Bringing balance back to the Force

I can’t claim aesthetic objectivity here, but I really, really liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I lucked out last night when a friend of mine announced on Facebook that he had an extra ticket to a showing at the National Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater. Pretty sweet!

SWtix

Anyway, I pretty much agree with the critical consensus: J.J. Abrams et al. don’t do anything radically new with the franchise; it’s a more-or-less paint-by-numbers refresh of A New Hope (or just “the first Star Wars” as we used to call it). But it really is refreshing: a breath of new life into the stilted museum-piece George Lucas’s universe had threatened to turn into. The new characters–Finn, Rey, Poe and Kylo Ren–are just as easy to invest in as Luke, Han and Leia were the first time we met them. I’m more excited to see future stories with the new cast than to see more of the veterans. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a particular standout. (Though don’t get me wrong: The return of Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, not to mention Chewie and everyone’s favorite droids, was more than welcome.)

And just on a basic level of craft (sets, direction, dialogue, performances) the new movie is galaxies away from the prequels in particular. It is legitimately exciting, funny, and affecting at various points. You could easily argue that the plot is a bit undercooked, but that didn’t stop it from being the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a long time.

Basically, if you love Star Wars (as I do), you’ll probably love The Force Awakens.

 

Yes, Christians and Muslims worship the same God

Since this topic is back in the news with the suspension of Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins, I’ll go ahead and re-link this post of mine from a few years ago.

Theologian Miroslav Volf argues here that this is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology. His book Allah: A Christian Response is well worth reading.

Favorite music of 2015

I listen to a lot of older music and am by no means a new-music maven. There’s undoubtedly a lot of great stuff that came out this year that wasn’t even on my radar. That said, here are ten albums I really enjoyed. The list is heavy on 80’s-esque synth-pop and country/Americana, for whatever that’s worth.

Chvrches, “Every Open Eye”

Ashley Monroe, “The Blade”

Florence + The Machine, “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”

Sufjan Stevens, “Carrie and Lowell”

Tamaryn, “Cranekiss”

Superhumanoids, “Do You Feel OK?”

Brandi Carlile, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”

Various, “Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)”

Dwight Yoakam, “Second Hand Heart”

Jason Isbell, “Something More Than Free”

Macquarrie on divine self-giving and the risk of creation

In his Principles of Christian Theology, a book I’ve returned to a number of times over the years, John Macquarrie considers what it means to talk about God’s “risk” in creating the world in a way that strikingly resembles more recent discussions.

Recall that for Macquarrie, God is Holy Being, characterized by a self-giving that empowers the being of created things. God pours the divine being out in the act of creation, giving rise to particular, determinate things. But this creation of finite, determinate things inherently involves an element of risk:

In creation, God gives being, and he gives it to the plurality of particular beings. But what constitutes a particular or finite being is just that it is determinate; and whatever is determinate is what it is just in so far as it is not anything else. To have any determinate character is to be without some other characters. Hence creation may be considered as the going out of Being into nothing and the acceptance by Being of the limitations of determinate characteristics. All this makes possible the expression of Being in a richly diversified community of beings that would utterly transcend in value and interest what we can only visualize as a hypothetical limiting case, namely, a purely undifferentiated primal Being. But this creative process inevitably involves risk. There is a genuine self-giving of Being. We have already seen that this imposes a self-limitation on God, when we discussed the problem of his omnipotence. But more than this, it means that God risks himself, so to speak, with the nothing; he opens himself and pours himself out into nothing. His very essence is to let be, to confer being. He lets be by giving himself, for he is Being; and in giving himself in this way, he places himself in jeopardy, for he takes the risk that Being may be dissolved in nothing. Did Bonhoeffer have something like this in mind when he talked about the “weakness” of God, the God who manifests himself in the crucified Christ as placing himself at the mercy of the world? One would have to say, however, that this weakness of God is his strength. We have seen that a God who securely hoarded his being would be no God, and perhaps nothing at all. Only the God who does confer being and so goes out from himself into creation and into the risks of finite being that is bounded by nothing—only this God is holy Being and lays claim to our worship and allegiance. Only this God is a God of love, for love is precisely his self-giving and letting-be. (Principles of Christian Theology, revised edition, 1977, pp. 255-6)

A side-effect of this “going out” of the divine being is the existence of what we usually refer to as “natural” evil. Finite, particular things, being limited, have an in-built potential to lapse back into nonbeing. “These beings have been created out of nothing, and it is possible for them to slip back into nothing or to advance into the potentialities for being which belong to them. Evil is this slipping back toward nothing, a reversal and defeat of the creative process” (p. 255).

