Cosmic piety

There’s a lot going on in Douglas Ottati’s Theology for Liberal Protestants–much more than I’m going to be able to cover in a blog post (or several). But as I’m nearing the end of the book, I think what will stick with me most is Ottati’s insistence on a cosmic theocentric piety.*

What does this mean? Mainly it’s about adjusting our theology and piety to the size and scope of the universe as modern science has revealed it. Christians often pay lip service to this, have we really adjusted our worldview accordingly? Many of us still think of humanity as the crowning achievement of creation, if not indeed the very reason for the creation of the entire cosmos. And we think of God’s activity as centered on the human race.

But this just isn’t realistic given what we know about the universe and our place in it. The universe is billions of years old and contains probably hundreds of billions of galaxies, themselves containing countless trillions of stars (the Milky Way alone contains something on the order of 400 billion stars) and, potentially, life-bearing planets. Add to this the fact that in all likelihood the human race will go extinct (quite possibly as the result of a self-inflicted wound) long before the universe itself winds down into a heat death or some other unimaginable final state. Taking these facts into account, it’s very heard to see humanity as particularly important to the cosmic drama. As Ottati puts it:

If all the cosmos is a stage, then it is far too vast and complex for us to plausibly consider it the stage for human history alone. Indeed, given the vast expanse of the cosmos, the staggering cosmic time frames, the astounding number of stars, planets, and meteors, the gases, chemicals, ice, and dust scattered through space, and so forth, perhaps the appropriate analogy is not a single stage but a world with many different venues, theaters, stages, and shows in many regions, cities, hamlets, and towns. (p. 227)

For Ottati, God is both the ground of the universe’s existence and the source of the processes that give it structure and coherence. And within this cosmos, humanity may be one of many “players,” and not a particularly central one. What we should hope for, he says, is a “good run”–we have our “place and time” to live out as participants in a vast, complex, cosmic ecology.

This prompts the shift from an anthropocentric to a theocentric perspective. If humans are displaced from the center of the cosmic drama, the cosmic ecology as a whole can nonetheless be seen as having value for God and as being a product of the divine creativity. This doesn’t mean that human beings don’t have a special value, but it’s as “good creatures with distinctive capacities,” not the “fulcrum . . .  of all creation.” The proper religious response to this is to understand ourselves as participants in the cosmic ecology and ultimately as dependent on God as its mysterious ground and source. As Ottati summarizes it, the “chief end and vocation of human life” is “to participate in true communion with God in community with others” (p. 306).

The second, yet-to-be-published volume of Ottati’s theology will cover the traditional topics of sin, redemption, and eschatology. I’m intrigued to see how he reconciles these more down-to-earth (so to speak) topics with the wider, cosmic perspective he develops here.
*By “piety” Ottati means a pattern of sensibility or a general orientation toward God, self, and world.

Augustinian, Protestant . . . and Liberal?

I like that Presbyterian theologian Douglas Ottati is willing to go to bat for the much-maligned tradition of liberal Protestantism in his recent book (which I’ve just started reading). Liberal Protestantism is pretty unfashionable in theological circles these days. From what I can tell, it’s much cooler to be “post-liberal,” “post-conservative,” “postmodern,” “Barthian,” “Radical Orthodox,” or even just “progressive.”

But Ottati thinks that liberal Protestantism–while probably never destined to be a majority view within Christianity–provides a vital minority position that’s still worth defending. He says that liberal Protestants often know what they stand for in social and ethical debates, but that they currently lack solid theological underpinnings. That’s what he’s trying to provide in this book.

Ottati points out that there’s no such thing as a “generic” liberal theology: it has to be rooted in a specific tradition. He describes the tradition he’s working in as “Augustinian-Protestant-liberal.” It’s Augustinian in emphasizing the priority of grace and the profundity of human sin; Protestant in denying the infallibility of church or tradition; and liberal in making engagement with contemporary modes of thought and social reform central.

