A ransom for many

I just finished reading Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse, and Ransom by feminist theologian Darby Kathleen Ray, partly at the suggestion of someone on Twitter. It’s essentially a critique of traditional models of the atonement from a feminist and liberationist perspective, but it creatively mines the tradition for a constructive counter-proposal.

One strength of this book is the detailed discussion of feminist concerns about certain traditional atonement motifs (e.g. Anselm and Abelard)–namely that they encourage suffering, victimization and passivity in the face of evil. Sometimes these critiques are tossed off without really being substantiated (e.g., vague references to “divine child abuse”). But Ray spends a lot of time explaining exactly what feminist critics find troublesome about these models and how they contribute to suffering. Even if one doesn’t find these criticisms wholly persuasive, there’s a substantial argument here that needs to be engaged with.

Another contribution of this book is that Ray connects the concerns of (largely) North American feminists to the similar, but also importantly different, issues raised by Latin American liberation theologians and shows how each can enrich the other.

For example, despite their criticisms of certain traditional interpretations of the atonement, some liberation theologians have developed a more positive account of the significance of Jesus’ death. The suffering Jesus becomes a figure with whom the oppressed poor can identify, and this can give them strength in their struggle. Moreover, liberation theologians have shown how Jesus’ death is consonant with his life and ministry, which on this reading was about bringing mercy to the downtrodden and confronting forces of evil and oppression. On this view, Jesus’ death was a consummation of the way he lived and powerfully shows what nonviolent resistance to the powers that be looks like. Ray thinks this is a useful corrective to some feminist theologians’ refusal to attribute any salvific significance to the crucifixion.

Ray’s constructive proposal seeks to incorporate these insights but also to go beyond them by reclaiming imagery from the early church. The motif or model she develops is essentially a demythologized version of the patristic “ransom” theory where Jesus’ death tricks Satan into surrendering his rights over humanity. In the colorful images offered by some church fathers, Jesus is the bait on the fishhook or the cheese in the mousetrap that ensnares Satan. Humanity, by sinning, had put itself under Satan’s dominion, but by killing Jesus the innocent one, Satan forfeited any rights over us. (This is dramatically, and famously, portrayed in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.)

In Ray’s demythologized version, Jesus subverts or “outsmarts” evil by responding with nonviolent love instead of with coercive force. By killing Jesus, the forces of evil, which Ray identifies with oppressive social, political and economic structures rooted in a desire to dominate and control others, are exposed as bankrupt and lacking legitimacy.

The way of Jesus, culminating in his death, reveals the illegitimacy of coercive domination. Humanity’s enslavement to evil is loosened because Jesus, in his life and death, has established a new way of being in resistance of evil. This becomes a permanent possibility, accessible to all human beings, because it was “incarnated” in Jesus. This interpretation of the ransom motif could also be seen as a variety of Christus Victor — Jesus wins a paradoxical victory over the powers of evil be persisting in his mode of non-violent love, even to the point of death.

This, however, brings me to some of the qualms I have about Ray’s model. In the traditional Christus Victor model, the resurrection of Jesus plays an essential role. By raising him from death, God puts the stamp of approval on Jesus’ ministry, and shows that noncoercive love has the last word in the cosmos, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. The resurrection is the locus of victory over the evil powers, although its meaning can never be separated from the cross.

However, the resurrection plays virtually no role in Ray’s discussion. The closest she comes is in saying that the community, when it follows Jesus’ lifestyle of nonviolent love, “resurrects” him. This could be because Ray simply doesn’t believe in a traditional version of Jesus’ resurrection. But it may also be because she wants to avoid seemingly tidy resolutions to the problem of evil.

Ray emphasizes the “tragic” nature of existence and the fact that all our efforts to resist evil are piecemeal. This seems to lead her to deny that there will be some kind of ultimate resolution–or at least downplay the possibility. She seems to worry that belief in any such divine intervention could lead to complacency about evil, something that she has argued is encouraged by certain traditional interpretations of the atonement.

I think one has to respect this refusal to prematurely declare victory over evil. Heaven knows that Christianity has been guilty of more than its fair share of triumphalism over the centuries. As Clark Williamson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and other theologians focusing on Christian anti-Judaism have pointed out, Christianity has often lost the “proleptic” nature of the of redemption–the idea that Jesus’ resurrection is a sort of promissory note for an ultimate redemption that is still to come (whatever that may look like). On this view, evil has not been eradicated but continues to stalk the world in this time between the times. Too often, Christians have conflated the church and the kingdom, losing the eschatological hope for a redeemed creation.

Such an understanding of redemption might address some of Ray’s concerns about complacency in the face of evil, without surrendering Christianity’s traditional hope in God’s ultimate victory over evil. By downplaying the resurrection Ray’s re-tooled ransom theory ends up looking a lot like another version of exemplarism. Jesus embodies a way of living that Christians (and potentially others) can emulate, and his death reveals the bankruptcy of coercive domination (or what Walter Wink called “the domination system”). While this account of sin and its grip on human beings is powerful and illuminating, I wonder if the atonement as she interprets it is capable of liberating human beings from its power. In other words, it’s not clear on this account how Jesus’ life and death (and resurrection) save, as opposed to being inspiring examples of nonviolent resistance. 

