Posts Tagged ‘Theology’

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 ( The 700 Club, Sept. 12. 2001 (

[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

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 8)

February 12, 2018

I have tried to show here that the stereotypical Christian position on ecology is not the only one, or the oldest, or even the majority opinion. It is a rather recent innovation, which has become prominent in recent years because of a well-orchestrated campaign heavily funded by business interests and driven by social-political concerns, that is, “The Culture Wars.” It is a position that owes more to John Locke than to the Biblical heritage, interpreting Scripture through the lens of Locke’s views on property and a libertarian version of Christian Dominionism. Because it is well-funded, it has a loud voice, and is currently very politically influential. However, it is not the only Christian voice. The other voice I have sought to call attention to is much older, and more widely influential. It begins with St. Augustine of Hippo, and thus is foundational for much of Western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. While it originated in the conversation between Neoplatonism and the Christian Biblical tradition, its moral and epistemological concerns reach beyond that metaphysical framework. It is a theological vision that sees love as the fulfillment of human life, humility as the cardinal virtue to live the life of perfect love, and pride as the deadly sin that turns us away from the live of love which should be our destiny. This tradition is often drowned out today in the press, but it is not silenced; it continues to speak through Christian thinkers directly or indirectly influenced by Augustine’s insights. This theology offers Christians the best resources to contribute helpfully to facing the ecological crisis brought on by human abuse of our environment, abuse at times abetted by Christianity itself and by the same heritage of John Locke which gave us our Revolution.

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 7)

February 12, 2018

I’ve tried to lay out two significant moral traditions that express themselves in two very different Protestant theologies. One begins with the earliest days of Western Christianity, and continues through religious and even nonreligious thinkers. It is a tradition that sees the greatest moral danger as pride, the cardinal virtue as humility, and the fulfillment of human existence as loving God with all one’s heart and mind and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. The other crystallized in the English Enlightenment, and influenced European and American thinking, most prominently in the American Revolution, which was justified by appealing to its principles. This tradition sees conflict and oppression as the greatest evils, reason as the greatest virtue, and individual liberty and happiness (understood as a calm, sustained pleasure) as the best human life. I want to point out that there are resources within the Lockean moral tradition to start a conversation on environmentalism. Specifically, Locke’s defense of private property is limited by what he calls “the law of reason.” While a person has a natural right to whatever property his or her work has acquired and he or she can use, a person does not have a right to what cannot be used before it spoils.[1] He also discusses how some lands may be held in common for the good of all the people of a village or nation, which would justify public parks, federal forests and so on, with restrictions on the use of these by individuals.[2] But in the theological current flowing from Locke through Rushdooney into today’s federal government, it rarely does so. I would suggest that there are two main reasons for this; first and most obviously, much of the theology is being funded by large corporate donors, and they donate to amplify the voices that are the most business-friendly; and second, there is a hermeneutical blindness that prevents many preachers and theologians from properly critiquing Locke’s writings. When Locke writes, for example, “God , …has given the earth to the children of men,” it is easy to see this as some sort of divine command which would therefore have no limits; the will of God transcends human reason. In fact, Locke means no such thing. His primary theological writing, The Reasonableness of Christianity, makes this clear. He vigorously rejects religious extremism, or as he calls it, “enthusiasm,” and argues for an understanding of God that is reasonable: no miracles, no arbitrary commands, no resurrections and no one person paying for the sins of everyone. The scissors Jefferson used to edit the Bible were forged by Locke. But to a fundamentalist super-patriot, like Rushdooney or Jerry Falwell, Locke’s words go from being a rational argument capable of rational limits to a divine fiat which treats any question as rebellion. And that is how environmental questions about this “subdue the earth” mentality are treated. As one example, I would point to Kathleen Hartnett White, nominated by Trump to head the Council on Environmental Quality, who claimed that the belief in global warming was “a kind of paganism.”[3]

But even at its best, a social contract philosophy like Locke’s can only treat Nature as a resource for the enjoyment of humans, since only humans enter into the contract. And that is the real problem for theology in swallowing this philosophy, or any philosophy, without some hermeneutical consciousness: that one will try to build an understanding of God on a foundation that does not fit. The Augustinian moral tradition, by contrast, begins with an essentially spiritual foundation: the Platonic belief in the reality of transcendent Good, which makes itself known to those who are willing to receive it, coupled with the Abrahamic belief in one good, loving, personal God who created the world out of love, because it was good for these things to exist. From this perspective, the extreme individualism that Enlightenment social contract theory takes as its starting point is simply the first sign of pride, not an essential reality. The reality, or as Allen puts it, the moral perspective, is that humans are one part of the created order. They do not create order out of chaos by imposing or founding a social contract; they discover their parts as particulars among billions of other particular things, each of which is good in its own way and each of which is perfectly loved by God.

