Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review of "Theology and Ethics" 2017 Academy for Vocational Leadership

Theology begins with an encounter with the Risen Christ, by which we find that this encounter is foundational for our understanding of God and an indispensable guide for how we are to live in the world. This is Christology, which is the effort to talk about this encounter and try to make sense of it. Hence, theology is an attempt to speak truthfully and faithfully about a subject that eludes all attempts to make sense of it.
The first task of theology after Christology is the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity grows out of the experience of God as Father, Word, and Spirit in the life of the early church. The doctrine of the Trinity seeks to preserve the one-ness of God while doing justice to the profound impact of Jesus. The Nicene Creed seeks to preserve this “balance” against the various tendencies (labelled  as “heresies”) emphasizing one at the expense of the other. Arianism was a [“subordinationist” heresy] that made Christ a kind of semi-divine being, of “similar” (homoi) being with the Father, as opposed to Athanasius, whose definition of “one being” (homo ousious) with the Father became the enduring standard for Christian belief. “Modalism” was an older heresy that suggested a fourth “divine substance” somehow inhering in the three persons of an “economic Trinity”, each with their own specialized divine activity.

Christian ethics are not just another set of divinely ordained rules. If human beings are created “in the image of God” then right behavior is a matter of discerning the image of Christ in the world and seeking to “align oneself with it.” If God is understood in a “Trinitarian” way, then what would it mean for us to think of this world as bearing the imprint of a God who wishes for our lives and relationships, indeed for the whole nexus of  creation to mirror that eternal reciprocating giving and receiving?
“Classical” ethics, derived from Plato and Aristotle and “Christianized” by Augustine and Aquinas, saw moral formation as involving 3 steps:
1)      Human beings as they find themselves.
2)      Formation in character and community
3)      The [telos] or ultimate goal of fulfilled human happiness
The middle ages corrupted this process by replacing it with the idea of accumulating merit as administered by the institutional church. Luther rejected this but in doing so abandoned formation and replaced it with his idea of “faith”. In contemporary post-modernist ethics, there is no telos but only the attempt to achieve power, resulting in an ethical chaos wherein every moral issue is considered a “matter of personal opinion”.  Hence there is “a need to reclaim the classical scheme” with an approach to morality that “makes sense and becomes persuasive because it is linked to fullness… and flourishing.”   

