Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

What Jesus Didn’t Say

March 12, 2019

It’s been too long since I posted anything here, and I regret that.  Once I got my most recent book out on Kindle I was focussed on writing this sermon, the first I’ve preached in over thirty years.  You can listen to it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZlvrASSTSo ; it starts at about 31 minutes in.  Or if you prefer, you can read my draft below.  

 

 

What Jesus Didn’t Say

 

 

 

 

I confess that I have some nervousness about preaching again after a twenty-five year hiatus. I’ve given lots of lectures, but to share God’s word with God’s people is more intimidating than sharing my own words. What could I have to say that is fitting to the significance, the sanctity of this setting? Nothing, really. Our human words are, as Paul said, like cheap pottery holding precious jewels. Besides, a lecture with a lot of pretentious vocabulary is a good lecture; but no one wants a sermon with a word study. Lectures and sermons are just different.

Then I read the lectionary selections for today, and hope dawned. Both the reading from the Prophets and from the Gospel are about teaching! And I’m a teacher! It seemed to me providential, or at least lucky, that of all the days that I could have been invited to preach, I’d have scriptures for the day that seem so suited for my background.

First, Nehemiah. Nehemiah is not usually known as a teacher. I don’t think his book is the first choice for Rally Day sermons. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian Exile. He was a cupbearer to the Persian king, and got permission to return to Jerusalem and direct the rebuilding efforts. My memories of Nehemiah are that I usually heard from him when the preacher was launching a capital fund drive. Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. He was about separation between people, about conflict, and about building a wall to keep them away from us. But this scripture we read today is not like that. It is in fact just the opposite. First, consider the setting. Scaffolds were set up by the Water Gate, a public square where everyone could gather. They aren’t in a sacred space separated from the life of the people, where only the men could gather, and of those only the ones who were not ritually unclean for some reason like having just attended a funeral. No: they are in a public space, and everyone is invited. Men, women, even older children, everyone who was capable of listening and understanding was invited to come and listen to the Word of God. And there was to be no separation between the clever and the uneducated, or between those who were proficient in Hebrew and those who, over the long exile, had come to speak Aramaic as their primary language. There was to be no separation between those who were in the front row and those who were further back and couldn’t hear as well. Levites moved among the crowd, explaining and interpreting, “They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” And there was to be no separation between those who attended worship and those who could not; those who heard were to celebrate, and were to provide food and drink and celebrate with those who had not been there to hear the word of God taught, so that everyone could share in the joy of the LORD on this holy day.

It seems as if there are two Nehemiahs. One has his people building walls, each with a sword on his hip, with half standing guard while the other half worked, ready to fight, to keep outsiders away. The other is a uniter, not a divider, bringing people together. And historically, both are the same person and both tasks were important to preserving the faithful, and the faith. What would have become of the word of the LORD if Nehemiah had only built the walls, but not taught the people? What would have become of them if he had only taught, but they had no walls, no protection from bandits and enemies, no secure home? So we can’t really say either is unimportant. As Christians, though, we can ask, which is most important and most relevant to us, as disciples of Christ in the world today?

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue. Any Jewish male could be invited to read from the Scripture and offer interpretation. The leader of the synagogue would generally invite someone beforehand; they didn’t just pull people out of the crowd unprepared. Jesus had been teaching in the neighboring villages, full of the power of the Spirit of God, and had gained quite a reputation. Now he was the hometown boy made good. No wonder the leader of the synagogue invited him to speak! So he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he selected a well-known messianic prophecy. He read the words of the prophet, that the Spirit of the LORD is upon him because God has anointed him to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. God has sent him to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. To an observant Jew that was not just a metaphor or platitude; the year of God, the Jubilee, was to be a monumental shaking of the social structure. According to the Law, every fiftieth year was the Jubilee, the year of the LORD’s favor. All slaves were to be freed. All debts were to be forgiven, so the poor could start over with a clean slate. Those families that had fallen on hard times and sold their land at some point during the last forty-nine years were allowed to return and reclaim their property, for free. Was Jesus referring to a literal Year of the Lord’s Jubilee that had just occurred? It doesn’t seem very likely that the Romans would have gone along with this festival of freedom. But when Jesus spoke of the Year of the LORD’s favor, it meant something concrete and special to the congregation. It was to be a time when everyone lived off the blessings of the LORD, enjoying the bounties of their past labors. It was a time when those who were impoverished or oppressed or troubled with physical impairments were to be renewed, whether by having their family inheritance returned or having their sight miraculously restored. And Leviticus makes clear that the Jubilee is to be a time when rich and poor come together as family, as children of God and joint tenants in God’s land; no one is to cheat another or begrudge another, but all are to celebrate together the blessings they have received as children of the covenant, receivers of God’s promises.

And Jesus does two remarkable things here. The first is that he cuts off Isaiah. The original prophecy ends with “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus leaves out the talk of vengeance. He leaves out all talk of punishing “them” to glorify “us,” even if the punishment is perhaps deserved. With Jesus, the day of the Lord’s favor is a blessed day for everyone, and all are invited to share in the good news. The congregation would have heard that prophecy before, perhaps many times, and would realize he had made an important change. What he was not saying was as noteworthy as what he had said.

And then, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not “someday.” God has proclaimed that this, despite all appearances, despite the tax collectors and Roman soldiers and Herod’s despotism, is the year of the Lord’s favor! Jesus began his ministry by traveling the countryside telling people to repent, for the kingdom of God is among you, now. It is still among us, even though we can’t see it any better than they could who lived under Roman occupation.

What does this mean for us today? I’m not going to discuss what it meant then, since the lectionary saves the end of this story for next week. I’m going to leave it where the lectionary leaves it: Today, in your hearing, this Scripture is fulfilled. Not “the day of vengeance,” of warfare against the wicked, but the day of the Lord’s favor, the day of good news, of release and renewal and rejoicing for all God’s people. Nehemiah—I haven’t forgotten him—-Nehemiah had to build the walls of Jerusalem, but that is not the last word. What gives all the building of walls and the Temple and everything else meaning is that day when everyone worshipped together, everyone was taught equally, everyone celebrated together: for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Thanks be to God!

