Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On Religious Freedom: Yours and Mine and Ours Together

Religious freedom in a secular democracy is a complex thing. It's no wonder we stumble around and stomp on each others' free exercise of it with some regularity. Perhaps the miracle is that we so frequently actually succeed in granting one another religious freedom.

We find ourselves in the present moment debating with considerable religious zeal new laws in Indiana and Arkansas dubbed Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. Because these laws are coming up in close proximity to new state and federal approaches to the freedom to marry, it is fairly clear what energizes some state governments to put these laws in place at this time.

 There's quite a lot of smoke and mirrors on all sides, so it's hard to get a handle on what precisely these new laws will do, if anything, different than the original Religious Freedom Restoration Act  passed by the federal government in 1993. Part of the reason we are debating all of this now is because states are enacting their own legislation, because the law passed in 1993 was found unconstitutional when applied to the states.

I have found these two articles especially helpful in understanding the complexity of the issues, and recommend to all readers of this blog:



Those are the longer legal explanations and analyses, and they are important. In what follows, I'm going to lay out how I think about this issue theologically and personally.

First of all, I am opposed to Indiana and Arkansas adopting these new laws. Since I live in Arkansas, I'd like to say very clearly, this is #notmyarkansas, and encourage everyone to sign the petition going to Governor Asa Hutchinson. Any legislation that increases the chances of discrimination rather than expanding anti-discrimination policies is a move in the wrong direction.

At the same time, I am sympathetic to those who are trying as best they can to protect the religious freedoms of their constituents. I for one am glad that our nation interprets the protection of religious freedoms very, very broadly. How to protect individual religious freedom is always complicated in specific instances, because our "free" exercise of religion often impinges on the "freedom" of others.

Take one example of a nation that I think got this wrong recently. France, in 2010, banned face coverings. They did so as a response to increasing numbers of women in France wearing niqabs as a part of their hijab. Many women who wear these are exercising their freedom of religious expression and specifically in a public context because the niqab is designed to be worn in public. France outlawed this practice. They also unintentionally outlawed all public face-coverings, including the masks mascots wear at ball games.

Interestingly, the law was passed, ostensibly, in order to protect the religious freedom of women, who were perceived to have been forced to wear the masks. So there were at least three religious freedoms at play in this instance: the religious freedom of the women, the religious freedom of France, a secular nation with secular values, and the religious freedom of men who as heads of households desired their wives to wear the niqab. The ensuing debates had various defenders and detractors of each form of religious freedom.

Also of interest in France was the fact that, at most, this law affected approximately 2000 women who traditionally wore such clothing. That's about .003% of the population of France. So we are talking about a secular state passing a law that affects an extremely small minority of the population.

Now let's return to U.S. soil. I am incredibly thankful that my neighbor who wears a niqab while out on a walk can do so legally. If my children have classmates in school who wish to wear one, I pray the school and state will protect their right to do so.

On the other hand, I can imagine times when I would be uncomfortable with someone wearing a face-mask. A man walking up to our school in the middle of the day with a ski mask on would worry me.

Similarly, the group of people who most benefited from the 1993 federal law were Native American communities, who were able to exercise greater tribal rights and protections as a result of the law. I am thankful for this.

But in a secular state, I do distinguish between businesses and individuals, tribal communities and individual religious believers. So in the present instance, my primary concern with the new laws Indiana and Arkansas are enacting is that they are extending free expression of religion to companies and businesses. That seems an odd move.

For example, I think I'm fine with the state protecting your right to decide who comes into your own home, your private residence. If you don't want somebody to come in who has a sexual orientation you find problematic to enter your domicile, I'd protect that. I'd still think you were a bigot.

But if you own a business, which is a public good and operates in the public sphere, I do not believe your business has the right to exclude people in the same way as free exercise of religion clauses protect you as an individual. I don't care if you disagree with interracial marriage on religious grounds. You still need to serve a couple who walks into your restaurant and wants to dine.