What this understanding of sin calls for, it seems to me, is a power that can truly liberate humans and which promises fulfillment and salvation for all. Of course, there’s always the possibility that such a hope is a form of wishful thinking and we should be content with what Scottish theologian John Macquarrie called the “austere ending” as one possible interpretation of the story of Jesus.* But I at least continue to hope that the alternative, “happy ending” is the true one. I’m also hopeful that this story can be a source of love and freedom for all creation rather than something that fosters abuse and suffering.


*In his Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, Macquarrie contends that there are two possible endings to the Jesus story, based on the historical evidence and a responsible theological interpretation. The “happy ending” of the Jesus story is the series of “mysteries” that follow the crucifixion–the descent into hell, the resurrection, the ascension and the second coming. This is obviously the convetional ending, the version of the story taught by most churches and believed by most Christians. It assures us that we will live beyond the grave and that at least some of us will be crowned with everlasting happiness. But there is also an “austere ending” that also provides a plausible interpretation of Jesus’ career and in which we can still find meaning. As Macquarrie writes, “Suppose we omitted the ‘joyful mysteries’ that traditionally came after the cross? Would that destroy the whole fabric of faith in Christ? I do not think so, for the two great distinctive Christian affirmations would remain untouched — God is love, and God is revealed in Jesus Christ. . . . If the highest virtue is the kind of love which the New Testament attributes to Jesus, then it seems to me that his victory over evil was already won in the agonizing hours before his death, and that it would remain decisive even if there were no subsequent events of resurrection and ascension.” (p. 412) Somewhat similar to Ray, in his treatment of the work of Christ, Macquarrie develops a demythologized version of Christus Victor, in which Jesus’ atonement consists in his loving to the point of death and establishing a new template or possibility for human living.

Only a crucified God can help


Is the Christian gospel about the life and teachings of Jesus, or is it about his death and resurrection? These two poles of the Christian message have often been pitted against one another, sometimes in the form of St. Paul’s “theology of the cross” vs. “the Jesus of the gospels” (particularly the synoptic gospels).

In her brief but rich book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: New Testament Interpretations of the Death of Christ, esteemed New Testament scholar Morna Hooker argues (persuasively, to my mind) that the NT authors were largely on the same page regarding the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion and its implications for Christian living, even though they might differ somewhat in emphasis.

Hooker dedicates successive chapters to the though of Paul, each of the four gospel writers, the letter to the Hebrews, and 1 Peter/1 John/Revelation. These authors use a variety of metaphors, images and concepts to express the meaning of Jesus’ death (and resurrection), and one would look in vain for a fully developed “theory of atonement.” Nevertheless, Hooker shows that there’s a remarkably consistent set of assertions that are virtually unanimous among these witnesses:

  • “Jesus was put to death through the weakness and sin of wicked men and the rebellion of satanic powers, [but] it was part of God’s plan, and took place in accordance with scripture.” (p. 139)
  • “Through Christ’s death and resurrection God has reconciled us to himself.” (p. 139)
  • “That Jesus suffered ‘for us’ does not mean that Christians can expect to escape suffering themselves — the very opposite! Christ triumphs over death, but those who want to share his triumph must share his shame and suffering and death.” (p. 140)
  • “It is not simply the absurdity of the gospel itself — a crucified Messiah!– which might cause Christians to blush, but its implications for the life-style of those who commit themselves to following a crucified Lord.” (p. 140)

That Jesus’ death is part of the divine plan and the site of divine forgiveness goes against certain liberal theologies that are uneasy with the idea of God using such gruesome methods to redeem humanity. At the same time, Hooker insists that the cross is no mere “substitution” whereby Jesus suffers instead of us. She prefers the language of “participation”–we are saved through union with Christ in his dying and rising. This has implications for how we live–Christians must expect to suffer as part of following a crucified messiah. This rules out certain individualistic interpretations of Christianity that peddle Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” and downplay the cost of discipleship. And how far from the spirit of the NT are the various “prosperity gospels” that promise an untroubled life of material success and contentment!

In other words, talking about the gospel as either a religion of redemption and forgiveness or a way of life modeled after the example of Jesus is a false dichotomy. Hooker seems to find the image of participation the most compelling way of expressing this: God in Jesus became like us so that we can become like him. This isn’t a simple “exemplarist” understanding of salvation; it’s more like a mystical union with Christ whereby we share in his righteousness and are (re-)formed in his image.

