Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Verb: That's What's Happening

Well, it's taken me four months (this is what happens when I'm left to work at my own pace), but I've finally made my way through the nouns and pronouns, and I'm now ready to step into the brave new world of Greek verbs.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Deus Ex Machina

My last two posts have drawn on insights from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, as found in his book Eyes Remade For Wonder. I have one last tasty morsel from the good rabbi that I'd like to chew on a bit before I let him move on.

Rabbi Kushner, reflecting on the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, observes that the whole purpose of this story is to get the Israelites into Egypt. If the Israelites don't get to Eygpt, the new Pharoah comes to power, but there are no Hebrew slaves there for God to deliver from bondage. No Hebrew slaves, no Exodus, no Passover, no Sinai, no Torah. So it's very important that the Israelites find their way to Egypt.

With this in mind, he calls our attention to a seemingly insignificant detail in the story of Joseph. Jacob sends Joseph to Shechem to check on his brothers who are pastoring their flocks in the field. When Joseph gets to Shecham, his brothers are nowhere to be found. Genesis relates the story thus:
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.
-Genesis 37:14-17
So Kushner claims if this nameless man didn't happen to run into Joseph in the fields at Shechem and pass along this very helpful information, Joseph would have gone back home, his brothers wouldn't have thrown him in the pit and sold him into slavery, etc., etc., and there'd have been no Exodus.

Now this just happens to tie in with another bit of data that's crossed my inbox recently. In a theological brief issued last week, Ted Peters addresses the absurdity of the speculation that because Judas agreed (as per the Gospel of Judas) to hand Jesus over to the authorities he is responsible for our redemption. Peters uses reductio ad absurdum, claiming that he has purchased a manuscript of the Gospel of the Chief Priests from antiquities dealers, which argues that the Atonement would not have been possible if the chief priests hadn't been willing to meet Judas' asking price and that the chief priests therefore deserve credit for our redemption. But then he says he has also acquired from antiquities dealers a manuscript of the Gospel of Jesus which claims that Jesus did and said certain things that infuriated the chief priests, causing them to be willing to meet Judas' asking price. So maybe Jesus is responsible for our salvation after all.

While Dr. Peters' treatment does make clear his point that we cannot elevate anyone other than Jesus as the focus of redemption, the event inextricably involves a web of people. And this is exactly what we should expect. God's work in the world involves people, often lots of people, and many of them doing things that they probably have no idea are parts of God's work in the world. This is the way God works.

Jesus' redemption of the world is God's greatest work, and so we are naturally against attributing any part of it to anyone but Christ himself (with the exception of those bold enough to celebrate what God worked through the fiat of a young virgin in Nazareth).

This is certainly a fitting way to think of our redemption, but it can obscure our view of just how God works in the world if we use this as our template for what to expect in rest of our experience. We're looking for a glorious angel from heaven to appear and give us some message that will put us on the divine path, and so we disregard the commonplace words of a nameless man who finds us wandering in the field.

The Greeks gave us this great concept of deus ex machina. We tend to see it as a cheap plot trick to get a desired result, but it seems to have been a large part of how the Greeks viewed the world. In The Odyssey, for instance, we are told about Athena coming to speak to Telemachus disguised as Mentor. It would be easy for us to "demythologize" this and understand that Mentor just gave Telemachus some sound advice. But Homer saw divine intervention in it.

Christianity is quite content with the fact that it does not imagine superhumans on Mount Olympus intervening in our daily lives. We don't ever suspect that some god has spoken to us disguised as someone we know. We don't have that sort of superstition. But lets hope that in the process we haven't forgotten how to see God acting in the ordinary events of the world around us.

If we are to truly catch a glimpse of God in the world today, it will almost certainly be by noticing God emerging from the machine that is Creation.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Omnipresent Word

I concluded my previous post on awareness of God with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek observation that knowledge of God is impossible because until you become aware of God in the world you will pay no attention to sacred texts and religious ceremony and until you receive special revelation of God through Word and Sacrament you can't see God in the world.

I alluded to Xeno because just as Xeno's proof of the impossibility of motion is immediately disproven by observation, the claimed impossibility above is also disproven by experience. But it leaves open the question of just how it is the we encounter God. Again, I turn to a pair of stories from Jewish tradition as related by Rabbi Kushner.