Creation “mirrors God’s own internal relationality.” Creation is already a “word” spoken by God, hence there is a divine “wisdom” embedded in the world, which gives rise to the concept of [Natural Law], not a “stagnant ordering of things” but “the background structure of creation,” a kind of “deep logic” derived from the incarnate logos.
Theological Anthropology regards the human body as a blessing rather than a curse. Creation might be said to be the “slowing down” of divine conversation within the Trinity so as to permit our participation in it. By the same token, the Incarnation might be said to constitute “The Trinity in Slo-Mo.”
Sin is a [rejection of our vocation to be “human in a God-like way],”  and to become “gods” ourselves. The human vocation is to undergo [theosis], (one-ness with God) as in 2 Peter 1:3-7, and to achieve the “full stature of Christ,” i.e. spiritual maturity.
Election refers to God’s “strategy” of forming a partnership with Israel. Israelite ethics sought to imitate God by placing limits on power and wealth; observing a Sabbath rest for both people and the earth; welcoming strangers whose experience of alienation Israel had shared; and channeling God’s blessing to all the peoples of the earth. “Election” is not a privileged status from which to exclude others, but is [a vocation to extend the blessing of God to all].
Sin is either a fight against limits or against our divine calling. Adam and Eve represent all human efforts to “deny limits and seize control.”
In classical theology, [evil] is a parasitical nothingness that derives its shadow-existence from good. Original Sin derives from creation, not from God, and renders all humans complicit with evil and incapable of extricating themselves by their own efforts. There are degrees of moral complicity…the greater one’s [knowledge and proximity] to evil, the greater the complicity. Deliberate ignorance is not an excuse, and debilitating guilt leads to ineffectual despair.
By the prevailing definition, “freedom” consists of the “maximization of personal choices.” In contrast divine freedom is the “[freedom to become who you truly are.]” Liberation from the bondage of sin occurs on two levels: [personal and systemic.] Personal liberation involves discipline and asceticism, “cooperation with grace as it perfects and thus frees our nature.” Systemic Liberation involves “challenging and transforming social and political structures,” exercising a “preferential option for the poor.”
The gospel is a subversive parable that destabilizes the dominating powers of this world. It renounces the competitive “city of Cain” and calls us to “become pilgrims, making our way together through a world that isn’t home, but can be ordered justly while we’re here.”
“God’s virtuous gift” is the Holy Spirit, bestowed upon the church by Christ after the resurrection. The Spirit’s work causes the church to become Christ in the world. [Grace] works to perfect nature, not destroy it. Virtue is the equivalent of what St. Paul means by [character]. Virtue [precedes activity and is related to excellence]. [Virtues] are infused by grace but also acquired by habit. There is no necessary dichotomy between [“faith” and “works”]. The Greek term in Romans 5:1 is pistis which implies “faithfulness” in act as well as belief. Classically, the “Cardinal Virtues” are wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage, but [love] is the form and basis for all other virtues.
[Atonement] refers to the ministry of reconciliation exercised by Christ and continued through us. “Not something that happens to us, but in us and through us.” We can’t make it happen, but it requires our participation. The reconciliation of the world has already occurred…it is our calling to “activate” it in our circumstances. There is no one “orthodox” theory of “atonement”. All the theories have their weaknesses, but the [ “Satisfaction” theory,] by which Christ’s death satisfies God’s need for justice re the sins of mankind, draws the most criticism from Feminist and other contemporary theologians. The death of Christ demonstrates God’s solidarity with the human condition, and invites us to share in Christ’s “sin-breaking work.”
Jesus’ teaching re love of neighbor is not pious idealism, and (contrary to Reinhold Niebuhr) we do not have to choose between [love and justice]. Papal encyclicals, Martin Luther King, and others have put forth a more activist vision of justice motivated by love, affirming the basic goodness of creation and a quest for “[the common good]” in the secular realm.  Love is not an “additive”, but permeates all other virtues. Christian love is Trinitarian- mutually gifting and empowering. The classical idea of “Justice” is “giving to each their due” gets distorted by [differences of power and status, i.e. men/women, rich/poor, owners/labor,] etc. Christian versions of economic and criminal justice are to be guided by the common good and restorative justice.
[Ecclesiology] has to do with the church as an “ark”, a container for the community to live out its vocation. Like Christ, it is “one”, yet both a divine gift and a messy human reality. It is “holy”, having all the attributes of a human institution yet radically and distinctly [different]. It is “[catholic]”, exhibiting whole-ness and universality, while existing locally in diverse forms . It is apostolic, maintaining a tangible connection to the apostolic church, making divine salvation accessible to all. Divine and human elements co-inhere with one another in the life of the church, just as they do in Christ.
