Tuesday, May 29, 2007

19th-Century Document and 21st-Century Scripture 

The following is a paper I submitted recently in a class on Community of Christ Scriptures, specifically the Book of Mormon. The assignment was to take a pre-selected portion of text and examine it from one of any several positions - ranging from traditional/historical to something closer to the postmodern view I assume here. Rather than adopt a perspective I didn't agree with (as valuable an academic exercise as that would have been) I decided to genuinely wrestle with how I approach and interpret the Book of Mormon, and attempt to find some meaning in that context. The following is a result. Forgive my sloppy footnoting, too. -FC

II Nephi 2-4 Under a Faithful-Critical Lens
By [Flannel Christian]
May 2007

The Book of Mormon clearly reflects the language, values, perspectives and priorities of nineteenth-century North America, quite in contrast to those that the best scholarship in the area can reasonably ascribe to pre-Columbian Native Americans of ancient Hebrew descent. The historians’ compelling critique, placing the Book of Mormon’s origin and authorship in the hands of Joseph Smith, Jr., however, does not address the text’s status of scripture, nor the (prophetic) insight it casts on a formative stage of American Christianity. When lifting up the Book of Mormon as an historicized artifact of religious and revelatory significance, one must inform the proverbial left hand what the right hand is doing. History and faith work best together. The more we understand the historical situation and issues addressed by the Book of Mormon, the more revelatory the text can become.

It is in this spirit that I examine a sample text from the Book of Mormon. In the narrative context, the selection is just after the period of the migration of Lehi’s family to the Americas, and the initial struggle for safety and identity in the new world. I begin with an identification of clearly nineteenth-century elements in the text, both for the purpose of making clear the origin and nature of the text and for the purpose of beginning to lift up what might be most prophetic about the passage in its nineteenth-century context. Then, I attempt to draw conclusions about the motivations and insights of Joseph Smith for writing the text in such a way, and also touch on possible meaning for our world today.

This is not intended to be exhaustive, but introductory – to start and shape a conversation, not to end it. This project is also not meant as an apologetic – strictly a defense – of either the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith’s character. The Book of Mormon is an historical artifact, and Smith was a human being – as such they have particular perspectives and priorities that may not necessarily be in common with our current sensibilities or best understanding. There are two lessons here: we must always be cognizant of the limitations and contextualized nature of our own consciousnesses and predispositions, and that God can (and must?) work through humans enmeshed in sin. The fact that we can imagine a vision radically different from what we have been given or have been in the past is the best proof I have seen of the existence and persistence of grace.

The Book of Mormon as Nineteenth-Century Artifact

II Nephi 2 begins with a clear reference to Joseph Smith, Jr., and an endorsing overture to his career (vv10-35). Verse 29 expressly names Joseph Jr. in a prophecy outlining the forthcoming of the Book of Mormon (BofM). Although this arises toward the beginning of current versions of the BofM, in terms of the dictation timeline of the project by Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery it is near the end. [1] After encountering public resistance and scorn resulting from word of his “translation” work, it seems natural that Smith would want to authorize – if not divinize – his efforts. [2] II Nephi 2 does exactly that. [3] It might be a fantastically accurate (and coincidentally beneficial) ancient prediction, or convenient self-gratification on the part of the author. [4]

Verse 2:21 also answers the concerns of 19th-century Americans, particularly false doctrines and contention between/among Christians. [5] The use of the phrase “in the latter days” smacks of dispensationalism and the Second Great Awakening.

The obligation of God to respond to faith, in 2:42, where prophecy is the product of the prophet’s piety, also reflects 19th-century frontier American confidence in the power of the individual, and points at the larger confusion at the time between the roles of grace and works in salvation. In a post-revolutionary American context, the can-do and individualistic rhetoric of the Revolution has been translated into spirituality, reviving the ancient Christian question of how much individual behavior affects salvation. [6] In a Jewish worldview around 600 BCE [7], however, this is not a perspective likely to have surfaced. Prophets speak because God makes them, not because of anything particular the prophet did to make themselves deserving of God’s direction. God chose Abraham and Moses, not the other way round. In a Hebrew worldview at that time, God continues to be involved with the people of Israel because God is bound by a covenant, not because of the faith of the people – which many times lapsed and failed. Nevertheless God continued to be involved with and provide a prophetic voice for Israel. It seems clear that the language and worldview in the II Nephi text represents 19th-century American Christian presumptions, rather than 600 BCE Hebrew ones.

Another clue as to the 19th-century origin of the text is the already-fulfilled “prediction” that the ancestors of indigenous Americans (the Lamanites) would not “perish” (3:3&16). In fact, one of the background assumptions/purposes of the BofM is to explain the presence of indigenous peoples in the Americas and their relationship to ancient Hebrews.

Skepticism of the exclusively divine origin of the BofM is fueled by persistent parallels between Smith’s work and Ethan Smith’s 1823 book, A View of the Hebrews, which posited a Semitic origin for indigenous Americans. The book was in wide circulation in the years before Joseph Smith began working on the BofM, and several members of Oliver Cowdery’s family were members of Ethan Smith’s congregation in Poultney, Vermont. [8] As well as possibly providing the central thesis for the BofM (that is, the Semitic origin of Native Americans), A View of the Hebrews might have provided the broad plot outline for Joseph Smith’s work. [9] At any rate, the parallels between the two works are uncanny, if it is supposed to be mere coincidence. [10]

19th-century-isms continue in “Nephi’s Psalm” (3:29-66). First, the idea of the ministering of angels (3:39) is foreign to ancient Hebrew thought. In the Hebrew scriptures, angels do not “minister” to humans, but are merely agents of God’s will. The phrase “children of men”, an approximation of “son of man,” doesn’t show up in Jewish thought until the Maccabeean era and the composition of the book of Daniel. [11] Mention of the “evil one” (3:44) is also proleptic in that Hebrew thought up to the Babylonian exile hadn’t developed the idea of an evil adversary somehow explicitly opposed to YHWH. The passing reference to “salvation” (3:50) and “redemption” (3:51) is striking evidence of Christian influence. To have these phrases show up reveals a conflation of Biblical language accessible to the (nineteenth-century) author, and written into an ancient context. Additionally, an emphasis on contrition and heart-brokenness as a qualification for spiritual sincerity or an encounter with the Holy echoes strongly of conversion stories typical of the Second Great Awakening, the religious milieu in which Joseph Smith was raised. [12]

Most damning, perhaps, to the view of the BofM as an historical record of pre-Columbian indigenous Americans are the glaring archeological, anthropological and linguistic claims that are ruled out by virtually all scholarly research in those areas. The sudden and unexplained presence of domesticated livestock in the new world (4:16), the existence and use of a working compass (4:17), and the manufacture of iron, brass and steel (4:21) despite absolutely no archeological evidence of any metal-smithing technology among native American populations and the fact that steel itself would not be developed until the fourth century BCE on the Iberian peninsula.
Also troublesome to a “historical record” point of view are the presence of 19th-century ideas among 6th-century BCE peoples: proto-democratic political institutions (4:28, also Mos. 13:35-36) [13], racism based on skin color (rather than other cultural or ethnic identifiers) (4:35), ethnic mixing a problem (rather than religious diffusion) (4:37), identifying darker-skinned peoples with sloth and mischief (4:39), and so on. Certainly, elements of each of these can be found rising in isolation and rarely in the Biblical record. But their prevalence in the time and national culture of Joseph Smith, Jr., points to more than coincidence. [14]

Prophecy and Humanity in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon’s “primary purpose was to warn Americans in the 1830’s.” [15] Like many books and fragments in the Bible [16], the Book of Mormon was written as if it were a record of an ancient age, but merely used that format to speak to the issues facing believers in that day. [17] In contrast to 20th-century ideas of authorship and honesty, ancient writers and thinkers both within and outside the Judeo-Christian community regularly wrote under assumed identities, for various reasons. [18] Pseudepigraphical works, or texts written under the name of another person, served to validate and promulgate ideas that might otherwise not as quickly or as authoritatively gain currency among readers. [19] It might also be the case that pseudepigraphical writers felt themselves to be faithfully continuing what they perceived to be the tradition or thoughts of the original figure, only recast for contemporary circumstances. Approaching the BofM as a pseudepigraphical work not only allows one to get past the historical inaccuracies and the threat of imposing upon indigenous American populations a history that is not their own (in a new variety of cultural colonialism), but opens up the text to be much more meaningful about our own history as inheritors of frontier American Protestant Christianity. [20]

Joseph Smith’s self-endorsement at the beginning of II Nephi 2 reflects an understandable human desire for acceptance and belief – to be believed, believed in, and have one’s insights taken seriously. It could be this underlying sentiment that drove the pseudepigraphical nature of the BofM’s authorship in the first place. After all, toward the time of the manuscript’s completion, and increasingly after its publication, Smith prophesied under his own name. Pseudepigraphy might also unconsciously reflect a sense of one’s own indebtedness to the influence and inspiration of the past, to engage oneself in faithfully carrying on the work of those who have gone before. Writing oneself into the narrative of the past – oftentimes done implicitly, done here by Smith explicitly – is also a way of framing ones life and actions as participating in a larger, longer, more noble and purpose-driven enterprise than the vain hopes and vision of one lonely person. [21] Writing oneself into the narratives of the past can serve to ground oneself in the tradition and values of the narrative, but it can also offer the dangerous impression that the authority of the tradition is at the whim of this latest participant. The project of the Book of Mormon may have started out being blessed by the former, and by the end shows influences of the corruption by the latter. Smith’s self-inclusion in the story of the Book of Mormon might serve as a representative tipping point between being formed by the tradition and seeking to command it – and as such can remain an object lesson of both the blessing and danger of seeing ourselves as continuing the path of history.

The anachronisms of Joseph Smith, grafting 19th-century cultural issues and presumptions like racism and democracy into the story of an ancient people, actually serve the argument that the BofM is a pseudepigraphical work of profound importance. [22] In seeing Smith’s authorship, we are provided the opportunity to see a daring human perspective, while recognizing ourselves that the perspective is human, and thus falls short of the glory of God. Letting go of the historical-record argument, we are liberated from worshipping the book, and instead can glean from the book the mind and will of God. The text can be turned upon itself in its yearning for justice in a world of unjust politics and religion, and speaks as much to the 21st-century as to the 19th in “offer[ing] ways of surviving in liberal society without being destroyed by its corrosive potential.” [23] Even if we no longer adopt the manifest-destiny perspective of “America for (White) Americans” implied by seeing this continent as a blessing set aside for colonial descendants, we can take up the hope resident in that affirmation. There is a unity of mind and purpose and history that awaits all people – indigenous and colonial, Christian and Jew, Old World and New World. The discord and contention that seemed to be ripping society apart in the early years of the nineteenth century are answered by a hope in peace and unity. These early years of the twenty-first century stand hardly less in need of that hope.

