Jesus’s Jewish parables

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it here on the blog, but I’ve recommended Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus to a number of people. In fact, I consider it almost a must-read for any Christian given how saturated our tradition is with anti-Judaism.

I’d recommend Levine’s newest book, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, almost as heartily. In the same scholarly yet accessible manner as her previous work, Levine deconstructs the negative stereotypes about Jews and Judaism that have pervaded much interpretation of Jesus’s parables. We see this, for example, in interpretations of the Good Samaritan that attribute the priest’s and the Levite’s passing by the robbed man to their horror of ritual impurity. Or readings of the Prodigal Son that say the elder son represents Jewish “works-righteousness.” And this is not confined to “conservative” churches and scholars; in fact, many of Levine’s targets are liberal scholars who like to contrast Jesus’s progressivism with a supposedly reactionary and oppressive 1st-century Judaism.

But Levine’s book isn’t just a polemic. Her goal is to try to recover the impression the parables–which by their very nature admit of multiple interpretations–may have made on the the people who first heard them. To this end, she reads them as dealing with very concrete issues of daily life, and not necessarily as allegories or Christological symbols. Her goal is to show that, when stripped of the more obvious messages people sometimes take away (like it’s good to be persistent in prayer, or you should help people in need), these stories can still move us to reexamine our priorities and how we live our lives. In particular, Levine shows that Jesus’s stories speak not only to our “spiritual” condition but also have implications for the very earthly (and still relevant) issues like economic injustice and violence. I personally found the chapters on the Good Samaritan, the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, and the Rich Man and Lazarus to be the most thought-provoking.

As a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, Levine doesn’t confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. But Christians can still benefit from the readings she offers, not only as a corrective to still-too-common anti-Jewish interpretations, but in the conviction that the there is more truth yet to break forth out of our Lord’s words.

Why I’m for Hillary

In a couple of posts I’ve tried to explain why I’m not #feelingthebern, at least not to the extent that some of my friends and online acquaintances are. So does that make me a Hillary Clinton supporter only by default? Or is there a positive case to be made for the former first lady, senator and secretary of state?

Yes, I think there is, and for me it boils down to four things:

(1) She’s experienced, smart and realistic. Clinton is arguably more prepared to be president than anyone else in the country (except, that is, for the current president). She has a wide range of experience at the highest levels of government. Her mastery of issues and policy is unmatched by anyone running in either party. And she has a tough-minded and realistic understanding of what a president can accomplish in our current polarized environment.

(2) She’s liberal (enough). Though Clinton has supported some policies that liberals dislike, the overall arc of her career shows her to be a mainstream liberal Democrat. Yes, she’s a moderate in some respects, but contrary to what Bernie Sanders says, it is possible to be a moderate progressive. Though I don’t agree with her on everything, I’m closer to Clinton ideologically than I am to Sanders.

(3) She’s a woman. This matters, both substantively and symbolically. Issues affecting women would probably be more central to a Clinton presidency, and electing a woman as president of the United States would be a major feminist victory in itself. I want my daughter (and my son for that matter) to see that a woman can hold the highest office in the land.

(4) She can win. Some recent polls notwithstanding, I’m still convinced that Hillary has a better shot than Bernie at keeping the White House out of Republican hands. Clinton’s performance in front of the House committee investigating the Benghazi pseudo-scandal is just one of many examples of her unflappability in the face of nasty attacks. Bernie, by contrast, is still an unknown quantity in a really tough election fight. This isn’t dispositive for me, but it’s definitely a consideration.

Clinton has been fairly criticized for being too close to big business in general and Wall Street in particular, for being too hawkish on foreign policy and for some questionable decisions that create at least the appearance of ethical shadiness. These things worry me.

But there are no perfect choices in politics. Who you prefer will depend a lot on how much weight you give to particular strengths and weaknesses. For me, Clinton’s experience and pragmatism outweigh Bernie’s zeal and idealism. Many of my fellow Democratic voters have decided otherwise. Reasonable people can disagree here.

