Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Science's Debt to Paradise, Imagination, and Love

Bede the Venerable Blogger (not to be confused with the Venerable Bede) has made somewhat of a specialty of examining the progress of science in the Middle Ages, particularly noting that science flourished in Christian lands, and that Christianity's view of an orderly and stable creation was among Christianity's helpful contributions to the rise of science. I suppose it's easier to develop science when believing the world is orderly and stable, as opposed to believing it is an illusion, or is subject to capricious whims. But I think a few more things can be added to the list of things Christianity has contributed towards the rise of science, namely: the encouragement of a creative imagination and the benevolent or loving direction of human endeavor.

The field of theoretical science does not advance in large steps solely by collecting or processing data. The earliest steps of the scientific process -- theorizing, speculating, hypothesizing -- are the ground of the human imagination. In the case of theory, we try to form a model in our mind of what is true. When reality proves to be different from previous concepts, forming a new working model requires a substantial amount of imaginative thinking. The scientific method does not generate new thoughts or models, but asks that these be brought to it from the outside as a starting point for testing. The formation of a hypothesis or the steady building of a theory depends on the imagination. Science, as naturalistic and observational methodology, is not capable of the intuitive leaps that its development has depended on for its reputation.

The field of applied science -- that is, technology -- is even more indebted to the creative imagination. The body of knowledge accumulated by science can make some small advances with simple observation, even in a complete absence of imaginative new theories. But the application of science to the real world is a different matter. Without imagination there would be no inventions. While some naturalists have been quick to claim all of technology as the realm of pure naturalism, still technological advances depend heavily on the creative and imaginative aspects of humanity, and on a choice of how to apply the advances made. Science, as a method, is not capable of desiring to be good and beneficial to people, despite that is one of its major boasts. Science, in isolation, pursues knowledge and is not particular about its uses. The benevolent, useful applications that have made science a blessing more often than a curse owe themselves to people applying themselves with their own personal or cultural, religious-steeped agendas of being blessings to other people, to act in love and service for humanity rather than for power or self-gratification.

Christian culture has taken criticism from various fronts for its love of imagination and fantasy. Christianity, however, sees the imaginative and creative spirit as part of humanity's role in creation, part of the image of God. To be creative, it is necessary to first imagine what you create. The Christian lands first excelled in imagination, which in turn led to the more outwardly noticeable excellences not only in visual art, drama, and music, but also in science and technology. Without imagination, there would have been no airplane, no telephone, no radio, no television, no lightbulb. Without imagination there would have been few advances in medicine or in mechanical and electrical technology.

Without "moral imagination" -- I wonder if it would be close to say "without pondering how to act on love" -- would the human mind direct itself to benevolent ends?

Certain outspoken scientists have decried religion for its supposed separation from reality. But it is only a certain separation from our current reality that allows any progress to be made towards another reality. The Christian embrace of the vision of paradise -- and of the potential for paradise within creation -- is one thing that enables progress towards something more closely resembling paradise. Christ's teaching of the primacy of love has given us the direction that drives us to find technologies that are widely, benevolently useful. Without imagination and love, science has no method of achieving progress and no reason to pursue benevolent advances that are a blessing to the world as a whole.

If naturalists wish a steady supply of creative minds that find useful rather than selfish applications for our knowledge, it would be worthwhile to consider the extent to which creative minds are generated through a culture that is fertile ground for imagination, is well-directed towards paradise, and expresses itself benevolently in love. It would be worthwhile to recognize the debt to religion in creating minds of a certain outlook and habit, and cultures that embrace imagination, creativity, benevolence, and progress towards paradise. If naturalism completely overtakes culture with a reductionist point of view, it will find it has reduced the reserves of cultural creativity needed for science to hypothesize, theorize, and flourish. In an excessively naturalistic culture, science may find itself with a shortage of creative minds directed towards useful pursuits.

I do not consider this to be an argument for Christianity's mere usefulness as much as for Christianity's firmer grasp of reality -- ultimate reality -- towards which progress can be made, however imperfectly.

Note on religions in general: Parallel arguments can be made on some level for any benevolent teaching and any paradise-oriented teaching to provide a fertile cultural background for science and technology. In this respect, most religions have some teaching of benevolence, though Christianity has a far stronger emphasis on the primacy of love than the other religions, emphasizing benevolent actions even above self-improvement, self-actualization, self-purification, or a goal of pursuing one's own personal enlightenment. Christiantiy sees those other things as only attainable through the pursuit of love, not as things attainable in themselves. Likewise, a number of other religions have some recognition of paradise, though Christianity has a far stronger teaching and vision of paradise than many other religions which acknowledge some form of paradise. More could also be said of Christianity's insistence that all poor people deserve compassion and help (it is never the fact that they were evil in a previous life that makes them somehow deserve a lower status in this life) and that sickness is best viewed as an occasion for compassion rather than a judgment from God. Christ's own actions were driven by love and focused on healing, feeding, teaching, forgiving, restoring dignity, restoring love, and restoring peace; therefore Christ's followers see these as the main aims of useful human action.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Knowing God -- good theology and bad theology

Knowing God causes wonder and awe, wisdom and fear, joy and humility, and above all love. The best theology causes the reader to lapse into praise, or be overcome with shame if warranted, or fall into quiet meditation, or turn our hearts to renew our love of family and neighbor. This is not from any crafty or dishonest manipulation. Instead, the best theology re-speaks the Word of God and again puts us in the presence of God, the same as when the Bible is read rightly.

