Saturday, February 29, 2020

“Health as Membership” by Wendell Berry

Health is Membership by Wendell Berry
Delivered as a speech at a conference, "Spirituality and Healing", at Louisville, Kentucky, on October 17, 1994. Available at:
From our constant and increasing concerns about health, you can tell how seriously diseased we are. Health, as we may remember from at least some of the days of our youth, is at once wholeness and a kind of unconsciousness. Disease (dis-ease), on the contrary, makes us conscious not only of the state of our health but of the division of our bodies and our world into parts.
The word "health," in fact, comes from the same Indo-European root as "heal," "whole," and "holy" To be healthy is literally to be whole; to heal is to make whole. I don't think mortal healers should be credited with the power to make holy. But I have no doubt that such healers are properly obliged to acknowledge and respect the holiness embodied in all creatures, or that our healing involves the preservation in us of the spirit and the breath of God.
If we were lucky enough as children to be surrounded by grown-ups who loved us, then our sense of wholeness is not just the sense of completeness in ourselves but also is the sense of belonging to others and to our place; it is an unconscious awareness of community, of having in common. It may be that this double sense of singular integrity and of communal belonging is our personal standard of health for as long as we live. Anyhow, we seem to know instinctively that health is not divided.
Of course, growing up and growing older as fallen creatures in a fallen world can only instruct us painfully in division and disintegration. This is the stuff of consciousness and experience. But if our culture works in us as it should, then we do not age merely into disintegration and division, but that very experience begins our education, leading us into knowledge of wholeness and of holiness. I am describing here the story of Job, of Lazarus, of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, of Milton's Samson, of King Lear. If our culture works in us as it should, our experience is balanced by education; we are led out of our lonely suffering and are made whole.
In the present age of the world, disintegration and division, isolation and suffering seem to have overwhelmed us. The balance between experience and education has been overthrown, we are lost in experience, and so-called education is leading us nowhere. We have diseases aplenty. As if that were not enough, we are suffering an almost universal hypochondria. Half the energy of the medical industry, one suspects, may now be devoted to "examinations" or "tests"-to see if, though apparently well, we may not be latently or insidiously diseased.
If you are going to deal with the issue of health in the modern world, you are going to have to deal with much absurdity. It is not clear, for example, why death should increasingly be looked upon as a curable disease, an abnormality, by a society that increasingly looks upon life as insupportably painful and/or meaningless. Even more startling is the realization that the modern medical industry faithfully imitates
disease in the way that it isolates us and parcels us out. If, for example, intense and persistent pain causes you to pay attention only to your stomach, then you must leave home, community, and family and go to a sometimes distant clinic or hospital, where you will be cared for by a specialist who will pay attention only to your stomach.
Or consider the announcement by the Associated Press on February 9, 1994, that "the incidence of cancer is up among all ages, and researchers speculated that environmental exposure to cancer-causing substances other than cigarettes may be partly to blame." This bit of news is offered as a surprise, never mind that the environment (so called) has been known to be polluted and toxic for many years. The blame obviously falls on that idiotic term "the environment," which refers to a world that surrounds us but is presumably different from us and distant from us. Our laboratories have proved long ago that cigarette smoke gets inside us, but if "the environment" surrounds us, how does it wind up inside us? So much for division as a working principle of health.
This, plainly, is a view of health that is severely reductive. It is, to begin with, almost fanatically individualistic. The body is seen as a detective or potentially defective machine, singular, solitary, and displaced, without love, solace, or pleasure. Its health excludes unhealthy cigarettes but does not exclude unhealthy food, water, and air. One may presumably be healthy in a disintegrated family or community or in a destroyed or poisoned ecosystem.
So far, I have been implying my beliefs at every turn. Now I had better state them openly.
I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world. summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.
I believe that health is wholeness. For many years I have returned again and again to the work of the English agriculturist SirAlbert Hovvard, who said, in The Soil and Health, that "the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man [is] one great subject."
I am moreover a Luddite, in what I take to be the true and appropriate sense. I am not "against technology" so much as I am for community. When the choice is between the health of a community and technological innovation, I choose the health of the community I would unhesitatingly destroy a machine before I would allow the machine to destroy my community.
I believe that the community-in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures-is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.
We speak now of "spirituality and healing" as if the only way to render a proper religious respect to the body is somehow to treat it "spiritually." It could be argued just as appropriately (and perhaps less

dangerously) that the way to respect the body fully is to honor fully its materiality. In saying this, I intend no reduction. I do not doubt the reality of the experience and knowledge we call "spiritual" any more than I doubt the reality of so-called physical experience and knowledge; I recognize the rough utility of these terms. But I strongly doubt the advantage, and even the possibility, of separating these two realities.
What I'm arguing against here is not complexity or mystery but dualism. I would like to purge my own mind and language of such terms as "spiritual," "physical," "metaphysical," and "transcendental''-all of which imply that the Creation is divided into "levels" that can readily be peeled apart and judged by human beings. I believe that the Creation is one continuous fabric comprehending simultaneously what we mean by "spirit" and what we mean by "matter."
Our bodies are involved in the world. Their needs and desires and pleasures are physical. Our bodies hunger and thirst, yearn toward other bodies, grow tired and seek rest, rise up rested, eager to exert themselves. All these desires may be satisfied with honor to the body and its maker, but only if much else besides the individual body is brought into consideration. We have long known that individual desires must not be made the standard of their own satisfaction. We must consider the body's manifold connections to other bodies and to the world. The body, "fearfully and wonderfully made," is ultimately mysterious both in itself and in its dependences. Our bodies live, the Bible says, by the spirit and the breath of God, but it does not say how this is so. We are not going to know about this.
The distinction between the physical and the spiritual is, I believe, false. A much more valid distinction, and one that we need urgently to learn to make, is that between the organic and the mechanical. To argue this-as I am going to do-puts me in the minority, I know, but it does not make me unique. In The Idea Of A Christian Society, T S Eliot wrote, "We may say that religion, as distinguished from modern paganism, implies a life in conformity with nature. It may be observed that the natural life and the supernatural life have a conformity to each other which neither has with the mechanistic life."
Still, l wonder if our persistent wish to deal spiritulally with physical things does not come either from the feeling that physical things are "low" and unworthy or from the fear, especially when speaking of affection, that "physical" will be taken to mean "sexual.''The New York Review of Books of February 3, 1994, for example, carried a review of the correspondence of William and Henry James along with a photograph of the two brothers standing together with William's arm around Henry's shoulders. Apropos of this picture, the reviewer, John Bayley, wrote that "their closeness of affection was undoubted and even took on occasion a quasi-physical form." It is Mr. Bayley's qualifier, "quasi- physical," that sticks in one's mind. What can he have meant by it? Is this prurience masquerading as squeamishness, or vice versa? Does Mr. Bayley feel a need to assure his psychologically sophisticated readers that even though these brothers touched one another familiarly, they were not homosexual lovers?
The phrase involves at least some version of the old dualism of spirit and body or mind and body that has caused us so much suffering and trouble and that raises such troubling questions for anybody who is