The portion under examination here also speaks of the fate of those who would plot division and warfare. Their war-mongering and violence cut them off from the presence of God (4:31-32). We in the 21st century are able to confront the issue of wars of/for power without taking up the racially-charged references that plagued the nineteenth century. (Or are we? These uncomfortable elements may be just that uncomfortable because of how closely they fall to our own national rhetoric regarding our would-be enemies. We may not have come so far in two-hundred years.) The BofM may speak of an ancient rivalry, but its insight remains all too compelling: those who sow violence (in opposition to God’s desire for peacefulness and unity) will be scourged to the point of destruction (4:41). Our nation and American Christian establishment would do well to listen to this prophetic critique, lifted earnestly out of the Biblical tradition. Not only is such violence and war-making contrary to right relationship with God, it leads to the destruction of democracy. The nineteenth-century threat was Jacksonianism. What is the 21st-century threat to democracy, and do its roots reach into war-making and power-hunger?

Nephi’s Psalm (3:29-66) echoes the perennial American issue of facing a terrible and powerful enemy armed with little more than hope in God. And yet, it is a song of praise for God’s constancy, and a hymn of confident hope that trusting in God is ultimately the wise choice. Nephi, like Joseph, is crying out for deliverance from his enemies, lashing out and asking God to wreak vengeance upon them. Even so, despite his heart filled with rancor and teeth set with venom, his prayer leads him in the end to seek something different. The challenge, as Nephi puts it, is to “ask not amiss” (4:65). We have to know what we’re asking for – not vengeance or victory or security; but love and forgiveness, release from anger and strength of heart. How much do American leaders need to pray this prayer of humility and awe, to sing this song seeking the strength to forgive, laying one’s weakness before God and putting trust in God’s commands? How many of our leaders need to ask not amiss – to ask the right question?

In the end, we must keep in mind about the Book of Mormon the kind of sensibility demonstrated by Nathan Hatch, in The Democratization of American Christianity:

…[T]he Book of Mormon is a document of profound social protest, an impassioned manifesto by a hostile outsider against the smug complacency of those in power and the reality of social distinctions based on wealth, class, and education. In attempting to define his alienation from the world around him, Smith resorted to a biblical frame of reference rather than to one of conventional politics…. Yet in constructing a grand and complex narrative account of the ancient world, he chose to employ a distinct set of biblical themes: divine judgment upon proud oppressors, blindness to those wise in their own eyes, mercy for the humble, and spiritual authority to the unlearned. This book is a stern and sober depiction of reality. [24]

By exposing the lie that the BofM is not an historical account of ancient peoples, we can see the truth it was crying out all along. By understanding what is fiction, we begin to identify the fact. The BofM isn’t something more than it is. It is, however, desperately more than the story of golden plates and peep stones. It is, at its heart, a sober and startling depiction of the reality young Joseph and so many others saw in the early years of the nineteenth century. The Book of Mormon was a truth-telling that ended up converting thousands, and giving them hope. That is still something we can touch today.

[1] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, Eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 235-236; and Brent Lee Metcalfe, Ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explanations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 398.

[2] Ibid., 249.

[3] Ibid., 259.

[4] The Book of Mormon narrative directs the translation of the plates as Smith’s primary duty. Similarly, in a contemporaneous revelation given in March, 1829, Smith is chastised by the Spirit and told that no other gift besides translation will be given him. (Book of Commandments,1833, IV:2) Interestingly, this revelation is later revised to allow for Smith being given additional gifts in the future. (Jerald & Sandra Tanner, Mormonism – Shadow or Reality? [1964], 72.) (See also Doctrine and Covenants 5:1d, and American Apocrypha 248-250 & 260.)

[5] Dan Vogel, Ed., The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 91: “Smith’s opinions in the Book of Mormon promised to settle the doctrinal differences that divided Protestant America in the 1830s – to end religious confusion.”

[6] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, American Apocrypha (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 351: “…the Christology of divine triumphalism… has long reigned unopposed in optimistic, ‘can-do’ American Christianity….”

[7] Lehi’s family is allegedly Jewish, and the surrounding events of their departure from Jerusalem places their migration around the year 600 BCE. (Ruth Ann Wood, Ed., Survey of the Book of Mormon [Independence, MO: Community of Christ Temple School, 1996], 44.)

[8] B.H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 2nd Ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 27.

[9] Ibid., 160-161.

[10] Ibid., 323-344.

[11] “Throughout the book there is no usage of the messianic term ‘Son of Man,’ although this is the one that Christ usually identified with himself in his own ministry. The expectations of the Nephites are those of nineteenth-century American Protestants rather than of biblical Hebrews.” (Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957], 39-40.)

[12] Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming the Book of Mormon Narratives (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 128-135; also, B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 2nd Ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 287-308.

[13] Tomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 36.

[14] Dan Vogel, Ed., The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 91-92.

[15] Nathan Bangs, The Life of Freeborn Garrettson (New York: J. Emory & B. Waugh, 1829), 29, 33, 48; quoted from Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 26.

[16] For example, the Book of Daniel, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Deuteronomy, Job, Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah, and others.

[17] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, Eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 3.

[18] Tony & Charmaine Chvala-Smith, in a lecture in “Community of Christ Theology,” a course in the Community of Christ Seminary, 5/22/2007.

[19] Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, Eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 339-340: “…[I]t is quite clear that the book as a whole fits very comfortably into that broad class of pseudepigrapha which seek, as late-comers, either official entry into the canon or similarly high credibility by using an ancient authority’s name.”

[20] A. Bruce Lindgren, “Sign or Scripture: Approaches to the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue Spring 1986: 74: “Scriptural status [or authority] does not rest upon questions of historicity. It is likely that significant portions of the Old Testament canon are not fully historical as they stand today. Others, such as the book of Job, may not be historical at all. Writings are scriptural because the church holds them as normative or authoritative.”

[21] Through these verses, the Book of Mormon “bridge[s] the gap between the Bible and the 1830’s readers’ personal histories, between ancient respected prophets and despised modern visionaries.” (Mark D. Thomas, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narratives [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999], 44.)

[22] “…[T]he Book of Mormon is a document of profound social protest, an impassioned manifesto by a hostile outsider against the smug complacency of those in power and the reality of social distinctions based on wealth, class and education.” (Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity [Yale U.P., 1991], 115-6.)

[23] Dan Vogel, The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 86.

[24] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1989), 116.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shrub-mentality versus Tree-by-the-Water-thinking 

Notes from a sermon preached at Renton Congregation on February 11, 2007.

Luke 6:20-26

It has been said that the Sermon on the Plain, with Matthew's parallel Sermon on the Mount, serve as the constitution of the Kingdom of God. In each of these Gospels, this is the first and biggest sermon Jesus gives – laying down the outline and theme of the in-breaking reign of God. Is there something behind Jesus starting with blessings and curses? (How would you like my sermon if I started with: the people on the left side of the aisle are beautiful, kind and intelligent; the people on the right are going to hell in a handbasket? Or better yet – you people in the front pews, smartly dressed, tithing envelopes at the ready, paying doting attention to the sermon – you people are cursed; and you there, in the back, who’s just here for the potluck, you’re first in line for the kingdom of God! No wonder people thought Jesus was crazy – he had it all backwards, had it upside down.

Perhaps it was a rhetorical device to get people interested, or perhaps Jesus was trying to say something about the Reign of God in the world: that it would defy expectation, and be decidedly on the side of the poor and powerless, a reversal of fortunes, and that we need to think about where we are in relation to God’s mission.

This shouldn't come as a surprise, because just two chapters earlier Jesus himself reads his career mission statement from the Isaiah scroll in Nazareth (4:17-19). And even before that, at the beginning of Luke, Mary sings out that God is bringing down the powerful and proud, and lifting up the lowly; feeding the starving, and sending the rich away hungry (1:51-53). (All throughout Luke there is this discussion of wealth and power, and God’s very clear opinion that wealth and power serve the wealthy and powerful – not God or God’s people or God’s mission. Luke’s Gospel is the most economically concerned of all the Gospels, so it shouldn’t surprise us to see economics and a reversal of fortunes headlining at the beginning of his sermon.) There is this biting edge to Luke we don’t want to miss – it’s one of the things that make Luke unique.

But it is still jarring when we read it here (which is miraculous in itself, given the years of layering and repetition that would have smothered any other radical pronouncements). Blessed are those who are really without resources or security – and cursed are those who enjoy security and a little luxury! The poor are accepted, the rich denied!

But, what is it that is theirs, the poor? What is it that is theirs, the hungry? the weeping? And why would that be so violently denied the rich, the well-fed, the happy?

Yes, yes, "the Kingdom of God." But what does that mean?

Well, I think the other lectionary scripture for today – the one in Jeremiah – is helpful in getting us closer to Jesus’ meaning.

Jeremiah 17:5-10

Here are contrasted two ways of being - two worldviews, two life-patterns, two paradigms, two approaches to life and the world. One is grounded in the trust of motrals and flesh, the other in the trust of God. The word “trust” here is a loose translation – for which also “committed to” or “dedicated to” would be just as faithful. One attitude is rooted in a mindset and economy of scarcity, where there are never enough resources and one must get all one can when one can; and the other rooted in an economy of abundance, where one need not worry about resources or hoarding, and where sharing is the order of the day.

The scarcity model, or "shrub mentality", is grounded in the trust of "mortals" and "flesh." Don't mistake me here - our lives are embodied ones, and fleshy-experience is part of who we are (and therefore also a partial revelation of the divine, in whose image we are). When Jeremiah talks about trust in mortals and flesh, he isn't saying embodied experience is bad - he's saying trust in mortal things is misguided, trust in things that perish, that are transitory: things like wealth, popularity, strength, military might, prestige or position.