I’m only about 50 pages into the book, but I’ve found it really engaging so far. (It helps that Ottati is a wonderfully clear writer.) I’ve long resisted identifying as a liberal Protestant, but if I’m being honest, it’s probably the tradition within Christianity that I stand closest to.

UPDATE: I originally wrote that Ottati characterizes his theology as “Augustinian, Reformed, and Liberal.” It should be “Protestant,” not “Reformed.” I’ve corrected the post.

The canal and the river

God does not conduct His rivers, like arrows, to the sea. The ruler and compass are only for finite mortals who labour, by taking thought, to overcome their limitations, and are not for the Infinite mind. The expedition demanded by man’s small power and short day produces the canal, but nature, with a beneficent and picturesque circumambulancy, the work of a more spacious and less precipitate mind, produces the river. Why should we assume that, in all the rest of His ways, He rejoices in the river, but, in religion, can use no adequate method save the canal? The defence of the infallible is the defence of the canal against the river, of the channel blasted through the rock against the basin dug by an element which swerves at a pebble or firmer clay. And the question is whether God ever does override the human spirit in that direct way, and whether we ought to conceive either of His spirit or of ours after a fashion that could make it possible. Would such irresistible might as would save us from all error and compel us into right action be in accord either with God’s personality or with ours?

–John Oman, Grace and Personality

I made a similar point, more prosaically, here.

“Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics?

I said in my previous post that some Christians might be worried by the fact that Ward’s Morality, Autonomy, and God doesn’t appeal to the Bible or specifically Christian revelation. Shouldn’t Christian ethics be informed by convictions specific to Christianity?

In his book Behaving in Public, Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar takes a position that is similar to Ward’s, but is in some ways more satisfactory (in my view) because he is more willing to draw on specific Christian doctrines. Like Ward, Biggar affirms a version of natural law:

To affirm natural law, then, should be to affirm the following: that there is a form of flourishing that is given in and with the nature of human being; that reflection on human nature can achieve an understanding of that flourishing and its component basic goods; that reflection on human experience can produce a grasp of kinds of disposition and action that respect and promote those goods; that all human beings are, despite their sinfulness, somewhat capable of an accurate grasp of basic goods and their practical requirements; and that, therefore, there are sometimes areas of ethical agreement between Christians and others.

However, Biggar also says that “revelation and faith” add both motivational and cognitive content to ethics:

None of this, however, makes the Christian theological salvation-narrative ethically irrelevant. It does not say that sinful humans have the motivation to do sufficiently what they know to be right, apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires. Nor does it say that they have the power, unaided by biblical tradition, to know completely what is good, what is virtuous, or what is right.

Like Ward, Biggar thinks that the hope for “postmortem fulfillment” can make moral aspirations more reasonable: “the presence or absence of theological faith and hope can determine what seems morally ‘reasonable.'” Yet, Biggar doesn’t appeal to a generic theism, but to specifically Christian revelation. An implication of this revelation is that there are certain goods beyond those identifiable by “natural” reason which are an intrinsic part of human fulfillment–goods like religious practices “designed to reverse our alienation from God.” In addition, God’s “revealed salvific ethic also involves a certain way of responding to injuries that other sinners cause: namely, through ‘forgiveness’ in the forms of forbearance and compassion and a will to reconciliation.” Although there can be agreement about temporal goods necessary to a relatively just society, the overlap between Christian ethics and other traditions within a pluralistic society will be “partial and provisional.”

I doubt Ward would disagree with much of that (he is, after all, a Christian); but an appeal to an unqualified or abstract “theism” obscures distinctive Christian doctrines and practices and elides the differences between Christianity and other theistic religions. For Biggar, the distinctive goods and  norms of action prescribed by Christianity derive their force from its specific salvation story. This isn’t an optional extra, but an integral part of what it means to do Christian ethics.

(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.

