Friday, October 1, 2010

Christology

This is an essay that I wrote for my Theological Understandings of Jesus class. We were asked to reflect on the human and divine nature of Christ and to try to present it in a way that would be accessible.

As a seminary student and young pastor, I have committed myself to the full time study of Scripture, and of things like theology and church history as an avenue toward a deeper understanding of the Bible. For as much as I find this enterprise fascinating and even enjoyable, like many seminarians, I often find myself confronted by the question “so what?” Of course, this question is sometimes presented as a constructive challenge, and other times almost as an accusation. But the basic point remains consistent. The nuances of Abelard’s moral influence theory may be interesting food for thought, but what does it mean for the church today? Being able to parse out the differences between docetism and adoptionism and track the Gnostic influences of each may score some points on Christian jeopardy, but how does it help create more faithful disciples? I want to propose two things in this article- first I would call seminaries and academics to recognize that these are worthwhile questions. We must not react with defensiveness or with personal indignation at the perceived denigration of our chosen vocation. Secondly, I would say that these valid questions so often posed to seminarians have valid answers. The work of full time study of Scripture is worthwhile, and offers something precious to the life and mission of the church. There are a myriad of ways that our understandings of Scripture and how exactly it describes the person and work of Jesus deeply affect our life and work as the Church. So deeply in fact that it often goes unperceived by most of us. I want to suggest that careful, intentional reflection on these matters will enrich and invigorate the life of the Church.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with a story. As part of my seminary education, it has been my very great joy to serve among a group of young people, where I have been asked to mentor them and instruct a weekly Bible study discussion group. We began our study going chapter by chapter through the gospel of Matthew, and we all found ourselves drawn into the text. Even though most of us had been familiar with the New Testament for most of our lives, a careful look at it, which pooled the perspectives of people from different age, racial, and economic groupings raised questions that were intriguing and sometimes unsettling. How is it that Jesus was tempted in the desert, if God can not be tempted (James 1:13)? If God is omnipotent, why would Jesus so often have to perform such strange rituals in order to heal people, like spiting on the ground, or having people wash themselves in fountains, etc? Why would Jesus not know something the Father knows, if he and the father are one (Matt. 24:36)?

Even more disconcerting than these questions though were some of the answers that were proposed. Everyone present in our discussion would have identified themselves as orthodox Christian people, and would affirm the creedal formula that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. Yet when confronted with these difficult stories, we began to flounder and speculate. It must be only Jesus’ human nature that is tempted or limited in knowledge or power. The picture that emerged was of a kind of schizophrenic Jesus, sometimes acting as a human and other times acting as God, switching without warning. How could we then be sure, which of Jesus’ natures was at work in any given portion of the gospel? It was easy to say that the miracles were from the divine nature and the finitude from the human nature, but which was it that reinterprets Torah, or cleanses the Temple? Which side was it that died, and which was resurrected on the third day? What do we make of the staggering implications those questions would have, no matter how we answered them?

It soon became clear that this approach was untenable. How could we continue on as people of faith if we had to constantly discern and dissect the human from the divine in the life of Jesus, never really sure whether it was God or a human acting in the gospels? It was clear at this point that we had gotten off-base somewhere. Our basic assumptions were askew, and we were missing some unifying factor in the person and work of Jesus. Jesus is not two beings; one human and one divine, sharing a body. Jesus is one person, who is simultaneously fully human and fully God. This was what the whole of Church tradition had affirmed, but our messy and confusing Bible study made it clear that it wouldn’t be enough to just affirm that language, call it a paradox and move on. If we look into the gospels with an insufficient understanding of what that creedal affirmation means, we will find ourselves badly misunderstanding and misusing the word of God, of which we are called to be faithful stewards. So, we began to think more deeply and more carefully about those basic assumptions of who Jesus is.

Justo Gonzalez articulates well the problem our little Bible-study circle was facing. Our definition of God was one that made the idea of full divinity and humanity nonsensical, a logical contradiction. “In effect, what the Church had done in accepting the notion of God as impassible, immutable, infinite, omnipotent, and so forth was to define God in terms of the negation of human limits…God is whatever humans are not and vice versa”. We should hardly have been surprised, then, that it was difficult to conceive of God in human flesh. Perhaps it was our very definition of God that needed some fine-tuning in light of the gospel’s revelation of Jesus.

I came to realize that what we had meant by affirming that Jesus is God all this time was that Jesus is somehow connected with this abstract and static notion of God that is prior to Jesus. In doing so we were constrained to make Jesus fit into our categories of God. The problem was, the Jesus of the gospels so often did not fit into those categories. The end result was that our portrait of the schizophrenic Jesus preserved our notion of God, but sacrificed the affirmation that Jesus is fully human and fully God. With this realization, a new line of thought began to dawn on us as a community of faith. What if we let the Jesus of the gospels set our definition of God instead of trying to force Jesus into a preconceived definition? What if we made the full humanity and divinity of Jesus our starting point, and let our definition of God flow from there, instead of the other way around? What qualities would we find fundamentally define God?