So you have your personal religious convictions, and I have mine, but then there are also our convictions together in the public sphere, and this is what we are working out in our debates around RFRA laws.

My bias is to protect minorities. Even this bias becomes complicated, but in states like Arkansas or Indiana, I am particularly concerned that the new laws will encourage and allow increasing levels of bigotry towards the LGBTQ community. I know, I know, the Christians who want to not serve LGBTQ people think they are the ones who are being persecuted and marginalized, but I just don't buy it. They are still the establishment, the ones in power. They passed the law in Arkansas, after all.

I do think, however, that we have a responsibility as citizens in a secular democracy to attempt to understand the religious convictions of others, even ones we disagree with. I need to find someone who doesn't want to serve LGBTQ clients in their store and learn from them why they believe what they do. We need to have a conversation. We're only going to be able to protect and expand all our religious freedoms if we seek mutual understanding.

This is why the polarizing nature of the current debate has me worried. It's as if we are completely talking past each other. The viral conversation between Governor Pence and George Stephanopolis is just one example of this complete misunderstanding and obfuscation.

And we have to recognize, which many seem to not recognize, that when we protect religious freedoms, we are never protecting all religious freedoms. Some things we think we should be able to do on religious grounds are illegal, and that's part of living in a nation with specific laws. You have your religion, and I have mine, but then we are all living together.

In a secular democracy, laws in general need to tend towards protecting the religious practices of others, rather than defending our own religion, the supposed religious perspective of companies or corporations, or the religion of the establishment. In the current instance, the new law in Indiana and the proposed law in Arkansas fails the test of disestablishmentarianism. Rather than protect religious freedoms, it enacts and protects a specific religious perspective.

I'm reminded of that famous line of Luther's from The Freedom of A Christian: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.” It's a paradox, but one worth plumbing the depths of.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

I opened this Bible commentary, and you won't believe what happened next...

I've had my hands on many biblical commentaries over the years. Individual volumes on specific books of Scripture. Solid blocks of commentary like the The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Ten Volume Set.

Of the making of many commentaries there is no end, and over time they tend to bend the bookshelves.

But no commentary has caught my attention or interest quite as quickly as the recent two-volume commentary from Fortress Press. If you are planning to update your personal or church library, want to get a gift for a seminarian, or just hope to enrich your reading of Scripture, I think this is the commentary you want to acquire.

Here's what the editors have to say about their own commentary: "As biblical scholars, we wish students of the Bible to gain a respect for the antiquity and cultural remoteness of the biblical texts and to grapple for themselves with the variety of their possible meanings; to fathom a long history of interpretation in which the Bible has been wielded for causes both beneficial and harmful; and to develop their own skills and voices as responsible interpreters, aware of their own social locations in relationships of privilege and power."

Towards this end, each volume begins with Topical Articles that set the stage on which interpretation takes place. These essays are particularly intriguing, focusing as they do on "the issues that arise when two different religious communities claim the same body of writings as their scripture, though interpreting those writings quite differently. Then the essays in the second volume "address the consequences of Christianity's historical claim to appropriate Jewish Scripture and to supplement it with a second collection of writings, the experience of rootlessness and diaspora, and the legacy of apocalypticism."

Following these topical essays, the commentaries have both Section Introductions and Commentary Entries, assisting readers with big picture issues of genre as well as specific insight into each book of Scripture.

I plan to read these commentaries straight through from beginning to end, something I haven't done with a commentary for quite some time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Powerful words from ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

"For he [Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us".
— Ephesians 2:14 
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We need to talk. In this month when we have commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March, we remain mindful of the many recent events in this country that prove we are not living in a post-racial society. I know it’s difficult to talk about race because too many Americans do not want to believe racism still exists in our country. Yet, as always, Christ promises to be alongside us, even in the most difficult of times, working for our reconciliation. Because of God’s promise, we can and must have a deep, honest and even painful conversation about racism.

