Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

January 18, 2018

This is the working draft of a paper I am preparing for a local Earth Day conference, but see no reason to wait until then to start a conversation.

 

 

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

 

 

Abstract:    In this paper I shall discuss the concept of humility, as discussed by Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is the original and deadly sin, from which all others derive; humility is the cardinal virtue of not thinking more of oneself than is the truth. Through Kierkegaard and Allen, this theological virtue becomes an epistemological virtue as well, providing a basis for ways to think about the environment beyond the man/property/wilderness framework often found in fundamentalist theologies and libertarian economic ethics. Finally, I shall use the concept of humility to analyze and critique the environmental pronouncements and policies of my own religious tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA).

 

 

The 18th century philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) once said that the fundamental mistake of modern theologies was their tendency to take over the dominant philosophies of their day, and try to talk about God based on those constraints. The problem in Hamman’s eyes was that these philosophies began from a more or less atheist starting point; building on this flawed foundation, any theological edifice was bound to be unstable. At the risk of anachronism, I would claim that much of 20th century Protestant American Fundamentalism falls into this trap. The philosophical foundation for writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell is a libertarian political philosophy rooted originally in John Locke. Locke’s philosophy, particularly as laid out in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, profoundly shaped the thinking and the direction of the American independence movement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the grandfather of the American Revolution. His thinking influences our culture still in ways most of us scarcely realize, and I am grateful for most of it. But when it comes to environmental thinking, his thought is unhelpful and, in its current incarnations, downright dangerous. I want here to briefly survey how Locke’s views on property and nature affect much American thought, including Fundamentalist theology. Next, I want to go back to the Augustinian tradition, and look at how the Augustinian concepts of pride and humility can give us a new starting point for discussing our relationship with nature. In particular, I will be discussing the book Finding Our Father, written by one of my favorite professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen. I will be writing this primarily as an exercise in or examination of Christian theology, but I hope the treatment will be interesting and helpful for others as well.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke lays out some very radical political theories. Having argued in the first treatise against the divine right of kings, in the second he argues that political power is in fact the expression of the will of the majority of the people. A nation, he says, is a group of people who have agreed to live together and work together to solve their disagreements peacefully and to protect each others’ life, liberty and property. They achieve this by creating a government which therefore ought to include representatives chosen by the people to make decisions on behalf of the rest, and who are subject to replacement by popular vote. In an era where the people were often treated as property of the monarch as much as the land they farmed was, the idea that the king, courts and Parliament existed to serve the people and carry out their will was quite literally revolutionary: it was born in response to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and it led to the American Revolution a generation later. Instead of considering individuals first as subjects ruled by others, Locke said each was essentially the ruler of himself or herself. No rational being owned another; rather, each owns his or her own body. Nature, by contrast, is not consciously rational, so natural resources such as water, fruit trees in the forest and so on are unowned, or common property. But if some person adds his or her own effort to the natural object, say by gathering the apples from the tree into a basket, then that formerly unowned resource is not a mixture of the natural and the efforts of some person’s body, and thus becomes by extension that person’s private property. Whenever a human shapes or changes nature, that human adds a little of his or her own body to it, and it becomes private property.

Locke does have some constraints on this natural acquisition. Importantly, he said that no one has a right to more of anything than he or she can use before it spoils. It would be irrational, a violation of the law of Reason which rules even in nature, for one person to gather all the food and hoard it until it spoils while others starve. But essentially, Locke treats the natural world as having worth only as it affects humans. People turn nature into property, and have an inalienable right to do so. Locke’s Second Treatise had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers, and his philosophy both explicitly and covertly influenced our culture and still does. Explicitly, it shaped the Declaration of Independence, and Locke’s idea for a tripartite government is the foundation of our Constitution’s division into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Less explicitly, his views of property were very congenial to colonial and frontier farmers/plantation owners, justifying their wholesale conversion of wilderness to private farmland. Locke basically assumed that Nature was inexhaustible, an idea that was questionable on the British island but which seemed obviously true to the Englishmen and later Americans looking west towards apparently limitless horizons. And even today, this view of Nature is powerful, particularly in the business community: nature is raw material, and essentially limitless, unless pesky regulations get in the way.