As I have indicated, this is not the theology underlying current U.S. government policies or much of Evangelical thinking. But it, or something like it, does underlie the environmental ethics of other strains of Christianity. The ecumenical National Council of Churches regularly publishes Earth Day liturgical materials, including a 2011 suggested Prayer of Confession which reads:



God, in all your Creation you have revealed to us the fragile interdependence of life. We confess, at times, we have rebelled against you with ideas of self-sufficiency and extreme individualism. We reap without sowing and do harm without knowing. Open our eyes and hearts to your Creation and all who labor to offer us daily with food, water, energy, and sanitation. Help us to build a just, sustainable community of equitable sharing, solidarity and gratitude.[4]



While NCC materials tend to focus on human needs and on preserving the environment to better protect the most vulnerable of us humans, they consistently emphasize human interconnectedness, first with one another but also with the rest of Creation, versus “our individualistic culture that is set up so that we will neither notice each others’ struggles, nor bear each others’ burdens.”[5] In Allen’s theology of perfect love, this extreme individualism is the de facto perspective; as he write, “My consumption of resources is well out of proportion to the available supply for mankind, yet I rarely give serious attention to the suffering of those I have never seen, even though I know in theory that their suffering is as real as any I have ever had.”[6] In both the primary religious task is seen as decentering oneself, turning away from excessive concern for oneself and consideration for the worldwide community. This is the Augustinian virtue of humility again, pulling the individual de facto person back from prideful self-love to make room for the moral life of perfect love of others.

An even clearer call to what Allen calls “perfect love” appears in “Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches.”[7] It states:



Our faith urges us to strive for eco-justice: defending and healing creation while working to assure justice for all of creation and the human beings who live in it. This call is rooted in the human vocation of “tilling and keeping” the garden from Genesis 2:15, as well as Christ’s charge to work with and for the most vulnerable. Because of their love for Christ who is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), churches are challenged to live in a manner consistent with God’s call to not only care for creation, but commune with creation.[8]



I don’t have any reason to think that the writers of this document had read Allen, but it seems clear they speak from the Augustinian moral tradition that he exemplifies. I find it remarkable how closely this justification for eco-justice follows Allen’s list of ethical implications of the experience of perfect love. The call to defend justice for “all creation and the human beings who live in it” reflects the humility of perfect love. Humans are to see themselves not as the beneficiaries of creation, those for whom all other things were created, but rather as one part of the vast created cosmos. The love of creation is referred back to the love of Christ, and all things done to harm or heal the Earth are seen as harming or healing Jesus himself (fourth on Allen’s list of five ethical principles). While some theologies discuss the believer in terms of ruling over Creation (an apocalyptic reference to the place of the saints in glory after the final judgment), the Earth Care statement discusses humans as servants, “tilling and keeping” God’s garden, not ruling over creation but “communing” with it as equals. As Allen said, we should not see ourselves as living in glory before our time; in this live we are de facto persons who are inclined to exploit, but in the afterlife we will be freed from this bondage to our egos and able to rule creation as God rules it—without selfish need, out of perfect love alone, as moral persons—-though of course without the omnipotence, still humble servants only.

All these documents we have examined so far have been supplementary educational materials. While all were available through my home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, some were originally published by the National Council of Churches and mention Episcopal, UCC and Lutheran leaders. This gives us some glimpse of the broad influence of the Augustinian moral perspective on environmental thinking within Christianity. Nature is valued and to be protected not merely because it is good for humans, but because it is good in itself. The last document I would like us to look at is the “Brief Statement of Faith” found in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions. It states:



Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation. Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.[9]



Again, the emphasis is not solely on human interests; instead, exploitation of both human and nonhuman creation is condemned, and God is said to act to redeem all creation.

