Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Frequently" is being gracious

I am lecturing in place of Dr. Tupper in the Systematic Theology class tomorrow at Wake Forest University's Divinity School and his absence lined up with a lecture on sin. I think I am going to use this quote to point out the inevitability of sin for social beings such as ourselves and the relationship of sin and evil within the world's social ills, but the last sentence is real zinger.

Social sin consists in an arrangement of a society or culture in which one or more groups of people are systematically excluded, oppressed, or violated in their humanity. Such a situation is evil because it diminishes or destroys human beings as measured against the intrinsic value of the human person. It is sin because we know that ultimately the arrangement of society depends on human freedom and can be changed. In other words, human beings are responsible for this situation. But this responsibility is precisely social and not individual. The paradox consists in sharing some measure of responsibility for a social situation as a member of a society, while not having any controlling individual freedom or power relative to the same situation. Frequently this intrinsic tension is either not experiences or simply denied in highly individualistic cultures. - Roger Haight "Human Freedom and a Christian Understanding of Salvation"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Biblical," older than "change" and "hope"

So this is more of a confession, but today is the third day in a row I unintentionally got in a conversation only to find out it was actually an opportunity for me to informed on my deviance from 'biblical' truth. I have found I can talk to almost anyone about most things except for conservative Christians. Atheist, Jewish, Agnostic, Hindu, and Muslim friends don't make me agree with their presuppositions when we talk, but for three days three different conservative Christians did not know how to have a conversation without me agreeing to their assumptions about the Bible. They couldn't figure out if I was one of them or a non-believer, as if the only legitimate opinion a Christian could have was their own. Not because they are arrogant, but because it is Biblical. So below is my observation and then I am going to ask for some advice if you have any.

Everyone knows the fights among conservative evangelicals over the Bible.  There are all kinds of theories of inspiration and fights over language.  Is the Bible innerrant, infallible, God's answer book, unquestionable Truth, and so on.  While those are important discussions for some, I don't feel tempted to deify the Bible, make the text itself sacred, or come up with some unnecessary and presumptuous compliment about that Bible that then makes me squeamish when I read the terrifying and outlandish texts.  Basically I am saying that there is enough in the Bible I don't want to claim for God that making the text itself the point isn't even attractive to me.

For example, the Bible has plenty of slave owners who get good face time and there is ample material for at least 15 good pro-slavery sermons in there.  Believe me I took Baptist history where famous expositors of scripture come to conclusions like, "the holding of slaves is justifiable by the
doctrine and example contained in Holy writ; and is; therefore
consistent with Christian uprightness, both in sentiment and conduct" (Richard Furman ).  There is just no one 'biblical' interpretation of most things.  In fact, the word 'biblical' is a word that unnerves me.  I actually read (or think about reading) the Bible every day with the expectation to commune with the Spirit and be engaged in spiritual transformation - hopefully towards the pattern of Christ - BUT when I hear 'biblical' it usually serves as a conversation stopper.  When someone says "belief or action X is biblical" they mean "my belief or action X is one that I find in scripture (or my religious authority said was in scripture) and since these 66 books all agree on everything, X is God's opinion.  So on behalf of God I can no longer talk to you without rolling my eyes in holy indignation unless you yield to my opinion.  To be charitable and sympathetic would be to compromise X which, while being my opinion, is really - thank God - God's. Believe X or get the X!"  Maybe if the word biblical meant "belief or action X is one sensible and legitimate interpretation of the diversity of witnesses within scripture that could apply to this situation, issue, or idea," but it doesn't function this way in conversation.  Furman makes some wonderfully 'biblical' points about the sacred support of slavery.  Abolitionists made some equally 'biblical' points against slavery, though they had a smaller total number of biblical footnotes.  Hopefully one can see why something being 'biblical' does not necessarily make it wonderful.  Despite the 'biblical' status of slavery I think it is horrible and thoroughly unchristian.

There are other more contentious issues in our contemporary setting than this one, though slavery remains a cloaked part of our economic reality, such as issues of gender, sexuality, and violence for which the 'biblical' phrase gets thrown around and I just want to say that is not how I want the Christian community to come to its decisions (or more appropriately justify their decisions).  I would like to say, I read the Bible with a liberating hermeneutic that coheres with both the inclusion of Gentiles and rejection of slavery and brings me to support the full dignity and humanity of women, homosexuals, my enemies, and Republicans.

SO QUESTION: Is there an option for conversations with 'biblical' Christians that does not necessitate
a. being purposefully vague (though it feels deceitful) so they do not notice a difference or actually understand the meaning of your statements
b. deciding to play within their framework and attempt to make your point or deconstruct theirs without ever saying why and how you actually came to your conclusion.
c. accept that their hermeneutic does not make conversation with any difference possible and walk away thinking that they are ignorant fundies who need to be enlightened...for those who have eyes.....

A and B are uncomfortable ethically and are made presuming a certain elitist stance. C is something I work hard at avoiding and may give up for Lent.

ohhhhh I thought of another example during that yelling spell.  About every way of ordering the life of the Church is biblical if you pick the right passages.  I can understand being a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Congregationalist..... all biblically.  There are verses that sound like Christ wanted to give the disciples special ontological power and create a sophisticated hierarchy to solidify power, but even there we can employ the liberating hermeneutic (PS - it is called the Free Church). 

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ricoeur on Parables and Imagination

Parables, paradoxes, hyperboles, and extreme commandments all disorient only to reorient us. But what is reoriented in us? and in what direction? I would say that what is reoriented by these extreme sayings is less our will than imagination. Our will is our capacity to follow without hesitation that once-chosen way, to obey without resistance the once-known law. Our imagination is the power to open us to new possibilities, to discover another way of seeing, or acceding to a new rule in receiving the instruction of the exception.
- Paul Ricoeur "The Logic of Jesus, the Logic of God" in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination (281)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Fretheim on God's Relationality

In his ground-breaking study of God and Creation throughout the Hebrew scriptures Terence Fretheim makes an important insight on God's relationality:

God is present and active in the world, enters into a relationship of integrity with the world, and both world and God are affected by that interaction. In this relationship, God has chosen not to stay aloof but to get caught up with the creatures in moving toward the divine purposes for creation, and in such a way that God is deeply affected by such engagement.

-Terence Fretheim, God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005) 109.