Wednesday, February 29, 2012

It Will Be Solved in the Walking (Bruce Epperly)

We began our Lenten Journey a week ago with Ash Wednesday.  This is a season of reflection and preparation, and many persons focus in on their relationship with God and neighbor by embracing spiritual practices.  Bruce Epperly, a regular contributor to Ponderings on a Faith Journey, returns during this Lenten season to offer guidance for the journey.  Today he brings to us a word about the spiritual value of walking, making use of reflections on a Martin Sheen movie.  Take a read, offer your thoughts, take a walk.  As for me, I enjoy getting out in the neighborhood for a walk, but don't discipline myself enough to do this as I should.  Bruce has encouraged me to get moving!


It Will be Solved in the Walking: 
Reflections on Martin Sheen’s “The Way” and the Lenten Spiritual Journey
Bruce G. Epperly

I am a walker.  Every morning at sunrise, I walk a few miles and most nights I hit the trail for a few more.  My best ideas for books, sermons, and blogs come while I’m wearing out shoe leather in my neighborhood or hiking the paths near our home.  Wherever I travel, I bring my walking shoes and hit the trails – whether in Manhattan, Fort Worth, Milwaukee, or Montreal – in search of adventures, with my eyes open to the ever-changing world.  I fear God’s nearness on my ambulatory adventures.

I came upon the Emilio Estevez-Martin Sheen movie The Way purely by accident as I was surfing the cable channels a few weeks ago.  It intrigued me because it was about walking, self-discovery, and adventures along the Camino de Santiago, the Way of James the Disciple, a five hundred mile pathway which crosses the Pyrenees along the border of France and Spain and then meanders across Spain toward the ocean. 

Put briefly, the film describes the unexpected spiritual journey of an American physician who finds his way in walking the Camino, following the death of his son from an accident on the first leg of his pilgrimage.  Like other journey stories, Tom finds his way spiritually as he wanders the Camino, completing his son’s journey, spreading the ashes of his son throughout the journey.

Walking is a spiritual practice, whether our pilgrimages are on a famous path such as the Appalachian Trail or the Camino or in your own neighborhood.  The spiritual advice, “solvitur ambulando,” reminds us that when our bodies move, our spirits move as well.  All things flow and new insights flow as we encounter new data and experience inspiration flowing through our muscles, lungs, and brain cells.

Walking reflects the nature of the universe – movement, novelty, innovation, new possibilities even while traversing the same pathway.  Processive in approach, we never walk the same path twice.  As Heraclitus, the philosopher of movement proclaimed, no one can step in the same waters twice.  An upstart student added:  you can’t even step in the same waters once!  Each step brings new experiences and new ways to look at old things. 

Walking opens us to new possibilities and liberates us from old ways of thinking.  I have often joked that staff and church board meetings should be held while people are walking, rather than when people are sitting in fixed positions.  When we are in immobile positions, our ideas often remain fixed and we become intransigent in holding our viewpoints.  When we move, especially as we address potentially divisive issues, we tend to more fluid in holding our positions and more open to finding alternative solutions to otherwise polarizing issues. 

In the biblical tradition, God is on the move.  The Israelites discover their identity as a people on a forty year pilgrimage.  Jesus takes a walk in the wilderness to claim his vocation as revealer, prophet, healer, and savior.  Jesus’ ministry was almost always on the road, going from place to place, faithfully responding to human need in novel and unexpected ways.

Lent is an opportunity to become a spirit-walker, creating your spiritual “songlines,” like the aboriginal peoples as you open to divine insight on the walk of life.  Each sight on your walk can illuminate the world and your own spiritual adventure. 

I have a number of walking practices:  Often I use my walk as an opportunity for intercessory prayer, opening to God’s energy within my life and sharing that same healing energy with others.  At other times, I simply open my eyes and let them graze on whatever I see – taking in the world in its wonder and beauty.  Still at other times, I begin my walk with a seed idea and then let the seeds sprout in words and images.  When I conclude my walk, words bubble as sentences and chapters.  Great ideas like an ever-flowing stream come to me effortlessly.

On his Camino journey, Tom discovers a sense of meaning and is able to come to terms with his son’s life and find healing in their relationship.  He finds his way, and discovers an open future beyond his grief.  He discovers the difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.”  Walking inspires choice and choice leads to unexpected energies and possibilities in living out our vocation.   In our walking, we also discover a moveable sanctuary filled with insight and possibility to match the challenges of our ever-changing world.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious LivingPhilippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process:Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What Are the Jews?

Martin Marty asks a rather intriguing question:  What are the Jews?  Rather, Marty points us to Jon D. Levenson, one of the foremost Jewish scholars in the country.   I got to hear Dr. Levenson speak on the question of Abrahamic religions in Santa Barbara a number of years ago.  He's a very thought provoking person.  Anyway, Marty uses a recent review by Levenson of another book on Jewish identity to point out the complexity of the question.  Oh, and note how the title of the post is phrased.  Offer your thoughts -- but a warning.  I will delete comments that are anti-Semitic or racist.  

Sightings  2/27/2012
What Are the Jews?
-- Martin E. Marty
  “What exactly are the Jews?” You’d think “we’d” know after their 350 years in America. “What are the Jews?” You’d think top Jewish scholars would know. You’d think Jews would know. No one is sure. Maybe anti-Semites think they know, but . . . . Top Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson of Harvard calls the question “baffling,” and if it baffles him, it should stump and benumb most of us.