Ultimately, Hooker says, the revelation of God’s glory in the cross is the deepest meaning of the NT witness:

The idea — common to Paul and John — that God’s glory is revealed in the death of Christ is perhaps the New Testament’s most profound insight into its meaning. … The belief that God is revealed in the shame and weakness of the cross is a profound insight into the nature of God. … By embracing the scandal of the cross, and joyfully accepting its shame, these early Christians discovered the true character of God, and found that the true source of joy consisted in becoming like him. (p. 141)

The God who never gives up



If all are not saved, if God creates souls he knows to be destined for eternal misery, is God evil? Well, perhaps one might conclude instead that he is both good and evil, or that he is beyond good and evil altogether, which is to say beyond the supremacy of the Good; but, then again, to stand outside the sovereignty of the Good is in fact to be evil after all, so it all amounts to the same thing. But maybe every analogy ultimately fails. What is not debatable is that, if God does so create, in himself he cannot be the Good as such, and creation cannot be a morally meaningful act: It is, seen from one vantage, an act of predilective love; but, seen from another–logically necessary–vantage, it is an act of prudential malevolence. And so it cannot be true. We are presented by what has become the majority tradition with three fundamental claims, any two of which might be true simultaneously, but never all three: that God freely created all things out of nothingness; that God is the Good itself; and that it is certain or at least possible that some rational creatures will endure eternal loss of God. And this, I have to say, is the final moral meaning I find in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, at least if one truly believes that traditional Christian language about God’s goodness and the theological grammar to which it belongs are not empty: that the God of eternal retribution and pure sovereignty proclaimed by so much of the Christian tradition is not, and cannot possibly be, the God of self-outpouring love revealed in Christ. If God is the good creator of all, he must also be the savior of all, without fail, who brings to himself all he has made, including all rational wills, and only thus returns to himself in all that goes forth from him. — David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, pp. 90-91

I had already come around to a position pretty close to the one David Bentley Hart argues for in his most recent book, though I’m a bit more diffident about my views. (Then again, who isn’t more diffident than Hart?) Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the book, not least because of the moral passion Hart brings to it. And I do think the moral argument is at the heart (ahem) of this book. Sure, he delves into classical theistic metaphysics and the nature of freedom (both divine and creaturely), but at the end of the day this book is really about whether God can be trusted to be good and bring creation to the best imaginable fulfillment. A creation in which even one creature suffered unending torment as the consequence of a finite offense is (necessarily) worse than one in which all creatures are restored. And if God is both good and sovereign, why wouldn’t God be able to bring about the best state of affairs?

One quibble I had is that Hart largely ignores the discussion of universalism in more recent theology. He generally takes the later Augustine, Thomism and Calvinism as his interlocutors, which makes the tradition seem more monolithic on this point than it is. At least since the early modern period, theologians have been questioning the received view of hell. Schleiermacher, the great 19th-century liberal theologian, argued for what we might call “single predestination” and, as Richard Bauckham points out, he had a “deeply felt conviction that the blessedness of the redeemed would be severely marred by their sympathy for the damned.” And several major 20th century theologians–Barth, Rahner, Von Balthasar, Tillich, Kung, and Moltmann, to name a few–either downplayed traditional notions of hell or were outright universalist. The same is true of more recent theology, largely though not exclusively within mainline Protestantism and Catholicism. In addition, feminist, liberation and other theology written from the perspective of marginalized groups has emphasized that humans are quite capable of creating hell on earth and God is the one who delivers from violence and oppression, not the overseer of an eternal torture chamber. This is all somewhat at odds with the way Hart plays Western Christianity off against the Eastern church and the early fathers.

This isn’t to detract from Hart’s arguments, which stand or fall on their own merits. But it suggests that the Western Christian tradition is more hospitable to universalism than he suggests. A recent example is offered by Keith Ward, a theologian-philosopher whose work has influenced me quite a bit:

God does not compel humans to repent, and repentance is required if people are to turn to the path of life. But if God wishes that all should reach repentance, God must make repentance and salvation possible for all, without exception. A God of love would always hold the door of repentance open. In that sense, Hell cannot be God’s final word to any created being. It must be possible even in Hell to repent, and God, the God revealed in Christ, must be present and active to make that a real possibility. (Re-thinking Christianity, p. 43)

This is very similar to Hart’s argument: If God is good, then God will never give up on any created soul. Hell may exist as a kind of purifying state, but it cannot be an unending, sheerly retributive form of punishment. God wills that all shall be saved, and the divine love is inexhaustible in seeking the lost.

Bounds of belief


After getting a little feedback on Twitter, I realized my previous post could be read as dismissing the importance of shared beliefs–about the Resurrection or anything else. This wasn’t my intention. While I do worry about how “orthodoxy” can be (and has been) weaponized (see the recent UMC general conference, e.g.), that doesn’t mean that the church should dispense with common standards of belief.

