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Keeping theology coupled with cosmology

I was introduced to Dr. Ilia Delio a couple weeks ago on a podcast. Her thoughts about God, evolution, and the quantum realm fascinated me such that I went right to Amazon and bought three of her books. This morning I started in on the first one (The Unbearable Wholeness of Being) and ran across this stunning thought in the introduction:

Raimon Panikkar said that when theology is divorced from cosmology, we no longer have a living God but an idea of God. God becomes a thought that can be accepted or rejected, rather than the experience of divine ultimacy. Because theology has not developed in tandem with science (or science in tandem with theology) since the Middle Ages, we have an enormous gap between the transcendent dimension of human existence (the religious dimension) and the meaning of physical reality as science understands it (the material dimension). This gap underlies our global problems today, from the environmental crisis to economic disparity and the denigration of women.

Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, p. xix

She’s going to have to do some convincing for me to accept the conclusion of the last sentence, but the bigger thought that our theology needs to continue to develop along with our cosmology so that they can be coupled in a way that God is more than an “idea” in the modern age is one I’m going to be chewing on for a while. Looking forward to the rest of this book!

Beck: Nationalism and the search for meaning

Richard Beck, on his Substack today, on American nationalism resulting from the need for deep meaning:

…for most of human history, we achieved deep meaning by a connection with an ancestral people. Our tribe, kin, and clan. These relations gave us a history and roots.

But with the rise of the modern nation state, especially with such a rootless nation of immigrants like America, our identities have become increasingly associated less with a tribe than a state, a flag, a country. I am who I am–I matter, I have worth–because I’m an American.

It’s an easy observation that American nationalism is characterized by pride in the country, but Beck’s piece pushed me to think more about how Americans, and especially Christian Americans, could be helped away from the more vitriolic forms of nationalism by finding more meaning in other parts of their self-identity—perhaps specifically in their Christian faith.

Beck, again:

Without deep meaning Americans achieve self-esteem via the status of the nation. You elevate the stature of the nation and you elevate the worth, value, and dignity of its citizens. Make America great and you make its people great. There is a primal pull here, rooted deep in the limbic system. It’s not abstract, but a raw, visceral ground of dignity.

How can I encourage other Christians to find more deep meaning and identity in their faith instead of (or even more than) their country?

Fascinating: 5th Century Byzantine Basilica honoring Female Ministers found in Israel

Reported at Haaretz.com on Monday:

The Holy Mother Sophronia. Theodosia the deaconess. Gregoria the deaconess. These are some of the women lovingly memorialized at a magnificent Byzantine basilica that Israeli archaeologists have uncovered in the southern city of Ashdod.

The splendidly mosaiced church, built in the fourth or fifth century C.E., is being hailed as one of the earliest and largest Christian basilicas found in Israel. It is also one of the most unusual, partly due to the number and prominence of graves and inscriptions dedicated to female ministers. Then as now, women in the clergy were usually overshadowed by their male counterparts.

Mosaics still covered by the collapsed tiles of the church’s roof

So much church history that is still lost to us… neat to see this glimpse into ancient Christian practice.

The Teaching vs. The Teacher

The last couple days I’ve been reading a book of theology by an author I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I know and trust a couple of the guys who endorsed it, though, so I plowed in and I’m generally enjoying it and on board with what the author has to say. Curious to find out more about him, I headed over to his website, which then pointed me to his Twitter. And what I found there? Oh dear.

This author of a thoughtful book championing love as the highest law has a Twitter account full of vitriol against our current President, frequent retweets of the loudest and most thoughtless conservative pundits, and images comparing vaccine mandates to Nazism. I was stunned by the incongruity. The people I know who endorsed his book (written in 2017) are thoughtful, gentle people who aren’t rabid politically in either direction. So what’s up with this guy? Even more, his website offers the reader a chance to sign up for his “Discipleship Course”. Do I really want to be discipled by someone like that? And, more challengingly, what do I do with his book when his recent demeanor seems so troublesome?

