A Gospel for the Earth and its Creatures

A friend who writes a lot about gender equality admitted that someone once said to him, “Stop worrying about women and concentrate on the gospel!”  The assumption, of course, is that whatever one takes to be “the gospel”[i] has nothing to do with whether women are treated as human beings.  It’s just about getting your “sins” erased so that you can “go to heaven.”  And any time we spend worrying about anything other than getting people to heaven is a distraction.

The problem, of course, is that the actual Gospel[ii] has next to nothing to do with “getting our sins erased so we can go to heaven” and everything to do with the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  As the Lord said in his prayer, we seek God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.  In other words, being saved from sin means being saved to live differently according to a very different set of values and assumptions.  These assumptions are shocking to the world.

The religious dualism that convinces people the Gospel has nothing to say about systems of power, injustice, and oppression is the same one that has convinced many that it also has nothing to do with “economy” or “economics.”   I use “economy” here broadly, not just (but including) the concept of money.  Economy is bigger than money. It’s about how everyone and everything survives, how resources are used, and how things, creatures, and people are taken care of.

It’s no coincidence that after the Pentecost event and the establishment of the church in Acts 2, the first description of what the church did included worship, prayer, teaching, and the establishment of an alternative economy within the body that looked very different from the power-driven, exploitative, military-checked capitalism of the Roman empire—an economy which most folks back then assumed to be necessary.  It was just the way things worked.  There were poor classes and rich classes and slave classes, merchants and consumers, everyone in their place under Caesar.    

It’s not much different for 21st century Christians whose thinking about things like shopping, how much we consume, what we throw away, what we eat and drink, and where we get our food (and whether or not slaves are involved) is captivated by the central assumption that our economic values are “necessary,”[iii] that they require no reflection and are morally and theologically neutral.  Shopping is a form of entertainment, food comes in throw-away plastic containers, and what does going to heaven have to do with any of that?

It’s similar to asking the question (even without assuming the answer), “should Christians serve in the military?” Frequently, one is met with, “What do you mean ‘should?’  Of course they do!  You want a bunch of pagans fighting your wars?”  The lack of ambiguity is simply a forgone conclusion.

When pressed, though, the person asked will, invariably, become irritated and, eventually, offended.  And it’s precisely because assumptions formed by the teaching of Jesus about something like violence undermine the assumptions that people use to make sense of the world around them—assumptions which help them feel safe and secure.  There simply are “bad people” who want to harm “us” and must be killed.  We prepare to kill them if they ever enter our homes and we send our children to kill them overseas on the world scale.  That some of them will certainly die doing so is the “sacrifice” that makes our “freedom” noble.  To begin to rethink this reality calls into question every other assumption one has about what is true and right.  To consider the possibility that it’s wrong is deeply unsettling.

I have found the same incredulity of response when questioning American consumerism.  In a conversation a few months ago I made a statement that made sense to me but just bewildered a friend of a friend.  I said, “I think we have to learn to stop treating the earth like it’s a source of resources.”  I thought it was obvious that I meant we ought to think of the world as more than a source of resources and that those resources are limited and meant to be shared—that we should treat it like it’s our home and like it requires our carefulness.  This person, clearly astonished that I could be so naïve, responded, “Where else are we going to get our resources, Mars?”  His next comment implied he had serious doubts about my intelligence.  I was the guy who was against killing cows but thought hamburger was ok because it “came from the store.”

The exchange would have been humorous if it weren’t so sad.  His incredulity was due to his unwillingness (perhaps inability) to consider that the ways and rates at which we consume “resources” (a useful reductionist euphemism for the land, creatures, trees, and people around us) has moral and even theological implications.  “Hell, we gotta get our resources from somewhere!”  What I was presenting him with was so different and so challenging that it undermined his central assumption about how economies work.  It was outside of anything he had ever thought about and was unsettling for him.  And he responded the way people do when their core assumptions are called into question.

On a larger scale, one sees this in the phenomenon of climate change denial.  For some time, I’ve wondered why the notion that our lifestyle has affected the climate generates such passionate screeds and accusations of “liberal agendas.”  Why is clean water a political agenda?  Well, it’s actually obvious.  When people respond to data suggesting CO2 emissions are harming the earth, it implies that driving cars and clearcut logging are no longer morally neutral things.  Pointing to plastic islands in the Pacific and plastic crises in third world or developing countries implies that our greedy, throw-away lifestyle is ruining other people’s lives and we have an obligation to stop. 

Think of it this way: the accusation that being concerned about climate change is tantamount to “socialism” is an admission that western rampant capitalism is destroying the planet.[iv]  Even Donald Trump understands this.  In a recent press conference, when asked whether he still rejected the data on climate change, Trump claimed he wasn’t interested in losing American wealth on dreams and windmills.  He understands (I make no claims on how explicitly) that love for our neighbors, plants, creatures, and the earth means changing the values of the economy.  And he (explicitly) chooses greed over love.  That “believers in Jesus” applaud this reveals just how dualistic and simplistic the faith they’ve been taught actually is.

This is what becomes evident when one examines it in much detail.  These economies (I want to speak more broadly than just American capitalism) are inherently violent and unjust.  They exploit and use up and destroy without concern for neighbors, fish, trees, and birds.  The way we set up and live in our societies are, in fact, extensions of the way we view one another and the world.  They are contingent on the minds and imaginations of sinful, greedy, and violent people.  They are founded on a lie that we are all individual consumers in a land of unlimited resources, tasked by God to use up as much as we can before we die. 

But the Gospel of Jesus presents an alternative.  This is the alternative we hope to understand in our class, THE 310-Christian Community in the World.  The description is: A study of the Kingdom of God as it restores community and creation.  You can listen to Vangie Rodenbeck and me talk about it here. We’ll be reading together one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, one that puts feet on some of the remarkable values we’ll be discussing, a book called Jayber CrowIf you’re interested in the author, Wendell Berry, the best introduction to his work I’ve ever read is here.  For myself, I can tell you that this perspective has affected me deeply, and I’ve written extensively about it.  Here is one of my more meaningful attempts.

These are the questions which will be informing the dialogue of our class:

  1. What does peace look like when it comes to how cantankerous people live near and with one another?
  2. How does peaceful community challenge the myth of western individualism?
  3. What values shape Christian thinking about economy and consumption?
  4. Where does our food come from and why does that matter?
  5. What does a life shaped by these values look like?
  6. What does our theology have to say about the land and waters, the plants and creatures that live in these, the value of humans and their relationship to all of it?
  7. What does it mean to exercise the image of God in his creation?
  8. What is the eschatological message of a theology that cares about the earth, its people, plants, and creatures?

In one of my classes years ago, I quoted NT Wright about the irony that some who were strict “creationists” were those who were the least concerned about taking care of “creation.”  The immediate (and sincere) response from one of my students was “but what about abortion?”[v]  She, like many evangelicals, had been fooled into thinking that abortion is the only contemporary moral issue the Gospel has any application to.  That to care about how we treat the earth means we must accept partial-birth abortion.  This, however, is a lie which has distracted evangelicals from a myriad of other important issues, manipulated them into blind political allegiance which embroils them in ceaseless culture wars, and is itself antithetical to the Gospel.  In my opinion it has even disrupted their ability to think about abortion itself. 

The truth is, the Gospel speaks into every part of our lives because it seeks to restore God’s whole created order, and believing this only deepens our understanding of the work of Jesus in this world, of peace and the value of life, and how to live as an alternative Kingdom community within the kingdoms of the world whose values are not the Lord’s…but, more on this when you take the class. 

Please join us.

Follow the Link here to register.



[i] I want to point out that I use a lower-case “g” when I’m referring to a gospel that I take to be different from the Gospel.

[ii] See what I mean?

[iii] It may not be clear, but my intent is to use the term “necessary” in an ontological sense—as opposed to “contingent.”  “Necessary” here meaning “having itself as the source of its own being.”  It just “is” and can’t be helped. 

[iv] Politically, this is something that “progressives” like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez readily (if not partially) accept and have attempted to write into their national policies.  It is something that, I believe, “conservatives” try to ignore and have attempted to stifle by drawing ridiculous caricatures of these policies.  My concern is that conservatives and progressives, each, are too invested in this economy to adequately address the problems.  It will require a change of thinking and values to truly present a Kingdom solution.