Well of course, if Jesus is setting our definition of God, we will have to abandon the notion that God is defined by the negation of human limitations. Of course Jesus does have a kind of power, even sovereignty, but it is clearly not the kind of abstract or absolute omnipotence we had previously ascribed to God. The power of Jesus is, most fundamentally, the power to save and to redeem. The Jesus of the gospels is marked by a profound power to enter situations of brokenness- relational brokenness, oppressive and dysfunctional religious systems, physical suffering, disruption of the natural world, and restore wholeness. Jesus’ power, God’s power, is the power to bring people and the world back to the way they were created to be, restoring and healing the damage that has been done by the power of sin. So what does this have to do with Jesus’ humanity? We humans, being made in God’s image, also have the capacity to bring wholeness and reconciliation. That power is not mutually exclusive to being human, but all humans except Jesus fail to use that power, choosing instead to take up a destructive form of power.

This same dynamic is helpful for the way that we think about other “attributes” traditionally ascribed to God as we think about Jesus. In addition to omnipotent, God is often called omnipresent. And we read in the Great commission in Matthew that Jesus promises to be with us always. However, again in this context we see that there is so much more to Jesus’ presence than mere existence within space. Jesus says he is with us as we go about the work that he has for us- the work of salvation for the world. So what kind of presence is this? This is a case where we may find it helpful to describe an idea in relation to its opposite. Most often the Bible, God’s promise to be “with us” is not juxtaposed to ‘I am away from you”, or “I am absent”. Rather, the opposite of God’s promise “I am with you” is “I am against you”. Jesus promise is not simply that he will exist in all places and times at once, but that he goes side by side with his church into the mission field, as an ally and supporter. He is working with us in all that we do for his Kingdom.

When Jesus is the beginning point for our idea of who God is, we could hardly draw the conclusion that God is an incomprehensible abstraction so beyond human limitations that he becomes static nonsensical. The God that the person and work of Jesus reveals is passionate, active, and relational God. Not just omnipotent in some dry sense, but mighty to save through the startling and unforeseeable power of self-sacrificial love. Not merely existing in all places, but acting redemptively in all places with and through the body he has called to follow him. Not just omniscient in that he has access to all conceivable information, but knowing the hearts- the cries needs fears joys and possibilities- for the world and its people. Loving enough to be deeply affected and moved by the world and its subjugation to sin, and trustworthy to always respond with saving grace. These are qualities which we as humans will embody and live out more and more as we follow Jesus, for it is Jesus Christ alone who is fully divine; faithfully and powerfully representing all these by which God is God, yet fully human- living them out in flesh and blood, in gender and in relationships, in a particular time and place, and in all that is human, to lead the way for us.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Foolish Investment, Faithful Witness.