So what does that look like? Well, the creeds are a pretty good example. The Apostles’ Creed in particular offers a pithy summary of the essentials of Christian belief. As pastor and spiritual writer Addison Hodges Hart put it in a good recent book:

It is truly worth emphasizing how spare the Apostles’ Creed is, how economical, and how much space is left for thought about each one of its assertions. It isn’t complicated, nor is it unintelligent. It strikes just the right note, neither too high nor too low. . . . Each line is short enough to provide definition and set bounds, but large enough to allow for spiritual exploration and even creativity. It is a “system,” but not a stifling one. (Hart, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World, pp. 32-33)

Hart reminds us that when the church began to elaborate (over-elaborate?) its creeds it ran into the temptation of enforcing increasingly esoteric formulations of belief. And when the church entered into an alliance with the imperial state, that enforcement took a very real, very physical form. Discussing the so-called Athanasian Creed (not written by St. Athanasius), he notes that

its multitude of abstract assertions regarding the Trinity and the two natures of Christ are a masterpiece of obsessive fine-tuning mixed with threat. It is difficult for anyone acquainted with the church’s history not to recall, when reading this belligerent exercise in dogmatism, that many human beings–those “for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15)–were in fact tortured and killed for failing to acknowledge just such doctrinal obscurities. Perhaps more strikingly, it might be noted that there is a total absence in this text of anything deriving from Jesus himself, either in word or in spirit. (p. 41)

Most mainline churches (excepting the explicitly non-creedal ones) affirm the Apostles Creed (and the Nicene) as standards of faith. But those both leave a lot of room for different understandings of their central propositions. For instance, they don’t prescribe a particular view of the nature of God (classical theist or open theist?), predestination (Calvinist or Arminian?), the atonement (satisfaction, penal substitution, Christus Victor, or moral exemplar?), the church, the sacraments, etc., etc.

Hart calls the dogmas of the creed

signposts on the way each of us must walk. They aren’t restraining fences, but point us outward toward our journey, in the direction of wide-open possibilities. As Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel said, they are “indications” of what “cannot be adequately expressed.” We need the simple directions Jesus laid out for us, leading us on toward the Father, Son, and Spirit, toward community with one another and life with God, toward a way of living that is real and winsome. (pp. 54-55)

So to return to the topic at hand, what about the Resurrection? Well, the Apostles’ Creed addresses it in two places: “On the third day [Jesus] rose again” and “I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” The latter presumably refers also to our resurrection, not just Jesus’.

Again, it’s noteworthy what’s left unsaid. There is no detailed discussion of the Resurrection (or even a mention of the empty tomb for that matter), the precise form of the resurrection body, etc. What is emphasized is that Jesus was raised to new life, reigns with the Father, and will come again as judge. The last line simply says that we (or at least some of us!) will be raised bodily and live everlastingly. (Interestingly, the Nicene Creed refers to the resurrection of “the dead” instead of “the body.”)

Now, we don’t live by creeds alone. We have, first and foremost, the Scriptures, along with 2,000 years of interpretation and reflection on the central mysteries of the faith. Not to mention, prayers, liturgies, hymns and other elements of the church’s living tradition. But the tradition hasn’t yielded a unanimously agreed-upon understanding of the nature of the Resurrection. Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine didn’t agree on all the particulars; neither did Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, and Barth–to pick some names somewhat at random.

Clearly there are limit cases. Someone who flat-out denies the existence of any kind of God or that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived is outside any recognizable boundary of creedal Christianity. And there are also fuzzy, borderline cases. For instance, the late Marcus Borg, who was at one time the veritable poster-boy for popular progressive Christianity in the U.S., strongly objected to accusations that he denied the Resurrection. But was his understanding of it consistent with what the creeds say? I don’t know, and happily I don’t have to make that call. (And I trust that Professor Borg is resting in the Lord.)

Now, in the case of someone like Serene Jones, it’s not clear to me exactly what she would affirm or deny, at least based on her interview with Nick Kristof. Certainly she didn’t go out of her way to affirm the Resurrection as a reality independent of human feelings or response. Such a position, in my view, would put her outside the bounds of creedal Christianity. (Which is not the same as grounds for excluding someone from participation in the life of the church–much less salvation. That’s a whole other, though not unrelated, issue.)

In practice, it’s important for churches to have shared statements of belief (call it “orthodoxy” if you like). But those statements should be broad enough to encompass a diversity of viewpoints about what they mean. (Happily, the traditional creeds fit that bill pretty nicely.) And as I suggested in the previous post, they should always point us in the direction of living the kind of life Jesus calls us to. To return to Addison Hart again:

If faith–dogma–is dead without works, then the practical fruit of dogma must be seen as proof of its truth. If we believe in the creeds we profess, then our lives must be in alignment with what we affirm. We will find more than enough to live up to in just the three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel given to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), not to mention everything else we read in the Gospels and the remainder of the New Testament. If something bears no fruit at all in our Christian lives, it is too barren to be a useful dogma. Belief in God the Father leads to love for all creation, belief in the Son leads to taking Jesus as our exemplar and redeemer, and belief in the Spirit leads to unbreakable communion with our fellow disciples. Dogma leads to changed perspectives, reformed minds, and daring new lives. (p. 56)


The mystery of resurrection


Union Theological Seminary president Serene Jones instigated a minor online theo-kerfuffle last week when she seemed to dismiss the importance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, along with other major Christian doctrines, in an interview with New York Times columnist Nick Kristof.

One interesting thing about this latest round of the theological culture wars is that it wasn’t just the usual conservative suspects who were up in arms about Dr. Jones’s comments. There were also a number of younger progressive-leaning Christians who took issue with her views on the Resurrection.