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Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 1)

August 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard

 

 

…(I)f individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness; but if there is no idea for the individuals en masse and no individually separating essential inwardness, either, the we have crudeness.

 

—-Søren Kierkegaard

 

 

The stereotypical “existentialist” is supposed to be deliberately rude, partly to challenge human conventions and the falsity of most social discourse and partly out of pretension. However, this “existentialist” is a lot rarer than those thinkers who are often called “existentialists.” Kierkegaard is often called an “existentialist” or perhaps “the grandfather of existentialism,” but he himself never used the term. He referred to himself as an “existential thinker:” one who thinks deeply about existence, particularly his (or her) own existence and what it reveals about the nature of human existence as such. It is therefore not surprising that his view is not the same as that expressed by either Diogenes or Confucius. His actual views on civility need to be teased out from his writings on more focused topics, as well as his personal practice, for he is an existential thinker, and they seek to express their thoughts in their own personal existence.

It is said that today’s culture, and particularly its political culture, is increasingly crude. What is “crudeness”?[1] For Kierkegaard, it means something quite particular. The ideal human relationship, he claims, is when people relate to each other while passionately related to an idea. Again, because of the differences of time, language and Kierkegaard’s own unique perspective, we are apt to misunderstand. We are inclined to think that being “passionate” means to be swept away by emotion, so that a rioting mob of sports fans would be “passionate.” For Kierkegaard, “passion” includes emotion, but goes deeper than passing feelings, no matter how strong. A passion reaches to the core of one’s being. As a young man, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he sought “a cause I can live and die for.” That is a “passionate relation to an idea.” It includes heart and mind, and it defines and orients one through time. The ultimate “passionate relationship to an idea” would be faith, an ongoing relationship to God, in which the idea of one’s personal, individual presence in the sight of God was allowed to penetrate all of one’s other relationships and values. Such a passion does not swallow up one’s sense of individuality, as does the “passion” of a mob; it defines and reinforces one’s individuality, giving the individual an orienting goal, a telos, beyond his or her natural self-centeredness.

The “passion” of the mob is that where people relate to the idea en masse. In this case, people are drawn together, but without any personal appropriation of the idea that unites them; so they are swallowed up in the collective consciousness of the mob. In the French Revolution, an entire nation, and to some extent all of Europe was caught up in its relationship to the idea of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The wider culture was asking, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean for me to be a citizen? What is the proper relationship between Church and State, God and Nation, ruler and ruled? What should I do in this time? Hegel, looking out his window in Germany and seeing a victorious Napoleon ride into the city with his army behind him, wrote, “I have just seen Absolute Spirit ride into town on a white horse.” The whole of human history, of human development, of human spirit was represented in the spirit of the Revolution, and in the man who had become its head. In the early days of the Revolution, people were talking and writing and reading and thinking about the ideas of the recent American rebellion and the gathering clouds in France, and each had to think about how he or she stood in relation to those ideas and to their neighbors. In The Terror, that individual relationship to the Idea vanished, and people were caught up in the mob mentality; they still lived in the light or shadow of the idea, but without the sense of individual responsibility. But in the complacent modernity of Kierkegaard’s own time, any passionate relationship to any idea had largely faded, and now there was only crudeness. “Individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.”[2] Unable to build themselves up by relating their lives to something larger than themselves, they settle instead for tearing down their neighbors or anyone who seems to represent a higher spiritual existence. They are too close to each other, Kierkegaard says; they have no sense of self, no core to their personality, and so are swept along by whatever social currents swirl around them; but those currents in turn have no steering power but simply swirl each into the other like leaves in the street, chasing each other around in a circle briefly and then falling to the ground again to await the next breeze.

Civility would be to relate to the other with “decorum,” one individual to another. Each would have his or her own inward core, and treat the other as an individual as well. Because each individual has his or her own inwardness, there is a psychological distance that preserves the sense of self, and one relates to the other in terms of that inwardness. Lose the inwardness but keep the passion, and civility will falter as people get swept up in the anonymous emotion of the mob. Lose even the passion as well as the inwardness, and you get general crudeness, a breakdown of interpersonal relations. If the mob passion is like being swept down the street by a crowd, perhaps without even realizing where we’re all going but either unable to resist or too involved to think about it, then crudeness is like being caught in a crowd that is going nowhere, has no purpose, no goal, just a stifling atmosphere and frustration. A mob can at least be joyful and friendly among itself; if you want to see human nature at its worst, look for a crowd that is just stuck, waiting for some sign of movement. The only ones you’ll find in there with any shred of joy or civility are those who have something else to think about, some inward value or idea.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a literary review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp, 62ff

[2] Two Ages p. 63

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

July 14, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

 

 

22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[f] 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

—Genesis 18:22-33

 

Before anyone asks, no, this is not going to lead into a silly comment about Lot’s wife.

