Search

navigating between the everyday and theology

The Blog of Bo Sanders

The Danger of ‘Re-‘ Words

We have some work to do and I am not sure ‘Re-‘ words are sufficient to get us there.R-Revelation

Omar Reyes is the fourth call on this week’s HomeBrewed TNT episode. His question relates to  the new interest in Paul by philosophers.

One reason that Paul is attracting so much attention recently has to do with his view of universal implications from the particularity of the Christ event.

An example of this would be the famous unfolding-progressing inclusion of more and more people by dissolving established categories of separation-exclusion: male/female, slave/free, Jew/gentile.

This trajectory continues in the ongoing work of God’s spirit for reconciliation and restoration in more contemporary categories: gay/straight, black/white, rich/poor, citizen/foreigner, etc.

Now reconciliation and restoration are two good (and biblical) words that start with ‘Re-’. Two more powerful words that would complete that constellation would be :

  • Repentance
  • Reparations

In fact, I would suggest that these last two words need to come before the previous two:

  • Reconciliation
  • Restoration

Unfortunately, these four ‘Re-’ words are not the ones that I see/hear the most in many Christian circles. ‘Revelation’ and ‘Religion’ may be the big ones but they are not the only ones. Many seem to be fond of words like:

  • Revisit
  • Reclaim
  • Restore
  • Return
  • Renew
  • Renovate
  • Re-imagine
  • Revive
  • Retreat

I am not sure the above group of ‘Re-’ words is sufficient for the challenge that we are up against. As I argued last week in The Problem With The Future Is Its Past and Christianity Isn’t Conservative, the nature of Christianity is incarnational – so the past is not the determining factor for our present or future expression.

The problem with the past is that it is too easy to romanticize some notion or concept in isolation without addressing the larger structures of injustice and exclusion that it was embedded in.

That is why we can’t just reach back and reclaim-recycle-repurpose old words and concepts.

Here is an example: there is a popular desire in certain circles – from Radical Orthodoxy to my field of Practical Theology – to reclaim some Aristotelian notions like polis, habitus and phronesis (enacted wisdom).

This desire comes from a good place! There is a recognition (admittedly an ‘Re’ word) that the modernity project has dried out and withered the Christian soul and left it without vibrant connection-in-community and stripped of nearly all its practices/praxis.

I agree with that diagnosis.

The solution, however, is not simply to reclaim/recycle/repurpose ancient, antiquated or Aristotelian concepts from the pre-modern world. I have written about this a while ago in After MacIntyre and have since found the work of Susan Hekman very illuminating.

 MacIntyre’s approach exemplifies a disturbing characteristic of much of the communitarian literature: the romanticization of premodern societies that ignores the oppression and hierarchy that was endemic to those societies. Even Sandel (1984, 17), despite his modernist leanings, sometimes falls prey to the tendency to glorify traditional communities. The narrative selfhood that MacIntyre lauds can only be obtained at a high price: the ascription of traditional roles. 

She explains: 

When it comes to the highly charged issue of the sexism and racism of the traditions he praises so highly, MacIntyre seems to abandon his interrelationship thesis. With regard to the Aristotelian tradition, he tries to deny the claim that sexism and racism are an integral part of this system of virtues.

… throughout his writings MacIntyre unambiguously asserts it is this traditional community we must foster if we are to return to any semblance of a moral life:

“What matters at this stage are the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us (1984,263).”

 

This is a significant difference! To those like MacIntyre and Hauerwas, we are descending further into an age of darkness. Their answer is to reclaim-return to some former understanding or manifestation.

Hekman is right though – we cannot even attempt to do so without acknowledging and addressing the inherent racism, sexism, and disparity built into every level of the structures from which those romantic notions come.

This concern in the root of my unease with the popularity of ‘Re-’ words among groups including evangelicals, missio-alliance, radical orthodox, and post-liberals.

3 things in closing:

1) This is part 3 of a 4 part series. Tomorrow I will address the fiction of the End of History. Part 1 and part 2 can be found here.

2) Please sign up for Living Options in Christian Theology if you are interested in ideas like this. It is a High Gravity study group this June and July. Here is an introduction.

3) The words that we use indicate what impulse is behind them. This is why the critics can’t just say ‘semantics’ and dismiss the charge. I would love to hear the words that you would put forward to further this conversation.