“What exactly are the Jews?” is an important question for those of us who “sight” and comment on them. They are numerous, but small on the world scale. There are more Southern Baptists in the United States than Jews in the world, and also more Baptists (of course), Methodists, and Lutherans than Jews in the United States. They are an important force in religion, politics, culture, and need to be reported on accurately. What are they?

Levenson takes a closer look. “If we define them as adherents to a religion,” then how can so many (“most in America”) be secular? Many signs of ethnicity are among them, but “if we define the Jews as an ethnic group or race, then why all the religious practices and institutions”? A gentile, Levenson reminds, can become a Jew, but a black can’t become a white. “If building upon the importance of the State of Israel, we define the Jews essentially as a nation state,” how do we account for the fact that most don’t live there and 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jewish? “When it comes to the Jewish people, our convenient categories fail us.”

Levenson asked his basic question in the Catholic Commonweal while reviewing a book he largely admires by Leora Batnitzky, a foremost scholar of modern Jewish thought. He thinks she over-identifies modern Judaism with modernity itself, but admires her devotion to and explication of the giants of post-Enlightenment Judaism. They all busied themselves asking Levenson’s question, but they came up with very different, sometimes fateful (as in Germany, France, and Russia) answers.

Do we define them in relation to Jewish law, a huge concept and reality? Difficulties follow there, too, though many of his and Batnitzky’s scholars tried to use law. What is the status of such law in courts? (“Today, not coincidentally, the analogous question about Muslim law is asked throughout the West.) For Batnitzky the major modern move was made by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) with his “novel separation of Judaism from communal authority” as he “invent[ed] the idea of Jewish religion.”

For many of the titans, notably historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-91), the stress remained on the communal aspect. “Judaism,” then, “is not a religion of the individual, but of the community,” and thus is not a religion but is “rather a constitution for a body politic.” It is very mindful of its history. But when faced with anti-Semitism in the 19thcentury and after the Holocaust, these impulses sought substance. Some found it in Zionism, among “mostly secular Jews, but some religious ones too . . .” Elsewhere the impulse in American Reform Judaism correlated with theologically and politically liberal activist and “progressive causes.” This is not apolitical and may even be “hyperpolitical, for it allows a new sociopolitical vision to displace the traditional religious norms.”

“What exactly are the Jews?” Levenson decides that this cannot be decided on historical grounds, but can be addressed with a “venture into the world of constructive thought.” So: readers do not get an answer to the question, but more and better questions. Levenson, if I know him (I do know him) would welcome that.


Jon D. Levenson, “What Are They? Modernity and Jewish Self-Understanding,” Commonweal, February 14, 2012.

Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2011).


This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum is by Emanuela Zanotti Carney, on Voices of Despair and Gestures of Grief in Rituals of Mourning and Italian Marian Laments in the late Middle Ages. As devotion to Mary as the "mother of sorrows" flourished in the late Middle Ages, poetic narratives of Mary's lamentations at the foot of the cross became an important sub-genre of Marian literature.  Emanuela Zanotti Carney studies Marian laments written in the Italian vernacular, arguing that "poets and compilers ... conveyed the emotional experience of the Virgin at the cross by embodying traditional rituals of mourning performed by women (thecorrotto) into their lyrical and dramatic texts" (2-3).  Seeking an emotional reaction to Mary's grief, these laments "transformed audiences from passive recipients of a sacred story to active and engaged participants in the history of salvation" (32). Read Voices of Despair and Gestures of Grief.


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

Monday, February 27, 2012

Open Wide the Gates -- A Sermon

Preachers are counseled to know their audience, but sometimes we find ourselves realizing that even with our best intentions, we really don't know how to speak or what to speak.  I was invited to preach at an AIDS memorial service sponsored by a group of churches in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, MI.  I was invited to preach in part in the hope that my congregation might follow and join in the service.  I was invited to do this even though I admitted that I don't have any really experience with persons with AIDS.  I can't say that I've even known anyone with AIDS (at least not knowingly), let alone has died of AIDS related illnesses.  Although I have committed myself to joining forces with those opening the doors of the church to the LGBT community, this is still rather new territory for me.  And so when I went to the pulpit last night, and across the congregation, finding only one familiar face, I found myself at a loss.  I'd already written the sermon, and delivered it as best I could, but I truly felt inadequate to the moment.  It quickly became apparent that most of the people gathered for this service, and the numbers were small, were people deeply affected by AIDS in one form or another.  I tried to balance words of comfort with a call to justice, but perhaps I was speaking more to myself than to anyone in the congregation.  I was the one who needed to understand the realities of the moment.  It was the door to my own heart that needed to be opened.  I thank God that the Spirit is able to speak even when my own words are inadequate.  

But maybe these words will speak to others who like me have not paid much attention to persons with AIDS.  My audience, really, was a different group, those who have shut the doors to persons with AIDS.  My audience, ultimately, is that community of people who believe in justice, but need to be nudged toward recognizing that this is an area of justice that we too often neglect.  

So I invite you to consider these words, which are heartfelt.  


Open Wide the Gates
Sermon for AIDS Memorial Service

            We come here tonight to remember loved ones who have died as a result of AIDS related illnesses.  As we do this, we hear this word of hope from the Psalmist:  “God is our refuge and strength, a help always near in times of trouble.”  (Ps. 46:1).  These words are reflected in Martin Luther’s hymn:  “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” where we boldly sing: “Our God is a bulwark never failing, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”  It is this declaration that God is a never failing bulwark that gives us confidence to entrust our loved ones to God’s care. 