Providence is God’s ongoing creative activity to overcome “negativity by positive beingness,” but along the way there will be “many a reverse and many a detour.” This is because the existence of a multiplicity of finite things means that conflict is possible—and perhaps inevitable; one being’s flourishing often comes at the expense of another’s. But the venture of faith is that creation was worth it: that the unfolding of being in richer, more diverse and complex forms has immeasurably more value than if there had been no creation.

Macquarrie is working out of what he calls an “existential-ongological” perspective influenced by Heidegger, Tillich and Karl Rahner among others; but his view resembles other positions that have been developed in recent decades which emphasize limits on divine power. The central idea is that, for there to be a free, self-developing creation with its own integrity, God cannot micromanage it to eliminate any risk of evil or suffering.

There are disagreements over whether this means that creation inherently limits God’s power or whether this is a kind of voluntary self-limitation on God’s part. The former is characteristic of process theology: God’s power over creation is limited as a matter of metaphysical necessity. The latter view is associated more with open theism and thinkers like Jürgen Moltmann, who emphasize the voluntary nature of God’s self-limitation (or kenosis).

Macquarrie’s view doesn’t seem to fit neatly into either of these categories. There is certainly a kind of gratuity to the divine outpouring of being; in that sense, it resembles the “kenotic” view of Moltmann and the open theists. At the same time, he does hint that creation is in some way necessary to God—or at least to God being God (as noted in his provocative statement that a God who “hoarded” being would be “perhaps nothing at all”).

One contemporary view that may lie closest to Macquarrie’s is that of Thomas Jay Oord, a Wesleyan “relational” theologian who develops a position he calls “essential kenosis” in his interesting recent book The Uncontrolling Love of God. According to Oord, God is not limited by a metaphysical structure (as in process theology), but nor does God “voluntarily” self-limit in the manner of open theism and Moltmann. Rather, God’s very nature is one of self-giving love (hence essential kenosis). God’s outpouring of being and “letting-be” of particular beings flows from the divine nature itself. For Oord, this act of letting-be inherently precludes a deterministic micro-managing of creation by God; that would be a kind of divine self-contradiction.

This seems to me to be close to what Macquarrie is getting at. To be God just is to pour out being into the creation of finite, particular things. Because these things have their own determinate natures, creation is an inherently risky endeavor. But at the same time God is everywhere and always active and present to move creation toward its fulfillment.

I don’t know that this provides a fully satisfactory “solution” to the problem of evil. (In fact, I’m pretty sure there is no satisfactory solution at an intellectual level.) But I think a position along these lines has certain advantages over its main competitors.

Prayer and action

God always and already does everything for all of God’s creatures (including us) that it is possible and appropriate for God to do. However, here we have to pay the price of saying that God is not one finite agent among and alongside others. Finite agents (such as you and I) can do things that God cannot do. We can make a peanut butter sandwich. Can God? We can take the peanut butter sandwich across the street and give it to a hungry person. God cannot. Here’s the principle: If it’s the sort of thing that you and I can do, then we’re responsible for doing it. (Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, p. 130)

“We do not know how to pray as we ought,” said Paul, which is why “the Spirit aids us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26). Asking God to do things that we are readily capable of doing is a good example of “not knowing how to pray as we ought.” God is always doing for us everything that it is possible for God to do for us, such as love us. Praying for God’s love, then, makes perfect sense, as long as we understand that asking for it is a condition of our receiving it, not of God’s offering it. Love is a strange kind of gift–it has to be wanted to be received.

Another way to not know how to pray is to fail to see the connection between praying and doing justice. A life of prayer divorced from a life committed to working for justice for the neighbor, a life spent in doing what the rabbis called “deeds of loving-kindness,” is inauthentic. One major purpose of prayer is to make us more open to God’s intent to convey blessing and well-being to God’s creatures. A life of prayer requires accompaniment by a life of usefulness to the neighbor. A life of usefulness to the neighbor is a life or prayer, some moments of which we spend on our knees. (ibid., pp. 293-4)

These quotes provide what I think is a helpful way of looking at the relation between prayer and action–something that has come under scrutiny in the wake of the latest horrific mass shooting. Prayer isn’t magic and God doesn’t do for us things that we are responsible for doing ourselves (like establishing a just society). Politicians who call for prayer but not action are not “praying as they ought.”

But at the same time, prayer is, as many seekers of justice attest, a powerful fount of committed activism. In Williamson’s terms, prayer is a channel through which God’s love and will for creaturely well-being flows into the world. True prayer leads not to resignation in the face of preventable evil, but to a life of service to the neighbor, which includes establishing justice in society.