My tri-part configurations of suggestions would be:

  •  Examine – Imagine – Adapt
  •  Explore – Address – Evolve
  •  Investigate – Interrogate – Innovate

I would love to hear your suggestions! 

The Function of Good Friday and Easter

Ahead of the Great Debacle this morning between Tony Jones and Pete Rollins, I find myself in an interesting place.

On the surface, it is fairly obvious that I would agree more with Jones on what he believes about the events of Good Friday. Much of what Jones says about the crucifixion and its implication (atonement) are solidly where I am.

However, Rollins concerns in the realm of identity/belief/spirituality are closer to the heart of my major interest in the performative nature of religion.

My overwhelming fascination is the way in which beliefs are practiced and more specifically how they function in our religious communities.

I was on another podcast last week trying to explain my preference for adding ‘al’ to the end of important elements of the Christian faith – rather than get bogged down in arguing for their historic validity or scientific veracity.

My assertion is that Christianity is Incarnational, Resurrectional and Pentecostal. 

I want to look at how ideas like the resurrection function in Christian communities – how those beliefs and convictions are enacted. I want to know the performative function of believing in the resurrection, not argue for its verification or about its provability.

Do I believe what Jones does about the events of Good Friday and Easter? Almost certainly.

My real interest, though, is more in line with Rollins’ project about the ways that holding these beliefs impact us and frame the way in which we engage the large structures of society.

What difference does believing in something like the resurrection impact they way we live?

How does our view of the atonement frame our participation in issues of violence?

Does our Christology have any function in how we perceive our own humanity?

In what way do we as Christian communities perform on Monday what we proclaim on Easter Sunday?

I have been reading some intense books, such as Eliane Graham’s Transforming Practice. I will be taking a break from studying this Saturday morning to attend the Great Debacle – I just hope that Rollins and Jones take a breath at some point and I get to ask a question about this aspect of belief.

What questions would you like to ask? I’ll see if I can get them in. 

Christianity Isn’t Conservative: incarnation

The incarnation is my favorite part of Christianity. When we say ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ we say something unique and particular about who we believe God to be.

The divine became human – that which was beyond came near – the unknowable made itself known to us – the transcendent fused the imminent horizon – the eternal entered time … however one frames it, we make bold claims when we talk about what happened in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

From there it gets steep! Folks start talking about the cosmic Christ and the 2nd person of the Trinity and the eternal nature of the Godhead. Those are all great but they are also lofty and can be abstract. Incarnation is the opposite: it is down to earth and fleshly.

Incarnation may seem like an odd thing to talk about during Easter week, but one can never escape the fact that the reason we think something significant happened on the cross and in the empty tomb is because of what we think happened in the person and work of Jesus.cross-150x150

The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus are four of the acts in the great drama that Christians are called up into.

The life of Jesus – including works and teachings – is one that called the entire system of political and religious power into question. His parables undermined and interrogated the assumed order of things as well as the inherited understanding of how the world worked.

This inversion of assumed structures and subversion of “the powers that be” characterized not only his life and death … but the very notion of an incarnation.

Christianity is undeniably incarnational. The Romans tacked lots of people up on crosses – anyone they perceived as being subversive to the order and stability of the empire. Jesus was crucified for sedition, as were many others every week of every year. The reason that we think something significant happened on that cross is because we believe that God was present and revealed in some unique way in the person and work of Jesus.

John Cobb has said that Jesus embodied God’s presence in a unique way in history – a way that constituted Jesus’ very being and allowed him to say things like “I and the Father are one”.

If, therefore, this is what sets Jesus apart and makes that cross different from all of the other crosses – then we who follow the way of Jesus can not be satisfied to simply receive what was done on our behalf and then continue to participate in the system as it is and continue to reinforce the structures as we have inherited them.

We must ask the questions:

“Who is getting conned?” and “What is being served?”

There is a built–in romanticism to Christianity when it comes to the notion of the ‘early church’. There is a perpetual longing to return to some romantic ideal that we see re-presented in the Acts of the Apostles.

Returning to the past is trap for two reasons:

1) As books like  The Churches the Apostles Left Behind have shown, the early church was as plural and diverse as one could possibly imagine. There is no such thing as THE early church. That is a romantic construction that serves as a kind of Eden image we are to be haunted by and perpetually longing to return to.

2) Even if it did exist, it would be impossible for us to return to it. We simply cannot get back to that romantic ideal or edenic notion. Time travel is impossible and too much has happened for a return to be possible.