interested in health. If you love your brother and if you and your brother are living creatures, how could your love for him not be physical? Not spiritual or mental only, not "quasi-physical," but physical. How could you not take a simple pleasure in putting your arm around him?
Out of the same dualism comes our confusion about the body's proper involvement in the world. People seriously interested in health will finally have to question our society's long-standing goals of convenience and effortlessness. What is the point of "labor saving" if by making work effortless we make it poor, and if by doing poor work we weaken our bodies and lose conviviality and health?
We are now pretty clearly involved in a crisis of health, one of the wonders of which is its immense profitability both to those who cause it and to those who propose to cure it. That the illness may prove incurable, except by catastrophe, is suggested by our economic dependence on it. Think, for example, of how readily our solutions become problems and our cures pollutants. To cure one disease, we need another. The causes, of course, are numerous and complicated, but all of them, I think, can be traced back to the old idea that our bodies are not very important except when they give us pleasure (usually, now, to somebody's profit) or when they hurt (now, almost invariably, to somebody's profit).
This dualism inevitably reduces physical reality, and it does so by removing its mystery from it, by dividing it absolutely from what dualistic thinkers have understood as spiritual or mental reality.
A reduction that is merely theoretical might be harmless enough, I suppose, but theories find ways of getting into action. The theory of the relative unimportance of physical reality has put itself into action by means of a metaphor by which the body (along with the world itself ) is understood as a machine. According to this metaphor-which is now in constant general use-the human heart, for example, is no longer understood as the center of our emotional life or even as an organ that pumps; it is understood as "a pump," having somewhat the same function as a fuel pump in an automobile.If the body is a machine for living and working, then it must follow that the mind is a machine for thinking. The "progress" here is the reduction of mind to brain and then of brain to computer. This reduction implies and requires the reduction of knowledge to "information." It requires, in fact, the reduction of everything to numbers and mathematical operations.
This metaphor of the machine bears heavily upon the question of what we mean by health and by healing. The problem is that like any metaphor, it is accurate only in some respects. A girl is only in some respects like a red rose; a heart is only in some respects like a pump. This means that a metaphor must be controlled by a sort of humorous intelligence, always mindful of the exact limits within which the comparison is meaningful. When a metaphor begins to control intelligence, as this one of the machine has done for a long time, then we must look for costly distortions and absurdities. Of course, the body in most ways is not at all like a machine. Like all living creatures and unlike a machine, the body is not formally self-contained; its boundaries and out-lines are not so exactly fixed. The body alone is not, properly speaking, a body. Divided from its sources of air, food, drink, clothing, shelter, and companionship, a body is, properly speaking, a cadaver, whereas a machine by itself, shut down or out of fuel, is still a machine. Merely as an organism (leaving aside issues of mind and spirit) the body lives

and moves and has its being, minute by minute, by an interinvolvement with other bodies and other creatures, living and unliving, that is too complex to diagram or describe. It is, moreover, under the influence of thought and feeling. It does not live by "fuel" alone.
A mind, probably, is even less like a computer than a body is like a machine. As far as I am able to understand it, a mind is not even much like a brain. Insofar as it is usable for thought, for the association of thought with feeling, for the association of thoughts and feelings with words, for the connections between words and things, words and acts, thought and memory, a mind seems to be in constant need of reminding. A mind unreminded would be no mind at all. This phenomenon of reminding shows the extensiveness of mind-how intricately it is involved with sensation, emotion, memory, tradition, communal life, known landscapes, and so on. How you could locate a mind within its full extent, among all its subjects and necessities, I don't know, bur obviously it cannot be located within a brain or a computer.
To see better what a mind is (or is not), we might consider the difference between what we mean by knowledge and what the computer now requires us to mean by "information." Knowledge refers to the ability to do or say the right thing at the right time; we would not speak of somebody who does the wrong thing at the wrong time as "knowledgeable." People who perform well as musicians, athletes, teachers, or farmers are people of knowledge. And such examples tell us much about the nature of knowledge. Knowledge is formal, and it informs speech and action. It is instantaneous; it is present and available when and where it is needed.
"Information," which once meant that which forms or fashions from within, now means merely "data." However organized this data may be, it is not shapely or formal or in the true sense in-forming. It is not present where it is needed; if you have to "access" it, you don't have it. Whereas knowledge moves and forms acts, information is inert. You cannot imagine a debater or a quarterback or a musician performing by "accessing information." A computer chock full of such information is no more admirable than a head or a book chock full of it.
The difference, then, between information and knowledge is something like the difference between a dictionary and somebody's language.
Where the art and science of healing are concerned, the machine metaphor works to enforce a division that falsifies the process of healing because it falsifies the nature of the creature needing to be healed. If the body is a machine, then its diseases can be healed by a sort of mechanical tinkering, without reference to anything outside the body itself. This applies, with obvious differences, to the mind; people are assumed to be individually sane or insane. And so we return to the utter anomaly of a creature that is healthy within itself.
The modem hospital, where most of us receive our strictest lessons in the nature of industrial medicine, undoubtedly does well at surgery and other procedures that permit the body and its parts to be treated as separate things. But when you try to think of it as a place of healing-of reconnecting and making

whole-then the hospital reveals the disarray of the medical industry's thinking about health.
In healing, the body is restored to itself. It begins to live again by its own powers and instincts, to the extent that it can do so. To the extent that it can do so, it goes free of drugs and mechanical helps. Its appetites return. It relishes food and rest. The patient is restored to family and friends, home and community and work.
This process has a certain naturalness and inevitability, like that by which a child grows up, but industrial medicine seems to grasp it only tentatively and awkwardly. For example, any ordinary person would assume that a place of healing would put a premium upon rest, but hospitals are notoriously difficult to sleep in. They are noisy all night, and the routine interventions go on relentlessly. The body is treated as a machine that does nor need to rest.
You would think also that a place dedicated to healing and health would make much of food. But here is where the disconnections of the industrial system and the displacement of industrial humanity are most radical. Sir Albert Howard saw accurately that the issue of human health is inseparable from the health of the soil, and he saw too that we humans much responsibly occupy our place in the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay, which is the health of the world. Aside from our own mortal involvement, food is our fundamental connection to that cycle. But probably most of the complaints you hear about hospitals have to do with the food, which, according to the testimony I have heard, tends to range from unappetizing to sickening. Food is treated as another unpleasant substance to inject. And this is a shame. For in addition to the obvious nutritional link between food and health, food can be a pleasure. People who are sick are often troubled or depressed, and mealtimes offer three opportunities a day when patients could easily be offered something to look forward to. Nothing is more pleasing or heartening than a plate of nourishing, tasty, beautiful food artfully and lovingly prepared.
Anything less is unhealthy, as well as a desecration.Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs? Are we confronting some fundamental incompatibility between mechanical effciency and organic health? I don't know. I only know that sleeping in a hospital is like sleeping in a factory and that the medical industry makes only the most tenuous connection between health and food and no connection between health and the soil. Industrial medicine is as little interested in ecological health as is industrial agriculture.
A further problem, and an equally serious one, is that illness, in addition to being a bodily disaster, is now also an economic disaster. This is so whether or not the patient is insured. It is a disaster for us all, all the time, because we all know that personally or collectively, we cannot continue to pay for cures that continue to get more expensive. The economic disturbance that now inundates the problem of illness may turn out to be the profoundest illness of all. How can we get well if we are worried sick about money?
I wish it were not the fate of this essay to be filled with questions, but questions now seem the