When theology is seen in this light, much of what is considered theology shows itself as inadequate, like a drink that promises to refresh us but turns out to be sand in our mouths. Some theology prides itself on being logically rigorous. This is good, but it is like taking pride in being grammatically correct. It is good to be grammatically correct, but it is not enough. It is good to be logically rigorous, but it is not enough. The Word of God, rightly spoken, gives life. It quickens the soul, reveals the mind of God, and imprints on us the image of God.

I think much bad theology comes from bad Bible study. The Bible is not, primarily, meant to give us an encyclopedia of facts -- not even an encyclopedia of religious facts. It's meant to communicate God to us. This does not mean that the Bible communicates mere facts about God, but that it communicates the Spirit of God himself. Reading it rightly causes the thoughts of God and the Spirit of God to become part of us. Studying it is a prelude to something better, just like learning the notes of a musical instrument is a prelude to true music.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Celebrating Christ the King

Today, the festival of Christ the King, is my favorite day of the church year from a standpoint of music. Some of the most beautiful and powerful hymns of praise ever written are sung only on the festival of Christ the King. Here are some well-loved songs suited to the day, some of these almost guaranteed never to be heard on any other day of the church year:
  • Crown Him With Many Crowns
  • All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
  • Rejoice, the Lord is King
  • King of Kings
  • Majesty

My favorite of these, "Crown Him With Many Crowns," is among the many hymns now in the public domain. Here is my favorite verse of my favorite hymn for Christ the King Sunday. Feel free to hum along as you read ... it will be as if we were all singing. ;)

Crown him the Lord of Love
Behold his hands and side.
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified.
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.

Our congregation is blessed that we do have some sopranos who can actually hit the spine-tingling and majestic descant that goes with that song. Nevermind the descant or even the soprano part for me, I'm down on the alto part.

But not to neglect the beauties of those other songs, here is my favorite section of "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name":
Sinners, whose love can never forget
The wormwood and the gall
Go spread your trophies at his feet
And crown him Lord of all.
Go spread your trophies at his feet
And crown him Lord of all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Teenage Sunday School Considers Uses of the Law

This is last week's lesson. It introduced them to the idea that the Ten Commandments and the Law in general have a purpose. The week previous, we had reviewed the benefits of the Law and the praise heaped on the Law by Paul and even by Christ. This week, moving on, it may come as a surprise that obedience is not the only purpose of the Law, according to the Bible.

  • Ask them where in the Bible they can read the Ten Commandments. (Since we haven't gotten to Deuteronomy yet, they're supposed to say Exodus 20 at this point.)
  • Ask them to remember the Ten Commandments as best they can and get them on the board. Allowed to open to Exodus 20 and look if memory fails. Have the students take turns with the board, each writing a few of the commandments as their their classmates recall them.
  • Have someone draw our split-personality person on the board with the face showing half good and half evil to represent the part of us that is receptive toward God and the part of us that is hostile toward God.

Purpose of the Law: Restraining Sin and Its Damage
Read 1 Timothy 1:8-11.
  1. According to this passage, who is the Law for? Lawbreakers and rebels.
  2. (Indicate drawing of ourselves with our two natures.) If the Law is for the immoral, then which part of us is the Law for, according to this passage? The part that's opposed to God.
  3. What is the main message of the Law about all these things listed? "Stop it."

Purpose of the Law: Consciousness of Sin
Read Romans 3:19-20. List the purposes of the law that Paul names here.
  1. The Law silences us before God.
  2. The Law holds us accountable to God.
  3. The Law makes us conscious of our sin.
(It takes them some practice to actually focus on what the text says instead of inventing answers out of what they think they ought to be saying. They're still learning how to get answers from the text. It takes some concentrated work of guiding them to stick with the text before they get there.)

Introduce the illustration of the Law as a mirror. Ask them when and how they use a mirror. Examples they offered: when they first get up, when they think there's something stuck in their teeth, maybe after being in a strong wind. The point: the mirror shows them where they need to clean up.

Purpose of The Law: A Tutor that Schools Us in Our Need for Christ
Read Galatians 3:23-25.
Introduces the idea of the Law as a prison ... and time us up. Will pick up there next week.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Christian Biology Professor Responds to Scientific American

Normally I do not take up bandwidth on this blog by discussing the debates over origins. However, the latest claim by one Michael Shermer in the current Scientific American makes a badly overstated claim for science. Shermer calls ideas which cannot be tested and falsified -- such as creation -- not simply wrong, but "wronger than wrong." Shermer's overstated claim -- than any knowledge not subject to independent testing is not only false but not even allowed a place at the table -- is destructive to far more things than his likely intended target of religion. Philosophy, history, literature, art, and even unique personal experience would likewise find a place in the "wronger than wrong" boat according to whether they can be empirically tested. A biology professor at a Lutheran college replies:

In 'Wronger than Wrong' (November, 2006) Michael Shermer is correct in the prescriptive sense that ideas that cannot be falsified (string theory) are outside of science. Furthermore, then creation is also outside of science. Even though some think otherwise, the ultimate character of our origin, supernatural or natural, cannot be scientifically tested.

However, creation ought not be placed into a sinking reality boat labeled 'wronger than wrong.' If mathematical elegance interestingly causes some to hold on to string theory, I would suggest that the heart and the mind also cause many to seek a Creator. The truth scale needs to be expanded in the other direction. We have to remain open to ideas that lie beyond our limited science, that may be righter than right.

