22 December 2006

On Micah

All of the text below is quoted directly from Biblical Literarcy - the most important people, events, and ideas of the Hebrew Bible by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. (Harper Collins, New York, 1997, pp 326-327.)

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In an effort to convey to his fellow Israelites in simple, direct terms the sort of life God expects them to lead, Micah speaks of three essences:

He has told you, O man, what is good.
And what the Lord requires of you.
Only to do justice,
And to love goodness
And to walk modestly with your God (6:8).

The insistence on justice follows from the Torah's admonition, "Justice, justice you shall pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20). Tzedek, the Hebrew for "justice," is the root of the word tzedaka, which is translated as "charity," but which literally is a derivative of "justice" (from the biblical perspective one who does not give tzedaka is not merely uncharitable, but unjust.)

Micah's injunction "to love goodness" recalls Deuteronomy 6:18, "Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord," and Proverbs 2:20, "So follow the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just."... (PamBG: I have omitted here some supporting arguments the author makes from the book of Jeremiah.)

Micah's final demand is "to walk modestly with your God." The sort of faith that leads one to believe that he or she knows exactly what God requires in every situation can make a person arrogant. This passage demands humility of believers.

The pursuit of justice, an obsession with doing good deeds, and humility, these are what constitute for Micah a godly person. As Rabbi Hillel (first century B.C.E.) remarks after offering a similar ethical statement of Judaism's essence: "All the rest is commentary" (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a).

21 December 2006

Hermeneutics and Kerygma

Buried within the comments section of the previous post, How to Dialogue with “Liberal” Christians, Stephen Cook of the Biblische Ausbildung blog made the following comment:
Over time, I've given a lot of thought to this topic that you raise. I've come down to thinking in terms of "dangers" that threaten the liberal and "dangers" that threaten the conservative. For the conservative, I believe, the danger is being "anti-hermeneutical." I.e., not realizing that the biblical texts often require sophisticated wrestling in order to yield their truths. You can't be pedestrian in your reading of the Bible! For the liberal, the danger is being "anti-Kerygmatic." I.e., not realizing that the biblical texts bear a powerful witness, Word, Kerygma, and vitality, that transcends the limitations of their human authors. What do you think??
I thought this comment deserved a discussion of its own.

I'll open by saying, as someone raised in a denomination that believes the bible to be verbally inspired, inerrant and infallible (hereafter VIII), that the "anti-hermeneutical" comment resonated a lot with me. I'm not wildly well versed on the academic side of this; I don't know how or if VIII scholars go about developing an anti-hermenutical argument. I DO know that, amongst the people in the pews, there will be a rigourous denial of "interpreting" Scripture, so one is hardly going to get them to admit that they have a process for doing so.

Equally, I also had the experience of studying for a theology BA in the 1970s, and the anti-Kerygmatic approach was rife in academia at the time. I've said - and I believe it's true - that to write a paper indicating that one believed in God would have resulted in a very low grade. By my senior year in university (fourth and last year), I was already thinking that there had to be a better way somewhere in between total disbelief and inerrantism (or at least somewhere a bit more conservative than Tillich and Teillard).

20 December 2006

How to Dialogue with "Liberal" Christians

Recently I have been observing and/or engaged in various conversations in the blogsphere with Christians who believe that the bible is verbally inspired, inerrant and infallible.

This might blow up in my face completely, but I would like to offer here some suggestions about "how to talk to 'liberals'". (Just one remark. I'm thinking of a number of different web conversations, so if you think this is a veiled dig at you, it isn't.)

First, a definition. I'm defining "liberal" as anyone who does not believe the bible is verbally-inspired, inerrant and infallible. (Hearafter "VIII") I am aware that this definition is simplistic and non-nuanced. So....

1) Be aware that the group of people do not believe the bible is VIII includes a huge range of theologies and approaches to the bible. Many "nonVIII" people self-define as evangelical. Ask an individual what he or she believes on a particular point of doctrine and don't assume that you know their views.

2) Many or most of us think that we believe in the bible and we think that we value and respect the bible. Many or most of us are very sincere in our desire to read the bible faithfully and to be obedient to God.

3) Many or most of us probably don't think that you are insincere or that you have bad motives. We just disagree with your theology.

4) Most of us probably think that we have given quite a lot of consideration to our theology, especially those people who have degrees in the subject.