I am writing to share with you a message that further explains the need for members of the ELCA, and all Americans, to talk about racism in honest and productive ways. Please read the entire message here. It contains a list of several resources and background materials that will help you and your congregations engage in this important conversation. I also invite you to view the video version of this message byclicking on the image to the right.

As a church called to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we must continue to listen deeply, to speak out about racial equity and inclusion, to respect and uplift the dignity and humanity of every person and to join with others in organizing for change. In baptism we have become part of the body of Christ, and in Christ there is no barrier between us. I pray that our Lord will use us and this moment to make this baptismal promise a reality in our lives and in this church.

God’s blessings,

Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop

For the full pdf of this article, as well as links to additional resources, click here: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Bishop_Message_RacialJustice.pdf

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton's video message: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YuMSc6XlzA&feature=youtu.be

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

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Supporting Migrants and Refugees

SFW header
Dear Clint, 

As Congress continues to hold multiple hearings and introduce numerous bills on the issue of immigration, one recurring theme has emerged: over-reliance on immigration enforcement. Unfortunately, the atmosphere around immigration in the House and the Senate has focused on changing existing laws in a way that removes critical protections for vulnerable migrants and newcomers seeking refuge.

This continuing "enforcement-only" attitude in Congress began with the multitude of hearings last week, and continues with three hearings this week. Instead of protecting vulnerable migrants seeking refuge and protection in the United States, or creating an immigration system that reunites families, we see a push to detain, prosecute, and deport more and more refugees and migrants, often without due process.

Main points from last week's immigration hearings in the House and Senate include:
In addition to these hearings, the House Judiciary committee passed four bills out of committee and on to the full House of Representatives that decrease protections for children and asylum-seekers and massively increase interior enforcement through detention and deportation. We will keep you updated on the progress of those bills.

This week we will see another series of hearings in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee on the issue of border security, including topics such as root causes of Central American migration and addressing future flows of migrants across the border.

The use of enforcement without revising the current broken immigration laws hurts millions of families, children, and asylum-seekers. Please visit our Action Center to send a message to your Member of Congress urging them to instead support protections for vulnerable populations, provide due process for all newcomers, and support humane and just enforcement that ensures the safety of our communities rather than indiscriminately tearing them apart.

It is in challenging moments like this, when migrants and refugees most need support in calling for compassion and justice. Thank you for standing for welcome.

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy

Monday, March 23, 2015

What is prayer anyway?

Most days, we all assume we know what prayer is. We often promise to pray for each other. We pray in worship. Some of us pray before meals or bed. Prayer are words or intentions directed towards God, much like words in a conversation.

Once we start to think about prayer, we start to realize prayer is a bit more mysterious than the other ways we converse. Take, as one example, the prayer we offer in public worship. We pray out loud to God and act as if God would respond. It's like a large role-playing event. We speak to God and act as if God will hear us. 

Prayer is, in this sense, real pretend.

Consider prayer some more, and we bump into other mysterious things in need of definition. Who is the God to whom we pray? What is God like? Who are we as prayers? And what is this thing "prayer" between us?

Because there is quite a long tradition in the church of emphasizing God's unchanging nature, theologians have struggled with what prayer does in God. Does prayer change God?

C.S. Lewis famously remarked, "I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me."

Okay, I understand that Lewis makes this statement with full sincerity, and out of deep faith. But I would offer that this is at least one way of understanding of prayer that I do not share.

If prayer doesn't change God, then it is nothing at all.

If prayer does something in God, then prayer is everything.

I tend to be of the persuasion that prayer does indeed do something in God, and so prayer really is everything.

I do not make this claim on metaphysical grounds. I imagine there are a variety of metaphysical considerations to work out here, important ones at that, and the traditional metaphysicians and the process philosophers will have to have their conversations and work out whether or not God is really unchanging, with the future all decided, or whether or not the future is open, mutually created by God and us in some fashion.

I'm more interested in the relationship, and the promise. Prayer is an invited relationship, encouraged by God and Christ, both of whom seek the words and petitions of the people with whom they have covenanted.