When (a) people are dedicated to these things supremely, they will see the world as one of scarce resources, and that their wealth or position or might or popularity are always under threat of being lost or supplanted or defeated. Shrub thinkers will see the world as a salted desert or wilderness where you have to fight to survive - and they won't even see when relief comes, because the rains threaten desert shrubs just as much as the sun does (washes away plants and dirt, exposes roots, causes plants to blossom and then leaves them parched in the heat). Even bounty and relief is a threat to them. And we can see this in those who put their trust in riches or strength - our nation has been extraordinarily fortunate in the past 200 years, but now we see our bounty as precisely what makes us a target, we see our bounty as something we have to defend - and go to great lengths to defend it. We're thinking in a shrub mentality! Take, take, take - consume, consume, consume - hoard, hoard, hoard - defend, defend, defend! We are the richest people on the planet, and yet we feel one of the least secure in what we have. We see ourselves as living in a salted desert, and can't even see what relief is.

It isn’t just us as a nation, either – I can see this in my own life, and I struggle with thinking I have enough, or that I don’t need to worry about security, or that I could deal with the loss of my job or home or car. (Christie and recent car-accident example.) Like a shrub in the desert, every little drop of water I get makes me want more and grow more thorns to protect what little I have.

In contrast to Luke, in the other lectionary scripture for this Sunday (6:17-26), Jeremiah describes the "cursed" first and the "blessed" second - the two texts ask us: you want the good news first or the bad news? But they’re both there – we can’t get around it. (It tells you a little about Jeremiah’s personality that he throws out the curses first – he’s a real glass-is-half-empty kind of guy.)

Opposed to the "scarcity model" of shrub-thinking, there is the "abundance model" described as tree-by-the-water thinking. Jeremiah says those who trust in the Lord are blessed. In contrast with those above who trust in temporary, transitory, perishable things, Jeremiah lifts up confidence in imperishable things: eternal, undying values such as love, fellowship, the long view, the eventual victory of justice (hope), peace, joy. People who don't put their trust in things like money or power over others to give them security or happiness are like trees planted by the water - no matter what droughts may come they feel watered, no matter what heat waves come their leaves stay green. And note what Jeremiah says: they're not anxious. (You want to know if our country is a tree by the water, ask if we're anxious.) My wife and I try to live by the motto: if everyone keeps sharing, there will always be enough. It's not a kind of mathematical equation you can work out or clear-cut trade-off you can point to. It's a way of looking at the world. (And some times it's easier than others.) But its our little vote for abundance thinking. And I tell ya, around tax time or when the mortgage is due, it gets a bit harder.

For Jeremiah, people who trust in the Lord - in the eternal - are like trees by the water: ever nourished and watered, and ever-bearing fruit. (Contrast that with desert shrubs who quickly blossom and seed in the short rainfalls - like some of us who, when fortune smiles on us we quickly burst out with a little gift or kindness and then just as quickly close up again, waiting for the next rain.) (Which is our tithing model? Which is our stewardship model?)

There are two ways of looking at the world - one in which the world is a place of danger and villainy that is always threatening us and against which we must defend ourselves and our fortunes; the other in which the world is a place of abundance and grace that has the tremendous and perennial potential to feed us all despite the droughts and heat-waves that come.

Right now I know what you're thinking - you're thinking there's a little truth in each of them, that we need to be "realistic" and see some scarcity out there as well as some abundance. I know you're thinking that, because I'm thinking that too. I can feel the World telling me to not believe this gospel story too much, not to take this abundance view too seriously. I can feel the World's voice(s) inside me, saying that this tree-by-the-water thing is great and all, but that reality is more complicated than that, that the "real world" is a place of scarcity, no matter what we say here at church.

In the end, we have to decide which voice we're going to listen to. We're human - we live in a world of mortals and flesh, as well as a world of God - so we're mixed and confused and we'll probably go back and forth. But let's be careful in our desire to listen to one voice over the other that we not identify them as the same thing. One is the voice of the World, the other is the voice of God. We can choose which to listen to, but let's not do God (or the World) the disservice of confusing their sentiments. As Jeremiah puts it: there is the desert shrub and then there's the tree by the water. Who can understand the heart? One thing we can rest assured of: God is still searching us.

Both Jeremiah and Jesus lay out the choice for us. And we try to avoid it. We don’t want to really decide. We try to maintain a dual-citizenship – one foot as a loyal, patriotic American, the other as a disciple of Jesus. We like being dual-citizens, because then we get to choose when we’re one or the other – we get to go shopping or support wars or ignore the homeless when we want to, and on occasion we get to give money to charity or serve at a soup kitchen and see it as living out our faith (and storing up treasures in heaven). But in the back of our minds we know, we know we’re not being entirely honest with ourselves, we know we can’t be long-term dual citizens. We have to choose.

Of course, if we choose to be Christian we can’t just leave “America”, right – where’d we go? But if we choose to be a disciple of Jesus, we have to live our lives as resident aliens. We’re here, but we’re not of here. We’re living in this culture and economy, but it is a foreign culture and economy for us. Inside ourselves and in our relationships with other people, we do not share the assumptions of this World. We live as seeds of a different world, a new world, planted in the stony soil of the old.

Neither the United States nor Jesus allow for extended dual-citizenship.

We rich, we prove the curse: we are having our consolation now - shallow that it is, we still can't bring ourselves to give it up. But the story isn’t over yet. We’re still here – today – which tells us that we know we’re missing something. We know there’s something we need that the World doesn’t offer us. There’s something about being a disciple, about the reign of God breaking into us, that we can’t find in the World. Call it new life, call it salvation, call it redemption – there’s something true about those blessings and curses, about wealth and poverty. And someday, I pray, we may be at the point where we can really embrace it. Until then, I suppose, we can take comfort in the fact that we are all struggling together. I’m glad to have you with me on the journey.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Adoptionism: Ancient Heresy, Postmodern Possibility 

Adoptionism Through the Centuries
By [Flannel Christian]
History of Christian Thought I
January 2007

Description and Definition of Adoptionism

Adoptionism, in a broad sense, is a Christology in which Jesus, as (a) man, is the adoptive Son of God. What precisely is meant by that varies among successive proponents of the theory. It is fundamentally an attempt to wrestle with the scriptural and doctrinal divinity-and-humanity of Jesus. The general idea is that the humanity of Jesus, in order to be genuine, must have a human (i.e. not divine) origin, and the divinity of Jesus must have a similarly divine (i.e. non-earthly) origin. In order to preserve Jesus’ humanity and still recognize his special status as part of the godhead, some Christians began to use the illustration of parental adoption – the human part of Jesus is God’s Son by adoption, rather than by an original relation. The adoptionist idea seems a natural response to the mystery posed by Jesus’ spiritual eternal-ness and contrasting finite human existence: If Jesus was with God from the beginning, we don’t think of Jesus’ earthly body as having existed somewhere from the beginning, so whatever it is that came about in the unique, historical, embodied person of Jesus that wasn’t there before… that, that was plain old earthly, and is what was “adopted” by God as fully divine. At root, it must be noted, this heresy is grounded in an expression of divine love, overcoming the barrier (in the Hellenistic worldview) between the Supreme God and earthly creation – the unbridgeable gap between human and divine was closed by God bringing into God’s holy family someone from the outside. The question of orthodoxy rises in the nature of Jesus’ unified divinity and humanity, not in God’s desire and acting to embrace creation through the person of Jesus Christ.

The orthodox position holds that the unity of Christ’s full humanity and full divinity does not leave room for the “adoption” of Jesus’ earthly self. Jesus is a unity, so his humanity is fully graced with his divinity (and vice versa), and in so doing redeems all humanity (and creation). “Adoption” implies that the adoptee was at some time a stranger to the adopter, and the idea that any part of Jesus (he being “fully divine”) could have ever been a stranger to God was anathema.

Historical Instances of Adoptionism

In the mid-3rd century, the Bishop of Antioch, Paul (“of Samosata”) was the target of several synods – the first of which acquitted him of any heresy, the second and third of which ended less favorably for him. A questionable figure in many ways (Eusebius 243-4), his adoptionist heresy was akin to dynamistic Monarchianism. (Catholic Encyclopedia, PS 1) The Son or Logos existed as the wisdom of God and worked through the prophets and most highly in the “Son of David” who was born of the Holy Spirit. Christ is essentially a man with his own personality, while the Son is one with God. Union of two Persons is possible only by agreement, and in living without sin and suffering and striving, Jesus became one with God’s Will and Intention, and thus redeemed humanity. For Paul of Samosata, the earthly Jesus could be described as having existed for eternity in the sense of predestination only: no one believes Jesus’ body existed for eternity – the totality was unique to the Incarnation. If Jesus had been God by nature, Paul claimed, there would have been two Gods, which cannot be.

Paul’s teaching was condemned because it presented Jesus as simply a divinely inspired man, and not as the incarnate Word and Son of God. The orthodox position chose mystery and the preservation of Jesus’ unified and full humanity-and-divinity over a reasonable (not-mysterious) teaching that placed Jesus as less than fully divine and “both denied his [Paul’s] God and Lord, and also did not preserve the faith.” (Eusebius 242-3) IT must be noted that in the listing of heretical charges, Paul’s Christology was hardly mentioned; Paul was more likely deposed for fiscal and personal indiscretions.

Despite the condemnation and expulsion of Paul, Antiochene thinkers apparently continued to wrestle with adoptionism, because in 428, Nestorius, another Antiochene, would revive the adoptionist heresy. He began a preaching campaign against the use of the term Theotokos – or “Bearer of God” – in reference to Mary, Jesus’ mother. Nestorius’ claim was that Mary had been (only) the bearer of Christ, and should therefore be honored with (only) Christotokos. While Nestorius admitted the unity in Christ, he distinguished between the two “natures” involved in that unity. The followers of Nestorius would amplify his words to the point of adoptionism: the human nature of Jesus was by virtue of its association with the divine nature adopted into the Godhead. Nestorius was apparently outnumbered, outgunned and less articulate than his mostly Alexandrian critics, and was deposed. Even after the Church condemns “Nestorianism,” resulting in those still loyal to Nestorius fleeing East, the division between the “two natures” continued, passed on to the Persian Church, which had become autonomous in 410 and which received the refugees with open arms. (Catholic Encyclopedia, N&N 8; Bell 10.)