inescapable end of any line of thought about health and healing. Here are several more:
1. Can our present medical industry produce an adequate definition of health? My own guess is that it cannot do so. Like industrial agriculture, industrial medicine has depended increasingly on specialist methodology, mechanical technology, and chemicals; thus, its point of reference has become more and more its own technical prowess and less and less the health of creatures and habitats. I don't expect this problem to be solved in the universities, which have never addressed, much less solved, the problem of health in agriculture. And I don't expect it to be solved by the government.
2. How can cheapness be included in the criteria of medical experimentation and performance? And why has it not been included before now? I believe that the problem here is again that of the medical industry's fixation on specialization, technology, and chemistry. As a result, the modern "health care system" has become a way of marketing industrial products, exactly like modern agriculture, impoverishing those who pay and enriching those who are paid. It is, in other words, an industry such as industries have always been.
3. Why is it that medical strictures and recommendations so often work in favor of food processors and against food producers? Why, for example, do we so strongly favor the pasteurization of milk to health and cleanliness in milk production? (Gene Logsdon correctly says that the motive here "is monopoly, not consumer's health.")
4. Why do we so strongly prefer a fat-free or gem-free diet to a chemical-free diet? Why does the medicine industry strenuously oppose the use of tobacco, yet complacently accept the massive use of antibiotics and other drugs in meat animals and of poison on food crops? How much longer can it cling to the superstition of bodily health in a polluted world?
5. How can adequate medical and health care, including disease prevention, be included in the structure and economy of a community? How, for example can a community and its doctors be included in the same culture, the same knowledge and the same fate, so that they will live as fellow citizens, sharers in the common wealth, members of one another?
It is clear by now that this essay cannot hope to be complete; the problems are too large and my knowledge too small. What I have to offer is an association of thoughts and questions wandering somewhat at random and somewhat lost within the experience of modem diseases and the often bewildering industry that undertakes to cure them. In my ignorance and bewilderment, I am fairly representative of those who go, or go with loved ones, to doctors' offices and hospitals. What I have written so far comes from my various efforts to make as much sense as I can of that experience. But now I had better turn to the experience itself.
On January 3,1994, my brother John had a severe heart attack while he was out by himself on his farm, moving a feed trough. He managed to get to the house and telephone a friend, who sent the emergency rescue squad.
The rescue squad and the emergency room staff at a local hospital certainly saved my brother's life. He was later moved to a hospital in Louisville, where a surgeon performed a double-bypass operation on his

heart. After three weeks John returned home. He still has a life to live and work to do. He has been restored to himself and to the world.
He and those who love him have a considerable debt to the medical industry, as represented by two hospitals, several doctors and nurses, many drugs and many machines. This is a debt that I cheerfully acknowledge. But I am obliged to say also that my experience of the hospital during John's stay was troubled by much conflict of feeling and a good many unresolved questions, and I know that I am not alone in this.
In the hospital what I will call the world of love meets the world of efficiency-the world, that is, of specialization, machinery, and abstract procedure. Or, rather, I should say that these two worlds come together in the hospital but do not meet. During those weeks when John was in the hospital, it seemed to me that he had come from the world of love and that the family members, neighbors, and friends who at various times were there with him came there to represent that world and to preserve his connection with it. It seemed to me that the hospital was another kind of world altogether.
When I said early in this essay that we live in a world that was created and exists and is redeemable by love, I did not mean to sentimentalize it. For this is also a fallen world. It involves error and disease, ignorance and partiality, sin and death. If this world is a place where we may learn of our involvement in immortal love, as I believe it is, still such learning is only possible here because that love involves us so inescapably in the limits, sufferings, and sorrows of mortality.
Like divine love, earthly love seeks plenitude; it longs for the full membership to be present and to be joined. Unlike divine love, earthly love does not have the power, the knowledge, or the will to achieve what it longs for. The story of human love on this earth is a story by which this love reveals and even validates itself by its failures to be complete and comprehensive and effective enough. When this love enters a hospital, it brings with it a terrifying history of defeat, but it comes nevertheless confident of itself, for its existence and the power of its longing have been proved over and over again even by its defeat. In the face of illness, the threat of death, and death itself, it insists unabashedly on its own presence, understanding by its persistence through defeat that it is superior to whatever happens.
The world of efficiency ignores both loves, earthly and divine, because by definition it must reduce experience to computation, particularity to abstraction, and mystery to a small comprehensibility. Efficiency, in our present sense of the word, allies itself inevitably with machinery, as Neil Postman demonstrates in his useful book, Technopoly. "Machines," he says, "eliminate complexity, doubt, and ambiguity. They work swiftly, they are standardized, and they provide us with numbers that you can see and calculate with." To reason, the advantages are obvious, and probably no reasonable person would wish to reject them out of hand.
And yet love obstinately answers that no loved one is standardized. A body, love insists, is neither a spirit nor a machine; it is not a picture, a diagram, a chart, a graph, an anatomy; it is not an explanation; it is not a law. It is precisely and uniquely what it is. It belongs to the world of love, which is a world of

living creatures, natural orders and cycles, many small, fragile lights in the dark.
In dealing with problems of agriculture, I had thought much about the difference between creatures and machines. But I had never so clearly understood and felt that difference as when John was in recovery after his heart surgery, when he was attached to many machines and was dependent for breath on a respirator. It was impossible then not to see that the breathing of a machine, like all machine work, is unvarying, an oblivious regularity, whereas the breathing of a creature is ever changing, exquisitely responsive to events both inside and outside the body, to thoughts and emotions. A machine makes breaths as a machine makes buttons, all the same, but every breath of a creature is itself a creature, like no other, inestimably precious.
Logically, in plenitude some things ought to be expendable. Industrial economics has always believed this: abundance justifies waste. This is one of the dominant superstitions of American history-and of the history of colonialism everywhere. Expendability is also an assumption of the world of efficiency, which is why that world deals so compulsively in percentages of efficacy and safety.
But this sort of logic is absolutely alien to the world of love. To the claim that a certain drug or procedure would save 99 percent of all cancer patients or that a certain pollutant would be safe for 99 percent of a population, love, unembarrassed, would respond, "What about the one percent?"
There is nothing rational or perhaps even defensible about this, but it is nonetheless one of the strongest strands of our religious tradition-it is probably the most essential strand-according to which a shepherd, owning a hundred sheep and having lost one, does not say, "I have saved 99 percent of my sheep," but rather, "I have lost one," and he goes and searches for the one. And if the sheep in that parable may seem to be only a metaphor, then go on to the Gospel of Luke, where the principle is flatly set forth again and where the sparrows stand not for human beings but for all creatures: "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?" And John Donne had in mind a sort of equation and not a mere metaphor when he wrote, "If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me."
It is reassuring to see ecology moving toward a similar idea of the order of things. If an ecosystem loses one of its native species, we now know that we cannot speak of it as itself minus one species. An ecosystem minus one species is a different ecosystem. Just so, each of us is made by-or, one might better say, made as-a set of unique associations with unique persons, places, and things. The world of love does not admit the principle of the interchangeability of parts.
When John was in intensive care after his surgery, his wife, Carol, was standing by his bed, grieving and afraid. Wanting to reassure her, the nurse said, "Nothing is happening to him that doesn't happen to everybody."
And Carol replied, "I'm not everybody's wife."

In the world of love, things separated by efficiency and specialization strive to come back together. And yet love must confront death, and accept it, and learn from it. Only in confronting death can earthly love learn its true extent, its immortality. Any definition of health that is not silly must include death. The world of love includes death, suffers it, and triumphs over it. The world of efficiency is defeated by death; at death, all its instruments and procedures stop. The world of love continues, and of this grief is the proof.
In the hospital, love cannot forget death. But like love, death is in the hospital but not of it. Like love, fear and grief feel out of place in the hospital. How could they be included in its efficient procedures and mechanisms? Where a clear, small order is fervently maintained, tear and grief bring the threat of large disorder.
And so these two incompatible worlds might also be designated by the terms "amateur" and "professional"-amateur, in the literal sense of lover, one who participates for love; and professional in the modern sense of one who performs highly specialized or technical procedures for pay. The amateur is excluded from the professional "field."
For the amateur, in the hospital or in almost any other encounter with the medical industry, the overriding experience is that of being excluded from knowledge of being unable, in other words, to make or participate in anything resembling an "informed decision." Of course, whether doctors make informed decisions in the hospital is a matter of debate. For in the hospital even the professionals are involved in experience; experimentation has been left far behind. Experience, as all amateurs know, is not predictable, and in experience there are no replications or "controls"; there is nothing with which to compare the result. Once one decision has been made, we have destroyed the opportunity to know what would have happened if another decision had been made. That is to say that medicine is an exact science until applied; application involves intuition, a sense of probability, "gut feeling, " guesswork, and error.
In medicine, as in many modern disciplines, the amateur is divided from the professional by perhaps unbridgeable differences of knowledge and of language. An "informed decision" is really not even imaginable for most medical patients and their families, who have no competent understanding of either the patients illness or the recommended medical or surgical procedure. Moreover, patients and their families are not likely to know the doctor, the surgeon, or any of the other people on whom the patient's life will depend. In the hospital, amateurs are more than likely to be proceeding entirely upon faith-and this is a peculiar and scary faith, for it must be placed not in a god but in mere people, mere procedures, mere chemicals, and mere machines.
It was only after my brother had been taken into surgery, I think, that the family understood the extremity of this deed of faith. We had decided - or John had decided and we had concurred on the basis of the best advice available. But once he was separated from us, we felt the burden of our ignorance. We had not known what we were doing, and one of our difficulties now was the feeling that we had utterly given him up to what we did not know. John himself spoke out of this sense of