Which is fine! Because Christianity is incarnational and our calling is to embody the spirit of God in our time and in our place as those early believers did in their time and place.

The church’s calling is not simply to repeat what those in the early centuries did – but to speak to and live in our culture the reality that they attempted to do in theirs!

You can hear more about this on the FreeStyle Christianity interview 

Incarnation is why the impulse to preserve or conserve some former notion of culture is not Christian. Christians are not called to conserve some antique expression or ancient manifestation. Christians are to in-carnate (embody) the life of God by following the way of Jesus in their ‘here and now’.

In fact, I would take it one step further.

To follow the way of Jesus is to call into question and interrogate the very assumptions about the way things are and to subvert the inherited systems and structures that keep people from living the abundant life or the ‘life of the ages’ (eternal life).

One way that we would do this is to ask those two earlier questions:

Who is getting conned?
What is being served?

Given the chance, I would respond that those who have been sold a romanticized notion of the past – a past that we can never return to even if it was as good as remembered – are being conned.

It is somewhere between fantasy and fiction to long for a return to a time that is embedded in structures of patriarchy, sexism and injustice. Jesus would construct stories (parables) that captivated people and caused them to question the assumed order of things and to undermine their  inherited notions of the way that world works.

The bigger question might be “what is being served?”

Christians are not supposed to get hung up on issues of flesh and blood but instead to combat the principalities and powers that reside in high places. It is a tragedy that so much of contemporary Christianity is consumed with culture wars obsessed with issues of flesh and blood … all the while neglecting the larger structures of power and control.

We think that we have really done something when we buy a Jesus-themed T-shirt at Walmart – or put a NoTW sticker on our SUV. We have purchased (within capitalism) and display (within consumerism) our branding that sets us apart (identity) and all the while ignore that we are participating in a larger system that doesn’t care if the $10 dollar shirt we bought has Jesus, Che, Bob Marley, Mother Theresa or Satan on it. The important thing is that we bought the shirt and reinforced the system as it is without asking who made that shirt or how in the world it only costs $10.

We say lofty things about Jesus. Jesus’ teachings were done in a way that undermined the established order and called into question the way things were.

The calling of the Christian is not to con/serve some former notion of a romanticized past – but to incarnate the life of God by the spirit of Christ in her time and in her place.

_____________

Yesterday I talked about the problem of the past and tomorrow will be part 3 of this series.

The Problem With The Future Is Its Past: Theology

Part 1 of a 3 part series I’m doing this week on Homebrewed

The Future Of Christian Theology was purchased with great anticipation. I had read David Ford before and appreciated his innovative and insightful perspective.

Gordon Kaufman’s Theology For A Nuclear Age has probably been the most influential book I have read outside my reading for school. Most of my reading for school is in Practical Theology, Post-Colonial Studies and Critical Race Theory. I am a big fan of going forward so The Future of Christian Theology was an exciting proposition.

Ford does an amazing job. In raising up the 20th century as the most prolific and creative era of Christian Theology he is masterful at articulating the diversity and accounting for the plurality in communities represented. I love his emphasis on Pentecostal, Liberation, Feminist, and Post-Modern approaches. He does a wonderful job addressing global-regional diversity as well as the full denominational spectrum.

Yet when it comes time to highlight the legends of the 20th century, in order to avoid perpetually reinventing the wheel, he picks the following six legendary theologians to lift up:

  • Karl Barth
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Paul Tillich
  • Karl Rahner
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar
  • Henri de Lubac

Lists can be fun – they can also be telling.

Around here we might want to supplement the list with John Cobb, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann or the Niebuhr brothers. Students at my former seminary might want to add Stanley Grenz. All of these have written prolifically and systematically.

Those who wanted to branch out from Systematic Theology might add voices like James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez. Somewhere else you might get Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Even in my master thesis on ‘contextual theology’ I utilized Robert Schreiter and Stephen Bevans.[1]

The trend is clear and problematic. That men do theology is not the problem – if only men are seen as doing theology, it is a problem. This stems from the habit of calling some theologies ‘particular’ or classifying them as “theology +” (race, gender, sexuality, etc.). We have inherited a long history that loves to compartmentalize, categorize and then control who is qualified (and who is not). MP9004065481-196x300

This situation results in classifying Feminist theologians in exactly that way: with a modifier. The result is that you have plain theology and particular theology, generic theology and specific theology, regular theology and something-other-than- regular theology.

