Sunday, April 24, 2011

Is There Hope for the Past? A Brief Reflection on Easter

In Dostoevsky’s wonderful novel The Brothers Karamazov, the brother Ivan lays out an interesting twist on classic theodicy while talking to his younger brother, Aloysha, a novice.  He has no problem with God, but it is the world he cannot accept;  in particular, he takes the case of the suffering of children. He gives several examples, but I’ll quote one of the most memorable at length:
This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn't ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to dear, kind God'! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones!
Ivan is passionate about justice, declaring “I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself.” Ivan also argues that no future harmony/heaven could be worth the present unjust suffering of children, “It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'!.....It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket."

Finally, he leaves Alyosha and the reader with a powerful question, “Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature- that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth."

There is no straightforward theological answer to how a good God created and allows a world that is full of evil. But throughout the Bible, and particularly in the resurrection, the central event of Christian faith, we are offered hope. Not hope for a life to come, but hope for the renewal and recreation of the present world.

There is sometimes confusion over the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. Sometimes we oversimplify Jesus’ death and resurrection as our entrance ticket into heaven.  But Jesus does not go from the tomb straight to heaven. His is a physical resurrection, a restoration of a body that had been beaten, crucified and broken a mere three days earlier. It is not just the promise of a new life, but the reversal of a past event: the suffering and death of the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah who had finally arrived to end the sufferings of the Israelites. In the resurrection there is hope not only for the future, but also for the past. As Jurgen Moltmann writes:
No human future can repair the crimes of the past. But in order to live with the past of ruins and victims, without having to repress them or relive them, we need this transcendent hope for the resurrection of the dead and the rebuilding of the ruins. Because of the resurrection of the destroyed Christ, Christians have hope for the future, in the nucleus of hope for resurrection. Without hope for the past there is no hope for the future.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflections on Good Friday and the Church as the Body of Christ

The Church is the Body of Christ. And on Good Friday we remember that this is not a pleasant vocation. We don’t like to think of God suffering.  But every Good Friday we are presented with the suffering of God.  We are presented with a God who loves the world so much that God entered the world and was present to the full reality of the human experience.
“And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) has become a central Christological affirmation. It is time for the Church to follow Christ by recognizing that its role is not as a mediator or spiritual guide, but as the body of Christ, a body that lives, breathes, eats, and dies among the people.
The Gospel of John may have included this early hymn about Christ as a clear statement against Docetism, an early Gnostic doctrine (regarded as heretical) that holds that Jesus only appeared to be physical, but in reality Jesus was incorporeal, a pure spirit. The doctrine arises from a belief that a physical body would have been an imperfection.
Though Docetism has long since been banished from our Christology (understanding of Christ), it seems to be alive and flourishing in our ecclesiology (understanding of the Church).  For a great many people in the United States, for a church to make a political or economic statement would be overstepping its bounds. The church is to minister to the spiritual needs of the people and to be involved in charity, but not politics, economics, or social justice. Yet to separate off the church from the political and economic arenas of life in which people suffer and die on a daily basis is to move the heresy of Docetism from Christology to Ecclesiology.
The Church must be involved in all of reality, not merely a few chosen and safe aspects. As the Salvadoran Theologian Jon Sobrino writes, “A Docetist Church is one that distances itself from ‘real’ reality and chooses the sphere of reality in which it wants to be Church: the religious, the doctrinal, the liturgical, the canonical.”
Every Good Friday we should be forcefully reminded of the cost of being a real church, and acting as the body of Christ. Jesus was betrayed, flogged, and crucified. At one point he even felt as though God had forsaken him (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34). This is how the world treats the Body of Christ. 
As Christians we are called to proclaim the good news of God as revealed to us in Christ Jesus, a poor man from a backwards province suffering under the economic and military control of the Roman Empire. That gospel is “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” and “to let the oppressed go free.”  (Luke 4:18-19). This was Jesus mission, and it is the mission of the Body of Christ up to this day.  It is spiritual, but it is also physical. Perhaps most importantly it is as deeply unpopular with the principalities and powers of today as it was in Jesus’ time.
Like the first disciples, we keep hoping that the Messiah, the Christ will come in power to proclaim an end to suffering and death and establish the reign of God. But the wisdom of the world, the wisdom of strength, power, and realpolitik, is not the wisdom of God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the midst of WWII, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us…Only the suffering God can help.”
The plain truth is that following the way of Jesus is likely to end in suffering and possibly death. Just as the authorities of Jesus day pushed him out of the world and onto the cross, the authorities and politicians of today do not want the Church to tell them that they cannot balance the budget on the backs of the poor. They do not want the Church to be a prophetic voice that denounces injustices in the tradition of Isaiah, Amos, Jesus, Oscar Romero and hosts of other Christians who proclaimed good news to the poor and challenged the oppression of the dominant powers of their day.
As a Church, each Good Friday we are reminded that we are called to be fully present in the suffering of this world. When we begin to enter into the brokenness of the poor and downtrodden, if we are filled with love we cannot help but become advocates for justice. As Cornel West memorably puts it, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Being the Body of Christ, suffering with the poor, denouncing the political, military, and economic powers of oppression, and announcing the Reign of God is not an easy task. But it is the task of the Body of Christ, the task that has been left to the Church. The good news of Good Friday is that we are not alone in that task, God is with us, fully present in our broken and suffering world.  