The survival of the “two natures” understanding in Persia is thought by Richard Bell, writing in The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment, to have partly prepared a way for the rise of Islam in spreading the ideas central to the three monotheistic religions; and aiding the spread of Islam particularly in Egypt and Syria where Islam found a bitterly divided Church. (11-13) The idea that Jesus the man could be “adopted” and guided by the Spirit of God would fit well into the Arabian religion’s worldview; Christianity’s maintaining any degree of separation between Jesus and the Son of God would have aided in the general acceptance of Islam’s claim that something similar (and even more glorious) happened to Mohammed. From a political perspective as well, the Persian and Euphrates valley Churches were doubly divided from the rest of Christendom by different political allegiances and creeds; and the attempt to impose the Chalcedonian formula spread divisive partisanship in Egypt and Syria, making the cultural and military advance of Islam all the easier.

Eighth century Spain and France saw a resurrection of adoptionism in the archbishopric of Toledo (then under Islamic rule) and the bishopric of Frankish Urgel. That the origin of this Hispanicus error, as it was called, was in Islamic-ruled territory may be significant: Nestorianism was largely an Eastern heresy on the opposite side of Europe, but Nestorian thought survived under Muslim rule, and the combined dominance of Islam and persistence of Nestorianism surely blunted Elipandus’ (the archbishop of Toledo) orthodoxy. (Catholic Encyclopedia, A 1) This revival of adoptionism again applied the distinction of Jesus’ two natures onto Jesus’ whole person, distinguishing between the divine eternal Son and the earthly adopted Son. In one of the largest assemblies in the history of the church, a council denounced adoptionism as heretical and forced the bishop of Urgel, Felix, to swear never to use the term “adopted son” in speaking of Christ. Elipandus, under Muslim rule, was beyond the reach of ecclesiastical and secular Western rulers, and maintained his heresy but didn’t break formally with the Church. The council indicated a basic fallacy of adoptionism, which applies the word “son” to a nature and not to a person. (Carson 119)

The Spanish heresy left few traces, and it is doubtful that Abelard’s similar thinking in the 12th century can be traced to it. (Catholic Encyclopedia, A, 3) However, several thinkers in the Middle Ages, including Abelard, articulated a renewed adoptionism. Again, following the line of thinking that if Jesus’ humanity (necessarily limited and finite) was part of the nature of the divine being, then that would mean there is a finite quality in the Trinity. Since this contradicts faith and reason, as articulated by the Church, “the union between the Logos and His human nature could only be external and accidental.” (Carson 119) This theory also resembles Eutychianism and Apollinarianism in that Jesus’ human nature would have to have been guided and directed [and thus largely subsumed] by the divine nature only “externally” in union with the human. The undertones of Eutychianism are evidenced by the papal response. Pope Alexander III reiterated the orthodox position that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, emphasizing: “as He is truly God, so He is also truly man, composed of a rational soul and a human body.” (Carson 119, my emphasis) Later, in the 14th century, some Scotists taught that Jesus was both the natural and adopted son of God because Jesus received the fullness of sanctifying grace. While granting the hypostatical union of the Father and Son, these Scotists believed there was room for another filiation, resting on grace, the grace of union. (Catholic Encyclopedia, A 3) It was at this point that orthodox defenders responded that “adoption” implies that the one being adopted be a stranger to the one adopting, which in the case of Jesus’ full divinity could not be. By the 14th century, it seems, genuine adoptionism had been played out, and any condemnation levied against the Scotists was over the semantics of a word with a heretical history. However, to a certain extent the history of adoptionism has been the story of a particular struggle to understand grace.

Adoptionism and the Twenty-first Century

Adoptionists throughout history have generally looked to Jesus’ baptism as the moment of adoption of Jesus by God. Some scholars question whether Paul “the Apostle” was an adoptionist of a different stripe, locating Jesus’ adoption in his resurrection. (Ehrman, OCS 48-9) This would fit well with Paul’s emphasis on the immediacy of coming Kingdom – the process of the rising dead had already started with the rising of Jesus after death.

A humorous adoptionist perspective of Jesus in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 resembles this Pauline narrative (with obviously different motives – meant largely as a critical indictment of present and historical Christianity). In chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse, some characters discuss the (fictitious) science-fiction novel The Gospel From Outer Space. The story goes: aliens from another planet visited earth and saw how violent it was, particularly on the part of Christians whose central religious text was the story of a man himself being killed but who was, in fact, the Son of God. The lesson Christians seemed to take from the story was to watch out who you kill – you better not kill somebody well connected. (No tears are shed or darkness leveled for the crucified non-sons-of-God that fateful day, after all.) So an alien decided that this story was the reason Christians are so cruel, and wrote a new gospel in which Jesus, a vagrant, lowly, homeless man – essentially a nobody – was adopted by God just before he died, illustrating that everyone should be nice to everyone, because you never know who might become a child of God. Vonnegut (a nominal Jew) is writing in jest, of course, but only in part. He is wrestling with the issue of grace, particularly with the role of grace in human life, and with the seeming inability of the Gospel narrative to persuade people to be kinder to their enemies.

While explicit adoptionism is rare in Western Christianity today, it is echoed in the twenty-first century in very low Christologies and in theologies of universal salvation and redemption. The question posed by adoptionism is: Was Jesus essentially like we are (and thus do we see discipleship as taking on ourselves some degree of role of Jesus), or was Jesus fundamentally different than we are (i.e. divine in a way that we can never be, and thus he had done something that – more than our individual inability to have done or personal shortcomings – we as human beings are incapable of doing)? If Jesus was something that we can similarly approximate, that is an empowering thought: we can be agents of grace and transformation in the world. But it also begs the question of the unique role of Jesus – what, if anything, remains of his divinity? If Jesus was fundamentally different, and we can never resemble or approximate him, it lifts up the salvific role but leaves precious little to guide human action – what, if anything, remains of his humanity? Since we are committed to confess the presence of both full humanity and full divinity in Jesus, what is the relationship between them – and in a broader sense, what is the relationship between the divine and our humanity? How can we meaningfully speak of God’s act of redemption of humanity and creation? This struggle to understand and articulate a doctrine of grace and divine love is, in my opinion, at the heart of adoptionist descriptions of the relationship of Jesus the man to the Son of God.

In areas of the church (specifically the Community of Christ) where low Christology dominates (coastal North America, Australia, Northern Europe, as possible examples), adoptionism might be attractive as a way to articulate our Pelagian instincts of acting for our own salvation, growing toward God through (at least partly) our own effort. Vonnegut above, as a fiction writer and even more so as a Jew, is not offering a new Christological doctrine, but a literary device, casually offering a radically new way to look at the Christian heritage and human relationships. This might be a helpful model for the church in approaching the “adoption” of Jesus’ humanity – there are all kinds of apocryphal stories people share to explain to themselves or illustrate to others the mysteries of Christian dogma. When Saint Patrick pointed to the clover leaf as an illustration of the trinity, no one believes he was encouraging people to worship clover – it was an allegory, a literary device that served to illustrate a doctrine principle.

The Church might now be able to approach the idea of adoption as an allegory, a myth, a literary adaptation, if you will, as a way of talking about God’s expansive love for all: through Jesus God adopted humanity, and we are all thus children of God. This would preserve Jesus’ full-humanity/full-divinity and the Incarnation’s role in redemption. Adoption, in fact, doesn’t just affect the child. In this case, when God Fathered Jesus, God was also making Mary and Joseph part of God’s family. They’re not God’s in-laws or cousins, but they are family – and Jesus’ brothers and sisters, too, and cousins and distant relatives are all now related to God… with Jesus as the Son of God, humanity is adopted into God’s family.

The doctrine principle at the heart of adoptionism is that God has embraced our humanity, in spite of our limitations and shortcomings, and in so doing has extended God’s grace and love to all people and creation. We are all part of God’s family now, related through the complex web of family trees and relationships to God godself – and since we’re related to God, who is in turn related to everyone, we are related to everyone. We should treat everyone as a member of our family.

This turns adoptionist priorities on their head, making the question of Jesus’ adoption of virtually no interest. The key questions and implications of a literary employment of adoption-language are our relationship to the divine and our relationships with the rest of humanity and creation. Since “adoption” isn’t being advanced as doctrine – or even as a way to primarily explain Jesus’ relationship with God – it directs the devotee’s desire to understand the broad workings of grace in a direction that will examine precisely that principle, rather than mire her in orthodox Christological minutae. Whereas adoptionism was in previous centuries a dangerous shoal ready to shipwreck the unwary Christian voyager – a literary employment strips adoptionism of such importance, and therefore actually moves closer to the heart of the matter.

Bibliography of Sources Cited or Consulted

abelard. “Abelard: Heresies.” Available from http://www.abelard.org/abelard/abel-hi.htm. Internet: accessed 14 January 2007.

Ayers, Lewis. Nicea and Its Legacy: Am Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Bell, Richard. The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment. London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1968.

Carson, Thomas, and Joann Cerrito, Eds. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Catholic Encyclopedia. “Paul of Samosata.” Available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11589a.htm. Internet: accessed 14 January 2007.

-. “Adoptionism.” Available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01150a.htm. Internet: accessed 14 January 2007.

-. “Nestorius and Nestorianism.” Available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10755a.htm. Internet: accessed 14 January 2007.

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

-. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Eusebius, Pamphili. The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine. Vol. 1. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1966.

Frend, W. H. C. Saints and Sinners in the Early Church. Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1985.

Piney.com. “Epistle to Paul of Samosata by Malchion.” Available from http://www.piney.com/MalchionSamosata.html. Internet: accessed 14 January 2007.

Placher, William C., Ed. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Vol. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988.

Stevenson, James. Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the history of the Church A.D. 337-461. New York: Seabury Press, 1966.