[v] The truth is, this is a common reaction and one which genuinely mystifies non-conservative folks who struggle to understand how people who can be so adamantly “pro-life” can be so unconcerned about the places we “live” in.

Can Nations be Christian?

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

A few years ago, I visited Washington D.C. again, having been to our nation’s capital probably a half dozen times.  I am always taken aback by its history and its architecture.  On this last visit I was admiring the Jefferson Memorial, a tribute to one of our country’s founding fathers and our third president.  What caught my attention were the inscriptions inside of the memorial.  Many of them were references to God.  One such quote reads,

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever. 

The Jefferson memorial is not the only place where scripture or references to God are inscribed.  The Washington Monument also has scripture verses and references to God.  One could do a search of the whole city and find thousands of references to God.  Our very Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

With all these references to God and the faith of some of our founding fathers it makes sense that many believe America is a “Christian nation.”  Yet can any nation actually be Christian?  Does calling a nation Christian make it Christian?  The question can only be answered by discerning what it really means to be Christian. 

The term “Christian” was first used at the church in Antioch.  It is quite possible that these earlier followers of Jesus did not call themselves Christians, but it was name the community gave to the church because they saw that these people followed Jesus.  The word “Christian” simply means “little Christ.”  The city of Antioch called Jesus-followers “Little Christs” because they saw the people of the church imitating the life and ethics of Jesus.  This labeling by the community of Antioch is important because it gives us a huge clue to what it means to be Christian.  The Christian then, is one who has allegiance to the teachings and person of Jesus and seeks to imitate these teachings.  This core is easily seen in other New Testament passages.  Here are just a few examples.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he called people to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27).  In what we call the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

In all these passages we see the theme of allegiance and imitation of Jesus as essential to being a Christian. 

The Apostle Paul understood that allegiance and imitation were key to what it meant to be Christian.  It could be said that at the heart of his letter to the Corinthian church, with its many problems and issues, was the question, “What does it mean to be Christian?”. Paul answers this decisively when he tells the church in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  Paul was saying that being a Christian means following Jesus

This idea was not unique to Paul.  Peter says in 1 Peter 2:21, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps.” The apostle John would say in 1 John 2:6, “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”  Jesus’ brother James would insist that being a follower of Jesus was not simply a matter of intellectual belief but had everything to do with imitating Jesus’ ways and life.  He would say in James 2:14ff that faith without action (imitation of Jesus) was dead.  The New Testament seems to be clear that to be Christian one must have allegiance to Jesus and imitate his ways.  So, can nations be Christian?

The easiest way to answer this question is to explore whether any nation has ever demonstrated allegiance to Jesus and sought to imitate his ways.  We need to be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that just because people want to be a Christian nation or desire that such a nation exist that it means it is Christian.  A duckling can grow up with dogs and even believe that it is a dog, but even though it tries to behave like a dog, tries to do dog-like things, it can never be a dog.  It is still a duck.  Throughout history nations have called themselves Christian, have claimed to do Christian-like things, but this does not mean they are Christian.  I believe that if we honestly evaluate what is at the heart of nation state, we must say they can never be Christian.  Though some certainly believe themselves to be Christian, they can never be Christian.  Christianity is reserved for those who imitate Christ and follow him.  Let me give you an example of a nation seeking to be Christian and believing their cause to be Christian.

During World War 2 one of the main leaders of a country who called themselves a Christian nation said this,

In this hour I would ask of the Lord God only this: that He would give His blessing to our work, and that He may ever give us the courage to do the right.  I am convinced that men who are created by God should live in accordance with the will of the Almighty.  No man can fashion world history unless upon his purpose and his power there rest the blessings of this Providence.

It is clear that this person believed their cause and their nation was Christian.  So, who said this?  Franklin Roosevelt?  Winston Churchill?  We might easily believe it to be either, but these words were, in fact, spoken by Adolf Hitler.  Hopefully it’s obvious that Nazi Germany was not a truly “Christian” nation.  They neither followed the words of Jesus or sought to imitate him. 

But, can America be the exception?

Again, the criteria we are looking for is following Jesus and imitating him.  Certainly, many Americans believe the nation to be Christian based on superficial statements like saying we are “under God,” but words are not as important as actions (thinking you’re a duck does not make you a duck). One only has to look throughout our nation’s history to see that, as a nation, we have not followed Jesus, nor have we imitated him. 

This is not meant to be overly harsh, but to demonstrate that nations can never be Christian because nations have different interests and agendas. Nations cannot imitate Christ partly because to do so they may cease to exist as nations.  If the heart of being a Christian is loving one’s enemies, then it is safe to say that America and all other nations have never been Christian.  America has always had enemies and even though we invite them to join us and we might even to seek to love them it is only when they seek to serve our interests. 

Christians, on the other hand, are to love their enemies regardless of their actions or intentions.  If Christians are called to put down the sword, then it is evident that America is not Christian.  America and all other nations use the sword to keep people in line and even at times (unknowingly) may be agents of Gods plans.  If Christians are to be “just people” then one can look at American history and see it has not been just.  The stain of slavery and the inequality of women and minorities are just a few examples of our injustice.  Justice for all is a great dream for America and one we should strive for but it has never been realized and since nations are part of the fallen world, they never will achieve this goal.

It is my prayer in writing this blog that the reader will agree that nations cannot be Christian.  Only the church can be Christian.  I love the nation I live in.  I want to be a blessing to it and even strive to live out my Christianity in it.  Hopefully Christians see that the only nation which is Christian is the Jesus nation.  This nation is a nation which has no borders and is without enemies of the flesh, but is a people who seek to imitate and follow the one leader: Jesus.

Questioning the Sacrificial Foundation of Contractual Theory

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

Traditional Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. Does this fit with the teaching of Jesus? Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), but God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice in order to do so? Is something wrong with this understanding and the view of God this entails?

Jeremiah 7:22 says, “for when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offering and sacrifice.” This verse raises a question about the commonly understood impetus behind the Old Testament sacrificial system (specifically the book of Leviticus). Contractual theology is built upon the notion that God requires the Levitical sacrifices as antecedents to the sacrifice of Christ, but this verse would seem to contradict this understanding.

Contractual theory, in short, teaches humans are sinful (e.g. original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The contract (covenant) between humanity and God was not working, therefore God provides a way out in the sacrifice of Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in His sacrifice.

In this initial blog I want to suggest the basic premise of Contractual theory, and the theory of sacrifice undergirding it, directly contradicts the biblical teaching in the following ways:

1.   Contractual theology presumes life is in the Law (law keeping or fulfillment of the law), contrary to Romans 8:2 which says life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ.

2.   In Contractual theology those who kill Jesus act according to God’s will.

3.   The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus in Contractual theology is not to restore all things (as depicted in Acts 3:21 and elsewhere), but to serve as a sacrifice.

4.   Contractual theory assumes God or the Law require satisfaction for forgiveness, while this seems to contradict the very meaning of forgiveness. If justice is done, it would seem, forgiveness is no longer necessary. Why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ?

5. In Contractual theory, humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected not only human sacrifice, but in several verses in the Old Testament, sacrifice of any kind.

6.   God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but in Contractual theory He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

7. Is it justice if an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil and guilty? Did God require the ultimate evil, killing the Son of God, so as to meet his need for justice? Does human violence against the Creator simultaneously satisfy the justice of God and the skewed sense of justice that put Christ on the cross?

In summary, the biggest problem with many atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr so beautifully writes, “In order to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[1] In other words, where God requires the sacrifice of Christ, God is the original persecutor of the Body of Christ.


[1] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 208.

The Gospel According to . . . Romans?

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

“If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”

Augustine of Hippo

 Recently I was listening to a podcast and the speaker was sharing thoughts on the important role which the gospel plays in each believer’s life and in the life of the church. He used the term “gospel” repeatedly. I agreed with his assessment on the centrality of the (whatever we mean by the word) “Gospel,” but, though he said “gospel” repeatedly, I found myself questioning what he really meant when he used the term. “Gospel” has been used so much within evangelical Christianity that no one really thinks about its meaning. It is one of those buzz words which it is expected every Christian or church going person should know. But do we?

For many years I understood the gospel as simply the good news of Jesus making a way for me to go to heaven. I am guessing this is the view many others have as well. The book in the Bible which I thought best supported this view was the book of Romans. My understanding of Romans and the gospel came while I was in seminary. This gospel of going to heaven could be summed up in a popular approach to sharing Jesus called “The Roman Road.” For me the book of Romans existed to share how one could escape the punishment of hell and go to heaven.

