Sunday, July 26, 2020

An integrated reading of Paul

I have now finished reading Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul's Theology and Spirituality by Michael J. Gorman

It is certainly one of the best and most influential theology books I have read over the past year. My theology reading group is an eclectic bunch and I think this may be the only book that every person in the book has liked!

A key signature of Gorman's approach and thinking may be that it is integrated and multi-faceted. He is not reductionist, into either/or categorization, and avoids false dichotomies. For example, the following paragraph may be representative.
For Paul the inseparability of justification and justice is critical,... The community of the justified is the community of the just, which is the community of those being transformed and glorified and recreated all in Christ. 
These are not different, competing soteriologies even quasi-independent slices of one soteriological pie. Rather they are intimately interconnected dimensions of one soteriological reality, such that one aspect to not be fully or adequately articulated without reference to the others. 
A comprehensive term or phrase is needed, or at least helpful, to keep these dimensions integrated... "corporate, cruciform, resurrectional, missional theosis,"... 
(italics are his, page 233-4).

The above occurs at the end of chapter 9, in which Gorman connects three passages from 2 Corinthians, to argue that the concept of theosis is central to Paul's theology and spirituality. Gorman considers the central verses for each of the passages are the following.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (3:18) 
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness [justice] of God.(5:21) 
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.(8:9)
The last verse is in the context of Paul's appeal to the Corinthian church to contribute to the financial collection for the poor in the Jerusalem church. 

``5:21 is a bridge from the heavenly glory of 3:18 to its practical, even mundane, embodiment in 8:9.'' It is "Theosis on the Ground: Cruciform Economic Justice."

I think such an integrated perspective is needed to avoid getting trapped in rigid dichotomies such as individual/community, faith/works, life/doctrine, predestination/free will, faith/reason, spirituality/mission, ....

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Redemption from words

My wife and I enjoyed watching the movie The Professor and The Madman. It is based on the fascinating story of the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary, focusing on the contributions of and the relationship between the editor James Murray and William Chester Minor. Minor is in a prison for the "criminally insane" as a result of a murder he committed.

I found it quite striking and beautiful is how the issue of forgiveness and redemption thread through the story. How can a murderer find redemption? Can his victim's family forgive him?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

How the cross shapes the Christian life

For the next three monthly meetings of the theology reading group we will be discussing Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul's Theology and Spirituality by Michael J. Gorman

In the first chapter, Gorman introduces the book by making the case for 13 propositions. Here I list the ones that I found particularly interesting and helpful.

        The Cross
3. The cross is not only the definitive revelation of Christ and of God (i.e., it is both Christophany and theophany) but also the definitive revelation of what humans and the church are to be.
4. The cross is not only the source but also the shape of our salvation, and cross-shaped living (cruciformity) means that all Christian virtues and practices are cruciform: faith/faithfulness, love, power, hope, justice, and so forth.
6. Cruciformity/Theoformity is a matter not of imitation but of transformative participation: being in the Messiah/Spirit and having the Messiah/Spirit within (mutual indwelling).   
 Dying and rising with Christ  
10. Paradoxically, cruciform (cross-shaped) existence is also resurrectional (resurrection-suffused) cruciform ministry because the death of the messiah means life for all who share in that death.   
11. The church is called not merely to believe the gospel but also to become the gospel and thereby to advance the gospel, the church is a living exegesis of the gospel.  
12.  Becoming the gospel means embodying the missional practices of love, peacemaking, reconciliation, restorative justice, forgiveness, non-violence, and so on that correspond to what God has done in the Messiah. 
13.  To be in the Messiah is to be in community, to be in mission, and to be in trouble (persecuted) - simultaneously.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

What do we learn from the history of epidemics?

An epidemic provides a mirror on society: its values, its strengths, and its weaknesses. This idea is emphasized by Frank Snowden, a historian at Yale University. Last year he published “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present,” and there is an insightful interview with him in The New Yorker, ``How Epidemics Change History''.
Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.

[an epidemic]  raises really deep philosophical, religious, and moral issues. And I think epidemics have shaped history in part because they’ve led human beings inevitably to think about those big questions. The outbreak of the plague, for example, raised the whole question of man’s relationship to God. How could it be that an event of this kind could occur with a wise, all-knowing and omniscient divinity? Who would allow children to be tortured, in anguish, in vast numbers? It had an enormous effect on the economy. Bubonic plague killed half the population of full continents and, therefore, had a tremendous effect on the coming of the industrial revolution, on slavery and serfdom.
David Brooks in the New York Times also picked up on this idea of the mirror, reflecting on the impact of the 1918 flu epidemic in the USA.
In Philadelphia, the head of emergency aid pleaded for help in taking care of sick children. Nobody answered. The organization’s director turned scornful: “Hundreds of women … had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy. … Nothing seems to rouse them now. … There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back.” 
This explains one of the puzzling features of the 1918 pandemic. When it was over, people didn’t talk about it. There were very few books or plays written about it. Roughly 675,000 Americans lost their lives to the flu, compared with 53,000 in battle in World War I, and yet it left almost no conscious cultural mark. Perhaps it’s because people didn’t like who they had become.
There is a fascinating chapter, ``Epidemics, Networks, and Conversions,'' in The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, by Rodney Stark.  Pagans fled Rome during epidemics. Christians stayed and cared for the sick, including pagans abandoned by their families.
Here is the Wikipedia summary.
In a time of two epidemics (165 and 251) which killed up to a third of the whole population of the Roman Empire each time, the Christian message of redemption through sacrifice offered a more satisfactory explanation of why bad things happen to innocent people. Further, the tighter social cohesion and mutual help made them able to better cope with the disasters, leaving them with fewer casualties than the general population. This would also be attractive to outsiders, who would want to convert. Lastly, the epidemics left many non-Christians with a reduced number of interpersonal bonds, making the forming of new ones both necessary and easier.