Between inclusivism and pluralism

In a recent Christian Century article, theologian Charles Hefling provides an argument for the salvation of non-Christians that seems to sit somewhere between “inclusivism” and “pluralsim”–at least as those terms are often defined.

Inclusivism, though it admits of many variations, typically means that people are, or can be, saved by Christ without formally being Christians, even without ever hearing the Christian message. Meanwhile, pluralism is usually taken to mean that all religions (or all “major” religions) can act as vehicles for salvation in the broadest sense. Christian inclusivism, though a softer position than exclusivism, still locates salvation in Christianity; pluralism, by contrast, puts all faiths on roughly equal footing.

Hefling’s account leans heavily on the role of the Holy Spirit as the person of the Trinity who directly moves people from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. He says that this can–and manifestly does–take place in people who have no knowledge of, much less explicit faith in, the incarnate Word.

Ordinarily, you can’t love someone you know nothing about. But in this case the invitation is anonymous. The Spirit, who unlike the Word has no proper name, arrives incognito. Christians, of course, claim to know something about this arrival; it was one purpose of their Lord’s advent to disclose in human terms how best to respond to the gift that arrives, what the indwelling love of God requires of anyone who does not refuse it, what being drawn by the Father implies for human living and dying. Yet people do find themselves being moved to transcend themselves, drawn beyond themselves, grasped by ultimate concern, even when the Christian way of conceiving what they have found is faint or ill defined. They respond to strangely heart-warming love, without understanding whom they are in love with.

This sounds like standard inclusivism, but Hefling insists that non-Christian religious traditions may also have this experience of the Spirit at their core. “It is because of this lavish bestowal of God’s self-gift that there is such a thing as religion—not only the various Christianities, but also the many more or less stable combinations of ‘creed, code, and cult’ for which ‘world religions’ is the conventional umbrella name.” Both Christian and non-Christian religions may be a response to a common experience of the Spirit.

What about Jesus, though? Doesn’t this theory threaten to pry apart the work of the Spirit and the incarnation of the Word?

Hefling says that we need to understand what it is that God does in Jesus:

[N]othing in this essay contradicts the teaching that anyone who is saved is saved through Christ the Son of God. To repeat, it is he who sends the Spirit, whenever and to whomever the Spirit is sent. Nor, secondly, has the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation been denied in any way. God has spoken “in many and various ways,” but only once by a Son.

At the same time, however, this argument does assert that speaking is not the only thing God does, and it certainly implies that what God spoke by speaking his eternal Word at a particular time and place is not so unique as to be totally at variance with the utterances of holy persons who have responded in love to God’s other self-gift, without themselves being God incarnate. Moreover, this last point goes hand in hand with a certain way of understanding Christ’s role in the “economy” of salvation.

It is a mistake to constrict that role to one isolated event, Christ’s death, construed as a kind of decoy that fooled the devil or a kind of lightning rod that deflected the wrath of God. Better to take the cross, together with the rest of Christ’s life and teaching, as a word, a communication of what loving God and neighbor consists in and calls for in a thoroughly messed-up world. The claim that other religious traditions have no clue that this is how God deals with death-dealing malice and wickedness is simply not believable.

As the incarnate Word, Christ gives us the paradigm of self-giving love. But it is the Spirit who moves us to replicate that love in our own lives, and this can happen even for those who are not acquainted with Jesus. Moreover, the image of self-giving love can be present in varying degrees in the teachings of non-Christian traditions, thus providing material for the Spirit to use in moving people from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. So understood, Hefling’s view provides for a more positive assessment of these traditions than the textbook version of inclusivism, which seems to move it closer to (a form of) pluralism.

The living Constitution

Garrett Epps’ American Epic: Reading the U. S. Constitution is a fascinating, informative, lucid, provocative, and not infrequently humorous tour through the text of the Constitution, including all twenty-seven amendments. Epps, a lawyer, professor, and correspondent for the Atlantic, isn’t uncritically reverent toward the text–he recognizes that it can be confusing, opaque, and occasionally self-contradictory, as well as containing ideas that are “repulsive.” But neither is he out to debunk it as a tool of anti-democratic elites. The Constitution binds us together as a people, and over its history it has–albeit often fitfully–expanded the reach of democratic self-government and equality before the law.

Epps takes issue with those who treat the Constitution almost as an infallible oracle that provides a single answer to every legal or political question, frequently comparing them to biblical fundamentalists. He approaches it in a more “literary” fashion, seeing the language as producing a surplus of meaning beyond what the original framers may have intended (even assuming we could always figure out what that was, which we can’t). He proposes that different kinds of reading–“scriptural, legal, lyric, and epic”–yield different meanings, none of which can lay claim to being the definitive meaning.