Locke often used religious language in his political writing, referring to the law of Nature, Reason and the will of God more or less interchangeably. This made it easy for later American religious conservatives to take over his philosophy and incorporate it more or less unaltered into such theologies as Christian Reconstructionism. This represents a major and important misunderstanding of Locke’s thought, one that in turn delegitimizes this entire theological project. In his primary theological work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argues that the true heart of Christianity is a moral monotheism. He has no real use for miracle stories, or the idea that one guy could die for the sins of others; his religion and thus his God is philosophical, ethical, and like the title says, reasonable. But at least since Rousas Rushdoony and continuing through Falwell and others, as well as countless Evangelical Protestant preachers, this idea that humans have a “divine” right to treat nature as an inexhaustible source of human wealth has been treated as an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not hinder private property. For Locke, saying this was divine law was the same as saying it is reason’s law; thus, we can use reason to interpret it. For some conservative Christians, the “law of God” is more like the absolute eternal pronouncement of the Divine Lawgiver, so far beyond all human reason that even to hint that we might be harming the Earth is literally said to be rebellion against the LORD. Not only is Nature treated as an unlimited resource with value only as human property, but to say otherwise is, in some theological circles, literally a sin. And while this attitude is not the majority opinion of religious people, it has an outsized influence on American politics through the influence of well-financed lobbyists and media organizations supporting and supported by religious celebrities and mega-congregations.   Returning to Hamann’s observation, rather than start with a religious standpoint, derive their ecological theology from that and then dialog with American culture, a large swath of American fundamentalism adopted a humanistic attitude towards nature derived from Locke’s views on property as these were expressed through American culture and particularly American business culture; then, tacking on a fundamentalist Divine Commander to the rationalist foundation, they derived a theological approach to Nature that severely limits what religion can say to humans that they are not already happy to say to themselves. There can be no prophetic voice when the theology is merely an echo of the interests of economic and political powers.

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 5)

January 9, 2018

Just as God’s love establishes equality between individuals as the ideal, so too, Niebuhr says, does God demand equality and peace between nations. Falwell, Niebuhr would say, idolizes his own particular nation.[1] Patriotism, in and of itself, is fine, and a natural expression for the morally praiseworthy virtue of altruism. However, when patriotism and nationalism are distorted by pride, love of nation becomes a worship of one’s own nation and a desire to dominate others.[2] Niebuhr argues that the only defense against this idolatry is prophetic religion, that criticizes even the best nation by holding up the standard of perfect love. This is a recurring and important theme in Niebuhr’s thought, beyond the limited area Comey discusses: that Christian ethics is God’s perfect, unattainably high standard held up for us to strive towards, not a goal we can expect to fulfill. In An Interpetation of Christian Ethics, Niebuhr describes this in terms of the individual. I may feel pretty good about myself, if I only look at myself and what I’ve done. If I look at others, I may feel worse or better, depending on whom I look at. I feel pretty good about giving my spare change to a homeless person.   If I look around me, and see how many others only offer contempt, I may even feel pretty smug about my moral superiority. But if I look to the Gospel, and see what perfect neighbor-love would look like, I am humbled if not ashamed to realize how far I am from fulfilling God’s law of love. I do not give my sweater to the one who asks for my coat (Matt: 5:40); I don’t even give the coat. I don’t even give away my T-shirt collection (Luke 3:11). I allow practicalities and even fear to hold me back from fully loving others who need all the help they can get. And honestly, I’m going to keep doing so. But I can at least begin to grow morally when I stop measuring myself in comparison to any relative standard, and instead use God’s standard. This can lead me to repent, and to admit that my moral pride was undeserved; and knowing I still have some growing to do, I can strive to be better rather than bask in my self-satisfaction.

The same principle applies to nations. The “prophetic religion” which Niebuhr advocates holds up the ideal of the law of love. The Christian in politics should not judge his or her nation by looking at the others and feeling superior; rather, the Christian should look at the description of the Kingdom of God, where all are equal and love, not power, rules. No human nation, not even the best, will ever measure up to God’s perfect standard. This does not mean that all nations are equal or that one cannot judge between them; Niebuhr clearly and forcefully argued that the U.S. had a moral and religious duty to oppose Hitler with force, for example. But it does mean that the patriotic Christian must still admit that his or her nation needs to improve, and must call out the nation when it fails to uphold justice and protect the weak. Otherwise, the patriot will fall into idolatry, worshipping the State as if it were divine and attributing perfection to it as if it were God.

