married three times, divorcing two wives after having affairs with the next wife.  It's a good question to raise, and hopefully will elicit some good conversation.  I would suggest checking out Myers's full article in The Humanist.

Sightings  5/30/2011
 Humanism, Newt Gingrich and Sightings
-- Martin E. Marty
 Sightings just entered its thirteenth year of keeping an eye on public representations of religion. Let’s see, that’s 13 times almost 52 weeks (my half of this bi-weekly publication.) By now, faithful readers can have drawn some conclusions about our conventional choices of topics. For instance, we do not “do” U. S. Presidents in office, for a variety of bipartisan reasons. Sightings also doesn’t write often about sex, though one could find myriad topics on the religion-and-sex news scene weekly. Some might say that we also under-do “humanisms,” though whether we do or do not depends in part upon definitions of terms. We certainly do on occasion treat capital-H Humanisms, which often assume the shapes of religion when attacking religion. Lower-case humanism is a natural and less newsworthy subject.
           As for the issue of nonpartisanship or bipartisanship, that is also a safe restraint, since “they” and “we” both have unpleasant stories. (The picture of the late “Pogo” and an epigrammatic caption in my study is a reminder: “We have faults which we have hardly used yet.” All of that dance-and-song is a lead-in to an apparent column-length violation of the lines of our self-restraint. It will mention would-be president Newt Gingrich, now credibly, because he is not going to be president. Second, if one mentions Gingrich, it is inevitable that the topic of sex comes up. Thirdly, this week we can include Humanism, via an article in, yes, The Humanist. The luxury of using this story, is that little narrative detailing is necessary here. Like all stories of this sort the Gingrich tale is engrossing to twenty-first century communicators and their audience and readerships.
           To the current point, the headline of the Humanist article summarizes the plot: “Why I Am an Amoral, Family-Hating Monster. . . and Newt Gingrich Isn’t.” Author PZ Myers begins with reference to his 31 years of marriage “without ever straying,” while still being seen as a monster for his humanist commitments. Newt Gingrich, Myers notes, has been married three times, divorced one wife while she was recovering from surgery, and had extramarital affairs. He asks who is considered the defender of traditional sexual morality even as he represents a “political party with more ex-wives than candidates and defends a disturbingly amoral network of fundamentalist operators” while remaining regarded as the protector of the sanctity of the family.”
           This candidate got by because he is needed by certain political factions and because he often says he confesses and repents and asks us to move on with him. Since his confessions are public, we can picture the evangelical pastors of his past and his Catholic priests in the present gulping as he goes his way attracting (by now, too few) patient supporters. (For those who want parity, we bring up former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, whom we shall now also drop as a topic).
           What matters here is that on the marital- and sexual-morality front, while humanists like Myers—and there are plenty of them—don’t get an even break, they can still fulfill a useful function for the rest of us. They want the newsworthy “traditional” moralists called to account. If Christian moralists don’t do the accounting, humanists most credibly will. They often point out that they have trouble making their identity and culture and mission clear on the present scene. Here’s a break for them.
 PZ Myers, “Why I Am an Amoral, Family-Hating Monster… and Newt Gingrich Isn’t,” The Humanist, May-June 2011.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
Can American Muslims be both loyal to their tradition and full participants in American civil society? In this month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum, Vincent J. Cornell argues that an embrace of the tenets of Shari‘a fundamentalism has led even would-be moderate Muslim leaders to reject the principles of American constitutional democracy. Consequently, they advocate (often unintentionally) a retreat from full participation in American civil society into sectarianism and “millet multiculturalism.” Against this tend, says Cornell, it is necessary for Muslim thinkers to find an “overlapping consensus” between Shari‘a and constitutionalism—one that gives warrant for the exercise of “unsupervised reason.”


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

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I'll Be There for You -- A Sermon

John 14:15-21

Soon after God created Adam, God noticed that the man was lonely.  Feeling sorry for him, God decided to fix the problem by creating animals and sending them one by one to Adam.  Adam gave them names, but his loneliness didn’t go away.  Not even the dogs, who are our best friends, nor the cats, who can be good companions – just don’t have too many of them – could fill the void that Adam was experiencing.  Interestingly enough, not even Adam’s relationship with the Creator would suffice, and so God decided to create a companion who was perfectly fit for the man.   When Adam saw the woman, he said to God:  you got it right this time.  She’s bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.  