The Roman Road goes something like this: We all have a problem, it is sin (Romans 3:23). The problem with sin is that it leads to death (Romans 6:23). God then steps in and makes a provision for us through his son who takes on our death and punishment (Romans 5:8). This is a free gift which we cannot earn (Romans 6:23b). If we want this free gift then we must confess Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9). For many the Roman Road ends there, though I saw baptism as an essential part of the road as well, as Paul talked about baptism in Romans 6.

This is certainly a simplified look at the Roman Road, but I do believe it represents what many people think about when they think of the Gospel. They believe the good news is that we are doomed but thankfully Jesus died on the cross, so we don’t have to go to hell but can go to heaven. Yet, is this what Jesus meant by good news, and is this what Romans is claiming is the good news?

The heart of the Roman Road is a false understanding of what God desires and what he is trying to accomplish. Central to its thinking is the belief that God’s justice has been violated and that he must receive punishment for sin. This idea sets up a pagan belief that God’s anger must be avenged [sic, satisfied?]. Sin, if it is to be paid for by humans, will mean an eternity in hell. But instead, God allows Jesus (who is perfect) to take on the full wrath of the Father. Once the son takes on this wrath, he is able to impute his righteousness (his good deeds) on us. Inherent in this view is that our main problem is a judicial one. The Father is seen as a judge who is “righteous and holy.”

A verse in Romans which has been misused to support this view is found in Romans 1:17 which says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” The key word which has been misused is the word righteousness. To correct this misunderstanding, I will seek to show two things: First, I will define the word “righteousness” in the way Paul uses it. Second, I will show how this word takes on practical meaning in Romans 8:18-24. By looking at these two things I believe we will have a better picture of what the word “gospel” means.

The Greek word for righteousness which Paul is using in Romans 1:17 is δικαιοσύνη. This word can imply restorative justice as well as judicial justice. Paul uses it in the former sense, instead of the latter. Scholar N.T Wright when defining δικαιοσύνη uses the phrase “God’s covenant justice.” Covenant justice implies not that God must punish people for sin, but that God is committed to making things right in the World. This promise to make things right can be traced through the whole story of the Bible, including Genesis 12 when God said to Abram that he would bless the world through his seed. Any talk of “gospel” must include this idea of making the World right. Anything short of this will misinterpret what God is doing in the World.

When we turn to the book of Romans, we realize that this is the gospel message Paul has been presenting. Paul does not focus on people being punished because God must somehow appease his anger, but Paul shares how δικαιοσύνη is God being faithful to complete the task he has promised. There are many passages which we might turn to in Romans to show how covenant justice works but I want to focus on Romans 8:18-24. In this passage we get a beautiful glimpse of God keeping his covenantal faithfulness to fix the whole World. The passage reads:

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.

Paul says in verse 24 “for in this hope we were saved.” This is a key verse that tells us quite a bit about the gospel Paul is preaching. In chapter 8 Paul has been talking about those in the spirit and those in the flesh. We know that in Christ there is no condemnation. Those in the Spirit are those who are in Christ who have given their allegiance to him.

Earlier in this chapter Paul gives hope for those in Christ reminding them that even though their bodies will die they will be raised again. The resurrection becomes a focal point of the Gospel message. It is the good news which says, even when believers are going through difficult times they will rise again.

Now as great as our bodily resurrection is, we find that the human body is not the only thing which will be restored. In the section quoted we find that the Earth waits in eager anticipation for its own redemption. This redemption is one in which Paul says that after the saints receive their new heavenly bodies that the creation will receive its new cosmic body. In Ephesians 1:10 Paul says that Christ is bringing all things under him both in heaven and earth.

God’s plan has been to restore all things, things in heaven and things on Earth. The gospel message is not some bodiless experience separate from creation, but it is very much a physical presence on a renewed earth in a redeemed cosmos. Just as our bodies will not be subject to decay, so the earth will no longer be subject to decay. It is in this hope that we have been saved.

The picture which Paul gives of the gospel is one which is vibrant and multifaceted. It is a gospel which takes the creation project that went off track in the garden and puts it back on course again. Once we realize the true nature of the gospel road, we are able to give people hope and a way to live now. Our hope for a renewed and restored creation pertains to life now in this created order.

Please be Offended

“What a great sermon! Now, if we can just do that!

I remember that Sunday as we drove away from church. My father, a young (and remarkably self-absorbed) preacher in his thirties had just delivered what he had intended to be a scorcher. His brand of preaching was, unquestionably, motivated more by frustration than love: frustration that after graduating summa cum laude from Bible college he had not “made a difference” right out of the gate; frustration that no matter how hard he tried, no one seemed to be listening; and I think frustration that (as much as he tried to understand it) his own faith never really could provide truly satisfying answers to the real wrongs of the world he so desired
to right—he never felt like he thought he should feel like.

Being a narcissist didn’t help him either.

But the thing about my father, as a preacher, that I actually do still identify with is the sense in which he never could abide people pretending you said something different from what you said. My father was never a very profound theologian, but when he stumbled on a point that he thought was important, he was pretty sure he wanted you to understand it. And every preacher knows the Ecclesiastes-style-vanity of the moment when, after repeating your main idea a dozen times just like they taught you in basic preaching class, the people shaking your hand on the way out the door thank you for saying something completely different than you actually
said.

Such was the case that Sunday when, after preaching a message of desperation to get his little non-instrumental church to actually commit to something other than semi-regular Sunday attendance in the pews, a message in which he had said, “All you need to do is make a decision to give more to the church and we can make a difference in this neighborhood!”

“Thank you, Ray. Now if we can just do that.”

I heard her say it and watched him rest his head on the steering wheel on the way home.

I get it. I get pouring your heart into a point that the people who are “hearing” you just can’t hear. As someone who came to believe that following Jesus means *gasp* being unwilling to kill someone, my own preaching experience was even harder. I have found that belief in Christian non-violence is such a contradiction to most American Christians that, unless one says it in the clearest of terms, the listeners will almost invariably assume you didn’t mean what you said.

I’m sure there’s a high falutin psychological term for the phenomenon, one which I should probably know off the top of my head. But I’ve found that most people’s basic assumptions about what is real, true, right, and good are so deeply ingrained that the message of a peaceful Gospel just bounces right off. You can say, “Put down the sword Peter,” a thousand times and everyone in the audience will nod and say “amen” about Peter and his sword and then go home and practice shooting human-shaped silhouettes in the event of a home-invasion without the slightest sense of
irony.

As a result, when I was preaching and sometimes when I’m teaching when I make a point that I fear will be missed, I’ll say, “Now, I just said ‘x,’ but it’s possible you’re thinking, ‘surely he didn’t mean x, surely he meant y.’ Just so you know, I actually meant ‘x.’”

Even then…it can bounce off.

I’ve discovered, however, that there is a tool we have at our disposal that is very effective at breaking through that cognitive dissonance (I think that’s the term I’m looking for). The tool is to be willing to offend people’s sensibilities—sometimes even to hurt their feelings. What do I mean?

One of the ways we actually make it easier for people to hear something different than what we mean is that we try to be as nice as possible when we say it. We don’t want people to think we don’t like them or that we’re trying to insult them. So, we broach subjects tenderly and softly, handling everyone with a sort of codependent “kid gloves” approach that is sure to “let them down easy.” However, as any girl who’s tried to break up with a boyfriend who doesn’t get the hint knows, “letting someone down easy” can easily become a euphemism for not making it clear the relationship is over. And it can cause problems.

Personally, I refer to the prophets a lot and I think that people who know me best probably think it means I’ve got delusions of grandeur. But I think those guys and gals knew this very carefully. They were masters of making themselves understood with as little ambiguity as possible. It takes a lot of…courage…to stand up in front of a group of Ninevites and say, “y’all got 90 days before God levels this city.” It takes some…hubris…to say, “God’s name for you isn’t Pashur, but ‘Terror on Every Side.’” as Jeremiah did. It takes…forgive me…balls…to be baptizing people in one moment and then see the Pharisees making their way to the water in another and say, “Who
warned you to flee the coming judgment, you bunch of snakes?”

