Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Let Them Both Grow Together

Everyone, I suspect, has their favorite parables of Jesus. I tend to favor the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. I'm probably not alone in this.

Another favorite parable of mine is the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The version from the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 13.24-30
Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’

‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed.

‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’”
To be sure, later in the chapter Jesus goes on to discuss the eschatological judgment at the end of the parable. And as I've repeatedly said, I have no problem with God's judgment. It is critical that such judgment exists to have any coherent notion of God's love and justice.

But as with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, and Jesus's teaching as a whole, I don't think the parable here is about Judgment Day. What Jesus is doing is using judgment--the pathos of God--to illuminate this day, right here and right now. The focus in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats isn't about the ultimate fate of the goats. It is, rather, about what God wants the Kingdom to look like today, in my life and yours. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is about calling us to the works of mercy.

So what is the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds calling us to? What is the parable trying to say about our behavior today?

I think the answer is found in the question of the workers: "Should we pull out the weeds?"

Should we pull out the weeds?

This question goes to the heart of one of the greatest temptations amongst religious people wanting to serve God: the impulse to sort the good people from the bad people, the saints from the sinners, the church from the world, the saved from the damned.

Churches are full to the brim of this sort of thing. Righteous crusades to weed out the sinners.

But what does the farmer say? The farmer says, Don't get into the weeding business. If you do you'll pull up the good with the bad. Weeds are no good, but weeding? Weeding is worse. So just let the good and the bad live alongside each other. Trust that God will sort it all out in the end. Sorting saints from sinners isn't your job. So let it be.

Wouldn't it be amazing if Christians and churches heeded the farmer's advice?

And let's be clear. The farmer has lost his mind. What farmer doesn't weed? What the workers are suggesting is the right thing to do. From a farming perspective the farmer is an idiot.

Against all logic the farmer says, Leave it alone. Let the weeds and the wheat grow together. On this farm we aren't going to weed.

But isn't this a recipe for disaster? Doesn't God need our help in sorting out the good guys from the bad guys? Doesn't God need Spiritual Minutemen to monitor the borders of the Kingdom?

Apparently not. Our job, it seems, is simply to live alongside each other, wheat and the weeds.

And truth be told, I think a part of the logic here is that we're horrible, often tragically so, in making these distinctions. Who are the real good guys? Who are the real bad guys? Are churches getting this distinction right?

My take: I think the churches get this wrong more often than they get this right. Churches, way more than they'd care to admit, get into the weeding business only to discover that they can't tell the wheat from the weeds.

More, I'd go on to make this provocative claim: To get into the weeding business is what marks you as a weed. Weeding is what makes you one of the bad guys. Exhibit A: The religious authorities of Jesus's day and their exclusion of "tax collectors and sinners." 

Robert Capon in his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus has an interesting observation about this parable. Specifically, he notes that the root of the Greek word--aphete--translated as "let" in the command of the farmer ("let both grow together") has two related meanings in the bible. One meaning is the meaning found in the translation above (NLT), the notion of "to permit" or "to allow." But the more common meaning of aphete in the bible is "to suffer" and "to forgive." This is the word Jesus utters from the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

This really amps the meaning of the parable. Rather than weeding the farmer is asking the workers to forgive the weeds, to suffer their existence.

We might say the parable is presenting us with two visions of Kingdom life.

On the one side are the weeding Christians, those wanting to identify, sort out and burn the weeds.

And on the other side are those Christians who live alongside the weeds manifesting forgiveness and patience.

And we do know this: the weeding Christians will have all the best arguments on their side. Weeding, we know, is good farming practice. It's the sensible and right thing to do.

But the logic of forgiving the weeds and allowing them to grow alongside? That's no logic at all.

It's only the foolishness of the cross.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Church as Self-mortification?

I've been thinking recently about church being a spiritual discipline, even a form of self-mortification.

This train of thought began with a statement I made recently while teaching a class at church about church. In talking about what it means to live with a faith community I said: "I know this might sound strange to some of you, but I go to church to intentionally be around people who irritate me."

A few weeks later I was visiting with friends at our church retreat. Our conversation turned to the difficult discipline of church. During that conversation I said: "Church is a form of self-mortification, like fasting. A big part of church is learning to say No to yourself."