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

The reading from Jeremiah this morning is an intriguing one. It represents such a jarring turn in the flow of the narrative that the reader has to stop and take notice of this peculiar little story. To really grasp it, we need to take a step back and see what has been happening to lead up to this point.
For over thirty chapters now, Jeremiah has been earning the title “The Weeping Prophet”. The book has beckoned us to walk with the prophet as he goes from a timid youth in prosperous times to an impoverished and imprisoned old man, heartbroken over the fulfillment of his own predictions. You see, Jeremiah first receives a call from the Lord to be a prophet at a time of relative ease and contentment in his home country of Judah. They had survived the conflict with the Assyrian empire, and had secured a place as one of the major military powers of the region. Judah also had a thriving economy that made them the leading producer of some high-demand agricultural commodities like olives and wine. And the people took this as a sign of God’s providence and faithfulness to them. One hundred years earlier God had proclaimed through one of Jeremiah’s predecessors, Isaiah, that Judah and their capital city of Jerusalem would be kept safe. That he would never allow foreign armies to set foot in the holy Temple. And the people rested comfortably on that promise.
But prophets are not called without a cause. The Lord spoke through Jeremiah to this new generation because something beneath the surface of all that prosperity and security was deeply wrong, and it was already beginning to fester. Along the way they had ceased to trust in the Lord as their protector and sustainer and had begun to play the game of the other nations, shrewdly striking military alliances, working the precarious balance of power to look for an edge. Politicking instead of praying. Trusting in Egypt or Syria instead of the Lord. To achieve the veneer of prosperity they slowly eroded the economic practices prescribed in Torah. Charging excessive interest and putting their neighbors into debtor’s prison. Allowing a few to accumulate more land than was rightfully theirs and consigning its true owners to toil upon it as indentured servants. Exporting food for the profit of the aristocracy while the common person went hungry. And so Jeremiah was called as a prophet. As a teenager, little more than a child, he began to name the injustices and the incongruities of the world around him. Desperately and feverishly declaring that the day would come when God would bring the people to a breaking point. Their success and safety wouldn’t last unless they gave up their excess and arrogance. In a time of plenty, Jeremiah preached doom and repentance.
And after thirty years of this, Jeremiah’s words had proven true. The military allegiance that Judah had struck with Egypt failed them, and the King of Babylon had already ransacked the holy city of Jerusalem and made the king a slave. The Babylonians had blockaded the area to stop the imports and exports, making Jerusalem a ghetto. The people were still looking to Egypt for rescue, so Jeremiah was still proclaiming the judgment of God on the city. It would be not only conquered, but also destroyed. And the Temple, their great hope and pride, would be demolished.
This is why Jeremiah wept. Why he cried out for his homeland and people, in vain frustration with both his neighbors and with God. Jeremiah grieved mightily, with scandalous unrestrained tears, for his neighbor’s trust in the powers of the world and for their blindness to the word and work of God.
As always, the word of God comes to us in a timely fashion. Allen Ginsberg once said that prophecy is the ability to feel and know, and say, what other people will know and feel a hundred or a thousand years later. Although the prophetic word is spoken into history, a particular time and place, to a particular person, it transcends that time and place by speaking to the things that are most deeply human. Jeremiah’s story and Judah’s story are our story too. We feel and know what Jeremiah felt and knew.
Like Jeremiah we are in a season on national crisis, wherein the foundations of our society are being called into question. For almost thirty years the American public has, for the most part, placidly enjoyed the prosperity and security of our station in the world. Thanks to genetic engineering, government subsidies, and the technology to process a few basic starches into almost anything we want, our food production has literally increased a hundred fold in the last thirty years. With Apple and Google leading the way, America has dominated the new market of media and communications technology, each year innovating new products that yield fortunes to their stockholders. For decades, the stock market and Gross Domestic Product climbed steadily upward, to levels that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. More technology, more production, more entertainment, more, more, more….
Yet underneath the prosperity and security, the droning of “all is well” from the corporations and politicians, those who were discerning could sense a deep sickness. As overall wealth ballooned, standard of living for the average person began to crumble. All the prosperity brought inflation, but wages either remained level or dropped. In the course of those thirty years where the economy grew, so did our disparity. The wealthiest one percent of our nation went from owning 20% of the nation’s wealth, to owning over 60% of it. Hunger and malnutrition in the US have grown at the same rate as our food production. Illiteracy has grown to match the flood of media and technology. Crime rates, rates of addiction, rates of teenage pregnancy have all steadily climbed along with the supposed prosperity which left so many bankrupt.
Along the way, we have given sway to our basest impulses, allowing fear and frustration to woo us into scapegoating. We blame the innocent bystanders for the crimes of a vast economic and political system that none of us can fully grasp- migrant workers who are themselves being exploited by this system, Muslims and Arab-Americans, and the GLBT community are the most popular scapegoats at the moment, but that same impulse has always been with us in one form or another.
And just like those living in the besieged city of Jerusalem, we have seen the sham of this prosperity exposed. Our unsustainable economics have collapsed under their own weight. The bubble has burst, as they say. Most of us can’t explain exactly what has happened, something about the housing market and sub prime mortgages, but we feel it deep in the pits of our stomachs. Our friends and neighbors, and we ourselves, have been laid off and had our houses foreclosed upon. Collection notices pile up in the mailboxes. And we look back at the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s and sadly shake our head as we realize that the whole time, the Emperor had no clothes.
And, just like the people Jeremiah preached to, we see those around us still calling on Egypt to save us from Babylon. Still thinking that hope and peace lie in shrewdly maneuvering the powers of the world. Pitting one political party against the other. Pitting Main Street against Wall Street, or the government against the corporate world. And with Jeremiah, God’s people weep and mourn this blindness, this hardness of heart that only serves to increase scapegoating, to divide us further and impoverish us more.

That is where this morning’s story meets us. It turns from the hysteric, tearful oracles about empires and economies to a simple, mundane piece of personal business in Jeremiah’s life. Jeremiah’s cousin wants to sell his field. The law says that he has to offer dibs to family members before going to outsiders. And in a surprising twist, the word of the Lord, which had come to declare the rise and fall of nations, comes to Jeremiah ahead of time, and tells him to buy his cousin’s land. It’s most likely just a small plot, what we would call one or two acres. And yet this small plot of land, this simple transaction between two family members, is infused with meaning as the Lord speaks into it. The purchase of this field becomes a symbolic gesture, a prophetic act of hope for the people of Jerusalem. In this small and simple act, Jeremiah is continuing to declare God’s word to the people.
The weeping prophet is not resigned to despair. Here, he looks past the trauma of the present circumstances and remembers what he has been saying all along; it is the Lord and not the king of Babylon, nor the king of Judah, nor any other power of this world that directs the future of God’s people. And God’s promise of redemption is not annulled. As true as it is that Egypt cannot save Jerusalem, it is also true that Babylon cannot erase the covenant God has declared with God’s people.
Jeremiah buys his cousin’s field as an act of faith in that covenant. You see, the land was more than just real estate to Jeremiah. From the time God first led the Israelites out of slavery, the land has represented the Lord’s promise of freedom and redemption. To have a plot of the Promised Land is each Israelite’s birthright, and a sign that they belong to God’s set-apart people. But Hanamel, Jeremiah’s cousin, has lost faith in that promise. With Babylon besieging the city, he assumes all the land will soon belong to a foreign King. The best thing he can do is liquidate his assets and hunker down for the coming storm.
That is where Jeremiah’s act of faithfulness comes in. He invests in the divine promise that others are giving up on. By purchasing his cousin’s field, Jeremiah rebuts the despair and resignation to worldly powers that is spreading around him. The land means hope. It means having something to pass to the next generation. And it means relying on God in defiance of Babylon, in defiance of Egypt, and at times in defiance even of the King in Judah. It means placing radical, unreasonable faith in the Lord when all the powers of the world say otherwise.
Where his cousin and the rest of his community see only despair, only the economic collapse and impending destruction at the hands of Babylon, Jeremiah puts his money where his mouth by investing, literally, in the promises of God to the people. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” And everything that land represents holds firm. Though the world may rage, though you face dark times and worldly powers too big to understand let alone control, God remains. The Lord has never and will never forsake the people of covenant. Egypt and Babylon offer only vanity, but in the Lord there is hope.