abandonment and helplessness in the intensive care unit, when he said, "I don't know what they're going to do to me or for me or with me."
As we waited and reports came at long intervals from the operating room, other realizations followed. We realized that under the circumstances, we could not be told the truth. We would not know, ever, the worries and surprises that came to the surgeon during his work. We would not know the critical moments or the fears. lf the surgeon did any part of his work ineptly or made a mistake, we would not know it. We realized, moreover, that if we were told the truth, we would have no way of knowing that the truth was what it was.
We realized that when the emissaries from the operating room assured us that everything was '"normal" or "routine," they were referring to the procedure and not the patient. Even as amateurs
- perhaps because we were amateurs-we knew that what was happening was not normal or routine for John or for us.
That these two worlds are so radically divided does not mean that people cannot cross between them. I do not know how an amateur can cross over into the professional world; that does not seem very probable. But that professional people can cross back into the amateur world, I know from much evidence. During John's stay in the hospital there were many moments in which doctors and nurses - especially nurses! - allowed or caused the professional relationship to become a meeting between two human beings, and these moments were invariably moving.
The most moving, to me, happened in the waiting room during John's surgery. From time to time a nurse from the operating room would come in to tell Carol what was happening. Carol, from politeness or bravery or both, always stood to receive the news, which always left us somewhat encouraged and somewhat doubtful. Carol's difficulty was that she had to suffer the ordeal not only as a wife but as one who had been a trained nurse. She knew, from her own education and experience, in how limited a sense open-heart surgery could be said to be normal or - routine.
Finally, toward the end of our wait, two nurses came in. The operation, they said, had been a success. They explained again what had been done. And then they said that after the completion of the bypasses, the surgeon had found it necessary to insert a "balloon pump" into the aorta to assist the heart. This possibility had never been mentioned, nobody was prepared for it, and Carol was sorely disappointed and upset. The two young women attempted to reassure her, mainly by repeating things they had already said. And then there was a long moment when they just looked at her. It was such a look as parents sometimes give to a sick or suffering child, when they themselves have begun to need the comfort they are trying to give.
And then one of the nurses said, "Do you need a hug?" "Yes," Carol said.
And the nurse gave her a hug.

Which brings us to a starting place.
Wendell Berry is the author of thirty two books of fiction, poetry. and essays, including Sabbaths; Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community; andWhat Are People For? He has farmed a hillside in his native Henry County, Kentucky, for thirty years. A former professor of English at the University of Kentucky, he has received numerous awards for his work, including most recentdy the T S. Eliot Award, The Aiken Taylor Award for Poetry, the John Hay Award of the Orion Society, and The Chnstian Century's Award for Excellence in Poetry.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020



Grace Cathedral and Muir Woods are very similar. The same muted silence. Something like the same quality of light. Both contrived, in different degrees, by human intervention. Both contrived by extraordinary leaps of divine imagination. Both containers for whatever “it” is, the magic “stuff” that constitutes the illusive difference between motion and action, energy and spirit, problem and mystery. 

God=most real; most holy; most true. 

I am grateful for having known the blessing of unmitigated joy…which always includes elements of loss, of surrender, of death.” 

I cannot produce fish, but I can produce equipment for the cultivation of myths: boats; rods and reels; stories; knots. 

I am reluctantly persuaded to hitchhike on the drama of other peoples’ heroic achievements. I exit at the next interchange, and go home to take a nap. 

Upon my retirement I will no longer exist. All my words will have been spoken, all my sentences written- I will be empty space, a hollow place in the world, a grotto chapel chiseled from the walls of a ruined cathedral. No pilgrims arrive, no disciples come… 

In reality, the big changes in my life have not come about by my own design, but as the result of chance meetings and graceful emergencies. I struggle to reconcile myself to God’s wild and reckless grace. 

Sometimes it takes something like the impact of a car crash to get my full attention. 

I don’t like it much, but I cannot escape the reality that God seems to be most active and present in my life when I am most uncomfortable. 

By virtue of the limitations of thought and language, anything we say about God is always at least somewhat wrong. Does this mean we have to keep our mouths shut on the subject? Not entirely, but it should increase our humility when doing so. 

From my friend and mentor Father James Jones, I learned that not only is it possible for prisoners to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ as truly good news, but, in reality, prisoners are the only ones who can hear it as such. To hear the gospel, we must first understand in what ways we ourselves are imprisoned. 

To grasp the full significance of a “baptismal ecclesiology” it is necessary to become more intimate and honest with each other and within ourselves, to confront the demons, ghosts, and idols that afflict us from within and without. 

We live in two worlds: one the one hand, we get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and go about our business; on the other, the world has ended, and we are breaking bread with our ancestors and the saints in heaven. 

Even the macho God of Israel has a soft side. 

There are two mega-metaphors for God: 1) the natural world; 2) human community. 

Planet earth is doing to us just what Christ also does: break us down, shatter us, disassemble us- through the events of life, climate change, tectonic shifts geologic or otherwise. 

It is understandable that people would hold back from participation in worship. Worship is like looking over a cliff into an abyss of sorrow, joy, brokenness, and infinite possibility… there is a strong temptation to watch from a safe distance, to dabble in spirituality, like watching Bassmasters on TV instead of wading into a river in the dark. 

Like Jesus, we must join the grief-stricken crowds and seek to restore their lost joy. Only God can bring this about and most of us make changes only when we have to. In other words, when we are broken down, shattered, disassembled. Then we may be ready to become bread. 

Our call: to live gracefully in a world that often seems graceless. 

It is as if Christ wandered into our church on Sunday morning in company with some curious street people, wondering what all the fuss was about. “Is that me they are talking about?” he wonders. He looks around and sees the people ill-equipped to ascend the smoke-shrouded slopes of Mt. Sinai, with the earth’s crust shaking and cracking under their feet, and the wild Law-Giver spitting out commandments like molten pebbles from an outraged volcano…And so Jesus volunteers as a tour-guide, as Sherpa, an expert on volcanos who will take them to the fiery rim where they might safely view the face of God. 

The odd thing about Christianity is the way “absence” becomes a new sort of “presence”, still vulnerably incarnate, still strangely authoritative. 

“Sacred enchantment” involves a child-like capacity for trust, joy, and wonder, as well as a willingness to confront primitive feelings of awe and dread. When there is no healthy community surrounding it, the sacred loses its power to enchant. 

When  it comes to a relationship with God, mediocrity and a compulsive need for entertainment are greater obstacles than suffering, desperation, and outrage. 



