Robert Mugabe as “prophet of God”? :: Police break up Eucharist in Zimbabwe

Police in Zimbabwe have violently disrupted an Anglican communion service, according to the Int. Herald Tribune. A schismatic bishop loyal to Mugabe, (so loyal in fact that he seems to have confused Mugabe with King David, calling him a “prophet of God”) has apparently brought the thuggish machinery of the Zimbabwean state down upon the heads of the faithful. If the outline of this story is correct, this pseudo-bishop’s actions ought to be recognized as a heretical and brought before ecclesial authorities. Here are a few excerpt of the story above: 

Over the past three Sundays, the police have interrogated Anglican priests and lay leaders, arrested and beaten parishioners and locked thousands of worshipers out of dozens of churches. “As a theologian who has read a lot about the persecution of the early Christians, I’m really feeling connected to that history,” said Bishop Sebastian Bakare, 66, who came out of retirement to replace Kunonga. “We are being persecuted.” 

Despite a High Court order requiring that Anglican churches be shared, church officials say that only people who attend services led by priests allied with Kunonga have been allowed to pray in peace.

There are as many dissimilarities as connections, but having spent the fall with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I cannot help but see echoes of the Kirchenkampf–the struggle between the nationalist German Christian Movement and the Confessing Church. 

Pray for the church of Zimbabwe in the months ahead—especially the church facing violence for its recognition of the difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of Robert Mugabe. The unrest in that nation will only increase as the quasi-legitimate run-off election approaches (now set for the end of June) and Mugabe does his best to ensure that he’ll die at the helm of a bleeding country (rather than find himself alone in the disrepute he has justly earned for himself). The church can organize Zimbabwe’s people, hold them in solidarity, and call the government to account for its brutal mistreatment of human beings. Pray for the church to remain faithful to her one Lord and Savior, whose body is broken for the sake of those people bearing the sins of others on their own bodies. 

[5.17.08] Update: Here is a story from Christianity Today with more background on Kunonga,  H/T: Conger

zimbabwe :: a word from the churches

Amidst the continuing electoral crisis in Zimbabwe, the church of that nation is calling out to make public the oppression and violence being perpetrated on the people. The crisis seems to consist of nothing more than the ruling coalition’s inability to recognize that they have lost the election—despite all their efforts to “steer” the outcome.

People are being abducted, tortured, humiliated by being asked to repeat slogans of the political party they are alleged not to support [that is, ZANU PF, the party which has held power for 28 years under Robert Mugabe], ordered to attend mass meetings where they are told they voted for the ‘wrong’ candidate and should never repeat it in the run-off election for President, and, in some cases, people are murdered.

I urge others to make the statement of Zimbabwe’s churches more widely known, and to join in prayer for the people of Zimbabwe—that they would not succumb to chicanery and intimidation, and that peace and justice would be restored to this ravaged land. Lord have mercy.

how did God create himself :: Connor’s question

The previous post introduced a question about God from Connor, I’ve since learned that Connor is only five years old.

My instincts were similar to Matt and Grace; that is, to give Connor an answer that will lead him toward years of fresh and different questions in the same vein. So here is the answer I offered.

The Father loves the Son so much that he gives the Son his life; the Son loves the Spirit so much that he gives his life for the Spirit; the Spirit loves the Father so much that he gives his life for the Father. God’s love is so big that everything that God creates, including time, fits inside—and God loves you!

I cheated and used two sentences; but I did write both of them using a green marker!

The fun and challenging part about Connor’s question is that there is no simple answer that will satisfy the question’s underlying motive. Connor understands that speaking of an unmoved Mover begs the question as to whether the infinite regress can “really” end, or whether there is something “beyond” even this unmoved character. The question cannot be answered from within the framework that it is asked, because there will always be one more question searching for the real foundation.