Monday, February 21, 2011

Power and Privilege: Why Reinhold Niebuhr is Key to Understanding the Budget Battle

A few months ago New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wondered in amazement how economic policies that had long since been disproved in the academic world could still be influencing public policy (When Zombies Win). 
I think the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr can help to explain the triumph of discredited ideas. Though he wasn't writing about today's struggles, back In 1932 Niebuhr wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society what is still the best explanation of how politics works today, 79 years later. I’ll quote him at length:

A laissez faire economic theory is maintained in an industrial era through the ignorant belief that the general welfare is best served by placing the least possible physical restraints upon economic activity. The history of the past hundred years is a refutation of the theory, but it is still maintained…..
…Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because their dishonesties have been revealed…Wherever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise.
If all this is correct, then among all the recent budget cuts passed by the House, we should see an effort to defund regulatory agencies. And that is exactly what has happened. By defunding the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission the financial world will be even more inadequately regulated.  Cutting $578 million from IRS enforcement is not about saving money, it’s about deregulating.  And of course the EPA will be cut $3 billion and will no longer be allowed to regulate greenhouse gasses.

And in Wisconsin (and Ohio) there is an effort to eliminate collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin public sector unions have said they are willing to negotiate wages and benefits, but they will not abandon their right to do so collectively. If this debate were about sound public policy, then statistics like this one would matter:
There are five states without collective bargaining rights for educators: South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia. On ACT/SAT scores they rank, respectively: 50th, 49th, 48th, 47th, and 44th. Wisconsin currently ranks second. If, as states’ rights proponents sometimes claim, states really are laboratories of democracy, then what we’ve seen is that removing collective bargaining rights is bad public policy. But that’s irrelevant to this debate, because it’s not about policy, it’s about power.
All the think tank analyses and policy wonks in the world won’t change the fact that this is about power and privilege, and the ability of the powerful to use that power to keep and even expand their privilege. Policy discussions may be useful to unveil power for what it is, but as Niebuhr notes, "When power is robbed of the shining armor of political, moral, and philosophical theories, by which it defends itself, it will fight on without armor; but it will be more vulnerable, and the strength of its enemies increased."

As a Christian formed by the Lutheran and Catholic social teachings, it is clear to me that we are called to be on the side of the least of these (Matthew 25:40). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a powerful pastoral letter in 1986, claiming:

The quality of the national discussion about our economic future will affect the poor most of all, in this country and throughout the world. The life and dignity of millions of men, women and children hang in the balance. Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: They must be at the service of all people, especially the poor.
I am reminded of the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

We must not only unveil power for what it is, but must also take action against those who use their power to further their own privilege at the expense of the poor, those who have no voice either economically or politically. There are a lot of excellent groups taking action to balance the power of the people against the power of the wealthy, one of which I’ll endorse here: US Uncut. US Uncut works to raise the visibility of one of the many alternatives to slashing programs for the poor, actually closing corporate tax loopholes.

