Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Postcards from Claremont – 10 – Teaching from a Process Perspective (Bruce Epperly)

Process Theology has made a major mark of Mainline Protestantism.  It  has offered a methodology and framework for progressive/liberal theologians to engage the question of God in a way that is in sync with modern scientific views, allowing God to be active even while rejecting the idea of an interventionist God.  It focuses more on divine immanence than divine transcendence, though it doesn't eliminate the latter.  Bruce Epperly is one of the most insightful expositors of this tradition, and he's been in Claremont this fall teaching Process Theology at one of the centers of Process thought.  Whether or not you're a process devotee, and I'm not really, I think we can learn from the method.  In this post, Bruce's 10th from Claremont, he speaks of the influence of Process thought on his teaching style.  I think you'll find it interesting and perhaps persuasive!
P.S. Bruce has had to curtail his teaching assignments this week as he's been holed up in his apartment in the DC area due to Hurricane Sandy.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been caught in its path.


Postcards from Claremont – 10 – 
Teaching from a Process Perspective
Bruce Epperly

It has been a great joy teaching this fall at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  As a process theologian, one of my goals is to promote a holistic vision of reality that relates to every aspect of life, and that includes teaching.  I try to “live” process and teach in the spirit of process philosophy and theology.  While process theology is a many-faceted movement, I believe that process theology can further the “aims of education,” the title of one of Whitehead’s books, especially in the context of the graduate and seminary programs that flourish here at Claremont.

Process thought is characterized by an emphasis on interdependence, fluidity, movement, and creative transformation.  Optimistic in approach, process theology claims that each moment of life is guided an immanent vision, the initial aim, luring it toward the highest possibilities in each moment of experience.  Education is about eliciting possibilities and bringing forth the best from yourself and your students, congruent with God’s aim at healing the Earth.

Much teaching is dualistic and asymmetrical in nature: the teacher is the expert, the students are amateurs; the professor gives and the student receives; authority is one-sided and often used in ways that promote unnecessary fear and anxiety on the student’s part.  The professor’s word stifles student creativity and becomes the gauntlet through which students must pass in order to receive their degrees.  In contrast, process theology sees teaching and learning as a dynamic synergy.  While the teacher may possess a good deal of expertise currently lacking in her or his students, the teacher is also a learner, growing in relationship to her or his students.  Humility is at the heart of the educational process: we receive while we give; our students share insights that transform what we teach and the way we teach.    In some areas  - and I say this to my students – my students know more than I do, and my goal, then, as I comment to them, is to learn their areas of expertise and help them achieve academic and personal excellence in articulating them.

I see education as an evolving partnership.  A few weeks before the semester begins, I send emails to my students asking what issues in the class are important to them.  I try to insure that I cover these interests in class.  One of the first things I say to my students is “I put together this syllabus and created my vision for the class in the privacy of my study; now you are here and everything’s changed.  Let’s create something together.”  I still take my syllabus seriously, but the course emerges in personal and group conversations in which I try to learn my students’ visions, their favorite books, and the themes they are considering for their theses, if they are graduate students.  This shapes the contours of my lectures from day to day and week to week.

I have to be on my toes constantly, ready to change course in the context of a book a student recommends or a comment in class.  Improvisation means more preparation rather than less, but oh the joy of a lively class of expectant students.  My students at Claremont have enhanced my learning and teaching in a variety of ways: I try to keep up with their growing expertise in joining Whitehead and Jung, Theravada Buddhism and pastoral care, mystical Judaism and process theology, spiritual practices for college students, fiction and music as theological tools, emerging Christianity and deconstructionism, practical ministry guided by a theological vision, Mennonite theology and ethics, the impact of Hartshorne on process theology, video games and theological reflection, theology from the perspective of Korean Christianity and spiritual movements in Burma (Myanmar), LGBT issues, ecofeminism and process thought.  The list goes on: every student brings a creative possibility for the teacher to learn something new and I rejoice in my own growth alongside my students.

As time permits, I make appointments to meet my students outside of class for a walk or coffee.  I enjoy coffee and walking, but I also believe that good teaching involves intimacy – not intrusion or unnecessary curiosity or boundary violations – but the meeting of hearts and minds over tea or coffee in which I seek to experience my students as persons with hopes, dreams, and desires.  As Plato would say (Letter Seven), a spark sometimes emerges between a student or students and a teacher that transforms a class into a life-changing experience.  As a process theologian, I believe that each teaching and learning moment emerges from the interplay of mutually creative participants.  My calling in the classroom is to nurture maximal creativity, initiative, and freedom, congruent with the theme and the overall learning context.  In getting to know my students as “thous” rather than “its” (Buber), I learn to teach to the student as well as the subject, knowing that the students are creating the subject with me as we go along.

Education aims at beauty and largeness of spirit.  Beauty of experience involves complexity, intensity, creativity, and stature.  We are here to enlarge our spirits and encourage others to grow in spirit.  Teaching is a spiritual enterprise from a process perspective and study is a form of prayer.  What we learn and how we learn is not a matter of indifference, but shapes our spirits and relationships.  Ideas can transform, challenge, awaken, and heal.  Ideas are not merely intellectual.  We learn from below as well as above the neck.   Interdependence implies holism and this means teaching includes personal and spiritual formation, multi-sensory approaches, and attention to multiple intelligences.  While I still require written work and see the written word as important especially in graduate education, I do not privilege one type of assignment.  I encourage my students to join analytic expertise with music, art, poetry, dance, and drama. 