And prayer is promise... most clearly, Jesus promises that prayers will be heard, and they will change things.

Obviously, like any conversation, not everything we say in prayer will do the same thing in the one hearing the prayer. Prayer is not magic. Prayer is not command. Prayer is conversation, and all conversations have a give and take. There is a real person on both sides of the conversation.

So this is another thing, prayer assumes that God is a person.

And the kind of person God is is a person who keeps promises. God is faithful. So prayer is what we say to the one who we trust as completely faithful to us.

So I part ways with Lewis. Prayer obviously changes me. I can tell you stories of the ways meditation and prayer have changed me.

But if prayer is a relationship with a faithful other, a person available for our prayer, then prayer also changes God, not because God is in the abstract changeable or unchangeable, but precisely because God has promised to truly hear our prayers. Once you've heard something from outside yourself, you have already "changed." We are always made up of the network of our relationships. God is like this, we think.

So why is prayer everything? Well, if this is what prayer is like, then prayer is the substance of all things between us and God. Prayer is also already intrinsic to God in Godself. God is the kind of God who is always already interceding for us. Christians tend to say that it is Christ in the Spirit who is constantly interceding to the Father on our behalf. 

Our prayers simply join the prayers Christ is already lifting to the Father. Which makes them no less important... in fact it makes them all the more poignant, in the same way the sick or dying regularly report that the community that surrounds them in prayer has a powerful impact. Corporate prayer is a beautiful thing, and corporate prayer begins in God, and we join it.

It is great consolation indeed that even when we can't pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words (Romans 8:26). Prayer changes God even when we cannot... pray.

So who are we as the ones who pray? Well, apparently we are praying people. There are a lot of things humans are, and often we have defined ourselves by those things. We are homo sapiens (thinking ones). We are homo ludens (ones who play). We are homo habilis (tool users). 

But if prayer is everything, and we are praying ones, then we are more than anything else, homo orans (praying beings). 

If we are created in the image of God, and Christ is the restoration of the image of God in the human, then we discover our model for prayer, the one who prayed, so frequently, so confidently, that there was little else as important or as central. If anyone modeled prayer as everything, it was Christ, who was so regularly found in it. And if Christ prayed words asking God to hear and respond, then we might trust that in Christ, our prayers, joined to his, really are everything.

Personally, I begin this "everything prayer" in the daily prayer offices and the liturgy. I find it to be the case that joining these prayers makes me "more sensible of conditions." There are of course many other ways to pray, and much more of what we do is prayer than we know. Just yesterday evening, I think I fell asleep praying Thelonius Monk. As an example. But I do join us Annie Dillard in her perspective, with which I end, as I attempt to open us outward to the everything of prayer. Dillard writes,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thin ice freezes fast, then melts

Hike up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and about four hours from the trail head you'll come across some premium camp sites next to a pristine mountain lake. Bag some water and hang it from a tree to start filtering (you are guaranteed to be thirsty after such a climb), then set up tents, and build a fire. As the sun sets, it gets cold, and fast, even in the summer, and by morning, if you've chosen the right week and the right conditions, you'll wake up to a lake covered by a thin sheet of ice, almost hard enough to walk on if you dare, but thin and clear enough to note mountain fish just beneath the surface darting in the morning sun before the ice melts.

I always wonder, however on earth did fish come to be and survive here, at this altitude, under these conditions?

The same is true of a pond at the golf course here near our house in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Given the right conditions, a good snow and onset of cold can freeze the top of the pond, but sudden-like, so the clarity of the ice verges on glass. There's something deeply satisfying about launching snowballs out over the lake, only to watch them skitter in an explosive scatter out in all directions upon impact.

The joy of thin ice is its mutability. You can test it, break through it, reform it. In some instances, you can even break off large slabs and carry it around like window panes, licking as you go. Not that any four year olds I know have done this or anything. Or launch large portions of snowmen out to shatter ice and send patterning bubbles. Not that any dads I know have done this or anything.