Paul Boehlke
Life Science Dept, WLC

Professor Boehlke's letter wasreprinted with his permission.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thankful ... "eucatastrophes" this year

Rumor has it that J.R.R. Tolkien coined the word "eucatastrophe" to refer to a backwards catastrophe, the opposite of a catastrophe. It refers to when everything has gone wrong but somehow, beyond belief, an unexpected good causes things to become better than had ever been hoped for. The resurrection of Christ from the dead was the ultimate "eucatastrophe", a reversal of bad fortune beyond expectation, beyond hope.

There are a number of posts I'd written this year about my mother's health. I've filed them under the sin and brokenness of the world since a large part of the health trouble was related to her own self-destructive behavior. She has also been hostile towards God since my father died nearly six years ago now. This year, she looked like she was nearly ready to die herself. She was increasingly weak and was dropping weight at a frightening pace. When we finally got her to the doctor, the medical people confirmed the immediate and serious risk to her life. My brother and I thought there had been too much delay getting medical attention, and there was not much hope. The sad thing was, as miserable as she had been, and as little as she had gotten out of the house since Dad died, watching her come so close to death by self-inflicted bad lifestyle felt almost like just respecting her wishes. Almost. Except that it meant her ending her life in defeat, almost never having lived it.

And then. And then. What a year. I lost track of how long she stayed in the hospital, and how long she stayed with us here under my roof, and a couple of surgeries, and a series of close calls. All very wrenching. But now? Her self-destructive behavior has stopped and so far she has not gone back to it. She's glad to be alive. She works out. She is beginning to make friends. She asks people how they are doing. She accepts invitations over for dinner. She asks the sacker at the grocery store how she is doing. She's even considering becoming a volunteer at the hospital where she had her heart surgery. And for the first time I can remember, she is happy.

Thank God that he never gave up on her.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving: Pass along the blessings

Thanksgiving in the U.S.A. has become a season not only of Thanksgiving, but also (unfortunately) a season of collective shame and regret over what our forefathers did to the Native Americans. I'd encourage Christians to take the lead in being clear-headed and constructive on this front, not by sweeping the shame and regret under the rug, but by acting with deliberate generosity towards the Native Nations.

Do we share the blame for the wrongs committed by our ancestors? I'd expect we only share in the blame if we see the continuing injustice and take no action. The Native Americans welcomed us; they did not begin by thinking we should go back to Europe or that we should have nowhere to live in the land. But they did seem to think they would be treated with justice and treated as friends, and they did seem to think they would have a better outcome than we have since given them.

Many churches already have outreaches and ministries to the Native Americans, but despite that extreme poverty is still rampant. I'd encourage you to consider beginning your Christmas shopping at a Native American-owned shop. If you don't know one near you, several links are available below. Cool jewelry? Check. Nifty pottery? Check. Beautiful weavings? Check.

Southwest Indian Foundation
Eagle Dancer Gallery

Monday, November 20, 2006

The God of the Old Testament

It has become a commonplace in religious discussions to hear how the God of the Old Testament was wicked, mean, petty, cruel, vindictive, belligerent, selfish, and egotistical, or that the God of the Old Testament was "too harsh". This charge is rarely contested. The more time I spend studying the Old Testament, the more I come to see these charges as not merely unjust, but as hatefully distorted.

The entire case against God in the Old Testament seems to rest on a handful of battles, the flood, and the fact that slavery was permitted under the Torah's legal system1. At best, this is special pleading where a few passages are conveniently selected and then pitted against the whole. This approach makes a habit of pointedly ignoring the context of justified jugdment or protection.2 It may make effective rhetoric, and that may be all that's wanted. But it lacks an intellectually honest assessment of how the Old Testament actually portrays God.

The Old Testament shows God as emphasizing:
  • Justice - One of the overriding concerns of the Law of Moses is whether justice is done.
  • Beauty - Both the beauty of creation and the emphasis on beauty in the tabernacle and Temple show God's love for beauty.
  • Purity - Moses' Law covered spiritual purity, emphasizing the worth of the person and praiseworthy aspects of redeemed humanity. It also covered physical purity to the extent that the Law of Moses is one of the earliest instances of modern infection control on record, far ahead of its time.
  • Holiness - the Law of Moses emphasizes not only God's holiness, but God's transforming effect on his people to make them holy as well.
  • Blessings - God's emphasis included physical blessings such as rest and spiritual blessings of his favor and goodwill.
  • Forgiveness - The Law emphasized forgiveness by making regular provision for it by way of daily rituals, annual festivals, and regular cycles of additional forgiveness where debts were forgiven, slaves were freed, and all various economic inequities were restored. Again, the ancient code has the advantage on our modern codes in the regular cycle of forgiving long-term debt so that people are not haunted by debt for their whole lives.
  • Wisdom - The Old Testament has wisdom literature in the book of Proverbs, but also elsewhere portrays wisdom as an attribute of God and one of the spiritual blessings evident in the faithful, even the simple.
  • Compassion - One of God's most defining aspects was held to be his compassion, part of God's own self-identification as he revealed himself to Moses.
  • Mercy - God likewise singled out mercy as one of his identifying attributes when he revealed himself to Moses. God's mercy is seen time and again in his laws, his promise of redemption, and in his patient interactions with sinful people.

In the Old Testament, God's character is shown as faithful, merciful and just. His disposition is shown as loving towards mankind.

None of this is to disclaim any of the passages that make modernists squirm, or that are used as debate-fodder by anti-Christians. It is just to mention that, on a fair reading of the Old Testament, God is portrayed very differently than the commonplace portrayal of a petty vindictive tyrant. He is portrayed as the one bringing justice, mercy, and restoration.