I tweeted briefly about my quandary, and my friend Matt (a teacher who always seems to ask good questions) asked my thoughts about learning from the approach/perspective rather than the person. And that got enough thoughts going that they merited a blog post rather than a tweet thread.

How can or should we separate the teaching from the teacher?

On one hand, Jesus was the only perfect teacher, so literally anyone else that we learn from is going to have issues. And yet there are those who have taught truth whose behavior is so disqualifying that it brings into question the integrity of everything they taught.

That behavior could be unrelated to their teaching or their methods. J. H. Yoder was the classic example of this quandary. It is perhaps easier, though, to think abstractly about an obscure Mennonite ethicist who abused women than it is to consider examples more fresh and prominent in our memory: men like Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, or Jean Vanier. Did (or should have) their behavior have disqualified them from teaching? Absolutely. When we find out about their behavior after absorbing their teaching, how should we reconsider it? That’s hard.

Then we have the case of this author where the behavior directly brings me to question the teacher, because his online behavior seems so out of line with the principles he’s teaching, and because the judgment and logic and reasoning skills he’s displaying on Twitter make me wonder whether I should question the judgment, logic, and reasoning in his book.

Ultimately, I need to evaluate the teaching separately from the teacher. But if I start seeing a pattern where people who teach these things also act that way, I want to factor that in to my evaluation. Correlation isn’t causation… sometimes.

Then there’s the question of discipleship. As a Christian, my aspiration is to be a “little Christ”. If I disciple myself by attending to teachers who are impulsive, caustic, and illogical — even if they are teaching true principles in that way — I shouldn’t be surprised if I learn to be impulsive, caustic, and illogical myself.

But what about the flip side of that? Surely just because a teacher is kind, gentle, patient, loving, and self-controlled doesn’t mean they’re correct, does it? Well… maybe not. But what does Jesus say in Matthew 7?

Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will know them [prophets, teachers] by their fruits.

Matthew 7:16-20, NRSV

In the case of this particular book and author, I think I’m going to end up on the side of agreeing with the book even though the author is problematic. Partly because I think the principles hold up regardless of the teacher, but also partly because there are other teachers I know who are saying the same thing and who provide very compelling examples of living out the fruit of the Spirit and Jesus’ kingdom principles. But am I gonna follow the guy on Twitter to keep learning from him? Nope.

Recommended Reading, September 2021

I have badly neglected recommending any reading so far this year. I have read plenty of books – looks like 54 at the moment – but it’s definitely time for some recommendations.

Fiction

The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

This one is apparently considered a sci-fi / fantasy classic at this point, which makes me wonder why I hadn’t read it until this year. A story that combines humans encountering alien culture with an exploration of faith and theodicy… phew. It’s a good one. Well worth a read.

The Just City – Jo Walton

The premise here: what if some Greek gods selected people from throughout history and brought them to a specific place and time to set up a community based as closely as possible on Plato’s Republic? I’ll admit that it’s been a while since I’ve read Plato, but this exploration of how Plato’s ideas might (or might not) work out in practice was quite fascinating. Oh, and what happens when the cleaning and maintenance robots become sentient?

Non-Fiction (ok, so mostly for me this means theology…)

So many options here. I’ve been participating in a twice-a-month book club this year – and it’s a new book every time, so that’s a lot of reading – which has brought me to some very insightful authors who aren’t all white guys. A couple I can recommend:

The Violence of Love – Oscar Romero

This book is a collection of excerpts from Romero’s sermons and other talks in the late 1970s. While in my earlier days I have been steered away from him as a sort of dangerous, socialist, liberation theologian, what I found was a deep love for the message of the Gospels and a heart full of God’s care and love for the poor and oppressed. It’s easy reading, and well worth it. There’s a free PDF you can legally download, too.