Wesley Hill, a professor of New Testament, noted this phenomenon in a short piece for Commonweal. He suggests it may represent a kind of “turn to orthodoxy” among younger mainline Christians. Hill contends that this younger cohort of mainline Protestants (many of them clergy or clergy in training) don’t have the same epistemological hangups as their elders (as supposedly exemplified by Serene Jones’s theological liberalism), and affirm a more robust version of Christian faith. Moreover, not only do these folks not see a contradiction between theological orthodoxy and progressive or leftist politics, they see them as naturally fitting together. As Dr. Hill puts it, “In short, if my online friends represent any bellwether, the future of mainline Protestantism will see a tight connection between radical politics and the hope of the bodily resurrection.”

On this view, the liberal theology represented by Serene Jones represents the old guard, while the future lies with a recovery of “orthodoxy” aligned with leftist politics. Leaving aside whether Professor Hill’s “online friends” do represent the future of mainline Protestantism, I’d caution against drawing the boundaries of “orthodoxy” too narrowly. “Bodily resurrection” can become something of a shibboleth and an excuse to “un-church” people who don’t share a very specific understanding of what it entails.

The New Testament is a bit more cryptic about the nature of the resurrection than people sometimes think.  Even if we take the resurrection stories at face value, we’re presented with a Jesus who is “physical” in the sense of being a tangible presence who eats with his disciples and shows them the still-present wounds in his body, but who also can appear and disappear at will and whom the disciples don’t immediately recognize as being the same person. And then there’s the rather anomalous case of St. Paul, who clearly considered himself a witness of the risen Christ, but does not describe the kind of tangible encounter portrayed in the gospels. The only thing that comes through clearly is that, for the NT writers, Jesus’ post-resurrection state involved both continuity (he was the same person, the crucified one) and discontinuity (he had been radically transformed and raised to a different state of existence).

A related issue is how to conceive of our own resurrection. Theologians of the early church spent a lot of time worrying about how our bodies would be re-assembled at the Last Judgment once they had been subject to decay and dissolution (even cannibalism!). The idea that we will rise in the very same bodies (as Jesus supposedly did) is hard to square with the observed facts about what happens to corpses. Since the particles of our bodies are recycled into other parts of the natural environment, there’s no non-arbitrary way to identify which bits of matter belong to who. Even during the course of our present life we’re not made of the same particles over time. So, whatever the continuity of our bodies consists in, it can’t require that we be composed of the same matter. Thus it’s not even clear what it means to say that the bodies we have now will be raised.

Some modern theologians, recognizing this problem, have proposed that God will provide us with new bodies after death (which they identify with the “spiritual body” mentioned by St. Paul in 1st Corinthians).  These bodies, it’s supposed, will be suited to whatever postmortem environment we’ll exist in. But if this is the case, then our resurrection differs from Jesus’s (at least according to the view that his selfsame body was raised and transformed). Also, once you start talking about a “spiritual body” it becomes less clear what the difference is between the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul, though much has been made of this distinction.

As you can see, trying to think this through gets complicated pretty quickly, and in my view a certain degree of agnosticism about the details is more than warranted. Personally, I think Jesus’ tomb was empty, partly because producing his body would’ve been a good way for the Romans or the Jewish religious authorities to refute the claims being made by the disciples after the first Easter. But it also seems clear that it was the appearances of the risen Lord (and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit) that energized the despondent disciples to preach the good news. The core of Christian faith is that Jesus is alive now, not just a figure of the historical past, and that we can participate in the divine life through union with him. This is the basis of a transformed life now and the hope for life beyond death.

Christianity isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) about demanding that people subscribe to a laundry list of very specific doctrines. (The Apostle’s Creed is quite pithy and leaves a lot of details unspecified.) It’s an invitation to participate in the divine life through union with the risen Lord and his church. While the church should joyfully proclaim the Resurrection, it’s also wise–and charitable–to leave room for mystery.





Does the world need another Methodist church?


I assume anyone who cares already knows what went down at last month’s special general conference of the United Methodist Church. (Here’s a pretty lucid rundown of the events and some possible implications.)

LGBTQ-affirming Methodists have been made painfully aware that they just don’t have the numbers to change church policy, and likely won’t in the foreseeable future. This is partly because the UMC comprises churches from around the world, and many of the growing churches are in countries where more conservative views of homosexuality at the norm. It was a coalition of traditionalist Americans and delegates from conservative jurisdictions outside the U.S. that secured the victory of the so-called traditional plan.

One outcome of all this is the very real possibility of a denominational split. Affirming Methodists aren’t about to quietly accept the punitive traditional plan (although how much of it will survive an upcoming review by the church’s judicial council is unclear). But a return to the trench warfare of the last several years can hardly seem appealing to many people, especially when the prospects of change seem so remote. This is why the idea of a split has been floated publicly by progressives, and even some more centrist-leaning Methodists. In my own Methodist congregation, this has been a lively topic of discussion during the past few weeks.

One question I have about this, though, is: Does the world really need another Methodist denomination? Or, to put it somewhat differently, what would the raison d’être of such a church be? I don’t mean this to be a rhetorical question–I think it’s a question we sincerely need to ask ourselves before going forward with any new denominational structure.