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Parable

On the great Day of Judgment all of humanity was called before the Judgment Seat of God. There the angels sorted the people.

On the right side of the Judgment Seat was a small group. These were the elect. The angels moved among them and gave each person a small golden box.

On the left side of the Judgment Seat was a vast multitude, as far as the eye could see. Here were all the others, every person who had ever breathed in God's creation. Men and women, the elderly and children, from every tribe and nation across the eons. Billions upon billions of souls. Like the sands on a seashore. These were the damned.

After the Great Sorting the King Upon the Throne delivered his Judgment. To those on the right he said, "You are the elect, the few I have predestined from the beginning of time to share in my bounty and live in the Holy City. I also have a gift for you. Inside the golden box you hold is this gift, the gift of eternal life. Come into your rest!"

Turning to the vast multitude on his left the King continued, "You are the damned. Although it is in my power to do so, I have chosen not to save you. To bring glory to myself I have chosen to save only these few. So depart, you wicked ones, into the fires I have prepared for you before the beginning of time!"

There was a great and heavy silence in heaven as these terrible words of judgment were uttered.

This stillness was broken when a small, lone figure on the right side of the Judgment Seat stepped forward and away from the elect.

It was a young girl. She moved slowly to the foot of the Throne and there she kneeled. The Heavenly Host held its collective breath.

The girl began to speak with a trembling voice.

"Most Holy God, Lord and King. I have no right to speak to you. No right to make a request. But as I look on the vast multitude of the damned my heart breaks within me. These are the ones you have asked me--for my whole life and with all the strength I have--to love, and serve, and forgive. And I do love them as you have taught me to love them. And there are so, so many. And I also know that I deserve the same punishment that they deserve. Your salvation is a gift freely given and I deserve it no more than any other human being.

So this is my request, Most Awesome King. I ask that my gift be given to one of these. Save one of them rather than me. Please number me among the transgressors. I wish to give my life so that another might live."

And with a trembling hand she set her golden box on the ground before the Throne.

A tremor of joy pulsed through the Heavenly Host as a smile broke out upon the Face of God. And then stepping down from the Throne, where he had been seated quietly watching at his Father's Right Hand, came the Lamb Who Had Been Slain.

The Prince of Heaven came forward and lifted the face of the young girl, the holes in his hands visible to all. The Image of the Invisible God spoke tenderly, with tears in his eyes, "Well done--very, very well done--my good and faithful servant."

And then the Lamb Who Had Been Slain stood and turned to the elect, each clutching at their golden box.

To these the Crucified One declared, "Depart into judgment, you who never knew me."

Thursday, May 3, 2012

As Open as the Outstretched Arms of Christ on the Cross: Moltmann on Open Communion

Last week I posted some thoughts about the practice of open communion. To add to that discussion I'd like to share some of the thoughts of Jurgen Moltmann from his book The Church in the Power of the Spirit (H/T to Tony Jones for making me aware of Moltmann's analysis awhile back).

In the book, after a theological discussion regarding the Lord's Supper, Moltmann discusses how that theology should "unpack" in the concrete practices of the Lord's Supper within the church (pp 258-260).

First, the Lord's Table must be central to the worship experience and the Lord's Supper should be practiced at every gathering: "The fellowship of the table must be central for the assembled congregation, just as much as the proclamation of the gospel...[The congregation] will celebrate this fellowship of the table at all its assemblies."

Second, the practice will be one of open communion:
Because this fellowship comes into being on the basis of Christ's unconditional and prevenient invitation, the fellowship will be an open one. It cannot limit Christ's invitation to its own account. Everyone can participate who wants to participate in the fellowship of Christ. The communion is the answer to Christ's open invitation...