1 - Yes, I'm aware that the slave trade as we knew it from American history was outlawed in the Torah (Exodus 21:16). The type of slavery where someone was forcibly kidnapped and sold carried the death penalty for the slave trader. However, there were other types of slavery permitted. Some of the permitted forms of slavery still seem objectionable to us today, regardless of the fact that the whole evil framework of mass kidnapping behind slavery in the Americas was a capital offense under the Law of Moses.
2 - "Justified judgment" applies not only to the flood or to battles, but also to thieves who could be made slaves temporarily if it was the only way they could repay their debt to those they robbed (Exodus 22:3). This is one of the respects in which I believe the ancient Biblical law was more enlightened than our modern Western-style law where there is no requirement that the victim's loss be made good by the thief.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Feminist theology: the most pressing question

After I read Ben Myers' interview with Meehyung Chung in which she said that feminist theology has neglected the everyday voice of women in the church, I wanted to address some of the ways I had seen that to be true. As I wrap up the series with this post, there are other topics that could possibly be considered, but won't be covered in depth. For example, there seems to be a need for Christian feminism to find a role for dignity in service, to break the worldly pattern of always equating service with oppression, to reclaim service as a Christian vocation and humility as a Christian virtue, with lowliness as an honored path. These and other such things are implied in what has gone before, and it would be tedious to pursue every angle, and besides merciless to catalog every fault. I would like to close with what is, in my mind, the most pressing question.

Meehyun Chung commented that feminist theology had neglected the everyday voice of women in the church. While I believe this to be true, there is something which concerns me more, and I expect concerns the everyday women in the church more, than whether feminist theology is neglecting our voice. Is feminist theology -- at least in some strains -- neglecting God's priorities in favor of their own agenda?

That brings us to the question, what is theology supposed to do? If the purpose of theology is to know God, to bring the knowledge and presence of God to our lives and to our world in a redemptive and creative way, if we see this active presence and knowledge of God as the crowning blessing among all possible blessings, that is one vision of theology. It will necessarily lead to all kinds of redemptive and creative work in the world, wherever the presence of God and knowledge of God are treasured by his children and incarnated in our lives. This redemptive and creative work will include women, and will see people especially called to serve women, just as it will see people especially called to serve men, or serve children, or serve certain cities, or serve the homeless. It will also see theologians called to consider justice for women just as surely as all matters of justice are matters for God's people.

But there is a concern here that feminist theology is not always about the things God. There is a concern whether feminist theology has at times been divisive and partisan, whether pride and competitiveness and self-centeredness have crept into the conversation, whether the cause of women has been given higher place than the cause of Christ. When feminism becomes an end in itself, God becomes a pawn in a political argument. When God is a pawn, then God is no longer the source of blessing; without a source of blessing, such theology is stripped of its power to redeem or transform. Anything which exalts itself above God eventually defeats itself for that reason. For feminist theology to maintain its perspective -- and its promise of being a redemptive power in the world -- it must remember that it is part of the larger framework of God's transforming presence in the world.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Feminist theology and social justice priorities

This continues a series on what I hope is constructive criticism for feminist theology. By now I'm eager to move along to more edifying subjects, and have only two posts remaining (this and one more, as I start typing the current post).

I think one of the more obvious ways in which feminist theology has neglected the concerns of average women has been in the area of priorities. Given that social justice is a concern, is the ordination and promotion of women really the highest priority among theological issues? I'm not saying that to discourage conversation on that subject; it's a topic of the day and let's have the conversation. Instead, I mention priorities by way of a perspective-check.

Social Justice Top Priority: Commitment to Marriage
Let's talk about social justice. One of the leading causes of poverty in this nation -- surely a social justice issue -- is single motherhood. I expect that working marriages would do far more to reduce poverty than increasing the minimum wage. Yet people see the minimum wage as a worthwhile social justice issue, but do not see strengthening the family as a social justice issue. However, it is a social justice issue.

I think we sweep problems like that under the rug because they are messy and embarrassing. It sounds much nicer to talk about whether we have enough women who are pastors and bishops. But in the meantime we have too many women who are living in poverty because their boyfriends pressured them into sex and then abandoned them when they wouldn't have an abortion, or whose husbands walked out rather than invest the work needed to sustain a marriage. The good we do in the average woman's life -- and child's life -- by creating a two-parent, stable, just and merciful Christian home far outweighs the good done to that same woman by having a woman bishop who won't address those concerns either. Home life is sometimes dirty and ugly; Christianity is at its strongest with love, redemption, justice, and mercy. But these things don't happen by themselves. What happens by itself, in our hearts and lives, is increasing sin, dismay, and disorder. The spiritual neglect of a home long-untended makes itself felt in too many lives. The leaders have to lead and make points of these things with their people.

Social Justice Priority: No Pressure to Abort
How many pastors use abortion as an example of evil in our culture? Now, how many of those pastors actually say, from the pulpit, that a man should never ask his wife or girlfriend to abort their child? They also say that, these days, one of the leading causes of death in pregnant women is being attacked by the father of the child. Have we mentioned to our people that these are horrific things, that a man should never attack his wife or girlfriend with the intent to induce a miscarriage? A friend of mine from church is raising a profoundly retarded and disabled child because her husband attacked her while she was pregnant. Rather than inducing a miscarriage, he induced a very premature delivery. It may seem too horrific to say or consider, but it happens around us, and even in our churches, because we are sinners too. Just as "do not murder" and "do not commit adultery" are obvious but are written in the Ten Commandments all the same, we need church leaders who are willing to address the obvious and ugly problems around us.

Social Justice Priority: Justice and Mercy in Courtship
Dating is often an exercise in the man trying to press the woman as far as she will go towards sexual intercourse. I'll take the traditional women's complaints against the men first, then look at the other side of the coin.