John the Baptist knew it. Mincing words wasn’t going to get the job done. Sparing feelings wasn’t going to communicate the truth in a way that made it unmistakable. Peacefulness doesn’t mean we’re always “being nice,” in fact, sometimes it means being downright brutally honest. As Stan Hauerwas has said, “Any peacefulness that [doesn’t make the truth clear] is accursed.” Further, he’s also referred to “southern civility” (a reference to a style of passive-aggressiveness that all of us who live in the south can identify quickly but which is by no means only practiced in that region) as “the most calculated form of cruelty ever devised.”

Hauerwas’ complaint, I think, is that avoiding saying something truthful that may cause the person listening pain for fear of offending them is a way of valuing sentimentality over truth, and allowing what isn’t true to rule. And it does nothing but continue to foster violence.

Christian non-violence will require us to speak honestly, truthfully, and clearly in such a way as to avoid misunderstanding. This means that we may (as anyone who knows an autistic person can attest) end up looking a little anti-social. But so much of what counts for sociability in our culture is a way of telling one another (and ourselves) little lies to save face. This is something autists, to their credit, simply cannot understand, and I envy that of them.

I’ve discovered that saying something so clearly that it offends people has a way of breaking through the BS layer and getting to the heart of things. It keeps people from being able to simply ignore what you say. They may reject it. But we’re told most people will. Might as well get it out of the way, right?

And it doesn’t mean you’re being a…jerk…although people will think so. You can love someone and say, “I love you, but that’s stupid, bro.”

I recently wrote a poem about carrying weapons in public. I tell you, I’m tired of pretending like carrying a gun to Waffle House isn’t rooted in fear and childishness. I shared it and offended my cousin, among others. I’m ok with that. I wanted it to offend. I’m tired of people pretending that being a pacifist means being “passive.”

The Certainty of Resurrection

The following is a guest blog by Matt Welch[i]

One way of looking at things is: “The only certainty we really have in life – is death.” From this point of view, death is the central fact of existence, the only fate we can be sure we all share; the lone shadow under which we all truly live and move and have our being; the one, final truth binding us all together under the darkness of its cruel, unstoppable power. Death is, no doubt, a terrible, sobering thought. Because we know deep in our hearts that even the people and things we love most, both young and old, are subject to death’s tyranny. We know that, eventually – and possibly sooner rather than later – we and everyone else we know, will die. And, what’s more, none of us can ever know when or where or how any of us will meet our always untimely demise. And so, in a life filled with anxious worry and restless uncertainty, of this one fact all of us can be sure: death is coming. Of this, and this alone, we can be certain. But this, of course, is only one way of looking at things.

And we should probably at least respect the courage of those brave souls who valiantly hold to such a position. At least they have the nerve to admit the brutal fact that death (and therefore nothingness) is the ultimate reality which all of us must face, along with the obstinacy to continue forging ahead through life undeterred, nonetheless. Despite their unwavering belief that death reigns supreme as the undefeated, undisputed, omnipotent king of the universe, before whom each of us must finally, silently, bow down to as lord and master, they not only press on through life but – in an almost heroic act of defiance – even “grab the gusto” in the process.

At any rate, there is, thankfully, another very different (and infinitely more beautiful) way of understanding things. And this very different way of understanding things is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Christ, the Truly Human One, has been raised from the dead, then resurrection life – not death – is the central fact and fundamental truth and essential reality for human beings and for all human history. And this is precisely why the resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the true form of the Christian faith.[ii] No other form of the faith will do. If the victory of life over death is, in truth, the central fact of history – then death is only what we imagine (apparently through some sort of deception) to be certain. If the resurrection is true, then death only seems to be the ultimate reality of things. Because, if Jesus truly rose from the dead, then death no longer reigns as the sovereign King. Jesus does. If the resurrection is true, then life is the most absolute certainty because, if Christ has been raised, then death does not have the final word. Life does.

If God brought the crucified Jesus back to life then, in Christ, everything has been reversed: the only certainty we have in life, as it turns out – is the resurrection. In the truly Christian understanding of things, only resurrection life in Christ (the life of God) is the central fact of all existence: the one shared destiny uniting all mankind and in fact everything else under the sun. The beautiful truth – over and against the lie of death – is that, in Christ, the absolute freedom of the resurrection has been made an actuality and therefore all of creation can know the sovereign, unstoppable power of life and therefore of love and peace. Through faith, we can know (and faith is, indeed, a higher form of knowing) that, despite all appearances to the contrary, resurrection life is truly “the real.”

Death and resurrection are not just one more dualism among many others. In fact, there is no dualism in Christ. Death is not and indeed cannot be “the real” on the order of, say, God, who has life and being in and of himself. Death is a privation of life; it is a failure to be. The whole story of Christianity is that, in Christ, death has been “swallowed up in victory” by life (1 Cor. 15:54). The resurrection life of the Son of God, then, in order to be what it most fully is, must actually be the real: the central, defining event of all human history. And if the resurrection of the Son of God is truly “the real” – then everything outside of resurrection life is comparable to the well-known analogy of The Matrix. And The Matrix is of course nothing more than a construct which, for those with eyes to see, can be exposed for the false reality that it is. It is only what seems to be real; that which only has the appearance of the ultimate. But it does not have the final word because there is a truer Word, a truer reality, which runs deeper than appearances. And so it is with death and resurrection: one (death) only has the appearance of being the ultimate reality – and the other (resurrection) is the actual reality. One is potentially true; the other is actually the Truth.


And so, in this view, the fundamental truth and ultimate reality of all existence is that, since Christ has been raised, resurrection life is our salvation because death has been exposed as a lie; an imposter, dethroned, abolished and displaced forever by the love of the Father, in the life of the Son, through the power of the Spirit. Viewed in the light of the resurrection, the certainty of death as the central fact of all existence is, as it turns out, only a terrible lie from which Christ has saved us all.[iii] And, since, properly understood, the Lordship of Jesus Christ over death is the central fact of existence, we can (again, by faith) have a new, higher and infinitely deeper form of certainty,[iv] This form of Christian certainty may be properly understood as “resurrection faith” – a faith (or faithfulness) which, as the writer of Hebrews put it, is “the assurance of things hoped for…”[v] For the early Christian writers, it would seem, faith is an epistemology grounded in the faithful certainty of God’s victory over sin and death.

This Christian notion of certainty of course may sound suspicious or even ridiculous to our post/modern sensibilities. But it is difficult to imagine St. Paul having much patience for such modern “sensibilities” grounded – not in the knowledge of the resurrection – but in a human logic he would consider already oriented towards death. For the apostle – who met and communed with the crucified and risen Christ – nothing could be more certain than resurrection. For perhaps the greatest Christian thinker in the history of the church not named “Jesus,” there is no more central fact, no more fundamental reality, and no other greater certainty than that of Christ’s total victory over death:

“But now the Anointed has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For, since death comes through a man, resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life.”[vi]

For St. Paul, resurrection life is a certainty. And not merely a potential reality for some – but an actual reality for all. A reality to be appropriated, to be sure, but a reality, nonetheless. For Paul, one form of certainty (that of death) has been displaced by another form of certainty (that of life): “Just as in Adam all die, so also in the Anointed all will be given life.” Through the resurrected life of Jesus, we come to know the Truth which is stronger than death: that, because of God’s great love for us, death has indeed lost its sting since, after all, death’s sting was its certainty.


[i] I dedicate this, along with all future contributions to FPS, to my dear friend, Dr. Paul Axton.

[ii] The false form of Christianity has at its idolatrous heart, of course, the logic of sinful desire, violence, deception, and exchange (the law of sin and death): “Let us do evil so that good may come.”

[iii] See 1 Timothy 4:10, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (ESV).

[iv] For instance, most days, the only thing I am certain of – is that hope that we have in Christ.  

[v] Hebrews 11:1, (ESV). Emphasis (of course) mine.

[vi] 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, from David Bentley Hart’s (magisterial) “The New Testament: A Translation.” Emphasis mine.

Christian Spirituality and Human Experience

Oftentimes, the spiritual seeker is one who seeks to escape their humanity by way of mystical experience that promises to transcend the reality of the material world. The spiritual seeker often desires to discover a reality that exists behind the mundane normative experience of being human. However, Christian spirituality shatters these misconceptions about the world, humanity, and the transcendent. Because the fundamental truth of Christianity, is that the one infinite God who transcends all categories of human comprehension entered into time, space, and human reality in the person of Jesus Christ. God became fully human while remaining fully God, and therefore bestowed eternal and divine significance upon human experience. God became like us. In his book, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, Rowan Williams describes Christian spirituality as it is incarnated in Christian history by the saints of the church. Williams does not mean to suggest that the spiritual life is only for the few, the heroes of the faith, rather he presents the spiritual life by illustrations and sketches of various saints. Thus, he highlights human experience in the spiritual life. Christian spirituality is inclusive of human experience, because the relationship humanity has with God is one in which God offers friendship with himself to humans by redeeming the human story in and through entering the fray of human existence as the incarnate Jesus.