The works of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Bonnie Miller-McLemore get qualified within a sub-discipline.

The future of theology has got to be better than its past in this way.

I have 3 suggestions for moving past theology’s past.

 1 – Get rid of the category – and very notion of – ‘particular theology’. It is all particular theology. There is no universal or timeless theology. All theology is contextual theology. It all comes from a time and place and utilizes the constructs of its era. The fact that we have not recognized this truth in the past is part of the problem.

2 – Or add modifiers to every theology. Pannenberg wasn’t just doing theology – he was doing German, 20th century, white male theology. You can see, however, that this might become a cumbersome and laborious way to proceed … which brings me to my third point.

3- Christian theology is not Identity Politics – it comes from and represents a community. Every time we adopt and adapt another way of doing things we compromise the central Christian reality that there is no ‘us/them’ – there is no ‘they’, it is all ‘we’. Christian theology is born out of and can only be done in community. Inherited notions of the ‘individual’ or the ‘autonomous self’ are both false and hurtful and need to be left behind as we move forward.

Yes, every author and thinker must be socially located, but while any specific author can be classified by their race/gender/class or geography … the future of theology is not about the social location of any particular voice but the community that formed them and in-forms their contribution to the greater whole.

When listening to podcast with Grace Ji-Sun Kim (coming out Thursday), it is not enough to say that she is doing Korean-American, Feminist, Liberationist Theology … she is doing Theology. She is a part of the Christian community and her work is the future of theology – as is mine – because she and I are part of the same global Christian community. Her work and my work are related in Christ.

I might employ methods from my field of Practical Theology but that doesn’t mean that Grace’s work is not practical.

This is how language both helps and hinders us. Her work and mine might come from different perspectives and be in-formed by different experiences – and it is all theology.

The future of theology is not to be found in individual voices but in collaborations and connections that form community.

The way that we have talked about theology and particular theologies in the past is going to be a problem in the future.

If Randy Woodley wants to locate himself and his work as Native American Contextual Theology because it brings some corrective to the past oversight and omission – that is wonderful. It becomes an important and illuminating distinction. It is not, however, merely a particular theology : it is theology.

Bring out the modifiers! Biblical, Historic, Systematic, Philosophical, and Practical are the Big 5 historically. Fine! Just as long as we are clear that no one is doing ‘plain old regular theology’.

In fact, Randy’s work is the future of theology. We are all socially located and contextually particular, which is why there is no ‘plain’ theology and ‘particular’ theology.

It is all particular theology in the same way that it is all theology.

The mistake of the past was thinking that there was ‘regular’ and ‘specific’. In reality, it is all specific. Which means that we are all ‘us’ and we are all contributing to the future of theology – together.

The trick is not to say ‘we have one of these theologies and one of these types of theologians represented’ – the change is to say that ‘in all of these we have theology’. Without ‘these’ we have something less than theology.

_______________

[1] One sees the problem even in the critics of theology when theologian Paul Ricouer talks about the ‘masters of suspicion’ in Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – a list that I would expand to include Feuerbach, Wittgenstein and Foucault.

Sex Isn’t Simple

I’m back on the blog and have several posts coming in the next 48 hours to get caught up

Sexuality and spirituality were on my mind ahead of last month’s Level Ground Film Festival.

I am very aware of the cultural conversation that continues to circle around marriage equality and issues related to legal matters. As a pastor and theologian, my concern is more specifically focused on people’s understanding and engagement of sexuality and spirituality. [1]

If someone were to ask me what was the single biggest thing that would make a difference in how we approach matters of sexuality and spirituality … I would have to say that the reductive impulse to simplify sexuality is the main problem.

Sex and sexuality are not simple. [2]

When we attempt to reduce sex and sexuality down to single thing or try to squeeze it into a simplified category we make a massive error.

Sex, sexuality and spirituality are all inherently complicated and complex. [3]

How one is embodied in one’s own skin, how one conceptualizes of that in-carnation, who one is attracted to, and how one participates in that attraction are at least 4 separate issues. It gets more complicated from there.

Sexuality and spirituality are two areas where complexity and diversity are actually a good thing!

It is a fallacy of misplaced concreteness when we attempt a reductive move to simplify sex/uality down to one thing – especially if that one thing is the biological.