There is a popular theology these days. I say “popular” because it dominates many of the largest churches in the United States, the most prominent Christian colleges, politicians travel to seek its blessing and, when they are elected, they bring its preachers to their offices to pray with them, so that the preachers in turn receive the blessing politicians have to give—-prestige, visibility, pride, and worldly influence. In this popular theology, the United States does not have to be a particularly just nation. It does not have to be a particularly good nation. In this popular theology, it does not have to be a particularly wise or smart nation. It does not have to be a particularly hard-working nation. No, in this popular theology, the only thing that the United States has to do is put “Christians” in charge—but not just any Christians, no: only a special kind of Christians. Christians who pay attention to the 92 times the Bible tells us to show kindness to immigrants—we don’t need those. Christians who pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers”—- away with them! Only Christians who know that even though Jesus never mentioned abortion or homosexuality, these are the sum and substance of the Gospel—-those are the sort of Christians who need to run the nation and make its laws. If we make laws that require the rich to pay taxes to provide food for the hungry, we rob charity of its moral worth; but if we make laws requiring people to be straight or to never have sex without risking disease or pregnancy, then we not only support the moral worth of those things but we deserve an extra reward—for forcing others to be good. And the extra reward for those who force those others to obey and be good, while not forcing the rich and powerful to do anything at all, is that God will reward them by making them rich and powerful themselves, giving the crowns of the world to the saints. This popular theology is called “Christian Reconstructionism,” or more broadly, “Christian Dominionism.” It’s no wonder it’s so popular. In the Middle Ages you had to pay money to buy indulgences to get out of living according to the Gospel; now, you don’t even have to do that. Simply by seeking to rule over other people, you get the blessing of God, who gives you the power you seek, so long as you agree to never use it against those who already have wealth and power or use it to make others do anything Jesus actually asked them to do. And not only will the individual Dominionist be rewarded, but the nation itself will be magically blessed. God will give the nation military power, without scientists to design weapons; God will give them wealth, without economists to understand how tax policies affect the nation; God will give the nation influence in the world, without the hard work of diplomats trying to listen to and understand other nations to find common ground. Close some abortion clinics, round up some immigrants, throw the gays on an island and watch them die out, and Jesus will fly up on a magic sleigh drawn by Peter, Paul, and the other reindeer, to give everyone toys—I’m sorry, I got a little confused there for a moment.

The Reconstructionist theology names itself for its claim that Christians must reconstruct society. Democracy, they say, is flawed because it doesn’t put Christians in charge; we need to get rid of democracy, get rid of the social safety net, get rid of public schools and public hospitals and rely solely on Jesus and the churches—but of course, we also need to close all those “progressive” churches, so only the right sort of churches, the ones that don’t think society should help the poor, are available help the poor? I think I got confused again. Let me back up and start over.

Reconstructionist theology reconstructs the Gospel in its own image. According to Reconstructionist theology, Sodom was destroyed because godly men like Lot weren’t in charge. Only if Lot and Abraham had conquered the city and imposed laws banning homosexuality could Sodom and Gomorrah been saved. And unless conservatives can overthrow the pluralistic, democratic society that weakens us now and impose their views on the majority, God will destroy the U.S. the same way; but if conservatives do take over, and impose strict laws controlling everyone’s sex lives, every other problem will be solved without effort.

That’s one vision of how Christians can save the world: by taking over and making everyone else live like them. That is NOT the vision presented by Abraham. Abraham prays for Sodom. He does not say, “Spare them, and I’ll take over and run things right.” He says, “LORD, will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? What if there are only ten? Will you spare the whole wicked, wretched city for ten people?” And God says, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” We don’t have to run the world to save it. We don’t have to outnumber the wicked or to dominate them. We can’t. There will always be more wicked; being wicked is just too damned easy. And they will always have political power. Satan said to Jesus that he had the ability to give thrones and kingdoms to whomever he wanted, and Jesus did not dispute that; he simply rejected that sort of power. But as long as there are a righteous few, judgment will be delayed, and more will have time to hear the good news and repent.

How can so few people do any good, if they aren’t rich or powerful leaders but just ten righteous people out of thousands? Abraham’s prayer appeals to God’s justice. God, it seems, doesn’t accept “collateral damage;” God practices collateral healing. Rather than destroy a few good people in order to punish the wicked, God would spare the wicked to save the few good ones.

Jesus echoes this idea. He tells the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds to say that God will not root out the wicked from the world immediately, lest this injure some of the righteous as well; rather, the wheat and the weeds grow together until the end of things. That is one way to say that Christians should participate in society; just by being in society, they help it since God will preserve the society for the sake of the faithful. But that doesn’t suggest much in the way of a positive contribution. It doesn’t suggest that the society is improved or helped. Sodom would still have been Sodom even if ten righteous persons had been found in it.

Jesus uses other models to suggest how we should live in the world and participate in society. You are the light of the world, he says. It isn’t enough to just be in the world, hiding your goodness away like a precious gem, afraid to risk losing or tarnishing it. You have to let it shine like a lamp in the darkness that everyone can see and use to guide their own steps as well            You are like salt. Salt was so precious in the days of Jesus that people were paid in salt; our word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt.” Salt is necessary for human life. It also preserves food, which is one of its most valuable characteristics in the warm Mediterranean climate without a nice cold fridge around. And even a little can flavor a whole lot of food. It lends its nature to what is around it. It doesn’t, as they say, dominate the taste of the food; it enhances and preserves it, bringing out what is best and perhaps covering up what is not.

Jesus even says we should be holy like God is holy. In the Books of Moses, God’s holiness is a separation. God is so holy and powerful that when God gave the Law to Moses, it was forbidden for anyone else to approach the mountain; even animals that wandered onto the holy mountain were to be killed. But Jesus says we should be perfect as God is perfect, who allows the sun to shine on good and bad alike, and sends rain to the just and the unjust. God’s holiness is his omnipresence, not withdrawing from those in need but providing even for those who do not acknowledge their need for God.

God doesn’t demand that Christians should strive to dominate human politics. God also doesn’t ask us to withdraw from the world. We are told to teach the world, to help the world, to do good and show kindness and love mercy and walk humbly with God. It is a narrow road for sure, neither going too far into politics or not enough. Jesus says we are to be salt; and if the salt has lost its distinctive nature, lost its saltiness, then what good is it? It is fit only to be cast out. As Christians in the world but not of the world, we are forced daily to be involved with things and people that do not follow our ways. We are told we cannot serve God and Money, but we must have money to survive. We are told to serve the world, but often that means working with politicians who have the power to help or stop us, and who have little regard for God or people. No doubt we would be safer to live as monastic communities, apart from the world. Many days I think the Amish are on to something. But that is not, I think, what Jesus intends for us, his disciples. We need the church as a place of rest where we can renew our faith and energy from time to time, but we then need to go out and continue being salt. One day Christ will return. We pray every week, Lord, thy kingdom come. But God has told us that in the meantime, we are not kings yet. We are salt. We are servants. We are preachers and teachers. We are the ten righteous people in the city who can save the whole from destruction for another day. That is our call, and that is the Gospel.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

June 30, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

 

Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?

