And some United Methodists?

Here’s the background I need to get to post this quote below. Sewanee Uniiversity gave N.T. Wright an honor. A professor wrote that Wright did not deserve to be treated as a serious biblical scholar. Internet hilarity ensued.

And then this piece was written that included this great bit:

Well, Wright is an Anglican and one thing about us Anglicans is that we regard Scripture as sufficient and supreme in the life of the church. In fact, I would point out that the majority of people engaged in biblical studies do so out of a deep reverence and high regard for Scripture as providing authoritative direction for the Christian faith. It is only unbelievers and perhaps some Episcopalians who  are dumbfounded as to why anyone would regard the Bible as somehow normative for their beliefs and ethics.

And some United Methodists?

What Job teaches me about sin

“Sin” is one of those tough words in Christianity. A lot of people outside the faith don’t understand it. Many of them find it off putting. At the same time, many people who claim the name of believer don’t actually know what they mean by the word either.

When I encounter problems like these, I try to stay alert in my Bible reading to clues that might help me see things more clearly. The Book of Job, I find, is a particularly rich resource.

In the course of his self-defense against his friends, Job provides evidence of his innocence. In Job 31, he lists many sins for which he claims to bear no guilt. Here is a quick summary of his list:

  • He does not walk with falsehood or hurry after deceit (31:5)
  • He has not let attractive or alluring or appetizing things control his choices (31:7)
  • He has not lusted after a woman who is not his wife (31:9)
  • He has not denied justice to his servants when they have fair complaints against him (31:13)
  • He has not refused to share his bread, support, or clothing with the poor, the orphan, and the widow (31:16-19)
  • He has not let injustice against the poor occur in court without offering his help (31:21)
  • He has not put his trust in gold (31:24)
  • He has not worshiped the sun or moon (31:26)
  • He has not rejoiced at his enemy’s misfortune (31:29)
  • He has not cursed his enemies (31:30)
  • He has not closed his doors to the traveler or stranger (31:32)
  • He has not hidden from the people who might see whether he has sinned (31:33-34)
  • He has not been unjust to the people who farm on his land (31:39)

This may not be an exhaustive list of sin. But it certainly is long enough to challenge us to examine our own lives.

And most importantly, Job understands that the court of this judgment is not ultimately his own heart or the opinion of his friends, but God: “What will I do when God confronts me? What will I answer when called to account?” (31:14)

God in the Bible has given us some clear teaching about what he expects of us. He has also left us with some teaching that we find more difficult to sort out. In the end, the proper frame of reference is the judgment of God. How will we stand before God when called to account?

What Job teaches me about sin

Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

Don’t blame the blade

I would remind those who cite Scripture as the rationale for their resistance to same-sex marriage to acknowledge the following. Scripture was cited to support prohibitions against the ordination of women, the validation of the enslavement of blacks, support for racial segregation, and resistance to interracial marriage.

– Gil Caldwell, UMR Commentary

Jack the Ripper used a scalpel to murder women in London. Should we not let surgeons use scalpels then?

If the Bible is a means of grace meant to lead us into holiness, then the question is not whether some people have used it to support bad arguments in the past. The only question is “How is the Holy Spirit using scripture right now to lead us into holiness?”

Don’t blame the blade

Is theology always a golden calf?

To what degree is theology an outgrowth of its context?

A student of church history is taught early on that the great Christological debates of the early church grew out of the cultural brew of late antiquity. The proclamation of Christ ran up against the philosophy and world-view of the Greco-Roman culture. Out of this encounter eventually came the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Chalcedonian definition.

Reading Augustine’s Confessions and studying his theology, you can see how pressing questions of the day created crucibles in which theology was clarified and refined.

We might say these doctrinal truths were always lying in wait to be discovered — like pure silver hidden in the surrounding rocks. But you don’t have to go far into church history to see the way local and particular concerns give shape to theology in ways that can have lasting influence.

And so, I wonder, to what degree we should understand theology as the product of its times and circumstances.

This kind of question has been pressed quite forcefully in the last 50 years by feminist and liberation theologies of various kinds. My introduction to these forms of theology has come through the work of theologians concerned with disability. What I see them doing is placing a priority and primacy on experience as the source of key theological questions and the standard by which theological answers are judged useful.

