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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.