Monday, October 30, 2006

Reformation Sunday... A Mighty Fortress and the New Atheists

Our sending hymn at our services yesterday was A Mighty Fortress. For some reason, the final verse stuck out to me as especially meaningful.
God's Word forever shall abide,
No thanks to foes who fear it;
For God himself fights by our side
With weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honor, child or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The Kingdom's ours forever!
Perhaps it was just the moment. After all, A Mighty Fortress should stir the heart of any Christian, but on Reformation Sunday, Lutherans cannot help but feel some affinity towards this hymn which sets the core of the Christian faith to hymnody. The other possibility working on me there however, could have been that I read the article in the November 2006 issue of Wired, "The Church of the Non-Believers. (read the whole article)"

In that article, the author, Gary Wolf, looks at the movement whose adherents are called New Atheists. Atheists since they believe in no god or gods, no supernatural powers at all. But New because they are not content to merely tolerate those who do believe in a supernatural power. They seek converts to atheism. They claim religion is evil, irrational, and not worthy of any respect. Wolf picks out three of the main voices in New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett.

Naturally being an evolutionary biologist Dawkins' main arena of engagement with religious folks is within the creationism/evolution debate. But his argument will probably shock some. He agrees with creationists, and works against moderate and liberal allies. Dawkins argues that evolution must lead to atheism. Dawkins is quoted,
...the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism. ...the "sensible" religious people are really on the side of the fundamentalists, because they believe in supernaturalism. That puts me on the other side.
The question is what is the position of reason? Does reason reign supreme? Wolf moves here to talk about Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. Harris sees an apocalypse brought on by religious faith, which will destroy the world. Harris wants to elevate reason to be the object of religion. Harris says,
We would have realized the rational means to maximize human happiness. We may all agree that we want to have a Sabbath that we take really seriously - a lot more seriously that most religious people take it. But it would be a rational decision, and it would not be just because it's in the Bible. We would be able to invoke the power of poetry and ritual and silent contemplation and all the variables of happiness so that we could exploit them. Call it prayer, but we would have prayer without bullshit.
Where to start at a comment like that? Frankly, if I am going to be converted to atheism, I don't really want religion in another guise. After all religion's root meaning is about being bound. William Cavanaugh, in "God is Not Religious", writes,
The word derives from the Latin religio, a minor term that did not originally mean what we take religion to mean today. Religio referred to a binding obligation (from re + ligare, to rebind); to say that something was "religio to me" meant that it represented a special obligation. (from God Is Not... ed. D. Brent Laytham)
Show me how true happiness is not found in religion at all. Don't give me pseudo-religious babble about the power of poetry, ritual and contemplation, let alone the variables of happiness (what does that mean?). Don't borrow the language of the world's religions to elevate reason to the place of primacy in the world. Give me something new... or else, I will simply dismiss you as a derivative hack seeking to bind me to you.

Notice also what Harris, knowingly or unwittingly, admits about that babble. The power of poetry and all are just commodities that are meant to be exploited. We may dominate and subdue them! Their value exists only in what we can mine out of it. And no matter what he may say about contemplation and ritual, to invoke the word "exploit" is a word full of violent overtones. What shall happen when there are competing narratives even within this religion of reason? And there will be. There will be those who want complete freedom to do whatever they want (as long as it brings no harm to anyone else) and those who think reason shows that a particular ethic must be followed. There will be subjugation and violence meant to compel one branch of reason under another.

The reality of the issue points to the broken nature of reason. Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett all have different visions of what atheism looks like. Were the New Atheists to be succesful, and naturalism were to rise in ascendancy, there would be new wars, the wars of reason. Whose version of reason would win?

One of the threads of this article that gets me is the easily tossed about quip that most intelligent people are atheists. Where does this little piece of conventional wisdom come from? I would want to challenge that presumption. There are many intelligent, faithful Christians. Wolf admits as much as he delves into Christian theology. He disagrees with Dawkins who has claimed that Christian theology is vacuous, and devoid of coherence and content. Rather, he writes, "On the contrary, I find the best to be brilliant, detailed, self assured." However, behind this axiom of the New Atheists also belies a prejudice. When they say "intelligent" they really mean upper class, scientific, descendant of the Enlightenment. All of the atheists mentioned (even in some of the sidebars) are white and male (Hmm... who is Wired's main audience?).