Finally, in the quest for beauty of experience, I try to take the fear factor out of education.  Too often students see success in terms of grades rather than adventurous experiences and claiming their own voices.  In their anxiety about keeping a scholarship or pleasing a professor, they often subjugate their own creativity and innovation.  At best, education is a graceful adventure in quest of new visions of truth and beauty, and practical and speculative reason.  Wonder is often stifled by the need to perform or worse yet succeed according to another’s standards.  To take the fear and authoritarian factor out of education, from my side at least, I tell my students that they will all receive A’s or B’s unless they tell me otherwise.  While it is potentially more work for me, I always return what I perceive to be substandard work with comments about how to improve it. After all, grades say as much about the quality of our teaching as the students’ work!  I want my students to sail forth on the seas of intellectual adventure with the wind at their back and the knowledge that there are others at sea with them, willing to share wisdom and provide polestars for the adventure.

At the end of the day, as Plato said, a philosopher without love is dead, and that also applies to a professor.  I see my teaching as a spiritual enterprise in which I look for the holy in my students and seek to bring it forth in the holiness of learning and exploring their vocations as fellow scholars.   Teaching is an act of love – the love of your subject, the love of growing in spirit and truth, and the love and joy of seeing your students claim their giftedness as creators and scholars, bringing beauty to this good Earth.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: 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 also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and   He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Energion Roundtable Question 11 -- Libya, the Middle East, and American Presence

We’re now within days of the election, and a large storm (a literal one) has thrown a wrench into the electoral politics.  But that’s not the question of the week posed by the editor of Energion Publications  to our round table.  This question focuses on Libya and the attack on the consulate.

One of the major news stories of the last couple of weeks has been the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the deaths of the ambassador and three other people there. In response, some have suggested that America is portraying weakness in the Middle East (and elsewhere) and that we need to maintain a strong military, or increase what we now have, and take a stronger stand against regimes and terrorist groups that oppose our policies and/or our interests.

As a Christian and an American, what do you think our approach should be? How does your faith inform your answer to this question?

Regarding the consulate attack, if I tried to deal with it directly I’d end up in the weeds dealing with things I’m not competent to deal with.  Mistakes likely were made.  Hopefully they’ll get taken care of.  The deaths of the Ambassador and three aides was tragic, and their loss is to be mourned, not politicized.

Instead of getting entangled in that debate, I’d like to focus on the larger question of America’s reputation and presence in the world, especially in relationship to the Middle East.  Until the 1890s, when the United States got involved in war with Spain (Spanish American War) we were largely focused on things at home (expanding grasp on the North American continent).  War with Spain brought us new imperial acquisitions, including the Philippines.  We took over Hawaii and other lands as well during this era.  We would fight a bloody war in the Philippines and engage in other battles around the world, but we still weren’t a world power.  World War I changed this to some degree, though we turned isolationist in the immediate aftermath.  So, it really wasn’t until World War II that the United States truly became a world power.  Although we have always believed ourselves to be at least well-intentioned, history shows that there has often been a dark side to our engagement on a world stage.  We have a tendency to be blind to our own faults, and in pursuit of our own interests have ridden roughshod over the interests of others.

With regard to the Middle East, our partnerships over the decades with dictators and strongmen have undermined our image as a beacon of democracy.  The oppressed in countries like Egypt and Iran under the Shah wondered about the disconnect between our lofty words and ideals and the realities of our support for less than savory folks (like Mubarak).      

In the current political debate, Mitt Romney and his allies have called for a more robust military presence.  He suggests that if we project military strength that no one will challenge us.  Now, if this is true, then you’d think that our having the largest military budget in the world, with our budget dwarfing the next largest (China) would mean that all would be peaceful.  As the Romans learned, having the best army doesn’t always lead to peace.  President Obama has ended the war in Iraq, but has pursued military expansion in Afghanistan and entered the Libyan conflict.  He has authorized a significant uptick in drone strikes and pursued the killing of Osama bin Laden.  You’d think that this would suggest strength.

Unfortunately, despite our military prowess peace remains elusive.  We can’t impose our will on every country.  We marched into Baghdad in a matter of weeks, but “pacifying the country” took years and even now isn’t complete.  We defeated the Taliban in quick strides, but Afghanistan is no more peaceful today than a decade ago.  Libya is free of its dictator’s grasp, but a stable nation remains on the horizon.  We could bomb Iran, but could we occupy it?  Do we want to?  Vietnam should have been a clue that military prowess isn’t enough, but we didn’t seem to learn the lesson.

So what’s the solution?  I don’t think military strength will do the job.  Diplomacy has a better chance, but diplomacy requires that we understand the nations we seek to engage.  It means understanding the complexity that is Islam.  Shia and Sunni have significant differences.  Arabs and Persians and Turks and Kurds have their differences, that even religion doesn’t always bridge.  We need to understand Islam.  We need people who are trained in Arabic and Farsi and Turkish languages.  We need to understand how our sense of our own selves can affect the way we’re perceived by others.   

We also need patience, because democracy will have to evolve and it will evolve differently in the Middle East than it does in America.  Consider even Israel. We speak of it as if it’s a Western democracy, but is it?  It’s commitment to being a Jewish state means that one religion is privileged over all others.  That’s not the American vision.  It could be appropriate for that region – but we don’t seem to understand what this means for Palestinians living in Israel or under Israeli occupation.   
Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney demonstrates the kind of awareness of these realities that I'd like to see, though I believe that President Obama is better equipped than Mr. Romney to handle these questions.       