This creation story reminds us that deep within us is a need to be in relationship with others like ourselves.  Of course, we’re all different and so the way in which we experience relationships is different.  Some of you are extroverts and you can’t get enough of being with people, and the more the merrier.  Others of you are like me.  You’re an introvert and even though you enjoy the company of others, at some point, you just have to get away by yourself!

Of course we need to find a balance.  I may enjoy being by myself for a while, but not for too long.  I remember spending a couple of months pulling brush on  property that sat  7000 feet up in the mountains and ten miles from the next closest property. Now it was beautiful up there in the mountains.  The main cabin sat on a small mountain lake that lay in the shadow of a much taller peak.  In spite of this great beauty I couldn’t wait to head home for the weekend so I could get a little human companionship.  This need for companionship seems to be instinctive.   Have you watched a little baby reach out for his or her mother?  Isn’t that amazing how we bond with our parents so quickly?    
Here in John, after trying to comfort the disciples as he faced the cross, Jesus tells them that he wouldn't leave them orphans, but even as he goes to the Father, he will ask the Father to send them another companion – the paraclete who is the “Spirit of Truth.”  This Greek word is really wonderful, because it has so many meanings and nuances.   You’ll find it translated as companion, advocate, counselor, comforter, and even helper.  So how might the Spirit of God be for us an advocate, a comforter, and a helper?  
The Advocate
When you think of the Spirit, do you ever think about Sam Bernstein or Geoffrey Fieger?  Well, they’re advocates.  It’s hard to miss their seemingly omnipresent ads, that promise that if we have a problem they’ll take care of us.  Although I’ll have to take their word for this, that’s essentially what an advocate does.  If Sam and Geoffrey don’t seem like good analogies, what about Perry Mason or Ben Matlock?   I know that my earliest views of attorneys were formed by watching reruns of Perry Mason, who always seemed to get to the truth of the matter.   And that’s what the Spirit is – the defender of the truth, who comes in Jesus stead to fulfill the promise that  "if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous."

The Comforter
Then there’s the word “comforter,” and instead of Perry Mason of Sam Bernstein, maybe the best image is that of a mother who loves her children.  In Isaiah 66, God says to the people:   "I will comfort you there as a child is comforted by its mother" (Is. 66:13).  Isn’t this a wonderful image?  It’s an image that all of us can relate to – though with all due respect to Isaiah, a father’s love can be comforting as well!   But here is this wonderful image of God comforting a child like a mother who is sitting in a rocking chair, gently  rocking her child to sleep after some traumatic incident – whether it’s a scraped knee or the loss of a pet.

Some amongst us might see this as a diminishment of God.  For some people, if we think of God in terms of traditionally feminine qualities, then God may appear to be weak and passive – though it might be good to remember that most of the women of the Bible, from Miriam to Mary were anything but weak or passive.

As you reflect on this name for the Spirit, perhaps the people of Joplin, Missouri comes to mind.  Surely the Spirit is there with the people of that city, walking with those who mourn for their loved ones who perished when that horrific tornado hit the city.  Yes, and surely the Spirit is standing with those who still hold out hope that a loved one could be found alive in the rubble.  Surely the Spirit is there encouraging the people who must start their lives anew.  And if we have experienced the comforting presence of the Spirit in our own lives, perhaps that might lead us to participate with the Spirit in bringing comfort to those who grieve and who hold out hope.  One way of doing this, of course, is to contribute through Week of Compassion.

The Helper
Then there’s this idea that the Spirit of Truth might be our divine helper.  In the words of that powerful opening hymn of Martin Luther, we declare:

A mighty fortress is our God,

a bulwark never failing;

our helper he amid the flood

of mortal ills prevailing.
And when God created a companion for the man, according to Genesis 2, God created a “helper fit for him.”  This “helper” was to be  a partner who would share life with Adam, not only sharing the chores in the garden, but sharing life itself with him.

I’ve used this text from Genesis in many a wedding because it’s so descriptive of the partnership that marriage is intended to be.  But, this text speaks of more than marriage, because it speaks to our need for human companionship, whatever the nature of that relationship.  But here, it’s the Spirit who brings completion to humanity.  It’s the Spirit who is our spiritual partner in life.      