God’s “strategy” for reconciling creation is to “create a new community, a new politics.” These might be considered “[metapolitics]” because they transcend any particular political order. Politics= “the practices of ordering the life of a people so that certain goods can be pursued and shared in common.” St. [Augustine described two kinds of politics]: the Earthly City (based on the love of power) and the City of God (based on love of God and neighbor). The church is “the City of God on pilgrimage.”   Historically the church has approached politics as 1) theocracy, “using the coercive power of government to further ecclesial ends.”; 2) civil religion , where the church collaborates with the state in a semi-official way, and 3) political theology which “[analyzes and critiques politics and power]” from a gospel perspective, and “imagines and incarnates the church as an embodiment of divine politics.
” Modern “liberalism” places [freedom to pursue self-interest above any notion of the common good and relies, to varying degrees, on market forces to regulate economic life]. The church is called to function as a “counter-culture” where peace, reconciliation, healing, and love of neighbor are employed as  correctives to market driven forces. The church may “partner with secular politics for the common good.”
The idea of “race” is a product of modern sciences’ need for classification, and its use by those in power for profit and control. “The church can be an intentional community of difference, because [differences] ”are meant to be conduits of blessing” and grace is frustrated by same-ness.
Sacraments are a way to “[perform the incarnation]”, “calling a reality into existence” as opposed to “constative” language that describes facts. Sacraments provide access to God’s grace in a manner accessible to human beings. In a manner of speaking, God “risks” inviting us to “perform the truth of the gospel”, just as God “risks” involvement with Israel, with Mary of Nazareth, and in the incarnation.
The sacraments reveal how God works through material things. Sex can signify God’s actions and function in a sacramental way. [Traditional sexual morality] has focused almost entirely on keeping the rules, i.e. “no sex before marriage”, which has served to divert attention from “an enormous number of ‘sanctioned unions’ [that] are a framework of violence and human destructiveness.” To counter this, the “liberal view” discounts the importance of imbalances of power and other factors and emphasizes “[mutual consent.]” A third approach would be to regard sexuality as a means of grace (sacramentally). “The grace of the body requires [time, fidelity, promise, and marriage.]” Casual sex invites abuse, self-deception, and meaninglessness. “Even outside of lifelong promises, the sacramental view of sex opens the possibility of partial fulfillments of the body’s grace.” When there is “[asymmetrical” power] in a relationship it may be said to be “perverse”, even within the bonds of heterosexual marriage. “[Traditional Goods” of marriage] are: unitive (companionship/mutual joy), sacramental (reflect God’s covenantal relationship with Israel and the church), and procreative (children, other creative activity for the enhancement of creation). Welcoming children “mirrors the generative love of the Trinity that births creation.” [Same-sex unions] can meet all the “traditional goods” of marriage, and the church often modifies traditional teachings in the light of new knowledge (i.e. homosexuality is “natural” for some people, just like eye color). Does the new teaching adhere to the “deep logic” of creation (ie Natural law)?
“Medicine is technology that helps us overcome limits.” The [“normative center”] for the church is to “welcome new life as a gift.” Abortion, which occurs naturally when conditions are not right for a birth, can be an acceptable moral choice for a woman, but becomes a problem when there is a loss of the “normative center” and human life regarded casually. Similarly, euthanasia may be an appropriate moral choice, but not when employed as a way for the strong to conveniently dispose of the weak.
Attention to “the common good” would require that some individuals sacrifice expensive “exotic” health care so that others have basic coverage.
A “sacramental view” of the body can be seen as an alternative to inflexible moral laws that do not leave room for advances in medical technology and provide a cover for the domination of elites over the less powerful.  
Eschatolgy has to do with the end and goal of all things, “our fragmentary human talk (i.e. ‘last judgment’ etc) about last or fulfillment-making things…showing forth into the world of these things already in Christ. The world, and our own individual lives, are already in eternity with God, just as the humanity of Christ occupies a place in this changing world while at the same time sharing in the eternal life of the Trinity. “Eternal life” for human beings derives from our connection to Christ, and is a gift of God by which our humanity is sustained but with any pretense at having an existence apart from total dependence upon God removed.
There are not “two Christs”, one non-violent and living and dying under Pontius Pilate and the other descending from heaven with an army of angels to finally end creation and compel obedience to God. All that Christ does in Judgment is confirm God’s original judgment concerning creation: “It is good.” “Hell” is the rejection of the good, and “returning to non-existence.” The Book of Revelation is not about “redemptive violence,” but about the victory of the non-violent “lamb that was slain.”
“Just War Theory” developed after Christianity became dominant in the Roman Empire to provide criteria by which Christians could justly engage in warfare as a last resort.  In today’s world, where war of total annihilation seems quite possible, and small, “preventive” wars meet few of the criteria for “justice”, the non-violence advocated by Jesus seems less idealistic and more like a necessity for the survival of human life.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Green Gospel: Reflections after a Visit to Camp McDowell