Falwell, too, would say that Christianity is a prophetic religion, and that the true Christian patriot must be a prophet. But “Falwell’s identification of America as Christian civilization and his belief in America as a new Christian Israel makes him a false prophet.”[3] Jerry Falwell claims that America is the best, most godly nation that has ever been. His evidence for this seems to be twofold. First, he would say, just look at us: founded by Christians as a shining city on a hill, preserving the Christian heritage better than any other, doing good for other nations, sharing our food, offering the protection of our military, establishing peace, promoting free trade and protecting trade routes so everyone can get richer as God intended, defending capitalism, which is the most godly economic system, and so on. Second, America’s wealth and power proves its righteousness: as “righteousness exalts a nation,” and the promise of the Bible is that God will bless the faithful nation, and God has clearly blessed America above all other nations, this must be the most faithful nation. * As Comey points out, this claim is subject to multiple objections. First, the biblical basis for this claim is not nearly as strong as Falwell asserts. There is no “direct warrant,” simply because the “United States of America” is never mentioned in the Bible. The indirect warrant from Scripture is also questionable, since it is not clear what “blessed” means or whether only faithful nations will ever be powerful. After all, at the time Falwell was writing, the “godless” USSR was considered an existential threat to the US, having quickly risen from the most backward of European nations to become a vast, powerful empire with worldwide trade and diplomatic influence; to any impartial judge, it would seem to be at least nearly as blessed as America. Falwell simply ignores apparent counterexamples to his argument, however, even asserting that part of the great righteousness of America is its opposition to the materialist, socialist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union; far from showing their blessedness, the Soviet strength only makes their evil worse. Falwell also ignores national sins of the U.S. such as segregation and racism. And more insidiously, Falwell fails to understand that spiritual pride can undermine even national virtues and turn them into vices, a process Niebuhr describes as “irony.”[4] Without a healthy skepticism born from a religious awareness of pride, American power easily becomes imperialism and oppression of other nations, American wealth and success can lead to the impoverishment of other nations, and American democracy is rejected by other nations as mere cover for the exploitation of the poor by rich capitalists and landowners. Falwell’s shock at the ingratitude of other nations towards America seems to incarnate the irony Niebuhr described years earlier. Here we are offering food, education, financial and military support to all these other nations, and they won’t even say “thank you”? But what Falwell never asks, and Niebuhr says the Christian must ask, is “Are we doing this for ourselves?” When we allow ourselves to become convinced that our nation has a unique divine mission, we all too easily cease to consider either the shortfalls and self-serving nature of many of our virtues, or the possible harm our nation and even our virtues may cause others. Furthermore, our pride can allow us to see our national actions as neither self-serving nor even simply good, but so superior that we deserve credit for going above and beyond the call of morality.

[1] Comey, pp. 75-89

[2] Comey, pp. 75-56

[3] Comey, p. 86

* Today we might say this is a sort of nationalized version of the Prosperity Gospel.

[4] Comey, p. 80

Comey, James B., “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics” (1982). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 1116.

December 21, 2017

I’ve been reading and discussing Comey’s thesis for awhile, mostly with the personal goal of understanding his mind a bit better and seeing how a theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr might have played a pivotal role in our nation’s history.  I’m posting a link to the full thesis here, and would be happy to discuss it further.

Recommended Citation

Comey, James B., “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics” (1982). Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 1116.

https://publish.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 4)

September 19, 2017

Jerry Falwell claims repeatedly in his writings that he has direct warrant from the Bible for everything he is saying. Comey convincingly argues that this is not always true. Sometimes, Falwell does indeed cite a specific Scripture that really does state a particular principle fairly unambiguously, as when Falwell cites Romans 13 to argue that all governmental power ultimately derives from God. But often, at crucial points in his political argument, Falwell cites either weak evidence or none at all. Furthermore, Falwell ignores large portions of Scripture that would complicate his simple (or simplistic) theological argument. This is not merely when he glosses over points that would make it difficult for him to argue that the Bible is without contradiction. That’s an important point, since if the Bible really does have contradictions that have to be resolved by the reader/interpreter, then the entire modern fundamentalist project is suspect; but Comey describes these as “small, troublesome passages” which suggests that they are not essential to understanding the Bible’s message as a whole.[1] At the very least, it is easy for Falwell’s exegesis to flow smoothly so long as all he is ignoring are “small” passages. It becomes more difficult to ignore when Falwell ignores entire sections of the Bible, specifically the entire Prophetic tradition, much of the Wisdom tradition, and any portions of the New Testament that do not fit easily into his truncated vision of God’s word.[2] Falwell largely ignores such essential Christian passages as the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his followers to be peacemakers, not warriors; meek, not proud. Jesus tells his followers to each see to himself or herself; Falwell says that Christians must strive to impose strict sexual ethics on others—sexual ethics, but not ethics about care for the poor, or personal humility, themes that are central to the teachings of Jesus. These words of Jesus are to be left to the individual’s own conscience, and fundamentalists even argue that it is a sin to seek to create laws that would “impose acts of charity” by taxing well-off people to provide even basic aid for the poor. So government can impose heterosexuality, and seek to punish sexual license or at least try to make it as dangerous as possible so people “take responsibility for their actions;” but asking them to take responsibility for their neighbor’s wellbeing, or to take responsibility for how their actions might harm the neighbor’s economic opportunity, is seen as out-of-bounds.