The unfortunate thing is that those attempting the reductive move too often attempt to reduce the purpose of sex down to procreation.

Sex is about so much more than procreation. [4]

Sex is about intimacy, expression, sensation, exploration, and experience/experimentation.

Sometimes it results in pro-creation … but, more times than not, it doesn’t.

Sexuality has an aspect that is emotional.complexity

And one that is physical.

Then there is the aspect that is psychological.

There is one that is social.

And one that is spiritual.

Sexuality is personal … and private … and (to a certain degree) public.

Not to mention the part of it that is political.

Our sexuality involves all of who we are and em-bodies so much of our identity.

It even entails part of our capacity to engage the world around us and the social constructs that we are caught up in and by which we are acted upon daily. [5]

In one sense everything is sexual, even how much money we make … in the same sense that is it political. This is why our inherited enlightenment categories do not work anymore. The reductive impulse is failing us. Things need to be recognized as complicated and part of the emergent reality.

Sex/uality is never about one thing.

We do a great disservice to all that Creator god intended for us when we reduce sexuality down to pro-creation.

We ignore all that the evolutionary process has encoded us with (and for) when we boil our sexuality down to a single act with a single purpose.

The more I have studied and listened and considered the challenge for the church in the matter of sex and sexuality in the 21st century, the more I am convinced that it is the reductive move that hampers and limits our capacity to explore and engage the issue in a way that would lead to life and health.

I would want to confess 3 things:

  • Sexuality is a gift of God and is a good thing.
  • Any view of sex that begins with secrecy or shame should be viewed with suspicion and interrogated accordingly.
  • Reducing sex and sexuality down to a single aspect is both misguided and dangerous.

Sex/uality is complex combination and collaboration of elements including (but not limited to) the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social, private, personal, communal, and political.

One way that the church could bless the culture in the decades to come is to resist the temptation of the reductive explanation and to instead provide an understanding that is complex (even complicated). The more diverse the areas being engaged (and examined) the better!

We need sex/uality to be more – not less. The temptation to reduce and simplify is a false construct. The reality is that human identity is inherently complex – and that is a good thing.

Sex, sexuality and spirituality are but 3 aspects of that rich complexity.

We need more spiritually minded exploration and even theological examination of our humanity … not less.[5]

Sex and sexuality are not simple – any spirituality that attempts to make it so is both limited and, in the end, false.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s conversation and the followup when we release the podcast audio tomorrow.

________________

[1] We have wonderful snapshots of different historical takes on the role and purpose of sex in Biblical passages like Genesis, the Song of Solomon and some of the New Testament epistles.

[2] I am saying that things are complicated as a straight, middle-class, white, cis-gendered male in a Western culture. It doesn’t take much listening to figure out that if even one of those elements was different, let alone two, things becomes increasingly layered.

[3] In full disclosure, for those who prefer letters, I am a big fan of the Q in LGBTQ. Just FYI.

[4] As someone who has been married for 21 years and is childless, I have an admittedly different angle on that whole line of ‘reasoning’.

[5] I have found great help in those reflecting on the work of [linkMarcella Althaus-Reid’s ‘indecent theology’.

Excited about Easter: resurrected faith

Across N. America, the two largest groups of people who are reclaiming their faith are traditionally parents of little ones who are settling down and putting down roots – and those who are finding a different version of faith in a new community or expression.

Various labels are often assigned to this second group: unchurched, post-christian, or the ‘nones’. However one classifies this trend, this category is often populated by those who were raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical or even mainline tradition and have walked away.

The faith of their upbringing either doesn’t fit, doesn’t make sense or just isn’t useful anymore.

But then something happens.

The trigger may be a crisis or an unsatisfied hunger or the birth of child. Whatever initiates the change of season is not predictable. What is predictable, however, is that in a search for a community or church there is a tangible desire to connect with a vibrant but thoughtful expression of ones faith.

In my dual-role at the church, I am in a unique position to see both groups

  • finding something lost
  • connecting with something deep
  • awakening to something new

There is something so refreshing and hopeful about finding a spiritual community where you can plug-in to ministries that are making the world a better place and you don’t have to check your brain at the door.

