Ethics


From my friend Pete Rollins. I wish I could write parables like this.

Actual site and info on Pete’s work and current Insurrection project here.

Discuss.

Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit and disease descended like a mist. One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.

Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But this could only continue for so long for, at a designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply and addressed the angels,

“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”

Having spoken these words God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the church with a booming voice,

“Rise up and ascend to heaven all of you who have who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out ‘Lord, Lord’”.

In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm. Leaving the suffering world behind them.

Once this great rapture had taken place God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,

“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us leave this place and take up residence in the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people. The ones who would forsake heaven in order to serve the earth. The few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant”.

And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth. Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark God. The few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.

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Stumbled across this today. the blogger, James McGrath of Butler University, leads off with a statement that I have made many, many times in my college and university courses:

It never fails to amaze me how, time and again, conservative Christians will, in the name of “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” “Christianity,” “faith,” or even the Bible itself, repudiate things that the Bible in fact says, and says in places quite clearly.

His specific case in point is how many conservative Christians, such as Steve Kellmeyer, in a badly misguided article, think that the doctrine of God’s ineffability is a clear and obvious biblical theme and that, because the almighty is ineffable (insert joke here), cannot and does not change his mind in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

A couple of comments here. McGrath and many other professors and teachers (including myself) know that this is just wrong. There are numerous instances in the Bible of God changing his mind about X, Y, or Z, or where he is at least willing to entertain arguments that may sway him from a different course of action from the one he has decided on (Abraham’s discussion with God over Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind here, as does the Binding of Isaac; for the former, check out Exodus 32.14, 2 Samuel 24.16, Amos 7.3-6, Hosea 2, Jonah, 1 Chronicles 21, 15, Jeremiah 26.19… ).

I would go further here, however, and argue that the Jewish tradition fundamentally depends on this aspect of God. In Judaism, a central tenet is that we can, and in fact are obligated to, challenge God in the face of injustice. This is present in all three parts of the Hebrew Bible, and it is the dominant motif in the rabbinic literature of the Mishah, Midrash, and Talmuds, and, more contemporarily, in the Hasidic tradition of the Baal Shem Tov. Not only do we have the audacity of chutzpah to challenge God as “Lord of the Universe” to “do what is right?” in the same line as Job, Moses, Abraham, and so on, but the tradition of the Bible and the rabbis is that this is an argument that we can win, not just make. God is a God who responds, and does not just humor us by listening apathetically.

Second comment: This aspect of Judaism has not had much of a carry-over into Christian tradition. This is unfortunate; the development of Christian doctrine has led to the doctrine of ineffability and transcendence of God, such that he cannot be swayed by impassioned argument and challenges to justice as in the case of Christianity’s sister religion of rabbinic Judaism. In Catholicism, it is possible that God might entertain the petitions of the saints, and that Christ can be swayed by appeals made by Mary. Protestants don’t generally have this system available to them, but to the extent that God is addressed at all, it still goes through the intercession of Christ himself. This is to say that this obtuse figure of God in Christianity is not Biblical in the strict sense, but it is to say that it is the result of the dogmatization of Christianity that hangs, often, by only the barest of threads to something “biblical.”

Clearly, we teachers of Bible and the Abrahamic religious traditions have our work cut out for us.

Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student’s essays]
Peace, Benedict

In the last couple of years, it seems like the rhetoric of “evil” is making an unwelcome return in politics and casual conversation. In this week’s debate, Tom Brokaw asked McCain and Obama, point blank, whether Putin’s Russia is the “Evil Empire,” invoking Reagan’s notorious comment from 1983.

To their credit, neither McCain nor Obama took the bait, for which we can only be thankful. Obama’s answer was to the effect of “No, they aren’t, but they are engaged in evil behavior.” McCain refused to answer completely, saying that affirming Reagan’s description would reignite the Cold War, and denying it would be tantamount to condoning or endorsing their present aggression in Georgia. Obama’s response, as usual, was more nuanced and I think more descriptive, but I have to ask: How is this different from us, either individually or collectively at the national level? All of us are eminently capable of evil, even – especially – when we think we’re doing the right thing or, as Gov. Palin might say, when we’re doing the work of God. At the national level, both candidates recognize the main problem in the Russian – Georgia issue: energy. Both condemn a military act against a non-agressive, non-threatening sovereign state that just happens to be significantly and strategically located to advance the aggressor’s own national interests. How is this categorically different from the US’ action towards Iraq? I think Obama knows that it isn’t, really; if you really watched him in the first debate, he suggested as much, but of course to come out and say that would hand the election to McCain/Palin. But the Bush Doctrine has an answer on why “we” are different: “they” are evil, and we’re not. “We” are doing the work of God, and they aren’t. End of discussion. (BTW, to McCain’s answer, I’d have simply pointed out that saying “No, Russia is not the Evil Empire” doesn’t condone their action, anymore than I’d condone my kids’ objectionable, even potentially evil behavior.)