This word of consolation comes to us once again in the reading from Revelation, which declares that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more.  There will be no mourning, crying, pain, anymore for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).  In another place Paul speaks of a new creation in Christ that’s made possible because God has reconciled all things to God’s self through Christ. (2 Cor. 5:19).    

            There are many different kinds of memorial services.  Sometimes we gather to remember persons who have died in service to community or country.   Not long ago some of us gathered for special services to observe the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11.     

Tonight we pay special attention to those who have died of AIDS related illnesses.  We do this because some gathered here have lost loved ones to this disease.  We also come to support those who face discrimination and exclusion because of the stigma attached to this disease.  When word first broke about HIV and AIDS back in the early 1980s, it created great fear in our communities.  People were afraid to go to restaurants or use public rest rooms, fearing that they might become infected.  But, when we heard that most people contracting HIV and AIDS were gays or drug users, many of us decided that this was a disease that didn’t affect us, and so we shut our hearts and minds to those who were suffering.  At the same time, we began to hear leaders from the Christian community declare that the people suffering with AIDS were reaping what they had sown and that this disease was a sign of God’s judgment on sinners.  As a result, people with AIDS, both gay and straight, became pariahs, and we shunned them, hoping they would simply go away. 

When I was asked to preach this evening I told my colleagues that I couldn’t speak to the congregation from personal experience.  I’m not an AIDS activist and I don’t personally know anyone who has AIDS or has died as a result of AIDS.  But then again, maybe I have known people with AIDS, but I just never knew because it wasn’t something that could be mentioned or discussed.  I agreed to preach tonight because I believe this is an issue of justice that God is deeply concerned about.  I believe that as we come tonight to grieve we must also shine the light upon those places in our society that continue to shun and exclude persons with AIDS and their families.  It is a matter of justice and it’s a matter of compassion.

Now, it doesn’t matter if a person with HIV or AIDS is gay or straight, male or female, young or old, Christian or not.  What matters is that we hear God’s word of grace and inclusion, and that as we remember those who have died, we also speak out on behalf of those who continue to live in our midst with HIV and AIDS and who face discrimination and exclusion, who deal every day with the stigma of this disease.   If we fail to do this, then we dishonor the memories of those who have died.      

But, even as we make our declaration of justice, we must not lose sight of the grief that is being shared here tonight.   We come to hear a word of consolation and a word of invitation, a word of comfort and a word of inclusion.     

There is a word in the Ephesian letter that I think speaks to us tonight.  The context is different, but this word has implications for our time of remembrance.  The author of this letter says that Christ is our peace, and that “with his body he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us” (Eph. 2:14 CEB).  Our calling is, it would seem, using words uttered by an American President to his Soviet counterpart while giving a speech in Berlin, is to say to the world:  “tear down this wall.”  And as the walls that divide are torn down, we can also open wide the gates so that all might find peace and comfort in the presence of God. 

There is another word from Scripture that may be appropriate for this evening.  I draw your attention to Peter’s vision, which led him to welcome the Gentiles into Christ’s community. In that vision, after God shows Peter a whole host of animals, and invites him to eat from this palate of choices, God says to Peter, who refuses because these animals are to him ritually unclean, God says to Peter:  do not call unclean what I call clean.  And with this vision, God opens wide the gates of the realm of God.    

Do we not hear something similar in our day about persons with HIV and AIDS?  Do we not hear God say to us – open wide the gates, remove the stigma and the shame.  Allow people the freedom to grieve and remember in peace, without worry about how others might perceive them and their loved ones.   Yes, as God opens wide the gates, we hear this word from the prophet Zephaniah:
I will deliver the lame; I will gather the outcast.  I will change their shame into praise throughout the earth. (Zeph. 3:19). 
May this be our prayer tonight as we remember those who have died, as well as those who continue to live with AIDS.  May our gathering tonight be a sign that God has opened wide the gates.  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Politics, Theology, and the Environment