As the Minister of Children, Youth and Families I have seen dozens of young families tie into the life of the church community through the liturgical Sanctuary worship. It brings great joy to my heart to watch their little one get settled into the nursery, Pre-K or Sunday School routine and know that their child has a spiritual home that will nurture them and facilitate that child’s growth into a mature believer who can intelligently embrace a faith that will carry them for the rest of their life. Touch screen mobile phone, in hand

As the co-Pastor of the Loft I have heard dozens of stories from people who had walked away from faith and who have seen that faith resurrected in our unique environment filled with coffee, couches and conversation.

As someone raised evangelical, I confess that it makes my heart sing to hear stories of resurrected faith!

I don’t apologize for my inherited soft-spot toward stories of renewal and awakening.

Many people have stories of reclaiming their childhood faith but have no interest in continuing to hold onto childish ideas. Our faith is supposed to be child-like but the 21st century requires that it be thoughtful and vibrant.

Heading into Easter this year, I have been thinking about all of the young families who have dusted off their commitment to a faith community as well as those for whom faith had all but died, and how for both this Easter is going to seem especially meaningful.

It is an exciting time to be at a church that is committed to issues of justice, thoughtful in its approach and expanding its ability to connect with the community.

Whether it is an awakening of a dormant faith or the resurrection of something that had completely died, faith is being renewed in the life of the church.

We are an Easter people and that means we are always coming into new life.

I pray that you are as encouraged and excited as I am in the lead up to Easter. 

On This MLK Holiday

Dr. King has given me the direction for my next 41 years.
Understand, the loss of my mother has caused me a nearly indescribable amount of pain. I have given great thought to changing the entire direction of ministry – it has to be about more than just helping people understand the Bible better or be a better person.
Dr. King’s ‘triplets of evil’ are alive and well in our world and impact us all everyday … but because they are imbedded in larger structures they can hide from people’s awareness and so they need to be investigated, exposed and subverted.


After my mom’s passing I flew to NY for my dad’s birthday, and over the course of that weekend my father and I were able to return again and again to a conversation about why this has become such a conviction for me. It was probably one of the most important conversations I have ever had with my father. He really heard my heart and came to understand why I have gone the direction I have with life and ministry.


In honor of this holiday and my mother’s memory I want to say two things:

  1. Be kind to each other. We are all carrying hurts and concerns and scars that may be impossible to see from the surface. As humans, we are all in this together … the world doesn’t need more strife and violence and division.
  2. We are all caught up in systems and structures that work against the ‘common-wealth’ of humanity and the planet. They need to be confronted and radically dismantled.

Now, as a christian minister I have chosen to stick with the gospel as I think that it provides the tools to do these two things.
On this MLK holiday I just wanted honor the legacy of a man and movement that has deeply impacted me and inspired my vision for the next 41 years.

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Born Of A Virgin? It happened a lot back then

I posted this 2 years ago and thought it might be fun to revisit. 

As Christians we confess that Jesus was born to a virgin.  Some people doubt the accuracy of that – but they may not realize that it was not that uncommon back then.

Here are just 10 people born of a virgin in the ancient world: 

  • Buddha
  • Krishna – born without a sexual union, by “mental transmission” from the mind of Vasudeva into the womb of Devaki, his mother.
  • Odysseus
  • Romulus
  • Dionysus*
  • Heracles – Son of a god (Zeus)
  • Glycon – son of the God Apollo
  • Zoroaster/Zarathustra
  • Attis of Phrygia
  • Horus

One theory is that when somebody who led a deeply impactful life died, those who wrote about them later would attempt to say something special about them. One of the ways that they could do that was to say something extraordinary about their birth. It was a way of that there was something significant, even about they way that they were conceived.

Sometimes it was that they were born to people that were really old (past the age of child-bearing age).

Think of Issac born to Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament or John the Baptist born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the New (Advent).

Now, If somebody wanted to take the origin of their hero up a notch, they could say that there was no human dad … it was a god!  (like Zeus)

This is why some think that Jesus’ autobiographers took it up even one more notch! Not only did a God not have sex with women … there was NO sex at all!

 Now some say “yeah, lots of people were said to be born of a virgin … but Jesus actually was.”

This is where the problem starts. As best as I can discern, there basically three ways to approach the problem: physics, meta-physics or linguistics. 

Physics:

Some people take an approach that is so certain that even science itself would be proved wrong. This usually comes up around issue like the Shroud of Turin (the cloth Jesus was buried in). I once heard a very confident person say that if we did DNA test on the blood on the shroud it would show that Jesus was fully human with 46 pairs of chromosomes – only instead of 23 from the female mother and 23 from the male father – Jesus would have 46 human ones from Mary.