Falwell claims Old Testament backing for his nationalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Christian message; but the Old Testament prophets also had a great deal to say about God’s care for the poor, which Falwell ignores. He has a lot to say about saving souls, but nothing to say about how Amos condemns the nation of Israel for allowing the rich to oppress the poor. By contrast, Niebuhr, who rarely claims direct warrant for his theological positions, is able to deal with far more of the Old and New Testaments much more effectively. Niebuhr would say that the Bible reveals God’s Law of Love, which is our ideal. This ideal includes care for the poor and powerless, and equality of all before God—all people, and all nations. This includes even provisions such as the Year of Jubilee, where all those who had bought property from a fellow Israelite were required to return it—not exactly the ringing endorsement of the private property which Falwell claims to find in Scripture! In fact, there are many passages in the Torah that limit personal profit, including restrictions on collecting debts from the poor, restrictions on using one’s own land (such as allowing the poor to walk into one’s fields to glean), and instructions that one invite the poor and resident foreigners into one’s religious feasts to enjoy the meal. The prophets go on to condemn the people who have largely ignored these laws, refusing to forgive debts or free slaves during the Jubilee or who buy the ancestral fields from others and refuse to return the property. Niebuhr would say that this shows again that the Law of Love is an ideal towards which we should strive, but not one that we ever fully achieve in this life; for that reason, we need justice as a fence to protect the powerless from the powerful and to establish a legal and political equality that approximates the full equality of us all as creatures before God. The prophetic condemnations of economic oppression serve as God’s message that social arrangements matter, that their impact on individuals matters, and that any political or legal structure that allows the powerful to run roughshod over the weak violates God’s Law of Love.

[1] Comey, p. 7

[2] Comey, pp. 88-92

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 3)

September 6, 2017

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Niebuhr is claiming that the Bible is not early science or “superscience,” nor is it history or any other sort of strictly factual report. It is also not a set of laws and proclamations by the Cosmic Legislator. Rather, Niebuhr sees Scripture as an expression of the true nature of God, the cosmos, and ourselves. This truth is that God is love, and we are free beings capable of living by the law of love but who inevitably choose otherwise because we are anxious. We are anxious because we are free and self-aware creatures. As creatures, we are finite and hence not fully in control of our own fate; we suffer loss and eventually death, and often for reasons that are either unforeseen or unpreventable. Unlike animals (says Niebuhr) we are self-aware, and thus recognize our own limited and mortal nature. As free beings, we are essentially capable of choosing how to react to our nature; we can live in love with one another and in humble reliance on God, or we can fall into anxiety and seek to preserve ourselves and our peace of mind by denying our true nature as creatures before God and in community with others. Because of the pervasive effects of anxiety and our own constant temptation to self-medicate (through prideful attempts to deny our creaturely limits, or sensual attempts to deny our rational and spiritual potentials, etc.) we inevitably sin. As creatures that are essentially created to be good and loving, but who are also anxious and inevitably succumb to sin, we have to rely on justice to approximate the sort of society we should have.[1] Justice is the human attempt to actualize God’s law of love. It is never perfect, but God shows us what perfect love is and calls us to strive to emulate that. The commandments, the prophets, and even the teachings of the Gospel are not so much instruction manuals or to-do lists as they are pictures of what a loving world should look like, and condemnations of what an unloving, sinful world looks like instead. To rely strictly on those words would be to absolutize the historical contingencies of the world where they were first spoken and written, a world very different from our own, where people lacked the factual knowledge that we now have, and where even social experience was primitive. By and large, fundamentalist Christians today tacitly admit this; only a few would insist that diseases are caused by evil spirits instead of germs or that slavery is acceptable. Niebuhr would say that examples like these show that we can and should use the knowledge we have to understand the world, and then apply the law of love in solving the problems that knowledge shows us using the tools that knowledge gives us.[2]

Jerry Falwell takes a very different strategy to understanding the fundamental message of the Bible and to applying it to the Christian’s political life.[3] He does not purport to be discussing the meaning “behind” the words or God’s nature revealed “through” the words; he claims instead that the political principles he advocates are directly spoken by God to the authors of the Bible, who wrote them down without error or contradiction. Proper political activity thus is simply a matter of taking the direct warrant of God’s word and creating laws and enforcement mechanisms as these command. The Bible says that righteousness exalts a nation, so if we want America to be strong we need to be “righteous” and “holy,” which Falwell says means we must uphold strict sexual ethics with heterosexual monogamy or chastity the only options. Falwell asserts that the Book of Proverbs clearly defends the principle of private property, so the Bible supports capitalism as the only righteous economic system. Jesus told us to “make disciples of all the nations,” so America must remain militarily strong so that it can serve as a launching pad for worldwide evangelistic missions. If, at any point, science, moral philosophy, economics or any other area of human thought seems to contradict the Fundamentalist teaching that traditional, patriarchal, laissez-faire conservative American values are God’s will and the true expression of reality, then that science or ethical insight is to be cast aside as a temptation, which has been superseded by God’s revealed truth.