I will illustrate the place of human experience in Christian spirituality by expounding on Williams’ treatment of the New Testament, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. John of the cross. Though these sources do not provide an exhaustive explanation of the place and importance of human experience in Christian spirituality, they do provide an introduction as to how humanity and all of reality are transformed and brought into union with God by Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.

The New Testament is fundamentally about God’s salvation of humanity from sin and death. Furthermore, the New Testament is about the salvation of particular human beings. Thus, the New Testament while proclaiming that Jesus Christ universally defeated sin, death, and evil on the cross, also proclaims this robust salvation in the lives of specific persons. God’s disclosure of the truth about all creation happens in and through the human story and particular human stories. Williams explains, “If the heart of ‘meaning’ is a human story, a story of growth, conflict and death, every human story with all its oddity and ambivalence, becomes open to interpretation in terms of God’s saving work.”1 The human story is, then, to be understood by the hermeneutic of God’s saving work in Jesus. Human experience is necessarily intertwined with God’s revelation of himself by the salvation wrought by the person and work of Jesus.

Jesus reveals what it means to be fully human; Jesus is, in a theological sense, the first true human being. Jesus’ work of redeeming the cosmos is realized by his full and complete dependence upon God. Williams writes, “Self-dependence is revealed as a mechanism of self-destruction; to cling to it in the face of God’s invitation to trust is a thinly veiled self-hatred.”2 Self-dependence is the attempt to create a reality apart from God. Apart from God there is no coherent truth to reality. Apart from God, humanity is capable of creating false realities based upon the lie of our own self-dependence and self-sustainability. It is possible for humans to create systems of community and interpersonal relationships without acknowledging human dependence upon God. However, these systems end in nihilistic violence, and are characterized by oppression and exploitation of people and natural goods. Thus, self-dependence is not a demonstration of human success and achievement, but a refusal be fully human. Jesus demonstrates by his identity and work that to be fully human in perfect friendship and harmony with God is to rely on God who is the creator and sustainer of all things.

Therefore, human experience is innately caught up in the mystery of God. There is no human experience apart from God but only a privation of human existence. Human existence properly understood is creaturely existence that grows into deeper union with God. Humanity was created for relationship and union with God. Humanity was created to participate in the life of the Triune God. Consequently, the salvation effected by Christ is of a progressive nature. In other words, followers of Jesus are to progress in the Christian life ever approaching God-likeness. Williams states, “Salvation is to be realized in growth, and not to grow is to fall away.”3 Human experience, as properly defined by Jesus’ mission of salvation, is characterized by spiritual growth. Christian spirituality, is necessarily inclusive of human experience, which is human experience of divine salvation effected by Jesus.

Williams uses Augustine of Hippo to explain how Christian spirituality is inclusive of the finite human situation. As finite beings, humans are not objectively in control of their reality. Williams notes, “Human reality is acted upon at least as much as acting.”4 As finite beings, we are located in time, space, relationships, proclivities, and aptitudes that are not necessarily of our own choosing. We do not choose to exist, nor do we exert control over our lives in an autonomous, objective, or linear fashion. Rather, we come to exist in the middle of narratives that are much larger than our individual lives. We are born and mature in the midst of familial, socio-cultural, and theological narratives. Augustine is perhaps the first great theologian to grasp the significance of our personal narratives in our experience of the transcendent God. Williams explains, Augustine “confronts and accepts the unpalatable truth that rationality is not the most important factor in human experience, that the human subject is a point in a vast structure of forces whose operation is tantalizingly obscure to reason.”5 Our human relationships with God and our spiritual growth are not merely about what we conceive objectively about God. Christian spirituality is as much about the heart as it is about the head. “The heart is moved, drawn, tossed about by impulse and desire, and ‘will’ has less to do with reason than with passion.”6 The Christian’s relationship with God, then, is as much, if not more, about simply being with God as it is about rational or intellectual conceptions of God.

Human experience entails emotions, relationships, and desire as much as rationality. The spectrum of human experience is not an encumbrance to relationship with the divine. Human embodiment is not an impediment to the God who is spirit. Williams says, “Human beings are naturally passionate, vulnerable, mobile, and if their humanity is to be saved it must be without loss of all this.”7 We are saved in and through our human experience. We meet God and grow into his image and likeness in and through our human experience. “Thus the confidence of the believer never rests upon either his intellectual grasp or his intellectual control of his experience, but on the fidelity of the heart’s longing to what has been revealed as the only finally satisfying object of its desire.”8 Our confidence rests not in our knowledge of God but in our faithfulness to desire and love God above all else. Prayer is the language of the heart, and it is by communing with God regularly in prayer that we ensure the fidelity of our desire for God.

In the work of St. John of the Cross, Williams demonstrates how embodied knowledge and desire draw us deeper into a participatory relationship with God and eventually draw us into union with God. Embodied knowledge distinct from pure reason is to know in a holistic and experiential way rather than in a merely intellectual way. Union with God is not an escape from our creatureliness or human experience, but preserves every aspect of human existence thought by Augustine to be saved in Christ, yet now existing in a transformed and higher way. John of the Cross teaches us that human knowledge and love must be transformed and reordered. Williams explains, “To be determined by knowledge and love of creatures, to have that as the decisive reality of one’s inner life, is to be able to know and love God.”9 Our inner lives are shaped by what we know and what we love. “Knowledge unifies; knowledge is participation, in which the knower is molded to take the form of what is known.”10 Knowledge unites us with God when our knowledge is shaped by prayer and permeates every aspect of our human experience.

For John of the Cross, the knowledge gained in prayer is not “rare mystical trances, visions or ecstasies, but the sense of being drawn into a central magnetic area of obscurity.”11 In other words, we know God when we cease to know by human means. We know God when we know that it is more important that we are known by God. St. John of the Cross refers to this knowing as illumination. Williams describes illumination saying, “Illumination is the running-out of language and thought, the compulsion exercised by a reality drastically and totally beyond the reach of our conceptual apparatus.”12 Thus, illumination is apophatic by nature. However, neither St. John of the Cross nor Williams intend for growth in union with God to render our human experience of God’s creation meaningless. Rather, “Illumination is an entry into that ‘contradiction’ at the heart of Christian belief represented by Jesus on the cross.”13 Illumination is experience of the infinite God becoming a finite human in the person of Jesus Christ so as to unite the totality of human experience eternally with the life of the Trinity. The apophatic moment of illumination does not abolish the world, but so transforms who we are that we receive ourselves and all of creation again, but now as a gift born out of the excessiveness of God’s love. We receive ourselves and all of creation as a gift of God which directly participates in the being of the divine.

Therefore, Christian spirituality is not about an escape from the material-physical world, nor is it about an escape from our finitude. The Christian spiritual life is about growing towards union with God in such a way that the totality of human experience is transformed, saved, and of eternal significance. Rowan Williams tells the history of Christian spirituality as the story of individual Christian lives being redeemed and brought into deeper and fuller relationship with God in and through prayer. The New Testament assures us that we are saved in our particularity. God entered the world in Christ not to save humanity in abstract terms, but to offer individual Christians relationship with God mediated by the Church. Augustine of Hippo brilliantly describes salvation in a way that is inclusive of all human experience. And, St. John of the Cross explains how we in our humanity are brought into the life of the Trinity. Christian spirituality, then, is about how God meets us in our humanity, and transforms “humanity” into a category capable of cooperating and participating in the divine life of the Trinity.

  1. Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publication, 1991), 12.
  2. Ibid., 17.
  3. Ibid., 19.
  4. Ibid., 83.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 84.
  9. Ibid., 175.
  10. Ibid., 176.
  11. Ibid., 181.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.

Our Church’s Biblical Journey to Allowing Women in Leadership

The following is a guest blog by David Rawls.