Again as Luther put it in his hymn, God is "our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing," so that when we’re about to falter, the Spirit of God comes  alongside us and lift us up, much like the mother eagle, who when she’s teaching her chicks to fly, lifts them up by the power of her own wings.  

This morning we come to worship knowing that around the world there are people who need defending, and comforting, and help in life’s journey.  We come remembering the people of Joplin; we also come knowing that this is the day before Memorial Day, when we as a nation stop to remember those who have died, especially those who have died in service to their country.   As we hear this text from John’s Gospel, how do you hear the promise that God will not leave us orphans?  How do you hear and respond to the promise that Jesus has asked God to send to us the  Spirit of Truth who is our Advocate, our Comforter, and our Helper?  How do you hear these words today?  What do they call you to do with your life?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
6th Sunday of Easter
May 29, 2011

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

            The credo of partisan politics is:  Do what’s best for the party, even if it’s not what’s best for the nation.   And the credo of nationalism is:  Do what’s best for our nation, even if that’s not what’s best for the world as a whole.   Politicians know that if they take care of their party members, their constituents, and maybe even on occasion their fellow citizens (of their nation) they will be rewarded for their service to the narrow good.
            All of this is rooted in an individualistic philosophy, a philosophy that is exemplified in the resurgent popularity of Ayn Rand’s call to selfishness.  It’s a world view that proclaims that we must look out for ourselves, because no one else will.   Therefore, I’ll do what’s best for me, and as for my neighbor – that’s their problem.     
            The opposite of such a philosophy is a commitment to pursue the common good.   Commitment to the common good sounds wonderful, but it seems out of place in an increasingly partisan, sectarian, and nationalist era.  Rarely do we hear these days that rallying cry of John Kennedy:  And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”   And thinking even more broadly, Dwight D. Eisenhower could say:  This world of ours... must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”   And then there’s this statement by Barbara Jordan, the late Congresswoman from Texas, which reminds us that “a nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.” 
Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper.”  God’s answer is “yes, you are.”  I believe that a case can be made for the premise that the world is better off when we pursue the common good.  But pursuit of the common good requires that we balance our own personal needs with the needs of others.  It means that the majority respect the rights and needs of those who are in the minority.  It means recognizing that the acts and decisions of one nation often impact the lives of other nations – global warming for instance transcends boundaries.  Therefore, commitment to the common good may require of us at the very least a degree of self-denial and self-sacrifice. 
            What then are the practical implications of the principle that I’m called by God to be my “brother’s keeper”?  One might consider the implications of these case studies.  For instance, what value do I derive from paying taxes to support a public educational system if I don’t have children in the system?  Respondents might question why, since their children are grown or because they don’t have children, they should pay to educate someone else’s child.   There are a number of answers to this question, but consider the benefits of having a knowledgeable and productive workforce, reduction in juvenile crime and violence, and maybe even population stabilization.   Now not everyone is equally gifted, but if we’re committed to the common good, then a child should at least be given a chance at success.  Medical care is another area of common concern.   The current system does a great job of serving those who can afford good insurance, but what about the millions of people who are uninsured or under-insured?  What of their welfare?  Furthermore, even if you’re not all that concerned about the welfare of someone else; what about the impact on you if disease begins to spread through the broader community?  It’s impossible to totally wall ourselves off from the health issues of the broader world, for epidemics are no respecters of persons.    
Even when we don’t receive a direct benefit of our contributions to society, we receive benefits indirectly.  That’s the blessing of considering the common good.  I might not get everything I want, but I’ll be better off living in a world where the community as a whole has good health care, strong educational opportunities, public safety, and cultural opportunities.  If ever we understood the need for a strong government, it was during Hurricane Katrina.  Because the nation’s emergency preparedness was left in the hand of an unprepared political appointee, hundreds died or were left stranded during a devastating storm.    
Ultimately, we’re all in this together.  What affects you will ultimately affect me, and the world will be better off when we finally learn this lesson.  So, the truth is, I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper.    