5) Please do not expect to convert us to your point of view after a couple of exchanges on the internet. Patience is required.

19 December 2006

Link: Ten Thoughts on the Literal and Literary

Over at Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricius writes an excellent post: Ten Thoughts on the Literal and the Literary.

This especially resonated with me:

Fundamentalist ethics are rule-based, and the answers to moral problems are found, decontextualised, at the back of the (good) book. Jesus’ preferred method of ethical instruction, however, is the parable, “subversive speech” (William R. Herzog II). Indeed Richard B. Hays argues that a “symbolic world as context for moral discernment” is fundamental to the entire New Testament. “The kingdom of God is like this.” Enter the story, work it out – then act it out!
It seems to me that this decontexualised, rule-based approach is how many (most?) inerrantists seem to miss the fact that Jesus used subversive speech, was a pacificst and really did teach that loving God and loving other people was the most important Commandment of all.

In a decontexualised, rule-based approach, one can overlay all one's own social presuppostions on to the rules. Lo and behold, you then have a religious system that supports any existing human power-structure. Constantine 1, Jesus 0.

Sermon - Prayer and the Nearness of God

This past Sunday's sermon for Advent 3 has been posted on my Sermon blog. Here is a link: Prayer and the Nearness of God.

Humility

I am a humble king. God has deemed that I have control over my subjects, but I think long and hard before sending them to war.

I am a humble aristocrat. God has given me more than the common people and I thank him for it every day.

I am a humble boss. God has recognised my superior moral example and I try to live up to it by showing my subordinates how to think and live.

I am a humble husband. God has recognised that someone must have control over women and he's given me that responsibility. I try to make sure my wife's opinions don't get in the way of her doing what is right.

I am a humble parent. God has given me children and it is up to me to tell them who they are. Children must be seen and not heard.

15 December 2006

God of ALL Creation

Matt Stone writes a provocative post on his blog: How ‘Family Values’ Undermine the Lordship of Christ.

I especially agree with this statement:


This popular restriction of Christian ethical focus to family issues should be called out for what it is: a capitulation to consumerism and nationalism; a species of syncretism; an effective confession that Christ's sovereignty does not extend across all areas of life.
I want to be absolutely clear that I think that issues of personal morality are important for those who want to be disciples of Christ.

However, God is also extremely concerned with issues like the alleviation of poverty, stewardship of the environment and civil rights for all people.

To suggest that these social matters are purely secular ideologies and not the concern of Christianity is, in my opinion, a failure to truly understand that God's reign extends to every aspect of human life.

14 December 2006

Peace on Earth

I have been asked to write a 200-word 'Pause for Thought' for the local weekly newspaper that serves our town. Or rather, 'The Minister' of the church has been asked to write the article; it just happens that 'The Minister' is me!

Any comments would be greatly appreciated - although I'm near deadline now. I'll take the criticism that I'm not trying to be evangelistic - I'm not. I'm trying to appeal to people of all faiths and people of no faith.

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As Christmas approaches, the Christian Church awaits the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Scripture also calls ‘The Prince of Peace’.

Our world today is in desperate need of peace. Fortunately, the values of peace and tolerance are shared by people of all major faiths as well as by people of no faith.

In recent years, our society has grown fearful of the unfamiliar. Jesus had a solution to this fear. He visited the people who his society feared, he ate with them and got to know them personally. Jesus followed the central precept of Judaism: ‘Love God and love your neighbour’. His love was not sentimental; rather it was expressed in his fundamental respect for the personhood of each individual.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the Son of God and Saviour of the world. But whoever you are and whatever you believe, each of us can participate in the work of the Prince of Peace by respecting people of all backgrounds and faiths, by promoting tolerance in public life and by seeking justice for all people.

May our town, our nation and our world be blessed with true peace this Christmas season.

13 December 2006

Prayers of St. Ignatius and John Wesley

St. Ignatius' Prayer
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my whole will.
All that I am
and all that I possess
You have given me:
I surrender it all to You
to be disposed of according to Your will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace;
with these I will be rich enough,
and will desire nothing more.
John Wesley's Covenant Prayer (modern version)
I am no longer my own but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
in all that I do
and in all that I may endure;
when there is work for me
and when there is none;
when I am troubled
and when I am at peace.
Your will be done
when I am valued
and when I am disregarded;
when I find fulfilment
and when it is lacking;
when I have all things,
and when I have nothing.
I willingly offer
all I have and am
to serve you,
as and where you choose.