In recent days, politics and theology have become intertwined, with presidential candidates debating the theological veracity of their opponents.  The most telling example was Rick Santorum’s charge that President Obama has embraced a “phony theology” that isn’t in line with what the Bible teaches.  Elsewhere I addressed this charge, noting that to say that something is phony is to raise questions of a person’s religious integrity
When the “charge” was first made, the former Senator didn’t elaborate, but a few days later he backed off a bit and spoke of the President’s supposedly radical environmentalist world view that he believes is rooted in a theology (world view) that lacks biblical support.  In this clarifying statement about what he meant by a “phony theology” that lacks biblical warrant, Santorum made the following statement: 
“That’s why I was talking about energy. This idea that man is here to serve the earth, as opposed to husband its resources and being good stewards of the earth, and I think that is a phony ideal.” 
Many people believe that religion is private and should remain private.  I believe that religion is personal, but that it also has public implications.  What we believe about God impacts the way we see the world.  In this, I’m in agreement with Sen. Santorum, though I strongly disagree with the way he understands both the bible and Christian theology.  I will also admit that my politics is closer to that of the President than that of the former Senator’s.  But for a moment I’d like to have us put aside partisan politics and consider the theology of creation (I use creation here in a theological sense, not a scientific one). 
I believe that a good case can be made that concern for the environment is deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian Theology, and that it is a moral imperative for us to concern ourselves with protecting and preserving the environment.    
If the earth exists for the benefit of humanity, does that mean that it exists solely for our benefit?  Does it mean that we have the right and obligation to “husband its resources” without concerning ourselves with the long term viability of nature?
At the core of this debate is the definition of stewardship.  Does being a good steward mean taking good care of something entrusted to us, or does it imply use of something for our immediate benefit?   In answering these questions I would like to suggest that Sen. Santorum’s views, which he claims are biblical, could be out of line not only with Scripture, but also the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, of which he is a member. 
Before I turn to Catholic teaching on this issue, I’d like to suggest an alternative reading of the biblical story concerning creation and our responsibility to it.  In Genesis 1 we find the first creation story.  Throughout this beautiful poetic statement, we hear God say of nature – “It is good.”  As God concludes the work of creation God creates humankind in God’s image, male and female, and entrusts to them (us) the responsibility of being stewards of creation.  Stewardship doesn’t entail absolute rule.  There is always accountability to God, who created humankind to represent God in creation.  We are not above creation, we are part of it, and as part of creation, we have an important role, to respect, preserve, and use appropriately the resources present in the world around us.    
To add to this point about our place in creation, consider the message found in the designated reading from the Hebrew Bible for the First Sunday of Lent (this Sunday).  The text is Genesis 9:8-17.  It’s part of the Flood story, and as Noah, his family, and the animals disembark from the ark, God makes a covenant, not just with Noah, his family, and his descendants, but also “with every living being with you—with the birds, with the large animals, and with all the animals of the earth, leaving the ark with you. I will set up my covenant with you so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:9-11 Common English Bible).  God places in the heavens a bow, a rainbow, to serve as a reminder to God of this covenant, which God makes with “all creatures on earth.”  Humanity is, in this scenario, part of, but not the sole concern of God’s covenant with the earth. 
I take these texts as an encouragement to be good stewards of the environment.   Thus, I believe a truly biblical theology will recognize that our welfare as human beings is linked to that of the rest of creation.  My well-being is affected by the despoiling of the environment, whether that is pollution or overuse of natural resources.  Although the Senator suggests that global warming is not science but politics, I beg to differ.  If climate science is correct, we could be setting ourselves on an environmentally unsustainable course that could be as destructive to the future well-being of humanity as any other economic consideration.
I’ve mentioned but two biblical passages that, in my view, call for us to attend to the protection of the environment.  I would suggest that this is part of our covenant responsibility.  Yes, we do have a special role as God’s representatives in the world, but that responsibility is an ecologically sustainable one.  We can make use of earth’s resources, but we should do this in a wise and sustainable manner.  
I said earlier that a biblical case can be made for what is often called “creation care,” but it is also a central focus of Roman Catholic Social Teaching.  Although I don’t agree with the Catholic Church on every issue, there are many places where I am in agreement with the teachings of this church.   I would say that on the issue of the environment, I’m probably closer to the Church’s teachings than is Sen. Santorum.  In support of my claim I want to point out a statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Pope John Paul II. 
First consider this statement from the USCCB on Caring for God’s Creation:
54. We show our respect for the Creator by our stewardship of God’s creation. Care for the earth is a duty of our faith and a sign of our concern for all people. We should strive to live simply to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We have a moral obligation to protect the planet on which we live—to respect God’s creation and to ensure a safe and hospitable environment for human beings, especially children at their most vulnerable stages of development. As stewards called by God to share the responsibility for the future of the earth, we should work for a world in which people respect and protect all of creation and seek to live simply in harmony with it for the sake of future generations.
Pope John Paul II is even clearer and stronger in his statements about our responsibilities toward the environment.  These are stated powerfully in a 1990 address celebrating the World Day of Peace.  I’d like to share just the two opening paragraphs of this statement, and invite you to read the entire message in support of this statement.   The late Catholic leader declared:
In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.
Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment, people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. The public in general as well as political leaders are concerned about this problem, and experts from a wide range of disciplines are studying its causes. Moreover, a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge which, rather than being downplayed, ought to be encouraged to develop into concrete programmes and initiatives.
Pope John Paul II makes the claim that our relationship to the environment is a moral issue.  He states that the future sustainability of this world depends on our ability to address this issue, including the question of climate change.  He also notes that how the developed world uses resources has implications for developing nations and for those persons living in poverty.  Thus, it is a matter of addressing the needs of “the least of these” (Matthew 25).
I recognize there are differences of opinion on matters theological and political when it comes to the environment.  But, a commitment to protecting the earth and its resources – a concern for the welfare of creation as a whole -- is not foreign to the biblical story or to mainstream Christian theology.  In fact, as I read scripture and theology, I would suggest that it is a divine imperative that we concern ourselves with protecting the environment as an expression of our calling to be God’s stewards of creation.  It is also, in our best interests to concern ourselves with this calling.   

Reposted from the Troy Patch

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Predicament of Belief -- A Review

THE PREDICAMENT OF BELIEF: Science, Philosophy, and Faith.  By Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  X + 184 pages.

                The word “apologetics” might not be the best descriptor for The Predicament of Belief, but that may have less to do with the intent of the authors, and more to do with the accumulated baggage from other apologetic enterprises.  The Predicament of Belief is not an attempt to accumulate evidence that demands a verdict; rather, like Schleiermacher’s Speeches to the Cultured Despisers the authors of this book seek to present theism as a reasonable and viable understanding of ultimate reality to an increasingly skeptical audience.    

                Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp are scholars and persons of faith.  Both have impressive academic credentials.  Clayton is Ingraham Professor of Theology and Dean of the Claremont School of Theology, along with serving as the founding Provost of newly born Claremont Lincoln University.  He has published numerous books and articles on theology and philosophy.  One of his primary interests is the relationship of religion and science.  I’ve previously reviewed two of his books, and have had the opportunity to personally dialog with him on matters theological.  Steven Knapp is President of George Washington University and Professor of English at that university.  Although this is my first encounter with Knapp, this isn’t his first collaboration with Philip Clayton.   Together they seek to address the “predicament of belief” by taking up the challenges presented by science, philosophy, and religious pluralism to a coherent and viable theism.    

Although brief in scope, this isn’t an easy read.  The reader will need to have a good grasp of the relevant issues, but then most skeptics and questioners have informed themselves on the issues.  They simply seek a reasonable answer to their questions.   The hope of the authors is that this is a reasonable response, even though some beliefs will transcend rationality.  This is especially true as one moves from the general to the more specific.  It is one thing to affirm the idea of an Ultimate Reality (God) and quite another to believe that this Ultimate Reality was present in and through a particular person in history, such as Jesus of Nazareth.  This is, therefore, why the authors shy away from calling this book a “manual of Christian apologetics.”  This is an attempt to lay out a “minimalist personal theism,” rather than lay out a robust orthodox vision of faith.

The authors recognize that there are significant obstacles to faith, but they also believe that one needn’t be content with agnosticism.  The Christian minimalist  position, in their estimation, assumes that the “reasons for affirming Christian claims are stronger than the reasons for denying them” (p. 18).  The faith they offer holds that the natural world stems “from a not-less-than-personal ultimate reality, a way of conceiving divine action that is compatible with scientific methods and results, and a way of interpreting the New Testament resurrection claims that we think remains plausible for men and women in the twenty-first century” (p. 22).  They do this knowing that there are significant reasons for having doubts about the religious enterprise. 

Starting with the objections to faith and then moving on to a discussion of the nature of the ultimate reality and the way this reality (God) is active in the universe, while taking into consideration religious pluralism, they lay out the foundations for a minimalist personal theism (MPT), addressing along the way continuing concerns and objections. 

It is the two chapters dealing with the particular that should draw considerable attention, and the authors acknowledge that this is the heart of the predicament addressed by the book.  One will have had to buy into the more general arguments for a minimalist personal theism to make it this far.   If you accept the premise that there is an ultimate reality that is not less than personal, and recognizing that there are a variety of options available to explain that ultimate reality (religious pluralism), then perhaps you’re ready to make a home in one particular tradition.  Their understanding of this reality involves the assumption that God does not stand outside the universe intervening in supernatural ways.  That assumption may not be robust enough for many Christians, but it fits with their panentheistic understanding of God (the world is in God).  With regard to the particularities of the Christian faith their focus is on two questions – the resurrection and the uniqueness of Christ.  They deal with issues such as the Trinity as well, but these are the two topics that draw their primary attention. 

They offer a number of possible ways of understanding the resurrection, from metaphor to bodily resurrection (sort of from Borg to Wright).  They can’t affirm the traditional understanding of a bodily resurrection because it is unsustainable, in their minds, when set against a scientific framework.  They also find the metaphorical/symbolic version less than true to what the early Christians envisioned, and thus they propose a participatory model of the resurrection.
Human beings share the “Spirit of Christ” insofar as they enter into the same relationship with God that was embodied in Jesus’ self-surrender to the one he called his “father.”  The heart of this theory, in other words, is that, in the event that came to be known as Jesus’ resurrection, his self-surrendering engagement with God became newly available, through the agency of the divine Spirit, to his followers, then and since, as the form, model, and condition of their own engagement with the divine.”  (p. 90). 
This understanding doesn’t address what happened to Jesus specifically, but it does suggest that the disciples of Jesus, then and now, participate in his relationship with God in a transformative way.

                Further, the authors address the question of uniqueness of Jesus.  How does Jesus embody or represent the ultimate reality?   The participatory theory involves the assumption that in Jesus we participate in the reality that is God, through him, but that doesn’t mean that he is the one and only way for this to occur.  The New Testament does assume that Jesus is the highest and fullest instance of human participation in the person and presence of God.   But, how strong should our claims be?  Clayton and Knapp seek a way between the exclusivist position and one that resist all such claims.  They prefer to move beyond an either/or solution to one that affirms some aspects of uniqueness without ruling out other ways in which God is present.   The resurrection appearances offer a means by which one can envision the Spirit of God making the presence of Christ available, even if not in a bodily/physical form.  Jesus, by the Spirit, remains personally but not physically present.  It’s not a metaphor and it’s not a vision, but it’s not Wright’s physical/bodily/tangible presence.   I appreciate their attempt at finding a middle ground, though I’m left wanting a more robust understanding of the resurrection.  
                They close the book with two chapters that revisit the questions of doubt and belief, and it’s here that they address issues such as the Trinity.   Then they close with a chapter that deals with the church, and what the church might look like if it allows for a rather wide spectrum of beliefs.  Can the church survive and thrive if at its heart it requires a minimalist perspective?  The authors offer their vision of the church as the most reasonable way of reaching those who see themselves as spiritual but not religious (about 72% of millennials).   The reality is that we likely don’t have a choice.  We can be hard and fast with doctrinal rules, but that works only for a rather small number of folks, and its shrinking quickly.  Can the church thrive if membership doesn’t require that adhere to one particular understanding of God or of Jesus’ relationship to God? 