Recently, my local church family made the decision to allow women to serve in leadership roles in our church community. Since the founding of our church in the early 1970’s these roles were only open to qualified men. The view of our church (and the view which I held for many years) was that the Bible does not permit women to serve in leadership in the church. Throughout my Christian Journey whenever I heard that a church had allowed women to serve in such leadership positions I immediately believed that they had watered down the scriptures. In my mind I believed such churches were simply compromising to secular society, which was seeking to rid itself of all beliefs and systems the church held dear. If I were to accept egalitarian leadership, it would simply be a slippery slope to allowing the Bible to say whatever culture wanted it to say.

Today I no longer believe that allowing women to serve in leadership is the root of secularism or a denial of scripture. If anything, I have come to believe that allowing women to serve in leadership is not only culturally right but biblically correct as well. How could I make such a change? How could our church make such a change? The answer lies in seeing the story of the Bible.

Early in my Christian journey I was taught that we can see scripture through two lenses. The first lens was a liberal one. This lens allowed one to interpret scripture through different starting points. Each starting point was based upon one’s experience or background. This starting point was a springboard to such things as liberation theology, feminist theology, LGBTQ theology and an assortment of other systematic theologies. I whole-heartedly rejected this way of seeing scripture because at its foundation was human experience rather than God.

The second lens I was taught to see scripture through was a conservative one. In this approach, one seeks to use all hermeneutical tools available to try and determine what the text meant to the original audience and then seek to make it applicable to today’s audience. This approach was a very systematic approach to the Bible. The belief was that the Bible had set categories (i.e. God, Jesus, sin, salvation, atonement, end times, women’s issues etc.) If we understood these categories correctly we could systematically find scriptures to back up what we believed the Bible to be saying. Therefore, if we believed that women were not permitted to preach or lead we should be able to go and find scriptures which could prove our point of view or disprove it.

There is some value in this historical/cultural approach but I find that it, too, makes some of the same mistakes as the liberal view. This is why I have opted for a third way of interpreting scripture, one which focuses not on turning to the Bible as a source of propositional truths to decipher (although propositions have their place) but on a story to understand. The method I’m referring to has been called “narrative theology.”

The central assumption of narrative theology is that the Bible has a story to tell. It is not an “encyclopedia” of “facts” we can use to build a case for our beliefs; rather, it is a story of God’s great renewal project of the whole World. The story of creation, the fall, a family, a nation, a messiah, a church and a new creation are not illustrations on how one gets saved and goes to heaven, but they are the framework from which all things must be interpreted in scripture.

So, when discerning whether women can or cannot serve in leadership of the church we decided to look at this issue through the narrative of scripture. The narrative of scripture forced us to look at the whole forest before we could even decipher what individual trees in that forest might be telling us. Here is the story we saw concerning women and leadership.

Understanding Gender Roles Narratively

The story begins in the garden. In the creation account we learn right away that God saw no hierarchy between men and women. They were created equal and they had a task to do. They were invited by God to help manage all of creation. Genesis 1:28 says,

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Genesis 1:28

This was God’s intended design—male and female working together on a common project. Yet it is not long before the story takes a sharp turn and God’s great creation project went wrong. In their arrogance the man and the woman decided they knew what was best for themselves rather than trusting in God. So, in Genesis 3 we see the results of the fall. Many complementarians (people who believe that women should not have leadership roles in the church) will admit that man and woman were to rule equally but that the fall changed this plan. Our church, however, did not see this in the story. What we saw in the story was not a change in God’s plan but a change in people. Our old view was that, after the fall, God wanted men to be in charge over women. When we carefully read the scriptures we saw the story was trying to tell us something completely different.

In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve’s sin, God curses the serpent and the ground. If you read the text carefully, you’ll notice he never curses Adam or Eve. Yet they are told that because of sin the world has been altered. Growing crops for the man will not come easy. For the woman child bearing will be painful (possibly to remind us how valuable life is). Then God tells Eve near the end of verse 16, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” We saw this not as a command of God’s will but as a declaration or a warning about what is ahead. God knew that sin would cause a battle between the sexes, a struggle for power which would see women usually on the losing side of in history.

The rest of the story in the Old Testament, we believed, could back up this interpretation. Throughout the OT (although male dominance was a part of the culture) God never forbade women to lead. Instead, he actually called women to lead in some phenomenal ways. Three women in particular stood out to us in our church. Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. Miriam co-led with Moses and Aaron the nation of Israel in its infancy (Micah 6:4). Deborah led Israel during the time of the judges. Huldah, the prophetess, gave King Josiah direction on how to deal with the nation after finding the Torah. These three women were not simply placed in these positions because there were no good men available! They were called to lead because they were the right person for the position. This is what the story of the Old Testament was telling us. But what of the New Testament? If women could be leaders in the Old Testament did God change his mind in the New Testament?

When the story picks up in the gospels, patriarchy was alive and well. Yet the biggest defender of women was Jesus. Jesus treated women differently than his Jewish brothers and sisters. Jesus allowed women to sit at his feet to learn (In Jewish culture this was a man’s position only). He allowed women to be his disciples (again culturally reserved for men). And the irony of all ironies, women became the first witnesses and preachers of the Resurrection! When Jesus ascended to heaven it was both men and women who waited in the upper room to receive instructions from the Holy Spirit. Finally, when the day of Pentecost came Peter proclaimed from the prophet Joel (Acts 2) that it would be both men and women who were to preach that the Kingdom of God had arrived. This is the story that the gospels and the first two chapters of Acts tell us. So what part did women play within the early church? What does the story tell us from the New Testament letters?

The Apostle Paul has gotten a bad reputation in our present day because some believe that he taught that women had no part in leading or preaching and even forbade women to speak in churches. I believe his letters have been misrepresented and have been interpreted in such a way that does not follow the story of the Bible and especially not the story of the New Testament. I believe a careful study of the story shows a picture in which Paul saw women preaching and leading not as subordinates but as equals.

In Acts we learn of women like Philip’s daughters who were preachers, while in Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn of some of the women who were leaders in the early church. Phoebe was a leader in her house church in Cenchreae, Priscilla taught Apollos theology, and Junia was considered great amongst the apostles. The story seems to show that Paul did not deviate from the Old Testament story nor Jesus and the early disciples’ view of women.

Certainly, when we get to some of the more difficult passages where Paul seems to forbid women from leading we must interpret what he says through the lens of what the story tells us he did. Paul served with women leaders. Now as a church we did look at these difficult passages of Paul’s. Yet when we saw what the story had already told us and began to read about these churches in Corinth and Ephesus, what we saw was not forbidding of women leaders but instructions to these churches about some issues they were facing.

On the topic of women’s roles in the church, I believe that if we allow the narrative to speak, we will find that, rather than forbidding women to serve in leadership the Bible actually opens the door for it. This is the journey our church has taken. We have a high view of scripture and ultimately want to make sure we do not allow culture or trends to decide how we serve in the Kingdom. My hope is that for churches who have forbidden women to serve in leadership to at least look at the scriptures again with fresh eyes. Take a look at the story again allowing it to shape you. You might be surprised at what you find.

Augustine and Wittgenstein on language, meaning, and understanding (Part III)

In the preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes: “The thoughts that I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition and sentence, … states of consciousness, and other things.”i Such a remark makes obvious, I hope, the ways in which Wittgenstein shares many of the same philosophical concerns as Augustine. Whether they share the same conclusions about these concerns, however, is another matter—namely, the present one.

As I tried to make clear in the second blog post, Augustine’s views about the purpose of language evolve throughout The Teacher; despite holding, prima facie, that language has a twofold purpose, by the conclusion of the dialogue he says that language’s purpose is singular—to remind. Wittgenstein, on the other hand—at least the Wittgenstein of the Investigations—, seems to utterly resist the notion that language has a singular purpose. Language, on his view, is infinitely complex; its uses are vast and variegated. People teach and remind, sure, but is that really all that we do with words? What of “Reporting an event – Speculating about the event … Making up a story; and reading one – Acting in a play – Singing rounds – Guessing riddles – Cracking a joke; telling one”?ii Are these all genuine instances of using words mnemonically?