Excerpt from Faith in the Public Square (forthcoming from Energion Publications)

Friday, May 27, 2011

For the Defense -- A Lectionary Meditation

Acts 17:22-31

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

For the Defense

            Apologetics isn’t something that progressive Christians often engage in; at least we don’t call it that.  Apologetics is that theological discipline that seeks to offer a defense of the Christian faith.  When I think of this word people like Josh McDowell come to mind.  He presents the evidence and demands that we decide for or against the evidence, which is stacked in favor of his position.  But, we live in an age when matters of faith are in question.  Like Friedrich Schleiermacher two centuries back, as well as Paul two millennia ago, we face our own set of cultured despisers.  We face questions that range from the intellectual to the moral.  How can you believe in fairy tales?  asks Richard Dawkins.  Or, how can you believe in a God who allows pain and suffering, such as being experienced by the people of Joplin, Missouri?  What kind of God is this that you’re proclaiming?  There is something of the apologetic in the texts for this week.  Paul is in Athens debating with the philosophers, while in 1 Peter we read the call to be ready to make our defense when called upon.  Finally, in John we hear Jesus remind his disciples that even as he leaves, he will send to them the Paraclete (the advocate), who is the Spirit of Truth.  So the question is posed – are you ready to make your defense?

            In Acts 17, Paul goes to Athens and in the course of his wanderings through the city begins to engage folks in conversation.  He goes to the Areopagus, the place where judgment was passed, and gives a speech.  He wants to give a defense of the gospel in terms that these Athenians would understand.  He draws upon their religious sensibilities and their philosophical acumen.   He starts with theology – noting that in his journey through the city he had discovered a shrine to the “unknown god,” a sign that the Athenians wanted to make sure every option was covered.  Paul then offers the God who created the world and everything in it – the Lord of heaven and earth – the God who needs no earthly home.  Unlike the henotheistic/nationalistic deities that the Athenians worshiped, this God was the one who set the national boundaries and stood above all boundaries and deities.  Paul doesn’t make a straight-line defense of monotheism, but he does suggest that the one they worshiped in ignorance was the Creator of all things.  Though we grope after this God in our ignorance, the truth is that God is not far from each of us.
            Paul doesn’t stop with theology.  He goes on to philosophy – something the Athenians loved.  He draws from a Greek poet who had written of deity, that “in him we live, and move, and have our being.”  This aspect of Paul’s defense is reflected in Paul Tillich’s idea that God is the Ground of Being – even Being itself.  We have our existence in God.  We have within us what Calvin called the “spark of divinity.”  There is no need for idols of silver and gold, for humanity bears the image of God, and thus we bear witness in our own lives to God’s presence and reality – thus, and here Paul brings his message to bear on the listeners – you are without excuse, you have enough evidence of God’s truth to live accordingly.  Listen to that inner voice and you’ll know what God desires of you, so that on the Day of Judgment you’ll know the truth, of which God has given assurance by raising Jesus from the dead.  I wish I could say that Paul’s apologetical preaching in Athens was successful, but there’s no evidence that he planted a church there.  The Athenians didn’t rally to his cause, nor did they run him out of town.  To them, he was just another odd ball philosopher talking religion.  Paul’s experience should be a warning to us that intellectual defenses, though necessary, often fail to hit their mark.

            Nonetheless, be ready to make your defense, as the first letter of Peter tells us.  If someone asks you, tell them why you believe.  In this letter, the focus is less philosophical/theological and more behavioral.  If you do what is good you have no need to fear or be intimidated.  Speak with gentleness and reverence.  Keep a clear conscience, so that when you’re maligned or questioned, it won’t be because of your behavior.  In fact, because of your behavior you will put your questioners to shame.  The author of this letter does recognize that suffering is a problem to deal with.  If we suffer make sure it is as a result of doing what is right rather than doing what is evil.  And in this regard he points the reader to Jesus, who suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous, so as to bring you to God.  He died in the flesh, but was made alive in the Spirit.  There isn’t anything here about an elaborate atonement theory – just the recognition that Christ suffered for righteousness, and in doing so serves as a model for their (our) behavior in the face of misunderstanding and even persecution.
Now, something needs to be said about the verses that follow.  1 Peter raises interesting questions that may puzzle the modern reader.  We may wonder what he means by Jesus preaching to the spirits who are in prison who didn’t obey in former times.  We’re not told here if these are human beings who failed to obey God prior to the coming of Jesus or whether these are angels/demons.  Whatever the case, verses like these at least spur our imagination!  The discussion moves on through Noah to the question of baptism.  Thus, even as the family of Noah is saved through water, so we are saved through baptism – not as a washing away of dirt, but as an appeal to good conscience.  In this statement we reflect back to Peter’s point that we are to represent our faith through our conduct.  In so doing, we give witness to Jesus, who now sits at the right hand of God, with the angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.  All of this is likely part of an ancient hymn to God, but it points out the importance of our behavior to our witness – that is our defense of the gospel.