Because of Christ's prevenient and unconditional invitation, the fellowship of the table cannot be restricted to people who are 'faithful to the church', or to the 'inner circle' of the community. For it is not the feast of the particularly righteous, or the people who think that they are particularly devout; it is the feast of the weary and heavy-laden, who have heard the call to refreshment. We must ask ourselves whether baptism and confirmation ought to go on counting as the presuppositions of 'admittance' to the Lord's supper. If we remember that Jesus' meal with tax-collectors and sinners is also present in the Lord's supper, then the open invitation to it should also be carried 'into the highways and byways'. It will then lose its 'mystery' character, but it will not become an ordinary, everyday meal for all that, because the invitation is a call to the fellowship of the crucified one and an invitation in his name to reconciliation with God..."
Earlier, Moltmann sets out the theological rationale for this "open invitation" (pp. 244-246):
...[I]t is the Lord's supper, not something organized by a church or a denomination. The church owes its life to the Lord and its fellowship to his supper, not the other way around. Its invitation goes out to all whom he is sent to invite. If a church were to limit the openness of his invitation of its own accord, it would be turning the Lord's supper into the church's supper and putting its own fellowship at the centre, not fellowship with him. By using the expression 'the Lord's supper' we are therefore stressing the pre-eminence of Christ above his earthly church and are calling in question every denominationally limited 'church supper'...

What is true of theology applies to church discipline as well. The Lord's supper is not the place to practise church discipline; it is first of all the place where the liberating presence of the crucified Lord is celebrated. But in many churches the admission of one person to communion is practically linked with the excommunication of others, so that the Lord's supper is preceded by a 'test' of the individual's worthiness or unworthiness...Christ's original feast of joy is then unfortunately transformed into a meal of repentance where people beat their breasts and gnash their teeth...

Life is more than knowledge about the laws of life; and in the same way the fellowship of Christ and fellowship with one another are more than knowledge about its conditions. The Lord's supper takes place on the basis of an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. Because he died for the reconciliation of 'the world', the world is invited to reconciliation in the supper. It is not the openness of this invitation, it is the restrictive measures of the churches which have to be justified before the face of the crucified Jesus. But which of us can justify them in his sight? The openness of the crucified Lord's invitation to his supper and his fellowship reaches beyond the frontiers of Christianity; for it is addressed to 'all nations' and to 'tax-collectors and sinners' first of all. Consequently we understand Christ's invitation as being open, not merely to the churches but to the whole world.
Let me pause to say, this is the vision that captures me when I think of open communion. Not to say there aren't other issues on the table, but this theological impulse trumps for me.

Third, as the meal is shared each person will "offer another bread and wine with Christ's words of promise." This brings us into the eschatological nature of the experience.

Fourth, the Supper will be shared with the congregation facing each other, seated around a table if at all possible: "The meal's character of fellowship is brought out when the person performing the liturgy stands behind the altar, so making it a table, and celebrates facing the people. It is demonstrated even more clearly when the congregation sits around a table."

Fifth, when possible, and preferably all the time, the Lord's Supper should be a part of an agape meal where everyone eats together: The Lord's Supper should be followed "by a common meal, and the proclamation of the gospel by a common discussion of people's real needs and the specific tasks of the Christian mission."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Evil and Evolution: Thoughts on Enns and Smith

In light of my post yesterday about evolution and Genesis and the conversation swirling around Peter Enns's new book The Evolution of Adam I'd like to point you to a review of Enns's book by James K.A. Smith at The Colossian Forum and a response to that review by J.R. Daniel Kirk at his blog Storied Theology.

I don't want to insert myself into that particular conversation, mainly because I don't think I can make much of a contribution in an exchange between two professionals on their own turf. I do, however, want to point you to the conclusion of Dr. Smith's review as it raises some issues I've wrestled with on this blog.

At the end of his review of Enns's book Smith turns to what he considers to be the root problem in trying to reconcile evolutionary history with the Christian faith. Specifically, this problem has less to do with how we read the bible--Should Genesis be read as literal history?--than with the theological problems evolution poses to orthodox theology. The main location of tension, according to Smith, has to do with the problem of evil.

Theologically, the doctrine of the Fall is doing a variety of things according to Smith. Primarily, the doctrine of the Fall makes the claim that humans are universally sinful and in need of a Savior. This is the part of the Fall that Enns focuses on in his book. The question he poses is straightforward: Do we really need to posit a historical Adam to make the claim that humans are universally implicated in sin? Enns's answer, given the Darwinian struggle inherent in evolution ("Nature red in tooth and claw") is that, no, we don't need to posit a historical Adam. Darwinian evolution could stand in for the Fall given that it is a process that would, in an unredeemed state, produce selfish and violent survival machines.