            As for how my faith contributes to these understandings, I will say that as a follower of Jesus I’m compelled to pursue justice and peace in our world.  I’m not a pacifist, but that doesn’t mean I’m a military-first kind of person.  Most importantly, my own sense of vision is guided by Jesus’ call to love my neighbor as I love myself.   That is a posture that may lead to greater peace, but I don’t think it will be the position of our government anytime soon.

            For other responses see the posts by roundtable participants:     Allan BevereElgin HushbeckJoel Watts, and Arthur Sido.         

Monday, October 29, 2012

Giants Win in 4!

As a major storm bears down on the East Coast of the United States and as the nation ponders to whom it will entrust the stewardship of the nation in next week's elections, baseball may seem somewhat trivial.  But, baseball is an expression of national identity.  It may not be as popular as it once was, but it remains the nation's pastime.

Last night the San Francisco Giants won their second World Championship in three years and seventh in franchise history.  I was born the year the Giants moved west from New York to the City by the Bay.  I watched with hope every year, believing this would be the year.  It took fifty-two years and four tries to win that first elusive trophy.  Willie Mays won one New York, but his San Francisco teammates Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Jim Ray Hart, Orlando Cepeda, Gaylord Perry, Bobby Bonds, and more didn't taste victory as Giants.  More often than not they watched the Dodgers win.  I got to go to the 89 series, which was interrupted by an earthquake.  In 2002 the Barry Bonds led  Giants came within six outs of taking a series from the Angels, but faltered.  Disappointment again came to Giants fans.  Then in 2010, it was torture, but a group of non-stars led by a rookie catcher and a great pitching rotation put it all together and beat back the Texas Rangers to win the elusive crown.

This year the Giants had to come back from 7.5 down overcome the loss of their closer at the beginning of the year, a less than stellar year by their ace Tim Lincecum, the uncertainty of Buster Posey's recovery, and then the rise and fall of Melky Cabrera.  They faced a resurgent Dodgers team that made blockbuster deals to get star players during the course of the season to bolster their attack.  But the Dodgers faded and the Giants, having added Hunter Pence and Marco Scuturo took off and over came deficits in the Division Series and League Championship Series, beating the reigning champs in seven games.  From there they took on a rested Detroit Tigers team that boasted the American Leagues best pitcher and the league's Triple Crown Winner.  But the Giants, having won three straight to make it to the Series, didn't look back.

Who were the heroes of the series for the Giants, who took the Series in four games?  Pablo "Panda" Sandoval, whose hitting and surprising defense got the Giants off to a fast start; Tim Lincecum's presence out of the bullpen, Sergio Romo's dominance and indomitable spirit (don't you love his dance at the end of a game?), the defense of the two Brandons -- Crawford and Belt, along with Gregor Blanco.  Timely hitting by Hunter Pence and Buster Posey.  Great pitching from Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner, along with gritty efforts by Voglesong and Cain.  Truth be told everyone contributed to this team effort.  What a sight to see for those of us who are life-long Giants fans.  No longer do we live in the shadow of the Dodgers!

Having said all this, I need to take note of the Detroit Tigers.  I live in Metro-Detroit and have adopted the Tigers as my American League team.  I go to games each year, wear Tigers gear, root for them as hard as I can.  I love Miguel Cabrera's dedication and Verlander's ability as a pitcher.  I will go back out there next year and root for them.  In fact, I think they can beef up the bull pen, get Victor Martinez back and maybe add an outfielder and they'll be even better next year.  They have four very good to great starting pitchers, stars at the two infield corners, and a budding star in center field.  They probably over-performed in the American League playoffs to get to the Series, but they made it and this has to be considered a great year for the Tigers.  Unfortunately (and I know this only too well) only one team can take home the championship trophy.  But, hey it could be worse.  We could all be Cubs fans!  Come April we can again say -- Go Tigers!!

I'll be back to rooting for the Tigers in the Spring, but the Giants will always have my heart!!  So, congratulations to the Giants -- you guys did it!!  Keep on trucking!! 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Abundant Joy and Overflowing Generosity

2 Corinthians 8:1-12

How do you see the world?  Is the glass half empty or is it half full?  Is the economy getting better or is it getting worse?  Is your consumer’s confidence quotient going up or going down?  Is there an abundance or scarcity?

Jesus was confronted with a large crowd of people.  They were hungry and there weren’t any McDonalds or Krogers nearby.  Jesus’ disciples got worried and told Jesus to send everyone away, before their hunger got the better of them.  But Jesus decided to have his disciples feed the crowd.  So he asked them – what foodstuffs do you have? They  responded – well there seem to be a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  Jesus said – that’ll do, and everyone went home satisfied with their meal!  As they Scripture says – With God all things are possible.

  The Macedonian churches were experiencing poverty and distress, but they also were experiencing “abundant joy.”  And as a result, they overflowed with a “wealth of generosity.”  When Paul took up a collection for the Christians in Palestine, they voluntarily and generously gave out of this abundance.  Paul then turns to the Corinthians, and asks – will you excel in your generosity? 

One of this congregation’s core values, which we discerned nearly four years ago, states that we shall be a “spiritually joyful” missional community.  To put it in the words of an old gospel song:

It is joy unspeakable and full of glory,
Full of glory, full of glory,
It is joy unspeakable and full of glory,
Oh, the half has never yet been told.