And like I said before, I’ll happily pull the lever for Bernie in November if he manages an upset. But this April, when the Maryland primary rolls around, I’ll be ready for Hillary.

(I’ll try to post on something non-political soon–I promise! :))

Does the Democratic Party need to exorcise the specter of socialism?

Democrats should be wary of embracing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism, argues Princeton sociologist Paul Starr.* “Socialism” isn’t just another term for New Deal liberalism, he says, but a distinctive political and ideological outlook that is at odds both with the liberal tradition and economic and political reality.

Sanders’ own political journey recapitulates the evolution of socialism itself: communal living on an Israeli kibbutz, touting the state socialism of Eugene Debs, affiliations with the Socialist Workers Party, and now advocating a program of extensive redistribution and regulation as a nominal Democrat.

Starr argues, however, that Sanders’ proposals, such as his tax and health plans, are outside of the mainstream even when compared with the European social democracies he upholds as models. For instance, Scandinavian governments have largely made peace with capitalism, financing generous welfare states with wealth produced by a relatively low-regulation market economy. (This point has also been made by libertarian writer Will Wilkinson.) But Sanders doesn’t talk as though he recognizes any external constraints on the feasibility of his plans–other than those that stem from the greed of the rich or the venality of establishment politicians.

Sanders’ causal attitude toward the real-world obstacles to implementing his policies has caused considerable consternation among some high-profile left-of-center economists and policy writers. But it reflects the moral fervor that animates his campaign. That is, Sanders’ socialism is not first and foremost an economic plan to be evaluated according to the canons of technocratic rationality; it’s a moral vision based on the value of economic equality. The revolution trumps (pardon the expression) the petty bean-counting of wonks.

But this single-minded focus on equality distinguishes socialism (democratic or otherwise) from liberalism, according to Starr:

At its core, liberalism has a concern for liberty. While liberals have expanded public programs, they also have sought to strengthen rights that limit arbitrary power, both governmental and private. Liberals do not sanctify the free market, but they care about preserving the incentives that stimulate innovation and investment and make possible a flourishing economy.

While I think Starr may overstate his case a bit here (a passion for equality is not necessarily at odds with a commitment to liberty), Sanders does seem to operate on a different set of assumptions than mainstream liberals. Do current business practices require stronger oversight are are they fundamentally illegitimate? Is there any limit, in principle, to the scope of authority the government should have to manage economic outcomes? Can capitalism be harnessed for more equitable growth, or is it essentially immoral? This is an long-running debate between liberals and socialists, reformers and radicals.

My own inclinations are toward the incremental progress and messy compromises of reformist liberalism. Pure socialism, in any of its forms, has little appeal to me, and I’m a moderate by both temperament and conviction. I also share the concerns about the feasibility of Sanders’ proposals, not to mention his appeal to a chimerical “political revolution.” (There’s also his evident lack of interest in foreign affairs and other aspects of the actual job of being president.)

But at the same time, liberals should listen to and benefit from more radical critiques and ideas. The New Deal wasn’t socialism (and neither was the Great Society or Obamacare), but progressive reform in the U.S. has often been influenced by more radical movements, with liberals in many cases co-opting (and moderating) ideas advocated by socialists and other more radical leftists. Abraham Lincoln, in some ways the pragmatic liberal reformer par excellence, was pushed in a more progressive direction in part by radicals in his own party as well as by activists like Frederick Douglass** (the course of the war had something to do with it too). Without this pressure, Lincoln might’ve pursued a restoration of the pre-war status quo instead of making the abolition of slavery a reality.

I don’t plan to vote for Sanders (unless he wins the nomination, which currently appears unlikely). But I’m glad he’s injected some more radical ideas into the race. The vast wealth disparities that characterize our new Gilded Age threaten values that everyone on the left side of the political spectrum holds dear. By putting the issue of inequality front and center, Sanders has done liberalism–and the country–an important service.
*Starr is the author of Freedom’s Power, a very good book on the history and ideas of liberalism.
**Douglass also came to value Lincoln’s pragmatism, however. A good book on the Lincoln-Douglass relationship and their different approaches to political change is James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican.