Monday, April 13, 2020

N.T. Wright on the coronavirus

Time magazine published a nice article by N.T. Wright,
Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To.

Some of his main points are expanded upon in this video interview.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What Big Questions might we ask?

Last week I watched a fascinating Virtual Veritas Forum, Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions can we be asking?

It brings together a range of perspectives. My only concern is that it is very USA-centric.

Springboarding off that discussion, here are some questions I hope will receive attention in the coming years.
A fascinating and challenging aspect of these questions is that they need to be addressed with multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary approaches. The crisis brings together issues that span microbiology, public health, mathematical modeling, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, ethics, philosophy, and theology.
Many of the questions need to be asked and discussed at multiple scales; e.g., by individuals, institutions, cities, nations, and globally.

Some of the questions have been grappled with by many smart people and societies for decades or even millennia. But, broader modern society often does not discuss them.

I list the questions in random order.

How do epidemics start, spread, and end?

How do we manage risk, balancing near certainties and ignorance?

How do governments balance the ``common good'' with protecting individual freedoms?

How do you balance medical, financial, economic, and social considerations in allocating resources to patients?

When is the ``medicine'' worse than the ``disease''?

How do you balance the future needs of the young with the current needs of the elderly?

Will the current chaos and uncertainty in the Western world make us more empathetic and willing to learn from those in the Majority World who live with such calamities on a regular basis?

What do such events reveal about human nature: values, morality, mortality, rationality, relationality?

How do you balance fear, despair, lament, hope, optimism?

Why does God allow suffering?

In what sense are calamities such as this a reflection of God's judgement? or of God's mercy?

What are appropriate responses (from the theological to the practical) of Christians to events such as this?

Why are we so afraid of death?

I welcome your own questions.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Presence of the Kingdom by Jacques Ellul

Due to the coronavirus, we postponed this month's theology reading group. Many of us are over 60 and some have health conditions and so it is wise we do not meet in person. Nevertheless, we will try and have our first virtual meeting and discuss, The Presence of the Kingdom by Jacques Ellul.

Here I will just aim to provide a summary of what I think are some of the main ideas, largely for my own benefit. A better summary has been given by Tom Grosh.
Some excellent quotes from the book are here.

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  (Romans 12:2).

Chapter 1. The Christian in the World
Christians are called to be ``salt and light'' and influence the world in which they live. However, if they need to avoid abstractions but have a concrete engagement. But, the world has a ``will to death'' [i.e. it is intrinsically self-destructive].

Chapter 2. Revolutionary Christianity
``In order to preserve the world, it is actually necessary that a genuine revolution should take place.''
The world is hankering for revolution, whether from the political left or right. However, these proposed revolutions will be ineffective because they are largely about ``action'', contested ``facts'' [conceptions of reality?] and one group gaining power over another group which is ``evil.''
Christianity is truly revolutionary. Central to this is the ``style of life''.
Christians live in two cities [cf. Augustine], the city of man and the city of God. Everything has to viewed in light of the eschaton: the return of Jesus, the final judgment and establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Chapter 3. Ends and Means
In the world, people no longer debate whether the ends justify the means. Rather they are solely preoccupied with the means. An example is the world's obsession with `technique' (i.e. efficiency) and `progress'. For a Christian, the end is the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).

Perhaps, Ellul would say that politics is not about working towards a particular vision of society, but rather solely about getting and keeping power. The modern economy is not about creating prosperity for the benefit of many, but rather just about making money (and more money) and getting possessions for the sake of it. In a communist society, it is all about the workers controlling the ``means of production'' and producing things.

Chapter 4. Problem of Communication
This concerns the role of the Christian intellectual. They need to engage with the lives of regular people in order to understand what is actually happening in the world (what is the reality?) and to communicate with them. Evaluation and understanding of the current `epoch' is central to the calling of the Christian intellectual.

Some general comments. I am really glad I read the book. However, it is at times heavy going and rambling. The first half of the book I read in the middle of the night a few times when I woke up and wanted to go back to sleep... I had to go back and reread a lot of the book. At times I felt it was rather abstract. Meanwhile, he ranted against abstractions, resisted being pinned down as to what ``action'' we should take and providing ``how to'' lists. At times, I felt he was a bit ``dogmatic'' and asserting that certain things were ``obvious''. Although, I agreed with his point of view I do not think this helps convince those who differ. In fairness, some of these concerns may be moderated by the difficulty of translation and of what was ``normal'' in French intellectual circles in the 1960s.