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter V, sect. 31-

[2] Locke, sect. 31-41

[3] Veronica Stacqualursi, “White House to Withdraw Environmental Pick’s Nomination.” CNN February 3, 2018 (


[4] National Council of Churches, “Where Two or More are Gathered: Eco-Justice as Community;” National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Programs (2011) Bulletin insert

[5] “Where Two or More are Gathered,” p. 6

[6] Allen, p. 77

[7] PC(USA), Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches, version 3, 2013 (

[8] Earth Care Congregations, “Why Should We Care for the Earth?”

[9] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, 1996) 10.3: 34-40 (emphasis added)

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 6)

February 12, 2018

There is a start contrast with today’s white Evangelical mainstream and Allen’s Christianity of perfect love. The Evangelical theology, which is now at least unofficial U.S. government policy, is that the world is not made up of ineffably valuable particulars. It is made up of individual human beings with inalienable rights as Locke said, particularly the right to property; no living or nonliving thing has any rights or value at all except as property of some person. Those humans who have God’s favor, by dint of proper fundamentalist Christian theology and proper conservative politics, are loved by God; other particulars exist only to serve their needs. Effectively, this fundamentalist position rejects the experience of perfect love because it sees God as loving the de facto person and catering to that person’s desires for comfort and control. These desires are fulfilled largely in this world, as tithes are rewarded with material prosperity and legislation that regulates individual behavior while deregulating business is rewarded with national sovereignty over other countries.

Allen has one other imperative, which seems to be a corollary of the previous five: we are not to ask God to do for us what we are able to do for ourselves.[1] Again, this is at odds with much of today’s Evangelicalism. To expect God to give us what we can give ourselves is to try to make God orbit around us. In claiming to be a humble petitioner, such a person is the most prideful. We are created to be free and independent agents, with wills, minds, hearts and bodies of our own. We may have different capacities, but everything thing that is, is an independent focus of whatever its natural activity is; and for humans, that entails what we generally subsume under the concept “free will.” If we have the ability to do something, we should thank God for that and use that ability. If we have the ability to understand the world, or to preserve it from destruction or to make it more viable by cleaning up the damage we have done in our selfishness, we ought to do it. Again, this is at odds with the current theological vogue, which argues that anyone who supports defending the ecology is actually at odds with God.[2] As Dr. Willis Jenkins writes, “Contempt for earth has become a mark of faith.”[3]

It seems a bit odd, perhaps, to claim that the theology that says “we humans can’t do anything to affect the environment, it’s all in God’s hands” is the one that is the most prideful and selfish, while the one that says we humans have a responsibility to try to understand and care for the Earth, and even repair it where we have damaged it, is the one founded on humility and perfect love of God. The Augustinian moral tradition would respond that love is expressed in humble service. To care for the Earth is to love it because God has created it, and to love it because one loves God and glorifies God by loving what God has created. From that perspective, to say “We humans can’t do anything!” as the anti-environmentalists often do, is not unlike the child who refuses to clean up his or her room because the mess is too big and the job too hard; relying on the parent to do it all is not acknowledging the parent’s superiority, it’s turning the parent into a servant—-which we recognize since the usual parental retort is “I’m not your maid!” To love God is to have perfect love for all that is; to love perfectly is to care for all that is. Perfect love is servant love, whether that means visiting a sick person in the hospital or cleaning up a sick waterway.

[1] Allen, pp. 111-116

[2] O’Conner, Brendan. “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.” Splinter 8/8/2017 (

[3] Jenkins, Dr. Willis. “Contempt for Creation.” Religion and its Publics April 13, 2017 (

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 5)