Today, in the U.S. a narrative is being spun that we are broke, and that cutting $60 billion (less than 1/10th of our military budget) from programs that help the poor will fix the deficit. This isn't a factual narrative, but it's not about the facts. It's about the power.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Atheists, Christians, and Fact Fundamentalism

In 1910 Harvard Professor Charles Elliot advocated for a new form of Christianity, a Christianity that would have only one commandment, “love of God expressed in service to others.” At the time, most
Christians were radically opposed to this expression of the new scholarly and liberal Christianity. Feeling threatened a group of Christians published a series of booklets called The Fundamentals in which they laid out a list of fundamental beliefs required to be a Christian. They listed five beliefs that they then used to define which people were Christian and which were not: 1) Biblical inerrancy, 2) virgin birth of Christ, 3) substitutionary atonement, 4) resurrection of Christ, and 5) the second coming of Christ in glory.

This was the birth of fundamentalism, but in order to understand the social context that gave rise to this movement a fuller understanding of the history of both the religion and philosophy is necessary.

In the 4th century the Christian religion began to be expressed in creeds. As Harvard Professor Harvey Cox succinctly notes the creeds began “replacing faith in Jesus with tenets about him.” As expressed in the fundamentalism of the 1900s all five beliefs are beliefs about Jesus, and though they deal with his birth and death not a single one touches on his life or teachings.

The Enlightenment era moved the West, religious and non-religious alike, towards a scientific view of the universe, a view in which the only truth that counted was a propositional truth. Statements must be either true or false. The law of the excluded middle (A or –A) formed a large part of the basis for the development of philosophical logic. There was a place for metaphor and symbolism, but only in literature and art, not religion.

This in turn gave rise to two main responses by the religious establishment. One is a kind of postmodern religion which emphasizes human spirituality and liberation from religious and political hierarchy. The two most prominent examples today are liberation theology and non-fundamentalist expressions of Pentecostalism in which the spirit truly is privileged over the written word.

The other response is fundamentalism, which grew as a reaction to the moral uncertainty of the scientific view of the universe. Feeling threatened with the loss of a religious context from which to discover meaning fundamentalist fought back by accepting the viewpoint of propositional truth and arguing for certain propositions that they determined to be fundamental to the faith.

The new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, etc.) fought back with fiery rhetoric denouncing the blind belief in propositions that are clearly non-factual. Despite an appearance of intense disagreement with fundamentalists both the new atheists and Christian fundamentalists share a common premise, that the importance of religion is belief in a set of propositional truths.

I would like to suggest that religion at its core is not about belief.  Rather, it is about faith, a faith understood not as propositional assent to certain dogmas, but rather as trust, love, and awe at the mysteries of self, other, and universe. Albert Einstein wrote beautifully about the feeling of mystery that I consider to be at the heart of faith:
The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.
Religion at its best is a human community attempting to grasp the ungraspable. It is a community developing a shared understanding through the use of poetry, symbol, myth, art, music and ritual to express that which can never be expressed in scientific prose.

Marcus Borg expressed the task of today’s theologians as follows, “I see my generation of public theologians as helping church people move into a form of Christianity that is non literalistic, non exclusivistic, deeply in touch with tradition, but with a historical [and] metaphorical way of understanding tradition and so forth.”

I inevitably find that whenever I attempt to talk or write about mystery or meaning I use Christian myth and symbol because Christianity is my native religious language. I think it is important to preserve that language while recognizing that it is not the only framework from which to interpret life, but rather one of many. I look forward to learning more about the others through my participation in State of Formation as well as working to refine my understanding of Christianity and move in a direction that avoids the fact fundamentalism that has hampered so much interreligious dialogue. I think we will have much more productive dialogue when we begin to express our religions in terms of stories rather than doctrines.

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