‘Our Modern Ailment’

For over a hundred years, Western writers have bemoaned a condition they have called various things, perhaps most often ‘our modern ailment.’ As we export modern, Western life to the rest of the world,  people working in international development have been wrestling with this for the last 50 years, as well. Simply put, ‘our modern ailment’ is the idea that alongside the good things that technology and the modern life have brought us, we have lost something of our humanity, community and soul. Important parts of our former ways of life have faded away, and people are the worse for it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of serious writers and thinkers have looked at society and remarked about this in the last 100-150 years.

The last couple of years reading agrarian philosophers Henry Beston and Wendell Berry have stirred up my thoughts on this issue, although I always noticed it. My shorthand definition of agrarianism is the idea that people are better off more in touch with the earth in small farming communities where human relationships are close and there is a connection to the rhythms of life connected to the land. An addendum would include saying that many modern conveniences have stolen away the formative benefits of many tasks, including the relational and creational aspects of them.

Example: Four people raking leaves together talking, is better than one person alone with a leafblower and earbuds. Five people in a kitchen canning peaches, laughing and enjoying one another is better than one person buying a can of peaches at a store. The growing interest I have observed among 20 and 30-something year olds today in doing things the old way, from making apple cider together to gardening antique varieties of produce to cooking parties or learning to woodwork, blacksmith, hunt, raise chickens, you name it – all indicate people are yearning for a more tactile and Creation-connected life than the hyper-modern world has delivered. Mother Earth News and its ilk remain for a reason.

There are a variety of ways in which “modern conveniences” have backfired sociologically and  in the human psyche. Can we learn to live a life of joy, connectedness, and wholeness? Can we recover some of the things our great-grandparents knew brought meaning to life? And does Christian faith have a valuable contribution to bring to the table in being connected to one another and the natural world God made? If it does, we will have to rediscover the broader world of the Bible in place of the narrow, modern consumer version of  evangelicalism so common in the West.

Wesley on our life

I’ve been reading a great book about Wesley and came across a great quote.  Not Wesley the Dread Pirate Roberts, but John Wesley, founder of the Methodists (1703-1791). The book is Organic Wesley: A Christian Perspective on Food, Farming, and Faith by William C. Guerrant, Jr and published by Seedbed, 2015. It’s very Wendell Berry-ish, and absolutely jam-packed with Wesley’s many thoughts on food justice. Wesley, who believed the Gospel to be about EVERYTHING (not just individual spiritual salvation) spoke quite a bit about food justice issues (distribution, animal treatment, industrialization, obesity, health, you name it) that are in the headlines all the time today.

So, the quote is in two parts, the first a statement he made in 1747 and the second he made in 1790. It’s a great image of God’s care for creation, our place in the scheme of things, and the implicit insight that God, Who has always been about relationship, is therefore all about synergism between Himself and humanity in the care of His world, and in, well everything. It summarizes our task very simply. Here it is:

“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment….  Do good. Do all the good thou canst.”

New book on Atonement

Nearly 70 years ago Nazarene scholars were saying that the penal substitution view of the atonement was counter to Wesleyan theological commitments and implied a God who had to kill someone (exacting justice) BEFORE he was free to forgive. Since not even we humans suffer that limitation, Wesleyan theology, has a very difficult time imagining that the God who is love is required, by His own sense of justice, to take it out on someone before He can forgive someone else. In penal substitution’s view, God is not free to forgive until He has punished someone; He is not free to be merciful, until he balances the scales of justice with retribution.atonement book vail

Despite this theological dissonance, no one in our tribe has gotten anything on paper to offer a better option. Until now. Eric Vail, professor of theology at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, has penned ‘Atonement and Salvation: The Extravagance of God’s Love.’  A fabulous read. Kindly worded, readable, it takes in the pertinent scholarship and discusses the atonement and salvation in large, Biblical categories, rather than more narrow, 16th century European ones. I recommend it. Beacon Hill Press: 2016.