Finally, Wolf brings up Dennett. It certainly seemed in this article that when Wolf brings up Dennett, the tone switches, from harsher to softer. Dennett is a smart voice. Dennett claims that unexamined, sacred things are useful. They bring about confidence and feelings of security. In a religion of rationality, he could see a policy not to even think about some things. out of pragmatism. They would remain unquestionable for all except the philosopher (the hero of Dennett's religion), who take the risks. Dennett says, "Philosophers should expect to be hooted at and reviled. Socrates drank the hemlock. He knew what he was doing."

At this desription Wolf looks to the biblical image of the prophet, but in the end, Wolf writes what is to me remarkable.
Prophecy, I've come to realize, is a complex meme (note: meme is a theoretical invention of Dawkins, a cultural replicator that spreads like brain to brain, like a virus). When prophets provoke real trouble, bring confusion to society by sowing reverberant doubts, spark an active, opposing consensus everywhere - that is the sign they've hit a nerve. But what happens when they don't hit a nerve? There are plenty of would-be prophets in the world, vainly peddling their provocative claims. Most of them just end up lecturing to undergraduates, or leading little Christian sects, or getting into Wikipedia edit wars, or boring their friends. An unsuccesful prophet is not a martyr, but a sort of clown.
So maybe now... there is no need for urgency. But maybe we need to be forming people now to be the type who can proclaim the gospel, who know that Christianity is not just a religion that binds us to some hierarchical structure, but a way of life that binds us to the God of the universe. We rely on reason only after having had the gospel revealed to us, not secretly as much of reason is revealed to the specialists who can afford the education, but openly and publicly from the pulpit, the altar and the font.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Warm-up for the Reformation... Heidelberg Disputation May 1518

Over at Lutheran Confessions, Clint posts the Heidelberg Disputation. I post a few of the theses near the end of the theological theses to remind us of our calling.
19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1.20]. **

20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded and hardened.

23. The law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ [Rom. 4.15].

24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.
Lift high the cross.

Monday, October 23, 2006

James of Jerusalem, Martyr -- Oct. 23

Briefly mentioned in New Testament passages, most notably 1Cor. 15:7 where Paul reports that he sees the risen Lord, James of Jerusalem is recognized as an early leader in the Church in Jerusalem. According to Galatians 2:9, Paul writes that James' mission is to the Jews.
...and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised...
James is recognized as the first bishop of Jerusalem, the "Bishop of bishops." In Festivals and Commemorations, Rev. Philip Pfatteicher writes,
Jewish Christianity exalted him above Peter and Paul since his ministry was in the principal city of the Holy Land. He remained the most respected and authoritative leader in Jerusalem for most of the Christian generation, no doubt because of his eyewitness testimony to the risen Jesus.
James is according to accounts put to death by temple authorities, just when remains the issue. Josephus says he was stoned to death in 62, but another source says that during Passover before the siege in 66, James claimed that Jesus was the Son of Man, and then that he was thrown from the temple, then stoned and beaten. Whenever it was, James' confession of Jesus as Messiah is the catalyst for his martyrdom.

Given recent discussions of Islamic martyrdom in media circles, martyrdom is generally seen as a negative reaction. Evidently one can take one's faith too far. Christian martyrs (remember martyr means "witness" or "one who gives testimony") are not active in seeking their own deaths let alone others. Christian martyrs proclaim Jesus as Lord and accept the consequences, even if others put them to death for their proclamation.

Does the Church now raise up people who would accept martyrdom? Perhaps the more important question to be raised first is, "Does the Church raise up people who may faithfully proclaim Jesus as Messiah in all things?" This proclamation is far from just talking Jesus, like the church group I saw this past weekend at a very popular state park. A short distance from the restrooms the group sat in a circle, and as my sons and I walked around waiting for my wife to finish in the restroom, the group broke into "Our God Is an Awesome God" and then into some warrior-type chant. "Give me a 'J.' Give me an 'E.'... What's that spell? JESUS! Who do you love? JESUS!...Who's coming back soon? JESUS!" Is that proclamation? More importantly is that proclamation worth dying for? Will it form a people to proclaim Jesus in such a way that others hate you for it?