This song has Pentecostal roots, and so do I.  The Pentecostal message is this – God has poured out the Holy Spirit on the church, along with an abundance of gifts – including power, joy, and love. It is out of this abundance of Pentecostal power, joy, and love, that comes to us as the Spirit moves in our midst, that we can reach out and touch the world with healing grace.  It is this same Spirit who produces within us a spirit of generosity.   

The Macedonians gave generously according to their means and even beyond their means, because they had an abundance of joy.  Paul encourages the same Spirit to be present among the Corinthians so that they too might give generously out of this joyful abundance that comes from the Spirit of God.   And as a model of generosity, Paul points their attention to Jesus, who though he was rich, became poor, so that in his poverty – that is, his willingness to become like us -- we might become rich.  Not rich in material things, but rich in joy.  

So, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have” (v. 12).  The gift isn’t judged quantitatively.  It’s judged according to the way it expresses our relationship with the living God.  

As you may know by now, we’re heading into a season of stewardship.  For the next four weeks bulletin inserts, sermons, and testimonies by the elders, will speak of how we can find our joy in the act of giving.  

Some wonder why we give tithes and offerings to and through the church?  Is it just about sustaining the institution?  Or, is it an expression of our gratitude toward God.  Although the treasurer will take any gift, joy only comes from giving out of an attitude of joy and trust in God.    

So, keeping with our theme, over the next four weeks you’ll hear about the ways in which we can give generously out of the abundance of God’s giftedness.  

  • We give our days to God in prayer, for each day offers an opportunity to celebrate God’s presence.
  • We give the Sabbath by devoting ourselves to worshiping God, offering up words of praise and thanksgiving.
  • We give our Spiritual Gifts to and through the church.  We don’t keep them hidden in a basket, but instead set them free, so that God can use them for the glory of God’s realm. 
  • We give our money, not only because it pays the bills – including my salary and that of the rest of the staff, upkeep of the building, and to support ministry inside and outside the walls of the church – but because it expresses our trust in God’s abundant provisions. 

When it comes to the gift of money – each of us has to decide what is right and what is appropriate.  Our giving is intended to express our joy and our gratitude, and so it shouldn’t simply be the dollars that are left over when everything else is taken care of.  Our giving is intended to be a spiritual discipline and an act of worship.  It can take a variety of forms – including our regular pledged and unpledged giving, through special offerings, and even through the legacy gifts of estates and trusts.  Darwin Collins, who is here today,  can talk to you about how to make such gifts to the congregation and to the Region, so that your contribution to the ministry of this church can continue uninterrupted even after death.  

We support a wide variety of ministries, both in the local community and beyond, through our giving.  We’ll be highlighting some of these at the East District Assembly in two weeks, but this morning, the Rev. Eugene James, our Regional Minister, would like to share a few words about his recent trip to the Congo, where we have a strong Disciple ministry partner, and he’ll share a word about how they view giving, which parallels the vision of the Macedonian Christians.  So, let’s attend to the message of our Regional Minister. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
October 28, 2012 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Swift Rise and Apparent Demise of “Jesus’ Wife” -- Sightings

From Jesus Christ Superstar to the Last Temptation of Christ and on to The Da Vinci Code inquiring minds have wanted to know -- did Jesus have a wife and kids?  For some the question is blasphemous because somehow sex is linked to sin, so if Jesus is without sin then surely he couldn't have been married.  For others it's an irrelevant question -- there's no biblical or even historical record/account to suggest he was married (nor that he wasn't if you want to go by an argument of silence).  For still others the idea that Jesus had a wife is intriguing and maybe even humanizing.  So, when word came about a major textual discovery suggesting Jesus had a wife, it caught the attention of the world.  Now, the controversy has died down quite a bit, in part because scholars have raised questions about the genuineness of the manuscript fragment that led some to imagine the possibility.  Two Ph.D. candidates, Trevor Thompson and David Kneip update us on the status -- in case you're interested -- of this controversy in this week's Thursday edition of Sightings.  Personally I don't get too excited about controversial discoveries -- they usually amount to nothing, but this is an interesting case study of how the historical process is undertaken.  So, take and read, and offer thoughts.
Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School

 Sightings  10/25/2012

 The Swift Rise and Apparent Demise of “Jesus’ Wife”
-- Trevor W. Thompson and David C. Kneip

On September 18, 2012, Prof. Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School made public the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” at a conference in Rome. The text, written in Coptic (the form of Egyptian spoken in the early Christian period), is preserved on a codex papyrus fragment (4 x 8 centimeters) with eight visible lines on one side (the other side is heavily faded). The fragment seems to come from the middle of a page, with lost text on either side of what is visible, as well as above and below. King argues that the fragment is from the fourth century CE and is likely a translation of a second-century CE Greek original. 
Most likely, readers will have heard of this papyrus due to the content of the fourth and fifth lines: the fourth line reads, in part, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’”; the fifth line includes “she will be able to become my disciple....” The texts of the New Testament make no mention of Jesus being married. The canonical Gospels do mention some women as being part of Jesus’ “circle” (cf. Luke 8:1-3).  The papyrus raises questions both concerning Jesus’ marital status and about whether women might have been included alongside men in the group called “the disciples.”