—–Diogenes of Sinope

 

 

There has been much thought and more said about the need for civility and the deplorable lack of it today. There has been much outrage over the lack of common decency between strangers and between rivals, so much outrage that it would seem mathematically inevitable that some small portion of it must actually be sincere. But there has been little discussion as to what it is, why we need it, whether we can manage without it or whether we should. Part of a philosopher’s job is to discuss things everyone else thinks they know (or says they know) but really don’t, to clarify concepts, to untangle knotted thoughts. This seems like a good time for some of that. This is the first in a series of essays looking at some thoughts from philosophers who had different views on manners and civility, to see if the wisdom of the past can help us clean up some of the present follies.

There are many stories about the Greek philosopher known today as Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes he seems more like a shock comic than a teacher of wisdom, as if Mel Brooks’ blurring of the distinction with his character of the “stand-up philosopher” had come to life mixed with some Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And this is fitting, since “Cynic” is from the Greek word for “dog.” So here’s an anecdote: One day Diogenes was invited to the house of a rich man. He wasn’t used to polite company, and his public behavior was notoriously boorish. His host therefore sternly instructed him not to spit on anything, as he often did: not the nice furnishings, expensive tapestries, or even the elegant floor. Diogenes instead spit in the man’s face, saying everything else looked so nice he didn’t know where else to spit.

Cynicism is not, as commonly supposed, just not giving a fu—- oops, almost got a little too much like my subject! In fact, it was and is a very serious and challenging philosophy of life. Diogenes said that dogs live more natural and better lives than people; people are phonies, liars, cheats, fools, flatterers, chasing after money and status, while dogs just do what comes naturally. Diogenes famously walked around Athens in broad daylight with a lit lantern. When asked why, he said he was looking for an honest man, and not having much luck. So now he’s not only an insult comic, he’s a prop comedian. As Mark Twain, put it, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”[1] Centuries earlier, Diogenes had taken that lesson and pushed it beyond all bounds. For him, the natural was the real and true, and dogs and other animals better role-models than any people. Dogs don’t care if you see them mating or licking their genitals, and Diogenes thought this shamelessness was a lesson for people too; nothing is wrong in public if it isn’t wrong in private. Dogs don’t love you more if you wear fancy clothes or if you’re famous; if you feed them and scratch their heads you’ve probably made a new friend for life.[2] This is actually a very hard way for a human to live, however. Cynicism teaches that first each person has to be honest with himself or herself. It has no tolerance for hypocrisy. It embraces poverty as a virtue and is utterly indifferent to social status, since materialism and social climbing drag one away from the pursuit of Truth. There are several versions of this story; here’s the one that seems right to me. The philosopher Aristippus had sucked up to powerful people and won himself a place in the court of the ruler. He saw Diogenes cooking a bowl of lentils for his dinner. He said, “You know, Diogenes, if you’d just be a little more polite and tell the dictator what he wants to hear, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” He replied, “And if you would live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant.” THAT’s cynicism in a nutshell! Live life honestly; don’t compromise just to get ahead or win a popularity contest. Phony etiquette and politeness just block honest conversation between real people.

The most famous American philosopher who comes closest to Greek cynicism is Henry David Thoreau. Although Thoreau is more commonly known as a Transendentalist, in his personal ethics he shows many of the traits of cynicism: belief that voluntary poverty is a virtue, social climbing a vice, honesty matters above all. The Greek cynics lived shocking lives by a human perspective, but did so in the name of a deeper devotion to God. Thoreau too lived his life in opposition to what he saw as false human values, even going so far as to break the law (he invented “civil disobedience”), largely because he put his moral principles and spiritual beliefs ahead of the expectations of society. He was not as deliberately offensive as Diogenes had been, but he did reject the common rules of etiquette that we use to avoid actual human contact. In his day as in ours, people would say “How are you doing?” and the expected response was a perfunctory “fine” or something like that. Thoreau was notorious for taking that sort of question seriously; if you asked him how things were going, you were likely to get a half-hour summation.[3] While Diogenes had a reputation as a misanthrope, Thoreau was more sociable; but he was similarly inclined to ignore the social rituals of civility and cut straight to an honest response in his devotion to his principles.

This is certainly one way of thinking about civility, and it reappears in persons and cultures as different as Diogenes in ancient Greece, Chuang Tzu in ancient China or Thoreau in 19th century America.  Honest dialogue between human beings is valuable, maybe the only thing that is; adherence to good manners over honesty is not respect, but simple fraud. If someone is being a jerk, a fool or a villain, you do that person a service if you point this out to him or her; if you smile and compliment out of politeness, you cheat the other of the chance to learn and improve himself or herself.

To be continued…

[1] What would Twain say about this current president* who famously hates dogs, the first inhabitant of the White House in generations to have no dog or any other pet?

[2] Trump’s first wife had a dog that hated him.

[3] I’ve tried answering the “How’re you doing?” question honestly, and it often unsettles people if they listen at all; some just respond to “Kinda sick, actually,” with a mindless “That’s nice,” which seems to prove the claim that this politeness blocks actual communication.