Just as we share in the crisis of Jeremiah’s community, we share his hope in the Lord. As the community of faith, the Scripture of this morning empowers us to see through the empty promises and doublespeak that emanate daily from pundits on television and radio. We are invited to be assured in our faith that it is God who directs our future, who holds and protects us, and we receive this word in defiance of all political parties, all corporate interests, and all media punditry. We place our hope in the Lord, not in any of those powers of the world. And when we do, God responds with unending faithfulness.
But the Scripture this morning does not stop at comforting us or calling us to a renewed faith. It also commissions us, calls us to a ministry. If we share in the prophet’s mourning for the state of the world around him, and in his hope that the Lord’s promise is renewed, then we also share in his work. We too are called to those prophetic acts large and small, those gestures of faith and hope that defy all the world’s reasoning. Only God’s promise to us does not lie in physical land or property. We don’t see the Lord’s faithfulness manifest in borders and acreage. Instead, God’s ongoing and unfailing faithfulness in is the divine image placed in each person, and in the promise of the Holy Spirit to the community of faith. In our neighbors, our friends and family, and most of all our church community. Each time you speak a word of hope and comfort to your neighbor. Each time you reach out to the person that everyone says is a lost cause. Each time you transgress a social barrier made of prejudice and fear to offer hospitality. Each time you refuse to hoard and be stingy so that you can give of your time money and energy to those who have need and to the next generation. In all of these things you perform small, but incredibly meaningful prophetic acts. You defy the powers of this world in favor of the promise of God. And in the midst of vast political and corporate systems offering only despair and scapegoats, you offer to this world a vision of hope in the unshakable promises of the Lord that once again there will be faith and redemption for this community. So be empowered, and respond to this call as the prophets God has made you to be, enlivened by the grace and joy offered in God’s promise.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Queer Dicitonary

In the past couple of weeks I have met several people whose stories have reinforced something I already knew: gender and sexuality are more complicated than just "straight" and "gay". There is a world of diversity and complexity that demands our attention and deserves our acknowledgement. Language is always limited, and also always in flux. But still, it is helpful and good to have some vocabulary to help us to express and honor the diversity of gender and sexual expressions. So I am hoping here to compile and explain some of the words we may use in this venture. The list and definitions are my own, and like all of us I am continuing to learn. So I will ask a few things of you who are reading. First, come with an open mind and heart. Some of what is described below will be foreign and different, but please hear people's stories and learn the vocabulary to describe it on its own terms before making a judgment as to its validity. Second, if I write anything that is incorrect, please give me grace. Third, please correct and expand on this list where that is needed.

The Basics

1. Sex- biological maleness or femaleness. Although this is commonly thought to be simple and discrete, there are many variances. So it is helpful to know how a person's sex is defined. Three factors are considered in identifying sex. Chromosomal configuration, anatomy of genitalia, and procreative capacity (the ability to produce sperm or eggs).

2. Gender- The way in which one experiences one's own masculinity and femininity mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially.

3. Sexual Orientation- A description of what sort of person (in terms of sex and gender) one tends to be attracted to and to fall in love with.


Queer Sex and Gender

4. Intersex- this word describes a wide range of conditions, present from birth, wherein a person's biological sex can not be clearly identified as male or female. It may include ambiguous genitalia, atypical chromosomes, or other physical signs. Some persons with ambiguous genitalia are surgically "corrected" at birth, meaning that many intersex persons are unaware of their condition. Approximately 1 in 1000 people is intersex.

5. Hermaphrodite- This word is often confused with intersex. True hermaphrodites are incredibly rare and are only a small percentage of even the intersex population. A true hermaphrodite is a person who is able to produce both viable sperm and viable eggs.

6. Transgender- An umbrella terms that describes a range of persons whose gender identity does not conform to social conventions. Among them are
MtF- Male to female. A person who is born biologically and anatomically male, but whose gender identity is female.
FtM- Female to Male. A person who is born biologically and anatomically female, but whose gender identity is male.
Gender Queer- A person whose gender identity is not exclusively male or female. Some gender queer persons experience their gender as a combination of both male and female, some as neither male nor female, and some as a third gender altogether. A gender queer person may be of any biological sex.

7. Transition- The process by which a transgendered person alters their clothing and style, and sometimes makes medical alterations to their body, so that their external appearance comes to be consistent with their gender identity.

8. Transsexual- A person who has medically altered their physical body in order to make it consistent with their gender identity.

Note: In polite conversation, one generally uses the term "transgendered" no matter where the person is in the process of their transition, as a way of acknowledging that it is what is their heart, not what's in their pants, that matters. So, a transgendered person who has made a medical transition is still commonly referred to as transgendered rather than transsexual.

9. Drag- A person who, for purposes of entertainment or sometimes political demonstration, dresses as a comically exaggerated version of the opposite sex. A person in drag is wearing a costume and playing a character, not expressing their true self. This distinguishes Drag from Trans.