As we ponder this question the authors note that in presenting the church in this fashion we must also take into serious consideration a question raised by John Cobb:  does it matter?  Cobb is no conservative, but his suggestion that progressive denominations could be declining because we don’t always seem to believe that what we’re saying and doing is all that important.   Unless this faith gives meaning to our lives, it won’t live on, especially in an age where religion doesn’t have much social value. 

Ultimately this is the question that we face.  Does it matter whether we believe or not?  Even if we can overcome the challenges of science and theodicy and religious pluralism, does the Christian faith offer meaning to our lives? 

My feelings about this book are mixed.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent my entire life as a Christian and because I was an evangelical and still have some evangelical elements to my theology, I’m left wanting more.   This is especially true of the resurrection.  I’m not sure that their solution is sufficient for me.  That may be true for other readers.  On the other hand, I think this would be a most useful book for my friends that are struggling to accept even a minimalist theism.  I think that it will help move people beyond agnosticism, and maybe even atheism.   So, maybe my mixed feelings have more to say about me than about the author’s project. 

Read the book, especially if you struggle with doubt.  If you’re one who seeks a more robust view of God and of Jesus’ relationship to God, then you might be left wanting more, but recognize that the authors really aren’t speaking to you.  It has its audience, and hopefully it will help draw into the body those who struggle to find meaning for their lives.  One of the reasons why a book like this may not appeal to everyone is that many people prefer a more black and white kind of faith.  The faith they offer is rather complex and even messy, and that can be troubling.  

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Muslim Luther and Reformation -- Sightings

I continue to be fascinated by Islam and its place in the world.   For this very reason I worked to invite Saeed Khan, a faculty member at Wayne State University, to lead a series of presentations on Islam at the church.  This series has led to a new set of informal conversations about Islam at a local coffee house.  
Why should we be interested in Islam?  Well, along with Christianity, Islam makes up more than two-thirds of the world's population.  It is diverse in race and ethnicity and in culture.  Many non-Muslim observers have wondered -- will Islam experience a reformation like Protestantism?  That question is taken up in a Sightings post by Mun'im Sirry, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago.  I invite you to read and engage in a conversation about Islam and how it fits into our modern/post-modern world.  To what degree will events and ideas of this age penetrate Islam and transform it -- either positively or negatively?   Consider this -- one of the outgrowths of the Crusades was Christian encounters with Islamic culture that transformed the culture and theology of Christendom.  Consider the reintroduction of Aristotle into the theological mix.  Will something similar happen to Islam due to its encounter with the "West"?  

Sightings  2/23/2012
The Muslim Luther and Reformation
-- Mun’im Sirry
  On February 15, 2012, Abdulkarim Soroush, a visiting Professor at The University of Chicago, delivered a thoughtful and enlightening talk about revival and reform in Islam. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar writes in The New York Times, “Soroush has been described as a Muslim Luther, but unlike the Protestant reformer, he is no literalist about holy books.” Robin Wright, a journalist who writes frequently about the Middle East, also describes him as “the Martin Luther of Islam,” however she acknowledges that Soroush himself prefers to avoid comparison with Luther. In the beginning of his talk, Dr. Soroush argued that Islam has not undergone a reformation similar to that of Protestantism. This contention is certainly debatable since a number of Muslim reformers cited the need to reform Islam as Christianity was reformed. Even Muhammad Iqbal, one of the Muslim reformers whose projects were discussed by Dr. Soroush, identified Protestant elements in Islamic reform: “We are today passing through a period similar to that of the Protestant revolution in Europe, and the lesson which the rise and outcome of Luther’s movement teaches should not be lost on us.”           
Many scholars discuss how the idea of “Muslim Luther” or “Islamic Protestantism” emerges in the discourses of Muslim reformers, especially the Shi’i circle. Charles Kurzman and Michaelle Browers explore the historical usage of the Islamic-Protestant reformation analogy. Sukidi specifically traces the traveling idea of Islamic Protestantism to what he calls “Iranian Luthers,” namely, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Ali Shari‘ati and Hashem Aghajari. This characterization is, of course, not without problems. Muslim reformers might follow patterns of religious reform similar to those of Christian reformers, yet they certainly found their own ways of dealing with their tradition. However, the analogy is not invalid, given that these Muslim reformers themselves expressed their admiration for Luther and other Christian reformers. Afghani, for instance, strongly believed that Islam needs a Luther and he might have seen himself as that Luther.           
The Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh’s admiration for Protestant reformation is often overlooked by scholars. Undoubtedly, ‘Abduh is the most influential Sunni scholar whose ideas of Islamic reform reached far beyond the theological divide and the Arab world. In his magnum opus, Risalat al-tawhid, ‘Abduh argues that Christian reformation included “elements by no means unlike Islam.” It would surprise no one that ‘Abduh was so impressed by the way Christian reformers strove to break the entail of obscurantism, curb the authority of religious leaders and keep them from exceeding the precept of religion. “They discovered,” ‘Abduh writes, “that liberty of thought and breadth of knowledge were means to faith and not its foe.” 
It is worthwhile that, unlike other Muslim reformers, ‘Abduh brings the discussion deeper into theological issues. “The reforming groups in the West,” he says, “brought their doctrines to a point closely in line with the dogma of Islam, with the exception of belief in the prophetic mission of Muhammad. Their religion was in all but name the religion of Muhammad; it differed only in the form of worship, not in the meaning or anything else.”           
Perhaps, it was his disciple, Rashid Rida, who pushed this idea further to argue that belief in the prophethood of Muhammad is not a sine qua non for salvation. Commenting on Qur’an 2:62, he rejects the idea that this verse implicitly stipulates belief in Muhammad. In his own words: “… there is no problem for not stipulating belief in the Prophet because the verse deals with God’s treatment of each people and community who believe in a Prophet and a revelation particular to them. Their salvation (fawzuha) is certain whether they were Muslims, Jews, Christians, or Sabeans. God declares that salvation lies not in religious allegiance (al-jinsiyya al-diniyya) but in true belief which has control over self and in good deed.” Elsewhere, Rida emphasizes the need to combine “religious renewal and earthly renewal, the same way Europe has done with religious reformation and modernization.” Rida’s attitude toward other religions is more complex than is sometimes supposed and is beyond the scope of this article. 
It is interesting that Muslim reformers like ‘Abduh and Rida have no qualms dealing with the theological aspects of the nature of Christian reformation. While some Muslims might truly believe that Islam faces challenges similar to those faced by Christianity in Europe, ‘Abduh simply asserts that “Many scholars in Western countries confess that Islam has been the greatest of their mentors in attaining their present position.” Christian reformation is not alien to Muslim reformers, but one may still wonder why Muslim reformers envision their projects in light of Protestant reformation.