Small bodies of water are always pleasant. Few parts of nature offer themselves so fully for exploration and pacific repletion. The number of rocks I have picked from the shore and cast across the surface of streams and ponds is beyond reckoning, and I often wonder what friendly sprites seem to return the best skipping rocks to shore again by morning-after to offer me the pleasure of casting them out again.

But there is really something about that thin sheet of ice. It's about the change that can happen overnight in a known body, a revealed entity, taking on a breakable rigidity that tempts our better natures and invites our vital curiosity. It's the same lake, always, yet transformed and wholly other by the selfsame particles present yesterday, rearranged by a simple change of temperature.

People and organizations change thus also. We tire and rest along their shore, and wake up to somebody/something else entirely. In some cases, the freezing is permanent. In other instances, it reveals a pond we never knew. But most of the time, it is the very same pond, just the conditions have changed.

We might approach change bringing the same curiosity real ice over mountain water elicits. Tread lightly. Test the weight. Experiment with the sparkle. Peer through inasmuch as the hardness is transparency. Fear the true cold. Expect beauty, because it is everywhere. Anticipate mud on the boots. Wipe it off on proximate snow.

The people I know tend to freeze up when conditions change dramatically. I am never my best self under stress. But in the moments of anxiety, at those times when I am most ill at ease, you also see clearly what I'm really made of.

The church is like this. The issue is never really the issue. Show up late afternoon, and the warmth of sun and freshness of air will invite pleasurable wading in cool liquid joy. Stay the night, cocooned in a bag with the food strung up to avoid bears, and in the morning, with only one thing changed--the temperature--the church sparkles with a fracturable veneer. Peter at the warming fire the night of Christ's crucifixion. Judas taking that bag of coins. Theudas and his quickly dissolving movement (Acts 5).

I think this is why I never bail on the church. The church is my mountain pond. I'm always ready for the next hike, to discover again as if for the first time its mutable rigidity. The church is funny like that, maintaining and sustaining accretions most other organizations drop more quickly, yet suddenly, when the temperature is right, measuring the prophetic out so appropriately that the shine of light from a ever so subtly frozen wave both blinds and illuminates, and underneath, that fish, a sign of life right in the place of impossibility.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Best Books to Read with Church Councils or Boards

I'm not sure why, but pastors like to inflict books on church councils. Leadership teams, already harried by the additional administrative responsibilities of serving on a board, seem less than likely candidates for lengthy reading assignments.

And yet somehow they do find time to read, and often toward decidedly productive ends. Those who lead probably benefit as much, if not more, from reading thoughtful literature on theology and ministry, because they have a role in which what they are learning applies, and book length treatments, when read, help them gain critical distance sufficient enough to peer in to their ministry with a modicum of objectivity.

So, in answer to one of the more frequently asked questions of clergy, "What have you read with your governing board?" I offer these resources culled from my own experience, or recommended to me by trusted colleagues.

1. My neighbor in ministry at the Episcopal church highly recommends Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers: Ministry Anytime, Anywhere, By Anyone. This book is designed to set ministry free, to create a permission giving culture in congregations. It can help boards stop bottlenecking ministry through control and regulation.

2. Increasingly I am hoping that our church, and many churches across the country, will engage their neighborhoods. This book is a leading resource focusing congregations in this direction: The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community

3. Too many churches focus so much of their energy for mission on reaching the kind of people already going to other churches. This is a "red ocean" strategy, competing with neighboring churches for the same set of people. Developing "blue ocean" strategies that reach new communities with the gospel requires creativity, not only in refocusing strategy, but building the systems and structures to accomplish it. Blue Ocean Strategy, Expanded Edition: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant

4. Some councils are hoping to reconnect to the source and ground of their faith. Rowan William's recent book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, is one of the more profound and succinct introductions to Christianity I have ever read.