Wessel, Susan. Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy: The Making of a Saint and of a Heretic. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Naturalist Approaches to God 

What follows is a paper I recently wrote for a Christian Theology class in Seminary. I chose the topic of naturalist approaches to God, and was limited to ten pages. How do you begin to discuss postmodern, pragmatist, process naturalist theological contexts, let alone assemble and evaluate some syntheses of those... in ten pages?! Well, that was my mistake. What follows is the product - rushed at times, making a lot of assumptions about the reader throughout. But for all that, not too bad. It is a good rough start for a larger project someday. Please feel free to assess and comment. -CS

Some Postmodern, Pragmatist, Process, Naturalist Approaches
By [Flannel Christian]

[Truth is] the kind of error without which a certain kind of living being could not live.
(quoted in Double Truth, By John Sallis)

At the end of October of last year, a poll reported that while most adult Americans believe in God, only 58 percent are "absolutely certain", and that the younger one is the less likely one is to answer the question of God with such confidence. (Harris Poll) In a tradition that must always make some appeal to younger hearts and minds in order to survive (and fulfill the "great commission"), this figure should create pause. Atheism, skepticism and doubt are no longer popularly thought of as enemies of morality or evidence of “fallenness” - rather, they seem honest reactions to the self-righteous claims to certainty of previous generations, and grounded at least partly in a re-evaluation of the role of religion in the contemporary world. More and more young adults entering churches reflect these postmodern sensibilities, and approach church life - the devotional life of a community - pragmatically, choosing to be active in a community while using the language of the tradition in not-necessarily-traditional ways to fit the needs and circumstances of their own experience. Part of their experience is dwelling in a culture that is at home with the puzzles of scientific inquiry, and a culture that approaches most questions from a naturalist perspective, choosing to frame both the questions and the solutions in terms that occupy only the natural world - to the exclusion of the supernatural. Certainly, not all young people find ministry in such perspectives, and more fundamentalist and evangelical churches are booming as a result of claims of certainty and simplicity. But these generally are not congregations of the Community of Christ - a denomination with a long history of plurality, dissent, and individual theological freedom. This is a valuable tradition that we should build on. If we are to build on it, we must take a closer look at the language of our community that might be being used by populations who seek fellowship with the greater body, and yet cannot deny the truths they have come to embrace by virtue of their embodied experience in this particular half-century in North America.

My object of study is this question: How can a postmodern-pragmatist-process-naturalist meaningfully use the word "God" in such a way that it faithfully directs the devotions of both the individual and the larger community?

I will first review each qualifier individually, and then offer some synthetic possibilities.

I. Postmodern
Postmodernism is most succinctly described as anti-foundationalist – that is, postmoderns have typically lost confidence in the idea that any one single meta-narrative can explain the world, and generally mistrust claims of knowledge of or reliance on absolute foundations of any kind. (Kitchens 4) Immediately, this places a fundamental challenge to traditional notions of God, the Ultimate Absolute (but it is not entirely without precedent, finding resonance with adjectives such as unfathomable and ineffable). Anti-foundationalism eschews absolutes, emphasizing the contingency of human experience, and recognizes the play of power in definitions and ideologies. Postmodernism has moved beyond most of the dominant ideologies of the past half-millenium: past the idea of inevitable progress and improvement in human development (Kung 12); past unequivocal confidence in science to provide solutions to fundamental human problems; past the confidence that the econo-government ideological legacies of the modern era, namely capitalist democracy and state communism, can lead to peace and harmony. God also took a place on the butcher’s block of late 20th century – that is, as a claim to absolute knowledge or universal quality it has undergone some cutting. As Hans Kung pointed out, God can be a projection of human desires/faults/hopes, but doesn’t have to be. (47) There could be an external referent. Michel Foucault, on the other hand, would normally answer the question of the existence of God indirectly by asking instead: How has the concept of God functioned in our society? Being highly suspicious of claims to universal truths, Foucault doesn’t refute them; instead his strategy is to historicize grand narratives. (Rainbow 4) This is a valuable critique. We must recognize that conversations and ideas about God arise in historical conditions and in a social and dynamic process; not appeal to so high an authority as to deprive human beings of their autonomy within the world. (Kung 49) The path to naturalism here will be picked up later in this paper.

Also, the abandonment of confidence in inevitable progress and improvement has worn away the cultural foundations that underlie the persuasiveness of the teleological arguments for the existence of a traditional God. The world does not seem so sensical or beautiful a creation in the face of the Holocaust, Stalinism, US genocide in Vietnam, or nuclear weapons. Although not a direct contradiction of teleological argument, reference to telos in contemporary life is no longer as compelling as it might have been.

Postmodernism inherits a reliance on democracy from modernism, while no longer assuming its infallibility or finality. Likewise, postmodernism inherits a reliance on the natural and human sciences, without assuming their infallibility or finality. God under postmodernism must work within these contexts as well: community and the sciences – such that even Hans Kung, a Catholic priest, says that a religion is true and good to the degree that it serves humanity. (90) This is quite a reversal of a God-centered idea of religion, unless one understands “God” differently.

Needless to say, arguments from authority for the existence or nature of God do not hold much water in a postmodern context, but “reason” also is not elevated above authoritative tradition. While postmodernity has inherited the modern emphasis on individuality, a renewed interest in the communal aspects of individual consciousness and the social role in formation of individuation – the shared elements among individuals that help form them as individuals – has opened up seekers to the importance of community in spirituality. Religion and God for postmoderns, if it is a concern at all, will likely be approached through a devotional community of some kind – enter, the Church. This move starts as a utilitarian venture, a strategic and pragmatic act recognizing the (trans)formative possibilities of “God.”

II. Pragmatist
For pragmatists, the meaning of a word is in its use. This would, of course, include the meaning of the word “God,” leaving open the possibility of diverse (equally “true”) meanings in different contexts and therefore the possibility of new and/or alternative meanings – always evaluated against the backdrop of the “usefulness” of the word or idea. Richard Rorty, among others, sees the gradual but inevitable fading away of God-talk by a kind of natural attrition, “just as we have given up Aristotelian language centuries after the Newtonian revolution.” (Hall 94) This squares well with pragmatism’s (and postmodernism’s) broad rejection of absolute claims, in favor of emphasis on the contingency of knowledge/experience/beliefs/worldview. (James 17) “God” is therefore a strategic play within a particular language-game, a play or a game which may be fading in its usefulness for enriching contemporary human experience. (A pragmatist wishing to employ “God-talk”, therefore, might do so either as a play in another language game or as a novel play within the existing – in this case, Christian – language-game.)

Contrast this pragmatic view of God with one traditional Christian theology. Instead of ontological arguments beginning with the qualities of God and leading to the existence of God, pragmatists look to what exists (or what they perceive existing in the social interplay among humanity and their world), looking to how the language is being used, what role(s) does the word God play, what problem(s) is it meant to solve, in order to grasp the qualities of a particularly employed “God.” (James 32) The issue may rest on the old line between a priori and a posteriori possibility – that is, whether God or Self or what have you is something in existence beforehand and to which we ought to strive to be in closer approximation to it, or grounded in the actuality of extant things and the challenge to make of ourselves and our world what we choose. (James 134-6) (We can see how this fits with naturalism/humanism, that is, the locus of possibility and impetus is in the natural world and human endeavor.) For the pragmatist, if the “hypothesis of God” works (in the widest sense of that word), it is true, not the other way around. (James 143) Therefore, a pragmatic theologian would look to what ways in which “God” might work, and look to those uses as authoritative. Absolute claims, and typical claims that run counter to the natural sciences (since “truth” in the natural sciences is also predicated on the qualification of “working”), are therefore not as helpful in managing human experience. When claims within an absolutist framework occasionally do work, the pragmatist would respond that that is likely coincidental, rather than indicative of the “workability” of other/all absolute claims.

Pragmatists leave open a wide range of possibilities in the employment of “God-talk,” but approach it from the conviction that it must work within the frame of the bulk of our convictions and experience. Whether “God-talk” is flexible enough to survive in this environment remains to be seen (as is in part the object of this paper).

III. Process
Process thought can be described as a metaphysical pragmatism, and it provides the most constructive work on God. There are at least two formulations for God in Process thought, both pointing to the importance of the spontaneous, unaccountable, miraculous ability to choose or to become, and more specifically to become something new. A more extensive coverage of Process philosophy and theology would be necessary to canvas the operation of choice in events as small as quarks and as large as nations, but suffice it to say here that creative opportunity is of ultimate importance to process thinkers.

Henry Nelson Wieman sees religion as an answer to the problem of how to direct humanity’s tremendous potential for transformation in ways that are creative rather than destructive. (MUC 9) For Wieman, a dedicated naturalist, God is that source of creative transformation – in Process thought: the repository of all possibilities, but for Wieman God is not just the options but also the call to greater complexity, to deeper and broader experience. While the character of the symbol should not be confused with what is symbolized (SHG 33), Wieman believes God has so often been perceived as a person because the creative event at the level most important for human living often operates between persons. (SHG 266) The creative event “creates the good of the world in a way that [humanity] cannot do,” it transforms people and the world in ways that they, acting alone, could not have been transformed. (SHG 76) This creativity can be drawn from many institutions: culture, friendships, faith, a god-concept, reflection, and so on, but Wieman is concerned that we not supplant our dedication to the Creative Good with that toward created goods.

Process theologians’ major contributions are in reshaping our descriptions of the nature of the divine. Similarly to Wieman, John B. Cobb, Jr., and David Ray Griffin describe God as “that factor which makes what-is-not relevant to what-is, and lures the world toward new forms of realization.” (43) For Cobb & Griffin, this is best described as creative-responsive love, finding Biblical inspiration in the Gospel of John’s opening lines. They take up issue with Anselm and Aquinas – who between them felt that the unchangeableness of God made God unable to be sympathetic or responsive in love. Process thinkers would rather give up immutability in favor of responsive love, than vice versa. “Responsive” here signifies that the lover (in this case, God) is changed by the loving relationship as well as the beloved (in this case, humanity or the world). “Creative” here means that God is persuasive (as opposed to coercive), promotes enjoyment, and is adventurous – God is willing to risk for the sake of increased breadth and depth of enjoyment by creation. God wants to see everyone become a “flaming hearth of initiative.” (Marty 187)

This God is entirely natural. Wieman describes the creative event as supra-human in that it transcends individual humans; not supernatural in that the creative event is of and works within the natural world. (76) While “transcendent divinity” is a human construct, it expresses an attempt to articulate and develop an experience indispensable in humanity’s effort to continually expand its horizons and enrich its life. (Marty 181) The idea of a transcendent divinity as supernatural requires a specific view of nature. If, however, one views nature as open, as alive with unrealized but realizable possibilities and as radically developmental, then the category of “supernatural” would appear less useful and in fact misleading. (Marty 183)

IV. Naturalism
Naturalism can be broadly construed as the belief that only nature exists – that is, all that exists is natural. More to the point, naturalism affirms that causation in the natural world (this world) be traced to natural sources. In other words, there is no supernatural causation – nothing outside the sphere of “this” (natural) world causally relates to anything inside it. (Augustine 3) (This definition allows for the existence of non-natural worlds existing and relating outside this world, which for obvious reasons can’t be ruled out, but any such world is beyond the scope of human inquiry and certainly this paper.) There are, of course, many cultures within “naturalism” – the more pertinent of which to this discussion is religious naturalism, that community which endorses human religious responses and value commitments within a naturalistic framework.