So far, so good. However, Smith goes on to note that the Fall isn't just trying to explain universal sinfulness. In addition to this, Smith argues, the Fall is also trying to explain the origins of evil. Critically, the Fall is making the claim that God is not the source and origin of evil. In this the doctrine of the Fall is a claim about the unmitigated goodness of God. Consequently, if we reject the Fall and claim that God "created" humanity via Darwinian evolution then we are left with the conclusion that God is the origin of evil. According to Smith that is the critical theological issue. The debate isn't about universal sinfulness, it's about the origins of evil and the goodness of God.

Here are the concluding paragraphs from Smith's review where he's making this point:
But it is in this context that I think Enns either misrepresents or misunderstands the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Fall and original sin. He speaks as if the doctrine of original sin was just an account of the cause of our universal human sinfulness (124)—and it is just this sort of causal claim that he thinks is untenable in light of evolutionary evidence for human origins. But Enns thinks we are free to abandon this causal claim associated with original sin and instead simply affirm universal sinful humanness—and hence the need for a Savior, thereby preserving the Gospel. We “must remain open on the ultimate origins of why all humans are born in sin (original sin) while resting content in the observation that all humans are born in sin (sin of origin)” (125).

Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Because if we don’t have an account of the origin of sin we will end up making God the author of evil—a thesis that has been persistently and strenuously rejected by the orthodox Christian tradition. Enns thinks he can save the Gospel by simply affirming universal human sinfulness without taking a stand on the origin of sin; but that is to fail to recognize that what’s at stake is the goodness of God. If God uses evolutionary processes to create the world and sin is inherent in those processes, then creation is synonymous with fall and God is made the author of sin—which compromises the very goodness of God. And if the goodness of God isn’t central to the Gospel, I don’t know what is. I don’t deny that this is an incredibly thorny issue; and this is not necessarily an apologetic for a “blow-by-blow” understanding of the Fall. I only point out that Enns’ account doesn’t recognize it as an issue. And that is a problem...
If you are a long time reader here you know I've been wrestling with this exact problem for many years. Specifically, given that I largely agree with how Enns reads the bible I have regularly struggled with how certain theological moves morph issues of soteriology into issues of theodicy. Smith has correctly pointed out that this is exactly what Enns has done in his book. Enns has solved the soteriological issues posed by evolution only to have created for himself (and for those who read the bible as he does) a suite of theodicy issues. In noting this I think Smith is exactly right.

So the question now becomes, what are we to do about this?

As I noted in yesterday's post, I don't know if there is anything that can be done about it. Smith is right: if you accept evolution the easy work is soteriological in nature. The harder work has to do with the theodicy questions that get thrown up. In noting this Smith is an excellent diagnostician. And I agree with his diagnosis. The trouble is, what if you find the scientific evidence convincing? Yes, you're going to have to, per Smith's diagnosis, confront the issues of theodicy. But if the scientific evidence is convincing to you, well, this is simply the theological path you have to travel. And, yes, how many travel on from this point may indeed lead them away from orthodox faith. (For example, you might handle the theodicy problems posed by evolution by adopting a process theology position.)

In light of this conundrum, let me conclude with two related thoughts that might split the difference between Enns and Smith.

First, Smith argues that the doctrine of the Fall is an attempt to explain the origins of evil. I disagree. I don't think the doctrine of the Fall is, at root, an explanation for the origin of evil (though it does do some work in this regard). In Genesis evil, in the form of the serpent, predates human sin. And regarding the origins of the serpent, evil and Satan the bible is pretty much silent. 

This silence provides some nice wiggle room for orthodox theology. The silence of the bible on this subject allows orthodox theology to retreat into "mystery" when questions of theodicy get too tough and too pointed. And that's handy.

But as I see it, that doesn't get orthodox theology off the hook. The questions are just as acute as they are for someone like Enns. The questions are just being dodged more artfully.