5. I can't even begin to say how much I have been influenced by Luther Snow's thinking on asset-mapping. The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts

6. Sometimes I think leaders would benefit from insensitivity training. Any board that is guided too much by the anxiety of the system won't actually lead. I'm not sure there is a better guide to self-differentiation and leadership than Edwin Friedman, whose post-humous A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix is worth reading and re-reading.

7. Charles Lane's Ask, Thank, Tell: Improving Stewardship Ministry in Your Congregation offers the most practical framework for improving the three essential aspects of stewardship ministry: asking for gifts, thanking those who have given, and telling about the ministries that gifts have funded.

8. You don't have to buy a book. You could just read a blog post. Many pastor's do, including reading blog posts from Lutheran Confessions. Some especially popular ones include:




9. If you are looking for a very readable book that will also challenge the faith community to work towards reparations in multicultural relationships, look no further than Jennifer Harvey's Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Prophetic Christianity)

10. For a recent review of this last book, see By the Rivers of Babylon: Blueprint for a Church in Exile. There are many ways to be church in the world today, and traditional churches may benefit from hearing stories of alternative patterns for life of Christian life together.

11. For the handbook on board ministry that every council member needs but may not have received, see Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership

12. A colleague recently recommended Clif Christopher's because of its focus on finances and mission. Rich Church, Poor Church: Keys to Effective Financial Ministry

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

What Indeed Has Athens to Do With Jerusalem?

Or what indeed has New York City to do with Königsberg?

In the last few years I've been sticking my nose into works of philosophy. Although seminary was a heady exposure to deep stacks of theology I never anticipated but deeply loved, I've come to believe that theology has much to learn in its continuing engagement with philosophical discourse.

The tricky thing about theology--it always seems to wend its way back to foundational authors or periods. Almost all contemporary philosophy, at least most philosophy written in Europe or in English, eventually has to engage those Germans like Hegel and Kant because they "changed everything."

Much the same can be said of a few German philosophers of the 20th century, Heidegger in particular. As uncomfortable as we are with Heidegger's politics, it's pretty difficult to get around engaging Heidegger. Similarly, if you want to do political theology, you have to come up against the juridical philosophy of Karl Schmitt. 

In point of fact, as Jacob Taubes points out, Schmitt's work on political theology (infused as it was with anti-Semitism) was influential even in the drafting of the Israeli constitution.

In Christian theology, we have this anxiety of influence of a peculiar kind--basically all of our theology has been formed in conversation with the philosophy of the Greeks (the Church Fathers engaged Plato and Aristotle as an alternative to and denunciation of the mythology and liturgies of Greek mythology; Thomas Aquinas organized Christian theology around Aristotelian metaphysical categories). 

So as early as Tertullian, Christian theologians were engaging Greek metaphysics and wedding it to the biblical worldview, while all the time questioning the enterprise.

As a reader whose impulse at least quite a bit of the time is to engage the footnotes, to dig down into sources, to consider how and why concepts emerge, I sometimes end up frustrated. Is it really the case that in order to think about philosophy in an era of post-colonialism and globalization, do I really still have to go back to Kant and Hegel? To think about the philosophy of technology, can't I dig into some other source than Heidegger?

The Unavoidability of Influence

The answer, unfortunately, is no. Some of these sources are so influential, so embedded in all our discourse and thinking, that there simply is no end run around them. One can only go through and beyond them, and continually back to them.

The issue with the original question of Tertullian--"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"--is essential if complicated. As posed, the question implies that one can distinguish between a pure Athens and a pure Jerusalem. Athens represents a uniform Greek philosophy. Jerusalem represents a completely separate and distinguishable Hebraic worldview. 