Glorious and blessèd God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so for ever.
Let this covenant now made on earth
be fulfilled in heaven.

Ignatius of Loyola and John Wesley

Ignatius of Loyola was born in 1491 and died in 1556. He was a contemporary of Martin Luther and had his dramatic conversion at about the same time that Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. The religious society that Ignatius founded (Society of Jesus - Jesuits) pledged its loyalty to the Pope, who Ignatius sincerely regarded as the Vicar of Christ on Earth. Clearly Ignatius was no Protestant!

John Wesley was born in 1703 and died in 1791. He was an Anglican clergyman and the son of an Anglican clergyman. Although credited with being the Father of Methodism, he did not set out to found a new denominantion. His interest was rather in a spiritual revival within the Church of England and bringing the message of the Gospel to those who were not readily able to hear it - especially the poor (who were normally not welcomed in churches).


In my opinion, Ignatius and Wesley had broad commonalities in their ministries. Both were passionate about God and Christ, both were passionate about living lives dedicated to discipleship and service, both were concerned with the development of people's prayer lives and both were concerned about practical help for the poor.

I also think that both men were "reformers" in the broad sense of the word - calling the Church of their time out of an institutionalised religion and into genuine service. Both were absolutely passionate about what Catholics term "Apostolic Ministry" and what Protestants term "The Social Gospel".

I love both St. Ignatius' prayer of commitment and John Wesley's covenant prayer. I'm not the first to spot the similarities, but one has to wonder whether Wesley's prayer was influenced by Ignatius' prayer. Or perhaps both prayers simply sprang spontaneously from the commitment that these two men felt for God?

St Ignatius and Me

One Christian teacher, thinker and saint who keeps "popping up" (coincidence? I don't think so) in my life is Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits.

I first "met" Ignatius when I went to university to study International Affairs in 1975. I had chosen that university specifically for their International Affairs degree but because it was a Jesuit university, we were required to study two modules of theology in our first year and two in our second year (university studies are a four-year affair in in the US, for those who don't know)

It's hard to find the words for what that first theology module was like. Ignatius would have said - I think - that I found my "vocation". I fell madly, passionately in love with theology (and if I'm being brutally honest, at that time I was more in love with theology than with God). After my first year at university, I changed my major (changed my course of study) and began to study Theology rather than International Affairs.

It was through the Christian community at university - particularly the Jesuit community - that I learned about Ignatius of Loyola. I learned about his way of meditating from scripture: how to "put" myself inside a biblical story and ask God to speak to me through it. This was not about getting "the correct interpretation of the passage" - as it has been in my inerrantist denomination - Ignatian scriptural meditation was simply about allowing God's word to speak to me, many times in very surprising ways that had nothing to do with "the right interpretation" of the text.

I left university and, as many young people do, I became a sporadic church-goer for a variety of reasons. For a very long time I also considered that I was not a Christian. But I continued to practice the Ignatian way of prayer that I learned in university. With the benefit of hindsight, I think that I can safely say that this prayer-practice may well have saved my faith. So I poodled along for a very long time until one day - after about 2 years of trying to gently nudge me - God made it dramatically clear that he wanted me to commit every fibre of my being to his service.

I responsed to that call, "pushed doors" - as they say - until one day I found myself accepted into the preliminary stages (Foundation Training) for the Methodist ministry (The Methodist Church of Great Britain). Once again, I encountered Ignatius. As prospective Methodist ministers, we were being trained in the Ignatian way of prayer and taken through sections of
The Spiritual Exercises!

In theology college, I found myself choosing Ignatius as the subject for my module on Contemporary Spirituality and this past July, I attended a short retreat at
Loyola Hall near Liverpool. There I met three other Methodist Ministers on retreat and one of them encouraged me to find a Spiritual Director, so I now find myself with a Jesuit Spiritual Director.

So, St. Ignatius now seems like a permanent feature in my life. I have no idea why this is the case, but I'm certain God is at work; I shall just keep pushing these Ignatian doors to see what happens.