The UMC is the result of a merger in 1968 between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Methodist Church had evolved (with additional mergers along the way) from the Methodist Episcopal Church, which itself emerged from the First Great Awakening during the latter half of the 18th century. And of course all Methodists trace their lineage back to John Wesley and the revival movement he led in the England. (Although his actions created considerable tension with the established church, Wesley himself, along with his brother Charles, remained a life-long Anglican.)

Theologically, the UMC is kind of a grab-bag: It has evangelicals, liberals, and plain vanilla mainline Protestants. There are certain Methodist “distinctives”: e.g., an emphasis on God’s prevenient grace, “social holiness,” and “connectionalism.” But there’s not a “Methodist theology” that members or clergy are expected to subscribe to. Methodist churches also reflect a wide range of worship styles: from informal and low-church to the relatively formal and liturgical. Politically, members of the denomination are about as split between Republicans and Democrats as the country as a whole. Given this somewhat fuzzy identity, it’s not obvious what would set a hypothetical new progressive Methodist church apart from other liberal mainline denominations like the UCC or the Episcopal Church. 

It’s important not to dismiss the fact that there are many lifelong Methodists in our churches who have no desire to be anything other than Methodist. As someone with pretty shallow Methodist roots, I try to be sensitive to this. But Methodism as originally conceived by John Wesley was a response to specific circumstances: the pro-forma piety of the established church and the fact that the gospel message wasn’t reaching some of those who needed it most, particularly the poor. Are there circumstances in our world today that call for a uniquely Methodist response? What would a new Methodist church offer that people couldn’t find elsewhere? Does Methodism per se still have an important role to play in the world and if so does it need to be embodied in a separate denomination? There may be good affirmative responses to these questions, but they seem like the kinds of question we should be asking before adding one more denomination to the alphabet soup of American Protestantism.

Supernatural mind: C.S. Lewis’s Miracles revisited

C.S. Lewis In A Field

I first read C.S. Lewis’s Miracles about 25 years ago, and it was pretty important in what eventually turned out to be my return to Christian faith, over a decade after I had abandoned belief in God when I was a teenager. It helped me see that Christianity–and not just a watered-down, “modernist” version–might actually be true.

Re-reading it recently I was struck once again by Lewis’s insistence that “reason,” by which he means our faculty for logical argument, as well as for apprehending moral truth, must be “supernatural,” at least relatively speaking. That is, if our reasoning is determined by natural laws of cause and effect (the great, interlocking system of nature, as he puts it), then what justification do we have for thinking that it provides a path to truth? Only if our thinking can, at least sometimes, operate according to the laws of logic rather than the laws of cause and effect can we trust our ability to apprehend truth. Human minds–or at least this part of them–must originate outside the natural world. This is the key argument Lewis makes to show that naturalism is untenable (and a pivotal part of his argument that miracles are at least possible).

However, Lewis’s rather stark version of dualism won’t sit well with everyone. On his view, human spirits (i.e., the part of us capable of abstract thought and moral reasoning) are “inserted” as it were at various points in the natural wold, rather than being fully integrated parts of that world. That’s his point after all–if they were fully part of the natural world we would have no grounds for trust in our reasoning capabilities. But this seems a bit inelegant and ad hoc. Wouldn’t it be better to have an account that showed human minds were fully a part of nature but didn’t undermine the trustworthiness of reason? Even from a theistic perspective, wouldn’t it be more fitting and elegant to say that God created a universe that was capable of producing reasoning creatures from within?

These considerations are at least part of the motivation for various forms of “non-reductive” materialism or “emergentism” that have become popular among some Christian theologians and philosophers. On this kind of view, mind and consciousness develop from material organisms once they attain a certain level of complexity, but once they do, these emergent minds achieve a degree of independence.* For example, non-reductive materialists and “emergentists” maintain that causality between the mental and the physical goes both ways: our thoughts and decisions really affect the way things go, and this is not reducible to or fully explicable in terms of their physical substratum. If I get up from my desk and walk across the street to the local coffee shop, this action has to be explained (at least in part) by the contents of my thoughts. The mental has a genuine (if partial) causal independence and operates according to its own laws and principles. Another way of making the point is to say that purposive actions–doing things for a reason–are an inelminable feature of reality.

This type of view is attractive because it allows us to see human beings as part of the natural world without sacrificing the reality and efficacy of consciousness (as so-called “reductive” or “eliminative” forms of materialism do). From a Christian point of view, it seems to offer a more holistic account of the human person which is (so it is claimed) more consistent with the way human beings are portrayed in the Bible. This contrasts with forms of dualism that characterize the soul as wholly distinct from, or even trapped in, the body–a position sometimes associated (not entirely fairly) with Plato and Descartes. It also can seem more consonant with the resurrection of the body as the main focus of our hope for life after death.

This account isn’t without its own problems though. One is that it’s not obvious that the notion of an “emergent mind” is any clearer than full-blown dualism. It’s very hard to show how mind and consciousness could “emerge” from a particular arrangement of matter since the properties of matter and mind seem so different. This is, after all, one of the main motivations for both dualism and non-reductive materialism: thoughts have properties–they’re non-spatial, essentially private, are about something–that matter doesn’t, so they can’t be the same thing.

