May 26, 2013

Sophia, Part 1

Filed under: Church,Theology — Bob Gifford @ 8:26 pm

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
“To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.”

– Proverbs 8:1-4

Today is Trinity Sunday, which immediately follows Pentecost. These two Sundays force us Lutherans to consider the Holy Spirit for a spell, after which, with a sigh of relief, we place the Spirit back on the shelf for another year*. The lectionary for today included the text above. The Old Testament Sophia, the personification of divine wisdom, is traditionally understood as the second person of the Trinity: Christ, the Logos. But the wisdom texts seem to be more easily understood as the Paraclete, not the Logos. It is the Spirit that calls to us, that is calling to us all to follow God’s divine wisdom. Christ is the savior, but it is the Spirit that sanctifies us. And we cannot be sanctified without divine wisdom.

Another one of the lectionary lessons for today:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

John 16:12-15

Jesus did not tell his followers everything, because they could not “bear them”, but these things are to be revealed by the “Spirit of truth”, which sounds suspiciously like our Sophia from the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The message is discomfiting but clear: the New Testament does not contain all of God’s truth, so we must listen for the Spirit of truth to teach us what was kept from the earliest Christians.

What could Jesus’ followers not bear to hear, that may have been revealed to us since through the Holy Spirit?

The Bible was frequently used to defend slavery in the 19th century because it contains no prohibitions against it. The Bible exhorts masters to treat slaves fairly, but in doing so it seems to condone slavery. Still, it was Christian abolitionists claiming that justice can only mean that slaves be free. They did not have the Bible on their side, but they were listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of God. Perhaps a command to abolish slavery was something Jesus’ followers could not bear to hear, but that the Holy Spirit has taught us in God’s own time.

What else? Perhaps the equality of women, including their acceptance as pastors, bishops and political leaders, is another truth the early church could not bear, but is one the Holy Spirit has guided us to. And I believe that the equality of gays, lesbians, and the transgendered is another. The Bible doesn’t support either of these ideas explicitly, and in fact seems to oppose them.** But we are learning from the Holy Spirit, Sophia, the divine wisdom, those things that the earliest followers of Christ could not bear to hear.

Insisting on the completeness of the Bible as a record of God’s instructions for all time not only ignores Jesus’ own words as recorded in the same Bible, but it silences the Holy Spirit. It ends God’s ability to continue guiding us to the divine truth. God is still speaking, and it is up to us to listen.


* Kidding! But all humor has a kernel of truth inside.

** Yes, I know there are plenty of hermeneutical arguments against the anti-gay and anti-women clobber verses, which I ascribe to, but the fact remains there isn’t any explicitly positive instruction regarding women and GLBT equality in the Bible.

December 15, 2009

Is Open Theism’s Cosmology Coherent?

Filed under: Church,Philosophy,Science — Bob Gifford @ 8:45 am

I just completed a Systematics Theology course at Fuller Seminary. Class assignments included a term paper, which I decided to do on the confluence of physics and the theology of divine time, omniscience and providence. It’s a fascinating subject. The term paper had a limit of 10 pages (which I exceeded a tad) or I could have gone on longer. As it was, the limit forced me to be concise and focused.

Click here for a pdf of my term paper.

October 7, 2009

Quote for the Day Year

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 11:41 am

A Sully quote for the day. Given the name of this blog, I have to pass it along:

“Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith,” – Thomas Merton.

March 12, 2009

My Politico-Religious Journey

Filed under: Church,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 5:34 pm

A few days ago, Hilzoy brought to my attention the latest fad among wingnuts. It appears all the cool kids on the right are talking about going Galt. Boy, this brings back some memories.

You see, I was once a libertarian. Hard to believe, I know, but true.

Like many college students, I read Ayn Rand when I was in college, which like the gateway drug that Rand is, led me to read some books on libertarianism, and I was hooked. There is something so perfect about libertarianism, especially when viewed through a Randian lens. Poor people are poor because of their laziness and moral defects. Rich people are rich due to hard work and virtue. Government bureaucrats are leeches trying to take what is not theirs. In the end, there is justice: everyone gets what they deserve, not in some after-life, but here and now on this earth. How romantic. How perfect.

Yes, but.

Libertarian thinkers have added to this a whole theoretical edifice explaining how free markets can price anything and everything can be privatized all to the ever-increasing welfare of the virtuous citizenry and to the detriment of the shifty poor and controlling government autocrats. Through college and business school I was enamored of this ideology. This was how the world should work, and if it didn’t, it was because vested interests were depriving us of our freedom. Capitalists unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!

Yes, but.

There was another ideology running through my college and grad school years. I had been raised and confirmed Lutheran, but was wandering in the desert during those years. I had many late night conversations about God and religion, and read a smattering of books on theology. I had several of what I would call conversion experiences, except that they didn’t really lead to any enduring conversion. It was all rather cerebral. But there was something profoundly true to me about all this Christianity stuff.