February 12, 2018

The experience of perfect love is relevant even though it is rare, because it is the truth. In addition to being an epistemological and ontological claim, this has ethical implications, which are relevant “in this time of ecological crisis.”[1]  The first is the need for attentiveness.[2] We should strive to consider each thing in its own particularity, for whatever exists is special and has value just by virtue of existing. In particular, we should consider that living things are not only of value, but also vulnerable; and being vulnerable, they call out for care. Everything that exists is its own center of activity, doing its own thing, and thus has potential to cause and to suffer harm to other things; living things are particularly susceptible to harm since they can so easily be turned into nonliving things. Most suffer some sort of fear and pain, but even the least can lose its most essential quality, life. To a large degree, this is inevitable; living things need to eat, and often do this at the expense of other living things, either by eating them or competing for resources. But we can start our moral lives by learning to pay attention. Since our fellow humans are so vulnerable and so unique, we can start by paying attention to the needs of our neighbors. This includes attending to our relationships with them as well as any needs they have as particular individuals. But even beyond attending to people, and to living things in general, we can attend to whatever is, and learn to see the beauty in all things and in nature as a whole. Beauty, as Plato said, has the power to turn our attention (however briefly) away from our selves, and towards the goodness around us; and it is when we cease to be so self-occupied and full of ourselves that God can find a way into our lives. Allen writes:

If we then seize the opportunity created by the recognition of beauty, we can steadily train ourselves to move away from a de facto stance in relation to all things, even when we are not at that moment aware of their beauty. In this time of ecological crisis, such attentiveness is exceedingly relevant; for we have been so mesmerized by the glory and grandeur of wealth that we have been unable to regard the earth as a reality which has, merely as a reality, some independence of our wants and desires and hence is worthy of respect. Our self-centered, solipsistic relation to nature now promises to reap what it has sown.[3]



Allen says that even the scientific study of nature, when done to understand what is simply because it is rather than for some ulterior goal, can be a religious act even if the researcher is unaware of this.  Just by really attending to particulars, without any attempt to draw them into your orbit but simply to appreciate them for themselves, is to practice the perfect love God has for creation, in our own limited way. And in attending to the world and to particulars, we learn to appreciate not only their beauty, but also their vulnerability and need for our care.

Allen discusses four other ethical imperatives which he believes flow from the experience of perfect love.[4] He believes we ought to realize that we ourselves are objects of God’s perfect love. This awareness entails that we ought to be humble, recognizing that this love is undeserved and indiscriminate; God loves us as God loves all that is, because “God looked at all God had created, and behold, it was very good.” But to say we are no better than anything else God has made, just one among countless billions, is also to say that each of us is of inestimable worth, valued and loved in our particularity by God. We ought also to not seek to live in glory before our time. To live in this world, as flesh-and-blood people, is to be de facto persons primarily concerned with ourselves, only partially and fleetingly able to adopt the moral standpoint. To become a moral person is our task in this life, but it will not be a reality until the next, when our awareness will be so filled with God that we finally cease to be self-centered. In one of the few really explicitly Christian imperatives, Allen says we should pay attention to Jesus, not from our de facto perspective of what he can do for us personally but as the incarnation of the God who humbled himself in willing that other things should exist, rather than remaining the only reality. For God, the de facto position of being the center of everything was the true one; God chose to allow other existences to take place and to follow their own nature as independent centers of existence. And just as Jesus is said to suffer for the sins of the world, the Jesus of Scripture suffers when others suffer due to the greed of the powerful and the environmental depletion this causes. For Christians, Jesus both makes visible the nature of God and lives the perfect human life, both telos and role-model; and in both roles we see a figure that embraces poverty to enrich others, showing care for the humblest person and even for the birds of the air and lilies of the field. And lastly, Allen says we ought to forsake the world, not in the sense of ceasing to care about it but in the sense of ceasing to control it or expect it to satisfy our deepest longings. The world is what it is, a lot of particulars that are beautiful in themselves, but finite, independent, and thus incapable of giving us what we really need: to be perfectly loved. That can only come from God, and will only be fully experienced after death frees us from our de facto existence to exist as moral persons.

[1] Allen, p. 72

[2] Allen, pp. 69-73

[3] Allen, pp. 72-3

[4] Allen, pp. 73-80

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 4)

January 31, 2018

In the 20th Century thinkers such as Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch developed philosophies influenced by Platonism and a non-theistic religiousness, again emphasizing the distorting effects of pride and the need for humility to receive truth. I came to know their writings through the teaching of Diogenes Allen, former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, and it is his development of this line of thought that I find particularly helpful regarding development of a Christian response to the anti-environmentalist theology of the Christian Reconstructionists. In the book Finding Our Father, Allen sets out to distinguish the religious perspective versus the more immediate, default standpoint, or the “moral self” versus the “de facto self.”[1] The de facto self is the place we all start. From infancy, we are aware of our needs and strive to meet them, at first instinctively and later with more deliberation. The world as we perceive it centers on ourselves, quite literally as far as perception goes, as well as psychologically; the world is made up of objects of desire, of obstacles and tools. Later we may rationally conclude that there are other persons beside ourselves, but we still tend to think of them as they relate to our own needs: friends or foes, lovers and beloved, strangers or acquaintances, foreigners versus neighbors. We may rationally know that this is not an accurate picture of the universe, that in fact we are but momentary atoms in a very large cosmos, but that is not what we experience most of the time. Normally, and naturally, we experience ourselves and our own needs most strongly.