P. S. I didn't set out to write a post like this, but I think there must be a reason for having done it, so I'll take a breath, trust in God and post the story in faith that it touches someone for some reason. God willing, the next post will be on the subject I originally intended to write about.

12 December 2006

Valuing the Other

The following statement on the Preaching Peace website resonated so much that I just have to share it:
Mimetic spirituality operates out of fear. Fear of divine retribution. It does not care about the concrete consequences expressed in relation to ‘others,’ except as they attract or repel this retribution. In short, it is self-centered and its predominant approach to God is that of ‘do ut des’ (I give in order to get). John implicitly tells the crowds that their expectations that run high for deliverance include deliverance ultimately from negative mimesis and its social effects. Then as now self-worth equaled net worth. The ‘crowds’ were exhorted, in short, to value the other. Mother Teresa is an excellent contemporary example of someone who understood this aspect of the prophetic message.
If the above seems like jargon to you, let me attempt my own translation and paraphrase. Christianity is not a religion whose primary goal is for "me to stay out of hell"; it is not a religion based on the fear that "God is going to get me and you if we don't toe the line". The goal of Christianity - like Judaism - is to love God and to love others - all others, whoever they may be.

Focussing on "staying out of hell" makes a person self-centred and it can also make him or her self-righteous. Focussing on the good of other people - because we rejoice in God's valuing of us as human beings - can have far-reaching, positive social effects. Social justice and tolerance is something the world sorely needs at the moment.

08 December 2006

Complain, Complain!

My friend Robert has a wonderful link to the Helsinki Complaints Choir.

Very entertaining. Especially for Grumpy Old Men and Women.

07 December 2006

Words of Wisdom

My friend Dawn has written a truly stunning post on the subject of Re-creating liminal spaces.

If that's too technical for you, here's an excerpt:
when we are struggling we spend our time longing and searching to re-create a previous encounter with God that was profound or meaningful, instead of creating a fresh and new relationship with Him for every moment.

06 December 2006

Bibliography - Non-Violent Atonement

Buried deep in another thread, I promised to email someone a bibliography of works pertinent to the subject of non-violent atonement theories.

I thought I'd post the bibliography here for two reasons. First, so that it might be useful to others. Secondly, so that others can mention additional works.

Addendum on 7 December: I've decided to update the bibliography as suggestions are added to keep things neat. (Cue Dawn saying "How J") I've taken Michael's comments on board and started a new section entitled "General Resources on Atonement"

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Bibliography – Non-Violent Atonement

Alison, James. 1998. The Joy of Being Wrong: original sin through Easter eyes. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

----- 2003. On Being Liked. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.

----- 2006. Undergoing God: dispatches from the scene of a break-in. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.

Fiddes, Paul. 1989. Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.

Gorringe, Timothy. 1996. God's Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence and the Rhetoric of Salvation. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Green, Joel B. and Baker, Mark D. 2000. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: atonement in New Testament and contemporary contexts. Downer’s Grove, Inter-Varsity Press.

Mann, Alan. 2005. Atonement for a 'Sinless' Society: engaging with an emerging culture. Milton Keynes. Paternoster.

Moltmann, Jürgen. 1993. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ As the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Minneapolis. Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

Soelle, Dorothee. 1967. Christ the Representative. London. SCM Press.

Sykes, Stephen. 1997. The Story of Atonement (Trinity and truth). London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.

Young, Frances M. 1983. Sacrifice and the Death of Christ. London, SCM Press.

Weaver, J. Denny. 2001. The Nonviolent Atonement. Cambridge. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

General Resources on Atonement

Aulen, GEH. 2003. Christus Victor: an historical study of the three main types of the idea of the atonement. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers.

Gunton, Colin E. 2004. The Actuality of Atonement: a study of metaphor, rationality and the Christian tradition. London: T&T Clark.

One Percent Have 40% of the Wealth

I've been reading more anti-liberal stuff in the blogsphere and am thinking about writing some posts on "why I am a liberal" - both politcially and theologically.

Until I get around to it, what better apologetic for political liberalism than The Guardian's article:
World’s richest 1% own 40% of all wealth, UN report discovers

Unfortunately, I think it's too easy to read this article and think that it's talking only about multi-millionaires.