Latina Evangelicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins – Loida I. Martell, Zaida Maldonado Perez, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier

A short work of systematic theology by three Latina women. It kicks off in an unusual place for a systematic theology: a long discussion of the Holy Spirit. This book has an awareness of community and community interpretation of Scripture that I found particularly helpful, too.

Next Up…

I’m currently reading Father James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, which is part memoir and part introduction to a bunch of saints throughout history. If I had finished it I might have listed it up above. I’m only a third of the way through but it’s been quite enjoyable so far.

Once I get through that my to-read shelves are still burgeoning with opportunity. The Princeton University Press half-off sale didn’t help empty those shelves, either. So many books, so little time…

A ‘Christian’ nation without empathy

In case the tweet gets deleted: an embedded tweet from John Rogers (@jonrog1) saying: “People mocking 1/6 cops’ emotions and Simone Biles Olympic decision really brings home that we’re way past partisan divide and dealing with the fact that somehow, over the last half century, our predominantly religious culture raised a hundred million Americans without empathy.”

This tweet has made the viral rounds in just the past 24 hours, and it’s got me thinking, because I resonate strongly with the message. I have seen it very frequently among the Christian circles—particularly the evangelical Christian circles—that I have lived in my entire life. The disdainful comments about people on food stamps. The anger at immigrants that “won’t learn the language”. Snarky, hateful comments about “the gays”. An insistence that poor mothers should get benefits cut off if they keep having children. And on and on and on.

What makes it more jarring is that these same Christians, when provided with a specific in-person opportunity to show empathy, will almost always respond in very compassionate, empathetic ways. They will give money, make meals, house people, literally give you the shirt off their back. But when talking about a generic “them”, or an individual that they don’t know personally, that sense of compassion and empathy quickly disappears.

Why is this so? Why do we have such a failure of compassionate imagination that when we think of the generic other, we assume the worst and by default make a critique?

As I ponder this question, my mind is drawn to the incongruity that has nagged at me a thousand times in a thousand different sermons and ‘gospel presentations’. Why is it that the same people who will insist that salvation is 100% God’s work, that we are wretched, helpless, despicable people, and that every act is determined by God, will also be the loud voices preaching that you better shape up your life, and that if your sin doesn’t bother you enough, you’d better think hard and long about whether you’re “really saved”? (As if that theological framework would allow that you could do anything about that status, anyway.)

Then I connect a dot or two related to the predominant theme of “the gospel” from that vein of evangelical Christianity: penal substitutionary atonement. Specifically, that God’s wrath against sin is burning so hot that if you (yes, you) don’t accept the gift of salvation He offers, He is right and just and praiseworthy to torture you for all eternity. (Sure, there’s a hint more nuance in the systematic theology books, but this is the way you hear it from the pulpit. And Sunday School. And VBS. And AWANA. And on and on.)

A conundrum

So what happens when an evangelical tries to make all of these line up? Maybe evangelicals, when they look at these “other” people, subconsciously find it easier to live with the belief that God will torture those “other” people eternally if they can point to reasons why those “other” people are bad. They will deserve it, after all—that little Gospel presentation tells me so. After all, there has to be something different between me and them, right? Because even though that Gospel presentation tells me it’s 100% God and 0% me, there has to be something better about me, right? Because otherwise why is it great and good and praiseworthy that God arbitrarily chose to reward me, but to eternally torture millions of others?

An alternative idea…

What if, on the other hand, I understand salvation as being a part of God’s redemptive story for all people and creation? An act of restoration that will, in C. S. Lewis’ words from Narnia, make all sad things become untrue? A cosmic work of reconciliation that will restore right relationships between all living things? And that Jesus’ death was not God punishing God to pay for some select few a penalty that God arbitrarily set in place, but rather was a demonstration of God’s love for all creation, proof that the effects of sin in the world will bring death to even the most undeserving, but that God’s redemptive power is stronger even than death itself?

