Showing posts from May, 2009

From Substance to Subject

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

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

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

The ch…

Praying with the Spirit

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

Romans 8:22-27

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

But confine me, fetter my spirit, clip my wings, make me exceedingly sad, so that I become like the old eagle -- ah! then it is hard to sing.
In fact, it’s unnatural to sing during times of trouble, except perhaps to sing the blues. But, as Spurgeon wrote: "songs in the nig…

Pentecost's Future Orientation

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

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

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

Jurgen Moltmann writes:

The messianic concept represents a categorical mediation be…

Thinking about the Future of the Church

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

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

More on the Humorous and the Biblical

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

Biblical stories are like grandparent stories. Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrew scriptures tell stories that include rough edges -- unethical or ambiguous characters, unresolved or surprising, endings -- and so we laugh and know that we and others may live through the rough times in our lives, too. Biblical stories present patriarchs, matriarchs, and disciples not as perfectly faithful and persons whom we could not hope to emulate but, rather, as person who are often immoral, unfaithful, and thickheaded. Therefore, in spite of our own failings, we too, can hope to be disciples. Persons who think the early church was perfect are often in despair concerning the state of the contemporary church and no longer attend whe…

And the Nominee is . . . Sonia Sotomayor

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

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

This pick is hailed by some, jeered by others. One of the areas of …

The Humorous and the Biblical

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

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

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

So, it may be a bit like "you had to have been there," but there is humor present-- maybe not of the M…

A Prayer for Memorial Day

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

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

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

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

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


Called to Leadership

Reposted from Words of Welcome (sermon blog)

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

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

Atonement -- Theories in Conflict

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

Herbert L. Willett -- Disciples of Christ Bible Scholar

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

The Dean Of Liberal Disciples The theme of the Centennial Convention where Disciples scholar Herbert L. Willett (1864-1944) addressed a packed crowd in October 1909 was "The Union of All Believers." But some at the historic gathering may have been happier if "All Believers" had not included Willett. The 1909 convention drew more than 50,000 Disciples to Pittsburgh to celebrate the one hundred year anniversary of Thomas Campbell's Declaration and Address, the 'Magna Carta' of the Stone-C…

Two Ways of Seeing America's Future

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

Yesterday I heard part of a conversation about the dueling visions -- on one hand we have a long term vision (Obama's), while Cheney argues for dealing with short term issues. In many ways, Ch…

Doubt -- a Brief Review

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

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

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

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

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

Darlage's piece in today's edition of Sightings places the debate in t…

The Passion and Torture

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

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

With this in mind, I want to introduce another dimension to the co…

An Introduction to Panentheism -- Theoblogging

Panentheism – Definitions

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

Chapter 8, which is the chapter under consideration here, is entitled “An Introduction to Panentheism.” We need to keep this word separate from a lookalike – pantheism. Unlike panentheism, which places emphasis on that middle syllable – en (which equals “in”), pantheism speaks of a full and complete merge…

Hell and Torture

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

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

Substitionary Atonement and Torture

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

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

I think that we have to recogniz…

Seminarians -- Sightings

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

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


Seminarians -- Martin E. MartyHaving had enough of headlines and cable television about distracting commencement events, I am planning to do a small, quiet commencement one the day before you read this…