When it comes to pre-marital sex, even men who are Christians often show no signs of self-restraint, placing the burden of guilt or pressure of rejection on the woman. Teaching men to be self-controlled, to hold themselves accountable for how far they go, would greatly ease the burden on women. When was the last time anyone heard church leaders address that it is wrong to use high-pressure tactics, to use emotional blackmail, or to take advantage of emotional insecurity in order to gain sexual concessions? The next generation approaching puberty includes my own daughter. I can explain all this to her, but it would help if I had the church's support. For a Christian man it should be unconscionable to make an inappropriate advance in the first place. We need to re-set our expectations there.

Enough picking on the men, though. Women also must be taught those same standards of accountability, responsibility, kindness and justice. Not only are women perfectly capable of pressuring men unduly, there is also the temptation to blame it on the man, which may seem plausible because of traditional expectations. Christian women should know that it is ungodly to take advantage of men, and that it is especially repugnant to blame men for our own moral shortcomings. Blaming other people for our own faults is the height of injustice. It kills love, rejects mercy, and ignores kindness. It stunts spiritual growth, cutting us off from repentance and forgiveness. I hope it doesn't seem strange to you that I hold women accountable and hope other women will take the lead in holding ourselves accountable. Both egalitarians and complementarians will notice that Paul's instructions to Titus to have older women teaching younger women about the realitiies of building loving families. It seems odd, if not worse, that the one area on which complementarians and egalitarians should have full agreement is the one thing that I can't see either camp doing.

Quality of Life and Quality of Culture: Peace with Men
Strife between men and women is nothing new. Peace between men and women, and goodwill, is a worthy goal. But a certain strain of feminism tries to score political points by grievance-mongering. I'm not saying there are never grievances, I'm saying the approach being used is sometimes more likely to aggravate the grievances than resolve them. In this way, the feminist movement has at times had a negative effect on male/female relations. If the Christian feminists or Christian feminist theologians are to have a positive impact on this, some more constructive approaches would be welcome.

The Point?
Our Lord called down blessings for the peacemakers, for the merciful, for those who longed for righteousness, and for the pure in heart. All of Christ's brothers and sisters are called to be channels of blessing in the world. When feminist theology is genuinely Christ-like, it promises to be a blessing to the world.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Women's Liberation and Love of Family

This continues the series about whether feminist theology is neglecting the voice of the woman in the pews. First, Christian feminism must reclaim Christ's priority of love for our lives, contrary to secular feminism's disdain of family. Second, social justice must be applied to our own homes and workplaces; in a Christian sense this includes bringing justice, love, mercy, blessing, and rest into the equation.

Bricks without Straw: Feminism and the Workload Problem
You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don't reduce the quota. (Exodus 5:7-8)
Women's liberation has been both a blessing and a curse to the average woman. While many women have taken on work outside the home, the workload at home was not reduced. Exhaustion and frantic schedules are among the most common complaints, along with less time for the family.

Feminists v. Family and the Priority of Love
When someone speaks dismissively of "women's jobs" and "women's roles", much less "making sacrifices for the family," it's a safe bet that the one voicing disdain is a feminist. The feminist has often insisted that family life is at worst demeaning, at best unnecessary, and at any rate undesirable. The liberal women's movements can give the impression that staying at home and raising children is a benighted throwback to an unenlightened age, an oppressive condition from which someone could only wish to be liberated as from a prison, something that amounts to embracing a second-class subservient status. Here the feminist has not only failed to understand the voice of the average woman, but has considered it unworthy of consideration.

As long as feminism is antagonistic towards family life, it will be opposed to large numbers of women who enjoy family life at least as much as their careers. A healthier and more mature feminism must make room for women's dignity to include a love of family. Feminism, as it comes of age, must become comfortable with the other members of a family: it must become comfortable with children, and it must become comfortable with men. The assessment of children must be expanded beyond "expense" and "career distraction." The assessment of men must be expanded beyond "oppressor" and "competitor." The feminist assessment of life must also expand to include love as a legitimate part of life in addition to accomplishment and status. Failing to do so handicaps feminism's applicability to real life, and handicaps the lives of those who embrace feminism above love. Christian feminism -- especially in the form of Christian feminist theology -- could easily elevate itself above secular feminism by embracing a solid family model. It is difficult to see how a view based on Christ's teachings can avoid the priority of love for very long; one of Christ's most prominent and distinctive teachings is the priority of love.

What can the leadership do?
Back to the day-to-day issues of exhaustion and frantic schedules. There are some practical contributions that the church leadership -- whether pastors or theologians -- can make in this situation. We can follow the Bible's lead of including family and household concerns among the pastoral and social justice concerns of the church:
  • Encourage employers and managers to be compassionate about family time, not to set obstacles for parents caring for children, not to begrudge adequate leave to workers who have children.
  • Encourage Christian employers to seek out ways to make their family policies a blessing to their workers. For example, employers could make arrangements for part-time workers still to have health insurance coverage under employer-based group plans, or could grant an automatic half-holiday for a child's birthday or an anniversary. I wouldn't want to limit the conversation to ideas that suggest themselves to me based on my own situation. As Christian employers, not only justice and hard work but also kindness and grace should be evident. We should make our management policies such that all people wish they had a Christian manager, CEO, or HR Director.
  • Make justice in the home a priority. Encourage parishioners to review home workloads whenever exhaustion is a problem for anyone in the family. Have each household make sure that the workload is distributed fairly and that unnecessary work is eliminated.
  • Encourage realistic measures of how fairly household chores are distributed. Here is one possible test for whether work is distributed fairly: if one person is often still doing chores after the rest have sat down to rest, then that person is likely doing more than their share of the work, and the others less than their share.
  • Make mercy in the home a priority. Encourage people to take notice of tiredness, to take seriously the need for rest, for sleep, and for peace and quiet.
  • Making blessing in the home a priority. While not descending to a legalistic view of the Sabbath, be the good shepherd who makes the sheep lie down in green pastures and leads them by still waters. It restores their souls. If the sheep look harassed and helpless, that's the shepherd's cue to do something about it.
These themes have roots that go deep in Scriptures. It is time we take note of them until they take root in our lives. Justice, mercy, blessing, and rest are not optional in our homes or our workplaces. We need to receive these for our own well-being; we need to embody these in a useful ministry of love and mercy to the world.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Teenage Sunday School Starts the Ten Commandments