It’s true that there are examples of new properties that seem to “emerge” from a particular organization of matter (e.g., the liquidity of water is not a property of hydrogen or oxygen molecules, but rather comes into existence when they are brought into a particular relation); but there aren’t other obvious examples of a non-physical property or capability emerging from the physical. This raises the question of whether “emergence” is a solution to the problem or just another way of stating it.

There are many varieties of dualism and materialism, as well as other views like “dual-aspect monism,” and I haven’t kept up with recent philosophy of mind (not to mention other relevant fields like neuroscience!) enough to have a strong view about which one’s right (if any). I do think there are good arguments that mind and consciousness can’t be reduced to or simply identified with physical events, even though there’s obviously a strong correlation between them. What I’m less certain of is whether this means we have “souls” that are somehow independently created substances or whether our minds are functions or products of our brains and bodies that nevertheless posses a certain degree of independence.

I still think Lewis’s argument is convincing against a strict, reductive form of naturalism. If our minds really are nothing but brain events operating according to the inexorable laws of cause and effect, then it is hard to see how we could trust them as tools for acquiring true beliefs or maintain that we (sometimes) act for reasons rather than because of blind causality. But it may be that this insight can be accommodated by a more generous form of physicalism or non-dualism.

This might seem to undermine Lewis’s argument for theism and miracles, but a modified version of the case is possible. The fact that our universe is of the sort that can give rise to rational beings capable of moral choice could be taken to indicate that our cosmos is the result of a purposive mind. Because they are irreducible features of the world, mind, purpose and values, it could be argued, are clues to the character of the universe as a whole. They needn’t be seen as interruptions into the normal course of nature to be suggestive of nature’s origin–and of its potential openness to divine action.


*Lewis focused the parts of the human mind responsible for abstract reasoning (e.g., logical inference) and the apprehension of moral truth. He allowed that the “lower” parts of our minds (sensations, emotions, etc.) were fully natural. Other philosophers and theologians focus more on the problem of consciousness itself and its irreducibility to the physical. However, one thing all parties would agree to I think is that our minds have a certain causal independence: i.e., what we think or decide can make a difference to the course of events in a way that isn’t entirely determined by or a by-product of physical causes.

Some good theology & religion books I read in 2018


Someday–maybe next year, who knows?–I’ll get better about tracking the books I read. Heaven knows I read a bunch of stuff this year that has already slipped into the misty recesses of memory. But until I get my act together, I thought I’d note some books in theology and religion that stuck with me for various reasons:

  • Keith Ward, The Christian Idea of God (I blogged about it here.)
  • Amy Plantinga Pauw, Church in Ordinary Time (more here)
  • Ben Dueholm, Sacred Signposts (more here)
  • Elizabeth Johnson, Creation and the Cross
  • Kira Schlesinger, Pro-Choice and Christian
  • Peter Schmiechen, Saving Power 
  • Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (technically a biography, but rich with theological significance)
  • Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love

While I don’t necessarily agree with all their conclusions, these were all books that made me think more deeply about various aspects of the Christian faith–the doctrine of God (Ward, Johnson), the mission of the church (Plantinga Pauw, Dueholm, Marsh), the nature of salvation (Johnson, Schmiechen) and ethics (Johnson, Schlesinger, Marsh).

Julian is, of course, in a category all her own. Not only did I re-read her Revelations, but I got to lead a discussion of her work at my church back in February, which was well received if I do say so myself. I currently have Denys Turner’s book on Julian on my shelf, which I’m hoping to get to sometime in the new year. And I may even remember something about it by next December.



Church for earthlings

keep-calm-its-ordinary-time-600x675Ecclesiology–or the doctrine of the church–is, for my money, one of the duller areas of Christian theology. And when it doesn’t engage in excessive navel-gazing and hair-splitting, it can be a source of ugly Christian triumphalism. In recent theology, the “ecclesial turn” has often upheld “the church” as the cure-all for everything that supposedly ails the modern world: excessive individualism, consumerism, hedonism, capitalism run amok, violence, racism, etc.

This almost invariably results in an overly idealized picture of the church as an entity that is somehow immune from the sin and messiness of the world (and generally requires ignoring large swaths of Christian history). As the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde once wrote, “the constant temptation of the church is always to transgress, to overstep, the eschatological limit, to set itself up as a kind of ‘eschatological vestibule,’ . . . perhaps even as a sacrament itself, a diachronic extension of the incarnation in time. When that occurs, there is a blurring of the eschatological limit, a tendency to vest its purely human offices with sacramental, indeed divine, sanction” (A More Radical Gospel, p. 186).

Reformed theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw’s recent book Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology, offers a refreshing alternative to this eschatological inflation of the church. “Ordinary time” here has a double significance–it refers both to the parts of the church year between the great feasts where we focus on day-by-day growth in our discipleship and to living in the midst of the “ordinary” hum-drum activities of daily life. The church doesn’t exist outside of ordinary life, in some special sacred space; it exists in the flow of ordinary life and in the time between the Resurrection of Jesus and God’s consummation of all things, when it is “not yet clear what we shall become.”