Religious naturalists recognize the value of personal wholeness and social coherence offered by traditionally religious communities, and lifts up the fundamental human impulse toward common spiritual and moral sensibilities. (Goodenough 2) The decision to join a church, grounded in this-world experience, might be more of a political act than a theological one, and although that includes discussions of what we usually call “politics”, this should be understood more broadly to mean engaging in fundamental questions about what it means to be human. (Jensen 1) Religious communities are one of the few places where people come not only open to, but seeking and expressing a yearning for, personal transformation. Many religious traditions, the Community of Christ among them, see personal transformation and the transformation of the world as intimately integrated. This expression of desire for personal transformation, and a culture of cultivating practices that draw people beyond themselves, is attractive to some people, theist or naturalist.

For “Christian atheism,” on the other hand, “God” might be a word that stands for one’s highest ideals – a utopian benchmark – and god-talk language that helps create meaning. (BBC 1) If, in this way, God is merely a projection of the human mind that would be dangerously close to what both Wieman and Paul Tillich would consider idolatry. But consider it against the backdrop of other Christian atheist beliefs: humanity is forced to take responsibility for its actions; human beings are seen as able to do things for themselves; and religion is inherently democratic, that is, it comes from humanity, not something forced on humanity by a god. (BBC 2) It seems clear that what is meant by God being a projection of the human mind is a confession that God is a human construct and final responsibility for that construct (or human activity responding to it) rests with particular humans (or humanity as an abstract whole).

The term “naturalism” is preferred here because it does not carry the association of animosity toward the tradition that “atheism” does, and more importantly because it focuses on the operative concept: that the natural world is what we have to work with, and (a) “God” might have a role to play in that framework. The religious naturalist is one who employs mindful religious approaches to her understanding of the natural world, including (but not limited to) reflection on narratives of fundamental value (akin to theological reflection); inward responses to such narratives like gratitude, awe, humility, respect, engagement (what might be called “spirituality”); and outward, communal responses to the narratives such as compassion, fair-mindedness, generosity (the traditionally “moral” sphere). (Goodenough 2)

A key point of naturalism is not to distract the human endeavor with supernatural confusions, and thereby more boldly empower humanity to transform itself.

V. Synthetic Possibilities
There are a number of possible descriptions or uses of “God” that would be an engaging, faithful, devoted renderings within a postmodern, pragmatist, process, naturalist paradigm. Some highlights that follow can be roughly grouped under three umbrellas: Psycho-analytical (first three), Bio-psychical (next one), and Social-Relational (last three).

God as Absolute Self or Subjectivity: Jacques Derrida recognizes a psychological role for God, as the “absolute self” or subjectivity – the possibility, as he puts it, “of keeping a secret from myself.” (108-9) The singularity of the individual is suspended in communication (communion) with this Other (or alienated self), and one is no longer alone. (60) Derrida is joined by Michael Novak: “The search for God is intimately connected with the discovery of one’s own identity.” (Marty 168) The transcendence of God is the self’s ability to see beyond its present self, a reality which points beyond itself and in so doing discovers itself. There is, in contrast to Jung and Irigaray below, however, no endpoint of wholeness; “wholeness” would be anathema to Derrida’s latent existentialist convictions.

God as Instrument for Psychological Wholeness: For Luce Irigaray, “God” functions to anchor several interrelated concepts. Similar to Derrida, God for Irigaray provides a framework and a horizon for the constitution of the subject’s identity as a subject. (Grosz 123) God also provides an ideal of perfection specific to each individual but general to genders, classes and communities: a “sensible transcendental,” a process of completion and integration, a movement always tending toward and becoming its own ideal. Similar to Jung, God is a projection of an ego-ideal, and is instrumental in self-completion (without finality). (Grosz 123) (Irigaray might here be influenced by Feuerbach’s compelling claim that God is simply the projection of our own hidden potential. [Migliore 57]) God is also an emblem of a supreme form of alterity that institutes ethics: one can love the other only if one also loves oneself and (a) God – gods are linked to the constitution of an identity and community. (Grosz 123)
Thus, for Irigaray, the divine is not simply the reward for earthly virtue, all wishes come true; it is rather the field of creativity, fertility, production, an always uncertain and unpreempted field. … The divine is a movement, a movement of and within history, a movement of becoming without telos, a movement of Love in its Empedoclean sense. (Grosz 125)
(It is amazing to me that Irigaray hasn’t been taken up by more Process thinkers.)

Jungian Collective Unconscious: The Jungian model of self-realization points to a common fund of images whose basic patterns were ingrained in the psyche from birth. (Heisig 75) The role of religion is to help individuals discover a collectivity with men and women of all times and places. (Heisig 75) As such, “God” might refer to this fund of shared images. This discovery of a shared community, Jung felt, was essential for individuation of the psyche. Each individual has a personal unconscious created from their own particular experiences. Every human, however, also has a collective unconscious that serves to invite the ego to previously unknown dimensions of the psyche. (Heisig 80) Like Chomsky below, Jung postulates innate structures of the human mind that serve as means to share common experiences between individual minds, and, somewhat like Jaynes to follow, that sharing helps direct individual discovery of the self. For Jung, the ultimate goal is psychic wholeness, which as an ideal is never fully attainable but always present as a possibility. (Heisig 82) In a therapeutic sense, Jung belongs to the “psycho-analytical” group, but in a metaphysical discussion he might be grouped under the bio-psychical umbrella.

God as a Way the Brain Processes Certain Experience: Noam Chomsky offers a biological possibility for God-experience. For Chomsky, the ability of different people to communicate and share meaningful experiences leads him to the conclusion that there must be a bio-physical structure underlying the mind – that is, brains are hard-wired to operate within a broad (but relatively consistent) framework. (Rainbow 3; Pinker) “God” might be such an innate category that some of our experience is filtered through that mechanism. The existence or discussion of an “outside referent” moves, then, to a discussion of how humans experience or sort their experience of the divine. This study would be along the lines of the natural and human sciences, but challenged to maintain a fundamental reverence for the experience of transformative absolutes. Chomsky finds an echo in the work of Julian Jaynes, who traces the experience of gods to the bicameral structure of the human brain – the different hemispheres “speaking” to one another might be the source of religious or divine experience. (117) In a devotional sense, then, when one prays, for instance, one would be praying to the best part of oneself, addressing it as if it were another in order to give voice to the tension between what we are and what we might become; between our limited vision and a greater, grander one; between our sense of finitude and that of unpredictable possibility.

God as Creative-Responsive Love: As was discussed above, many process thinkers find useful (and therefore “true” in a pragmatic sense) the concept of God as love – a love that is both affected by and affects the beloved (creation). This is closely linked to the idea of Creativity.

God as the Source of Creativity: Some process thinkers, as discussed above, speak of God as the source of all possibilities and the lure of creation to fulfill them. It is not as if there is some cosmic vat of possibility-beads just waiting to be picked – opportunities for novelty arise out of each moment and decision, and it can be said that there is a force at work in each moment calling each quark and cell and person and people to creative transformation – to become something more enjoyable and rich than was previously thought possible. Another way to phrase this hope is for Creative Transformation.

God as Solidarity: One possibility not discussed above is the idea that “God” could be used to refer to the mass of shared convictions held by a community. This would, of course, raise the possibility of tribalism (as has been the case innumerable times throughout history), unless “universality” was a shared conviction. In this way, when God is reaching out to all people, we could be expressing our own expanding embrace of different people, ideas, concerns, and drawing them into our shared community (or community of shared conviction). Solidarity, after all, is the political form of love.

VI. Concluding Thoughts
These possibilities reflect the postmodern, pragmatist, process and naturalist communities’ emphasis on reason and experience. However, there are Biblical and traditional precedents for most of them as well. The challenge of the Church in any age is to make the gospel live in its time. The enduring question posed by this brief coverage is whether the essential gospel message is diluted or concentrated through them. (Of course, there will be different answers for different individuals and denominations, but the community of the church will at some point reach some sort of consensus on the broad acceptability or appropriateness of such a worldview adapting the gospel to itself.)

All these hold the divine to be “absolute” in that it ceaselessly draws individuals and communities into greater depths, further communion, broader wholeness – always just beyond what-is and forever unattainable (but no less of a draw for that). At first glance, this seems in conflict with the postmodern aversion to absolutes. But I think the “absolute” in common to these concepts recognizes the fundamentally human experience of contingency, and plays to that strength. It is an absolute that opens-up, rather than closes-off.

Pragmatists and postmoderns of many stripes want to avoid making the merely human an idolatrous projection. They are “unalterably opposed to any tendency of [humanity] to close in upon [itself] or to conceive [itself] as the apex of reality.” (Marty 185) To the contrary, the religious quest is grounded on quite the contrary principle. The challenge of religion is to direct human devotion to that which will transform humanity into the best we can imagine (or even better than that). If we can wrestle it away from the created goods, God may be just the focal point we need.

Bibliography of Sources Cited or Consulted

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Baldrin, Wahhab. Interview by author via email, December 2006-January 2007.

BBC. “Christian Atheism.” Available from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/atheism/types/christianatheism.shtml. Internet; accessed 28 December 2006.

Cobb, John B., Jr., and David Ray Griffin. Process Theology: an Introductory Exposition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.

Freud, Sigmund. The Major Works of Sigmund Freud. Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 54. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1984.

Goodenough, Ursula. “Religious Naturalism Defined.” Available from http://www.religiousnaturalism.org/defs.html. Internet; accessed 21 November 2006.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “Irigaray and the Divine.” Transitions in Continental Philosophy, Arleen B. Dallery and Stephen H. Watson, Eds. Albany: SUNYP, 1994.

Hall, David L. Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism. Albany: SUNY P, 1994.

Harris Poll, The. “While Most U.S. Adults Believe in God, Only 58 Percent are ‘Absolutely Certain’”. #80, October 31, 2006. Available from http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll.htm. Internet; accessed 28 December 2006.

Heisig, James W. “Jung, Christianity and Buddhism.” Nanzan Bulletin 23 (1999): 74-104.