Politically, the difference between the two views is stark. For Niebuhr, the goal of politics is “justice,” which is the human attempt to express the law of love. Such an approach means that the Christian’s political activity should focus on finding where people are suffering, or where people are being denied full and equal participation in society, and trying to adjust the laws of the nation (and international relations) to reduce the suffering and oppression. For Falwell, “justice” is a matter of determining what the law of God is, and making sure to punish lawbreakers. The goal is not to make a more “loving” society, but a more “holy” one, one more pure, more devoted to obeying God’s commandments as spelled out in the Bible, in order to preserve social order and to make America strong. If America is strong, it can serve as the base for evangelism overseas; and if it does that, God will reward it with miraculous wealth, victory over its enemies and every other manner of blessing.

As Comey points out, Falwell’s claims of direct warrant for all his policy recommendations do not bear close examination. His claim that the Scripture is one harmonious message is only sustained by deliberately ignoring passages that seem to contradict each other. As Comey writes, Falwell’s harmonization of Scripture “flows smoothly in large part because small, troublesome passages are ignored.”[4] And while he offers direct warrant for his claim that all governmental authorities are ordained by God, citing Romans 13, he offers no such citation for his claim that life begins at conception because there is in fact no such obvious, clear scriptural backing. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss abortion at all.[5] It wasn’t an issue. His claim that God endorses capitalism is similarly baseless. Falwell often, at crucial points in his argument, simply claims to be speaking the plain and clear word of God when he is doing no such thing. Instead, Comey points out that Falwell’s own autobiographical statement is that he was a patriotic American before he became a born-again Christian, raising the possibility that Falwell is interpreting the Bible selectively to support his conservative political assumptions rather than deriving his political claims from the Bible as he says.[6]

To be continued…

[1] Comey., pp. 25-33

[2] Comey, pp. 33-54

[3] Comey, pp. 55-74

[4] Comey, p. 7

[5] Comey, pp. 9-10

[6] Comey, p. 93

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (review; pt. 2)

August 30, 2017

The fundamental difference between the two, as Comey presents it, is the different ways each uses Christian scriptures to support his views. Following David H. Kelsey, Comey distinguishes between “direct” versus “indirect” authority.[1] Direct authorization is when a claim is based on a direct quote from Scripture, or is analytically true based on a direct quote from Scripture. While Comey does not give an example, I would presume that refusing to eat pork because Scripture says that you shall not eat any animal with cloven hoofs that does not chew its cud would fit. What Kelsey does say is that it is hard to find examples of direct authorization, because usually the scripture is more the basis of the theological command and not its content. Again using my example, the Torah commands the Israelites to “bind these words (the Shema) as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,” but it does not say how to do this; Orthodox Judaism has interpreted this mitzvoth to come up with the form of the tefillin. It’s not much of a leap, but it is an interpretation; that makes this an indirect rather than a direct authorization. Why write the scriptures on a paper and put them in a box, rather than write them on a ribbon and tie them on?

Further complicating the question of scriptural authorization for a theological proposition is that the Scripture may serve any of several functions. It may be a direct warrant for the theological conclusion, or it may be backing for a warrant, or data in the argument, or even a rebuttal. In each case the use of the Scripture will be different. For example, in the abortion debate, there simply is no direct warrant saying “thou shalt not commit abortion.” It simply wasn’t an issue that they debated or felt needed much explanation.[2] Instead, attempts to produce a biblical pro-life argument will use some scriptures to attempt to show that the unborn is in fact a person (data) and others to show that killing a person who has committed no crime is wrong (backing) and that since abortion is thus the killing of an unborn person, abortion itself is wrong (an indirect warrant).