Connor also seems to have a budding trinitarian instinct! He is not asking, “Who created God?” but “How does God create himself?” He seems to know that inquiring about God’s beginning will be a fruitful endeavor only if it receives an answer from within God’s own life. Whether or not he intended to do so, Connor brushes aside the singular, unchangeable, utterly removed, and utterly simple Hellenic notion of Deity. Connor’s questions begins to hint at self-differentiation within God because the notion of Someone without an external beginning is boggling. This is a wonderful question! Both Jurgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson make similar arguments, so Connor is in good company.

Through the self-revelation of the Trinity, we can speak of a logical beginning for God even though we cannot speak of a temporal beginning. God, from all eternity is found in the Father’s begetting of the Son in love, in the Father’s sending of the Spirit, and in the Son’s reflection of the Father’s Spirit of Love back to the Father. Of course, the story of those relationships cannot be said to have “begun.” Never have the begetting, sending, and loving obedience of the three persons ceased or started (from a temporal perspective). Yet, from a relational (or a logical) perspective, it makes sense to speak of God this way because of what God himself has shown us. The Son and the Spirit testify, in the midst of our history, to their relationships with the Father and with one another.

I remember puzzling over questions like Connor’s when I was a young kid. In the years since I’ve learned that they can be framed in philosophical terms and turned into three-hundred pages of dense technical writing, but it is truly remarkable how the questions themselves don’t change all that much. Children are in touch with the deepest mysteries, paradoxes, and tensions in our worldview, even if they don’t have all the “right” words for their questions, and even if they remain unasked. I for one, am thankful!

an assignment :: one sentence

The pastor of our church handed me a quarter-sheet of paper on Sunday, adorned with red and blue markers. Above a drawing of Jesus on the cross, in excellent seven year old penmanship are the words: 

Dear Pastor, 
How did God create Himself?
From Connor

Being wise, my pastor outsourced his answer to me. Being less than wise, I accepted the challenge. I’ve decided that the only appropriate answer is one written in large block letters with a marker. So how would you answer Connor’s question in one sentence? 

ad radicem :: a new project

The church that Carolyn and I attend has asked me to start an outreach program for young professionals in the neighborhoods around the New York State capital. Rather than going door to door, I’m putting together a theology discussion/Bible study at a local Mexican food restaurant. For those people who are allergic to churches, discussing faith over cerveza and tacos should ease some of the negative ecclesial vibes they may feel. At any rate, I’ve started up another blog as a simple way of getting some information out over the internet for people whose curiosity is piqued by our fliers.

You are welcome to look it over and let me know what you think. Click here.  

without knowing good and evil :: Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology

Flipping pagesAt long last, I put the final touches (and blows) to the thesis today, and it is ready to be shipped off for grading. Quite a relief to have this monkey off my back and to be on to other projects. Below I’ve posted the abstract to the thesis; if you are interested in a copy of the whole thing then drop me an email.

Knowing the difference between good and evil seems central to any account of ethical thought. Yet Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that Christian ethics’ “first task” is to supercede this knowledge. Rejecting the knowledge of good and evil, Bonhoeffer regards modern ethics as continuous with Adam and Eve’s illegitimate meal in the garden of Eden. Grasping at wisdom apart from God, the earliest humans brought death and division into the world. Bonhoeffer’s account of Christian ethics is inimical to the self-justification, judgment of others, and autonomous notions of individual freedom that the knowledge of good and evil provides. Human beings employ their knowledge of good and evil in efforts to unify their lives and communities, but Bonhoeffer sees that these actions spring from the divided state of fallen humanity. Yet if Christian ethics really involves “un-knowing” good and evil, on what basis can Christians confront the complex and difficult decisions that they face daily? How are Christians to respond to violence, destruction, and immorality—both in their own lives and in the acts of people around them? How are Christians (and others) to teach their children how to behave without recourse to some conception of good and evil? This thesis explores the knowledge of good and evil in Bonhoeffer’s writings and traces the development of his ethics as an alternative account of moral knowledge. The ethics of the church, in Bonhoeffer’s understanding, is grounded in the knowledge gained through being incorporated into the body of Jesus Christ, through extending his mission, and through proclaiming his gospel.

living the questions :: an incoherent odyssey

The Adult Education Forum at my church has begun a journey through a video series entitled “Living the Questions.” My reaction to this morning’s video and discussion may hold out promise for a series of posts in the weeks to come, and I would hope to extend the conversation started in the Forum to an even larger group of people.