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (conclusion)

June 21, 2018

Moses had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Muhammad had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Of the three great Abrahamic religions, Christianity is unique in that its founding prophet, God’s Anointed One, was powerless as the world measures power. Throughout the centuries, this has created unique challenges for Christians. Some Christians have sought to reject all force and all politics, as Jesus himself did in life, leaving the world to run its own affairs. Others have sought to blend religious and political power, calling on the Church to bless everything the State did, including the slave trade and the Holocaust. Those who wanted a “strong man” to protect them, “a king like the other nations,” have often been too willing to overlook when that king failed to protect others with the same justice they sought for themselves. And when, just as Samuel warned, that strong leader went too far and the people cried out, there was no one to deliver them (1 Samuel 8:18). During the Protestant Reformation John Calvin saw what a strong king with unchecked power can do, as the French king massacred thousands of peaceful, loyal Protestants. For this reason he came to advocate for checks and balances in government.[1] Likewise, after our American Revolution, or as it was known in England, “The Presbyterian Revolt,” those heirs of Calvin did not seek to establish Biblical law. They agreed with Calvin that the Law of Moses was given directly only to Israel; instead, they sought to be guided by the law of love, and by the principles of justice as these were revealed in the Bible, but to express these through creating a political order with limited power, since no sinful human could be trusted with unchecked power over the rest.[2] Those Revolutionaries did not want a “strong” leader, but rather a strong nation with strong interacting and cross-checking political institutions, which could preserve peace, order and justice while also humbling the pride of arrogant politicians grasping for power.

If history has taught us anything, it is that when one person or one small group has unchecked power, all are in danger and the Church itself liable to be attacked. That is why our Presbyterian Church adopted the Declaration of Barmen as one of its fundamental statements of faith.[3] This document was written primarily by Karl Barth and adopted by the Barmen Synod in opposition to Hitler and the nationalist Christians who were taking over the State and Church. It reads in part:

 

“Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.)

Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.[4]

 

 

Our Reformed heritage is that no one person, and no one State can be allowed to become the sole goal and ordering principle of human life; that role belongs to God alone. When a “strong man” (or strong woman) demands unlimited fealty, that is a sin and a disaster in the making. And when a church claims the political mantle, that is simply the other side of the same bad penny, a human institution going beyond its God-given limits and mission. Those who claim they are exalting the Church by claiming Christian dominion over the State are instead demeaning it, turning it into an organ of the State rather than a holy priesthood set apart for service to God.

When we look around the world, we see forces of totalitarianism resurgent in countries that once seemed on the road to democracy, where Church and State blend to give their blessings to oligarchs. When we look at home, we see millions of Christians, including many in the highest ranks of government, who espouse Christian Dominionism, the belief that democracy should be replaced by government by and for Christian people only. The delegates to the Barmen Synod, with the Confessing Churches of Germany, can teach us much about the dangers of this heresy. Whether the Church seeks to become the State, or the State seeks to control the Church, it ends up the same way: political power gains control over religion, and the Church shrinks to being just another department in the government bureaucracy, another prop for humans seeking power over other humans. And ultimately, this idolatry of the State collapses into idolatry of an individual who claims, as that French king who massacred Protestants once said, “I am the State.”  “L’etat, c’est moi.”

The “strong man” sought by many Americans is just another idol. God does not want us to seek from political leaders what we should seek only from God. This is, no doubt, an unsettling, anxiety-filled world; but the cure for this anxiety is not devotion to a leader, it’s faith in God. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, “On Civil Government” sections VIII, XXX

[2] John T. McNeill, editor, Calvin: On God and Political Duty (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1956) pp. xviii-xix, 63-6

[3] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, (http://www.westpresa2.org/docs/adulted/Barmen.pdf) downloaded June 19, 2018

[4] Declaration of Barmen, section 5

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

April 25, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

 

 

            The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LordThus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

            For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.           

 

—–Jeremiah 7:1-15

 

Does God need us? From the perspective of traditional Christian theology, the question seems almost silly. God is omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good: how could God need anything from humanity? God offers Israel a covenant, but there’s no indication in the Torah that God would be the worse if Israel refused; rather, it was Israel, not God, who was told “I have set before you life and death; choose life, and live.”

Israel is God’s chosen people, and they have always understood that this is a privilege and a gift. Sometimes, however, they seem to have thought it was an advantage, a perk rather than a responsibility. That was certainly the case in Jeremiah’s day. He preached to the nation of Judah in its final days, when it was really reduced to just its capital, with the superpowers of Egypt on one side and Babylon to the other. Despite their precarious situation, many were confident, and their priests and prophets told them not to worry. After all, the Temple was in Jerusalem, and God would not allow the last and greatest center of worship to be destroyed. After all, if the Temple were destroyed, who would recite the psalms glorifying the LORD? Who would teach Torah to the people, and where would they go to learn it? How would God receive sacrifices and vows? God needed the Temple, so God needed to protect the nation; without it, worship of the LORD would vanish from the Earth.

Jeremiah was called to go preach condemnation and warning to God’s people. This was dangerous work; people got killed for preaching what the king didn’t want to hear. But Jeremiah obeyed and said to the people: God doesn’t need this temple. God doesn’t need you. God loves you, God cares, God wants to teach you. But if you will not treat your fellow human beings with respect and justice, if you will not love your neighbor as yourself, if you will not care for the alien, the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the aged and the poor, then God will cast you and this temple away. God doesn’t need the smug, the self-righteous, the entitled. God wants the humble, the caring, the grateful.

This attitude towards God, and this message, existed long before Jeremiah and long after. In the days of Amos, during the reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel, two of the most successful rulers of their nations, he warned God’s people that they were being judged based on how they treated the poor among them; “they who trample on the head of the poor and thrust the afflicted out of the way” would be punished just as surely as any of those “wicked, pagan” nations around them.

Amos 9:7—Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?

Yes, God says, I take care of your nation; it is the apple of my eye. And I also care about all nations, and establish them; and I judge them, and will judge you. If you are arrogant, taking God’s love as a possession and a magic charm, as if the covenant binds God and not you, then you will be the one who loses. You need God; God doesn’t need you.

In the days of the Messiah, the prophet John the Baptizer spoke against the religiously complacent, the arrogant who thought being God’s chosen meant a free pass. “Repent! And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘I have Abraham for my father.’ I tell you that God is able to make children for Abraham out of these rocks here! Do what God tells you to do; love your neighbor as yourself, be honest with each other, and love God with all your heart and mind and strength.” God doesn’t need the people. God doesn’t send John, or Jesus, because God is desperate for love or for help. God sends prophets and priests and finally the Son because God loves us, and God knows that while God doesn’t need us, we need God.