Evolution, Adam, Paul, and the Gospel

I’m not sure I was part of the target audience for Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, but I still got a lot out of it. Enns reviews the scholarship around the composition and authorship of the creation story, as well as its historical context, and argues that the Adam story (i.e., the version of the creation story found in Genesis 2 and the story of the fall in Genesis 3) simply isn’t trying to answer the question of human origins in the way that a scientific account would.

Rather, the creation story (and the OT more generally) is, Enns says, an exercise in Israelite national and theological self-definition in light of competing religions and a history of unfaithfulness, exile, and calamity. In particular, the Genesis creation story can be read as responding to the similar (though also very different) creation stories of the surrounding cultures (Egyptian, Babylonian, etc.), and enunciating the distinctive Israelite view of who God is.

Placing Genesis in its ancient Near Eastern setting strongly suggests that it was written as a self-defining document, as a means of declaring the distinctiveness of Israel’s own beliefs from those of the surrounding nations. In other words, Genesis is an argument, a polemic, declaring how Israel’s God is different from all the other gods, and therefore how Israel is different from all the other nations. (p. 6)

If this is right, Enns says, there is no inherent conflict between Genesis and evolution: the accounts are simply answering different questions.

Christians today misread Genesis when they try to engage it, even minimally, in the scientific arena. Rather, they must follow the trajectory of the postexilic Israelites and ask their own questions of self-definition as the people of God: In view of who and where we are, what do these ancient texts say to us about being the people of God today? (p. 33)

However, things are a bit different when we come to Paul. Enns notes that Adam doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the OT, and there is certainly no developed theory of “original sin.” Moreover, later Jewish tradition creatively interpreted the Adam story in a variety of ways, many at variance with what became the standard Christian version.

But Paul does seem to think (as demonstrated most clearly in Romans) that Adam was the first human being, historically speaking, and that his disobedience has infected the rest of humanity. For Paul, Adam’s transgression is the cause of sin and death—the predicament from which we are delivered by God’s great act in Jesus. Thus, many have argued, Paul’s gospel only makes sense if there was a historical Adam and a historical fall.

But this is too quick. As Enns argues, Paul is working backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus, not forward from a theory of original sin. Paul’s reading of the Adam story is not a “straight” reading, but a creative reinterpretation in light of the crucified and risen Messiah (as was much of his use of the OT). As Enns puts it:

In making his case, Paul does not begin with Adam and move to Christ. Rather, the reality of the risen Christ drives Paul to mine Scripture for ways of explicating the wholly unexpected in-breaking of the age to come in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God. Adam, read as “the first human,” supports Paul’s argument about the universal plight and remedy of humanity, but it is not a necessary component for that argument. In other words, attributing the cause of universal sin and death to a historical Adam is not necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a fully historical solution to that problem. To put it positively, as Paul says, we all need the Savior to deliver us from sin and death. That core Christian truth, as I see it, is unaffected by this entire discussion. (p. 81)

I’ve tried to make a similar point before. I don’t think that when people responded to Jesus it was because they saw him as a  solution to “the Adam problem.” They experienced a concrete liberation from something that oppressed them: illness, possession, guilt, etc. This experience of liberation was not contingent on some prior theory about the origins of sin, suffering, and death. The Adam story can powerfully express the universal human predicament, but we needn’t take it as history to make sense of the Gospel.

All truth is God’s truth

I liked this post from Rachel Held Evans in which she rebuts critics who say that those who propose revisions to traditional church teachings are merely trying to “conform to the world.” She points out that many of the calls for change on matters like gender roles, the relationship between science and the Bible, and sexuality are coming from inside the church, from Christians reflecting on their experience and on new information about the world.

Nonetheless, I’d like to lodge one small disagreement (or maybe just a difference of emphasis). I think RHE*, implicitly at least, may be conceding too much ground to her critics.