Living the QuestionsThe video began with a fellow quoting both John Milbank and Alasdair MacIntyre. Naively, I got excited, thinking that this series might provoke some serious dialogue about faith and tradition. The fellow comfortably seated on a desert rock quoted to us MacIntyre’s definition of a tradition: a socially embodied and temporally extended argument.

But from that point forward, the argument was one sided, more of a monologue, really. Furthermore, it proceeded in a direction that neither Milbank nor MacIntyre would have relished introducing.

The first speaker after the introduction was John Shelby Spong, and after him Marcus Borg, followed by Matthew Fox—and a host of folks known for pushing the Christian faith to become… well… something else (or die, in Spong’s estimation). I do recognize some value in bringing these voices into the church—Christians are likely in their day-to-day lives to meet doubts and aberrations stranger than those presented by this cast of characters—we should at least be conversant with these lines of thought. But this video should not be presented as an argument!—at least, not in the sense of a conversation. The makers need not have turned to fire-breathing fundamentalists to balance the views on offer—where were Hauerwas, Wright, Hart, Marty, Williams? Balance, apparently, was not one of the goals of the series. Nor, it would seem, is speaking of the substance of Christian faith.

The metaphor of “The Journey” provided the thematic center for this morning’s episode. Faith is not a destination, we were told, but is exploration, questioning, wrestling, struggling. The one thing that remained certain throughout the presentation is that certainty is the enemy of authentic faith. We need to be willing to “not-know” more and to forsake the albatross of unpleasant beliefs. A few stanzas of the “poem” that came as supplementary material to the video will make this clear:

What would happen if I pursued God—
If I filled my pockets with openness,
Grabbed a thermos half full of fortitude,
And crawled into the cave of the Almighty
Nose first, eyes peeled, heart hesitantly following
Until I was face to face
With the raw, pulsing beat of Mystery?

What if I entered and it looked different
Than enyone ever described?
What if the cave was too large to be fully known,
Far too extensive to be comprehended by one person or group,
Too vast for one dogma or doctrine?

I risk taking the posture of moral indignation here, and I want to avoid it. But I left today’s Forum disheartened and sad—disappointed that our catechesis has come to giving a soapbox to figures who would like to kick out the pillars of the church’s historic faith. We are not in the fortunate position of being so literate in tradition that a few weeks spent teaching on the sacraments, or on the church’s teaching about wealth would come across as old-hat.

There is an oppressive insistence on journeying, and an oppressive privileging of “the journey” that robs people of the genuine hope that the tradition offers. Forcing everyone to reinvent the wheel and find the spiritual answers “for themselves” is not mercy, nor love—it’s modernism. The single mother of three children, who works two jobs to keep a family’s bodies and souls together is ill served by being cast out into the seas of uncertainty to begin her “spiritual journey”—she needs well-trained leaders who can teach her well, and aren’t afraid to do so.

When brothers and sisters are dying of cancer, are we being oppressively dogmatic in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and the hope of wholeness in salvation? When our culture lacks a moral center, is it really all that doctrinaire for the church to point to discipleship as a coherent life?

How far can the church undermine its own proclamation and remain the church? I find the sort of faith that this video was promulgating to be self-centered, vacuous, and ultimately parasitic. Etymologically the word “tradition” is connected to the task of “handing down” what is received from one’s elders. If we are genuinely to conceive of faith as a great personal journey of exploration that may lead us, as it has led Spong, Borg, and Fox, to liberate ourselves of faith in Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and singularity, then what will be left to hand down? Are we, as Dawkins would suggest, abusing our children by teaching them about the faith? We are certainly robbing them of part of their “journey” if we teach them as a “certainty” what they could have discovered on their own some forty years later.