Monday, December 16, 2019

Reflections on the Great O Antiphons (2011)

O Antiphons revisited

Latin phrases often evoke strange, and sometimes bizarre, associations for me. At Christ Church Cranbrook in 2011, as I listened to the choir chant the traditional Advent “O Antiphons”, these are some of the random thoughts that occurred to me, and I wrote down… 
O sapientia. O wisdom. O intelligibility. O logic. O sanity. O mathematical equations. O sentence structure and syntax. O coherence and structure and form. If objects are indeed intelligible, “does not the intelligibility of the object presuppose an intelligent ground?” (Bernard Lonergen)“O O O O that Shakespearian Rag—It’s so elegant So intelligent…” (T.S. Eliot) O sapientia, “quae ex ore altissimi prodisti, and covered the earth like a mist.’ (Ecclesiasticus 24:2) O O O O.
O Adonai. O mighty. O fire of the Burning Bush. O consumption unconsumed. O point dimensionless, at which Being emerges, unexplained, from Nothing, at this moment coaxing atoms into material existence from the vortex of whatever whirls at their center, at this moment spinning us off from the limitless center, spinning us off as atomic dervishes, whirling mightily, whirling on the seamless line where Nothing ends…
O radix Jesse. O root. O radish. O turnip. O beet. O rutabaga, O root vegetables of every kind, buried safely under earth and snow, beyond the need for retaliation or revenge, beyond the need to hurt or destroy in all the holy mountain, feeding us far into the winter, feeding us when all other food has failed, feeding us jam noli tardare – never tardy, rarely served in fashionable restaurants, barely noticed by government inspectors, ever abundant, ever prodigal, ever rooted/radix/radical/ and real…
O clavis David. O key. O combination to the lock. O password. “You open and no one closes; you close, and no one opens”. Sedentum in tenebris et umbra mortis… sedimented in darkness and under the umbrella of death… buried under yards of earth alongside the beets and radishes… buried, but here unearthed by the descent of a mighty silence, its power unlocked by chant, loud organ, and this clavis David…
O oriens- O rising dawn. O morning star. Directional orientation for every nomadic tribe, gravitational force without magnetism, center without circumference, beloved of navigators, goal of every compass, hope of the lost …(disoriented in thick woods, I came across my own boot-prints in the snow, consulted my compass, saw how lost I had become, saw, astounded, how much counterintuitivity would be required to become unlost again. From whence did all these benign themes originate? Hope for the lost…release of prisoners… kindness to strangers… peace among peoples… food for the hungry…water in drought-stricken places… a universal vision of gentleness and mutual peace… how did such notions come to swirl together with such force within the literature of one small middle-eastern country?... How do such far-fetched notions come to resonate so powerfully with us still?
O Rex gentium… O ruler of the unruly and the alien, the unbelievers and the unsaved…O rock and cornerstone…lapisque angularis…
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.
W.B. Yeats, Lapis Lazuli
We are the long-legged bird, lifted by the music for a bird’s eye view, lifted high above the angle of the rock, our lapisque angularis, which is our listening-post, our perch, our launch pad, and, if we ever hope to come to earth again, our landing-zone. 
O Emmanuel… O God-who-is with, with us, with it …with our children in an unknown future, with these singers in a flourishing past, with us witless pilgrims come from outer space, washed up unexpected on what Holy Isle? 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Nearest Kin by Kendell Soulen

R. Kendall Soulen, who teaches theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., has focused much of his work on Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. His bookThe God of Israel and Christian Theology attempts to restate basic Christian convictions in a way that is not supersessionist or triumphalist in relation to Jews. His other books includeAbraham’s Promise (coedited with Michael Wyschogrod) and, most recently,The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity.

Over the past few decades, many theologians and church leaders in mainline Protestant churches have sought to overturn Christian supersessionism—overturn, that is, the tradition of believing that God’s covenant with the Jews has been superseded by the work of Christ, thereby rendering the faith of Jews either irrelevant or pernicious. How do you judge the importance of that movement for Christian theology?
It’s important because it’s about what we think redemption in Christ looks like. Does redemption mean that Christ gives us the favored place at God’s table while kicking some other poor wretch out into the street? Or does Christ’s table have room for old-timers and newcomers alike? The truth is Christians have mostly operated out of the first picture in our relationship with Jews. That’s done damage to Jews, of course, but it’s also distorted who we are as the church. Supersessionism is like a submerged resentment toward our nearest kin that infects all our social relationships. That’s why I think the work of overcoming supersessionism is so important. And by the way, it’s not only mainstream Protestants who have been doing it. It’s Catholics and evangelicals, too.

Many Christians—certainly many evangelical Christians—would say that confessing Christ as Lord is essential for salvation and for being at Christ’s table, and therefore Jews are excluded from the table. How would you respond?
It’s an objection that needs to be taken seriously. Paul himself raises it in Romans 9–11, where he discusses his kinfolk who have rejected the gospel. Paul concludes with a stern warning. The surprise is that the warning is not directed against Jews who reject the gospel, but against gentiles who presume to act as Jesus’ bouncers. That’s a bad idea, Paul thinks, because everyone who is now an “insider” was once an outsider saved by the grace of God. And even those who are presently “outsiders” to the gospel remain the objects of God’s love, not because they deserve it, but because God’s covenant faithfulness is stronger and more encompassing than human sin. It’s a warning the church still needs to pay attention to.