10. PGP's- Preferred Gender Pronouns. What pronoun a person prefers others to use in reference to them. Aside from the traditional "he/him" and "She/Her", English is evolving to include gender neutral personal pronouns. There is not yet a standardization of these, but the leading contender seems to be "Ze". "Ze" is used in the subject of a sentence in place of "He/She"; "Zem" is used in the predicate in place of "him/her"; "Zer" is the possessive form used in place of "his/her" and so on.

11. Binary Gender System- The erroneous assumption that there are only two possible expressions of gender and sex, male or female.

Orientation Terms
12. Kinsey Scale- A scale of 1-6 first developed by Alfred Kinsey to express orientation. The scale is helpful in its acknowledgement that orientation is a spectrum rather than 2 or 3 discrete categories. However, it relies on the binary gender system and thus loses meaning when applied to trans and intersex persons.

13. Heterosexuality- The proclivity to be attracted to and fall in love with persons whose gender is opposite one's own. Straight.

14. Homosexuality- The proclivity to be attracted to and fall in love with persons whose gender is the same as one's own. Gay.

Note: the above two terms use the gender of the people involved as a referent point, not necessarily their biological sex. So, for example, an MtF transgender person who is attracted to men is heterosexual, not homosexual. A conventionally gendered man who is attracted to an MtF transgender person is also heterosexual.

15. Bisexuality- The proclivity to be attracted to and fall in love with both men and women.

16. Pansexuality- A way of describing orientation that does not rely on the binary gender system. The proclivity to be attracted to and fall in love with any sort of person, including but not limited to all varieties of transgender and intersex persons.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Islamophobia

I have been saddened, but not surprised, to see the growing tide of anti-Muslim rhetoric and the commensurate backlash in the news and public discourse recently. Mostly the recent controversies have revolved around the erroneously labeled "Ground Zero Mosque" and the well publicized plans of Terry Jones to hold an event centered on burning the Qur'ran (which he spells "Koran"). The conflict has become so pervasive that a previously unknown word has now entered our common parlance, "Islamophobia".

The basic flow of the controversy is no big secret. It's election season, and human nature is such that fear and anger are bigger political motivators than constructive thought. People, in general, tend to vote more on what they are against than on what they are for. Throw in some references to our greatest national tragedy in modern history, and you've got yourself an energized base. So a previously uncontroversial Islamic Community Center to be built at an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory is dubbed the Ground Zero Mosque, and the image of the Arab Boogie Man that dates back to before 9/11 is invoked once again. And underlying the scripted public statements and political stunts is the narrative "Foreigners, Muslims, and liberals are taking over the country. They are trampling on everything you value. You have to stop them by voting for the homespun, just-like-you conservative." The other side of Islamophobia is Whiteophilia.

But then somebody doesn't get the game. He takes the political posturing too seriously, too much to heart, and becomes an embarrassment. He acts as if he really believes what those politicians are saying, that this is a matter of life and death. At stake is the survival of the American way of life and the Christian faith. So a man with a silly mustache ends up on television rallying people to burn the Koran on 9/11, acting befuddled that people find it offensive. And that triggers the backlash. The Muslim world, and more pertinently the self-appointed intellectuals of the secular world make the man with the silly mustache a prop in their own political posturing. They point to him as proof that conservatives and Christians are narrow, small-minded bigots. They use him to present all American Christians as unstable and borderline violent. And so the scapegoating just goes round and round.

Many of my Christian friends have expressed frustration about the global response to Terry Jones' Koran burning. They have pointed out how unfair it is to present this previously unknown pastor of a 50 member congregation in the swamps of Florida as a spokesperson for their faith. And they are right of course. It is completely unfair to take the worst, most fringe, crazy-looking person claiming to adhere to a certain group and use him or her as a lens through which to judge the group as a whole. Terry Jones can not be said to represent all American Christianity, and anyone who makes that argument is not acting with integrity.

But as a Christian, let me propose that we do more than get offended. More than throw up our hands and pout at the unfairness with which we are being treated. As people who believe in the Gospel, in reconciliation and God's working all things together for good, let us use this moment as an opportunity to become more faithful and more thoughtful. Let's find a third way, above the knee-jerk political posturing of the left and the right. I want to propose one way that we do this.

We open ourselves to this cruciform experience of being maligned and marginalized. We take the experience of being caricatured based upon the worst elements of our group, and recognize how unfair, frustrating, and irresponsible it is. And we remember that feeling the next time we meet a Muslim, or a gay person, or an illegal immigrant, or a person on welfare, or a homeless person. Remember what it feels like to be on the margins, prejudged because of the actions of others. And ask how often we have been in the opposite role.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Parable

People, and in fact all creatures, have always varied in height from one to another. Some are very tall, others are very short, and most are somewhere in the middle. This is part of the good and perfect design of the world. Both tall and short people offer distinct and valuable contributions to their communities and to the world at large.

At a particular time and place in human history, it was decided by the mechanisms of human culture that people who were tall were superior to those who were short. Even though there had always been tall and short people, and every other creature showed the same diversity (some bears, fish, birds, etc. of the same species being larger or smaller than others), the preference for tall people took deep root in human culture. Tall people were invested with economic and political power, and began to design societies and governments to further reinforce their privilege. Over time, this concept was overlaid with religious and moral rationalization. The tall people assured themselves and the rest of the world that God intended people to be tall, that tallness was natural and morally good. Being short was an aberration, a defect, and a sign that the person was morally and spiritually deficient.