Or is it safe proclamation? Set apart from the crowd, they circled up, sang their song, did their cheer, and felt good about what they said. Did it actively engage non-believers? Did they show the love that is to make us known to others? With martyrs, there is an active engagement of the political realm, with society (political not meaning just the civil authorities, but the life we live together in society). Most Christians I would say are formed now to be non-threatening to the political order. Christians are safe. If we appear to take the Gospe too seriously, we are labelled with terms like "radical" and "trouble maker."

James' engagement with the authorities of his time led to his death. The martyrs give us the example about how we proclaim the gospel extravagantly and without reserve. Let us give thanks for all who are formed in that way, and pray that we may be formed the same.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

God as Capitalist...

There are just so many signs that God has a bad business plan. Every time he moves to affirm that "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last," he scares away potential investors, loses market share, and pushes the most ambitious persons out of the firm. Elton Mayo may have built a kinder, gentler school of labor utitlization around the touchy-feely type of human relations (use compliments instead of threats, treat your workers well and they'll work for you, and all that), but you can't put the last first and the first last. The last are last for a reason--they're too stupid, or not sufficiently ruthless, or carrying too much baggage from prior exploitation or victimization. And if you don't put the first on top you're violating the natural order, setting up perverse incentives, and the evolution of better ideas, more efficient sorts of activities, and the creation of wealth.
These are just a few of the bad business practices that God, through Jesus, implements in the Gospels. But this isn't the enture story. Consider the strategies that God and Jesus don't practice that are part and parcel of every capitalistic enterprise. God not only does things guaranteed to frustrate economic rationality, God passes up other things that constitute good stewardship of economic resources and the production of value.
Consider, for example, the whole question of incentives. Contemporary capitalism lives in a world in which political entities offer incentives--tax breaks, subsidies, regulatory exemptions--to attract capitalist investment in one community rather than another. Illinois competes with Kentucky, the United States with Germany, Haiti with Honduras--while some people call corporate incentives a form of legal bribery, they're an important part oof what every good capitalist consideres in making investment decisions.
But not God. Not only does God seem decidedly lukewarm toward some traditional form of incentives (burnt offerings and sacrifices, for example), God doesn't seem attuned to locating where maximal return could be obtained. With all due respect to God's location team, choosing a backwater like Galilee as the site fo the incarnation, seems remakably short-sghted: doubtless the Romans would have offered a much more attractive package of temple construction, tax subsidies, and legal privileges were divinity to come in the form of the emperor(for real, not just in pagan terms) or some other imperial notable. But Galilee? Bad transportation infrastructure, far from religious markets, distant from suppliers, and not likely to jump from an ethnic/niche markey within Judaism to a worldwide commodity.
Michael L. Budde
"God Is Not a Capitalist"

Thursday, October 19, 2006

St. Luke, Evangelist -- Oct. 18

Why am I a day behind? Doh!

St. Luke is the one credited for writing the third gospel and its companion the book of Acts. And while his (or her for that matter) identity is largely unkown, Luke's gospel contains some of the most beloved parables, and most-used liturgical songs. If one makes it a habit of praying the Daily Offices, these canticles are heard often. One of the central pieces of Vespers is the Magnificat, Mary's Song which she sings when she visits her cousin Elizabeth.
Luke 1:46-55(NRSV) My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Then there are the songs of Zechariah, and of Simeon. We receive the beginning of the Gloria from the song of the angels at Jesus' birth.

Much of Luke's emphasis is on the reversal of the world with the coming of God's Reign. The poor and outcast are exalted, the rich and powerful are cast down. Luke's beatitudes are much earthier than Matthew's. There Luke writes "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (6:20)"

And one of the most beloved resurrection stories of Jesus happens in Luke. On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples see Jesus revealed to them in the breaking of the bread. St. Luke portrays Jesus, and later the Church, as active in the world, forgiving sin, helping the poor and outcast, healing the sick and proclaiming liberty to the captive.

May we continue to be that kind of Church.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr Oct. 17

Ok... so this should have been posted yesterday... technically.