Despite the many Scriptural criticisms of nationalism, it has become the cornerstone of the Religious Right. In the 20th Century, probably the most important Christian Nationalist was Jerry Falwell Sr. In books such as Listen Up, America! as well as in sermons and other public statements, Falwell argued that without the United States to serve as a base for world evangelism, Christianity itself might be endangered and could even vanish from the earth.[1] The world is caught up in a death struggle against the godless Communist Russia and the Christian United States; if the United States did not survive as a launching point for missionary activities, godlessness would win. It is thus essential to the Kingdom of God, Falwell says, not only that the United States remain morally pure (this defined primarily in terms of sexual discipline and general asceticism) but also militarily and economically dominant. Thus, Falwell ignores the Torah, Prophets and even Gospel passages that seem to contradict laissez-faire capitalism or militarism, since he believes God needs a strong army and a strong business community to preserve his earthly outpost. Without strong men, whether generals, tycoons or potentates, to support God’s Kingdom and to keep all the bad people in line, God’s kingdom will fail.

This is not the theology of the Bible, however, but only the edited version preached by Christian Dominionists like Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell. How can I dare say this? How can I, a mere insignificant dust mote in the winds of history, dare challenge the leaders of one of the most powerful political movements in the most powerful nation known to humanity? Only because it has happened before. The theology that said that God needed an earthly Temple and earthly political protection motivated the false prophets who challenged Jeremiah, who spoke lying words of comfort, and who supported the rich and the powerful in Jerusalem by saying that no matter how terribly they treated their poor neighbors and rejected God’s calls for justice, God would never allow the nation to fall because God needed the Temple and the priests and the kingly line. That theology failed. It was proven false when God did, in fact, allow Jerusalem to fall, the Temple to be destroyed, and the rich and powerful, the political and religious leaders, to be killed, enslaved or exiled. But that was not the end for God’s reign; it was only the beginning. The end of the Temple meant the beginning of the synagogue, which brought teaching of the Torah to all the nations where the Jews had settled. And in time, God raised up a new ruler, as is written in Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2 I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness

and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.  (Isaiah 44:45-45:4)

 

God calls Cyrus, King of Kings of the Persians, an anointed one, or in Hebrew, “Messiah,” even “though you do not know me.”   God uses whomever and whatever God needs, whether or not that person consents or even knows it. God used Cyrus and Cyrus’s ambitions for God’s own purposes. God allowed Judah, the self-righteous nation, to fall, and used Persia, who did not know God, to rebuild Jerusalem and to fulfill a far greater mission than Israel and Judah had ever conceived.

The Biblical foundation underneath today’s so-called Christian Dominionism, or Christian Reconstructionism, or Christian Nationalism, is that which was announced in the book of Deuteronomy: obey the covenant with God and be blessed, rebel and be punished. It structures much of the Bible’s understanding of Israelite history. Scholars have noted too that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy more often than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures. But even in those same Scriptures, the Prophets criticized that same theology, and in particular how humans, with our inclinations towards selfishness, self-aggrandizement and short-term thinking, have often twisted that theology to suit our own pride. The prophet Jeremiah even announced that the old Deuteronomic covenant was being replaced because humans had broken it so thoroughly. In its place would be a new covenant, not written on stone but on the hearts of believers. That is the covenant that was proclaimed by Jesus: the covenant that everyone would love the Lord their God, and their neighbor as themselves, and would be loved in turn by God directly. It does indeed call for the redemption of the nation, but it does so not by establishing an empire of rulership over other peoples but by loving and redeeming each individual.

 

[1] As discussed by James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics,” honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982 (https://publish.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/) p. 57

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 7)

March 13, 2018

So Falwell’s faulty exegesis points towards a deeper problem that, in Niebuhr’s eyes, undermines Falwell’s entire project and makes him a “false prophet:” pride. His inability to imagine that America might have faults, might have mixed motives in its foreign aid policies for example, or that racism, segregation and apartheid might be as abhorrent to God as is Stalinism are all examples of this. Really, though, his pride runs deeper than this, to the very foundation of his entire theological enterprise. Falwell’s crusade is based on the claim that America is essential to Christ; without the United States to use as a launching pad for missions, the Gospel could not spread or survive in the world. Falwell’s entire argument rests on this belief. It justifies and motivates his argument that America must stay militarily strong, so that it can cow other, godless nations. It justifies denying help to the poor and vulnerable, since the sole purpose of the State is to be an army guarding the Church, and any penny spent on Social Security or education takes away from the military budget. Those poor people demanding help from their government are dangerous parasites, weakening the State when it has to be strong. Quite simply, the State doesn’t exist to serve the poor; it exists only to serve the Church by physically protecting it from foreign armies and local criminals, and then by getting out of its way. But that “Church” it serves is not, again, just any old religious establishment, and not even any and every Christian institution; it is only the Evangelical churches that spread the properly conservative, economically laissez-faire capitalist message that will empower the business world and the military to do their jobs of making the USA the most kick-ass power on the planet whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. Other religions, even other Christian denominations, risk God’s wrath and thus weaken the nation, undermining its sole purpose of spreading Christian fundamentalism.

Why does God, who is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones here (Matthew 3:9), need the United States? Why does the Church, which spread under the persecution of pagan Rome as well as the God-fearing religious leaders of its day, need an army so desperately that God must accept a state whose economic policies impoverish other peoples as well as many of its own citizens? It seems incredibly arrogant to claim that the United States is the essential nation, or even an essential nation in God’s plan. This pride prevents any meaningful, prophetic voice from being raised; if the United States is the essential nation in God’s plan, it must be a “godly” nation by definition, and anyone who says it is falling short is challenging God’s judgment in having chosen it and made it the cornerstone of the Kingdom.