James, William. Pragmatism: A New Name for some Old Ways of Thinking and The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to Pragmatism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Jensen, Robert. “Why I Am a Christian (Sort Of).” Available from http://www.alternet.org/story/33236/. Internet; accessed 28 December 2006.

Kitchens, Jim. The Postmodern Parish. The Alban Institute, 2003.

Kung, Hans. Global Responsibility: In Search of a New World Ethic. New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1991.

Marty, Martin, and Dean G. Peerman, Eds. New Theology No. 7: The Recovery of Transcendence. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.

Pinker, Stephen. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: Perennial Classics, 2000.

Placher, William C. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 1: From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988.

Rainbow, Paul, Ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Sallis, John. Double Truth. Albany: SUNY P, 1995.

Ward, Graham. The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1997.

Webb, Val. Why We’re Equal: Introducing Feminist Theology. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999.

Wieman, Henry N. The Source of Human Good. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1946.

-. Man’s Ultimate Commitment. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1958.


Monday, September 11, 2006

When Jesus Became Christian 

Sermon for Day Before 9-11

And this afternoon and tomorrow, when we are bombarded with flag-waving, speeches and television exposes, when the news and remembrances and emails start circulating, meant to whip us up into a frenzy of patriotic fear and prejudice, especially then we need to remember who we are. We are no longer captive to the world’s notions of enemies and revenge. We have been set free. We live for something more. For us Christians it’s not the American Way – it’s the Jesus way, and it is narrow and difficult.

This is a sermon I preached to a politically-conservative congregation on the day before "Patriot Day". Beautifully, it was a Communion service, and also included bringing an offering of food to the altar as an ongoing donation collection for a local food shelter. The Spirit was good, and worship full. What follows, of course, isn't exactly what I said - for one thing it is very long (35 minutes), and I cut out a lot the night before. But I include the entire text here. -CS

When Jesus Became Christian
By Christian Skoorsmith
At the Community of Christ, Auburn Congregation
Auburn, Washington, USA
Sept. 10, 2006
Mark 7:24-37

I have really struggled with what to say about this scripture today. First there is the scripture itself, which is a tough one, but then there is also “today” – specifically September 10th, the day before September 11th, a day of national tragedy and now on our calendars as “Patriot Day.” What do we say about this scripture and this day here, in church, in worship, in a communion service in which we rededicate ourselves to the coming kingdom of God? It’s too big a question for me alone, so I’m going to need your help. I know we don’t usually do this, but if you could, when the Spirit moves you or speaks to you or challenges you or calls to you, or even if you know what I’m talking about, just call out “A-men.” Let’s try it. “We love Jesus.” (A-men.) “We promote communities of Joy, Hope, Love and Peace.” (A-men.) “We are a prophetic people.” (A-men.) “We are called.” (A-men.) “Go Seahawks!” … Well, I thought I’d try.

Today’s scripture is a difficult one to talk about. On the one hand, you have a brave woman seeking a miracle. On the other, you have Jesus not sounding very Jesus-y. The scripture is awkward and disturbing, even more so when we begin to understand what Jesus was actually saying.

It isn’t some marginal character saying these things – it’s Jesus. And this is no modest slip of the tongue - its language is full of excess and exaggeration. Once we understand what Jesus is saying, he comes off sounding like a racist, insensitive jerk. No wonder Christians don’t like to talk about this. In fact, I bet most of us here don’t even know this story – I mean, really know this story. Even if we’ve read it before, we’ve probably seen it through our modern expectations – we expect Jesus to be the model of love and tolerance.

But, if we’re going to follow Jesus – the real Jesus, and not some picture-perfect story-book version of Jesus – then we have to know this story. So here it is.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus spends the first part of chapter 7 talking about cleanliness laws – what’s clean food to eat and what’s unclean. He lambastes the Pharisees for assuming human conventions are divine laws or nature, for “teaching human precepts as doctrine.” (v. 7) We all know what he’s talking about here, right? We’ve all seen it at one time or another, someone saying that their prejudices or customs or opinions are actually God’s Will. (A-men?) Jesus was calling them on this. And pretty much turning the law upside-down, Jesus says it isn’t what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of them – not what we eat, but what we say and do, where we put our money, what we support or resist, what we teach our children, and at the extreme, where we give our lives. This might be foreshadowing for our particular scripture today.

After dealing with the Pharisees, Mark tells us, Jesus escapes from the region and arrives at the city of Tyre. The way Mark sets it up, Jesus was tired of being hounded by hypocrites and prejudiced people, and just wanted a break. Now Tyre was a racially, ethnically, economically and politically diverse city. There are Arabs, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, and Persians, as well as Jews. There’s rich people and poor people, powerful people, soldiers, regular people, disenfranchised people. And perhaps Jesus is hoping he can just blend in, get away from the crowds. Who can blame him? He’s hoping he won’t be bothered. But he’s wrong, and a woman comes asking for a miracle.

Isn’t that always the way? Whenever we get tired of dealing with people’s prejudices or short-sightedness, and all we want is a break, that’s when God still bothers us, always asking for a miracle. (A-men?) (God also bothered Jesus at Gethsemane, when he was saying “just give me a break, here!”)

(Remove this paragraph?) This little episode we’re about to discuss is at a turning-point of the gospel. You probably haven’t noticed it, but in Mark’s Gospel up until this point Jesus has stuck pretty much to the Jews – Jesus is, after all, a Jew, talking to Jews about how to be a good Jew. After this point, however, the gospel looks very different. The entire gospel of Mark, indeed the whole history of Christianity, pivots on two verses; the gospel radically changes and with it changes the kind of disciples Jesus followers would find themselves called to be; one of the defining moments of our religion and our understanding of God hinges between two verses, and they’re in today’s scripture reading. Despite how important they are, oftentimes we overlook them, because we’re reading the Bible backwards – we already know how it ends, and so we read it with 2000 years of tradition layered on top of it. We think we know what it means already. But, if we want to know what it meant to Mark and his first-century audience, we have to look at it more closely.

Jesus is hiding out, tired from the crowds who always want more; he’s still steaming at the Pharisee hypocrisy; and probably more than a little frustrated with his own disciples who don’t even seem to get! All he wants is a break. And here comes this lady begging for a miracle.

Is that all these people want? Miracles? No one believes unless they can see! Unless they get something out of it! So Jesus just ignores her.

And not only is this lady not taking the hint and getting lost, she’s also clearly not welcome there. You see, she’s a Gentile. She’s not Jewish. The gospel of Mark goes to some length to impress upon the reader how foreign she is – “she’s really not one of us”, Mark seems to be saying. “She’s Syro-phoenician.” Mark rarely mentions people’s nationality or ethnicity, so when he does, it’s a big deal. Matthew, when using Mark’s gospel a decade or two later as notes for his own gospel, realized this and drove the point home by calling her a “Canaanite” woman – even though there hadn’t been any “Canaanites” for hundreds of years! The gospel writers are trying to make a point here, and the point is she was really different. And in the Jewish world of laws regarding what one could or couldn’t do, could or couldn’t eat, who you could or couldn’t talk to, “different” was very, very bad.

This lady wasn’t welcome. First of all, she shouldn’t even be in this part of town. Secondly, she shouldn’t enter a Jewish home because that will defile the whole building. Next, she can’t even hope to talk to Jesus because (a) she’s a woman and women didn’t just go up and talk to men, and (b) she’s a Gentile! That’s like a double-whammy for even just talking to him! Jesus is probably disgusted that some filthy Gentile is even addressing him, let alone wanting him to answer her. And then, if he hears her, she’s asking for a miraculous healing of her daughter! Another person who just wants a favor from Jesus! And she just won’t go away. The neighbors tell her. The women of the house tell her. The disciples tell her to go away, and she just keeps asking Jesus. Finally, Jesus is just fed up! He doesn’t even look at her, but answers to the crowd that is starting to gather: “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it away to the dogs.” (Gasp! Pause.)

Well, ok, that doesn’t sound all that bad to us – but you have to hear with the ears of a first-century Jew and Palestinian Gentile, and all of a sudden there’s a force there that we didn’t hear.

“Dogs” was a common Hebrew pejorative that referred to pagans generally (1 Sam 17:43; 2 Kings 8:13), but by the first-century it came to apply particularly to Greek-influenced people in Palestine particularly because they let their dogs in their houses, which the Jews thought was filthy. So this is, really, a first-century racial epithet. It’s a bad word. It is like Jesus calling a black person the “n-word,” or a Vietnamese person a “gook,” or a Japanese person a “nip,” or a German a “kraut,” or a white person a “cracker,” or a gay person a “fag,” or an Arab a “towel-head.” I don’t like saying these words, especially in house such as this that demands both dignity and honesty – but we have to be honest, and these are the 20th century equivalents of what Jesus said. You should be offended by this, by these words and by the idea of Jesus saying them; you should cringe, because that’s what Mark was saying here. Jesus was at his breaking point, and tired of people telling him what to do. And it was at this moment, in a fit of anger and short-sightedness, that Jesus snapped.

Who among us hasn’t said something hurtful or spiteful in a rage of anger and frustration? Who among us can’t sympathize with Jesus’ predicament? It doesn’t mean Jesus was right to blow up and sink to that kind of language, but it can help us appreciate the humanness of Jesus. (A-men?)

But there’s more in this sentence than just that racial insult. The scripture reads: “let the children be fed” – which to our ears sounds kind of nice. But the word translated here as “children,” as it is often used in Greek, the language Mark was written in, could also mean “disciples” as it does elsewhere in the New Testament. Depending on the interpretation, Mark could have Jesus limiting the gospel just to his circle of immediate disciples. “Let only the disciples be fed,” he could be saying.

And the word translated as “fed”, chortazo, means something more along the lines of gorging yourself, eating until you’re sick, a sort of verb you only use at Thanksgiving. So it’s not as if Jesus is saying the disciples or chosen ones should get first pickings – they should absolute satiate themselves before letting one little crumb go to those unworthy other people. My point is: this is not the language of moderation here, folks. Jesus’ outburst shows all kinds of excessive language. Mark is really trying to shock the reader. You really can see the contours of someone losing their temper.