In John’s gospel we find a text that is familiar to many because it is often read at funerals and memorial services.   In this passage that John places in the Garden, Jesus is making his farewell speech, and he promises that even though he will depart from them, he will go and prepare a place for them.  Yes, in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places, and Jesus promises that he will return for them.  So, simply because he departs from them, doesn’t mean they are orphaned.  Jesus is the representative of the Father, who is within him.  Thus, even as the Father is in Jesus and we are in him and he is in us “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17).  These texts have this sense about them that God can be best described theological in “panentheistic” terms.  Not that God and the Creation are identical, but we are in God, even as God is in us.  That seems to be the message that John’s Jesus wants to leave with us.  The question then is how this is to be experienced. 

The Johannine passage begins by setting out the parameters of Christian life:  “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  Simply saying “I love you” to Jesus isn’t enough – it needs to be demonstrated in one’s behavior.  Remember 1 Peter!  But we don’t go on this journey alone.  Jesus after all promises that we’ll not be left orphaned, even though his followers will no longer see him in the flesh.  The promise given here is that Jesus will send an Advocate (Paraclete).  I realize that this word has different nuances – comforter and helper being two of them.  But in line with the theme of the day, it seems that the more “lawyerly” advocacy sense seems appropriate, and according to Craddock and Boring it is probably the best rendering of the word.  You see this sense reflected in the further definition of what this Advocate is to be for them.  The Paraclete is the Spirit of Truth.  The problem is that the world neither sees nor hears this Spirit, but they (the disciples, the recipients of this gospel, and those who keep the commandments of Jesus) they know the Spirit of Truth, and as a result the Spirit will abide in them, and they in the Spirit. 

In line with the overall theme here of giving a defense, it would seem that John is making it clear that because the Spirit – the Advocate – dwells in us, and we dwell in the Spirit, then the Advocate makes the case in and through us to the world.  In our behavior (keeping the commandments of Jesus) we demonstrate the presence of God in the world which we live.  I’m all for an intellectualized faith, but it’s clear that by itself, such a faith has little relevance to the world.  Some will judge the faith on the basis of its intellectual foundations – though the Athenians didn’t seem overly impressed and Schleiermacher’s cultured despisers haven’t gone away – it appears that the best defense is one’s life – living the life that reflects the Spirit of Jesus who lived and died in faithfulness to God’s vision for the world.  Is this a call to works-righteousness?  No, I don’t think so.  The full measure of the gospel includes grace, but it also includes expectations that we will live in a way that reflects the person of Jesus, who reveals to us the person of God, “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”  

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? -- A Review

WAS AMERICA FOUNDED AS A CHRISTIAN NATION?  A Historical Introduction.    By John Fea.  Louisville:  WJK Press, 2011.  Xxvii +287 pages.

                The question posed by this book continually vexes the American people and seems to drive the unending culture wars.  Partisans argue vociferously for and against the premise that the United States either is a Christian nation or was founded as one.  Both sides lob rhetorical mortar shells back and forth.  On one side Christian Nationalists argue that the intention of the Founders was for this to be a Christian nation governed by biblical principles.   Secularists fire back claiming that at best the Founders were Deists intent on keeping church and state separated by an impermeable wall, wherein the state would stay out of the religious business and the church should in turn keep its nose out of the business of state.  Of course, both sides marshal “evidence” to support their claims.   Stepping into the midst of this fray and calling for a ceasefire is John Fea, who argues in this book that – from a historian’s perspective – the situation is a lot more complex than the partisans would like us to believe.   Instead of “arguing the case” as might an attorney, Fea the historian invites us to engage in the work of interpretation.      