In the past few weeks we've made it all the way over to Exodus, hitting the highlights such as the Passover along the way. This week the students met the Ten Commandments for the first time since they were outright children. I hope to build in them both an appreciation for the law, a sense of its place in salvation history and in Christian life, and an immunization against legalism. All that will take a few weeks. Here's the first installment.

Read Exodus 20:1-17.
  • Have the class list the commandments on the board.
  • Discuss different numbering schemes used for the commandments, the fact that they didn't come numbered so different opinions are ok on the numbering system, and not to be shocked if they see another group number the commandments differently at times.
  • Made sure everyone knew what adultery and coveting were. Everybody understood that adultery involved mating with someone when you shouldn't, and that coveting meant wanting something that was someone else's.

  1. What would the world be like if people followed this? Much better.
  2. Does anyone remember where the Ten Commandments were kept? (Which wasn't a fair question since we hadn't covered it, but I was fairly sure someone would know.) In the Ark of the Covenant. (Short discussion of Raiders of the Lost Ark is inevitable at this point, so I give it a minute or two.)
  3. Does anyone remember what the Ark of the Covenant looked like and what it was made of? It was a box covered with gold and it had angels on the top facing each other.
  4. When I taught the Ten Commandments to the preschoolers a couple of years ago, I brought in a jewelry box. They swarmed it. What do you know about a jewelry box? It has something cool inside.
  5. My jewelry box is wood with some mother-of-pearl inlays ... is it a safe bet that whatever's inside a jewelry box is worth more than the box? Yep.
  6. What does it say about the Ten Commandments that the box they made for it was covered in gold? (Mostly raised eyebrows and hey/wow type comments, but they got the point: the Ten Commandments were considered to be worth more than gold.)
  7. Is this the first time we've seen laws or commands in the Bible, where God says that we must or must not do something? No, we also saw them in Genesis, "You must not eat of the tree."
  8. How did we do with that previous command? Not very well.
  9. How do we do with this set of commands? Not very well.

At this point we stopped and reviewed the idea of our being divided within ourselves, with a side drawn towards God and a side still resentful and distrustful towards God. Had a volunteer draw someone on the board with a split face to show a good side and an evil side, representing us as we are. With reference to the picture, a few more questions:
  1. What does the good side of us think about the commandments? "Yep, sure, I'll do that."
  2. What does the bad side of us think about the commandments? "Forget that!"

Start a section on the board for good reactions to the commandments. Have the class listen for these during the next readings.

Read Matthew 5:17-19
Read Romans 2:17-20

Make list on board of good things said about the commandments in these passages.
Our list included
  • keeping the commandments and teaching others to keep them is counted praiseworthy by Christ
  • relationship to God
  • know God's will
  • approve of what is good
  • being instructed
  • being guided
  • being able to instruct and guide others
  • having the embodiment of knowledge and truth

Referring back to the two-faced drawing of ourselves, explain how the good things about the commandments interest the better side of us. Then point out that the bad side of us reacts differently. Have the class listen for these during the next reading.
Read Romans 7:7-8 and 7:11.
Start a section on the board for bad reactions to the commandments. Our list included
  • Rules are meant to be broken
  • So that's what God wants me to do? I'll do the opposite.

And that'll do for this week. Final exam for today's work: in what chapter of the Bible did we read the Ten Commandments? Exodus 20.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

When Christ is de-emphasized for his maleness ...

This continues a short series on whether feminist theology is neglecting the everyday voice of women in the church.

If traditional theology has been accused of a discomfort with women, it seems that some feminist theology has a discomfort with men. The discomfort can range from neglect and disinterest to blatant antagonism. If feminist theology makes the argument that the man's discomfort with women is a theological shortcoming and possibly moral shortcoming, the same must apply to instances of women's discomfort with men. Feminist theology does remind us that women bear the image of God just as surely as men do, drawing attention to something the Bible has always affirmed. However, a certain strain of feminist theology aims to portray God almost solely in female terms, with the results (as we have seen) that are sometimes embarrassing, which is not necessarily a strong first showing in theology. Simple embarrassment is not a cause for excess concern; many male theologians have embarrassed themselves over the centuries and foolishness is no novelty in theological studies. But there is a more serious consequence of a theology that tries, as one of its goals, to be scrupulously female-oriented instead of simply Christian with our own voice. That more serious consequence is the neglect of Christ. The feminist may see God the Father as God the Mother, or may see the Holy Spirit as female, and there is probably relatively small harm to their theology (other than ethics, generosity, and charity towards men) from so studiously ignoring the masculine. But among the ways in which we know God, Christ in particular is intractably male. So Christ, as an adult male -- which is to say Christ in his ministry -- is seldom encountered in his full humanity in feminist theology. Women in position of church authority have been known to speak of "mother Jesus"; this is better than discarding Jesus entirely but still comes across as a willful distortion.

