Tag Archives: Christian theology

Lenten Musings: Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis peccatum sit (you have not yet considered the gravity of sin)-Anselm

4 Mar
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Sculpture outside of chapel, Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, CA.

It is now Lent. My wife and I went to our church’s Ash Wednesday service last Wednesday.  Starting then, I have actually given up something foodwise for Lent–something I have not done for a long time, if ever.

This year, these liturgical and disciplinary actions arise from a more self-consciously rooted inward journey, guided primarily by my reading of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2015). Rutledge is a much-lauded preacher in the Episcopal Church who is concerned that Christian preaching now, and Christian practice now, has managed to drift too far from what she understands as the center of Christian faith: the irreligious, humiliating death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Her main inspirations in her book thus far are Paul, Raymond E. Brown, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, William Stringfellow, J. Louis Martyn, Luke Timothy Johnson, John Calvin, Martin Luther, J.S. Bach, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anselm, Jurgen Moltmann, John Stott, Martin Hengel, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor–and many more which emerge with each page and its footnotes.

The book is massive: 669 pp. I am only through Part I, which ends on p. 204. Nonetheless, given Lent and more immediately Ash Wednesday, and also mindful of at least some of the national zeitgeist since Jan. 20th, some of Rutledge’s points about sin, especially from her 4th chapter, move me to offer them here as part of my own engagement with them.

The Latin quote from Anselm is from his Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become Human?). It is Rutledge’s main point in her chapter on sin. We Christians, and we Americans, she argues, do not adequately apprehend, let alone comprehend, the gravity of sin.

As a generalization, that seems true, for me personally as well as for the society I find myself within, both locally and beyond. My/our righteous deeds, let alone the unrighteous ones, are “like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). It is not what comes from outside that defiles me/us, but rather, as Jesus said, it is what is already inside and “comes out of the mouth, this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:11). For Paul, sin is less particular things that I/we commit but instead a Power which enslaves me/us and fuels sinning, ultimately with impunity. Sin is, in other words, a Power:

Sin, theologically understood, is analogous to the unconscious impulses and drives that shape our personalities in harmful ways, making us perfectionists, procrastinators, deceivers, abusers, addicts, schemers, bullies, fanatics, adulterers, and all the other manifestations that afflict the human species from sources beyond our control (p. 195).

Further, Sin-as-a-Power-that-enslaves is something that we tend to deny or downplay, individually and culturally. We Americans especially seem prone to assuming our individual and collective innocence:

This is a strange thing about us. The  more cynical and unshockable our culture becomes in a superficial sense, the more sentimentality it seems to pour forth; the more raw the sex and violence on TV and in film, the greater the demand, it seems, for nostalgic kitsch encouraging the pretense that we can escape to a Norman Rockwell world that never was (p. 196).

And then there is the political realm:

[O]ur politics continue to exhibit a self-righteousness that partners well with religious self-righteousness on both the right and the left. There is little of the tragic sense that Abraham Lincoln brought to his office and embodied so well in his leadership (p. 197).

It is into such hopelessness that grace breaks in. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Rom. 11:32). Jesus’s death on the cross helps us apprehend and comprehend Sin in us and the world. The crucifixion is for atonement and for “the apocalyptic invasion and conquest of the Powers” (p. 34). Not just one or the other, but both. Thus, “for Paul the sequence is not sin-repentance-grace-forgiveness, but grace-sin-deliverance-repentance-grace. Grace drives the sequence from first to last” (p. 192).

Back to Anselm: understanding the gravity of sin is literally crucial. “The crucifixion of Jesus is of such magnitude that it must call forth a concept of sin that is large enough to match it” (p. 200).

Faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum; yes, this also is Anselm). I believe Lord; help my unbelief.

How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy, according to Charles Taylor

12 Nov

Plato proposed a republic run by enlightened philosophers, and [Charles] Taylor has some ideas about what he might do if he were in charge. In big cities, he told me, it’s easy for people to feel engaged in the project of democracy; they’re surrounded by the drama of inclusion. But in the countryside, where jobs are disappearing, main streets are empty, and church attendance is down, democracy seems like a fantasy, and people end up “sitting at home, watching television. Their only contact with the country’s problems is a sense that everything’s going absolutely crazy. They have no sense of control.” He advocates raising taxes and giving the money to small towns, so that they can rebuild. He is in favor of localism and “subsidiarity”—the principle, cited by Alexis de Tocqueville and originating in Catholicism, that problems should be solved by people who are nearby. Perhaps, instead of questing for political meaning on Facebook and YouTube, we could begin finding it in projects located near to us. By that means, we could get a grip on our political selves, and be less inclined toward nihilism on the national scale. (It would help if there were less gerrymandering and money in politics, too.)

Read more about Canadian Catholic Charles Taylor’s views on the U.S., democracy, and our election here at the New Yorker: How to Restore Your Faith in Democracy – The New Yorker

Misunderstanding the Book of Genesis

22 Mar

A short history of the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis reveals it’s largely a modern dogma. Read Tara Isabella Burton’s post with link at JSTOR Daily: Misunderstanding the Book of Genesis | JSTOR Daily

Distractions of the devil

15 Feb

Scott Poole, a historian at the  College of Charleston, is having a devil of a time, so to speak:

Satan has had an awfully good 2014.