Falwell, as you probably suspect, generally claims that his interpretations of Christian ethics and political goals are directly warranted by Scripture. He is a fundamentalist and hence an inerrantist. Comey points out that this does not mean that he is always a literalist. Falwell is claiming that all Scripture is inerrant, without error or contradiction; in cases of apparent contradiction, he is quite willing to claim that a particular passage is not literally true. For example, when Jesus says “if your eye offends you, pluck it out,” that is not a literal command to self-mutilation but rather a hyperbolic expression to teach the importance of avoiding sources of temptation.[3]  Furthermore, because the Bible must be without mistake or contradiction, seemingly contradictory passages must be harmonized, rather than allowed to stand in isolation or to remain distinct in tension with each other. For example, Mark says the women who went to the tomb of Jesus did not find him but were met by an angel who said he was alive, and that they were so terrified that they ran away and told no one. Matthew says they did tell the apostles. Luke says Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. John says that Jesus appeared in person to Mary Magdalene, and that she told the apostles. Rather than accept that there are four distinct witnesses to the same event that report it differently, the fundamentalist must attempt to harmonize all the accounts into one story incorporating all (or at least most) of the elements of each. Furthermore, it cannot be left to the individual to decide what “really happened,” what one actuality lies at the basis of all four reports; the fundamentalist commentator must produce the harmonious interpretation and present it to the layperson as the authoritative understanding.[4]

Reinhold Niebuhr, by contrast, relies on indirect warrant from Scripture for his theological thinking.[5] While fundamentalists like Falwell treat the Bible as factually true, even describing it as “superscience” and insisting that the philosophy, history, science and even basic cause-and-effect reasoning have no place in Christian faith, Niebuhr argues that the Bible is in fact often factually wrong and even calls it “myth.” He argues that the Bible tells great truths, revealing the true nature of God and of ourselves, but that it “falsifies some of the details” in order to express a deeper reality. As Comey puts it, “Science and history give the facts while religion and myth tell the truth.”[6] The purpose of the myth is not to report facts, but it is not mere fiction either; it is a symbolic expression of realities that exceed the ability of the human speaker or writer to express directly, and likely exceed all human ability to verbalize.

From the Fundamentalist perspective, this sort of reasoning is hopelessly vague at best, and blasphemy at worst. If you can’t trust God’s truthfulness on things like the origin of the world, then you won’t be able to trust Him about heavenly things like salvation; therefore, you must hold onto the belief that everything in the Bible is not only “true” but also “factual.” Niebuhr argues that not only is this sort of factuality demonstrably false, it also falsifies. It risks making our historically conditioned, finite judgments about God into absolute eternal truths, rather than recognize that they are true expressions of God but only partial.

Both Falwell and Niebuhr would say that the Bible is central to all human thought about God and about our place in God’s creation. For Falwell, it is the accurate, direct statement of what God has done in history and what God has commanded humans to do. Scientific, historical and ethical thinking must first accept the inerrant revelation of truth through the Bible; any human thought is only appropriate as it is necessary for explaining and applying that core biblical data. For Niebuhr, the Bible expresses God’s nature and our own, not by revealing literal events and literal words but by expressing fundamental truths. For example, to Falwell it is essential that the Christian affirm the creation of the world in six days. For Niebuhr, the truth of the Creation story is that God is in command, God is other and beyond the world as well as involved with it, that God loves the world and us and that the world is good; and we too are originally and essentially good, although we also fall into sin and separate ourselves from God and our essential nature.

To be continued….

[1] Comey, pp. 3-4

[2] Comey, pp. 9-10

[3] Comey, pp. 4-7

[4] Comey, pp. 6-8

[5] Comey, pp. 18-23

[6] Comey, pp. 18

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 5, conclusion)

August 25, 2017

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 5

 

James seems to ask, if you are not stealing from your workers, how did you get so rich? And if you are not too much in love with your money and your luxuries, why are you so rich? But is this what he’s doing? Is this an indictment of the wealthy as a whole? Is it a call to repentance, a reminder that they need to be honest and to love God more than money? Paul reminds his readers that “not many of you were of noble birth,” not to condemn those who were but only to remind them all not to think too much of themselves (1 Cor 1:26-29). Therefore he tells his readers in Corinth that those who have should live as if they did not have, those who buy should not live as if they could hold their possessions forever, and that those who live in the world should not love it too much (1 Cor 7:29-31). When you have a lot of money, James and Paul are both saying, you are tempted to love your money and your goodies more than you love your Lord and what is good. Money indeed can change everything: your relationship to God, to your neighbor, even how you see yourself.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In the Torah, those who have and those who need are tied together in God’s covenant; the rich are called to lend to the poor and to give generously. James writes, “Faith without works is dead;” it is in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked that our faith comes alive. Without a hungry person to feed, the rich person’s faith could not come alive. And without a rich person living out his or her faith, the hungry person might not live at all. Both need each other, one to live and the other to live spiritually. Both can live in community, by the grace of God since our own human instincts are not sufficient, giving joyfully and lovingly and receiving joyfully and gratefully. We all get our turn to give and to receive, and everything we give and everything we receive comes from God, belongs to God and should serve God. Money changes everything. It changes us, it changes our relationships to others, and it changes our relationship to God. It can become a force that divides us, rich versus poor, proud versus humble, self-righteous versus repentant. Or, it can become a means of building up the body of Christ, as each person does what he or she can to build up God’s Kingdom using whatever resources God has given. Do what God commands you this day, that there should be no poor among you.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything, pt. 4