And in particular, the purpose of the State seems to be nothing more than to perpetuate and strengthen the State, and otherwise to leave the Church free to send missionaries wherever it wants. Insofar as it does anything else besides strengthen and enrich itself, it imposes controls on individual lives, restricting religious expression that doesn’t conform to Fundamentalist Protestantism, restricting sexual expression, restricting freedom of speech if that should entail criticizing Fundamentalism or capitalism, or in short, the State is to use force to impose Falwell’s theology. Anything else risks God’s wrath, which is the only thing that could weaken the nation. This reasoning was in full evidence on September 13, 2001, when Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson agreed on national television that the reason terrorists had been able to attack the United States was because of feminists and other people who disagree with their beliefs.[1] Their pride cannot accept that perhaps bad things happen for no morally good reason, and even less can they allow that maybe they themselves are the ones who are morally judged, despite repeated warnings in the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles that God will judge nations based at least partly on how they treat the poor. The one sin they recognize is Not Being Like Us; that is what God punishes, because God needs the United States and needs it to be conformed to the theological vision of Jerry Falwell.

In the final days of Judah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel argued against false prophets who preached that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall, no matter how corrupt its government nor how decadent and oppressive its wealthy class, because God needed the Temple. 2500 years later, the pride of the 20th Century gave rise to similar false prophecy. And that pride bore fruit in the Prosperity Gospel: the belief that God rewards good people and good nations with wealth, health and power, so anyone you see who is strong and rich must also be godly and good; and contrariwise, anyone who is suffering, or poor, or a nation that is weak, must be wicked and deserves whatever it gets and even whatever the “godly” people do them. This thinking starts from a sound Biblical starting point: the book of Deuteronomy, the one Christ is said to have quoted from the most. In that book, Moses warns the people that if the nation strays from its covenant with God, the nation will be cursed. From this idea, it was deduced that whenever we see sickness, that person must have done something wrong; and when we see national disaster like famine, the nation must have done something wrong. And likewise, if we see a rich, healthy person or a strong nation, it must be because God has blessed that person or nation for being so good. However, this goes beyond the actual message of the Bible. The entire book of Job aims to refute this simple equation of suffering with wickedness; Job is a righteous man, yet he suffers. His friends insist that he must in fact be wicked, and urge him to repent. He refuses, insisting on his innocence. Finally God rebukes the friends, and says that Job is the one who spoke truly (Job 42:7-9). Jesus, too, criticizes the easy equation of virtue and wealth, or sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5; Luke 16:19-31; John 9:1-3). Anyone following the logic of the Prosperity Gospel, or even the simplistic, prideful interpretation of Deuteronomy, would confidently claim that the blind beggar or the poor Lazarus were certainly sinners, or at least that their parents sinned and their sins were being visited upon the children. Or, today we might say that Lazarus must be lazy and the blind beggar’s parents were foolish not to have bought health insurance or to have worked hard enough to be able to provide for their son. The idea that perhaps the only “purpose” of suffering people is as a call to the rest of us to do God’s work by caring for them and caring about them—that idea simply does not fit human pride. It would mean admitting that evil and destruction are beyond our control, even when we are doing everything we can to conform to our understanding of righteousness and to force others to do so as well. It would mean admitting that we need to repent, just as much as “they” do. And it would mean that we can be judged even if we have good things that we got lawfully and honestly, simply because we were callous and self-indulgent.[2]

[1] Marc Ambinder, “Falwell Suggests Gays to Blame for Attacks,” ABC News, Sept. 14, 2001 (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322&page=1) The 700 Club, Sept. 12. 2001 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMkBgA9_oQ4)

[2] Remember, in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, there is no word that the rich man did anything “wrong;” he wasn’t a thief, and he didn’t fail to go to Temple. He was a good, laissez-faire capitalist, as far as the story depicts; and since it is a story, we can’t just say “well, he must have been a bad man, Jesus just didn’t mention that he was an embezzler.” That’s our pride talking, rewriting the Bible to fit our own standards. The only facts that exist about the Rich Man are that he had a good life, and anyone looking at him would have thought him blessed by God; but he ignored the poor man, and for that lack of love for his fellow human being, he wound up in Hades.

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 6)

March 13, 2018

“Falwell… stands labeled by Niebuhr as ‘false prophet.’”[1] And despite praising Falwell’s contention that the Christian must be involved in politics, and despite having misgivings about some aspects of Niebuhr’s theology, the analysis in this thesis largely agrees. Understanding why and in what ways Falwell is a false prophet not only shows us the heart of this thesis, but offers hints into Comey’s own motivations.   These hints are more for the reader’s exercise, since mindreading is an inexact science; so I will try to summarize Comey’s critique of Falwell and let you entertain yourself by speculating what part all this might have played in Comey’s controversial decisions of 2016 and 2017.