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, “Who Wrote the Koran?,” The New York Times, December 5, 2008. 
Robin Wright, “Scholar Emerges as the Martin Luther of Islam,” The Seattle Times, February 12, 1995. 
Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman (eds.), An Islamic Reformation? (Lanham, NJ: Lexington, 2003): pp. 1-17. 
Sukidi, “The Traveling Idea of Islamic Protestantism: A Study of Iranian Luthers,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (2005): pp. 401-412. 
Muhammad ‘Abduh, Risala al-tawhid (Cairo: Matba‘a Muhammad ‘Ali Sabih, 1966). 

Mun’im Sirry is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow and a Harper Dissertation Fellow. His dissertation is entitled Reformist Muslim Approaches to the Polemics of the Qur’an against Other Religions. 

 This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum is by Emanuela Zanotti Carney, on Voices of Despair and Gestures of Grief in Rituals of Mourning and Italian Marian Laments in the late Middle Ages. As devotion to Mary as the "mother of sorrows" flourished in the late Middle Ages, poetic narratives of Mary's lamentations at the foot of the cross became an important sub-genre of Marian literature.  Emanuela Zanotti Carney studies Marian laments written in the Italian vernacular, arguing that "poets and compilers ... conveyed the emotional experience of the Virgin at the cross by embodying traditional rituals of mourning performed by women (thecorrotto) into their lyrical and dramatic texts" (2-3).  Seeking an emotional reaction to Mary's grief, these laments "transformed audiences from passive recipients of a sacred story to active and engaged participants in the history of salvation" (32). Read Voices of Despair and Gestures of Grief.

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

Thursday, February 23, 2012

It's the Water -- A Lectionary Reflection

It’s the Water, 
and a Lot More

           It’s the beginning of Lent, a journey that takes us from temptation to temptation, from grief to death.  It’s a time of reflection and for letting go of distractions and obstructions.  Some of us do better at this than others.  I must confess to a lack of discipline in these things, and Lent has been no different than any other season.  But the invitation to allow God access to our lives so that we might be reconciled and renewed is there.  Here is an invitation to join Jesus in the wilderness, where trust in God is essential. 

Reference is made in each of these lectionary texts to water, which as we know is the foundation for life.  Without it life is, it appears, impossible.  This is why astronomers search the heavens looking for planets that might have water, and thus the promise of life.  We know that our carbon-based bodies are made up primarily of water, and so without water there’s little left except chemicals.  Thus, water is, so to speak, our life-blood.

Water is the thread that connects these three texts, taking us from the story of Noah to Jesus’ own baptism at the hands of John, with a stop to reflect on the salvific effects of the baptismal waters.  What we learn is that God is at work in the midst of these waters, not washing away dirt, but drawing humanity into the covenant community.  Water is, for Noah and for Jesus, the starting point for a journey into the presence of God, and in 1 Peter, baptism is linked to the Noah story, serving as “mark of a good conscience toward God.”  Thus, as we begin our Lenten journey, we begin in baptism, which ushers us into the covenant community.    

Although baptism doesn’t figure directly into the Genesis passage, the fact that the author of 1 Peter appeals to Noah’s experience with the Flood, which serves as a metaphor for baptism, connects the Noah story to the other texts.  Baptism is for Christians one of the two foundational sacraments. We may vary in our theologies and our practices, but whether applied at the beginning of life or at some later time of accountability, Baptism serves as a sign of reconciliation and inclusion into the covenant community of God. 

To provide a theological context to consider the relationship of these texts to baptism, I want to point to an invitation given to Disciples of Christ to deepen their theology of baptism.  In a book edited by Keith Watkins, we hear this word:
Through the signs of water and word, God is reaching out to humanity to join us to God’s own self.  It is this transcendent aspect of Christian baptism that has taught us a truth we did not initiate, and that bids us into covenant partnership with God-in-Christ through baptism.  In the preamble to our Design, we affirm along with the whole church in every time and place that baptism is ours only as a gift.  [Keith Watkins, ed., Baptism and Belonging, (Chalice Press, 1991), pp. 16-17]. 
With this thread in mind we turn to three texts that introduce us to the Lenten journey. 