How do you judge the success of the antisupersessionist effort?
Substantial but incomplete. The church’s traditional theology of Judaism grew up over many generations, and I think it will take just as long to live into a more faithful alternative. Still, we have come a long way. In 1938, Pope Pius XI commissioned an encyclical letter to condemn racism in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. It was never promulgated because of Pius’s death, but the unpublished draft gives us an idea of what many Christians believed at the time. The section on anti-Semitism charged “the Jewish nation” with collective responsibility for Jesus’ death, declared that Jews were doomed “to perpetually wander over the face of the earth” and advised the church to be on guard against “the spiritual dangers to which contact with the Jews can expose souls.” Compare that to the prayer that Pope John Paul II left at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2000. It read: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. And asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.” That’s quite a difference.
Can you offer an example of a Christian reading of an Old Testament text that is supersessionist—and then give a nonsupersessionist reading?
Sure. In Jeremiah 31:31–34, the Lord promises to make a “new covenant” that “will not be like the covenant that I made” when he brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. The Israelites broke the old covenant, but the Lord will write the “new covenant” on “the heart.” A supersessionist reading will interpret this as though it referred to two different peoples or communities. Jews are the people of the old covenant, Christians are the people of the new. A nonsupersessionist reading will notice that the new covenant is between the same two parties as the old: the Lord and “the house of Israel.” The new covenant is the renewal and expansion of an old relationship, not a divorce and a remarriage. In the letter to the Hebrews, the author says the new covenant is better than the old, which is passing away. But like Jeremiah, the author of Hebrews thinks of the new covenant as an expression of the Lord’s fidelity to an ancient relationship.
The Apostles’ Creed makes no mention of Israel, and in the Nicene Creed, Israel appears only via a reference to Israel’s prophets in the section on the Holy Spirit (“who has spoken by the prophets”). For the sake of argument, is there a line you would want to insert in the creeds to stress the proper place within Christian confession of God’s revelation to Israel? How would it read?
Well, I’m in favor of writing new creeds, not modifying old ones. But it is interesting that the first article of the Apostles’ Creed has just one clause, while the second and third each have several. So for the sake of argument I would add two clauses: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, whose image is borne by every child of Eve and Adam, and whose steadfast love for Israel and the nations is without end.”
In The God of Israel and Christian Theologyyou refer to God as the divine consummator—that is, one who works to bring human life to its consummation or fulfillment. Through creation and through God’s covenants with Israel, God seeks to consummate a relationship with humanity. Why refer to consummation rather than redemption?
Because the importance of consummation is more frequently overlooked. Consummation is a way of talking about what God redeems for. It’s God’s overarching purpose for human life. Some biblical realities figure chiefly in God’s work as redeemer, such as Noah’s ark. Once the flood is over, the ark can disappear. Other biblical realities are intrinsic to God’s original goal for creaturely life, such as life in friendship with God and one another. Such realities have no “expiration date.” They are destined to be deepened and glorified forever. I think God’s election of Israel as a blessing to the nations belongs in the latter category. It is not only or even chiefly a way of rescuing the human family from sin, although it is that. It is even more basically about God drawing the whole human family, Jew and gentile, into a deeper friendship with God and one another.
Does this emphasis make God’s work of redemption a subcategory of consummation?
No, in the sense that God’s decision to redeem remains free and gracious in its own right. But yes, in the sense that God redeems for the sake of God’s desire for consummation. Consummation is the overarching plot of Christian faith, and redemption is the central subplot.
This way of putting things is not unique to me, by the way. Most Christian theologians would agree that the reality of evil and our need for redemption are not necessary ingredients in God’s original purposes for creation. God forbid. The difference is that many theologians let God’s work as consummator fade from view after Gen. 1–2, whereas I believe it remains important for interpreting the Bible as a whole.
The Christian doctrine of the atonement, at least in a traditional understanding, posits a breach between God and humanity that can be bridged only through Christ’s work on the cross. Do your nonsupersessionist theology and your references to God as consummator modify that assertion in any way?
I think it would be more accurate to say that traditional views of the atonement (e.g., Athanasius, Anselm, Luther, Barth, etc.) posit a breach that God bridges via the totality of Christ’s person and work, including Christ’s incarnation, resurrection and ascension, and not just via his suffering and death on the cross. If you can accept that revision, then the answer to your question is no, I don’t want to modify tradition. What I do want to modify is our understanding of what Christ’s “at-one-ing” means for the relationship between Jew and gentile. I think it means that Christ rescues this relationship from mutually annihilating curse and re-creates it as a relationship of mutual blessing that is a foretaste of the kingdom of God. I don’t think it means that Christ rescues us from the relationship itself by dissolving or rejecting Israel, as Christians have sometimes thought.
You have said that the Old Testament and God’s history with Israel are constitutive of Christian faith and should not be construed as simply background elements to Christian faith or preludes to faith. Can you give an example of how this conviction might shape a particular sermon or teaching or church practice?
The New Testament is wonderful at portraying the human condition “up close and personal,” as in the story of the woman with a hemorrhage, and again at a cosmic level, as with Paul’s discourse about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. But a lot of life takes place somewhere between these two extremes, at what we might call the “middle range” of life. I’m thinking about realities like interfamily relations, economics, politics, battles, victory, defeat, migration, drought, childlessness, jealousy, theft, lust, murder, childbirth, betrayal, reconciliation. The Old Testament won’t let us forget that God wants to consummate and redeem this middle range, too.
A little story: At Pope John Paul II’s funeral, during the passing of the peace, Israeli president Moshe Katsav shook hands with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. Later Syria’s state news agency issued a statement saying the handshake was a mere formality that had no political significance. But I think the gesture did have political significance, however unintentional. It was a sign of what the gospel aims to achieve at the middle range of human affairs, namely, reconciliation among earthly enemies. I think it’s precisely the Old Testament that helps keep this dimension of the New Testament alive.
In a sense, the church was defined by the apostle Paul as that assembly where God has put Jews and gentiles together in Christ—without erasing their distinctive identities. Paul assumed that Jewish Christians would retain their distinct identity as followers of the Torah commandments. What does it mean for the church that it exists today—and has for centuries—with a near total absence of Torah-observing Jews in its midst?
Jesus was a Torah-observing Jew, and Christians believe that he still lives in our midst. The same goes for most of the apostles, and they belong to the great cloud of witnesses that accompanies the church on its pilgrimage through time. So in that sense the Christian community has always been and always will be a fellowship of gentile and Torah-observant Jew, whether it gathers on the Nebraska prairie or in Papua, New Guinea. You could say it’s part of our ecclesiastical constitution.
But when the church lacks Torah-observant Jews besides Christ and the apostles, it becomes easier to forget this aspect of who we are. We think of ourselves as a homogenous community of Christians, a “third race” that goes beyond Israel and the nations and makes them obsolete. In reality, of course, the church remains gentile, but it falsely thinks of itself as generically human or generically Christian per se. And that can be a dangerous thing.
Would it be a good thing if there were more Jewish (Torah-observant) Christians? What would this mean for Jewish-Christian relations? Wouldn’t it make those relations more contentious in many ways?
Let me start with your last question: yes, it would be make things more contentious, at least in the short term. Traditionally, church and synagogue were like two glaciers that met in an Alpine meadow. Nothing could grow in between them, because they completely monopolized the real estate. Now, the two communities have receded somewhat, and all sorts of things are sprouting where before there was just ice. Some of those seedlings will disappear, some will adapt and thrive. I think messianic Judaism is one of those seedlings, and time will tell what becomes of it. I myself think that if it does flourish (and I hope it will), it has the potential to strengthen and renew both church and synagogue. In the meantime, though, I think gentile Christians need to take a long time-out from trying to dictate the affairs of Jewish Christians, whether messianic or not.
What difference does the existence of the state of Israel as a homeland for the covenant people of God make for Christians as they relate to Jews? Put another way: What significance, if any, does the state of Israel have for Christians as they affirm God’s ongoing covenant with Jews?
I think it’s a mistake to invest the state of Israel with theological significance per se. What has theological significance is the presence or absence of peace, justice and mutual blessing between all the families of the earth, and that includes Israel and its neighbors, both near and far. For centuries, Jews have lived in a world that has many sovereign homelands for Christians and Muslims. Now, Christians and Muslims need to find a way to live peaceably in a world with one homeland for Jews. Can Christians and Muslims rise to that challenge? I think that’s the theological test our communities face. Jews face a challenge, too, of course—of exercising national sovereignty in a way that makes possible a peaceable and flourishing Palestine. Might Christians, Jews and Muslims learn from each other, from our respective histories of successes and failures, about how this can be done in our age? I think we can, with God’s help.
The reference to homeland raises a further question about the land. A specific bit of geography is important in Jews’ understandings of their life with God more than any specific land is for Christians. How should a Christians understand this difference?
Is it really the case that Christians around the globe are less concerned with specific bits of geography than Jews are? Or is it just easier for us to take our relationship to “our” bits for granted in a way that Jews cannot? Judaism’s relationship to the land is indeed unique, partly because the scriptures teach that the land belongs first not to the people, king or state but to God. But from a biblical point of view, the same is really true of all lands. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” Judaism forces Jews to reflect routinely on what it means to live faithfully in a land that belongs not to them but to God. I think Christians would benefit from more reflection along those lines.
Is there any possible theological downside to the antisupersessionist movement for Christians—or any caution lights you would post?
All theological movements have potential downsides. A danger that has faced many worthy theological initiatives of the past several decades—I’m thinking not only of postsupersessionism, but of feminist theology, liberation theology, postcolonialism, and the like—is that their sense of spiritual and moral urgency has sometimes led them to give up too quickly on the historic commitments of creedal Christianity. But it’s also dangerous to confuse fidelity to the gospel with the repristination of tradition and a refusal to repent and rethink. There’s a lot of that on the scene today, too, I’m afraid. The theological sweet spot is when discerning the signs of the times leads toward a deeper and more robust comprehension of the christological and trinitarian heart of Christian faith. I think that theologians who heed Paul’s warning in Romans 11 that Israel remains God’s beloved, too, are more apt to hit that sweet spot than theologians who continue to ignore it.
Copyright © 2013 by the Christian Century. Nearest Kin - R. Kendall Soulen on Christians and Jews by David Heim is reprinted by permission from the June 04, 2013, issue of the Christian
Posted 19th August 2013 by Unknown
Labels: Scrap.Theology