There is a story, Kushner says, of a group of rabbis debating just what exactly the Israelites heard at Mt. Sinai. The first rabbi says that they heard the entire Torah, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. This is a solid, orthodox answer. The next rabbi said, "No, all they heard was the ten commandments." An answer much closer to the Biblical story. A third rabbi claimed that they heard only the first of the "ten words": "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt." A fourth rabbi said that they heard only the first word of the first "word" -- "I" and the rest of the Torah was clear from that. Finally, a fifth rabbi argued that they heard only the first letter of the first word, aleph, an almost imperceptible sound, the sound of the opening of the throat as one is about to speak, and that this alone spoken by God was enough for them to understand all that was to be revealed.

The second story is related to this one. The second story seeks to resolve the question of whether what happened at Sinai was unique. According to one tradition, it happened only there, never to be repeated. According to another tradition, it is repeated constantly and what God spoke at Sinai, God is always and everywhere repeating. Kushner cites a Jewish source which resolves the question by saying both are correct. The revelation at Sinai was unique AND it is always being repeated. The resolution is that while this revelation is always and everywhere being spoken by God, it was only at Sinai that God allowed those present the clarity of mind and soul to hear the revelation. Kushner says it was as if God turned on the Dolby noise reduction for a moment to stop the usual hiss that deafens us.

These are nice stories. I like these stories.

So here is my Christian interpretation. The Word that God speaks everywhere and always is Christ. And so Kushner is right that through an awareness of the world around us we can meet God, and Barth is right that we can only come to know God through Christ.

But it is important to notice here, and I think Kushner would agree with this, that we do not learn about God by looking at the world. Instead, while looking at the world, we discover God in the world. God meets us in, with and under Creation.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Awareness of God

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner begins his book Eyes Remade for Wonder with an analysis of the story of Moses and the burning bush. Rabbi Kushner rejects the idea that the burning bush was a miracle God performed to get Moses' attention. He says you could probably buy this trick in a Manhattan joke shop -- "Bush burns but isn't consumed, amaze your friends, life of the party, $20."

Instead, Kushner suggests, the burning bush is a test to see how well Moses can pay attention. You have to watch a burning bush closely to know it isn't being consumed. So because Moses notices, God says, "To him I would speak."

The point of all this, finally, is that the first step of spirituality, according to Kushner, is becoming aware, deeply aware, of the world around us. And then, being aware, we will see God in the world. Having become aware of God's presence around us, we will at last turn to sacred texts to seek understanding.

But at this point, a lot of Christian theologians will stand up and shout, "Nein!" Only through God's self-revelation in Christ can we know God. Before Barth, we have Luther telling us, "That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened." Luther here is directly relying on St. Paul's words in Romans 1:20ff where Paul says that those who sought to know God through creation became foolish and did not truly know God.

And so we must have a special revelation of God before we can know God. God must come to us in Word and Sacrament. Only then (if even then) can we rightly see God in the world.

And so we have a paradox. On the one hand, before we become aware of God's presence around us, we will have no regard for sacred texts or religious ceremonies. On the other hand, until God comes to us in Word and Sacrament, we cannot perceive God in the world.

And so, after the manner of Xeno, I conclude that knowledge of God is impossible.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Christ, Our Righteousness

I said in a previous post, "the key insight of the Reformation was that Christ is our righteousness." Some interesting discussion followed along the lines of just how far the word "our" could be stretched here.

In the new Finnish interpretation of Luther, this idea that Christ is our righteousness is pushed to its uttermost limits. In saying that Christ is present in faith itself, the Finns are claiming that our standing with God is a result of the presence of Christ in and with (and under?) the believer. The believer is treated as righteous by God because the believer, finally, is Christ.

This is taken to have some connection to the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Athanasius said, "God became man so that man might become God." Luther said (in his lectures on Galatians), "Faith makes a man God."

One of the big difficulties with the Finnish position is that it requires us to believe that while Luther held these pseudo-Orthodox beliefs, they immediately disappeared with nary a trace in susequent Lutheranism. But there is one trace. Tuomo Mannermaa in Christ Present in Faith points to the Osiandrian Controversy.

For those without an obbsession with 16th century Lutheran dogmatics, the Osiandrian Controversy was one of the disputes meant to be settled by the Formula of Concord. Andreas Osiander disliked the idea of imputed justification. Against this idea, Osiander taught that God actually makes a Christian just through the indwelling of Christ. He was apparently opposed in this by everyone from Phillip Melancthon to Martin Chemnitz. The controversy is addressed in Article III of the Formula of Concord.