                Fea is a professional historian teaching American history at Messiah College, which is an evangelical liberal arts college in Pennsylvania.   As a historian he asks us to consider the question of America’s religious past using the principles of the historical profession, five of which he names:   1) Recognition that historians must expect to find “change over time”; 2) they must “interpret the past in context”; 3) must look for “causality”; 4) be concerned with “contingency”; and 5) recognize that the “past is complex.”  When one seeks to reconstruct the past according to these principles, refraining from cherry-picking evidence, then reality is rather muddled.    Some of the Founders were evangelicals, others weren’t.  Some were Deists, but others merely embraced what some would consider heterodox positions.  Jefferson, Adams, and Washington weren’t orthodox in their theology but they embraced the idea of providence, which suggests a belief in an activist God and believed that religion played an important role in promoting virtue, which was an essential building block for democracy.   Theirs was a mixture of Christian and Enlightenment ideals.  Reality was, and is, very complex.    

                Fea recognizes that the reason why this debate is so heated is that it has implications for the contemporary situation.   Because the question of America’s religious origins has contemporary implications, Fea invites the reader to join him in seeking the truth (to the greatest degree possible). 

In laying out his argument, Fea divides the book into three parts, with part one focusing on the “history of an idea” that America was and is a Christian nation.  In the course of four chapters, Fea examines the ways in which this question has been understood, from the time of the passage of the Constitution to the present.  He explores the ways in which the Founders dealt with the problem of establishment by essentially leaving it to the states, and from there he takes us through the various attempts to understand the religious nature of the nation, showing how the idea changed over time, relating to the context.  What may surprise many liberal/mainline readers is that post-bellum era through the early parts of the twentieth century; liberals were just as likely to argue for America’s Christian nature as were evangelicals.  Liberals such as Henry Ward Beecher believed that American social progress was a mark of the nation’s Christian nature and the Social Gospelers sought to Christianize America.  Washington Gladden is quoted as suggesting that “the complete Christianization of all life is what we pray and work for, when we work and pray for the coming of the kingdom of heaven” (p. 37).  David Barton couldn’t say it any better! 

Part two returns to the founding era and asks:  “Was the American Revolution a Christian event?”  To answer this question Fea goes back even further to the “planting” of the British colonies and asks whether they were intended as Christian communities as many claim.   Fea begins by distinguishing between “planting” and “founding.”  The nation was founded much later than colonies were planted on North American soil.  While there appear to be religious motivations – especially in New England – there were other motivations – economic ones primarily that drove people to immigrate to these shores.  Even in the Puritan colonies, however, the behavior wasn’t always Christian.  There’s no better example of this than the persecution of those who differed from the majority, and in places like Jamestown – greed quickly became the primary motivator in the community.   As for the period leading up to the revolution, debates over taxation weren’t primarily religious – but political.  Religion might have been used to rally opinion, but it wasn’t a religious debate.  Fea notes that “the most important documents connected to the coming of the American Revolution focused more on Enlightenment political theory about the constitutional and natural rights of British subjects than on any Christian or biblical reason why resistance to the Crown was necessary” (p. 106).   That isn’t to say that the pulpit wasn’t engaged in the revolution.  On both sides of the debate, religious leaders rallied their followers by appeal to scripture.   On the “patriot side,” however, words from Paul were mixed in with Whig/Lockean political theory.  There was no real attempt to bring into the conversation just war theory, and loyalist clergy were more likely than clergy who supported the Revolution to interpret scriptures such as Romans 13 along traditional lines.  Ultimately religious partisans on the side of the Revolution baptized the Bible with Whiggish ideology.   Chapters eight through ten explore three founding documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.   The first, the Declaration was a foreign policy statement (telling the world that these American rebels were now a nation to be recognized), rather than a statement of political principles.  The Articles of Confederation guided the nation between the declaration and the passage of the Constitution.  This document provided for a weak central government – with no chief executive or federal judiciary, and left religious questions to the states.  In fact, Fea raises the question of whether we can even call the United States a nation at this point.   Finally, in 1789 the Constitution was enacted, and despite long debates about establishing Christianity (even in general terms), the Constitution essentially stayed out of the religion business, and for the most part most states, at least early on, took matters of religion into their own hands.  But, despite the absence of God from the document, that shouldn’t be taken as giving support to the idea that the Founders intended a secular nation – only that it left this issue to the states.  Interestingly enough, it was the anti-Federalists, those who argued against the passage of the Constitution, who were the most interested in establishing religion in the new nation. 