I find this problematic for the same reason that I do not believe in the super-natural. It concedes the rules of the games to science (reductive naturalism) then tries to fill in the gaps with God.  That is a losing game-plan if ever I heard one.

Meta-Physics: 

Other people try to get around the whole reductive scientific debate by saying “Look, if God could make the world in 6 days out of nothing, then what is to make a virgin pregnant?  God does whatever God wants to do and who are we to question that?”

I am not a big fan of this approach either. It seems to say that revelation doesn’t have to report to reason and that God can not be evaluated on any reasonable standard conceived of by humans.

It seems just a short leap to say that God can elect who God wants for salvation God can pick favorites if that is what ‘He‘ wants to do.

It seems to retreat into the silo of ecclesiastic isolation and unaccountability. I think we have to look a little deeper ask some bigger questions.

 Linguistics:

This is an interesting approach that some in the post-liberal camp or comparable schools of thoughts might take.

The basic line is that it’s not the physics or meta-physics of the virgin birth that matters, its the way that it impacts us as people and forms us as a community. The importance of the language found in the gospels has to do with how it functions for us as a community and tradition.

Some folks don’t like this linguistic approach because it seems like theologically ‘thin soup’ to them. They look at the formulations that are quantified in the early creeds and they make definite and literal assumptions about what is behind them.

I am however nervous that all of this controversy is simply because we don’t know how to read a gospel. It’s like when we get sucked into debates about talking snakes in the garden of Eden or trying to prove scientifically how a man like Jonah could stay alive in the belly of a whale for 3 days and not be eaten by the stomach acid (or something).

It would be the equivalent of people 1,000 years from now arguing that we actually thought there was a place called Mudville and that a man named Casey was literally up to to bat.  It is because we don’t know how to read the genre of literature.

Jesus was born of a virgin – we confess that by faith, it is affirmed in our ancient creeds and it functions in our community to form us as people.    

* I even found one internet source that claims Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25 and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.” He was a sacred king killed and eaten in an eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.” He was considered the “Only Begotten Son,” Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” He was identified with the Ram or Lamb. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.

Wrapping Up Advent – as far as the curse is found

This has been the most interesting Advent I have ever participated in.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Between the High Gravity class following the lectionary texts and the Loft LA delving deep into the season, I have learned and experienced a lot of things that are heavy on my mind as we head into the final week of Advent.

Far As The Curse Is Found

The hymn ‘Joy To The World‘ has some amazing lines in it:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Far as the curse is found is one of the most poignant lines in any hymn ever. Think about it … Romans 5 is about the same theme:

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Unfortunately, many have been taught to read the Bible in a way that makes Adam way more powerful than Jesus. Ouch.

Far as the curse is found means that God is interested in redeeming the whole damned thing. 

There is no other way to say it.

In fact, this past weekend we tackled the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel and I was struck again with how shocking and scandalous Jesus’ family tree is. It’s not just the unorthodox inclusion of those with dubious reputations and questionable qualifications – and that’s not even including that women! It is the fact that God is involved in the whole damned thing.

It all belongs. God is active in redeeming the whole thing.

It’s not just that Jesus leaves behind his family tree or simply overcomes his heritage to become an exalted figure … he is both the outcome of God’s activity IN his family and the result OF his heritage.

Speaking of which: here is an amazing rendition of Jesus’ genealogy sung to the tune of R.E.M.’s ‘its the end of the world as we know it’ by Brad Hooks

Genealogy of Jesus (and I feel fine) from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

Lyrics:

That’s great it starts with the birthday
Of the very first man, yeah his name was Adam
Skip a couple thousand years, there was a dude
Who was looking for the Promise Land,

call him Father Abraham, Abraham had a kid, Isaac had a kid
Judah had a kid, Perez he did too
No I’m not talking Perez Hilton
But the one who had a son named Hezron

Ram, Amminadab, Nashon, Salmon,
Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David, right, right
Don’t forget Solomon, He was a wise man,
Who had a son named Rehoboam

Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joram
Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, more then
That brings us to Hezekiah, Hezekiah
Manasseh, Amon, Josiah

Here is the good news and the bad: 

Good – God is interested in redeeming your family tree, heritage, history and the entire road that has led up to this point in your story!