     The Bible is like Camp McDowell: a river runs through it.
     This River springs up in the first sentence of Genesis where it speaks of darkness on the face of a watery chaos, and of how “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” It continues until the last chapter of Revelation, which speaks of “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” through the streets of the heavenly Jerusalem. And the intervening pages are full of references to mighty floods, miraculous springs, and the ubiquitous River Jordan. In the Bible, water is the amniotic fluid of creation, an instrument of God’s blessing and (sometimes) wrath, and forms the threshold of the sacred and the boundary of the Holy Land. Genesis 1:20 has God saying “let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures,” and so they have to this day. “Yonder is the great and wide sea,” observes Psalm 104, “with its living things too many to number, creatures both small and great.”
    The biblical waters are clean and pure, nourishing the land and causing it to flourish. The Bible is the product of thirsty people familiar with dry places, people who knew the value of water. To them, separation from God was like a killing thirst, a dried-up water hole, and a rainless spring. To them, idolatry, injustice to the poor, and mistreatment of the powerless went hand in hand with drought and starvation. Jeremiah 17:11 says

“Like a partridge hatching what
    it did not lay,
   so are all who amass wealth
in mid-life it will leave them,
   and at their end they will prove
       to be fools.”
In Ezekiel 34:19, the apostasy of those entrusted with leadership is likened to a flock that is allowed to foul its own water supply:
   “When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?
The profound co-dependence of human life with the natural world is acknowledged in Deuteronomy 20:19, where (in a kind of “just war doctrine”) it says:
      If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food: you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.”   
    But, as Psalm 84 says,

“Happy are the people whose strength is in you! Whose hearts are set on the pilgrims way. Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.”

      The “pilgrims way” is an ecological way, a green way, and a biblical way. It leads beside still waters and green pastures, and revives the soul (Psalm 23). The Bible holds out a vision of a resurrected earth, a healed creation, and a sacred land. In Job 12:7 it says,

“Ask the animals, and they
     will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they
     will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and
    they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will
         declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
        That the hand of the Lord has
               Done this?

      In the New Testament St. Paul writes that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now”. (Romans 8:22). For Paul, Christ is the midwife of a new creation, the one for whom “creation waits with eager longing.” (Romans 8:19). The gospels present a Christ who is deeply “green”, conversant with the lives and language of peasants and fishermen, the one who leads us reliably on the “ pilgrims way”, the green way into the sacred land. In Revelation 5:13 it is Christ who summons

“every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and might forever and ever!”

    Truly, Camp McDowell is an outpost along the “pilgrim’s way,” a place where a “green gospel” can grow and flourish. It is a place where the words of the Prophet Hosea are being lived out:

“I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.” (Hosea 3:18)

       Jon Sams

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Poem: The New Song is the Last Song

The new song is the last song,
An evensong,
And always was,
Even when last sung
In the old world,
The world that took itself for granted,
That breathed easily and
Was often bored.

That world has drowned,
And long ago became a trout,
A huge old brown
Lurking at the convergence of
The River and the Creek,
Where it so happened it
Consumed me, bit by bit,
After my drowning
On the doctor’s  funeral day.

So I became a trout but
Lingered sufficiently on land
To preside at the funeral
At Canadensis,
The first place I went
After my death,
The first place of sure and certain hope,
Sure and certain as this day and these words,
Sure and certain as the convergence of
The River and the Creek
Where the evensong,
The last song,
Was done,
And still is being sung,
Or at least hummed
While taking out the trash. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Poem: Where Idols Abound...for Herb Gunn

For Herb Gunn

Where idols abound
Worship is common
Products are plentiful
But vision is rare.
Where idols abound
The landscape is littered
With discarded scraps
Of old vestments and prayers.

Out in the desert
The cities have crumbled
Discarded chemicals
Poison the sod.
Out in the rubble
Children are playing
On broken-down idols
And the bones of old gods.

Gross is the profit
Fat is the toy
Played with at markets
In Greece, or at Troy.

Wherever the desert
Wind blows it cleanses
The ruins of cities
That once there were found.
Blasted with insight
The prophets they wander
Like owls in the wilderness
Where idols abound.