But this is story-telling, too – Mark is telling this story for a reason – so there is also a symbolic layer of meaning here. Why is Mark including this in his gospel? What is he trying to say here? In the world of Jewish Wisdom literature (like the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), of which Jesus showed himself both knowledgeable and fond, and even elsewhere in the gospel, eating bread was symbolic of understanding (6:52; 8:18-21). (A more modern metaphor for understanding is seeing – “I see that.”) (Knowing this puts another spin on the Lord’s Supper, communion and potlucks – A-men?)

Food and money are both such great symbols for the gospel writers because they actually embody what they are symbolizing – so they are both real and symbolic of their own reality at the same time. With whom you share your bread or money actually means something more than just sharing food or money, right? It establishes or nurtures or transforms a relationship, a connection or separation. No wonder the gospel writers used these two images so often! Mark has Jesus not just making a statement about that one night, but about who is worthy of hearing the message of Jesus, of being part of the community of Christ, who has a right to be treated as fully human. And it is clear that Jesus will have none of this pagan-dog lady, insulting him with her mere presence.

But just when we see Jesus sink to unimaginable depths, and we start to wonder what kind of person we are lifting up as our revelation of God, something happens. This woman, who has been verbally abused, berated, denied and shunned, and who is now insulted in the most offensive way by the very person she believed could heal her daughter… she lifts up her head and answers the venom of Jesus with a surprisingly witty and incisive observation: “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table of children.” She is calling Jesus out for what he said – and I don’t mean the racist remark, I mean what Jesus had spent the day teaching about.

Remember, Jesus had just spent the day telling the Pharisees that their cleanliness laws actually distracted them from the real work of God. These human prejudices of who is worthy and unworthy people lied to them and made them believe some people are better than others, or are different in the eyes of God. Jesus was saying that those divisions are created by humans, and that God’s love and compassion and power reach beyond them.

This Syro-phoenician woman was saying that even though the Gentiles are “unclean” because they live with their dogs, the Gentiles treat even their dogs with a modicum of respect. The Gentiles, in fact, treat their dogs better than Jesus was treating her. The accusations Jesus was leveling against the Pharisees earlier in the day were now being turned on him. Jesus was the hypocrite.

Something important is happening here. It is what our theme lifts up today: the Syro-Phoenician woman spoke up… she answered prejudice and violence with truth and compassion, she stood up to ridicule in order to compel the people around her to see the light. She spoke up, when she was probably very frightened to do so. This unnamed foreign woman, out of all the disciples and friends surrounding Jesus, was the only one who actually understood Jesus. She had, in a way, already tasted the bread of understanding that Jesus held out for his disciples. Our theme would have us see this woman as the hero of the story – which is great, but the story doesn’t end there.

Imagine the scene – everyone knows Jesus was being a jerk, but this lady called him on it. How would he react? Would he curse her? Send her away? Attack her? No. Jesus hears her, listens to her, and he realizes that his world in that moment is changing. She’s right, he thinks. God’s love is for everyone. God’s compassion and concern reaches beyond my social group, my religion, my “people,” my country. I say love your enemies, but have I changed my customs, my habits, my lifestyle or my politics to reflect that belief? I say bless those who curse you, but have I changed what I say and do to be in line with that? I say pray for those who mistreat you, but here am I mistreating someone!

In my opinion, there are two heroes in this story. First is the woman who spoke up and pointed out hypocrisy. But there’s also Jesus, who was willing to recognize his own short-sightedness, his own discrimination and prejudice; he was willing to measure his own behavior and presumptions against the word of God; he was willing to confront how wrong he’d been about what he thought God’s Will was, and was willing to change himself in response to that new revelation, even though changing yourself means risking some scary things like ridicule and having to love your enemies.

I’m sure he couldn’t believe that he had been so blind that whole time. But now he could see. Jesus was being converted. He was no longer just a Jew concerned only with speaking to and protecting his own people – he was a person concerned with all humanity. The irony here is that it was a gentile woman that converted Jesus to Christianity, and not the other way around.

Jesus is so stunned at this point, having to rethink everything he’s been saying and doing, that all he can think to do in response is thank this woman for her honesty and forthrightness, and the gospel writer emphasizes this with the healing of her daughter. He doesn’t say, “you’re faith has made your daughter whole,” but that might be implied here.

I’m not sure, but I bet it is at this point that Jesus began to emphasize the “repentance” part of the kingdom of God. We don’t know what word Jesus actually used in Aramaic, but the Greek word that the Gospel writers used, that we translate as “repentance”, is “metanoia.” “Meta” meaning to change (like metamorphosis and metabolism), and “noia” meaning way of knowing or perceiving. Literally, repentance is “changing your mind” or “changing the way you perceive the world”, “changing the way you think.”

Jesus was used to thinking in terms of good people and bad people, clean and unclean, worthy and unworthy, those on “our side” and those on “the other side”. And up to this point in the gospel he may have only been interested in moving those boundaries around, not necessarily in doing away with those boundaries altogether. Jesus was, really, a lot like you and me – at times not the best people we could be, willing to like some people more than others, more willing to help some people or cross some boundaries for some people and not so willing for others, more willing to forgive and work toward reconciliation with some people and not with others, more willing to understand where certain people are coming from and not willing to make that leap for others, more willing to share our table or other resources with certain people while not sharing them with others. (A-men?) Like Jesus did, we make judgments about people, and oftentimes our judgments end up looking a lot like the power structures we participate in, or benefit from, or are subject to, whether that be our culture, our nation, or sometimes our faith.

Even if we don’t like seeing it so plainly acted out, as it is in this story, we should be able to sympathize with Jesus’ feelings. After all, we’re certainly no better than Jesus, and probably we’re a lot worse. Jesus came face to face with the difference between being Christian and being a subject or citizen of some earthly power.

Jesus realized that responding to the gospel, in effect being a Christian, demands some very counter-cultural thought, demands seeing the world not as the Powers want us to see it, as the political governors or religious fundamentalists see it; but to see the world as God sees it – as fallen all over the place (including you and me) but none of it beyond redemption or unworthy of care (even those whom “The World” tells us to despise, like “terrorists” for example).

The government and Fox News and televangelists want us to fear and react out of desperation or vengeance – they want us to see people as fundamentally foreign and threatening. Jesus had to contend with the voices of Caesar and his cultural prejudices in his own head and heart – even while at the same time he was mouthing the words, saying the prayers, spreading the teachings of the gospel. Jesus struggled to meet the demands of the gospel in the face of his nation and politics and culture. And we Christians, followers of Jesus, inherit that struggle – we are set against the world, like resident-aliens or strangers in a strange land.

We struggle against Caesar and prejudice in our own hearts and minds. We struggle against the propaganda of the nation, against militarism that says violence is really the only solution to some problems, against an economic mindset that says to consume more is the way to happiness and security, against a culture in which we always have to be #1 or we’re nobody. As Christians, we hold different values. Instead of nationalist identifications that separate people along artificial geographic lines, we see all people as children of God and united in Christ’s love for them. Instead of violence, we see Love as the real solution to problems – without being pollyanish and thinking that love is easy or quick, we all know love is tough sometimes and a long-term commitment. Instead of capitalism, a system built on the exploitation of workers in our own country and around the globe, a system that believes there is a scarcity of resources and we better get ours first, we Christians believe that there is an abundance for everyone, and that if everyone shares there will always be enough – remember the loaves and fishes miracle, and the miracle every Sunday there is a potluck: everyone eats their fill and goes home with more than they came with. Instead of a world of competition against others, we Christians join with others, in prayer, in work, in offering help, in changing our world. We’re in it together, all members of one body. These are bold claims that fly in the face of the Powers That Be. And I bet even right now there are voices in your head and heart that are telling you not to agree too much. Little tentacles of the World making sure your Christian sentiments aren’t taken too seriously. Am I right? I know I feel them. I can hear those voices right now.

As followers of Jesus, we inherit that same frightening, compelling challenge that faced Jesus. But we also inherit the confidence of victory. It isn’t a victory the way the World thinks of victory – not over kingdoms or regimes, we won’t invade a country or storm the White House. Our God is the crucified God, the despised and hated God, the small and humble but very personally interested God. Jesus had no interest in the World’s kind of victory. Our victory is victory as Jesus knew victory – overcoming inside himself those voices of The World, so that he was no longer the subject of a worldly power, but of a power beyond the world, beyond the halls of power.

Brothers and sisters, how wonderful that today we take part in the sacrament of Communion, a sacrament with which we declare and recommit ourselves to citizenship in the kingdom of God, first and foremost. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no American or Iraqi, no terrorist or freedom fighter. We participate in a sharing of food – symbolically, a sharing of power and faith, with anyone who will join us at the table, and holding open a space even for our enemies. How perfect that this difficult scripture that speaks of the sharing of bread as a moment of transformation and opening of hearts, of understanding, is our scripture for today. This turning of hearts, this listening to the gospel, this metanoia, this turning our backs on the values of the World, is no less difficult for us than it was for Jesus. But there is a promise here. Remember that the Syro-phoenician woman had come pleading for her daughter, and as a result of this metanoia, her child was healed. There is a promise that for those of us bold enough to really listen, to take into our deepest hearts the gospel message, there is a healing waiting for us too, and not coincidentally, a healing directed primarily at our children.

The Syro-phoenician woman’s faith converted Jesus, and saved the gospel from being small-minded. But it was Jesus’ willingness to be converted, to measure himself against the gospel, that was also necessary for conversion. I wonder if the gospel writer is hoping we’ll be converted as well.

I have to admit that I find it somewhat comforting that early on even Jesus still had room for improvement early on. I can more easily forgive my own sillinesses and faults. And it is encouraging to think that real change is possible. There are moments when God takes our hearts and prejudices and has to break them in order to transform us, to get us to see things newly. When we remember to love our enemies, and bless those who curse us, and give solace to those who would use us, to minister and reach out to those who target us, that is when the gospel lives in us.

And this afternoon and tomorrow, when we are bombarded with flag-waving, speeches and television exposes, when the news and remembrances and emails start circulating, meant to whip us up into a frenzy of patriotic fear and prejudice, especially then we need to remember who we are. We are no longer captive to the world’s notions of enemies and revenge. We have been set free. We live for something more. For us Christians it’s not the American Way – it’s the Jesus way, and it is narrow and difficult.

Like Jesus, we must be converted again and again. We must struggle to become Christian. But like Jesus, the Syro-phoenician woman and her daughter, there is the promise of transformation and redemption. There is understanding waiting for us in the bread. Eat in remembrance of him.

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