As part of her publishing the fragment, King gave an interview to reporters, provided high-resolution images and a transcription of the Coptic text (with adjoining English translation) on the HDS website, and posted a draft of her article on the papyrus scheduled to be published in Harvard Theological Review in January 2013. Not surprisingly, news of the fragment spread quickly as major news outlets around the globe carried the story. Bloggers both academic and popular debated various issues surrounding the papyrus; scholars posted academic papers directly to the Web; NPR covered the story on “All Things Considered”; and even YouTube videos appeared discussing various aspects of the problem.

One special difficulty has concerned the papyrus’s provenance; the antiquities market in the Middle East is notoriously complex, and very little is known with certainty about this fragment’s origin. But the doubts about the papyrus extend beyond this matter even to its authenticity as a whole. As part of its standard protocol for vetting potential publications, HTR consulted three anonymous reviewers regarding King’s essay. As she notes, one reviewer accepted the fragment as genuine, a second raised queries, and a third asked serious questions about the grammar and handwriting. This mixed response has continued: while at least one papyrologist and an expert in Coptic grammar have affirmed aspects of the fragment as genuine, others have not been so sure.  
Francis Watson, from the UK’s Durham University, was one of the early detractors of the fragment’s authenticity; he argued that significant material in the text derives from the Gospel of Thomas, and specifically from a modern print edition of that text. Leo Depuydt of Brown University has come to similar conclusions, with his views scheduled to be published in HTR alongside King’s publication. Finally, Andrew Bernhard, connected with Oxford University, has discovered what seems to be a “typo” in the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” that is also present in a widely-distributed electronic interlinear transcription and translation of the Gospel of Thomas.  For these reasons, at the time of this writing, the tide of scholarly opinion seems to be turning decidedly against the authenticity of the fragment.  

On the chance that the papyrus fragment turns out to be legitimate, we should say that Jesus' reference to “my wife” can be understood in a number of different ways. It is possible that some second- to fourth-century Christian(s) thought that Jesus was married in the way that we understand it today, but we must also remember that Gnostic groups with Christian affiliations used language of marriage and family (including the concept of "spiritual marriage") with great fluidity during those centuries. Regardless, the papyrus and its reception again demonstrate an insatiable appetite in the media for controversial “discoveries” concerning the origins of Christianity; this appetite will surely continue to manifest itself in the future.

The HDS page devoted to the papyrus is available here.

The full text of the Gospel of Thomas is available here

Trevor W. Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Literature. 

David C. Kneip is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of Theology.


This month, the Religion and Culture Web Forum presents a chapter from Naomi Davidson's recent book Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France (Cornell 2012).  Davidson's monograph tackles the question of why the French state (and its citizens) interacted with Muslim immigrants throughout the 20th century exclusively through their Muslim identity.  The answer to this question, she argues, lies in the embrace of a notion of "French Islam," which "saturated [immigrants] with an embodied religious identity that functioned as a racialized identity.  The inscription of Islam on the very bodies of colonial (and later, postcolonial) immigrants emerged from the French belief that Islam was a rigid and totalizing system filled with corporeal rituals that needed to be performed in certain kinds of aesthetic spaces.  Because this vision of Islam held that Muslims could only ever and always be Muslim, 'Muslim' was as essential and eternal a marker of difference as gender or skin color in France" (1-2).  Davidson's chapter on 1970s Paris addresses why the "conflation of Muslim religious sites with racial, national, and cultural identities" continued even in an era when Muslim religious observance in France was widely regarded as "on the wane"; this state of affairs reveals, according to Davidson, "the deep-seatedness of the French belief in the fundamental inability of certain Muslim immigrants to be anything other than Muslim subjects" (171).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Holy Nomad -- A Review

HOLY NOMAD: The Rugged Road to Joy.  By Matt Litton.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2012.  207 pp.

           I often use the term journey to describe my own faith, and I’m not alone.  Being a person of faith is not a static thing – or at least it shouldn’t be static.  Our faith is intended to be organic and growing.  The term nomad isn’t one I normally turn to, but it has biblical roots.  Abraham was a nomad.  Deuteronomy speaks of him as “a wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut. 26:5).  The people of Israel wandered for forty years in the wilderness before settling down in Canaan.  Jesus was an itinerant preacher, who had no place to lay his head.

       The nomadic image drives the story line in Matt Litton’s book about pursuing a road that leads to joy.  We often are, he suggests, nomads stuck in a basement suffering from “Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome.”  That is, people are religious but not experiencing joy.  They’re stuck in place and resist the journey that leads to joy. 
Like the prisoner of war, we’re pardoned, but are too comfortable with our surroundings to leave.  We would much prefer to remain prisoners to our own constructs” (pp. 20-21). 
That is, we willingly let ourselves get caught in a “dark and joyless cell from which we’ve been freed” (p. 21).

            It is this journey out of the cell that the author takes up in this book.  He suggests that we’re intended to be nomads, and that we follow Jesus, the “Holy Nomad.”  As a metaphor for the journey, Litton turns to an old TV show from my childhood – Kung Fu.  Like Caine, the Buddhist monk who traveled across the Old West, encountering resistance but bringing a sense of justice and rightness to the world, we too take up this quest.  We carry with us baggage including trust and imagination.  Unlike Caine, however, we don’t take the nomadic journey alone.  We go with our tribe, as family.  And as such we live out the Great Commandment, care for creation and our neighbors, while serving as peacemakers.

            We’re sustained along the way by worship, by addressing sin, and most of all, finding joy in the journey.