But are the two so distinguishable? Wasn't Jerusalem a meeting place for many cultures? Remember the Pentecost event, where Jews from many nations were gathered for trade and witnessed a new wind of the Spirit speaking through the disciples. Even prior to this, Hebrew culture was always infused and mingled with neighboring religions and thought-forms. From Solomon's wives to the exile in Babylon, from the references in Genesis to other early ancient texts to the Greek shift in the apocrypha (not to mention the transition from the Hebrew bible to the Septuagint as the primary source for theological reflection even among Jewish theologians), Greek and Hebrew culture were always already overlapping well before the Church Fathers began reading Aristotle.

Similarly, wasn't Athens a meeting place of many faiths? Paul tours the city and discovers shrines to so many gods that one shrine is even set up to an unknown god. And as already mentioned, Greek philosophy itself was not homogenous. Some types of philosophy were worked out in the theater and the temples, the philosophy of the gods and the tragedies. Another world of thought developed among the pre-Socratic philosophers and the three great philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (and perhaps also Plotinus). 

The Danger of Influence

There are some dangers of unrecognized influence. The newer of the philosophies, the one brought into to contemporize the original, can risk co-opting the center of the philosophy one is trying to pristinate. This is a concern in many contexts. For example, post-colonial philosophers are rightly concerned that continual reference to European philosophy is a continuation of colonialism. After the Shoah, we are right to be concerned about the continuing of influence of anti-Semitism and National Socialism in the philosophy of Heidegger. 

Or in a more modern context, to what degree should we be concerned about the life and values of the authors we read, such as the problem of John Howard Yoder's abuses in relationship to his pacifist theology, not to mention his influence on many theologians who have come after him?

So the awareness of influence is critical. But along with awareness should come the recognition that avoiding influence is impossible. It is how we live into influence that matters, rather than the whether of influence.

This is how Christianity works

One of the unique marks of Christianity is its translatability. The Bible, the Scripture of our tradition, existed as a holy book first in Hebrew, then in Greek, and later even in Latin. Over time, it has been translated into most of the world's languages, and that translation work is ongoing. Some of our best global theologians recognize translation as a crucial mark of our faith

Indigenizaton of the faith is central to the spread of Christianity throughout the world, but indigenization has never functioned well by abandoning the cultural underpinnings of the Christianity being indigenized. For example, although there was some talk in the early church about dropping the Old Testament as Scripture, this heresy (Marcionism) was finally rejected by the church, because the church councils recognized that it was the cultural interplay between the older Scriptures and the newer Greek writings that was itself essential to a robust Christian theology.

You can't just replace a culture with Christianity, or add it onto it. Rather, Christianity develops within a new culture as gospel because it was already an intercultural conversation before it ever engaged a new culture in faithful and missionary conversation.

So when Scripture is translated well into new cultures, translators don't bracket off the New Testament and tack it onto the scriptures of the cultures into which they are translating (although some have attempted this). Instead, translators bring the Scriptures as a whole to the communities, and it is the interplay of Jerusalem and Athens, then in conversation with the third culture into which the faith is being translated, that becomes the living dynamic of the faith as it reaches more and more nations.

Canon, Creed, and the Development of Doctrine

All of this is very important because each form of Christianity we experience today, without exception, is a living tradition precisely because Athens and Jerusalem do have something to do with each other. In Western Christianity, this is primarily through the reciprocal developmental relationship between the canon (Scripture) and the creed. In this understanding, the creeds are not abusive expropriation of Scripture as accommodation to Western modes of thinking. Instead, they are the very way Scripture is lived and indigenized in the culture. 

This is why, over time, Christianity was able to move to new centers, from Athens to Rome, from Jerusalem to Constantinople, from Constantinople to the third Rome, Moscow. And now we might add, to great Christian cities of the global south, like Buenos Ares or Lagos. There is not a higher, more universal Christianity to which we can appeal that transcends these specific places. Even Christian traditions in North America who believe they "just read the Bible" still have centers for their theological developments, such as Dallas, or Pasadena. 

Doctrine develops in and through these specific places, not above them. Philosophy is always the philosophy of somebody, some school, not a transcendent sphere above the fray of cultural engagements. Every philosophy has not only authors, but cities.