Bad – God loves them too … the things you regret, the people you would distant yourself from, the choices you would change …. the whole damn thing.

There is no ‘us/them’. It is a facade – an illusion. We are all us. We are all in this together. The slave is our brother – we are all God’s family.

  • The good and the bad.
  • The oppressed and the privileged.
  • The sacred and the secular.
  • The holy and the profane.

The hard truth is that our apparent divisions are but an illusion. God is in the process of redeeming the whole damned thing.

Police Violence Is The Exception

I posted this last week in response to two conversations with friends who are very upset by the failure of the justice system to protect unarmed black men (and boys)  from those who act on behalf of the law.

I have not been blogging much as I am in preparation for my qualifying exams in the Spring. Part of my reading has been in ‘political theology’ so I thought I might share some relevant items that I have gleaned from my studies.

______________

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” is a sentence by Carl Schmitt that introduces ‘political theology’. That word ‘exception’ is a key to understanding what is going on in our nation right now.

In the last four centuries ‘sovereignty’ has shifted from God and the King to the Nation and State. In that same work, Schmitt also says that “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”‘

The State* now has both the ceremony (pledge of allegiance – national anthem at all sporting events, etc.) and the power (rightful claim to foreign and domestic violence).

In a fantastic article by Bruno Gulli examining Schmitt, Gulli explains “any person with special powers (or even simply a special sensibility) could be recognized as sovereign. This would be an honorary status conferred on him.”

 The State, and those who defend it – whether police or military – have the power of exception. It is important to understand it that:

  •  The playing field is not level. It is slanted.
  •  The rules do not apply equally. There is an exception.

Citizens who are upset are not permitted to be violent. They must protest in an orderly and civilized manner.

The police/riot-squad/ military are seemingly allowed to escalate and utilize violence because they have the exception of the state behind them.

We are not all playing by the same rules. Citizens have an asymmetrical relationship with the State when it comes to violence.

It is vital here to understand the insight of Max Weber when he talks about the State’s monopoly on violence. The link explains that:

“Weber describes the state as any organization that succeeds in holding the exclusive right to use, threaten, or authorize physical force against residents of its territory. Such a monopoly, according to Weber, must occur via a process of legitimation.”

Violence is a one-sided relationship. The State – and those who act on its behalf – may behave in violent ways because it will always be construed as exceptional.

Bonnie Honig, in Emergency Politics, says “The state of exception is that paradoxical situation in which the law is legally suspended by sovereign power.”

The problem is that we now live in a permanent state of emergency.

September 11, 2001 ushered in a state of perpetual exception. This applies to racial profiling, police brutality, State surveillance of its citizenry in the NSA – to name only a few.

When people are scared they willingly sacrifice their freedom and privacy in exchange for safety. The State benefits from a frightened population and people are more willing to accept the exceptional violence and excessive forced used by law enforcement. They are more likely to turn a ‘blind-eye’ or call them ‘isolated incidents’ and claim that they are being ‘blown out of proportion’.

A population is more willing to view as exceptional the excessive tactics and escalation of violence precisely because we now live in a permanent state of exception (or emergency).

What do we do now, however, when communities are not sure they are being protected by the police and in fact need protection from the police?

In the article cited earlier, Gulli reports, “At the end of his critique of the state of exception, Giorgio Agamben addresses the question of contingency, which is very important in all of his work, when, with a reference to Benjamin, he speaks of “the urgency of the state of exception ‘in which we live’” (2005)

In his eighth thesis on the philosophy of history, Walter Benjamin says:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.” (1968)

I hear people asking about the current protests, “What are they hoping to accomplish?”

One thing they could accomplish is to create a real sense of emergency that will call into question in the larger American conscience a question about the permanent state of exception that has crept in over the past decades. The supposed ‘war on terror’ and ‘war on drugs’ are but two examples of this.

None of us want to live in a police state.
No one I know wants to live in a state of fear.
That it why we must question the exceptional violence and emergency politics that have become too normalized and quietly accepted in our society.

The people are raising their voice in protest of this exceptional violence.

_______________________

* I will be capitalizing ‘State’ to illustrate its elevated and exceptional status.

** I know four people in law enforcement and they are all amazing, loving, kind, people. My concern is about a larger mechanism in our society.

For a powerful response to Schmitt, see Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters On the Concept Of Sovereignty 

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com. | The Baskerville Theme.

Up ↑

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,062 other followers