Add a comment

Comment as:Select profile...Google Account

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

3 articles on traditioned innovation from Faith and Leadership


A way of thinking and being that holds the past and future in tension, not in opposition, is crucial to the growth and vitality of Christian institutions. L. Gregory Jones explains the phrase he coined.
Monday, January 19, 2009
The church is stuck in a war between “We’ve always done it that way” and “The future is about leading change.”
Consider worship. In response to those ritual fundamentalists who insisted that nothing (especially music) change, innovators created “contemporary” worship services. But those services became so unfamiliar that people now long for opportunities to sing the “old familiar” contemporary songs, such as “Lord, I Lift your Name on High.”
In businesses and other organizations, including Christian ones, the traditionalists are so stuck in their ways that they drive reasonable people toward change for its own sake. People obsessed with change create such chaos that reasonable people long for some form of stability. And so the pendulum swings between traditionalist strategies and innovative ones, causing organizations and leaders, people and cultures, to suffer.
It is a return to Christian thinking that offers the best way forward.
A colleague and friend who studies social entrepreneurship helped me come to this conclusion. He wondered why, over the course of the last couple of centuries in America, the best socially entrepreneurial organizations had consistently been faith-based, especially if they developed significant scale and scope. He had in mind organizations such as Goodwill, Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity. He was thinking of faith-based hospitals, schools and, more recently, hospice organizations. Only in the last 25 years, he noted, had social entrepreneurship become relatively secular. What has happened in the church?
His question got me reading about social entrepreneurship, a relatively new area of scholarship and study in business schools. Amid a lot of ideas that had Christian resonance, I was struck by an emerging debate about “newness.” Can an existing organization do social entrepreneurship, or does it always require a new structure? It seemed to be a misplaced debate to me -- after all, Christian organizations and churches have long engaged in innovation within our existing structures. We have typically called it bearing witness to the Holy Spirit, the One who is “making all things new.”
Christian leaders are called to a particular type of social entrepreneurship -- one that does not force us to choose preserving tradition or leading change, but thinking about them together. We are called to “traditioned innovation” as a pattern of thinking, bearing witness to the Holy Spirit who is conforming us to Christ. I asked a New Testament scholar what came to mind when he heard that phrase. He said, “The New Testament. Indeed, the whole of Scripture.” The best way to interpret the book of Acts, or Paul’s account of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians, is a process of discernment rooted in traditioned innovation. How do we integrate the transformative work of Christ into our ongoing identity as the people of God rooted in biblical Israel’s calling?
In our thinking as well as our living, we are oriented toward our end, our telos: bearing witness to the reign of God. That is what compels innovation. But our end is also our beginning, because we are called to bear witness to the redemptive work of Christ who is the Word that created the world. We are the carriers of that which has gone before us so we can bear witness faithfully to the future.
Tradition is fundamentally different from traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan, in “The Vindication of Tradition,” characterized the difference when he wrote, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” People who bear a tradition are called to be relentlessly innovative in ways that preserve the life-giving character of the tradition.
We need not rely only on patterns within Scripture, or even the practices of the church, however, to appreciate the significance of traditioned innovation as a way of thinking. Biologists such as Marc Kirschner and John Gerhart, in their “The Plausibility of Life,” have compellingly argued that organisms must preserve significant features of their processes while changing others. A great surprise of modern biology, they suggest, has been how important conservation is to the process of adaptive change.
So also with institutions. We do not need radical change. The task of transformative leadership is not simply to “lead change.” Transformative leaders know what to preserve as well as what to change. We need to conserve wisdom even as we explore risk-taking mission and service. Too much change creates chaos. Transformative change, rooted in tradition and the preservation of wisdom, cultivates the adaptive work that is crucial to the ongoing vitality and growth of any organism, Christian institutions included.
Sometimes that will mean we innovate within existing institutions; at other times we will allow some forms to die so that other ones can rise up in their place. And at still other times we will give birth to new forms to address challenges and opportunities. But even our most dramatic transformations ought to be tethered to our most life-giving past.
There are few things we have “always” done in any particular way, and there are even fewer things that we want “always” to change. Perhaps we can do better than a cease-fire in these culture wars. Instead, transformative leaders should adopt traditioned innovation as a pattern of thinking that will help cultivate thriving communities. It would be a welcome change.
Dean, Duke Divinity School