Augustine might answer, “Well, yes; if we look closer at each of these aforementioned linguistic uses, we’ll find that each has a mnemonic function, that is, except for singing.” Recall here Augustine’s contention that singing is not a form of speech because it’s accompanied by melody. “But you notice, do you not, that what pleases you in singing is a certain melodious ordering of sound? Since this can be joined to words, or removed from them, is singing not one thing and speaking something else?”iii

But here, perhaps, Wittgenstein would push against Augustine’s rejoinder. This time, rather than disputing Augustine on the purpose of language, he might draw attention to the way in which “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.”iv That language is part of a form of life means, inter alia, that it cannot be abstracted from its contexts of use without simultaneously losing its intelligibility. Wittgenstein gives the example of coming across a stand-alone sentence, which says: “‘After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before.’” Upon reading this sentence Wittgenstein asks himself a series of questions: “Do I understand this sentence? Do I understand it just as I would if I heard it in the course of a report? If it stood alone, I’d say I don’t know what it’s about.” He concludes: “But all the same, I’d know how this sentence might perhaps be used; I could even invent a context for it. (A multitude of familiar paths lead off from these words in all directions.”v This final comment is instructive: it elucidates the larger point that our words require contexts to be intelligible; even if there’s a standalone sentence (or word, or paragraph, or…) we come across—like the quotations that begin books or hang on placards—we’ll inevitably supply (or, “invent” in the words of W.) a context for that sentence, if it’s going to mean anything to us at all. The intonations that accompany our speech, the facial and bodily gestures we perform while speaking, the settings wherein we say this or that, the varying levels of familiarity we share with the person(s) we’re speaking to and with— such contexts enable understanding (and misunderstanding!). It’s not so simple, therefore, to abstract something like “melody” from our speech, as Augustine here so imagines. To suggest that we could somehow come to “pure speech” completely unadulterated by our contexts, that we could know the world independent of our words and the practices in which they live is to indulge chimera.

But doesn’t Augustine seem to grant Wittgenstein’s point about meaning and the centrality of contexts of use when he, for instance, repeatedly tells Adeodatus that prior to knowing the things to which words refer (name), words can neither teach us nor remind us of anything:

[I]t is by knowing the realities that we also come to a knowledge of their words, whereas, by the sounds of words, we do not even learn the words. For we cannot learn words we already know, and, as for those which we do not know, we cannot profess to have learned them until we have seen their meaning. And this comes about, not by hearing the sounds they make, but from a knowledge of the realities they signify.vi

Augustine, The Teacher

Without prior knowledge of the realities to which words name, there is no meaning. Knowledge of the realities themselves establishes the necessary context for linguistic meaning. Additionally, Augustine argues that, for meaning to occur, we often need things like gestures to accompany our speech. Pointing, for example, helps us communicate to others something about the concrete reality of which we might be speaking; sometimes it’s even the doing of a thing itself that helps us understand what that thing is; e.g., you want to knowing what “dancing” is, so I dance. This therefore shows that Augustine rightly understands the necessity of “contexts” for linguistic meaning, and sufficiently answers Wittgenstein’s qualms. Right?

Wrong. There remains a key issue in Augustine’s theory of naming and conception of meaning. According to Augustine, all words are nouns because all words name things.vii This picture of meaning requires that one know the reference to which a given word refers. This means that our knowledge of a thing—or, let’s make this more grandiose: our knowledge of the world is separable from our language.

The problem with Augustine’s picture of meaning here on display in The Teacher is, therefore, in many ways the same that emerges in Confessions: Augustine posits a gap between a word and a thing; or, to paraphrase literary critic Toril Moi, he divides up the word from the world. On this view, then, philosophy is tasked with bridging the gap between our words and the world; the philosopher must find the connection, the essence, between a word and its object. The solution for bridging the gap, according to Augustine in both The Teacher and Confessions, ultimately comes through naming; by naming, our words get connected to the world, and therefore become meaningful. But this whole “picture of language,” in the words of Moi, “is not so much wrong, as too simple and too circumscribed.”viii Or, as Wittgenstein writes: “Augustine, we might say, does describe a system of communication; only not everything that we call language is this system.”ix

In contrast to this picture of a word/world gap, Wittgenstein talks about human knowledge of the world as intimately bound up in and with our words. He compares language speaking to gameplay, as if it were “part of an activity, or of a form of life”x (think here of his famous “language games” designation). His reasoning for this is clear: “words and action, talking and doing, are intertwined.”xi Words are meaningful in our use of them in this or that activity. And naming is but one activity amongst a host of others, and it’s an incredibly complex activity at that!

All well and good, but this just scratches the surface of the larger issue that a speculative Wittgensteinian view presents for Augustine’s picture of linguistic meaning. The bigger problem with Augustine picture of meaning is that it tempts us to go looking within ourselves to establish meaning. This is the insidious idea of “the private language,” the idea that somehow, some way, we can think, mean, yea, understand the world and ourselves prior to language acquisition. In the words of Philip Porter: “Augustine’s move is to identify his pre-verbal self as a human capable of thinking and meaning something to himself alone, just not yet able to express this meaning to others.”xii This view is not just philosophically bankrupt; it’s theologically and spiritually dangerous, for it ultimately establishes me, the individual subject, as the ultimate authority of truth. Not only that, but it reifies and deifies the hidden and the private. If I can know, think, mean, and understand something to myself, by myself, prior to any form of language acquisition and involvement with the world, then I’m not actually human; I am a god.

Shudder.

i Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, et al (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 3.

ii Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

iii Augustine, The Teacher, 8.

iv Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

v Ibid., §525.

vi Augustine, The Teacher, 49.

vii See, e.g., Ibid., 52.

viii Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 28.

ix Wittgenstein, PI, §3.

x Wittgenstein, PI, §23.

xi Moi, Revolution, 45.

xii Philip Porter, “Inheriting Wittgenstein’s Augustine,” New Blackfriars (2018), 18.

Peaceable Projects : Exchanging money for communal economics

The following is a guest blog by Tyler Sims.

Over the past six years my wife Andrea and I have been pursuing ways to be peaceable followers of Jesus.

We strive to be pro-active pacifists who heal the earth, love people and cultivate community. Essentially, we desire to imagine and participate in a Jesus-inspired-peaceable community.

Sounds nice. Doesn’t it?

The problem is peaceable communities are few and far between. Here in Protestant America, it is a lonely venture. Contemporary peaceable resources for the novice are almost nil. There is scarce personal storytelling, history lessons, or norms related to pacifism in American churches. So what do we do about it?

Andrea and I do what so many peaceable sojourners do; we keep our eyes and ears open for supplemental guidance. We look for sustenance. We experiment. We wait.

This blog chronicles one such peaceable guide that surprised its way into our lives. The guidance recommends replacing money or finance with community and trust. Our peaceable sojourn into the conscientious world of finance started with a kid’s trip to the library.

While waiting for our kids to finish their library routine I found myself scanning through finance books. One book stood out, Saved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World by Ben Hewitt. Much to my surprise a book about finances cradled partial blue prints for cultivating Jesus’ peaceable kingdom.

Ben Hewitt’s journalistic venture introduces the reader to a subversive community and the quest to understand “money”. The community he describes has a primary currency of trust and generosity. Finance is used judiciously and as a last resort. Ideally, communal trust is exchanged from household to household. Through time the hypnotizing illusion of financial systems is eroded. Investment in stocks and retirement morph into investing in people and the earth. For Hewitt he came to these communal-economic ideas by asking the question: what is money?

Dethroning the World of Finance

After September 11th, Ben Hewitt found that his modest retirement fund had virtually disappeared. He set out on a quest to learn exactly what value, wealth, and money is. His discoveries would reshape his life and metaphysical orientation. In a sense, Hewitt’s work is a tool for naming the idol(s)–the practice of identifying, analyzing, and supplanting death-like power structures. His work dethrones money from its lofty pedestal and exposes its empty nature.

Hewitt systematically probes and documents the false reality of finance and money. He points to finance as an immaterial and contrived structure. How is this so? It commodifies needed resources–food, clothing, shelter– into consumer products. Essentially, objectifying real necessities to a violent fiscal metric or language. For instance, once food is commercialized it loses it natural relation to people; food is no longer a foundation of life freely given from the earth unto people. Food morphs into a commodity dispensed by corporations. People soon see it through this distorted lens. Altering humanity’s perception of food drives their “need” to accumulate money in order that food or other resources might be seized instead of shared. Mass participation in finance results in a power based economy founded on the the fear of death.

Thus, the finance economy holds communities at ransom through financial demands and language. In other words, only money can unlock needed resources within the modern world. Money or finance becomes the lock and key to life. It takes up the role of idol by replacing natural processes. From a theological angle, fiscal systems exchange resources found in creation with a human fabricated arbiter. Romans 1:25 comes to mind “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and turned to idols”. Consequently, finance generates its own moral code and metaphysical definition of existence. It is an existence of ransomed resources and enslaved people.