Enns, by contrast, has a bit of a different problem. Specifically, by getting into mechanisms and origins Enns is being much more specific. And in being so specific he lets the boogieman of theodicy out of the closet. Smith rightly notes this. Enns, being tied to a very specific scenario, can't play the mystery card so easily. But as I see it, Enns shouldn't get dinged on this account. By bringing theodicy to the forefront Enns isn't creating a problem. Rather, Enns is simply drawing attention to a problem that has always been there. A problem, in my opinion, that orthodox theology regularly sweeps under the rug.

This brings me to my second observation. At the end of the day, theodicy doesn't really boil down to the origins of evil. It boils down to this: Why'd God do it in the first place? Why, given how things turned out, did an all-knowing and all-loving God pull the trigger on Creation? Why'd God do it?

No one knows of course. Not Smith. Not Enns. Not me. My point here is simply to note that this is a live and acute question for everybody. So I think it right and proper for Smith to point this out for Enns. But the same question is pointed at orthodox theology and it doesn't have any better answers, just a "mystery" that allows it, often in cowardly ways, to retreat from answering the questions directly.

Theodicy has always been the root problem of Christian theology, orthodox or heterodox. There's no getting around that. The problem is no less acute here than there.

I don't care how you read Genesis.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Genesis and Evolution: Dealing With It

I've been reading a lot on Christian blogs about the subject of Genesis and evolution. A lot of this conversation has been spurred on by the recent publication of Peter Enns's new book The Evolution of Adam. I've been reading, as have many of you, a lot of comment threads where Christians are arguing back and forth. Should we read Genesis differently in light of evolutionary science? Or should we treat that science as provisional (only a "theory") and stick to a literalist reading of Genesis?

I don't have any great wisdom about this debate. Though I have experienced the tensions within the Christian community. For example, a few years ago I had a phone interview with a premiere evangelical university about me possibly applying for an endowed research position focusing on the integration of psychology and Christianity. During the interview with the chair of the search committee we got around to how the topic of evolution was approached on their campus. At one point I asked, "I've always wanted to write a book about the Sermon on the Mount in light of evolutionary psychology. Could I write that book at your school?" The answer, ultimately, was no.

There are two things that make me tired about this debate.

First, I don't see how it's going to get resolved. Like it or not, there are many Christians who have looked at the scientific evidence and have become convinced. So of course, in light of that, they need books like Peter Enns's to rethink how to approach texts like Genesis and Paul's use of Adam in the New Testament. Other Christians might not like that, might think that evolution isn't really a solid deal, but, hey, this conversation isn't for you. You don't have a problem in this particular regard so step away from the bar. Sure, you might express your worries from a distance that there are those within Christianity who are undermining the authority of Scripture. So what's new? More, your worry isn't helping. There are some Christians who, in order to maintain intellectual integrity, are going to need to read the bible a bit differently than you. Deal with it. It's par for the course. I mean, just flip through the Yellow Pages looking at all the churches in your town. Quit being such a whiner.

But on the other side are those friends of mine who are legitimately distressed by any accommodation to Mr. Darwin, particularly if it affects a literal reading of the bible. Not all these friends are scientific illiterates (Did you know that a whirlwind will not assemble a car by blowing through a junkyard?), some make erudite arguments about the provisional nature of science. Still, I find it hard to believe that they don't feel at least a smidge of tension when they look at the evidence or walk through a natural history museum. But then again, I don't expect everyone to see the world like I see it. So I deal with it.

Which brings me to my self-satisfied and schoolmarmish point. Why is everyone personalizing this? Some Christians are going to need books like The Evolution of Adam. Others will not. So why go at each other? The two groups have more in common than not. Because let's be honest, there is an atheist out there looking at both groups saying, "These Christians are crackpots."

I think we go at each other because everyone feels like a victim. The conservatives feel betrayed by the liberals, like we've gone over to the dark side. More, the conservatives don't like being painted as stupid, as theological country-bumpkins. Liberals, by contrast, don't like to be painted as anti-intellectual by secular intellectuals, and the country-bumpkins in the family are, well, just embarrassing. Like the redneck uncle at the family reunion. These people are giving the family a bad name, messing with my image.

So here's where I end up in this debate. If you believe in evolution, cool. You and I will have a lot of talk about. But if you don't believe in evolution, that's cool as well. I don't think you're an idiot and I appreciate you standing up for what you believe in.

At the end of the day, I'm dealing with it.
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