August 17, 2017

For Christians, the Hebrew Scriptures are the first covenant, which we humans broke through our injustices and sins. Even as this sin bore its fruit in the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian Exile, God promised through the prophets that there would be a new covenant, one not written on stone tablets but in the hearts of all of God’s people. We don’t believe that God simply replaced the old covenant; God fulfilled it and continues to fulfill it today, because even if all of us prove false, God is always faithful to us and to the promises (Romans 3:3-4). And as before God called slaves out of bondage in Egypt to be God’s own free people, so we believe that through Jesus God called out people from slavery to sin and the corruption of this world, to live as free children of God together. The apostles and evangelists who wrote to the early Church saw themselves as joining in Christ’s work to start a new sort of kingdom of Heaven, a society of people living on Earth but living by God’s rules. And just as Moses had warned the people not to be led astray by the wealth and pomp of this world, they wrote to the early churches to warn them that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (I Timothy 6:10). None wrote more forcefully against the corrupting idolatry of wealth than did James. It isn’t that having money is in itself a sin. Some philosophies and religions teach that all attachments to this world or enjoyment of any sort are spiritual faults, but that is not the teaching of the Bible. What James says is troublesome about wealth is its power to turn us against each other. We all are naturally attracted to rich, successful-looking people. Psychologists and anthropologists say it’s an instinctual human trait, part of our being social animals. We are all drawn towards the Alpha, either to follow or to try to raise our own status by association. The church is made up of humans, and shares this same tendency. A billionaire or celebrity is seen as a role model by some, as a natural leader by others. To still others the rich person may just be a mark of distinction, something to brag about or to quietly pat oneself on the back about. “Did you see who was sitting right in front of me in church today?” Once the prominent families in churches had their own pews where everyone could see them, with their names written on metal plates. Today, the super-rich and super-famous don’t feel the need to show up or show off in church, so we get fewer chances for that sort of “American Idol” worship. But we don’t have to look just at the church itself; as we move through the world on the other six days of the week, we know how often we give reflexive, uncritical deference to the rich and famous, and how often we despise the poor. Wealth divides us from one another, not by itself but by our allowing it to play on our love of social hierarchies. James reminds us that while we may think the rich are better people who deserve our deference, in fact they are often no better than anyone else, maybe even worse, maybe even enemies of us and of God. Are they not the ones who drag you into court? James asks.

We who aren’t rich are divided from one another because of our tendency to idolize wealth. And the rich are also divided from others for this same reason. Just as it is human nature for the rest of us to bow before wealth and celebrity, it is human nature for wealth and celebrity to expect the rest of us to bow down. That does not mean it is inevitable. It does mean that when it does not happen, it is by the grace of God. And too often, it is the churches that get in the way of this grace, by flattering the rich and endorsing their sense of superiority. One of the founders of the Prosperity Gospel, Norman Vincent Peale, used to lace his sermons with examples of rich people held up as role models. The millionaires who came to his sermons were far more likely to hear themselves praised as paragons of virtue than they were to hear about some old prophet in a hair shirt eating locusts and wild honey. They were rich because they were good, and the proof they were good was that they were rich. They had harnessed the power of positive thinking; and what is faith, if not expecting good things?

James had a rather different view of the wealthy. He writes:

 

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure[a] for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

 

“The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out!” Who would do such a thing? Who would refuse to pay someone who has done work for him or her? Our president, for one.[1] But he is just one of many; in fact, rich corporations not paying their bills to smaller family businesses, or paying late or paying a fraction, is so common that it is often defended in court as “standard business practices.”[2] And managers forcing employees to work “off the clock,” refusing to pay for overtime or simply refusing to pay workers at all is shockingly common.[3] The Prosperity Gospel tells all of us that the rich are to be praised and imitated, because their success shows that they are not only better than the rest of us, but they are also blessed by God. James seems to think their wealth is an indictment, and they have to show that they are not in fact guilty of sins against God and their neighbors.