According to Mannermaa, the Formula got it wrong and thus led to the disjunction between Luther and later Lutheranism.

But Article III of the Formula of Concord provides some interesting material for reflection, particularly with regard to my claim above that "the key insight of the Reformation was that Christ is our righteousness."

In the Epitome, the FC does state clearly that "Christ alone is our Righteousness" (Article III, paragraph 1), but it is concerned with the question of what this means. This article rejects the idea that either Christ is our righteousness only according to his divine nature (the view attriubuted to Osiander) or that Christ is our righteousness only according to his human nature. The article says that Christ is our righteousness according to both natures, but then it adds "in His obedience alone." That is, it is our righteousness consists in have Christ's obedience imputed to us. At the risk of having my Lutheran membership card taken away, I'm not sure I buy this.

The Formula claims that "our righteousness before God is [this very thing], that God ... presents and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ's obedience." This has solidified into dogma in some circles. For instance, Reformed teacher Michael Horton can be heard to propound that we are saved by works, but we are saved by Christ's works not our own, Christ having fulfilled the "covenant of works" which Adam did not. This strikes me as very non-Lutheran (which is fine for Dr. Horton), but this section of the FC would seem to support it.

On the other hand, this same article of the FC-Ep says that "faith alone is the means and instrument whereby we lay hold of Christ, and thus in Christ of that righteousness which avails before God." Now this I like, and I think it has much ressonance with the Finnish idea.

The idea that we are accounted as righteous because Christ's obedience is imputed to us strikes me as theological bookkeeping. I dare say it is a theology of glory sneaking into the Lutheran confessions and becoming dogma. Against this, I much prefer the proclamation that in faith we "lay hold of Christ."

I confess to being somewhat wary of the language of Christ being present in me. There's a problem of scale here. I know that in the Sacrament we see that the finite is capable of bearing the infinite, but there would seem to be a danger here of slipping into what Mark Allan Powell calls "the image of the Microscopic Jesus" -- the idea that I may have "a very tiny Jesus inside me (sitting on that throne in my heart)." Or, much worse, the idea lends itself to the gnostic idea of a "divine spark" within each of us.

I prefer, instead, the perspective of finding myself in Christ (Col. 3:3). But I think this amounts to the same thing as the Finnish idea. And so, I would like to say (against the Formula of Concord) that our righteousness before God is this very thing, that we are found in Christ and Christ in us.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The DaVinci Code

If you haven't seen it already, check the current issues of Sojo Mail to read their interview with Brian McLaren about The DaVinci Code. You can read it online here:

(free registration required)

McLaren has a refreshing take on the DVC. Rather than seeing it as an attack on Christianity or as an opportunity for evangelism, McLaren addresses it primarily as an opportunity for the Church to reflect on how we are presenting Jesus to the culture and, as such, an opportunity for self-critique. Here's a sample:
I think a lot of people have read the book, not just as a popular page-turner but also as an experience in shared frustration with status-quo, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up-prone organized Christian religion. We need to ask ourselves why the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown's book is more interesting, attractive, and intriguing to these people than the standard vision of Jesus they hear about in church.

For a while now there's been something that vaguely bugged me about the parade of books, videos and Sunday school classes "decoding" The DaVinci Code, and I think I know now what it is. In part, I just don't like anything that comes from the conservative evangelical camp (a personal bias that I realize is unfair). But it was harder to see what the problem was in this case, because I was in agreement with them that the "history" in the DVC was attrocious, and I agreed that it was worthwhile setting the record straight. So I thought my irritation was just that I didn't like the people who were writing these books.

But after reading McLaren's thoughts on the matter (as well as recent remarks from the LutherPunk), it seems to me that the public reaction of Christianity has been (surprise, surpise) self-righteous arrogance. Yes, Brown's (or more precisely, the fictional Teabing's) version of early Christian history is wildly inaccurate, but we're not going to win many friends by saying "we're right, as always, and we'll prove it."