He might get a statue on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Actually, he probably won’t, but the New York-based Satanic Temple has proposed to have the goat-headed image of Baphomet built so that it can be seen by all visitors to the state’s seat of government. And they also want people to be able to sit in his lap for meditation, and presumably to give him the list of toys they want for the next high unholy day.

In an op-ed piece at Christian Century, Poole discusses recent trends in imaging the devil. The imaging, he suggests, masks more serious things:

Satan’s no joke. But our culture turns to him for language of evil because he’s much more fun than real-world social problems. Who wouldn’t want to talk about the Great Big Bad, cape swirling behind him, instead of about growing income inequality? America’s complex class system, which seems to become more rigid all the time, seems awfully taxing to the mind and moral capacities when we can read about Lucifer in all his lurid majesty instead.

You can read Poole’s entire piece at Distractions of the devil: Satan in Western history and today | The Christian Century.

Other than Triumphalism

7 Dec

Christians communicate to others that we are specially favored when we position ourselves as judges over society and standard-bearers of morality. For about 30 years Protestants of all stripes have turned public witness into battles over morality. This presumption not only contradicts the great Protestant truth that “no one is righteous” but God Rom. 3:9, it also contradicts Jesus, who did not present himself as a model of moral righteousness but belonged wholly to the world by taking the form of a sinner in public life. (Jennifer M. McBride)

Yesterday was the last class day in my History of the United States to 1865. This past week we have considered the Civil War, partly through the film Glory (old enough that most students had not seen it), even more through reading Abraham Lincoln in a collection edited by Michael Johnson.

Yesterday we focused, among other things, on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. I think we managed to not just recognize the theology in the address, but also to note how Reformed it was, and  also the paradox of this theology was expressed by a non-adherent to any church. (Lincoln regularly attended New York Avenue Presybterian Church while in office, renting a pew there, but he was not a member of it or any other congregation.)

The Reformedness of the address has to do with the clear recognition by Lincoln that both sides, the Union and the Confederacy, were implicated in the injustice–the wrong, the sin–of slavery. All Americans were sinners, Lincoln implied, not just the enemy:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

With our common need recognized, then the way forward could also be recognized:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

A decidedly un-triumphalistic political (and religious) statement.

Not the sort of thing we hear from most leaders most of the time. (The late Nelson Mandela is an exception that proves the rule, so to speak.)

So “my heart was strangely warmed” (I am not exclusively Reformed; I aspire to be ecumenical) to read this morning the words by Iowa-based theologian Jennifer M. McBride with which I began this post. Her interview in the current Christian Century was a theological affirmation of what I try to do in my work as a professor of history. (As a historian at a Christian college, one of the occupational hazards I encounter almost daily is religious and national triumphalism of the past and present–and in myself.)

Find McBride’s entire interview here:

via The witness of sinners: An interview with theologian Jennifer McBride | The Christian Century.

The costly grace of serving God, not the cheap grace of self-service

13 Oct

A few posts ago, I mentioned Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper was a Dutch Reformed theologian-pastor-journalist-professor-politician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In his famous speech opening the Free University in 1880, Kuyper said, “There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!” This has become Kuyper’s most famous statement, at least in North America.

So notes James Bratt, historian at Calvin College, who has recently published the best biography yet on Kuyper.

(Kuyper has some influence around here in northwest Iowa, where Kuyper himself visited in 1898 because of the Dutch Reformed immigrants who came here 1870 and following. For the latter story, look to our forthcoming book Orange City.)

In a post at The 12, Bratt comments on some problems he has with how Kuyper’s famous quote is too often taken:

Here’s my beef. In announcing that any work can be God’s work, we run the risk of saying that any work is God’s work. That whatever we want to do, we may do and put a God stamp on it. Wherever, however, with whomever, with all the standard rewards in that field. You don’t need Kuyper to crown the main chance with piety; all sorts of Christians in every tradition have been at it for centuries. Plus the inference is a whole lot short of what Kuyper said, and what the Gospel teaches. So if we’re going to intone “every square inch,” let’s have some riders attached.

Indeed. We do not need more remaking God in our image. Instead, we need more of loving God and our neighbor in all the realms of our lives, and of life.

To read about the riders Bratt suggests, here’s his entire post:

the12 – James Bratt – Why I’m Sick of “Every Square Inch”.

Desiring Secularity

12 Oct

Jason Lief, faculty at Dordt College, offers some thoughtful reflections on this age (postmodernity?), Catholicism, and Protestantism. He does so as a blogger at The 12, a Reformed (RCA and CRC) site.

Here’s Jason’s post:

the12 – Jason Lief – Desiring Secularity.

(Full disclosure. For one year, in the previous century, Jason was my student assistant. Way to go, Jason!)

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"In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don't." - Blaise Pascal

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