The Christianity I knew had nothing to do with today’s moral judging from the religious right. It didn’t depend upon a church hierarchy throwing around its weight in the name of ecclesiastical authority. It wasn’t defined by the drama of today’s fights over gay rights or attempts to sneak creationism into the schools. There was no political grandstanding. It was a deeply humble, self-emptying, other-serving Christianity.

Still today, the Christianity I know is virtually invisible to those not looking for it. The leaders of my denomination issue a stream of press releases about the need for relief for disaster victims, funding for food stamps, or services for the homeless. There are always urges to do more for the hungry around the world. Micro-credit, mosquito nets, schools, health clinics, water projects, goats (yes, goats!) for the global poor. But none of it ever makes headlines. The AA meeting in the church basement isn’t newsworthy. But there it is all the same.

As an adult, I had to decide between these two ideologies. I tried to reconcile them, and thought I had succeeded for awhile. But I was once asked to sign a petition to “end world hunger”. I wouldn’t sign it because it went against my libertarian ideals. Later, I thought about that decision. How could any Christian not lend their voice to the effort to end world hunger? What about the least of these? I came to realize that this world, the real world, the one we’re stuck with, isn’t just. There are both poor and rich who do not deserve to be so. Even the best of us are not quite as noble as Ayn Rand would have us believe, and the worst are not quite as evil. Markets themselves are sustained and thrive because of government regulation, not in spite of it. There are things none of us can do alone, and which we must come together to accomplish through government. While we must always be on guard against the excesses of government, we all need government to do what only it can.

This need for government isn’t just pragmatic, it’s also moral. A Randian libertarian utopia would rapidly turn into a morally unjust dystopia. And I don’t speak of morality the way the culture warriors do, but the way the Christianity I know does. I’m not talking about sex, drugs or wardrobe malfunctions, but morality as a glimmer of the Kingdom of God. Without that kind of moral justice, we would live in a world where power begets more power, disregard for others is rewarded, and justice isn’t available for those without the ability to pay for it.

So I am now a political independent, but in the current environment aligned mostly with Democrats. And my religious wanderings have brought me to the religious home I left as a teenager. And Ayn Rand is left where she belongs: to gather dust.

February 16, 2009

More on Darwin, and the ELCA

Filed under: Church,Science — Bob Gifford @ 12:53 pm

As a follow-up to yesterday’s evolution post, here are some thoughts on denominational views on Darwin. Pew has assembled statements by major religious denominations on the compatibility of evolution with their religious doctrines. It seems most Christian denominations are cool with evolution, as well as Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and even some Muslim religious authorities. The Lutheran denominations are split, with the smaller and very conservative Missouri Synod opposed, and my denomination, the larger more moderate ELCA…um, well, it’s not really clear.

I have to laugh. In classic ELCA inclusive, Minnesota-nice, don’t offend anyone style, the ELCA statement is, shall we say, non-committal:

The ELCA does not have an official position on creation vs. evolution, but we subscribe to the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, so we believe God created the universe and all that is therein, only not necessarily in six 24-hour days, and that God actually may have used evolution in the process of creation. In fact, to deny the possibility that evolutionary processes were used is seen by some as an attempt to limit God’s power.

So the ELCA doesn’t take a position on evolution, but concedes that God may have used evolution. And that denying evolution is seen by some (but one would assume, not by others) as constraining God’s power. My paraphrase of this statement is that evolution may be true, unless it isn’t.

I love it. Yes, this is an example of Olympic-level waffling, but the ELCA is loath to ever get ahead of its membership on anything. There is a strong congregationalist strain in the ELCA that views the full-time ELCA synodical and headquarters staff as serving, and therefore subservient to, local churches. This can be very frustrating, as in the battles over gay clergy, but it is also a good thing. The ELCA does not shove down pronouncements from on high when there is not an existing consensus among its members.

But there is an exception to this ELCA mindset when it comes to ministry. No one in Chicago will waffle when it comes to our call to help the poor and destitute here in the US and around the world. If a church is to only take a stand on what’s truly important, it seems the ELCA has chosen well.

May 26, 2008

The War Prayer

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 10:56 am

The War Prayer

by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams – visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest! Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory –

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued with his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor – and also you in your hearts – fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. the whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them – in spirit – we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

[See here for some background on this poem.]

May 11, 2008

The Homeless Man in Church

Filed under: Church — Bob Gifford @ 1:14 pm

My church now has our second homeless person attending regularly on Sundays.

The first one was Marshall, who has been attending for three or four years. I first noticed Marshall when he interrupted Pastor Tony’s sermon shouting Bible verses at him. Since then, we make sure he is on his meds, provide him with food, and in general watch out for him and his shopping cart full of worldly belongings. (We’ve tried to get him into some housing, but Marshall won’t have it — he insists on staying on the street.) Marshall attends the early service, so I don’t see him much, at least not in church, although I occasionally see him around on the streets.