Despite the rarity of an experience of the independence of reality, Allen does believe it is possible. He describes it first as it is depicted in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Unicorn, where an extremely self-centered young man, facing inevitable death, finally lets go of his egoism and senses the beauty of all things. This, Allen says, is “perfect love” of the world. The young man realizes that his whole life, people and things have been around him that were wonderful in themselves, regardless of how or whether they affected him at all. Allen writes:


This experience of love is something that happened to him; he did not seek it, prepare for it, or apparently even know that such an experience was possible. The novelist stresses that it occurred “quite automatically.”… This nearnesss of death enabled him to become full of the presence of other sthings and to lack self-consciousness because by its nearness he became aware that he had no power or control over them. He will die and cease to have power over anything, and yet other things will continue to be. They thus become recognized as realities because they are independent, utterly independent of himself. This is the death of the self as the one reality, the only reality one recognizes, with all else subordinate, orbiting about oneself, having significance and value assigned unrealistically because assigned primarily in terms of its relation to oneself.

It is the withdrawal of power or control, then, which is fundamental to a recognition of the independence of things, and with their independence, they can confront him with a compelling, beauteous radiance.[2]


Allen then goes on to discuss whether such an experience is possible in reality, outside of the confines and improbable conditions of a novel. He cites the writings of Simone Weil, the French philosopher writing in Vichy France, and Laurens van der Post, a World War II POW expecting summary execution as the war was ending, as two real-life examples of this same experience. In both cases, people who had given up or lost control of the world found themselves moved spontaneously to experience and to love that which was entirely independent of themselves, to love what is simply because it is, and to forgive even what was crushing them.

So this experience of what Allen calls “perfect love” exists. Why do we not experience it more widely? And since it seems so rare, what is its relevance to the rest of us? The first question points towards the second. The reason we don’t generally experience perfect love is that we are all experiential solipsists. Each person, indeed each existing entity, is a unique center of activity. Each self has ontological priority for itself; I know myself first and immediately, experience my own needs and the effects of the world on me. Allen calls this the life of the de facto person. The de facto person lacks ontological humility. Each of us can see the world as orbiting around us, and we do so quite naturally. Elsewhere, Allen identifies this as the source of the original sin, not sin itself but temptation and possibility. As long as anything exists as an independent thing, it has its own inner activity. Since we are each aware of our own inner activity (and not of any other), we can experience reality as it orbits around us. But this is a distortion of reality. I am not the only center of activity; there are other minds and other objects. I know this, but even knowing it does not mean I experience it. Therefore, if I am to experience the truth, I need to seek to move beyond my standpoint as a de facto person and to strive to become a “moral person… one who is aware that he is but one reality among many realities.”[3] This is a position that none of us is able to occupy more than fleetingly, if only because the pressure of being an existing reality which knows its existence is threatened is so strong; it seems that the only way one could sustain the awareness of the moral person would be to be able, as God is able, to be aware of other things without being dependent on them or threatened by them. Such an experience would only be sustainable for someone who has moved from the de facto perspective to the place of one who knows he or she is perfectly loved by God, and has ceased to think about his or her own existence because the experience of God’s love has become central. (In a somewhat complicated way, this becomes an argument for the belief in the coming Kingdom of God.[4]) It is self-centeredness, or pride, which distorts the person’s experience of God and existence; and it is ontological humility that makes perfect love and a true experience of reality possible.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1974) pp. 21-48

[2] Allen, pp. 23-24

[3] Allen, p. 31

[4] In Kant, the moral demand together with the impossibility of perfectly realizing the moral task in this life made it reasonable to believe in an afterlife, where one could forever strive to more fully fulfill the requirements of morality. For Allen, the awareness of perfect love, plus the knowledge of the truth of the moral perspective, together with the impossibility of sustaining moral personhood in this life suggests that there must be another sort of existence after this one, in which the de facto person indeed dies but the moral person lives on, perfectly loved by God and perfectly loving all things and God, so that the awareness of reality actually matches the nature of reality.