I think Tom Brokaw should know better than to ask a question like this, but I guess it shows how far we’ve sunk when we can only think of people, religions, and nations who do things that are opposed to our own interests as “evil.” Maybe this is part of the “Christian nation” illusion. I’ve heard too many times that any religion other than some version of Christianity is “evil.” Any state that has its own brand of nationalism that isn’t exactly compatible with American Republocracy is “evil.” “We,” however, are exempt from evil, since we’re the Kingdom, the new Jerusalem, the Chosen People.

I’ve had enough of this rhetorical self-righteousness. Evil is resident here. And it has apartments in the individual soul. And so how about we start making sure we’re aware of this plank in our eyes, even if we can’t get it out, before accusing everyone else. Ultimately I would really prefer it if Brokaw and others would simply leave the category of “evil” to God, and let us concentrate on what “the good” entails, because we aren’t doing so well with that either.

Well, the time has come. I haven’t done a seriously political piece since my inaugural post. I was asked today why I support the Democratic Party and not the Republican one, and the question was basically qualified with the suggestion that “when you don’t like either candidate, vote for the Republican one” because that’s the more Christian and trustworthy party.

No. No no no no no no no no no no! I understand the sentiment; I was myself seduced by the 2000 Bush campaign’s “compassioniate conservatism” and voted for a regime that year that has proven to be anything but. I see very little that is Christian coming from the Republican party. Taken collectively as a whole, I don’t really see much of it coming from the Democratic side either.

But I do see it from individual candidates, and when the candidate in question is running for president, I am willing to take him or her as representative of their particular party. And of the two candidates remaining, I am convinced that Senator Obama exemplifies a far more biblical position on ethics, religion, and public policy than any candidate in the 2008 campaign. For me, that is why I support the Democratic party. I believe the overarching rule that guides Obama’s position on policies and issues (to the extent we’ve seen from previous writing, speeches he’s given over the last four years, and current campagining so far) is more biblical than any Republican campaign in recent memory, perhaps since Abraham Lincoln.

I do not say “more Christian.” That is deliberate. It is my studied opinion that, at least in politics, this label is more divisive than unifying. (See yesterday’s post for an example.) “Biblical” may not be any better, but this is at least something I’m willing to take a chance on.

Recently I watched the film Amazing Grace, which is the story of William Wilberforce’s career in the English parliament and in particular his crusade to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Gifted with oratory and strength of will, we see Wilberforce at the beginning of the film struggling with the decision to enter a career in politics or the ministry. Wilberforce’s erstwhile friend and future prime minister of England, William Pitt, convinces him that he can serve both God and the state by using his gifts to challenge the ethics of the empire with the ethics of the kingdom of God.

I see the Republican party as being rich in moralistic ideology, but ethically bankrupt. There is no William Wilberforce in the Republican party, or if there is, he or she has yet to reveal him or herself. Yet I do see a lot of Wilberforce in Senator Obama. While I have no idea if Obama has ever held any dreams of ordained ministry. his faith clearly informs both is private life and his public politics. I believe Senator Obama to be a model for how prophetic faith can speak to political influence, and in how political attentiveness to the Biblical tradition, shared to varying degrees by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, can help the state do a better job of aligning itself with the Kingdom of God, even though it cannot – and will never be – the Kingdom.

I contend that Obama knows this. Read his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston. Read his 2006 Call to Renewal Speech. To accuse Obama of having a distorted view of the Bible, as James Dobson does, or to outright accuse him of not being a “real” Christian, as Alan Keyes did in 2004, is to reveal how shallow the conservative understanding of Christian faith is on the one hand and knowledge of the Bible is on the other. There is more to Christian faith than simply being “born again” (which Obama is, in the authentic experience of a life-changing conversion), and there is far more than abortion or gay marriage in the Bible (in fact, the Bible is completely silent on both issues).