With that view in mind, might I (who up until very recently claimed to be an evangelical Christian) have more empathy and compassion for those struggling with the effects of a broken world? Might I see them — even the general, “other” them — first and foremost as image bearers in need of restoration? Might I see that the good works I can do to help those in need are not some work of “social justice” at odds with “the gospel” but rather the very foreworking of reconciliation and restoration that Jesus will eventually return to complete?

A closing comparison

Ever since dispensationalism took hold, the evangelical church has looked askance at themes of environmental care. Not everyone would say it so bluntly, but the underlying theme is something like this: if it’s all going to burn eventually anyway, why does it matter so much if we take care of it? It doesn’t feel like a stretch to think that for many, the same principle might unconsciously apply to the general “other” person: if they’re going to burn in hell for eternity anyway, why should we care now?

May the church repent and return to compassion, empathy, and care for everyone who God loves — which is to say, for everyone.

Richard Beck: hermeneutical self-awareness and a neurotic spiritual nightmare

Richard Beck is on a roll this week with a short series on reading the Bible. In Part #1 yesterday he states premise #1: “Interpreting is inescapable.”

Do the hard work of Biblical study, put in the time and effort to explore, but don’t think you can avoid, in the final analysis, the necessity of making a call. So make it. 

Today in Part #2 he highlights the terror that can come when the self-awareness of interpretation is paired with a belief that God will judge you if you get it wrong.

Hermeneutical Self-Awareness + Judgmental God = A Whole Lot of Anxiety

I don’t know that I ever verbalized this thought myself, but I think it drove a lot of my study and reading in my 20s and 30s. Here’s how Beck describes it:

Biblical interpretation is so anxiety-inducing because it’s viewed as so high stakes. Your eternal destiny hangs in the balance, so you have to get it right. And yet, given the hermeneutical situation, you lack any firm guarantees you’ve made the right choice. The whole thing is a neurotic spiritual nightmare. In fact, it’s this nightmare that keeps many Christians from stepping into self-awareness to own and admit their own hermeneutics. It’s more comforting to remain oblivious and un-self-aware. 

This put me in mind of a piece I wrote a few years ago where, as an aside, I mentioned that I’m certainly wrong about some percentage of beliefs, but I can’t tell you which ones. Turns out I was interacting with a Richard Beck piece in that one, too. So what do you do? How do you get your way out of Beck’s “neurotic spiritual nightmare”?

By reevaluating one of the terms in the equation.

So I told my students, You have to believe that God’s got your back, that, yes, you might make a mistake. But that mistake isn’t determinative or damning. Just be faithful and humble. You don’t have to have all the correct answers to be loved by your Father. Each of us will carry into heaven a raft of confusions, errors, and misinterpretations of Scripture. It’s unavoidable. We will not score 100% on the final exam. 

But don’t worry. Let your heart be at rest. God’s got your back.

As I like to paraphrase something Robert F. Capon said in Between Noon and Three: yes, I’m assuming that God is at heart loving and gracious. Because, let’s face it: if God is a bastard, we’re all screwed.

An Easter 2021 Meditation

This last year has felt a lot like death.

We’ve had a pandemic sweep the world, and in this country had our leaders fail to lead, instead spreading rumors and assigning blame. Hundreds of thousands are unnecessarily dead. We’ve necessarily stayed cut off from work, family, friends, school, church, and travel plans to protect ourselves and each other. It feels a lot like death.

We left our church last year. This year I‘ve been watching as the evangelical church in America consistently chooses the hope of political power over truth and justice. Chooses to side with abusers rather than victims. Chooses to marginalize women in the name of Biblical literalism. Chooses to persecute LGBTQIA people rather than love and accept them. Chooses “personal freedom” rather than taking basic steps to protect others amid the pandemic. It feels a lot like death.