Trump’s politics of fear vs. the pope’s politics of solidarity

There’s something fitting about Donald Trump’s feud with Pope Francis. The public personas of the two men could hardly be more different. Francis exudes openness, compassion and humility, while The Donald is all vulgarity, braggadocio and sneering contempt. But even more, Trump’s brand of politics represents much of what Francis has spent his pontificate opposing.

Trump’s appeal is based largely around fear: fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, fear of Muslim immigrants, etc. And his proposed solutions are just as blunt and indiscriminate: build a wall, “bomb the shit out of them.”

Francis, by contrast, has spent much of his tenure outlining and exemplifying a politics of hope and solidarity. Solidarity with immigrants, with the poor and with the natural world. In Francis’s view, our well-being is inseparable from the well-being of our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman. This is the context in which to understand the pope’s comment that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Jesus crossed boundaries between people and broke down walls, so Francis is in good company here.

This isn’t to say that Christians can’t disagree in good faith about politics–including immigration policy. But when politics is rooted in fear and demonizing others, it should forfeit its claim to Christian support. All politicians traffic in fear to some extent of course, but Trump has elevated it to the animating principle of his campaign. His candidacy has been almost entirely bereft of any appeal to the better angels of our nature, something the Republican Party used to know a little about.

Augustinian universalism

I recently came across a very interesting paper from 2003 by philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker: “Why Christians Should Not Be Libertarians: An Augustinian Challenge.” “Libertarian” in this case doesn’t refer to a political stance but a metaphysical position on the nature of free will. As Rudder Baker notes, Christian philosophers, at least in the Anglo-American analytic tradition, are nearly unanimous in holding that human beings have free will in the libertarian sense. This means that human free choices are genuinely undetermined and that human agents are the ultimate source of (at least some of) their choices.

Against this consensus, however, Rudder Baker argues that Christians should not be metaphysical libertarians. She marshals several arguments: It is inconsistent with an orthodox, Augustinian view of grace shared by both Catholics and Protestants; moral responsibility is compatible with our choices being caused by factors outside our ultimate control; philosophers have struggled to give a coherent account of how exactly libertarian free will is supposed to work; and the common motivations for affirming libertarian freedom (e.g., as a response to the problem of evil) aren’t as strong as they appear.

Rudder Baker does acknowledge one troubling element of the Augustinian-compatibilist legacy: the doctrine of double predestination. However, she contends that instead of abandoning the Augustinian view of grace and salvation (i.e, our salvation is entirely in God’s hands), Christians should affirm its universal scope. That is, if God wills to save all people (e.g., I Timothy 2:4) and God’s omnipotent will is sufficient to achieve this, then we can hope all will ultimately be saved.

What resonated with me about this paper is that I have long had doubts about libertarian accounts of free will (going back to my graduate school and undergrad studies), even though they seem integral to many contemporary efforts to describe the relationship between divine and human agency. For instance, many recent efforts to mitigate the problem of evil lean heavily on the idea that God cannot determine human choices. But even if you could give a coherent account of libertarian free will (and I share Rudder Baker’s doubts here), it’s far from clear to me that this does as much work as its proponents think. I also agree with Rudder Baker that it’s possible to develop a compatibilist account of free will that preserves our intuitive notions of moral responsibility. (She deploys a modified version of Harry Frankfrurt’s compatibilism, which is probably one of the strongest versions going.)

I also have long-standing sympathy with the Augustinian view of grace that Rudder Baker describes and that was embraced by Luther and Calvin, along with other reformers. When I was a Lutheran (and in a lot of ways I’m still theologically Lutheran), I often thought that Lutheranism’s doctrine of grace and its rejection of double predestination ought to logically lead to universalism, though many Lutherans seem reluctant to make that inference.

In any event, the debate will continue, but I found Rudder Baker’s paper to be a refreshing bit of iconoclasm.



Gretchen Peters, “Jubilee”

This (beautiful) song seems fitting for a day dedicated to remembering our mortality.


(The whole album’s very good, by the way.)

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!


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.