So tallness was enshrined as a virtue in all the foundations of society. Over the centuries, churches, courthouses, businesses, and homes were designed with high countertops and tall chairs. Sacramental objects were placed on very high shelves so that only the tall could serve as priests or judges. All established art and stories were made to depict and celebrate the tall. Culture was filled with images of towering men and statuesque women. The very tall pointed to these designs as proof that tallness was superior. "See? The whole world shows us how obvious it is that we are meant to be tall. Even our most sacred and beautiful places show the goodness of being tall."

The majority who were neither tall nor short, insisted that they were in fact tall. They learned to posture themselves to lean comfortably on too-high counters and chairs, and learned to ignore the inconvenience of those high shelves being just out of reach. When they met someone significantly taller than they were, or when their tallness was called into question, they learned to deflect by castigating someone shorter than themselves. In times of crisis, they even learned to achieve their needed societal unity by violently scapegoating the short people among them.

As this society moved into a more modern phase, people began to whisper questions about the superiority of the tall. A few courageous and prescient persons openly declared that there were not just tall and short people, that almost everyone was somewhere in between. There was a tremendous backlash and those people were called anarchists and heretics. But they had named something everyone had known subconsciously, and it could not be unsaid.

Short people began to congregate, to design their own buildings with low countertops and shelves, and tell their own stories with short heros and tall villains. The tall, and the majority who were somewhere in the middle, tried to ignore these short establishments. When they did come up it was considered grotesque and a sign of the impending collapse of society. It was best not speak of such things in polite company. But the short people couldn't be ignored. More and more tall people found that their children, their siblings, their neighbors, were refusing to pretend to be tall.

But then a short man looked at the world around him, and at all those stories and images of the towering men and statuesque women, and became afraid. He couldn't divest himself of the message that short people were defective and wrong, and was scared by the potential consequences of redesigning society to make room for both the tall and the short. The it occurred to him that if the short people could reap the benefits of tallness without going through the effort of reordering society, they certainly would. So he started telling the world that shortness could be changed. Short people could become tall, as they had been designed to be. Sometimes he said shortness was a moral defect and that people could be taught to be tall. Other times he said it was more like a disease that could be cured. But either way, he insisted that although he had once been short, he had become tall. So he started wearing shoes with thick soles and clothes with vertical stripes. He would tease his hair as tall as it would go and stand on his tiptoes in every photograph taken.

Most of the people around the short man wanted desperately, for their own peace of mind, to believe that he was tall. So they let themselves be convinced. But others wanted to know how they too could become tall. So the man contrived a treatment that he promised would make short people tall. He began administering asbestos to the short, claiming it was a cure. But he also told them that it would only work if they began to act tall, to believe they were tall. So he also taught them how to wear thick shoes and vertical stripes, to tease their hair and stand on their tiptoes.

By this time, people had begun to examine the issue rationally and critically. They could prove empirically that being short was just a natural part of the world. That in all creatures some are just smaller than others, that they always have been and always would be. They could also prove that the asbestos treatments were not curing shortness. They could prove that it was actually doing significant harm to short people. As more investigations were done, stories began to surface of short children, who were comfortable with their height, being forced by their tall parents to take the asbestos treatment. No matter how much evidence there was that the treatment was ineffective and harmful, they insisted that the evidence was suspect because the people conducting the research had been infiltrated by a kabal of short people who moral degenerates and anarchists, and who had an irrational hatred of the tall majority.

It has yet to be fully determined how this story ends. All of the things that the short people and the rational examiners have exposed their society to are now out of the bag. Their impact can not be erased; they have permanently, inexorably changed the arc of their society's progression. Most people are somewhere between tall and short. Those who are short are not deficient or deviant, they are just an expression of diversity that has always existed and will always exist. Shortness can not be cured, and the asbestos treatment is poison. The ending of the story will be determined by the courage and integrity of the tall and of the in-between majority. By how much struggle is needed before they are willing to critically examine the old architecture and stories that celebrate the tall and castigate the short, and by how much violence they will be willing to commit in their effort to maintain those old structures. And it will be determined by the courage and integrity of the short. Will they stop taking the asbestos treatment, and stop wearing the thick shoes and vertical stripes? Will they be firm in their insistence that they too deserve a place in the structures and stories of society? And will they do that in a way that affirms their common humanity with the tall and in-between, that forgives and reconciles, rather than just shifting violence and stigma to the old majority?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On Theodicy

This may feel like the wrong time of year for this particular post. It might be more at home in Lent or even Advent. But I have been ruminating on it since those seasons and am just now finding words to express it. And besides I think it is fairly universal.

"Theodicy" is the academic jargon for the theological problem of evil and suffering. As it has been famously put, a good and loving, omnipotent God could not allow wanton suffering and evil. Given that suffering and evil do exist, God must not be good, or God must not be omnipotent. In either case, God wouldn't really be God. Stated that way, the question is a vexing problem of apologetics, and likely the most useful arrow in the quiver of fundamentalist atheists.