So, using Obama’s own 2006 speech as a basis for how his faith and how his deep understanding of biblical ethics informs and influences his life and career, what do we see? (I’m not going to single out issues; I trust you to do your own homework…) IHow about these:

  • “The majority of great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
  • “And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope” (A Call to Renewal).

    “But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”

  • “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
  • “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.”

Finally, in my conversation earlier, it came up that the Democrats place no value in the family, and that Obama hasn’t done anything to change that perception. This is simply not true; Obama has two young children himself and supports a traditional one-parent-staying-at-home environment, as well as families having the final right to determine what is best for their children. But more than that, Obama is on record in his support of the family as the fundamental social unit that will ever be the strength of the nation, and it is one that is similarly grounded in the biblical family ethic.

“Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation… But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing – missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it” — Father’s Day Speech, Apostolic Church.

I confess that I have been a fan of Obama since his Boston speech in July of 2004. I distinctly remember saying to myself “if this is what the Democratic party is about now, I’m in.” Not to say that I agree with all of Obama’s policies or even that i think he interprets individual details of the Bible the same way I do. But I do believe that his vision, like that of William Wilberforce 180 years ago, is more consistent with Biblical ethics and the Kingdom of God than the competition’s. Should the Republican party be able to trot out a Wilberforce or an Obama or another Abraham Lincoln, I will be more than willing to give the party a fair hearing. Until then, for this blogger faith and understanding lead me to break ranks with my evangelical brethren and cast my vote for the Democratic candidate for President. Barack Obama in 08.

Icon of St. IrenaeusKen raised a question in his comment to the last post about being uncertain over how Christianity should be defined. This has actually been in the back of my mind for some weeks.

As an historian of religion as well as someone who identifies himself as “Christian,” I’ve been trying to make some sense out of this. Ancient Christianity, for example, as as diverse as it is today, and the arguments over defining what it is are not new. I think there are two different ways to approach this: 1) asking “what is Christianity” as an institution, and 2) “what (or who) is a Christian?”. I think that breaking it down this way yields different answers.

Institutional “Christianity” seems to have been defined according to subscription to specific doctrines, beliefs and ideas at least since the second century. Right doctrine was the point of departure. We have texts that describe that the only way you could tell a “heretic” in may places was by talking to one of them privately and casually outside of church meetings, because in their practice they appeared to be the same as everyone else. Irenaeus, for example, notes that it is this very thing that makes “those guys,” according to him, anyway, so dangerous to “us.” They sneak up on you, because if you don’t really know them, you have no idea what kind of system of doctrine they subscribe to (if they subscribe to any at all) and therefore have no grounds for figuring out if they are “Christian” or not. Christians who followed a different set of doctrines and mythology than the ones Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and a host of other early proto-orthodox writers, saw the proto-orthodox set of doctrines and ideas as ridiculous, and thought of themselves as nothing other than Christians following Christianity.

So the question I have is this: is subscription to a certain set of doctrines, platitudes, propositions, and so on a realistic mark of Christian identity? Can Christianity be reduced exclusively to this? If so, how many, and which one? And can one subscribe to doctrines, yet not really believe it? I think that for many in the churches today, this latter question is perhaps the most pertinent, yet one that hardly anyone will touch.

Now what about ritual and liturgy? Even if we grant that doctrine is at least one defining element, there’s the ancient question of whether or not someone who participates and observes the liturgical and ritual structure, defined by some authoritative figure and yet doesn’t “do it right,” is a “christian.” It’s easy enough to look for examples in antiquity; one might be the observation and celebration of the feast of Easter Day. There were those (many, in fact) who believed that the Lord’s resurrection should always be on the 14th of the month of Nisan, regardless of what day of the week that happened to fall on. Others (the winning party, at least in western christendom) believed that Easter should always be on the Sunday on or after the first full moon of the spring equinox. Both said they were Christians; both denied full “Christian” identity to the other. The same situation pops up in issues over Baptism (in antiquity as well as now), Eucharist (then as now), and so on. In other words, it’s the same problem as doctrines. And of course, could you observe Jewish rites, holy days, practices, and so on, and be Christian? The authoritative answer from many powerful figures, such as John Chrysostom, was “no way,” and that if you do participate in, say, a Seder or a Purim carnival, you were Jewish, not Christian.