From Ignatius' letters:
To the Trallians -- [Jesus Christ] is our Hope, and if we live in union with him, we shall gain eternal life. ...
Be deaf, then, of any talk that ignores Jesus Christ, of David's lineage, of Mary; who was really born, ate, and drank; was really persecuted under Pontius Pilate; was really crucified and died, in the sight of heaven and earth and the underworld. He was really raised from the dead, for his Father raised him, just as his Father will raise us, who believe on him, thought Christ Jesus apart from whom we have no genuine life.

To the Romans -- Just pray that I have the strength of soul and body so that I may not only talk [about martyrdom], but really want it. It is not that I merely want to be called a Christian, but actually to be one. Yes, if I prove to be one, then I can have the name. ... Our God Jesus Christ, indeed has revealed himself more clearly by returning to the Father. The greatness of Christianity lies in its being hated by the world, not in its being convincing to it. ...
Let me be fodder for wild beasts-- that is, how I can get to God. I am God's wheat and I am being ground by the teeth of wild beasts to make a pure loaf for Christ. ...
All the way from Syria to Rome, I am fighting with wild beasts, by land and sea, night and day, chained as I am to ten leopards (I mean to a detachment of soldiers), who only get worse the better you treat them. But by their injustices I am becoming a better disciple, "though not for that reason am I acquitted."...
May nothing seen or unseen begrudge me making my way to Jesus Christ. Come fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil--only let me get to Jesus Christ! Not the wide bounds of earth nor the kingdoms of this world will avail me anything. "I would rather die" and get to Jesus Christ, than reign over the ends of the earth. That is whom I am looking for--the One who died for us. That is whom I want--the One who rose for us.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Is God Green?

Thanks to Nathan Mattox at Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Optimist, I caught the Moyers on America being shown on PBS last night. If you have not seen it, you can watch it here. Moyers highlighted the new direction of a growing number of evangelicals, as they find the necessity of environmental stewardship, deeply rooted in the Scriptures. At the end of the program, Moyers noted that even Pat Robertson is being convicted of the reality of global warming.

Moyers focused on a Vineyard church in the Northwest, and a group of Christians here in West Virginia, Christians for the Mountains, who are battling the horror of mountaintop removal. I was impressed with the actions of Christians there, not only in speaking out against the injustice perpetuated on the people of West Virginia, but also their actions in the works of mercy. Christians are carting potable water to people whose well water has been polluted by the toxic slurry and sludge that comes from processing coal.

I think one of the reasons that environmental stewardship is gaining momentum in evangelical circles is that the view is supported not only through the creation accounts and passages like Genesis 2:15, where humans are to care for creation, but also because environmental stewardship is seen more and more through Christological terms, that our salvation through Christ should have something to do with the creation around us.

The theologian protrayed as defending the conservative political stance, E. Calvin Beisner, was difficult to listen to. He claimed that pollution is part of the natural world, and so we should minimize it to the extent that we are able without interfering in the "forcible rule" that God granted human beings when we were given dominion over every living creature and told to subdue the earth (Gen. 1). It doesn't matter, he claims, if he ends up being wrong (which of course, he doesn't think he is), since his eternal salvation is secured. Maybe... but he will be judged for what he has taught, and according to James, teachers will be judged more harshly than the rest.

Let us pray for God's creation and our care exercised over it.


Monday, October 09, 2006

Re-reading Resident Aliens

There is a community group that has gathered this past summer to read writers connected with The Ekklesia Project. We read D. Brent Laytham's book God Is Not... and now tonight we begin Stanley Hauerwas' and Wil Wilimon's Resident Aliens. This book is probably one of the most formative books I read in seminary (and in a pastoral care class! can you believe it??!?!). I am probably reading it for my fourth time now.

Just reading through the first chapter today, and I couldn't help but share a few quotes from the pages.