            I’m offering a brief response to this book which a publicist friend shared with me.  The premise is a good one – the nomadic journey, taken in partnership with the Holy Nomad, should be and is life-changing.  It is a journey that moves us out of prisons of hopelessness into the joy of God’s presence.  It’s a journey that changes our lives.  Although the nomadic image is a good one, I'm reminded that Diana Butler Bass wrote a book a number of years ago encouraging us to move from being nomads to pilgrims.  The latter has a more firm sense of destination than the former.    

            It’s a good book, written for a general audience.  It’s quick reading and conversational in style.  My only real critique is that I never really come to know the author.  I sense that the author is a moderate evangelical Christian, but I really never get a sense of who he is.  What is his background, his history?  Where did his sense of being a nomad arise from?  He mentions stories, but I’m left wanting more depth and more transparency.  I’m left with the sense that he’s a professional writer who is a Christian and seeks to write for a Christian audience.  But, why should I attend to his message?  That being said, he offers helpful guidance for taking the journey of faith in tandem with Jesus.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

When Wilt Thou Save the People? A Lectionary Reflection

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

When Wilt Thou Save the People?

The title of my reflection comes from Godspell, because it expresses the longings present in this week’s readings.   There is a longing, a desire, to see God’s reign fully realized, the day of salvation, that permeates our hopes and dreams.  We look forward to that day when lion and lamb lay down beside each other, when the peace of God is truly embodied.    Such is the message embedded in the opening stanza of “God Save the People”

When wilt thou save the people?
Oh God of mercy when?
The people, Lord, the people
Not thrones and crowns,
But men
Flowers of thy heart 
O God are they
Let them not pass like weeds away
Their heritage, a sunless day
God save the people 

Not the powers and principalities, but the people, men and women, who are in the words of the song, “flowers of thy heart.”  Don’t let them pass away like weeds.  Instead, save the people.   
            The texts of the day speak of an ingathering of the people, of a high priest who can bring us into perfection, and a Lord who brings healing to bodies and spirits.  They express the hope of God’s realm, the hope of salvation. 

            Jeremiah knows a lot about the suffering of a people.  He understands a nation’s sense of brokenness.  He’d watched as Judah fell and fell again, its people carried off into exile and its Temple destroyed.  He had tried to call on his people to do what is right.  He opposed the false prophets who misled the people, making promises they couldn’t keep.  As Jeremiah looked around, there was little to find joy in.  And if one knows Jeremiah, one knows that he often wept for the nation and for his people.  The book of Jeremiah is full of laments.  But here, Jeremiah calls out to the people and offers them an alternate vision.  Jeremiah knew that if the people put their trust in God and not this alliance or that alliance, that there would be a positive future for them.  In Jeremiah 29, we have a letter from Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon, and Jeremiah relays God’s message:  “For sure I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you . . . I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, . . .”  (Jer. 29:11-14 NRSV). 

It’s that theme of hope, of God’s promise fulfilled, that emerges here in Jeremiah 31.  It’s this promise that allows Jeremiah to call on the people to “sing joyfully” and to “raise your voices with praise and call out:  The Lord has saved his people, the remaining few in Israel!” (vs. 7).  God will remain true to God’s promises, even when we fail to respond accordingly.

Jeremiah, like the exilic prophecies in Isaiah, envisions God’s gathering up the people from wherever they had been scattered, and would restore them to the land.  They will come from the ends of the earth, Jeremiah proclaims.  And who will be gathered?  Among those in the crowd will be the “blind and the disabled, expectant mother and those in labor.”  Yes, God will gather in those whom society deems weak or needy.  And God will make their paths smooth and quiet.  The journey home won’t be difficult or painful.  It will be a journey full of joy, and all the people will share in it.  Yes, on that day God will be Israel’s parent, and they will be God’s oldest child – and thus the heir of God.  What a beautiful image, especially in context.  In Jeremiah, there is much lament and words of judgment are often present, but there remains this hope – a hope of restoration.  But as we hear earlier in Jeremiah – this doesn’t happen overnight.  In Jeremiah 29, the Lord tells the people living in exile to settle in, build their homes, and plant their gardens – until the day of ingathering the people, the day of salvation!  There is hope, but there is also a call for patience.  Everything in its time.

            The reading from Hebrews seems to take us in a different direction, but it too seeks to envision the day of salvation.  It does so in the context of this continuing discussion of Christ’s holy priesthood.   There is a contrast here between the perfect and the imperfect, the priest who not only offers up sacrifices for the sins of others, but must also offer them for himself.  Such priests are impermanent and unable to fulfill their calling without attending to their own sense of inadequacy.   Such is not the case with Christ, who lives eternally so as to speak with God on our behalf.  This is the one who goes before us, bringing us into wholeness, who makes peace for us and in us.  This priest is “holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, raised high above the heavens” (7:26).  And yet, this is the same Christ who has encountered temptation as we have – though without sin.     The offering made by this priest doesn‘t require repetition.  Just once is enough, for offers himself.  Now, we can read this in light of a rather traditional substitutionary atonement understanding, where  God demands payment for sin, and Jesus makes the payment with his blood.  But this needn’t be our interpretation.  Instead, it’s Jesus’ obedience to the call that overcomes sin and brings perfection, a perfection that is shared with all who embrace this path.  It is a path that leads to wholeness, such as the one Jeremiah envisions. 