The final section (Part Three) looks at the life stories of several of the Founders:  Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin (all of whom were at best heterodox – though the Unitarian Adams was very devout), and then three orthodox founders – Witherspoon, Jay, and Samuel Adams.  Each of these stories is rather complex.  Witherspoon and Jay were supportive of religious liberty, but like Samuel Adams, they didn’t want to extend toleration to Roman Catholics, whom they saw as being beholden to a foreign sovereign.  Isn’t it interesting that a majority of Supreme Court justices, including those who are “strict constructionists” are Roman Catholics, and yet at the time of the passage of the Constitution there were regular debates as to whether the protections of the Constitution extended to them!

Fea’s book is essential reading because it tries to offer a balanced picture.  He argues that when it comes to the idea that the Founders envisioned a Christian nation, partisans such as David Barton have a lot of evidence at their disposal.  There was a strong belief, even on the part of Thomas Jefferson, that God had a hand in the founding of the nation and that religious observance should be promoted, but there was also a strong belief in religious liberty – at least if you were a Protestant.    But, when it came down to establishing even a general sense of religious identity, the framers of the Constitution chose not to do so – leading to the charge at the time that this was a godless Constitution.  It should be said that while Fea recognizes that partisans on both sides play loose with the evidence, his greatest concern is with the misuse and abuse of the evidence by Christian nationalists, especially David Barton.   That he feels this is necessary is probably due to his own context within the evangelical community.   Oh, and in the end, he leaves us to answer the question posed by the title.  Ultimately, this is a book that is written for the times that are upon us, and we have been well served by his historical acumen.

(Review Copy provided by the Publisher) 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Process Theology and the Quest for Justice (Bruce Epperly)

I started a conversation with the question:  Does God care about Justice?   There are a number of reaons why I'm doing this, but perhaps most importantly this conversation raises the question as to what our calling is as God's people in the world.  Am I called to acts of compassion only, or am I called to seek to change the social realities that marginalize people and work to destroy the world in which we live?  To me, justice has to do with (to quote the Disciples mission statement) seeking to bring wholeness to a fragmented world.  Regarding the first -- I see the kinds of responses that church folk offer to the people of Joplin or Japan.  Regarding the latter (justice) I see working to change systems that dehumanize folks.  Both are important and even essential, and belong together.  In that regard, Bruce Epperly offers some thoughts about justice from the perspective of Process Theology as part of his series on that topic.  I invite you to read and respond.


Process Theology and the Quest for Justice

Bruce G. Epperly

Alfred North Whitehead once stated that the aim of the universe is toward the production of beauty. For process theologians, beauty of experience is an ethical as well as aesthetic value. Beauty implies a dynamic relationship of diversity and unity, novelty and order, and contrast and intensity. While these terms seem abstract, they imply an ethical vision appropriate to individual and corporate behavior, grounded in relational and social justice. Just actions and social structures enhance beauty of experience, while unjust actions and social structures deface beauty of experience and limit personal possibilities. Accordingly, we can assert that God is on the side of beauty and justice and seeks relationships and institutions that promote creative, intense, meaningful, and beautiful experiences. A society is judged by its ability to support positive and healthy experiences among its most vulnerable as well as its most elite members.

In the spirit of the prophets and Jesus, process theology recognizes that social institutions – governments, corporations, businesses, educational institutions, are ultimately moral entities. If houses are indiscriminately foreclosed, profits prized over personal and communal well being, children educated in substandard schools, and persons ostracized because of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and age, then governments are failing in the quest for beauty of experience. Process theologians affirm the quest for “life, liberty, and the quest for happiness,” provided that happiness is seen as communal as well as individual. Individual creativity and success – and the ideal of rugged individualism - at the expense of the social order and the well being of persons is inherently unjust.