In August last year we had a derecho destroy our city. The majority of our tree canopy is gone. Everyone had house damage. Our power was out for almost two weeks. Eight months later, I don’t have to drive further than my own street to see houses still missing siding and fences, roofs with tarps where shingles should be. In my own yard where three old friendly trees once stood, all that remains are ragged scars and chips left by a hurried stump grinder. It feels a lot like death.

There are other stories too personal to post. Stories that aren’t mine to tell. Stories that have kept us awake at night, on the floor in desperation, in helpless gnawing realization of things that aren’t alright. That has often felt a lot like death.

This is the first Easter in my memory that I haven’t been to church to celebrate. That, too, feeels like death.

Somehow, through all this, Jesus still holds on to me. I don’t know how. Even after I put away the fear wrought by legalism, after the habits are ripped away, after the culture that taught me Jesus for 40 years has turned from Him in the name of power and freedom, Jesus is still there. Faithfully loving and sustaining me. Faithfully promising that, in the end, this mess will be redeemed.

In this year that has felt a lot like death I will cling to the hope that Jesus is risen. Somehow, He feels a lot like life.

Teenage Vernacular Update, circa March 2021

“Yeet” is passé. “Ye” has entered the common vernacular as an affirmative response.

“Pog”, “big pog”, and “poggers” (expressions of happiness or approval) have become common enough that the teens don’t think it’s too weird if Dad says them.

“F in the chat for <thing>” (paying respect / acknowledging something that died or failed) is still new enough that Dad gets weird looks when he says it. Multiple attempts result in Dad being told he is “trying too hard”.

Recent reading: Queer Theology by Linn Marie Tonstad

The past couple months I’ve been participating in a reading group hosted by Matt Tebbe. (Matt leads an Anglican church plant in the Indianapolis area.) This group, framed around “Reading for the Sake of Others”, is focused on reading outside of the usual conservative white male authors that fill our reading piles. The intention is not that we will agree with everything we read—indeed, if we do, we’re probably not reading widely enough—but to expand our horizons, to acknowledge our blind spots, and to stretch us at least a little.

Our first book in March, then, is one I would likely have never picked up otherwise: Queer Theology by Yale Divinity School professor Linn Marie Tonstad. It’s a short book—less than 200 pages—but provided me a lot to think about. I won’t try to summarize it all here, but wanted to recount some thoughts that I scribbled out on Twitter last night.

  1. I appreciate the focus in queer theology on the reality of embodied existence. Our embodied experience is complex, messy, and should not be ignored. We should pay more attention to what it means for Jesus to have been incarnate.
  2. I appreciated the thought that, though we might hope or imagine otherwise, we are not “self-transparent, rational, autonomous individuals”—i.e., that we are to some extent unable to make choices that determine our outcomes. This means that the categories that we learn and filter our view of life through are so built-in that they are beyond our control and will inevitably affect our view of everything, but especially of the non-normative.
  3. I appreciate an approach that acknowledges that there are queer members of the body of Christ, and works from that given to then think through what this might mean about Christ’s and the church’s nature.
  4. I am challenged by the assertion that if (since) Christianity is “a story in which each person is the object of God’s care, attention, and love”, then Christians should reckon more seriously about those implications, aprticularly regarding politics, economics, and sexuality. This quote reminded me a lot of reading Robert Capon: “The question is this: what does an economy of infinite, inexhaustible love look like?”
  5. I am conflicted about the queer theology assertion that our sexual self and experience is so fundamental to the experience of being a spiritual human being. The theology I have grown up learning is heteronormative, insisting that other experiences/desires are sinful. Yet, it’s hard to deny the assertion that our sexual selves are fundamental to our human experience, and thus to our spiritual being as well.
  6. Finally, I really appreciate the language of “human thriving” to describe that which God wants and we should strive for. I have read others (I forget who) who describe sin as that which is contrary to human flourishing, and that’s been a helpful frame for me to think through sin, the result of sin, and the goodness of the law.

I am definitely looking forward to the group discussion on this one next week!