This doesn’t mean that Epps dispenses with legal analysis. He moves meticulously, passage by passage, teasing out possible meanings, some more plausible than others. His close reading of the text often calls into question what “everybody knows” it means, and he recognizes that different and opposed readings (of, say, the Second Amendment) can lay claim to plausibility. Where we come down will, often as not, depend on prior political and philosophical assumptions. “As a whole,” he notes, “its composition spanning two centuries, the Constitution forges a complex language, its words drawing meaning from their interrelation and the gloss of new uses.”

Actually moving through the Constitution, warts and all, and reflecting on the circumstances under which its various parts were composed, probably provides the best argument for seeing it as a “living” document that takes on new meanings in different historical circumstances. It’s not unlike how, to borrow Epps’ frequent comparison, actually reading the Bible closely often calls into question simplistic theories of inspiration or “inerrancy.” Epps’ book is an eye-opening guide to a text that “so many revere and so many fewer have read.”

Papal hot takes are missing the point

Pope Francis’s visit to the Western Hemisphere has occasioned a whole new round of papal #takes. Conservatives are conservasplaining that Francis, with all this talk of economic inequality and environmental doom-and-gloom, doesn’t understand the gospel, or hates science and modernity. Liberals are warning that Francis isn’t really progressive, but a theocrat in progressive clothing. Rinse, repeat.

This cross-ideological freak out seems to me to miss the genuine source of Francis’s appeal. Rev. Amy Butler of New York City’s historic Riverside Church puts her finger on it here, I think, when she writes that many of the “radical” things Francis is doing–reaching out to the poor and marginalized, emphasizing our responsibility to care for creation, trying to live modestly and with humility–are things all Christians are supposed to be doing.

We’re so used to religious leaders who look nothing like this-slick, rich megachurch pastors or angry, apocalyptic cranks–that when someone shows up who’s living what is basically just Christianity 101, it’s startling and refreshing.

That doesn’t mean everything Francis does or says is (ahem) infallible. I for one disagree with the Catholic Church on the usual matters where liberal Protestants tend to disagree with it. And it does seem that the pope may understate some of the virtues of market economics and modern political arrangements. But I can still appreciate the genuinely Christ-like spirit animating his ministry. If more of our leaders (and lay people!) exhibited a similar spirit, Christianity–and the world–might look very different.

Not quite feeling the #Bern

Many of my friends, both online and in “real life,” are enthusiastically supporting Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency. His straight-talking critique of economic inequality and his unapologetically left-wing proposals for addressing it have undeniably tapped into frustrations with the political and economic status quo. He presents a sharp contrast with the cautious centrism of Hillary Clinton, and his candidacy provides, perhaps, a shot at redemption for liberals who have been disappointed with President Obama.

I can see, and to some extent I feel, the appeal of the Bern. His critique of economic inequality is important, and I’d support many of his proposed solutions. And when politics is swimming in big money, his grass-roots approach to fundraising is inspiring.

So why aren’t I, as my title suggests, feeling the Bern?

First, I’m less left-wing than Sanders. That is, I’m not as pessimistic about our political and economic system, and I’m a bit more skeptical about the kind of sweeping programs he’s proposing. I’m still firmly on the left, or at least the center-left, but probably closer to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. (Though I’m persuadable here, and often find value in the critique of those on the further-left.)

Second, I’m not convinced Sanders has the temperament or experience to be president. He often comes across as dogmatic and impatient, and he evinces little interest in the things that actually form the core of the president’s job: running the executive branch and conducting foreign policy. Sanders’ passion is clearly domestic, specifically economic, policy, but in our system of government the president has a very limited ability to enact the kinds of sweeping changes he’s calling for.

Third, and probably most important to my mind, Sanders can’t win. Or at least I’m highly skeptical that he could. Much has been made of his recent surge in the polls: depending on which one you look at, he’s either neck-and-neck with or actually beating Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Iowa. But his inroads in other states, ones that are more representative of the electorate, remain stubbornly limited. He seems to have trouble appealing beyond his core base of white, relatively affluent progressives, and these folks don’t constitute a majority of Democratic primary voters, not to mention the electorate as a whole.

Hard-core Sandersnistas will insist that he can win, and that his surge in Iowa and New Hampshire can be replicated in other states. And I’ve had friends tell me that, if presented in an unbiased way to the American public, Sanders’ proposals will handily win a majority in the general election.