A "just-the-facts" proof-from-history isn't what people are interested in, not least because postmodern people (rightly) don't believe that "just-the-facts" versions of history exist. I remember once when I was explaining to some non-Christian friends how the early Church determined which books should be in the Bible. When I got to the part about the rule of faith, my friends literally laughed out loud. "You mean they only picked the books that they agreed with?!" they asked. "Of course," I answered. It seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to me, but I saw why this would seem ridiculous to them, and I think it is largely because Christianity has promoted the Bible as a sort of magic book that is the standard for what's true and what isn't rather than presenting it as a book of faith. I don't think the Lee Stroebel/Hank Hanegraaff school of apologetics prepares people to really talk (and think!) about things like this. Instead, it just assures us that we are right.

In other DVC culture, did you see this week's Saturday Night Live? Tom Hanks was hosting and the intro segment was hilarious. "Audience members" including a priest and the Pope were questioning him about the DVC movie, finally culminating in a cast member dressed as Jesus who stood up for this exchange (slightly paraphrased):
Jesus: I've seen your movie and I forgive you.
Hanks: You forgive me for making The DaVinci Code?
Jesus: No, I haven't seen The DaVinci Code. I'm talking about The Terminal. I forgive you for making The Terminal.

I was ROFL, as they say.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Christ and Justification

As is often the case, there is some good theological discussion going on over at Without Authority, stemming from Thomas' post of some thoughts on Eberhard J√ľngel's view of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,

Most recently, in the comments on that post, D.W. has questioned the influence that Tuomo Mannermaa and the new Finnish interpretation of Luther have had on the JDDJ and whether Lutherans should be willing to accept the Finnish interpretation at all.

As I said there, I am a big fan of the JDDJ. I also happen to be quite intrigued by the Finns' proposal, not just as it relates to Luther but also as it relates to Lutheranism as a way of thought. I think it's possible that they go too far in attributing the views they do to Luther, but quite apart from whether Luther believed what they claim, the ideas themselves are quite interesting and useful.

In one of the posts on Pontifications that turned Thomas' attention to the JDDJ and the question of justification, the Pontificator quotes John Henry Newman as asking, "what is it in a man, which God seeing there, therefore calls him righteous?"

I think there's a reflex temptation in Protestantism to give "faith" as the answer to this question. This precise answer caused a lot of problems in American Lutheranism during the predestination controversy at the end of the 19th century. But historically, Lutheranism knows better. We confess that we are saved by an alien righteousness, not because of anything which is in us. We confess that "Christ is our righteouesness," which necessarily means that faith is not.

And so, in answer to Newman's question, "what is it in a man, which God seeing there, therefore calls him righteous?" I think a good Lutheran answer is, "It is Christ!" (Interestingly, Newman gives the same answer: "This is really and truly our justification, not faith, not holiness, not (much less) a mere imputation; but through God’s mercy, the very Presence of Christ.")

But the difficulty lies in the fact that I was willing to accept Newman's question at all. I might just as well have said, "There is nothing 'in a man' which God seeing there therefore calls him righteous. It is all about Christ." The very question smacks of infused righteousness, and sets off ancient Lutheran trip wires. But is this really essential? I wonder if there isn't a danger of leaning on the extra nos formulation so much that we, ironically, separate ourselves from Christ.

The categories of infused righteousness and imputed righteousness are dusty artifacts of medieval theology, and the fact that we continue to drag them around may itself be a barrier to making progress in understanding the mystery of justification.

They key insight of the Reformation was NOT that we are saved by imputed righteousness. The key insight of the Reformation was that Christ is our righteousness, and I find Mannermaa and the Finnish school to be exploring this idea in a thoroughly Lutheran way.

Monday, May 01, 2006

In Support of Immigrants

I would guess that about a third of the people I work with are immigrants. All of them are certainly in this country legally. About half are upper-middle class white-collar workers. The other half are service workers at our facility. So today, as immigrants throughout Oregon (and other parts of the country I believe) were proclaiming a "day without immigrant workers," I was very eager to see what the workplace would be like. Can you guess?

I didn't notice any conspicuous absences among the white-collar crowd, but the cafeteria (which is run by a fairly progressive outside vendor) was running with a skeleton crew AND was serving all the food on paper plates. There was no one to wash the dishes.

Having grown-up in a community that made the ELCA look as culturally diverse as it wishes it were, I really value the diversity in my workplace and in my daughters' school. And it pains me to see America deciding that we need to clamp down our borders and only let "useful" people in.

I actually saw a newscast where "people on the street" were claiming that migrant workers from Mexico posed a threat to national security!