Tertullian was right--Christians are not naturally born in places like Greenville or anywhere else. Christians are intentionally made by an adventuresome church, which has again learned to ask the right questions to which Christ alone supplies the answers. (p. 19)

In Jesus we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world, and humanity, but an invitation to join up, to become part of a movement, a people. By the very act of our modern theological attempts at translation, we have unconsciously distorted the gospel and transformed it into something it never claimed to be--ideas abstracted from Jesus, rather than Jesus with his people. (p. 21)

Right living is more the challenge than right thinking. The challenge is not the intellectual one but the political one--the creation of a new people who have aligned themselves with the seismic shift that has occured in the world since Christ. (p. 24)

The project, begun at the time of Constantine, to enable Christians to share power without being a problem for the powerful had reached its most impressive fruition. If Caesar can get Christians there to swallow the "Ultimate Solution," and Christians here to embrace the bomb, there is no limit to what we will not do for the modern world. Alas, in leaning over to speak to the modern world, we had fallen in. We had lost the theological resources to resist, lost the resources even to see that there was something worth missing. (p. 27)

That which makes the church "radical" and forever "new" is not that the church tends to lean toward the left on most social issues, but rather that the church knows Jesus whereas the world does not. (p. 28)

We cannot understand the world until we are transformed into persons who can use the language of faith to describe the world right. Everyone does not already konw what we mean when we speak of prayer. Everyone does not already believe that he or she is a sinner. We must be taught that we sin. That is, we must be transformed by a vision of a God who is righteous and just, who judges us on the basis of something more significant than merely what feels right for us. (p. 28)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Four Experiences of the Plurality of God...

In the most recent issue of Pro Ecclesia, a lecture from Oswald Bayer is re-printed, "The Plurality of the One God, and the Plurality of the Gods." In section four ("The Plurality of the One God"), Bayer writes,
If one is to appreciate the irreducibility of these distinctions (note: from preceding paragraphs--distinctions that remain in eternity, e.g. distinction between Creator and creatures, distinctions among the three persons of the Trinity and distinctions meant for the interim, e.g. law and gospel, the hidden and revealed God, faith and sight), one must take into the account the intersection of times in which we live. On the one hand, the Word of the Cross and the salvation it communicates to us in the present age is a guarantee of the future consummation of the world; on the other hand, we still experience the painful contradiction between the suffering and groaning of the creature of the old world and the promised creation in the new world. In accordance with this intersection of times, which is experienced as a rupture of times, we encounter God in four different ways. We encounter him in his wrath in that he convicts us of sin; we encounter him in another way in his forgiving love; we encounter him yet another way in his long-suffering, whereby he sustains the old world into its future through the institution of natural and political laws; and, above all, we encounter him in another way in his terrifying hiddenness, in which he works all in all --life and death--in a way that we cannot possibly unravel.
To be sure, in the interest of constructing an agreeable and integrated system, many a theologian has tried to construe God's wrath, long-suffering and, above all, his terrifying hiddenness as aspects of his love. To do so, however, is to succumb to impatience, indeed, to a kind of enthusiasm. From our perspective (i.e., for us as long as we are wayfarers), the unity of God qua love and, with it, the unity of time qua eternity (i.e., an eternity that would bring unity and healing to this rupture of times) are not matters of demonstration; were it otherwise, lamentations and supplication would be superfluous. The unity of God qua love can be perceived only in a doxological context; it is the ground and object of confessing faith--which speaks assertologically--and of the hope that this implies.
Bayer loses me in his last sentence, but the point of these paragraphs is that we should not rush to condense all four experiences into one, a forced and dissatisfying unity. In this intersection of times, the interim, we are forced to hold these things in tension and he urges us not to relax them.
As pastors, we are called to relax these tensions all the time. Is Aunt Mathilda going to hell? Why did this happen to me (or more precisely, why did God cause this to happen to me)? Why doesn't God tell me what I should do? We collapse the aspects of the tensions to make people feel comfortable. In this interim time, there will be great discomfort as the old is abraded by the new. The old adam dies after all, but it doesn't die easily. The old life dies kicking and screaming the whole way. We, who preach the gospel, in the midst of the struggle of death and new life, must not rush to release the tension. We must continue to point as Bayer noted at the opening of that first paragraph, the Word of the Cross. The Cross communicates a word of salvation to us. In this tension, here there is located a guarantee of what the world will become. We will die, but be raised. We will see, but now it is unclear. But we cling to the hope that God is at work healing and restoring creation, transforming our lives even in the midst of this rupture in time, and for that we praise God.