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 3)

January 23, 2018

This is what puts Hamann in the Augustinian moral tradition, despite the great differences between them in other areas. For Hamann as for Augustine, humility is the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin. Humans turn away from God out of pride, a prideful desire to be the center of their world rather than created beings glorifying their creator. This in turn also turns them against one another, as each individual becomes a competing center of value striving to put the others in orbit around it. But humility is also necessary for knowledge. Humans must receive truth; they cannot create it. Their pride tends to lead them astray as they see things as orbiting around themselves rather than seeing each thing as it is in its own right. Furthermore, even without the distorting effects of pride, we are limited beings and our senses are imperfect, as is our judgment. We will make mistakes. All our knowledge is therefore only an approximation. It takes humility to admit that one is not the center of the universe, that things and people have value regardless of how they affect you, and that you must be content sometimes with uncertainty and probability; but if one has the humility to do this, one can also have the knowledge that is there, offering itself. Humility is thus not only a moral virtue, but the essential epistemological virtue.

Hamann’s writings had a profound influence on Kierkegaard, as is clearly seen in his repeated references in Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard’s focus was very different, largely because he and Hamann had different philosophical opponents. Hamann’s two targets were skepticism, championed by Hume, and the idealism of his friend Immanuel Kant. Of the two, his preference was for Hume. His major move against skepticism was to emphasize the role of the will in belief—-again, a notion with roots in Augustine. Against Kant, and against the rationalism with which Kant claimed to be breaking, Hamann argued that human pride leads us to create our own truths that can exceed the truth given to us by God through our senses, but which have no actual basis in reality. Hamann believed that it is pride that keeps us from accepting the truth, and that pride expresses itself both when it asserts claims that are not true but are satisfying, and when it rejects truths that don’t measure up to its standards of proof. Kierkegaard’s target was Hegel and his historical idealism. Kierkegaard did not read Hume or English at all, and seems to have not been fully aware of what Hamann’s points were in his critique of Hume; but he did famously take up Hamann’s argument that knowledge of all questions of existing reality involves a movement of the will, to accept the evidence of the senses despite their inherent incompleteness. In his “Philosophical Interlude” in the Fragments, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus argues that even to accept the truth that one is seeing a star includes an act of will. The individual must choose, at some point, to stop questioning the evidence and to accept the evidence as it stands, to close the books and reckon the account as paid in full or not. Doubt will never end until the individual chooses to let it. In his attack on doubt, Kierkegaard (again, using his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) focuses first on Descartes, and then on the modern heirs of Descartes, particularly Hegel, who said that doubt will inevitably run its course and absolute knowledge will, eventually, emerge. Climacus says there is nothing inevitable about knowledge; there is always an element of freedom, even when it is not noticed. This becomes most obvious when the object of knowledge is God’s presence in Jesus Christ, a notion that combines the inherent uncertainty of all knowledge of existence with the added obstacle of defying our norms of human reason. Again, it is pride that is said to motivate this unwillingness to accept God’s self-revelation. As Climacus describes it in his discussion of offense, Reason chooses to set itself up as the judge and standard to which God must conform; a revelation that does not fit reason’s standards is judged to be inferior. By contrast, if God is the standard, then it is Reason that is being judged. Again, it is pride that holds us back from accepting the truth, and humility, specifically the humility to accept reason’s shortcomings and to let God be God, that allows us to accept the truth that gives itself.

Through this 1400 year evolution of the Augustinian tradition, while we have not said much specifically about environmentalism, we have laid a foundation for considering it as a religious and moral issue.   Humility tells us that we are not the center of the universe, either individually or collectively; God is the center, and it is God who decides what is valuable by choosing to bring it into existence. The individual’s task is to accept this. It is pride that leads us to think that people or other beings have value only insofar as we choose to value them. This pride is not only a moral vice leading to other injustices and sins, but also an epistemological vice that distorts our view of reality, and of ourselves.


Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 2)

January 19, 2018

The biblical witness is, as far as I can see, mixed.   True, Genesis gives ““Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” as the first commandment God gives to humans; furthermore, wilderness is often depicted as a place of danger for humans, with wild carnivorous beasts. But the nonhuman world is also commonly depicted both as glorifying God and as the object of God’s care; both the Psalms and the Gospels assure us, for example, that God feeds the birds. The birds don’t exist solely or even primarily for our benefit; yet God cares for them just as God cares for humans. How can we proceed, and what can we say that might be helpful to all people as well as true to the biblical witness?

The Augustinian theological tradition is one of the oldest and most fruitful of Western Abrahamic monotheism, if only by default since it was the first real systematic theology to make much inroad in European culture. In doing so it prepared the ground for later religious developments as well as providing its own unique insights, and in later history it continued to echo even in humanistic philosophies like existentialism. As Alasdair MacIntyre discusses in his book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, the mortal vice in this tradition is pride, and the cardinal virtue is humility.[1] It was pride that led Adam to rebel against God.[2] This has moral and epistemological significance. To be in communion with God is to be in communion with truth, since God is Truth. In seeking to become “like God, knowing good and evil” for himself, Adam turned away from the Truth and sought to become the source of his own truth. Instead of seeing himself as part of the created order, Adam tried to take God’s place at the center. In doing his Adam, and with him all humanity, not only disobeyed and rebelled against cosmic justice, but also lost knowledge of God, of reality, and particularly of our place in reality as creatures of God. By contrast, the life of faith is good not only because it gives God his due, as justice is commonly defined, but also because the faithful person allows God to give truth about God first, and about the believer himself or herself, and about the rest of the world.

Jumping over 1400 years of Western thought, I come back to Hamann. Metaphysically, Augustine and Hamann could not be more different. Augustine set out to reconcile Neoplatonic philosophy with Christianity, on Christianity’s terms. Hamann set out, more or less, to reconcile Hume’s empiricism with Christianity, again on Christianity’s terms. But in important ways, they converge in their moral and epistemological interests. Augustine argued that Truth (that is, God) gives itself to the human mind directly. If one accepts this divine illumination in humility and obedience, one can have true knowledge, not only of God but of the world as well. If one, moved by pride, rebels and seeks instead to find one’s own truth, or to be one’s own truth, one will remain in ignorance of God, of the world, and of oneself. Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and his argument that human knowledge of existence is uncertain; but he claimed that it was pride, and a demand for an impossible level of certainty, that held Hume back from accepting the truth God offers us. Hamann said that God gives us truth, about the world and about God, through our senses. We know about the physical world because we see and hear and taste and feel; we know about God because we hear the prophets, we see God’s actions in history, or as the Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps 34:8).   In short, Hamann says we learn truth through experience. Hume holds back from this in what he calls “mitigated skepticism:” refusing to admit knowledge of anything, accepting only probability claims.   Hamann says that the refusal to accept a truth is as bad as accepting a falsehood; in his fear of being mistaken, Hume ends up denying himself the knowledge that finite, fallible beings like ourselves can know. Kant (Hamann’s friend) by contrast turns away from the world, and seeks knowledge in transcendental critique, essentially making the object of knowledge one’s own mind, rather than the physical world. Again, Hamann says, it is pride to demand a higher degree of certainty than is humanly possible; and this pride leads Kant to rethink Christianity in ways that conform to his philosophy rather than conforming his philosophy to God’s revelation; or as Kant put it, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Hamann’s model for epistemology is the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, eternal Truth becomes physical, and God’s nature is expressed not through philosophical argumentation or direct mental noesis, but physically to be received through the senses. Hamann thinks that any philosophy that denies sensory knowledge of the world, whether it’s Hume’s skepticism or Kant’s idealism, will either abolish religion or pare it down to fit whatever gap philosophy has been kind enough to leave. But of the two, Hamann prefers Hume, because Hume’s empiricism asserts that there is a real physical world that we have access to through our senses. Hume himself said that believing in miracles is to believe something so improbable that it would take a miracle to believe it; Hamann accepts this jab as literal truth. Religious belief is a miracle; but it is also a miracle that one must choose to accept.

[1] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN; University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) pp. 146-63

[2] St. Augustine, City of God, Book XIV, chapter XIII

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.