Back to Philosophy

So why does this matter? Well, for one, because nobody made a better run at developing a philosophy of technology than Heidegger, and he did so by engaging the philosophy of the Greeks. You can consider technology by way of other philosophers, but you'll be lacking an important dialogue partner. Contemporary theologians considering technology in religious perspective acknowledge this, and work with Heidegger's thought. Perhaps the preeminent example currently is Brian Brock's Christian Ethics in a Technological Age.

Similarly, many philosophers and theologians attempting to navigate the shift to a post-secular society know that part of their work is continual engagement with the philosophers who created the conditions for the possibility of modern secularities, especially Hegel and Kant. So Roger Scruton's recent work, The Soul of the World, on the sacred in face of atheist options, engages Hegel in almost every chapter. He didn't set out to write a book about Hegel. But his project is best accomplished with Hegel as continual lodestar.

Personally, I'm particularly interested in this history of influence because I am captivated by the notion that we are now living in a world of multiple secularities, so indigenization of Christian faith in secularit(ies) entails close attention to the philosophers who first assisted in distinguishing the secular from the sacred, and then perpetuated or even deepened the tendency.

We simply cannot pretend that post-secularity isn't upon us. This isn't an option. The only option is to consider what it means to live in a world where various religious and secular options really are that for us, options. 

Remembering Tertullian, I agree with James McGrath, who observes, "Tertullian himself provides a wonderful example of the fact that denying a connection puts one in a situation in which one is likely to make just such a connection without realizing it." Similarly, I think attempts to do philosophy without reference to the Greeks, or theology without reference to the influence of Athens, is likely to accomplish making such connections without realizing it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Advocate for Migrant Children and Asylum Seekers

Today and tomorrow, this Subcommittee will take the next step towards passing these bills.SFW header
Dear Faith Advocates, 

When we last wrote to you, the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security of the House of Representative’s Judiciary Committee was preparing to debate four pieces of legislation that would strip protections for migrant children traveling alone, harm migrants and the communities that welcome them, and create unnecessary barriers for people seeking asylum. Today and tomorrow, this Subcommittee will take the next step towards passing these bills.

The 4 bills that the Subcommittee will consider are:
This is not the first time we have seen these legislative ideas, many of which are mean-spirited and unwelcoming, as similar bills were also introduced in the last session.  Rather than spend time and energy on these bills, we believe Congress should work to enact legislation that keeps families together, protects children, migrants, refugees and other vulnerable persons.
Please join us in telling Congress that the faith community stands together to oppose these bills in any form. We invite you to add your voice today by:
  • Calling your Representative at 202-224-3121. Here’s a sample of what to say:
“I’m from (city, state, congregation/community) and as a person of faith, I urge Rep. [NAME] to oppose any proposal that strips protections for migrant children fleeing violence, creates barriers for asylum seekers, or expands the use of immigration detention.  Please oppose such proposals including the Michael Davis Jr., in Honor of State and Local Law Enforcement Act, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, and the Protection of Children Act. I urge Rep. [NAME] to instead support legislation that protects vulnerable migrants and refugees seeking protection in the U.S."
".@(your representative) As a person of faith from (your district/city) please oppose H.R. 1148, 1149, 1153. Protect migrant kids & asylum seekers!"
  • Taking action at LIRS’s Action Center to send a message to members of the House Judiciary Committee urging them to stand with people of faith in opposing legislation that harms vulnerable migrants seeking safety.
Thank you for letting Congress know that people of faith believe migrants and refugees should be welcomed not endangered.

Stay tuned for further updates and as always, thank you for standing for welcome.

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Hoping against the cross

This morning, because of the ice storm and worship cancellations, I had time to experiment with a new video app. I think I'm going to go crazy using Vittle now that I've experimented with it a bit. It's seamless from production to posting. It's definitely a WOW! app.


Here's the video, a "visual sermon" on Romans 4:

Hoping against the cross from Clint Schnekloth on Vimeo.