What about ethics and morality? Day-to-day life? Now here is where things really start getting interesting. Because we have evidence from early christian texts that suggest that the ONLY difference between some groups was in ordinary life practices, and this starts with Paul in the letters to the Corinthians and continues until the present day. So this doesn’t appear to be very helpful. Usually these were issues over sexuality, food, and social roles. Again, what was true in the first century was true in the 4th and true in the 21st. Nothing’s changed. Denominations that ordain women are rejected by some as not really christian. Churches that take a disparaging attitude to the joy of sex and to celebrating the beauty of the body’s sexuality cannot understand why others who seem to delight in physical beauty can think of themselves as Christians. Can one be an environmentalist and “green” and be a real Christian? This is not a flippant question (sadly!).

Enough. Let me propose something of a tentative “description” for discussion.

I think the “doctrinists,” those who argue that you have to truly, authentically, and unquestioningly believe and subscribe to certain doctrines and to “the Bible” (another complicated topic for another day), have one thing right. I think there IS but a single doctrine that, without which, I can’t see identifying with Christian faith, and that’s the doctrine of the lordship of Jesus the Christ. That is to say, a confession that Jesus is my/our Lord should be the doctrinal base for the Christian religion. After that, there are a million variations on the theme, and propositional theology becomes mere details. But for someone who professes Christianity and who yet denies Jesus’ lordship, either in word or (more often) in deed, I can’t see how this can be the case. In other words, I think it is entirely possible for people to believe all the right stuff and not be a Christian. Now, what “lordship” means is the sticking point, but that’s to be expected. Everything else after Jesus’ lordship is conditioned by memory, history, psychology, experience, geography, and so on.

Ethically and morally, my years of studying the Abrahamic religions suggest to me that there are far more similarities than differences, not to mention local variations within each tradition. And so I don’t feel that ethics and morals are much good for defining one from the other, and I’m grateful for this. I do believe that when apply the lordship criteria, however, we see how each tradition nuances the ethical and moral common ground (or, perhaps, holy ground). A truly Christian ethics and morality, I think, stems from where we put the role of Christ. For me, an understanding of Christ’s lordship means viewing – and following, as best as I am able and as far as I can understand – Christ as the quintessential representative of ethical justice as was revealed in Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels of the New Testament. It is a conscious decision to model our ethics after those of Jesus, who was our prototype for applied ethics in a life in imitation of the ethics and morality expected by God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. Removing Jesus from this equation obviously denies lordship to Him. One may still follow an ethics of the Scriptures, but there is little that will distinguish Christian ethics from Islamic or Jewish without the confession of Jesus’ lordship and accepting his role as an ethical and moral prototype. Another way to put this is that I recognize that one can lead a life of “christian” ethics without being a Christian.

Finally, rite, ritual, worship, liturgy, and so on. I have been to so many churches that call themselves Christian, who confess his lordship, and who strive and struggle to live a life based on ethics they feel derive from Jesus’ lordship. And yet for some of them, they can be so different, even to the point that visitors may wonder if they are, indeed, in a Christian church or setting. Wine or Grape Juice? Bread or wafer? Dunked or sprinkled? Children or Adults? “Classical” or “contemporary?” King James or Today’s English? Consubstantiation or transubstantiation? Organ or Band? And so on. All of this makes about as much difference, as Frederick Buechner says, as whether we pray sitting down or standing up. I find my present house of worship to have one of the most consistently creative, beautiful, and meaningful worship services that I have ever been a part of. It glorifies God and emphasizes his justice and recognizes the role Christ plays in Christian narrative and action. I love it, and it is the primary form of spiritual nourishment I receive from the place. Some argue that it doesn’t pay enough attention to Christ’s lordship and defeat of “sin.” Perhaps. Others recognize that the worship is thoroughly Christian, but that it seems to be through appearances. Maybe so. In other words, simply having “Christian” worship and rites and liturgy doesn’t necessarily mean the church or house of worship is a “Christian church.” Worship alone does not demonstrate a church’s “Christian-ness.” Worship, I think, is the expression of loving God and enjoying him.

Procrastination needs to stop here. Back to the dissertation.

Just came across this, in the latest Orion Magazine:

osprey1.jpg

Doctrine

I love the church
of the osprey, simple
adoration, no haggling
over the body, the blood,
whether water sprinkled
from talons or immersed
in the river saves us,
whether ascension
is metaphor or literal,
because, of course,
it’s both: wings crooked,
all the angels crying out,
rising up from nests
made of sticks
and sunlight.

– Todd Davis

Indeed. It sounds like it could have come right out of Aldo Leopold or something.

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