Today I sat behind another homeless guy who has been attending the late service for a while (I’m ashamed to say I don’t know his name). He must have some neurological disorder, because he seems to struggle sometimes with motor control, and occasionally lets out involuntary vocalizations, although nothing disruptive. He is clearly there for the same reason the rest of us are — worship.

This morning I was monitoring my emotional reactions to his presence. On the one hand, I was glad he was there. He needs and deserves God’s grace as much as any of us, which is to say very much and not at all. I’m glad he feels comfortable and welcomed in our church, and I did my best to make him feel at home. At the same time, deep down in the less gracious parts of my brain, I kept worrying that he would do something inappropriate, cause a scene, start ranting or something that would be, heaven forbid, embarrassing. As our history with Marshall has shown, this isn’t necessarily an unfounded fear.

But as Marshall has also taught us, having an outcast cause a scene in church is not such a bad thing. It tears down the carefully maintained facade that we’re all somehow in-control, healthy, self-actualized, serenely enlightened Christians. Such a scene is embarrassing not for the scene-maker, who is beyond embarrassment, but for us observers. It reveals that our nice clothes, good educations, well-produced liturgy and nicely appointed church doesn’t change the fact that we are all more like our homeless parishioner than not. If not for the vain desire we all have to appear calmly, rationally sane, we’d all be ranting at the cross on occasion, demanding that God explain how we are to survive in a world with death, divorce, disease and depression*. We have no grounds to pretend that everything’s cool, we’re happy and life is great, at least not all the time, but we do anyway. We could use a good scene every once in awhile just to rip away this conspiracy of self-deception.

Other than standing and sitting throughout the service on a 60-second delay behind the rest of us, our homeless parishioner did nothing untoward. He partook of communion just like the rest of us, not because we deserve it but because we need it. And none of us were embarrassed by his behavior. But having him there was a blessing, hopefully for him, but more so for me. Our Pastor and others in the church are speaking to him and seeing to his needs. But he has blessed me, just by being there, by acting as a mirror to show me my own vanity. He made me realize, again, that church isn’t about being respectable, well-groomed or placidly serene. Church is there to throw us a line as we thrash about trying to keep our heads above water in this sea of troubles, and we’re there to grab the line, not pretend that we’re doing just fine treading water.

We aren’t so different, the homeless man and me, except that he knows he needs God and I keep pretending that God needs me.

Which of us should be embarrassed?

* Forgive the alliteration — it was initially unintended, but after realizing what I had done I didn’t have the heart to find some less-good synonyms to remove it.

April 20, 2008

“Just the Black Notes”

Filed under: Church,Music — Bob Gifford @ 10:18 am

Via Andrew Sullivan, some music theory, some history, and a lot of grace from Wintley Phipps:

Amen, and amen.

March 24, 2008

Expelled, the Movie

Filed under: Church — Bob Gifford @ 8:54 am

Oh my. Via the War Room, it seems that Ben Stein has produced a movie called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that makes the claim that scientists arguing for intelligent design are being discriminated against. As the court ruling in the Dover, PA intelligent design trial concluded, intelligent design is not science, but here is yet another attempt to portray it as an unfairly maligned but perfectly valid scientific theory.

From the movie’s trailer, Ben Stein conflates Christianity and creationism, implying that one can’t be Christian without rejecting evolution. This is of course absurd. Taking the American religious census from the recent Pew Forum Survey on Religion, 78% of Americans are Christian. By my count1, at least 54% of these Christians belong to churches that accept and even celebrate2 the theory of evolution. So acceptance of evolution is the majority Christian position, at least based upon the teachings of various churches3.

Unfortunately, I think both sides in the intelligent design debate have an incentive to ignore we Christians that believe in evolution. The pro-ID side wants to present it as a choice between faith in God or faith in science, and to present themselves as victims of religious persecution. The New Atheists and Skeptics also like this stark choice, so they can claim that religion has been debunked by science. Both can only maintain this false choice by pretending that Christians believing in both the Bible and evolution don’t exist.

Speaking of the New Atheists, PZ Myers has a hilarious story about his attempt to attend a screening of the Expelled movie. It’s enough to make you believe that there is a God, and She is laughing Her head off!

1. I’m counting the Catholics and mainline Protestants. I’m not sure about some of the historically black and the Orthodox churches, so I haven’t included them.
2. For an example, see here.
3. I realize that public opinion polls of Americans show a majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution. Given the religious census, I can only conclude that many Christians disagree with the leaders of their churches.

March 19, 2008

A Thought for Holy Week

Filed under: Church — Bob Gifford @ 9:06 pm

From Garrison Keillor:

Skepticism is a stimulant, not to be repressed. It is an antidote to smugness and the great glow of satisfaction one gains from being right. You know the self-righteous — I’ve been one myself — the little extra topspin they put on the truth, their ostentatious modesty, the pleasure they take in being beautifully modulated and cool and correct when others are falling apart. Jesus was rougher on those people than He was on the adulterers and prostitutes.

So I will sit in the doubter’s chair for a while and see what is to be learned back there.

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