            Our Gospel reading from Mark is brief, and the story familiar to many.  Yes, many of us grew up hearing the name Blind Bartimaeus, whom Jesus heals of his blindness.   It’s a story that even gave birth to spirituals that embrace both the physical and the metaphorical forms of healing.  

In the reading, Bartimaeus sits alongside the road outside Jericho.  I expect that he sat there every day, hoping to receive alms that enabled him to survive.  But on that day, he heard something much more hopeful.  He heard that Jesus would be passing his way.  Bartimaeus must have heard about this miracle-working teacher, because when Jesus came near, he cried out:  “Jesus, Son of David, show Me Mercy!”  Mark wants us to hear in the cry of the blind man, the recognition of Jesus’ true identity.  Bartimaeus understands – Jesus is the Messiah, the hoped for deliverer.  And he seeks a blessing of this one come from God to save the people.

Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, despite attempts to silence him.  How often do we stifle the cries of those who need to encounter the Living Lord?  How often do we place decorum ahead of wholeness?  The crowd tried to silence him, but Bartimaeus wouldn’t be deterred.  He only cried out with greater volume.  For he understands, as others seemingly didn’t, that hope was present in their midst.  Bartimaeus’s persistence is rewarded.  Jesus hears his voice and calls out to him, inviting him to come, even as God would call forth the people from the nations, to come and be healed.  And as a result, of this healing, which in this case is physical, Bartimaeus now becomes a disciple, a follower, who joins Jesus on the way of salvation. 

Our readings invite us to seek the one who brings wholeness, even as Bartimaeus did.  God will lead us into the land of peace, and the one who leads us will be the perfect high priest, who calls forth our commitment to the journey, even as Jesus did with Bartimaeus.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Postcards from Claremont – 9 – The Joys and Challenges of Bi-coastal Living (Bruce Epperly)

Living on two coasts can make for an interesting life.  It's three time zones and thousands of miles.  Air travel isn't as quick and painless as it was before 9-11.  But, Bruce Epperly has been living bi-coastally this fall as he teaches at Claremont.  In today's post he shares his experiences of living in this way, inviting us to join him on the journey.


Postcards from Claremont – 9 – 
The Joys and Challenges of Bi-coastal Living
Bruce G. Epperly

A few minutes ago, as I was getting my midmorning coffee at Claremont School of Theology’s Edgar Center, one of the students asked, “What are you doing this weekend?”  I had to think twice.  You see, my life is a boomerang as I travel between two coasts this fall.  Nearly every other weekend, I’m asked to preach or lead a retreat in Southern California.  The other weekend, I’m off to the East Coast, sometimes via a stop in the middle where I give a talk or retreat.  I must say that the rhythm is dynamic and varied as I go from my scholar’s life in Claremont to domestic joy in Washington DC every fourteen days or so.  Whitehead speaks of the need to balance order and novelty in personal and corporate life, and I’m living that life, although order is usually sacrificed for the novelties of bicoastal living.

At Claremont, I’m a scholar-teacher, serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies for two of the most exciting academic institutions in the country.  I spend my days studying for classes, teaching, and working on writing projects.  I begin most days walking to the Claremont village before sunrise in quest of my morning Starbucks coffee and artisan bacon-gouda-egg sandwich.  I rejoice in the coming day and the joy of a quiet read in the Starbucks patio.  From then on, I rotate between reading, teaching, writing, walking, and enjoying the company of students.  One of the joys of living on campus is getting to know the students and that has been a blessing.  I take walks, get coffee (lots of it), and occasionally eat a meal with my Claremont students.  I have an opportunity to get to know them in a personal way as I hear about their dreams, projects, and personal and academic interests.  That’s the way teaching should be, a rhythm of classroom and informal conversation. 

At Claremont, I am truly a peripatetic theologian: living without a car, I rejoice in walking everywhere, averaging six miles most days and feasting my eyes on the beauties of the village as all sorts of thoughts and ideas are birthed on tree-lined boulevards.

Here at Claremont, it’s early to bed and early to rise, and I mean early to rise.  My body and psyche are uncertain about what coast I’m on and behave accordingly.  In DC my typical day begins at 5:00 a.m. but here most days my eyes open well before 4:00 a.m.  On teaching days, I have to pace myself so I still have energy and insight until 9:00 p.m.  It’s a good life, somewhat monastic, but full and joyful, despite the fact I miss the loving chaos of marriage, parenting, and grandparenting.

Every other week, I board a Thursday afternoon flight to DC or somewhere on the way.  DC is filled with family – the joys of catching up with my wife Kate and the “boys” – my son and toddler and infant grandsons.  It’s all play and outings, almost always with my toddler grandson with whom I study trucks (especially excavators, cranes, bulldozers, and garbage trucks). We’ve been known to follow a garbage truck several blocks on its morning collection.  We spend time at parks and in search of fountains (aka waterfalls).  I am domestic guy, bonded to my family, so what a delight it is simply to sit beside Kate at the indie movie theatre, a light supper, or at home watching the PBS Mystery.  Of course, my son and daughter-in-law, and mother-in-law (who shares our high rise apartment) make the weekend complete.  It is a wonderful life and I am grateful for my marriage and family and the love that fills our home.