Mural of Nelson Mandela in Brooklyn
Understanding the New Testament requires grounding in the tradition of the Old Testament. The book of Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount illustrate that the New is the fulfillment of the Old, writes C. Kavin Rowe.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Few ideas are more incorrect in popular Christian thinking than the belief that the New Testament essentially renders the Old Testament unnecessary. To be sure, it’s not usually said straight out like this. But one nevertheless can see it clearly in the common idea that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New (wrath vs. grace), or in vague charges of legalism slung at those who try to obey some of the Old Testament commandments, or -- most prominently -- in the overall failure of Christian churches to read and preach from the Old Testament on a regular basis.
In a way, these problems are understandable. Reading the Old Testament is hard work for Christians. And many leaders have much else on their plate. Still, it is literally inconceivable that the New Testament can be well understood without the Old, or that Christians could develop the depth of theological leadership we need without understanding the most basic relation between the Old and New Testaments. The New depends upon the theological traditions of the Old for its innovation. The innovation, that is to say, is not against its preceding tradition but is a fulfillment of that tradition -- even as it reorganizes the tradition’s theological purpose around the person of Jesus Christ.
Of the manifold ways in which we could show how traditioned innovation names well the relation of the Old and New Testaments, we will focus on only two: the book of Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.
First, Leviticus: Contrary to our initial impressions of an overly precise or even burdensome legal code, the book of Leviticus is at its heart missionary theology. It displays the intricate patterns of life that constitute the Jewish people, that mark them off from the non-Jews and, therefore, allow them to witness by their practices to their election by the God of Israel. Leviticus was, in short, a gift from God to shape the Jews into his people.
To realize that Leviticus was the fundament of Jewish practice and not casuistic prattle -- as so many Christians now cannot help but to take it -- is to become astonished at the almost complete absence of these kind of legal regulations in the New Testament, most especially those concerning the sacrificial cult (such as the different kinds of sacrifices we need to make, when to make them, with what animals and for what sins). Indeed, with the exception of the theology of Hebrews, and aside from a few oblique references to sacrifice, the entire sacrificial cult is missing from the pages of the New Testament. On one level, of course, the New Testament authors simply assumed the importance of the Temple and its practices, as did Jesus himself (think, for example, of the beginning and end of the Gospel of Luke where there is a marked emphasis on the Jerusalem Temple). On another level, however, Jesus’ death is interpreted as the “once for all” sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10), thereby implying that the entire cult was in a sense oriented toward this one death. Sin offerings no longer are necessary because, as the Gospel of John puts it, Jesus is the Lamb whose death takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
On the face of it, there is nothing in the intricacies of Leviticus, or anywhere else in the vast sprawl of the Old Testament, that could prepare for this. It is, quite simply, new.
Moreover, in Pauline theology and elsewhere in the New Testament (such as the book of Acts), the practice of the Law (Torah) no longer constitutes the primary socio-political or cultural boundary marker between Jews and non-Jews. Rather, being a disciple of Jesus Christ -- which of course entails joining the community that takes his name -- is the requisite criterion that now marks the people of God. Thus, in a twofold and profound sense, Jesus radically exceeds the Old Testament’s immediate theological range envisioned by the practice of Torah.
And yet the New Testament also claims that Jesus fulfills the Law and that there is no fundamental break with Jewish tradition. The transformation of Torah hence is tied more deeply to a unity in the purpose of God: to create a people who would be the light to the nations and thereby provoke them to worship the one true God. The same divine purpose that was at work in the giving of Leviticus has crystallized in Jesus. He is, as Luke formulates it both in his Gospel and in Acts, the light to the Gentiles. In Jesus Christ and the community that is gathered around its devotion to him, the moment for which Torah was given and exists has arrived. Jesus Christ, as Paul says, is the telos of the Law (Romans 10:4). In this case, drastic innovation discloses the inner logic and fullness of tradition.
Second, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): It is often thought that the six antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount provide examples of Jesus’ opposition to the Jewish law. In this common reading, “You have heard it said” is the tradition from which Jesus’ innovative “But I say to you” cleanly breaks. But this is simply false. It was not against the Law to require more than the Law itself required. In fact, nothing Jesus says runs contrary to the Torah in its written or oral traditions. What then is he doing? Matthew tells us explicitly just prior to the antitheses: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The antitheses, then, actually are instances of fulfillment of the Law.
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is paradigmatic for thinking about the link between a living tradition and the innovation necessary to keep it alive. Jesus discerned that the existing tradition (“you have heard it said”) was insufficient to the task at hand; the time had changed and the tradition as it presently stood no longer resulted in the formation of “righteous” people (“righteous/ness” is shorthand in Matthew for a life of discipleship in the kingdom; 5:20). What was needed in this new time -- the “Kingdom of Heaven” in Matthean parlance -- was a move into a more radical mode of life. Only so could the tradition stay in step with the telos to which it was oriented: thus “fulfillment” in Matthew means the way in which Jesus innovatively and faithfully extends Jewish tradition to accord with the change of the times -- the advent of the Kingdom of Heaven.
By being both innovative and faithful to tradition, we follow the pattern of the creating and redeeming God of Scripture, writes C. Kavin Rowe.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Churches, schools, businesses, families -- all areas of human life -- face the question of how to live toward the future in light of the past. Leaders will live out their answer to this question by the way they conceive of the world. Inevitably some will say “everything must change” and others,  that “things ought to be done as they always have been.” But neither is a real or even desirable option, for the world in which these pronouncements make sense does not exist.
Considered theologically, the future and the past belong together, tradition and innovation hand in hand. Traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and living that points toward the future in light of the past, a habit of being that requires both a deep fidelity to the tradition that has borne us to the present and a radical openness to the innovations that will carry us forward. Traditioned innovation names an inner-biblical way of thinking theologically about the texture of human life in the context of God’s gracious and redemptive self-disclosure.
The Bible is a vast, sprawling book replete with countless winding trails. Navigating its story is best done with a compass whose points are creation, fall, election, redemption and consummation -- the theological framework in which traditioned innovation gets its meaning.
Creation: Creation is the original innovation. God begins the world’s life out of nothing. Creation is thus the moment of givenness, that which provides the “tradition” upon which all human innovation is founded and dependent -- the giving of life by God. We cannot make ourselves. In the face of modern claims to self-autonomy, self-made people, radical freedom from limits and the like, the book of Genesis lays bare the fact that we are always preceded. All human endeavors enter the world in a context of a fundamentally prior reality. In this sense, failure to attend to the traditions that come before us and shape us is a failure to acknowledge the depth of our dependency as created beings.
The flight from givenness inevitably involves wreckage because it wipes away an essential feature of what it means to be human. The attempt at “pure innovation,” the doing away with all tradition, is ultimately an inhuman and impossible endeavor, one that shapes its practitioners and victims alike into something far less than human beings were created to be. Pure innovation simultaneously negates the givenness that underwrites human existence as such -- the fact that we are here at all, rather than not -- and the ethical demand of this givenness: the need to recognize our historically and materially deep ties to all created life. From first to last, human beings are tradition-dependent.
Fall: The narrative in Genesis of the fall powerfully illustrates that the givenness of creation is no longer simply good. It has become fractured by our refusal to acknowledge our ultimate dependency on the world God made and our attempt to become self-made creatures -- as the Bible puts it, “to know as God knows.” Recognizing the destruction that occurs when we deny our embeddedness in created life should cause us to be wary of attempts to dispense with everything in the past (regardless of the particular shape or kind of institution). “Everything” cannot change. We cannot rid ourselves of the world.
And yet, the fall also points directly to the necessity of innovation. Tradition is no longer sufficiently sustaining in itself. We cannot simply declare, in imitation of God’s view of original creation, “this is good.” And, therefore, we cannot fully rest. We must toil and move on. The character of fallen creation forces us to improvise, to try to move again within the goodness of God’s originating purpose. Innovation thus becomes a necessary way of life in a world of sin and shortcoming, of brokenness and the need for new life. Adam and Eve must make their way outside the garden.
Election: The election of Abraham illustrates paradigmatically how God responds to the way we have marred the goodness of the gift. Instead of destroying his creation, we can see God’s overarching response in the Old Testament in the calling of a people whose vocation is at once to embody the enduring goodness of the gift and to testify to the universal need for redemption. God does not, that is, simply scrap the world and make it all over again. Rather, God innovates. He responds to the brokenness of the world with a creative, new act -- indeed, one that could not, at least on the face of it, have been anticipated from the primeval history in Genesis.
This divine pattern of innovation on the basis of tradition is repeated throughout the Old Testament, perhaps most apparently in the giving of the Torah (Law). The Torah is the defining feature of Israel’s life. Israel would be indistinguishable from the nations without it. But this does not mean that the Law was seen as a static deposit of rules -- a kind of inflexible, unworkable and ultimately unlivable way of life. To the contrary, the mere existence of the book of Deuteronomy -- the name literally means the “second law” -- presses the point that to know the Law rightly is to grasp its fecundity for new situations. The Torah is living tradition. As even the author of Lamentations might have put it, the Law is not only tradition from of old. It is also new every morning.
Redemption: To think about redemption in the biblical sense is to see that this divine pattern of “newness without completely throwing away the old” culminates in Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament, God recreates the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Those who live in the pattern of life made possible by this death and resurrection participate most fully in the newness of the world. Whoever is in Christ, says Paul, is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, that is, the innovation of God is at its peak. In Christ, he remakes the foundations of human life in the very midst of the ongoing, long-running and everyday traditions of the world.
Yet the discontinuity -- the creation of a new world -- includes, rather than excludes, a continuity with what preceded Jesus. The Law and the Prophets testify to the coming of the Christ, even as that coming itself provides a new foundation on which the life promised by the Law and Prophets ultimately depends. Christ is not the “end (telos) of the Law” (Romans 10:4) in the sense of terminating it or displacing its reality, but is instead the deepest purpose or goal (telos) of the Law, that toward which it points or strives. In short, new creation does not abrogate the old but takes it up inside the new and in so doing remakes it. Tradition literally is made new on the basis of God’s innovation.
Focusing on redemption thus discloses a productive tension that marks all life until the end. To remain in what is already known of the tradition is to refuse the priority of new creation; and yet, that which is new includes the old. Radical innovation? Yes. Radical continuity with tradition? Yes.
Consummation: Consummation points to the hope that creation and redemption will finally coincide, that the world’s traditions will, as it were, catch up with the reality of a cosmos remade -- that God’s founding innovation and tradition will be one with his most radical innovation in Jesus Christ.
Thinking about traditioned innovation in light of the hope of consummation shows that tradition and innovation are not finally two different ways of being in the world. They are instead a helpful way to speak about the fundamental manner in which the Triune God graciously relates to the world he made and to which, in the face of its profound brokenness, he remains everlastingly committed -- anew. We cannot think, therefore, that tradition and innovation are opposites. In the Bible, tradition and innovation are realities of our common human life, inseparable aspects of participating in the world God made and is redeeming. Tradition and innovation go together in the divine purpose that leads toward the final restoration of God’s good creation.
To the extent that we both remain faithful to tradition and innovate -- even radically -- we will follow the pattern of the creating and redeeming God of Scripture, and will, therefore, flourish. This is not to say that the flourishing of human life will be apparent immediately to us in the present. After all, flourishing in the biblical sense is frequently counterintuitive. Israel wandered for 40 years in the desert, Moses never made it to the promised land and Jesus was killed -- to take only a few striking examples. But it is to say that the underlying and ultimate purpose to which our lives will be oriented will be in harmony with the work of the God of the Bible.