There is some value to be found in the video that we watched this morning. There is a pietistic element in the encouragement toward a journey that encourages personal appropriation and asking difficult questions. Being fully present at church entails a level of engagement that does not take everything for granted. Awe, worship, and wonder all rest on a holy curiosity that presses in toward what is unknown. If this were all that was being said, I would be content to be exhorted from the likes of the characters mentioned above.

Furthermore, I have argued before that the “we” of the creeds (as in “we believe) is not hegemonic but inclusive. Where you or I have doubts, the church may sustain us in its faith; just as we may help to sustain others in their darker times. We profess faith boldly to one another, sometimes beyond our own ken. There is indeed flexibility and room for “journey” within the church’s proclamation. Nevertheless, we continue to profess and proclaim. Faith does not exclude doubt, but it does ask doubt to listen peaceably.

“Living the questions,” however, all too quickly becomes a spiritual navel-gazing that neglects the people God loves. “Living the questions” can become a way to put faith in one’s own journey, rather than in Jesus Christ. Borg spoke metaphorically about walking the Labyrinth: “there is no way to get lost in the labyrinth, even though it is not a direct path.” Unfortunately, that is a difference between labyrinths and real life. Out here, it is possible to get terribly lost, and terribly confused, and to inflict terrible injury on others in the process. When my faith is placed in my own abilities, or in my own journey, then I am left terribly alone, and terribly unaccountable.

Honestly, if I genuinely thought that it was all about “my journey,” I wouldn’t be at church. The coffee is not that good. I can meet interesting and provocative people elsewhere. I can find a decent jello-casserole recipe online. This video only reinforces the message that the mainstream culture sends undulating in our direction with ceaseless pressure. “What do you want? How do you feel? Where do you feel good? Go there! Be that! Choose for yourself! Choose, choose, choose.” This isn’t Mystery; it’s capitalism. Nor is it the solution to the spiritual bankruptcy of fundamentalism; it’s merely the antithesis. Churches that want to prosper under the banner of this mantra are forced to pander to the culture’s whims. Frankly, Lutherans will never be that hip—and when I’ve seen them trying, it has been nothing short of painful.

Rather than searching for therapeutic value in the cross, we ought to return to our roots (maybe even deeper than Luther!), and teach the vibrant and dynamic tradition that we have allowed to turn stale while we blithely looked for something more interesting. Moreover, we should come again to Jesus, whose mystery stretches beyond any of our efforts to summarize, encapsulate, and formulate. Let us carry our questions to the cross, perhaps then we will discover which of them were worth asking in the first place.

the awkward establishment :: merry… happy… whatever

Sitting in Starbucks and listening to Josh Groban croon hymns alternately to my Lord and to the arctic-dwelling sleigh-driving symbol of Mammon’s reign, I read the following with a smile:

‘[Christianity is] in the awkwardly intermediate stage of having once been culturally established but [is] not yet clearly disestablished.’ . . . To one degree or another, all of us are enthralled by a conception of the Christian religion as majority; and our North American fixation upon this imperial model of the church is the more entrenched and adhesive because our sort of establishment has not been one of form but of content—not de jure but de facto. Moreover, in many if not all situations within our context it is still possible to carry on ‘as if’—namely as if it were still Christendom. We are ‘not yet clearly dis-established.’ It is thus a particularly ‘awkward’ period in the history of Christianity in our experience as a (heretofore) mainly European civilization.

____________________
Douglas John Hall “Ecclesia Crucis: The Disciple Community and the Future of the Church in North America,” in Theology and the Practice of Responsibility ed. W.W. Floyd Jr. and C. Marsh (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 59-60; quoting Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 134.

the ‘makeshift and incoherent life’ of tinkerers

Over lunch (triple-decker peanut butter and jelly, to be precise), I ran across a paragraph that reminded me of an ongoing conversation with a good friend:  

“The central image the Wuthnow uses to describe twenty- and thirty- somethings, when it comes to life generally and religion specifically, is ‘tinkering.’ They are, he says, ‘a generation of tinkerers.’ These are a people who pragmatically piece together a jumble of disconnected and sometimes contradictory bits of belief and practice as they—supposedly autonomous individuals—see fit. Tinkering, Wuthnow argues, is a style or habit or strategy driven ultimately by the many economic and cultural uncertainties that characterize American society in recent decades. Tinkerers are resourceful and adaptable but also often live makeshift and less than fully coherent lives.” [1]