There are sacrifices to bi-coastal living.  I miss hearth and home and the simple pleasures of domestic life and my body is never one place long enough to get a true rhythm.  But, I wouldn’t miss these days at Claremont for anything.  I am in process paradise and what a wondrous gift that is.  This is a truly holy adventure, enjoying for one semester the best of all worlds – a loving family on one coast and an exhilarating academic life on the other.  Yes, life is about that dynamic balance of order and novelty, and the surprising novelties that emerge along a holy bi-coastal adventure.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: 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 also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and   He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Christian Bias? A Sociology Study on Gay Parents -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The Enlightenment Credo is summed up by Joe Friday -- "Just the facts, Ma'am."  There is this belief that we can, as humans, step out of our own shoes and look at the world with unbiased eyes.  It was a belief that drove the Founders of the movement that became my denomination.  It's a Baconian model of science that suggests that we can collect data, and that the data will reveal its meaning to us -- without interpretation.  As with the reading of Scripture, the Constitution, or any other set of data, interpretation involves bringing certain presuppositions to the table.  
As a Historian, I've tried to look at my subject as objectively as possible, and perhaps because I have little emotional investment in the people and movement I study (I'm not attracted to the Nonjuror vision of the church -- they're not my people!), I can look at things pretty objectively, or at least I think I can.  History is often classified as part of the social sciences, as is sociology, and in this week's Sightings piece historian Martin Marty addresses questions of bias in a study by a Sociologist, whose presuppositions may be formed by his Christian faith, and who published findings that are seen as anti-gay.  So, the question is -- are his presuppositions out of bounds?  Read Marty and offer your thoughts.    

Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School

Sightings  10/22/2012
Christian Bias? A Sociology Study on Gay Parents
-- Martin E. Marty

Sightings, at least in its Monday column releases, regularly classifies many topics dubbed “church and state” as being unsolvable. We have quoted Walter Berns who wrote that the Founding Fathers, who get so regularly invoked in contemporary debates, solved the problem of church and state by not solving the problem. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights go a long way in providing a framework, but any look at State and U.S. Supreme Court rulings in any session will reveal that the demands of factions—as James Madison called them—are too complex to be satisfactorily faced and settled.           
This season the major unsolvable issue was the case of Prof Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas. He published findings in Social Science Research, a sober journal which ordinarily provides little grist for sensational media. Regnerus, however, picked the topic which agitates more people than most, and which deals with unfinished business in religious, legal, and cultural debates: homosexuality. Let’s quote from the Right, Karla Dial, summarizing the issue in Citizen magazine: his findings suggested that children raised by homosexual parents were more likely than those raised by heterosexuals to grow up with problems too extensive to be summarized here.           
Bloggers and others attack Regnerus, his methodology, his sponsors—undisguisedly promoters of anti-homosexual criticism—and more. I’ll attach a couple of sources which reveal how divided the readers of articles are on the gay parents issue. Readers of a few lines will see at once how volatile the discussions are. Regnerus’ host institution, the University of Texas, convoked a panel which backed Regnerus. The internet is crowded with comments on both sides of the issue.           
Sightings wants to pick up on what makes this an addressable but finally insoluble concern of such interests. Here’s the line-up: one group of commentators found radical fault because Regnerus is explicitly Christian in his commitments, and argued that one cannot “do” respectable academic social sciences if those commitments are to forms of Christianity which are critical of those with viewpoints favoring rights of gays. One group sees no carry-over of a bias shaped by Christianity of a particular sort. The University of Texas found nothing to censure in the Regnerus case. Scholars on the other side found plenty to censure, and the fight over these issues goes on and on.           
While one set of critics argue that one cannot favor Regnerus’s article without pressing the conservative Christian faith he professes, the other says that expressing his kind of Christianity without having it distort everything, is biasing, and should be ruled out. While many debate the empirical research and findings, Sightings  steps back and says that in social sciences there is no pure land beyond prejudice, pre-judging, where scholars are free of bias. They may be fair-minded, careful, judicious, often hard to pin down, but dig, dig, dig and you will find presuppositions behind the presuppositions, this time subtly leading to a tilt one way or another.           
The Regnerus incident in its first phase is now history and many move on. But astute religionists on left and right who know that social (and political and other) professors of total balance also bring their own presuppositions, which will be biasing.. Scholars have all kinds of checks on their scholarship, but they can’t and don’t jump out of their communities, creeds, and commitments, recessive and vague though they seem.    

Melissa Steffan, “Mark Regnerus Cleared Of Misconduct in Research Involving Gay Parents,” Gleanings, September 12, 2012. 

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

This month, the Religion and Culture Web Forum presents a chapter from Naomi Davidson's recent book Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France (Cornell 2012).  Davidson's monograph tackles the question of why the French state (and its citizens) interacted with Muslim immigrants throughout the 20th century exclusively through their Muslim identity.  The answer to this question, she argues, lies in the embrace of a notion of "French Islam," which "saturated [immigrants] with an embodied religious identity that functioned as a racialized identity.  The inscription of Islam on the very bodies of colonial (and later, postcolonial) immigrants emerged from the French belief that Islam was a rigid and totalizing system filled with corporeal rituals that needed to be performed in certain kinds of aesthetic spaces.  Because this vision of Islam held that Muslims could only ever and always be Muslim, 'Muslim' was as essential and eternal a marker of difference as gender or skin color in France" (1-2).  Davidson's chapter on 1970s Paris addresses why the "conflation of Muslim religious sites with racial, national, and cultural identities" continued even in an era when Muslim religious observance in France was widely regarded as "on the wane"; this state of affairs reveals, according to Davidson, "the deep-seatedness of the French belief in the fundamental inability of certain Muslim immigrants to be anything other than Muslim subjects" (171).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.