Ransoming of resources via finance is accomplished through the concept of value. According to Hewitt, value assigns subjectively determined, numeric rankings to resources. The result is an oppressive system which disproportionately dispenses or withholds basic resources from people according to income. Thus, the perceived numeric value of resources leads to speculation. Speculation ignores abundance. The result is resource hoarding by a few. Thus, greed converts abundance into scarcity; greed masquerades inequity as savvy financial stewardship.

Hewitt underscores scarcity by quoting from the book Sacred Finance, “In context of abundance greed is silly; only in the context of scarcity is it rational. The wealthy perceive scarcity where there is none. They also worry more than anybody else about money. Could it be that money itself causes the perception of scarcity? Could it be that money, nearly synonymous with security, ironically brings the opposite? The answer to both questions is yes.”

“Financial security” replaces communal systems of interdependence with a fear of scarcity resulting in greed. The oppression via monetary systems persist as value creates power structures. Value assigns numeric ratings for resources and for people via cost and salary, solidifying an alternate reality rife with alienation. Once people could drink freely from wells (resources). Now water can be purchased (via salary) by the bottle (commodity).

Value does not simply objectify resources, it dehumanizes people. For example, teachers and EMTs have low salaries (low value) and can barely afford housing (a commodity) due to its expensively assigned value. Meanwhile, CEO’s and lawyers with high salaries (high value) easily access necessary resources (commodities). The needs of the “low” and “high” professionals are equal and yet their access to resources unequal. Classes are spawned by the systematizing of people via “value”. Climbing the economic ladder becomes the new purpose to life.

Clearly, the world of finance is fabricated and violent in nature. Finance, at some point in time, arbitrarily creates the “haves” and “have-nots”. Money morphed from the gold coins of Rome to the cash bills of Washington to Visa cards. This economy of fear and finances has changed but its method of oppression remains the same. First, convince people that money is necessary and neutral. This is important. People must believe money is foundational and amoral. Second, wield the power of finance to exploit human lives.

Deflating Financial Economies with the Substance of Community

Hewitt dissects the lie of finance: money is necessary. He exposes money as a hollow ploy. The paradigm that you either have money or you are in debt is false. It turns out money is debt. Documented in his book, he points to the federal reserve printing currency backed by nothing, U.S banks loaning mortgages that they cannot fund and the US GDP requiring 4 dollars of debt per 1-dollar increase (Hewitt, 95-98). Essentially, modern finance uses ethereal fiscal numbers to claim physical resources. These monetary claims greatly exceed actual resources available. It can be deduced, money is debt, the financial system is a ruse, and numeric wealth is an illusion wielded by the powerful.

The weaponized illusion of fiscal wealth masks the reality that concentrated fiscal fortunes are connected to decreased communal wealth and natural resources.

So, what can be done with financial oppression? Hewitt reintroduces alternative ways of exchanging goods and services. In place of the ambiguous and oppressive value systems Hewitt suggests its counterpart, genuine wealth. Unlike Wallstreet, a realm which conjures its existence not from substance but through speculative judgments seeking to capitalize on consumer habits, genuine wealth is formed by substance and sincere relations.

The substance of genuine wealth is the combination of physical goods, food, skills and relationships a person has, both individually and by extension of their community. Wealth in its optimal form is communal, fluid–exchanging hands– and accessible to all.

An example the author gives is ladders. Why should a neighborhood of ten homes have ten thirty-foot extension ladders? Why not one or two ladders? This increases the neighborhoods resources and increases person to person interaction. Generosity or wealth is spread all around.

Consider Erik, the “poorest” and wealthiest person Ben Hewitt knows, “In short what I observed in Erik’s life was an incredibly interconnected, interdependent, community network that shared freely of its resources be they intellectual, physical or material…Erik had in large part usurped the moneyed economy by creating an economy of reciprocation (Hewitt, 139).”

In a community with Erik-like citizens time and resources are abundant. A person should need only the currency of trust to have their needs met. In communities where trust is currency people are generous, responsible and resourceful. They lean on friends and neighbors wielding innovation to meet each other’s needs. Communal trust systems cultivate renewed relationships between people, earth, and Creator, exchanging fabrication for substance.

People participating in either communal or fiscal economies might resemble the following traits.

Generally speaking, people pursuing finance value independence while relying on the accumulation of money and consumer goods. People pursuing genuine wealth value interdependence while relying on the accumulation of relationships and the development of skills. The first group immerses themselves in the unreal of financial speculation and accumulation. The second group immerses themselves in the real of relationships and cultivating innovation. And yet we are all a part of the fiscal system likely falling somewhere between the two systems. Thus, an ever increasing lean out of the fiscal system and into the communal trust economy is paramount.

After reading Hewitt’s book Saved, Andrea and I were able to understand the violent working of the money idol. We clearly understood the need to develop a large store house of communal trust. Likewise, we saw the need to decrease our dependence on money. Not because money and finance can lead to evil. But because money has become the vehicle of evil. It has stratified humanity into no-class, low class, high class. It has stripped forests of trees, polluted ground water with oil and deprived children of food. The lie of money perpetuates homelessness, cultivates war and substitutes communal relationships with personal finance. The truth of community erases hierarchy, cultivates relationships and shared resourcefulness. Humans created money. Therefore, we can undo this mistake by supplanting monetary systems as an act of creating peaceable community.

Jesus as Financial Iconoclast

Perhaps Jesus would have been willing to recommend Ben Hewitt’s book. At times Hewitt draws from the New Testament Canon and shares Jesus’ fiscal iconoclasm. Reviewing Jesus’ sentiment toward money in light of Hewitt’s book sheds light on a peaceable economy. Luke 18 records the story of a young man who wished to join Jesus’ peaceable community. He was told to sell all his possessions first. In Matthew 21 Jesus rages at merchants for turning God’s temple into a market. In Mark 10 Jesus states, “It is much harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” Jesus puts great distance between money and the Kingdom of God through much of his teachings.

Two of Jesus’ teachings confront the economy of money in a profound manner. These teachings face off with the popular American sentiment “In God we Trust” as seen infused on money. A lie so well entrenched it would forge God’s endorsement– the God who turned over money tables and multiplied fish for the masses at no cost!

And so, Jesus’ words ring clearly:

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”- Luke 16:13

As well as “Then Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” And they marveled at Him.” Mark 12:17

In the first saying Jesus draws a line in the sand. Serve God or money. Either serve the systemic and deceptive world of money/finances or serve the peaceable community of Jesus. You cannot have two masters. In the second quote, Jesus teaches money belongs to Caesar. Jesus had no interest in the power wielding system of Caesar. This death dealing economy is hollow and Jesus disowns it.

In contrast, Jesus embraces the life-giving economy of God. “Give to God what is God’s.” How beautiful. Life belongs to God. This is not some trite phrase readily consumed and processed. No; it is a stark metaphysical claim. Between the two scriptures above Jesus makes it clear: what belongs to God is life. What belongs to Caesar is death: an empty, hollow fabrication called money.

Jesus endorses a communal ecosystem. He called his peaceable ecosystem the Kingdom of Heaven. Consider the garden of Eden and its founding elements: relationship, cultivation, and abundance. Communal trust systems are much like plants in an ecosystem. Plants take nutrients, process, and give back to the ecosystem. Plants do so patiently and in season. Taking what is necessary while re-gifting what is not needed. Eventually, a tree or bush will fruit abundantly; no one creature can consume its bounty. The communal trust ecosystem involves sharing, patience, and interdependence. Where no one thing or person is labeled as “mine” by fiscal systems but everything is everyone’s according to God’s gift called life.

Unlike the communal system, the ecosystem of money withholds necessities of life until the system is appeased by its ever-shifting financial demands, e.g. inflation. It is a system which takes without thoughtfulness and wastes instead of re-gifting resources. Man authored a fiscal economy which deals in alienation and death.

Thus, the choice is to consume or cultivate, take or give, fearfully grab for control or trust in Jesus’ community of peace. It is a call to acknowledge “money” as ancient evil lie. The choice is relationships restored or relationships fragmented.

Will we bow our knee to the power-based reality of Caesar? Or will we lean into the embrace of peaceable communities of trust?

Acts 2:44-46 “All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they shared with anyone who was in need. 46With one accord they continued to meet daily in the temple courts and to break bread from house to house, sharing their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart.”