Process theology recognizes that all achievement involves the interplay of the environment, family of origin, and personal decision-making. Even in the most difficult situations, for example, poverty, abusive family relationships, and racism, we have the freedom to choose our attitude and take our first steps toward freedom. Even in positive social settings, people may still make harmful decisions. Nevertheless, unhealthy environments place serious limits on our ability to make healthy and responsible decisions. Accordingly, we have a responsibility to foster healthy environments as well as value-based education that enables people to make life-supporting decisions. Healthy and caring environments provide a tipping point toward personal achievement and well being. Here, I define achievement in terms of fulfilling one’s particular vocation.

Process theology’s quest for health and beauty-supporting environments requires equality of opportunity and sufficient social resources for all people. For example, process theology’s concept of justice implies that all persons should have accessible health care, both in terms of prevention and response to illness. Further, while school districts may differ in terms of resources, these differences should be as minimal as possible. Schools in poor counties should be given resources approximate to affluent municipalities. While some will sacrifice as a result of beauty-producing social policy, affirmative action based on a combination of economics and ethnicity is essential in the quest for justice and beauty. But, opportunity and economic background as well as race must be a criterion for advancement in education and the work place.

A healthy society supports peoples’ ability to experience more than mere survival. It must encourage creativity, artistic expression, philosophical adventure, scientific exploration, spiritual discovery, and intellectual curiosity. These are values that contribute to breadth of experience and the ability to transcend one’s own experience in a world of many peoples and nations. When difficult decisions must be made, such as those involving the arts, health care, education, those with the fewest resources should make the fewest sacrifices. A good society helps its members, in the words of Whitehead, not only “to live, but to live well, and live better.” Justice in personal and corporate relationships supports peoples’ quests for abundant life, involving creativity and beauty of experience, rather than consumerism and hedonism. According, just structures must take into consideration beauty and abundance for non-humans as well as future generations on this good earth.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. He can be reached for lectures, seminars, and retreats at bruceepperly@gmail.com.  Note:  Bruce will be offering the 2nd Perry Gresham Lecture at Central Woodward Christian Church in September, so keep watching for details. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Love and Justice -- working with definitions

Are justice and love competing values or are they partners?   I think the answer to this question is rooted in definitions.  If we start with the definitions offered by the American legal system, then perhaps that's not possible.  But when we work with biblical terms, it might be different.  Scripture offers a variety of definitions of justice, some of which are suggestive of vindication and punishment, but there are other definitions that suggest something very different.  Of course, how we define love is involved as well.

Although proof-texting isn't fair sport, I do want to start this portion of the conversation with a text from Jeremiah that brings love together with justice and righteousness:

23 Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; 24but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.  (Jer. 9:23-24).
There are, of course many more texts that affirm that God desires justice -- most often in regard to the lives of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.  God makes it clear that God is interested in how we treat those on the margins -- a view that is clearly stated in Matthew 25.

It would probably be helpful to have in front of us a useful definition of love, and as I've noted in earlier posts, I find the definitions of love offered by Tom Oord to be most helpful.  I think that we can start our conversation by using Tom's definition of agape love, which has many links to the biblical concept of justice.  So, we begin with a definition of love:

Agape is intentional sympathetic response to promote overall well-being when confronted by that which generates ill-being.  (Defining Love,  Brazos, p. 43).
If we can define injustice as that which generates ill-being, then love responds to that reality.  Justice requires of us that we resist and change that which is evil so that good may prevail. 

But what is justice?  I'm not saying that the biblical definitions don't involve vindication and restitution, but I would say that the ultimate point of justice has to do with matters of reconciliation and restoration.  Paul Tillich suggests that creative justice is the form of reuniting love (Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, p. 66).    I can't do justice to Tillich's definitions, but it is clear that he believes that love and justice can't be separated from each other.  Consider this:

Love does not do more than justice demands, but love is the ultimate principle of justice.  Love reunites; justice preserves what is to be united.  It is the form in which and through which love performes its work.  Justice in its ultimate meaning is creative justice, and creative justice is the form of reuniting love.  (Tillich, p. 71).
Paul calls this reconciliation, which God is seeking to accomplish in our midst (2 Corinthians 5). 

Since I started this portion of the conversation with a text from Jeremiah, I'll offer a passage from Micah 6, a passage many of us are quite familiar with:

6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?   (Mic. 6:6-8).
Of course this doesn't end the conversation -- it just gives us more to chew on!