Falwell claims that his theological pronouncements are the clear word of God, supported by direct warrant from Scripture. He does not mean by this that there is no room for interpretation; he is not a strict literalist in the sense that if the Bible says to let the word of God be inscribed on your right hand, that you must literally write or tie Scriptures there (Deut 11:18). Or as Comey points out, the mere fact that the Bible reports similar events differently does not mean that Jesus at one time fed 5000 people with no commentary, then did it again with extensive commentary, despite the differences between Mark’s and John’s accounts; rather, we must interpret the Scriptures to make them harmonize. But Falwell does claim that, correctly interpreted, the Bible provides the Christian with direct instruction, and that this instruction is largely identical with the political and moral proclamations of Falwell himself. And upon close examination, this notion does not hold up. Many of Falwell’s claims seem to have, at best, indirect warrant from Scripture, requiring some degree of analogical or imaginative thinking. This is true not just of peripheral issues, but of claims that make up the heart of Falwell’s message. Falwell’s claim that God endorses capitalism and that capitalism is in fact the only economic system that God approves is highly dubious. As Comey points out, Falwell relies on Proverbs for his claim, but the proverb he cites is not particularly direct; it only reflects the idea that hard work should be rewarded and laziness leads to poverty. Falwell simply ignores large portions of Scripture, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Prophets, where the Bible makes its most sustained ethical teachings, and which seriously question the unlimited right to property and profit. Instead, Falwell, like other fundamentalists influenced by Rousas Rushdooney, relies primarily on selective reading of the Torah and Wisdom literature. But even in the Torah, the right to property is severely limited. For example, in the Year of Jubilee all debts are to be cancelled, all slaves set free, and most radically, all land sold by anyone is to be returned to that person’s family (Lev 25:8-17). Leaving aside questions like the ownership of Manhattan and assuming that this law only applies to “godly” nations like Israel and (according to Falwell) the United States, imagine what this would do to the real estate sector alone! While houses in “walled cities” may be sold permanently, no one in America lives in a walled city; and in any case, even if you stretch the definition of “walled city” to include any metropolis, this would still exclude suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Every fifty years, all this land would be returned to the original seller’s family. That’s a pretty serious restriction on capitalism! What this points to is that while the Bible allows for people to profit from their own work, or to make a reasonable and fair profit from business, the true source of capital in biblical times, the land itself, belonged to YHWH, which God Himself had distributed to particular tribes and families to manage. It was therefore a mixed economy, neither wholly socialist or wholly capitalist; the ultimate means of production, the land itself, belonged to God and by extension to the nation and people as a whole, while all profits from the land belonged to the individual. Even here there were restrictions, such as the prohibition against going back over your own fields to gather up anything the harvesters missed the first time (Lev. 23:22). Instead, even when dealing with what was unarguably “private property,” the landowner was required to provide for the poor. Again, the treatment of landowners in the Torah is not like the unlimited property rights asserted by Ayn Rand or even John Locke, who claim that private property is an essential right based on one’s right to one’s own body and thus to the “fruits of your labors.” It is not even like a franchise, where a largely absentee owner gives out a license in perpetuity for the franchisee to run the local gas station or McDonald’s as if he or she owned it outright provided certain minimum standards are met. Instead, the Torah treats landowners much more like managers, whose books are subject to evaluation on a regular basis by the true boss, which is God. And in a theocracy like Israel is described and like Falwell seems to want America to be, to say property is owned by God is to say that it is owned by the State as God’s agent. The socialists have a strong case if they wish to claim direct warrant from Scripture, at least as strong as the capitalists do.

The point is not to say that the Bible provides direct warrant for socialism, communism, capitalism or any other sort of “–ism;” the point is that the Bible does not provide direct warrant for our human “–isms” and that we commit idolatry when we claim it does. It is another example of our pride, leading us to exalt our particular preference or heritage to divine status.

[1] Comey, p. 89

“God of the Gaps”?

February 27, 2018

In the 17th century (the Scientific Revolution) there was a rise in attempts to prove God’s existence.  Until that time, most “natural philosophers” (early scientists by our standards) were also religious persons, seeking to understand the world as God’s handiwork; but in the 1600s there was a rise in concern over atheism.  (How much of that was due to the rise of science, and how much due to disillusionment after a century of religious warfare, is hard to say.)  These efforts to prove the existence of God often relied on showing that God provided the foundation for science and answered unanswered questions:  the so-called “God of the Gaps.”  If Saturn and Jupiter seemed to be changing speeds, for example, God must be causing it.  The problem with a God of the Gaps is that as science improves and answers those questions, the gaps close, and God gets squeezed out.  You can see how that could lead scientists towards atheism.   A century later, the mathematician LaPlace was presenting his latest astronomical calculations to Napoleon, who asked him what part God played in his book.  LaPlace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”   When God is reduced to a tool, or hypothesis in the system, then God is liable to be laid aside like any other tool that is no longer required.

Dr. Diogenes Allen writes in Finding Our Father:

     To study nature as a scientist, if it is done humbly, with the desire to understand it as a focus of value in its own right and not just for its utility, is a religious act.  It is to participate (whether knowingly or not) to some degree in the kind of love God bestows on his creation…  The more we are able to recognize other things as irreducible particulars, worthy of regard for their own sakes, and free of our own orbit, the more we can understand God’s creation as an act of perfect love, and participate in bestowing that kind of love ourselves. (Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father, {Atlanta, GA:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 1974}, p. 56

He explains further:

     According to the religious world view we have presented, our study of the workings of nature (as we briefly mentioned earlier) is a God-given task.  Scientific investigation deals with realities which as such are worthy of attention and understanding.  The universe is not a stage for a drama of salvation to be played out, as it has so often been portrayed in theology, but our very investigation of nature—the desire to see it as it really is—is a moral and religious task.  The study of nature is not an extra tacked onto the real business of being religious; it is integral to the religious task.  We are to seek to perceive clearly the realities of the natural world.  Our very moral growth, our sanctification, takes place in this endeavor.  (Allen, pp. 71-2)

The “religious task,” as Allen sees it, is to learn to see reality as it truly is:  completely independent from myself, beautiful and valuable regardless of whether it is useful to me or not, beyond my control and outside my orbit.  We may perceive reality as orbiting around ourselves, defining others as good or bad based on whether they are friend, foe or stranger, or valuing nature only insofar as it provides us with resources; but in fact, that which is, is worthy of existence, simply because it does in fact already exist.  We cannot usually experience this reality, even though we know rationally that we are each just momentary atoms in a vast cosmos; in practice, we are naturally psychological solipsists, experiencing everything as it pertains to us, and ourselves as the center of the universe.

Allen would say that the “God of the Gaps” is something different than we usually understand the phrase.  God is.  We are too full of ourselves to experience God, or God’s creation, as anything other than extensions of our own interests.  We need to open gaps in our self-centeredness, to experience that which is independent of ourselves and beyond our control, to let God into our lives and our consciousness.  Science can do this, by showing us a world that is beautiful, glorious in itself, and totally independent of us.  Science shows us that we are not the center of the world, be we are part of a beautiful world.   This view of the world teaches humility, the essential moral and epistemological virtue, which can allow us to experience perfect love (even if in this life we experience it imperfectly, fleetingly).