In principle, there’s no reason to think that new insights (into morality, for example) must come from within the church. On the assumption that morality arises from reflection on human nature and that reason is a faculty shared by people of every faith (and none),** we should expect that new knowledge would often come from outside the Christian community. The church doesn’t have a monopoly on truth, and when truths are discovered outside its purview, Christians ought to be willing to recognize that.

Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar, in his book Behaving in Public, puts this point well:

If [Christians] believe in human creatureliness and sinfulness and in the eschatological futurity of perfect understanding, and if they believe in these seriously—that is, as applying to themselves—then Christians will come to public discussion with the virtue of docility. They will come ready to listen, perhaps to learn, maybe even to change their mind.

This point doesn’t by itself, of course, resolve any particular moral debate. Christians still have to sift and test proposed new truths, see if they’re consistent with core beliefs they already hold, and consider how much they would have to revise their existing beliefs if they adopt the new ones. But they should be prepared to admit that, sometimes, “the world” is right. In the particular cases RHE is writing about, “the world” is already ahead of most churches (or so I would argue, anyway).

Christianity doesn’t provide us with a ready-made answer to every moral, philosophical, political, or scientific question. The churches seem still to have a bit of a hangover from the days when they were society’s presumed moral guardian—when moral instruction was a one-way street, with the churches lecturing everyone else on right and wrong. But all too often the church obscured or resisted new truth, particularly when it came from outside the church’s boundaries. In our “post-Christendom” setting, “docility” in Biggar’s sense is a virtue well worth cultivating.


*Referring to her as “Evans” seems rather brusque, but “Ms. Evans” seems too formal, and “Rachel” presumptuous, since I don’t know her personally. So I’m going with “RHE.”

**I realize this kind of minimalist “natural law” position is controversial in some circles and is somewhat unfashionable in recent theology, but it has a long pedigree in the Christian tradition.

Getting by without infallibility

An exaggerated or inaccurate view of Scripture is not a high view of Scripture, it is just a wrong view of Scripture. A high view of Scripture takes the Bible seriously, while also taking its historical context and the humanity of its authors seriously. A high view of Scripture is held by those who actually read Scripture, seek to understand why the human authors wrote what they did, and how they convey God’s timeless will for us today. A high view of Scripture includes not only reading the Bible, but seeking to live its timeless messages, which are discerned in the light of Jesus Christ, who is the definitive Word of God.

That’s from an interview with UMC mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton. (Yes, we mainliners have mega-churches too.)

It’s become a bit of a truism that any adequate Christian view of the Bible has to acknowledge both its human and divine character. What a lot of people worry about, though, is this: if you admit that the Bible contains some errors, even about peripheral matters, then how do you know it isn’t wrong about the major stuff?

The short answer, I think, is you don’t know. But underlying this worry is a questionable model of how God acts, and one which the Bible itself seems to contradict.

What do I mean? Well, people sometimes talk about the inspiration of the Bible in a way that suggests God overrode the freedom of the authors (and presumably editors and compilers) to ensure that not one jot or tittle of the text was wrong. Even though most proponents of such a theory would deny that’s what’s happening, it’s hard to see how “inerrancy” could work any other way. Human beings are finite, limited, prone to error, and sinful; for God to inspire them to write without error would seem to require, essentially, annulling their finitude.

But is this consistent with how the Bible itself presents the relationship between God and humans? Consider the apostles. They all responded to Jesus, who Christians confess is the incarnate Word of God. Presumably this response was elicited, at some level, by God’s Spirit (since Christians generally deny that someone can turn to God without the action of the Spirit). But this didn’t prevent the apostles from erring–sometimes grievously–about what Jesus was saying to them.

If Jesus himself didn’t (couldn’t?) compel an “inerrant” response from the apostles (not to mention from the religious leaders and Roman authorities), does this tell us something about how inspiration works? At the very least, it suggests that there are cases where God allows human beings to err, even though God would presumably prefer they make a different kind of response.