Attempts to feminize Christ, neuter Christ, or ignore Christ do irreparable harm to the knowledge of God. Some branches of feminist theology are more comfortable with Christ as child (neuter) than with Christ as son (male). This risks losing sight of Christ's adult life; it risks marginalizing the miracles, the compassion, the teachings, the crucifixion and resurrection that occurred in Jesus' adult (human male) life. Christianity with a missing or half-hearted Christology is devastatingly handicapped. It is flatly impossible for any full-fledged theology to come from a perspective which is so narrowly feminine that it avoids the full realities of Christ's incarnation.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When feminist theology re-invents the Trinity ...

This continues a short series on whether feminist theology is neglecting the everyday voice of women in the church.

It is common for the egalitarian camp to offer assurances that placing women in key roles does not amount to throwing out historic Christianity wholesale, but instead is simply correcting some misunderstandings and misapplications. Some noteworthy public examples have not been very reassuring. The PC-USA recently approved referring to the Trinity as "Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb." Let's begin, here, with the Life-giving Womb. I can only imagine what the feminists would say if the Trinity were ever referred to as "Father, Son, and Live-giving Testicles" or something along those lines. To put it more plainly, this seems to be an example of over-stretching the study of the Holy Spirit beyond reasonable bounds, with an aim to make a merely human point. In theology -- particularly incarnational theology as we Christians practice -- there's always the careful distinction whether we sinners are remade in God's image (restoration) or whether God is remade in our image (idolatry or blasphemy on the extreme end, or petty presumptuousness and rank silliness on the low end). I don't see that referring to the Holy Spirit as a womb has any Scriptural merit, but instead it seems a fairly transparent effort to thrust our self-image onto God. I don't think it can be taken so seriously as to amount to blasphemy, but I expect it does amount to rank silliness. That an early, conspicuous contribution of the new leadership to church life is something both misguided and frivolous comes as something of an embarrassment to the average woman in the pews, possibly to women in theology in general. It comes across as a nearly childish form of the "me too!" argument, and the focus comes across as less on God and more on women seeking to call attention to themselves at a moment in the worship service when the focus ought to be on God.

It's very likely that "me too!" needs to be said. It is always reassuring of our shared human dignity that the Bible names both men and women as being made in the image of God. Still, I would be less embarrassed if this point was made with a little more tact than that, and if the image of God did not seem to be used as a pawn in the gender wars. The image of God should be one thing men and women have in common; when we use it in a divisive or narrowly sexist way (as in "Life-giving Womb"), that's an improper use of the doctrine. It is not for us to remake God after the image of only one sex.1 If the image of God bestowed on us is to be a heartening and life-giving teaching, then it is to be seen as a gift of God to us, the hope of glory, and the dignity of humanity, both men and women in common.

Which leads fairly directly to my next post on the subject ...

1 - It is likely enough that some of the people recommending "Life-giving Womb" for use in the Trinitarian formula recognize it as narrowly sexist, and see the narrow sexism (let's be charitable) as corrective, rather than such a low thing as payback or liturgical revenge. But I'm skeptical that language of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost was ever meant as narrowly sexist; adding something to the mix that is hard to interpret otherwise than narrowly sexist in its reference to reproductive organs introduces a pointed narrowness and explicit divisiveness that was not there before and is not helpful to introduce.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Is feminist theology neglecting the women in the pews?

I'd like to recognize Ben Myers for his part in my next series, particularly an interview he conducted with Meehyun Chung, a woman who recently received recognition for her theological work. In response to an insightful question of Ben's, she answered (in part):
Feminist theology has achieved various things in the academic sphere, but the voice of women in the church has not actually been accepted – or rather, feminist theology has neglected the everyday voice of women in the church.
That very well sums up many of my objections to feminist theology. What is meant to be a representative voice in the academic halls can actually be a misrepresenting voice. I set out to type up a single post reviewing the points where I think feminist theology often misrepresents the everyday voice of women in the church. It soon became clear that I was looking at a series. Here is the first installment.

Priesthood of all believers
The egalitarian camp has spent a certain amount of time and energy making a case that women belong in the higher echelons of church leadership. For just a moment, let's set aside the question of whether this is good or Biblical. Instead, let's suppose that the egalitarian efforts towards ordination and promotion of women were instantly, completely, uncontestedly successful in their aims, and ask ourselves: how much good would this accomplish for the average woman? To put it another way: To what extent is the average man elevated by the fact that his pastor or priest is male? How does this compare to the extent to which we are lifted up by forgiveness when we are humbled, or the extent to which we are lifted up by being a member of the priesthood -- not the priesthood of the elite, but the priesthood of all believers? Did feminist theology take a wrong turn in aiming for membership in the elite rather than restoring full membership in the body of Christ to all believers?

In some sense this is an unjust criticism in that the pastoral role is a legitimate role within the church. All the same, I'd submit that when women looked around and saw ourselves marginalized, it was too small a thing to notice our own marginalization, and not also notice the marginalization of all the laity together. Neither will breaking into the elites, even with complete success, be enough to change the fact that most of the women -- and men -- are still marginalized within the church.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Next Big Church Scandal

This was originally written back when I was group-blogging over at CADRE Comments. But since there's another church scandal brewing, it seemed like a good time to dust it off and re-post it.