But that doesn't begin to capture the real importance of the question. Suffering and evil are not just pieces of logical syllogism used to support or deny the existence of a deistic god. Suffering and Evil have a reality as tangible and visceral as our homes, our loved ones, and our own bodies. For every theologian making academic arguments, there are a hundred people struggling to figure out how it can be true that God loves them and has a plan for them when they are diagnosed with cancer, or their child has been killed by a drunk driver, or their home has been wiped out by a natural disaster. Or divorce, or mental illness, or unemployment, or addiction, or broken friendships, or...

We all, at various points in our lives and to varying degrees, experience such profound pain and loss that it becomes hard to continue believing in...anything at all. And in those times we flail and cry out for some way to make sense of our experiences, to find meaning in them. And we know intuitively that somehow God must be part of that meaning.

When I was in college, insulated by a relative lack of life experience and by the underdevelopment of my frontal lobes, I thought that a purely rational answer would be sufficient to this problem. That the question "where is God when...?" or "Why did God let this happen?"called for a declarative, factual response, and that once an intellectually satisfying answer had been identified I could put the issue to bed and move on. So I regurgitated the airtight formulae I found in my systematic theology texts.

The most popular of these was an appeal to God's preservation of human free will. For the sake of the higher good, God refuses to violate our free choices, even when we choose wrongly. It is bad human choices that cause most suffering. And since Genesis puts us at the head of creation, the natural world is fallen too, as an impassable consequence of human sin (thus accounting for diseases and natural disasters). That was pretty convincing at the time. Another (conveniently unprovable) explanation was an appeal to God's omniscience. God allowed things that we perceive as evil because he knows that those events are part of a larger good or prevent a larger evil. God's ways are not our ways, and his plan is bigger than we can see, so we must have faith.

Then my best friend was killed at the age of 21 because a woman too old to be driving blacked out at the wheel and missed a stop sign. And the formulae seemed less airtight. Those text book solutions provided astonishingly little comfort, and in light of what was maybe my first experience of real suffering, didn't even make rational sense anymore. That woman's right to drive recklessly if she wanted to was of more worth to God than my friend's life? Killing a great person in the prime of his life was God's best way to prevent his grandchild from becoming the next Hitler?

As time went by though, and thanks to the guidance of sisters and brothers wiser than myself (and wiser than the authors of my theology textbooks), I began to explore in more depth the Bible's response to these questions. Actually, the only thing I remember about the sermon from my friends funeral is the Scripture reading. Lamentations 3:17-23 says this.

"I have been deprived of peace, and I have forgotten what happiness is. So I say, "Gone is my splendor, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord!' I remember my affliction and wandering, the bitterness and gall. Yet, this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord is never failing, and God's compassion is new each morning. Great is your faithfulness."




The author of Lamentations knew real suffering. As did all the prophets. As does Jesus. And as I heard those words from the prophet, I began to realize deep in my soul what God's response to suffering is. God does not respond defensively to our suffering. Whatever we might think, God does not treat the reality of evil as an affront to the rationality of God's existence. Rather, God responds to suffering and evil in keeping with God's own character, as a place where love, hope, and redemption are needed. God does not explain suffering, God joins us in it. God does not eliminate the evil in the world, God stands with us as we face it. God grieves with us as we grieve, and dignifies our pain.

The author of Lamentations gives us permission to grieve, acknowledges that there is real evil in the world that no rational explanation will successfully mitigate. Neither free will nor some opaque divine plan make it okay that our friends die or our homes burn or our bodies betray us. But he also says evil is not the only reality, not the ultimate reality. The mercies of God are renewed each morning, whatever else may be happening. And though God does not plan or condone evil, God enters our suffering redemptively, brings new life, new hope, new joy even where there is the profoundest of evils. And this hope lies not in dismissing the reality of suffering, but in embracing it and finding within it our humanity, and the humanity that God embraces in the person of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The "Feminization of Church" OR Missional is Masculine?





Those who know me know that I think a fair bit about gender, especially as it relates to the church. This has been especially true over the last week. One friend recounted a conversation to me in which he had been told that masculinity and femininity are nothing more than harmful and fallacious social constructs, the byproduct of systemic patriarchy. Then I led my youth group at church to cook and serve a pancake breakfast for Mother's Day (which is a tradition and expectation from the congregation that long predates my tenure) and was struck by a pointed comment that we as a church don't do anything of that scale for Father's Day. Finally, a friend asked me today what my thoughts were on the "feminization of church", as the youth pastor in her congregation is gravely concerned about it. That phrase evoked some long forgotten conversation from church history classes. So I think this is a topic worth giving some attention to, and I invite everyone to help think more clearly about it.

I suppose I should say upfront that my first reaction to the phrase "feminization of the church" is to want to vomit. It has the ring of a euphemism for wanting to reclaim the patriarchy and misogyny of the heyday of American fundamentalism. Also, the large majority of attempts I have seen to address this perceived problem have been clumsy, overbearing, and often offensive. Take, for example, this gem. He did some comedy at my college, before he went nuts. Or, for another, I was recently at a church here in Fresno that promoted its new men's ministry with a young guy proclaiming, "Let's be honest. Men like 3 things- sports, sex, and meat." So apparently the men of this church get together to barbecue and watch sports, and then do Bible study about sex (not kidding). I'm a man and I only like one of those three things, and probably not quite in the way they mean. Plus, most women I know say they enjoy it too, in their own ways.