Perhaps the most important fact is buried in the seventh paragraph:

Half the world's adult population, however, owned barely 1% of global wealth. Near the bottom of the list were India, with per capita wealth of $1,100, and Indonesia with assets per head of $1,400.
Madsen Pirie, director of the conservative Adam Smith Institute, disagrees that the distribution of global wealth is unfair. He said:
"The implicit assumption behind this is that there is a supply of wealth in the world and some people have too much of that supply. In fact wealth is a dynamic, it is constantly created. We should not be asking who in the past has created wealth and how can we get it off them."
What Pirie says is true to some extent. However, it's disengenuous to suggest that less-developed countries stand on an equal footing with the developed countries in terms of their potential ability to create income and wealth.

Imagine two teams playing a game of "Monopoly" where there was one game but two sets of cards and two starting "banks". Group one starts with $10,000 and group two with $500. Group one's set of cards says things like "Collect $450 from other players every time you pass Go." Group two's set of cards says things like "Collect $10 from the bank every time you pass go." It doesn't take a genius to figure out who the cards are stacked against and who is going to become bankrupt.


The issue at hand is not about the fact that wealth can be created. It's about the fact that developing countries are not on an equal footing with respect to either monetary capital or industrial capital. The international economic system's rules are stacked in favour of those who have these things. Rather than seeing the weaknesses of the poor and responding with an offer to help level the playing field, the wealthy spot the weaknesses in the system and exploit them at the expense of less developed countries.

Any student of scripture would know what Jeremiah, Isaiah, Malachi, Amos, or a whole host of other prophets would have to say to that.

05 December 2006

What are we for?

Over on Connexions, Kim Fabricius reports on a lecture by Dr. Frances Young on The Vocation of People with Severe Learning Disabilities.

It sounds like a stunning lecture and Kim's post is definitely worth reading.

When I was growing up, the denomination to which I belonged had a debate about whether or not people with severe learning disabilities could be saved, if they could not understand the gospel message. Although that denomination - thank goodness - has now decided that God will be merciful to such people, there were a number of leaders at the time (this was in the 1960s) who thought that those who could not understand the gospel message could not be saved. (Sounds like "salvation by cognition"!)

Dr. Young's idea - that the vocation of those with severe learning difficulties is to bring the gospel to the rest of us - seems much more like the sort of thing that a God of Good News would do.

03 December 2006

The Wrath of God

Paul Nuechterlein's website, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary quotes Robert Hamerton-Kelly's very interesting take on divine wrath:

...the wrath revealed in the gospel is not the divine vengeance that should have fallen on us falling instead on Jesus, but rather the divine nonresistance to human evil (cf. Matt 5:39), God’s willingness to suffer violence rather than defend himself or retaliate. It is the permission granted us by God to afflict ourselves unknowingly; it is the divine nonresistance to human evil. It is God’s unwillingness to intervene in the process of action and consequence in the human world by which we set up and operate the system of sacred violence, and so paradoxically a sign of love as the refusal to abridge our freedom and a respect for our choices even when they are catastrophic.
There are interesting connections here with theodicy and free will.

For those not familiar with the Girardian concept of "sacred violence", the basic premise is that all human societies maintain internal cohesion by first identifying and then expelling/murdering a scapegoat. The completion of the violence against the scapegoat results in a temporary and false "peace" for members of the "in group" as they contemplate ultimate matters of life and death in the wake of the violence. But sacred violence does not last and must be repeated over and over in order to keep the "peace".

The concept of sacred violence and its inability to bring about permanent peace is why I am increasingly coming to reject penal substitionary atonement as a legitimate theory of atonement. PSA seems to substitute the temporary, human, sinful tool of "sacred violence" for the divine and permanent tool of God's "Shalom".

The idea of "God's wrath" essentially being His refusal to interfere in our human, violent wrath is intriguing. It is certainly consistent with the commentaries on Matthew 13 - the Lectionary reading a fortnight ago - which insisted that "wars and rumours of wars" originate in human society, not in God.

Sermon - Waiting and Hoping

I have posted today's sermon on my sermon blog: Waiting and Hoping.

01 December 2006

D- List Blogger

D-List Blogger

Hey, I'm a D-list blogger, according to Are You an A List Bloglebrity?

Hat tip to the B-listed Christian celebrity blogger
Maggi Dawn, who won't know me from Eve. But ya gotta give credit where it's due!