Tinkering already assumes the disjunction of trust and truth. Trust is an impossibility in the tinkering life because truth is always something that I (a tinkerer) possess or assemble myself, truth is always contained within my own experience, and therefore there is no room for trust. If trust becomes a truth, it is appropriated as a subjective feeling of dependence, rather than as submission or obedience. Tinkering is a way to remain self-contained, self-controlled, and self-directed. Like every Babel, it tends toward confusion and fragmentation—and leaves every tinkerer alone.

This is the spiritual expression of the American Dream, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the capitalist manifesto—work hard and don’t let anyone tell you what to choose. You can make it!

This deep in history, there seems to be something of the tinkerer in every theologian, but the best theologians self-consciously work within a tradition. Christian theology is born out of the depths of prayer, not out of a sense that it would be nice to have a habit of praying, or that praying might make me a deeper and more sensitive person. This means that Christian theology already presupposes trust as its resting point, the precarious stance from which the whole gospel is proclaimed.

____________________________
[1] Christian Smith, “An Unbooming Business: Review of After the Baby Boomers by Robert Wuthnow [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007]” First Things, no. 179 (Jan 2008): 50.

reading together :: lectionary

Coming to know Dietrich Bonhoeffer better and better this year through my thesis, two of his personal habits have impressed me. The first is the correspondence which he maintained with friends and family. He must have written at least a letter a day, if not more. For all the ease of “getting in touch” through technology these days, I’m not actually sure that we do it more (or more substantially!) than when it was more difficult. 

The second, related habit is his daily reading of Scripture. Not the reading in itself, but the mode of his reading.  Bonhoeffer used, along with many of his friends, family, and colleagues, a daily lectionary. This meant that on any given day, he and many of the people he knew would be reflecting on the same passages. This is reflected in many of his letters from prison, as he speaks to Eberhard Bethge about something he noticed in the day’s passage. 

I’ve been using a daily lectionary now for almost a year, there is much to commend about the practice.

  • The readings “fit” into the ecclesial year, so that the reading is appropriate for the season.
  • I am not left to design my own reading agenda, so I read passages that I might not come to otherwise. 
  • I am not reading alone, but with any number of other church-folk who read the same passage.  

In ecumenical spirit, I have been using the daily lectionary available on the PCUSA’s page. But I did a bit of work to clean it up and put it into a Word document, so I thought I would make that available for anyone who wants to join me in the practice.  

Download the document Here.

a new year :: and we are hungry

Sunday marked the beginning of a new year. The church bulletin I referenced a week ago was not so far off the truth as we might initially think—at least liturgically speaking. We have come to the “end of the Church,” and it is time to start over. We have come to the time of year where there is no church, and we wait for the church’s re-birth in the day we come to reenact Mary’s “yes.”

For now, however, we are thrown into the darkness of winter, looking for Jesus to come, looking for some light in the world. Now we wait in the darkness of so many oppressions, looking for that promised messiah whose coming means liberation, and whose life will finally be the blessing to all nations. It is a good time to wait in the darkness and the quiet, to see if God is with us here. It is a good time to go to the empty spaces, the stables and slums of the world, to see if God might be there. It is a good time to feel the emptiness within, and to cry. It is a good time to hold out empty hands, and to stand with those whose hands are empty. It is a good time to be hungry.

This is a good time to go back to the beginning and pay close attention, to piece together the fragments and prophecies that lead us to the Christ who came; it is a good time to piece together the fragments and promises that hold our hope of his return. It is a good time to look for the Son of Man, that rock hewn from the mountain, whose advent will shatter all the hostile powers and restore the image of God among people who have learned well how to treat each other as beasts. It is a good time to remember the startling news of our proclamation. 

With the Church, in the Church, we have come to the end of the Church, and the days of waiting.