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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
I read commentaries and theology devotionally alongside Scripture, and one of the commentaries I enjoy are the popular “For Everyone” series by N.T. Wright. Wright is regarded as one of (many of us would say the) world’s leading New Testament theologians; he has been at the front of both Historical Jesus research and Pauline theology for decades now, two fields he has contributed immensely, and sometimes controversially, to. Here are some of his thoughts on Mark 6, Jesus walking on the water and the disciples not getting the lesson of the loaves and fishes. In this spot he reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ words in That Hideous Strength; it is not that the world is natural and sometimes unnaturally invaded by the supernatural, rather that the world’s appointed master (humanity) has fallen, and been unable to wake the world and interact with it in certain ways we formerly had been. Recall Merlin’s words to Ransom “Let’s awaken the water and the wind and the earth and drive them out.” “No,” Ransom replies, “they have been asleep for far too long for us to do that…”
Here is the quote from Mark for Everyone:
“…we are invited to see something more mysterious by far: a dimension of our world which is normally hidden, which had indeed died, but which Jesus brings to new life. Mark is offering Jesus to our startled imagination as the world’s rightful king, long exiled, now returning. He is, in Paul’s language, the last Adam. From his time with the beasts in the wilderness (1.13), he is now striding the garden, putting things to rights.
Mark… is simply warning that to grasp all this will need more than suspension of disbelief, as though one were in the theatre for the evening. It will take a complete change of heart. ….that is what (among other things) Jesus has come to bring… in our thinking, our imagining, our praying as well as in our bodily health …we are invited to come, like the frantic crowds, and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, looking for salvation.”
Wright, Tom (2001-01-19). Mark for Everyone (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 84). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
On the way to a foreign embassy yesterday, I enjoyed six hours in the car with my 77 year old dad. Amidst all the family history and updates, we talked about a second cousin of mine.
It’s a sad story, a young man raised in tragic circumstances, removed from his family for years by Children’s Services, finally to be returned traumatized, a recluse, prone to uncontrollable rage, and possessing zero social skills. Nearby is a big non-denominational church who has reached out to this young man’s extended family.
His young uncle, who attends a traditional Pentecostal church that is big on shouting about sin, fire and brimstone, said disparagingly about the big church, “Oh, that’s just a feel-good church.”
And I said to my dad: that’s exactly what my young second-cousin needs. He needs a place where people will come around him, love him, make him feel worth and valued, draw him into community, a place where he will begin to feel the powerful virtue of goodness – and a church where there are competent counseling professionals who can help this poor kid sort through all the things that have happened to him in life and experience some healing. I said to dad, he needs that A WHOLE LOT MORE than he needs to hear about his sins, God’s wrath, and hell.
I hope this finds you well.
Some Christians today are still arguing if women can be in leadership. That seems laughable to me, though I realize that sounds uncharitable. More Christians today are arguing or struggling over the subject of same-sex marriage/attraction or whatever. When I think of some of the ethical questions that will face Christianity in the future, I wonder if some of our questions today will seem silly or small?
For instance, when it comes to joining crocodile DNA to human DNA so that our hemoglobin can go on less oxygen, so that we can walk around Mars with a less oxygenated atmosphere… yet those and other DNA changes start separating humanity into separate species who cannot interbreed… is that ok or not from the perspective of the Christian faith?
When we get the carbon nanofibers to the point we can build a space elevator (google it) and make the other planets more accessible because we don’t need to get out of Earth’s gravity well for takeoff, will it be ethical from the Christian faith’s viewpoint to spend the world’s wealth on an elevator when children across the Global South still don’t have clean water?
When trillions start getting dumped into terraforming Mars into a liveable planet like Earth (it’s about as close as it can get already), will we consider it ethical to do so when those same children in the South still don’t have clean water? What does the Second Coming look like from Mars? Will Christians argue that God made only Earth for humans?
Will creating meteor-buster missiles (to protect Earth from a mass extinction from a large hit) be considered by Christianity prudent, or lacking faith in God?
These are only up close, short term questions almost upon us. What about questions of dumping all your memories onto a computer chip and then reviving you in a cloned human’s brain? Is that people taking resurrection into their own hands?
What about taking a human brain and placing it in a mechanical body so that settlers don’t need life-support systems, and can settle on the moons of the outer planets like Uranus or Neptune? They will never be able to biologically reproduce, and their only flesh-and-blood part would be their brain — everything else prosthetic. Is that ok by Christian theology?
Point being, we have some wild and tricky questions coming. Sometimes today’s seem tame.