It is writers such as James H. Cone, however, who put this in the most pointed terms.

For instance, in the introduction to his book Risks of Faith, he writes about his struggle to articulate a theology that was responsive to his deepest concerns as a black man living in the 1960s. He writes that his education at Garrett and Northwestern did not prepare him to respond to the questions black people of faith were asking.

I found myself grossly ill-prepared, because I knew deep down that I could not repeat to a struggling black community the doctrines of the faith as they had been reinterpreted by Barth, Bultmann, Niebuhr, and Tillich for European colonizers and white racists in the United States. I knew that before I could say anything worthwhile about God and the black situation of oppression in America I had to discover a theological identity that was accountable to the life, history, and culture of African-American people.

When I read Amos Yong’s Theology and Down Syndrome, I hear a similar commitment to making the experience of the disabled the test of theology. In Yong’s case, the commitment to experience becomes a strainer through which scripture must be squeezed. It leads Yong to find much of scripture unhelpful to his theological project and leads him to suggest new readings that fill in the silences of scripture with the experiences or points-of-view of those with disabilities.

I am tempted to say that all these are instances of a canon within a canon becoming the touchstone for all theology. The idea of a canon within a canon is not new. What I see here is an expansion of the idea of canon. For some theologians the canon within the canon is a particular book or the particular reading of a book of the Bible. For others the canon within the canon is the experience of being black in America or a woman or poor in South America or mentally disabled.

I think Cone would argue that the received theology in the Western church is based on the canon of white (straight?) (male?) European experience.

From these points of view, then, what is theology other than the momentarily popular opinion of whatever person or group happens to be writing and speaking right now?

How do I know I’m not dancing in front of a golden calf?

Is theology always a golden calf?

Reading & living with humility

For a number of years now I’ve been attracted to William J. Abraham’s contention that scripture is a means of grace rather than a source of claims and facts to settle theological arguments. (He does not use those exact words, but I think that is fair to what he means.)

The longer form of his argument can be found in this book. A less exhaustive version can be found here.

As a means of grace, the Bible challenges us and calls us into the life of God. Its complexity and internal arguments are not problems to be solved. They are rather reminders that we see now only in part. The Holy Spirit uses the Bible to meet us in different ways at different times, calling us ever deeper into the life of God.

If this is true, then one of the things we are called to surrender to the Holy Spirit is our need for certainty. Not only is the truth the Spirit teaches me today not necessarily the same the truth you need to be taught, it may not even be the same truth I need to learn tomorrow or next year.

This kind of attitude toward scripture plays havoc with our desire for certainty and system. All those virtuoso tomes of systematic theology are beautiful but can never be the final word. No pastor — no matter how successful — can ever claim to have captured the final truth of faith. No blogger — heaven help us — has been given full access to the mind of God. We all must be more humble than that.

And this humility must extend especially to the forms of Christian life and faith that we find least comporting with our own. My theologically liberal friends who sneer at the Sinner’s Prayer and greet with incredulity talk of spiritual healing and demonic attack could be more humble, as could my theologically conservative friends who did not know how to comment on the recent death of Marcus Borg without first pointing out that they disagreed with a lot he wrote and find themselves wanting to put air quotes around the word “Christian” when they refer to some of their brothers and sisters.

I know these comments extend to me as well. In recent months, I’ve learned the hard way that things I once regarded as certain can quickly melt into nothing. I have been guilty as any of confusing what appeared to be clear for the whole truth.

Yes, to exist, the church needs borders and boundaries. It needs bishops to exercise discipline. I do not for a moment doubt that. But I am reminded these days that I am not a bishop, nor am I well suited for that office.

Part of humility may be leaving to those called to that office the tasks of that office, even when it looks from my vantage point as if they could or should be doing something differently than they are.

The great paradox I feel in all this is that while we are called to be humble about what we think we know of God, we are not called to sit on our hands. What we know only in part should still should shape the way we live and act, while we remain ever ready for the Holy Spirit to challenge and call us into new paths.

And so, today I find myself seeking to be more humble about what I know even as I — perhaps paradoxically — try to be even more intent on following the one who has called me.

Reading & living with humility