But when I think past those gut reactions and offensive caricatures, I find that there might be something to this phrase, "the feminization of the church". After all, it is true that a disproportionate number of churchgoers are women, and that disparity only increases when you look at lay leadership in the church. It does seem that overall, men are more dissatisfied with and disinterested in church. (I would be interested in hearing if that is everyone else' experience and perception as well).

Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, most church historians agree that there is a clear and discrete trend toward feminizing church in the modern era. The short version is that during the industrial revolution, men had to leave their homes and parishes to pursue work in mines and mills, and also had to engage in some unscrupulous practices to get the edge in the feverish competition for newly precious resources like coal. As a result, the home and church became the domain of the woman, as did moral purity. The ideal woman in the Victorian era was the model of virtue and stability, a refuge to the men of society who were forced to live transient and morally compromised lives. This was a radical shift; when agriculture was the primary industry the home was as much the man's domain as the woman's, and women were still regarded as the weak-willed and emotional temptresses to men's rational, level-headed morality. So, I do think it is worth spending some time to reflect on the role of gender in our churches, and the possible neglect of masculinity.

I think that a big part of our problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of what masculinity and femininity are. When asked to name specifically how the church has become feminine, or what a more masculine church would look like, most people I know flail. We have a gut level sense of femininity in the church, but have trouble putting our finger on why. So while I wouldn't presume to define things so grand as masculinity and femininity, I will offer a few thoughts and then try to speculate on some connections to our practical lives as congregations.

So here are two ground rules I would like to propose. First, masculinity does not equal maleness and femininity does not equal femaleness. Men can and should be expected to be compassionate and nurturing when the situation calls for it. Likewise, women can and should be expected to be strong and adventurous when the situation calls for it. We are all some amalgamation of masculinity and femininity, and that is as it should be. We typically expect men to be more masculine than they are feminine, and vice versa. But as we discussed in the last post, what is typical is not obligatory. Secondly, an attempt to incorporate masculinity into church life must never be a vehicle for excluding or deriding women. If there is such a thing as the feminization of the church, it cannot be solved by closing the pulpit (or any other office) to women; and if it could, it wouldn't be worth it.

I found the author of the book pictured above surprisingly helpful in trying to describe what masculinity and femininity are and what roles they play in our church (I admit- I was skeptical of the title). He points out that we have been too quick to adopt a notion which he traces to Aristotle, that masculinity is defined as aggression and femininity as passivity. I think that assumption does underlie many conversations about men and masculinity I have heard. No doubt, that definition is derived from a male-centered reflection on the mechanics of heterosexual intercourse.

The real problem with this definition, though, is how quickly we replace the term "aggression" with "violence". In the name of including men, we resort to celebrating senseless violence which is clearly contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, and justify it by obvious and gross misinterpretations of Scripture. Most notably, the shameful abuse by men of the passage describing Jesus' clearing of the Temple in Jerusalem. This process has led men's groups to uncritical engagement of violent media (war movies, etc.), simulated violence of paintball and first person shooter video games, and even live cage fighting in the church (seriously). Much like excluding women, promotion of violence is an ethical compromise that simply isn't acceptable in the attempt to embrace masculinity in the church, even if it works.

Podle does offer another description of masculinity and femininity that I think may have some truth to it. He begins with the biological fact that human fetuses always begin as basically female. The development of male characteristics represents a deviation from the fetus' basic form. He also points to the hunter-gatherer societies of early humans. Men tended to leave the camp to hunt, while women tended to stay close by and gathered. When this became ritualized, initiation rites for men in primitive cultures tended to involve leaving the camp for some prescribed period of time, and rites for women involved seclusion within the camp, often in the company of other women. He argues, then, that masculinity is the proclivity toward separation while femininity is the proclivity toward unity. To put it a different way, masculinity is the proclivity toward transgressing boundaries, breaking new ground, taking risk. Meanwhile, femininity is the proclivity toward preserving what already exists, nurturing and supporting the structures of society. (Here it is important to remember ground rule #1- men can nurture and women can innovate).

So if Podle's definition of masculinity and femininity are sound, it sheds some light on this whole idea of the feminization of church and what to do about it. Might it be the case that our churches have become too preoccupied with maintaining their own structures, or even with nurturing the social relationships within the church? Could this be what has left masculine-inclined person's bored and restless?

This same conversation is being had in another arena, separate from gender discussions. A growing number of people are voicing some challenge to the attractional model of church, the presumption that the preservation of the existing structure is of central concern. They are calling Christians to reframe faith and mission as the vocation of all believers as they strike out from the church into the world and engage new kinds of ministry. This is popularly referred to as the missional church movement.

So I think it might be possible to build a bridge between these two theological movements- the movement to embrace masculinity in the church and the missional movement. I am excited by the idea that we can engage masculine persons in the church with innovative, risk-taking mission and worship and thereby avoid the need to resort to baser appeals to violence and the exclusion of women.

But I am not completely sold yet either. Do the proclivity toward separation/innovation on the one hand and unity/preservation on the other sound like a valid description of masculinity and femininity to you? And if so, is missional church a viable way of engaging masculinity?