“Wisdom ecclesiology” reflects Plantinga Pauw’s reliance on the wisdom books of the Bible (particularly Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, and the Psalms) to highlight God’s creative ordering of the world and the church’s status as a creature, with all that implies about its finitude and potential for sin.

This focus on creation allows Plantinga Pauw to zoom out to see how ultimately small the church is within the grand sweep of creation. Our ever-increasing awareness of the unimaginably vast scale of creation, both in time in space, should–but largely hasn’t–result in a “Copernican revolution” in theology’s understanding of God’s purposes. It’s virtually impossible to imagine that the church is the center of God’s purpose for the universe when there are manifold other human communities and countless other living species on our planet alone (which is itself an infinitesimally small part of creation).

Plantinga Pauw develops this theme in a trinitarian key, showing how Christians can live in the world, while recognizing that our ultimate destiny is beyond it, in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Jesus identifies fully with human life, while also being the one “in whom all things hold together.” This provides the basis for a creation-centered cosmic Christology that nonetheless is attuned to the fleshly details of everyday life. And the Spirit empowers us to live in the world rather than fleeing it, embracing the longing, giving, suffering and rejoicing that characterize the rhythms of human life and of the church calendar. We do this as finite creatures, living in a particular time and place, not as those with a God’s-eye view of creation’s purpose.

A “wisdom ecclesiology” is about living wisely as earthlings–creatures with a limited allotment in space and time, seeking to care for those whom God has placed in front of us and for this planet we share with God’s other beloved creatures. The church doesn’t have a privileged vantage point from which it can run the world; neither is it a realm of purity where Christians can escape from the world. It is one created community among many, shaped by social, economic, political and cultural forces. But it is called to join with others in caring for God’s creation, witnessing to the self-giving love of God revealed in Israel’s story and preeminently in Jesus.

ADDENDUM: I just wanted to add that Plantinga Pauw’s book pairs well with Ben Dueholm’s Sacred Signposts, another excellent recent book on the role of the church in our contemporary context. As Dueholm shows, the practices of the church are constituted by “brutally ordinary things” that can become, through the power of the Spirit, sites of God’s grace, even in the absence of some churchly master plan for saving the world.

The victory of suffering love

I recently came across this very good talk from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (author of several well-regarded books on Eastern Orthodox Christianity) on “Salvation in Christ.”

Metropolitan Ware offers four questions we should ask when evaluating any proposed model of the Atonement:

  1. Does it envisage a change in God or us?
  2. Does it separate Christ from the Father?
  3. Does it isolate the Cross from the Incarnation and Resurrection?
  4. Does it presuppose an objective or subjective understanding of Christ’s work?

The first question is intended to rule out theories that seem to imply that God’s essential nature or attitude toward us is somehow changed by the work of Christ (e.g., from wrathful to gracious), rather than changing our situation before God. The second is aimed at models that portray the wills or dispositions of Christ and God the Father as somehow at odds. The third emphasizes the importance of holding together Christ’s entire life, death and resurrection as a salvific event. And the fourth posits that the Atonement accomplishes an objective change in the human situation, not just a subjective effect on our attitudes (though the objective and subjective are both essential aspects: As St. Augustine said, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us”).

Met. Ware then considers multiple motifs/models/theories and evaluates how they stack up against these questions. These include what he calls the “exchange” model (the patristic theme that Christ became human so that we might partake of the divine nature), as well as ransom, sacrifice, Christus Victor and loving example. He has something good to say about most of them, suitably understood, although he is highly critical of variants of the sacrificial motif which imply that Jesus’ death was necessary to appease or propitiate God’s wrath. It’s scriptural to say that Christ was our substitute. The emphasis, however, should be that Christ does something for us that we could not do for ourselves. Christ dies “on our behalf” rather than “instead of us.”

One interesting move he makes is to defend the “exemplarist” account (often associated with Peter Abelard) against the common criticism that it reduces Christ to an inspiring example we have to imitate under our own power. This seems to minimize the extent to which sin holds us in its grip and our need of a savior, threatening to lapse into Pelagianism.

However, Ware contends that “this criticism totally misconceives the scope and dynamism of love. “Love is an objective, creative power, not just a subjective feeling. It doesn’t simply provide an example to imitate, but actually effects a change in us. “By loving others we change them. We change the world in which they live.” Thus the subjective/objective distinction collapses.

He goes on to suggest that the example model can be fruitfully combined with a “demilitarized” version of Christus Victor. Christ’s victory is precisely the victory of suffering love. In living out his life of self-giving love, obedient to the point of death, Jesus is unbowed by the powers that would seek to turn him to hatred and violence. In the Resurrection, the power of this love is revealed as stronger than all the “dark things” in the universe and in us. This act of creative, transforming love sets us free.

I haven’t remotely done justice here to the wisdom and warmth in this presentation. If you’re interested in this topic, it’s well worth your time.