[1] Steve Reilly, USA Today Exclusive: Hundreds Allege Donald Trump Doesn’t Pay His Bills;” USA Today, (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/06/09/donald-trump-unpaid-bills-republican-president-laswuits/85297274/) also Emily Flitter, “Special Report: Trump’s Art of the Deal—Dispute Your Bills;” Reuters November 13, 2015 (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-bills-specialrepor-idUSKCN0T214Q20151113)

[2] Stephanie Storm, “Big Corporations Pay Later, Squeezing Their Suppliers;” The New York Times April 6, 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/business/big-companies-pay-later-squeezing-their-suppliers.html) as one example.

[3] “Wage Theft Costing Low-Income Workers Billions;” NBC News September 28, 2014 (http://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/wage-theft-costing-low-income-workers-billions-n212406)

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt. 3)

August 15, 2017

Is there a way to resolve this? Observation tells us that both reflect reality. The Torah tells God’s people how they should live, and promises that if they do there will be no poor; it does not, however, seem to be saying that no one would ever be even temporarily in need. Rather, its provisions, such as the year of jubilee and freedom for slaves, allows that those who have fallen into crushing debt should not be permanently impoverished; eventually they, or their families would be reinstated as free people and property owners, able to contribute to the economic life of the nation. The Prophets tell us that all too often human beings ignore God’s law and its call to give opportunity to the poor; when this happens, God judges the nation that has sided with the rich and powerful oppressors and destroys it. Those books such as Psalms and Proverbs, known collectively at The Writings, depict both what is and what God wants to be. These were composed on a long period of time, from the days of David until the return from the Babylonian Exile, and reflect the people’s evolving understanding of how God works among us. As Calvin says, God “condescends.” To our ears that sounds snooty, but the literal meaning of the word is joyful; God comes down to us to be with us on our level. God gives us God’s truth as far as we are able to understand it, and may reveal more to us tomorrow than we were able to handle yesterday. When people needed to know what being a godly people could mean and should mean, the Torah laid out an ideal vision of social harmony. When people needed to know how to live their personal lives to be the best they could be, writings such as Proverbs taught personal standards to follow, including both lessons on avoiding laziness and on practicing generosity towards the poor. And when people needed to know that their society had gone astray, that the rich were using the promises of the Torah to justify their own oppressive greed, and what God was going to do about that, God sent the Prophets with words of judgment and promises of redemption.

To be continued.  Next:  New Testament perspectives.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Money Changes Everything (pt 2)

August 7, 2017

The prophets testify that the people did not, in fact, obey, and that there were poor in the land and often they were terribly oppressed. We read that, despite what they were commanded, merchants kept dishonest scales that would read light when weighing the grain they bought from the farmers, but heavy when selling the same grain later. The rich felt no guilt sleeping in cloaks seized from poor persons as collateral on a debt, or seizing the children of debtors as slaves and not releasing them when the jubilee year came. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others announce God’s judgment on those who oppresses the poor; but most relentless is Amos. The book of Amos starts out like it must have been a well-received sermon. He follows a pattern, “For three transgressions of _______, and for four, I will not withhold punishment, says the LORD:….” Again and again he calls out the sins of Israel’s hated enemies, the neighboring kingdoms of Moab, Philistine, Gaza and so on. His audience must have been cheering him on. “Preach it, brother! Tell it! Give’em hell, Amos!” And then he gets to his own nation, Israel: does he say, “We will crush those wicked people, because we’re the good guys”? No, he does not!  Amos preaches:

 

 

 Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.  (Amos 2:6-8)

 

Amos warns the Israelites that God is angry with them, angrier than at the Philistines or the Edomites for their war crimes, or at Judah for its religious failures; God is angry at the Israelites, because they have oppressed the poor, their own neighbors and kin, and grown rich and happy off their injustice. No matter how righteous they may be in their own eyes, no matter how bad their enemies are, they will be punished because they have gotten rich by impoverishing their countrymen.

If we stopped with Deuteronomy, we might think that every rich person is being rewarded by God and every poor person punished. If we stopped with the Prophets, we might assume that every rich person was someone who hadn’t been punished by God yet, but would be. John Calvin taught that when we read Scripture, we need to read it entire, and bring the unclear passages into conversation with the clear ones. In saying this, he recognized that there would be points like this that were unclear, either because they contradicted our expectations or seemed to contradict each other. Even in a single book, like Proverbs, we see this sort of tension. Proverbs 13:23 says, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice;” while Proverbs 20:13 states, “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” So Proverbs tells us that poverty is caused by the laziness of the poor person, but elsewhere says it is because of oppression and injustice. We sin if we ignore either possibility, since both are the word of God.  To be continued….