N.T. Wright: ‘the deceitfulness of sin’

“There is such a thing as ‘the deceitfulness of sin’, and it’s very powerful. You start by allowing yourself the apparent luxury of doing something small which you know you shouldn’t but which you think doesn’t matter. When it becomes a habit, you stop thinking it’s wrong at all. If the question is raised, you are ready with rationalizations: everyone does it, this is the way the world is now, you mustn’t be legalistic, no good being a killjoy. This creates a platform for the next move: here’s something else which a while ago you would have shunned as certainly wrong, but it’s quite like the thing you’ve got used to, so maybe… And before too long you’re rationalizing that as well. And once the mind has been deceived, the habit will continue unchecked.”*

I’ve seen this play out many times in so many lives. Wright has summed it up, spot on. I could not have come close to saying it any better.

N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone. Westminster Press: 2003.

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf on public faith

I’ve been reading Yale theologian Miroslav Volf’s  A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. (His former teaching home was Fuller Theological Seminary, among other places, for those of you for whom that means something). It’s a good read, a fairly academic argument about why and what the role of faith in the public square should look like in today’s secular, pluralistic world. One of the things I appreciate about Volf is that one of the themes in his career has been building bridges between communities and worldviews:  Christian and Muslim, Christian and secular, etc. Being from Croatia, I can only imagine Volf has a very agonizing sense of the disaster it is when a society comes apart at the seams due to divisions and factions (if you are too young to remember this well, Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia, a country which devolved into savagery and appalling crimes against humanity in the 1990s. I’m talking The Walking Dead – style violence.)

To give you the flavor a bit, one of his questions is ‘How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state?’ While it would take more than one post to give a sense of his work in A Public Faith, some of his thoughts include:

‘a faith that does not seek to mend the world is a seriously malfunctioning faith.’

‘when it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others… and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so that all would learn how to lead their lives well.’

‘a vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate’.

‘Christ’s command in everything do to others as you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Christians… ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.’

Volf is interested ‘not on attenuating Christian convictions but on affirming them robustly and living them out joyously.’

Written by one of today’s highly respected academics, the book is still accessible and readable by non-specialists, and very much worth your time. I recommend it highly.

 

“We must go through many hardships…” Really?

Acts 14: 22 Paul and Barnabas encouraged the believers to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.

I have often heard this verse discussed as if Paul meant that in order to get to heaven, we would have to endure hard many difficulties and trials in life, as if what Jesus did on the cross isn’t enough to provide the way for us to enter heaven when we die. (By the way, that’s outrageous heresy – as far back as the Apostles’ Creed Christians would decry that kind of thought, not to mention Paul’s epistles themselves). Some translations make it out explicitly like that: “We must suffer a lot to enter the kingdom of God” (Names of God translation,) or “We have to suffer a lot before we can get into God’s kingdom” (Contemporary English Version).

There’s an unspoken (but sometimes spoken) theology-of-the-masses in contemporary Christianity that it will be hard to be a Christian and it is set up that way to see if we are worthy, blah blah blah.

I think there’s some very bad, unhealthy theology in there. “We MUST go through MANY hardships” to simply come home to where we were made for? What kind of Father would that make God? Certainly not the one in the story of the Prodigal Son! That Father (whom Jesus clearly means to be seen as a metaphor for God Himself)  is much more loving than that – he doesn’t require the Son to go through all kinds of stuff once he has been accepted and forgiven! When people experience hardship, they may comfort themselves with this verse, but I think that creates a warped view of what kind of god God is. I think there is a much better way to understand this verse.