            If you grew up in the church, as did I, you were introduced to the Noah story early on.  You probably didn’t hear the whole story, how God judged the earth and killed every living thing, except Noah, his family, and the mating pairs of animals who would, like and his family, repopulate the earth.  All we heard was that God told Noah to prepare for the Flood by building an ark and making room for all these animals.  Later I learned that Noah’s Ark was located somewhere up on Mt Ararat in Turkey.  That was, however, back in my more literalist days.  In this passage, the Flood has subsided, and before Noah, his family, and the animals leave the ark, God makes a covenant with them, that never again would the flood waters destroy all creatures.  The sign of this covenant is the bow that God places in the clouds.  It will serve as a reminder, not to human or non-human life, but to God.  When God sees the rainbow in the sky, God “will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all earth’s creatures.”

            It’s important to note the breadth of the covenant partners included in this relationship, especially in light of recent comments made by a Presidential candidate who accused the President of having a non-biblical theology that placed humanity below the earth.  What is clear in this passage is that God not only covenants with Noah and family, but with all creatures – great and small.  There is a strong environmental/ecological message present in this covenant.  As Nicole Johnson writes in her lectionary commentary on this passage:
God’s promise to protect the entire creation calls the faith community to see its own existence and well-being as tied together with the existence and well-being of the rest of the created order, so loved and protected by its creator.  Humans are in covenant not only with one another and God but with the natural world as well. (Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B. p. 129). 
It is a reminder that God’s reconciling vision of a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:19) must include more than simply human life, but all of God’s creation.

            When we come to 1 Peter 3, we find a discussion about the reconciling ministry of Jesus, who dies that we might have forgiveness of sins, but who is made alive in the resurrection so that he might take his place at the right side of God, where Jesus “rules over all angels, authorities, and powers” (1 Pet. 3:22 CEB).  This is a rather intriguing passage with mysterious connotations.  The meaning of baptism is linked to the Flood, and the ministry of Jesus includes preaching “to the spirits in prison,” that is the disobedient spirits that had been waiting since the time of Noah to hear this message of salvation. 

            There isn’t space here to explore the implications of this obscure reference, though it has been taken as the foundation of the so-called “harrowing of hell,” whereby Jesus liberated the spirits from their hellish existence so that, having heard the good news, might be saved.  It’s a passage that gives some support to the idea that there are post-grave opportunities to hear and respond to the gospel.  The passage is not clear, but it is suggestive, and thus worth pondering.

            With regard to baptism, Peter connects it to the Flood, so that even as Noah and his family are “rescued through water, baptism is like that.  It saves you now . . . because it is a mark of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:20-21 CEB).  Peter links this act of baptism to the resurrection, which is the ultimate foundation of salvation.  Although this reference is not as clear as Paul’s reference in Romans 6, here it seems that baptism serves as a sign of identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.  Even as we go through the baptismal waters we are saved through the resurrection of the one who sits in heaven at God’s right side.  If the connection with Noah holds, then baptism isn’t just an appeal of a good conscience, it is the sign of the covenant that God makes with the world. 

            With the gospel reading we return to the Baptism of Jesus, which we observed at the beginning of Epiphany.  Once again we hear a word of how Jesus came to John and was baptized in the Jordan.  Mark’s account is brief and active.  As he comes out of the water, the heavens split open and Jesus sees a Spirit fall like a dove upon him, and then hears a voice from heaven:  “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  There is, of course, an adoptionist understanding of Jesus’ relationship to God.  There’s no pre-existence or miraculous birth, just an embrace of Jesus as the one who would be God’s Son – and thus the one who would represent God in this world.

            But the baptism is only part of the story.  We’ve already been to this place in this story, and so we must move with Jesus into the wilderness.  Mark with his forceful delivery tells us that the Spirit “at once . . . forced Jesus out into the wilderness.”   The wilderness of Palestine shouldn’t be confused with our understanding of wilderness.  Growing up in Oregon, wilderness means rugged mountains with lots of big trees.  Here the wilderness is a desert.  Water may be the foundation of life, but here water is a scarce commodity, and thus life is precarious.  Here Jesus faces the tempter, Satan.  For forty days, Jesus is out among the animals, facing temptation.  What this temptation is, Mark doesn’t say.  Matthew and Luke fill in the details, but Mark just has Jesus wrestling with temptation, and as he does, the angels, whom according to 1 Peter, Jesus will one day rule over, attend to his needs in this difficult hour.

            Following this wilderness experience, and after John is arrested, Jesus begins his ministry.  He goes into Galilee, a much lusher place to live, where he announces God’s good news.  And what is this good news:  “Now is the time!  Here comes God’s Kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:14-15 CEB).  From Baptism to the travails of the desert, Jesus is prepared to take up his calling to preach the good news, the news that saves and brings into existence God’s kingdom.  The nature of the kingdom isn’t defined.  But it’s clear that the kingdom is coming, and it’s time to get ready.  So do change your heart and you life, so you’ll be ready.  And know that it is for this reason that God is happy.  The reign of God in Christ is here.

            As we begin this Lenten journey, a journey that begins in a baptism that draws us into the covenant community of God, we hear our own calling to announce God’s good news.  As Paul makes clear in a passage read during Ash Wednesday, to us is given the ambassadorship of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:20).  Since the reign of Christ is upon us, may we trust our lives to the God proclaimed in this good news.