What's the next big church scandal? Money-hungry televangelists taking advantage of the devotion of the poor? Pedophile priests taking advantage of the young? The apocalypse industry? Its syndication in the tabloids? Another big-name preacher succumbs to sexual temptation or to egotism? Christian factions involved in name-calling melee? In-house church politics alienating God-loving members?

Even if they sound familiar, I suspect that none of those will become the next big church scandal. I think there are two huge scandals that we do not see clearly enough. First, that we are not tending our own houses well enough to stop many of these others before they become scandals. We see them coming; where is our outcry? Second, we are not living lives of such active mercy and compassion as to completely dwarf the scandals in comparison.

Wait, but aren't there Christians living lives of mercy and compassion? Sure, and there many of them. Are they notable? Sure, all of them. I don't for a minute want to downplay the vast numbers of those devoted to following Christ. Is that enough? Not yet.

"It is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men." (1 Peter 2:15) We're not quite there yet. "Live such good lives among the pagans that, even though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." (1 Peter 2:12) "If any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." (from 1 Peter 3:1-2) A humble Christian with a pure and reverent life may do more good than any number of evangelists and apologists.

Letting people know that there is true reason for hope -- that is our great calling. Right now, the strength of our answers is belied by the weakness of our lives. When Christian devotion to God becomes more obvious to the casual observer than the transgressions of high-profile and low-profile Christians alike, only then is their confidence likely to be restored enough to trust the answers we give.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Community and Love of Neighbor

If loving our neighbor is our #2 priority in Christian service, how are we doing? Dan over at Cerulean Sanctum has been blogging about community. Because I think it's a worthwhile topic, I'll pick up on it here. My main focus is on how our choices of where to live affect our efforts to love our neighbors and our families, and what message we send if we do not know our neighbors.

Why Move?
Have you ever moved from one town to another? People do it all the time. Sometimes we move for family, sometimes for job or money, sometimes for education or other reasons. But if we move for job and money, that says something about our priorities in life. Are friends expendable? What about family? Sometimes we've done so badly at healing old wounds that we'd almost like to get away. Is moving a polite excuse to abandon a messy cleanup job in the family? How close is that to abandonment?

I am not saying that moving is always bad; but on some occasions it is bad, ordering our lives around money or prestige, and we shy away from facing that honestly. Whether moving is good or bad in a certain situation, it is always a disruption to our lives and the lives of everyone who cares about us where we are. That should be weighed as a legitimate consideration. "I can make new friends" is fairly dismissive of the old ones and whether they really mattered to us. Some moves come uncomfortably close to saying "My career is more important than the people I know." It doesn't always mean that, of course; but sometimes it does. As Christians, we say love of money or prestige doesn't call the shots in our lives ... but does it?

Have you ever read about places where everybody knows everybody, and the families have known each other for generations? It's because they stayed put for generations. I hear from people who have lived in those places that they are definitely not a cure-all for society's problems, so don't take me wrong there. But there is a depth of caring, of knowing when your neighbor is distressed, that is much easier in a community where people know each other.

Try a thought experiment: imagine that your children grow up and start families and live within walking distance of where they grew up. Imagine you stay in the same neighborhood. Imagine that everyone in the neighborhood has children who, when grown, make their own home in the same neighborhood, and encourage their children to do the same. Fifty years from now, there would be a real community in that neighborhood. Everybody would know everybody, and would have known each other from time immemorial as far as the youngest generation was aware. Putting down roots means to stop moving. Belonging in a place means to have been there and made it home. Loving your neighbor involves knowing your neighbor. That's easier with time and continuity.

Of Gnats and Camels
I think, in trying to transform our lives, renewing our minds in the image of Christ, we generally start small. Sensing our lives' brokenness, a certain percentage of people become obsessive about rooting out sins, and typically this seems to be obsessive about rooting out little sins, or things that may not be sins in the first place. Smoking, cardplaying, gambling, makeup -- I would compare this fixation on small things to someone who buys a home that's a fixer-upper, and begins by vacuuming and dusting. There's nothing wrong with vacuuming and dusting; nothing wrong with chasing after small problems ... unless it's keeping us from taking care of bigger problems.

Sooner or later, bigger problems come to light. Unkindness to various relatives, impatience, resentment, arrogance, coldness, bad self-control, apathy, short-temperedness, even an unwarranted or aloof distance from those who might hope for our kindness, these are the next things that often catch our eye as needing our attention. After we have the small things in our lives in order and we're casting around for more we can do, there is a nasty temptation to overlook the deeper problems in our own lives and settle on fixing someone else's sins instead. We easily recognize Jesus' comments about the person with a log in one eye trying to take a mote out of someone else's eye. We are told to first take the log out of our own eye, first reconcile with our brother, and remember God's desire for our mercy towards each other.

Loving our neighbors is our #2 priority in service, right behind love of God -- and it's a necessary extension of loving God. I'd like to make love of neighbor higher on my own priority list. I think the New Testament writers were correct to put hospitality as one of the signs of a true community leader and a true servant of Christ. We have to create the occasions where we're going to get a chance to know our neighbor. And it's good to remember that we're called to love and serve them as much as we are to let them know about Christ; in fact serving and honestly caring are probably the best "show me" evangelism.

For some innovative ideas along those lines, if you're not familiar with Dawn Treader's Pigfests, those are worth a read.

The Point
I'm only saying one obvious thing here: Our love for our families and neighbors includes remaining (or becoming) a part of their lives. Our choice of where to live matters for that. Of course we're called to make all people our family and treat all people as neighbors. But that's no excuse for us to treat the ones we know as if they did not matter. Just the opposite: it's reason for us to treat the ones we know that much better.