So, unless we have good reasons for thinking that the composition of the Bible occurred under the influence of an entirely different kind of inspiration, isn’t it reasonable to think that the biblical authors could also have been prone to error in what they wrote?

What becomes of faith then? It would be in trouble if we thought that faith is based on a prior belief in the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible. But why should this be the case? And on what independent grounds could we come to the conclusion that the Bible is infallible in the first place?

What I believe, and what I think many other Christians believe, is that the Bible presents a broadly reliable portrait of Jesus and that the New Testament (along with the Old Testament) provides the authoritative context for interpreting the meaning of Jesus.

But I don’t believe this because of some prior theory about the Bible’s inspiration. I believe it based on my experience (and the experiences of others) as part of the Christian community. There’s an irreducible degree of circularity here, but it needn’t (I think) be of the vicious variety. We trust the Bible because our encounter with Jesus–in the pages of Scripture, in the sacraments, in prayer, in Christian community–has changed us. Yes, we could be wrong. But that’s an unavoidable risk for creatures such as us.

Is the welfare state Christian?

There’s been some back-and-forth in the comments to this post about whether Christianity is really compatible with social democracy (or we might just as accurately say welfare-state liberalism). Does Christian ethics require provision for the poor to take place at the local level and/or through private organizations rather than being carried out by the federal government?

This article from Elizabeth Stoker provides a timely response. She says that there are good reasons for Christians to support state-based welfare, not instead of private charity, but in addition to it.

So what is the Christian argument, then, for supporting a compound structure of state welfare programs and private charity when it comes to addressing the stresses of life, which range from poverty to illness and old age? Foremost is the idea that human dignity entitles people to an “existence minimum” which guarantees their basic needs will be reliably met without discrimination based on caprice, race, gender, creed, orientation, or any other marker. Since the guarantee of stability promised by an existence minimum is the foundation upon which lives can be built — and because voluntary private charity is by nature not a guarantee — the state is the best mechanism to deliver a baseline standard of living.

She goes on to point out that, as Reinhold Niebuhr argued, relying on private charity leaves existing power structures in place because the wealthy are still calling the tune.

I think it’s important not to be dogmatic here. Programs should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and and by the results they produce. Some programs–Social Security and Medicare, for instance–have been very successful. Others–the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program comes to mind–had, by general consensus, serious problems, even if there was less agreement about what should replace them. (My view is that the program which replaced AFDC–Temporary Assistance to Needy Families–is also seriously flawed.) The point is that the specific programs should be subordinate to the results we’re trying to achieve. If you’re clear on those, you can be flexible on program design. The state can commit to ensuring a “social minimum” while using a trial-and-error approach to bringing it about. In theory, this should allow for at least some cooperation and give-and-take between liberals and conservatives.

It’s kind of strange that the “private charity only” position has come to be so closely associated with Christianity. Not only is it at odds with the practice elsewhere in the world, but it tends to ignore much of the history of Christian social reform in America.  As Christians (and others) have worked to ameliorate poverty and other social ills, they have often found that this requires large-scale structural or institutional changes that can best (or only) be carried out by the national government. Individual conversion, local efforts, and private charity–while essential–aren’t sufficient.

“Jesus’ wife” revisited

It looks like the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus fragment has been shown to be authentic–meaning that it comes from a legitimately ancient document, and may represent a tradition going back to a fairly early point in Christian history:

A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife” is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE. Its contents may originally have been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries.

The fragment does not in any way provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, as Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, has stressed since she announced the existence of the fragment in the fall of 2012. Rather, the fragment belongs to early Christian debates over whether it was better for Christians to be celibate virgins or to marry and have children. The fragment is weighing in on this issue, according to King.

“The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued,” King explained.

I blogged about the theological implications of this back when the fragment’s existence was announced. (Short version: there aren’t many.) There are ample resources in canonical Christianity to support the value of married and family life and the equality of the sexes. If anything, the existence of women disciples who were not linked romantically to Jesus seems to make a stronger case for equality.