Color me skeptical. Barack Obama, despite being a pragmatic, center-left liberal, has been routinely pilloried as a “socialist” for his entire presidency. What do people think will happen if someone who actually identifies as a democratic socialist wins the nomination? The red-baiting will be something to behold.

Essentially, I regard a Sanders nomination as a high-risk/low-reward proposition. The risk is losing the election—probably not in a 1972- or 1984-style blow-out, but decisively—and ushering a Republican into the White House, along with Republican control of Congress. (And have you seen the Republican Party lately?) And the potential upside isn’t as big as some people seem to think. Even if President Sanders is sworn into office in January 2017, he will still in all likelihood be dealing with a Congress, or at least a House, that’s overwhelmingly Republican. This would drastically limit his ability to enact his ambitious proposals, if not put the kibosh on them entirely. The constraints on a President Sanders would be essentially the same (barring some major upsets in congressional races) as they would on a President Clinton, or President Biden, or whoever. And so I’m not convinced the results would be that different.

This doesn’t mean that I think the Sanders candidacy has been a bad idea. I think a robust left wing helps keep liberalism honest and prevents it from drifting too far to the right. Sanders has expanded the range of acceptable policy options and is keeping the issue of economic fairness front-and-center in the campaign. I think this leftward pressure will be good for the Democratic Party in the long run, even if I’m not on board with Sanders as president.

This is my current thinking, at least. I could probably be persuaded otherwise. Heck, by the time the Maryland primary rolls around next April my vote may not matter that much anyway. And if Sanders does actually win the nomination, I’ll vote for him and hope for the best.

God loves Homo naledi too

Reading this fascinating account of the recent discovery of Homo naledi–“a baffling new branch to the [human] family tree”–I couldn’t help thinking that Christianity hasn’t really come to terms with the history of human (and proto-human) existence as it’s increasingly being revealed to us.

When evolution first began to be debated in Christian circles it was possible to accept evolutionary theory but still draw a bright line between humans and the rest of creation. Sure we may have developed from “lower” forms of life, but we possessed unique capacities that set us apart. We had a “soul”–perhaps divinely infused at conception or some other point during our prenatal development; we had “free will”; we could reason about abstract concepts; we could respond to God’s will and commune with the divine, etc. Other animals, particularly higher primates, might appear to possess some of these abilities in rudimentary form, but it wasn’t much of  stretch to still see humans as standing on one side of a great divide, with the rest of animal creation on the other.

However, as paleontologists have started to fill in the blanks in the evolutionary record, a murkier–and stranger–picture has emerged. Various kinds of proto-humans existed–most of them for much longer than Homo sapiens has so far. Some of them–Neanderthals and now possibly H. naledi–coexisted (and interbred) with us. Some of them seem to have possessed at least some of the capacities we have traditionally identified as uniquely human. For example, the discovery of the remains of over a dozen H. naledi in a deep cavern in South Africa may indicate a ritualized burial.

The upshot is that modern humans are increasingly shown to be deeply woven into the fabric of nature–more so than most traditional theology has admitted. And in geological time (never mind cosmic time) the duration of our existence and prominence on Earth is less than a blink. Nonetheless, it’s still hard for us not to see ourselves as the pinnacle of life and the center of history.

But if, as Christians are supposed to affirm, God loves and cares for all of creation, what role do proto- or other-humans play in God’s economy? Are we so sure that God’s most important dealings with human-like creatures occurred during the handful of millennia covered by the Bible? (As a thought experiment, one can extend this in the other direction: our far-distant descendants may differ radically from us in any number of ways and may, for all we know, be spread out through the galaxy, interbreeding with other species to create previously undreamt of forms of life. Are we sure nothing of equal religious significance will occur during that time and under such radically different circumstances?)

In principle, adjusting to the idea that we aren’t at the center of human (or quasi-human) history isn’t that different from absorbing the notion that the Earth isn’t at the center (spatially or temporally) of the cosmos, or that other creatures have value independent of us. But I don’t know that Christianity (or maybe any of the world’s religions) has really incorporated the implications of this in its theology, not to mention its piety, liturgy, and ethics. Our worldview–at least the one that’s presupposed by much of the church’s teaching and practice–still seems to put all the big events in the past, and it assumes that things will continue in essentially the same manner till the end of time. But given how briefly humanity as we know it has existed, what reason is there to think it represents the “normal” state of affairs?

I certainly don’t know what changes in our thinking and practice (if any) are called for. But it may be that the radical contingency of human existence as we know it has implications we’ve barely begun to consider.