Take it like this:  to cause God’s kingdom to happen on earth (something Jesus talked continually about), it will take effort and difficulty to push through and cause change. It’s long, slow, sometimes difficult work – just like gardening or farming, both images Jesus used for the Kingdom often. Gardening is sometimes easy and natural processes are rolling; other times, if you are going to succeed, you need to put some real effort into it… not give up if it gets strenuous. Like giving birth, – some of it happens once things get going, and other parts require hard pushing through. To work for the flowering of the Kingdom on earth, the leaven working its way through the whole batch of dough, we will sometimes face resistance and even counter-attack by systems and unjust social constructs, not to mention the people and philosophies entrenched in them, reflective even of the real presence of evil. But the quintessential Christian methods of love, mercy, forgiveness, and prayer (to mention some of the biggies) are the tools we reach for in the patient, sometimes difficult, working for God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And we know that God works through these methods to bring about change and new life. (And, thank God, sometimes it isn’t terribly hard, and people embrace the Kingdom with joy).

Reinhold Niebuhr on Economic Disparity

I admit that I tend, like most people, I suspect, to think of terms like economic inequality, social justice and social disparity as phrases growing out of the 1960s social movements. I understand why some of my friends roll their eyes at these terms, seeing as there has always been economic inequality among humans on Earth – for our entire history! – and that such terms are often favorite code words today for confiscating resources that someone worked diligently to earn to help their family, and redistributing them to people who are not working. In a culture built on the Protestant Work Ethic and Germanic ideals of work-hard-be-rewarded-well-prosperity, it’s easy to see why many people consider these terms less than useful.

However, Christians have been concerned about economic injustice and disparity since the beginning. Christianity’s emphasis on God’s concern for the poor is drawn from its constant appearance in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Preachers as far back as Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) not only railed about concern for the poor, but also were already analyzing contributing factors as to why they were poor in the first place (Gregory himself observed that rural poverty due to a poor harvest had a different genesis  than urban poverty where the societal structures in place kept rich people rich and poor people desperately poor.)* John Wesley, Anglican founder of the Methodists, argued that a Christian should make as much money in his business as he could – as long as it didn’t harm his neighbor’s business! (Sermon: On the Use of Money). For myself, I am not against a factory owner making more money than the factory worker. Having known those owners, and their story, including un-assisted rags-to-riches stories that, yes indeed, were done without crushing anyone, not even systemically, I don’t have a problem that they are enjoying the fruit of their hard work. The ancient scroll of Proverbs in the Old Testament celebrated the cause-and-effect benefits of diligent work 3000 years ago. Every time someone succeeds, it does not mean it was via injustice, however hidden. A seven-person broom business in Bangladesh started with a Muhammad Yunus micro-loan shouldn’t have to listen to the charge of systemic injustice. I know American businesses started by very poor people that succeeded the same way. Constant assumptions of systemic injustice whenever someone does well, are over-reaching on the subject.

What does strike me as a new conundrum, is that in the current way our transnational corporate world is organized, the factory owner now makes over 350 times what the worker does, whereas 60 years ago they made about 12 times more than the worker. The fact that the owner was from that same town and felt a sense of responsibility for his workers, created a context in which all-or-nothing short term profits were NOT the order of the day. This is one of the chief reasons thinkers like Fritz Schumacher argued for smaller businesses rather than mega. But I got thinking of all of this when I was reading The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr by E. Campbell today and came across this passage – using those terms like social injustice, in 1932! Here is Niebuhr’s quote, from Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932):

                “The sharpening of class antagonism within each modern industrial nation is increasingly destroying national unity and imperiling international comity as well. It may be that the constant growth of economic inequality and social injustice in our industrial civilization will force the nations into a final conflict… the disintegration of national loyalties through class antagonisms has proceeded so far in the more advanced nations, that they can hardly dare to permit the logic inherent in the present situation to take its course. Conditions in these nations, particularly in Germany… reveal what desperate devices are necessary for the preservation of even a semblance of national unity…

                If the possibilities and perils of the contemporary situation are to be fully understood it will be necessary to study the class antagonism within the nations carefully and estimate their importance for the future of civilization.”

Heightened disparity undermining civilization. This from a landmark Christian theologian back in 1932. Interesting.

*Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) Susan R. Holman, editor. 2008.