Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Monday, October 31, 2005

some recent R.O. posts

evangelicals out of the box

Calvinism and Chosenness

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Radical Orthodoxy and OT Theology

Fellow bloggers,
I am currently in my just second OT class in Trevecca's masters program so I am really wading throught some OT issues. In short, I am attempting to grasp what a Radical Orthodoxy reading of the OT is. Admittedly, I am beginning my struggle through RO and in light of reading von Rad, Eichrodt, and others in OT theology, I am wondering what, outside of the emphasis upon creation ex-nihilo, RO has to say about OT theology on a larger scale. Of course, I am not asking for an RO view of OT theology, but rather how does it dialogue with the lack of the body/soul dichotomy in that appears later? Is there any connection between the Hebrew mindset (if there is one to be known) in the OT and what RO is attempting to do? I am sure this could have been worded a little clearer, but I know their is some continuity between current OT theologizing and RO. Any thoughts?



Staring in the Mirror

When I attended West Point, there were many arrogant people, but there was one who took the cake. His name was Pete, and Pete was convinced just how smart and beautiful he was. Every story featured him as the great hero who slayed dragons, saved wenches, and restored good and justice to the world. He was a classic “topper.” You tell a story, and he tops it. He loved to look at himself in the mirror. Anytime he passed a mirror, he just could not help himself. He had to stop and take a look. He had to gaze at his hair and remind himself just how handsome he was.

Have you ever heard the story of Narcissus? Narcissus was a similar man, celebrated in Greek mythology for his great beauty. He was so handsome that the nymphs all fell in love with him, but he rejected all of their efforts. As a curse, Narcissus was made to fall in love with his own image. Narcissus fell so deeply in love with himself, that he sat by the riverbank and gazed at his own reflection longingly. Many came and begged him to leave, begged him to eat and to drink, to remember all the good things of life, but Narcissus sat there and stared at his reflection until he died. Psychologists tell us that narcissism is a condition where we fall in love with our own beauty until we are paralyzed gazing in the mirror at ourselves.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of a narcissism of sorts. If you remember last week, I told you how the Pharisees sought, above all else, to protect their identity as Jews, to remain faithful in a world gone mad. They desperately sought to form a people who would live by the Law in every aspect of their life. To some degree, they were successful. Their piety and hard work allowed them a certain degree of financial security. Their devotion to the faith won them prestige in local communities. If not powerful, they were at least respected. As time passed, they began to lose sight of their purpose. They began to fall in love with their own works. Their goal began to be the maintenance of the structures they built and keeping up the traditions they began. They lost sight of their true end: the worship of God. Instead, they fell in love with the creation of their own hands. They began to look in the mirror and admire their own reflection.

Jesus, of course, comes to town and smashes their mirror to little pieces. After they fail in their attempts to trap him, they withdraw to conspire how best to kill him. As they leave, Jesus begins to speak to his disciples and to the gathered crowd. He says, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Mt. 23:2-3, ESV). He goes on to describe that the Pharisees love to lay burdens on people’s shoulders, but move not even one finger to help lift the burden. They love to dress the part, making their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. However, they do not attend to the meatier aspects of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. Not only do they love to be seen, they also love to be exalted- in the synagogues and at the feasts. They love to be exalted by others, to be called “Master” and “Teacher.” In this sermon, Jesus excoriates them for losing sight of the end of the Law, for falling in love with their own works. He condemns them for their narcissism and calls for his followers and the crowd to turn away from the mirror and to look at the world differently.

The question I have today is whether we are significantly different from the Pharisees. Clearly, we Nazarenes believe ourselves to be different. We have cut loose from dead rituals and symbols such as phylacteries and fringes. We deny the place of any sort of salvation from mere appearance. But I wonder if we are not gazing at the other side of the same mirror. I wonder if we peeked around the corner, if we might find that the Pharisee who stares back reflects us. As I prepared for this sermon, I was shocked to find that most of the commentaries and sermons that I read reproduced the very thing that Jesus condemns in this passage. Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd to obey the teachings of the Pharisees and Scribes because they sit on the seat of Moses. They are the rightful proclaimers of the Law. He tells them only not to do as the Pharisees do because they do not practice what they preach. He then lays this out with specific charges: They bind up people with heavy burdens but do not help to lift that burden; they love to dress the part of a holiness people but do not perform justice, mercy, and faithfulness in their daily lives; they love to be exalted in the synagogues and at feasts but have lost all sight of humbly coming before God. Most sermons and commentaries read Jesus as placing binding up sin in opposition to loosing the burdens of sin, as placing the appearance of holiness in opposition to the performance of holiness, as placing exaltation in opposition to humility. This reading causes them to read Jesus’ judgment on the Pharisees and scribes back the other way. Jesus does not place these in tension and opposition with each other. He does not call for an either/or but a both/and. He calls for his disciples to both bind and loose, to appear and perform holiness, to be both humble and exalted. To miss this point is to run the great risk of standing on one side of the mirror or the other, and finding some type of Pharisee on either side.

In order to avoid this powerful temptation, we must really hear what it is that Jesus calls for us to be and do.

First, we must remember the work that has been given us to do. We are created in Christ’s image, and we are given good work to do. We are called to participate in God’s work of saving and restoring fallen creation. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is known as the ministry of the keys. In Matthew 16, Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom to Peter and tells him that he has the authority to both bind and loose. The church is to go forth and to bind up the world in its sins, to live and proclaim faithfully that to not worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ is to sin and will lead to all forms of death and despair. However, to proclaim judgment is not enough. We are also called, as Christ’s body, to loose sinners from the burden of sin. The key works both ways, not only to bind up in chains, but also to loose us from our sins.

Second, we must remember out baptism. Jesus calls for us to have the same appearance of holiness portrayed by the Pharisees and scribes with their broad phylacteries and long fringes. He also calls for us to attend to the meat of the Gospel: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. As Jeremiah tells us, we are to have the law written on our hearts and not on stone. As Paul tells us, we are to put on Christ. In baptism, we die to self to be raised in the glorious beauty of Jesus Christ. We literally put on his image and bear it to the world. Thus, our phylacteries and fringe appear as we remember that in baptism all men and women are our brothers and sisters, that in baptism there is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female, but that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

When I began teaching, my mentor teacher told me one day when she discovered I was a preacher also that she was glad she took her children to Sunday School every week. I told her I thought that was great, to which she responded, “Yes, everyone should go to church as kids because it teaches them basic morality for their lives.” We so often forget that the church is more than a place for moral formation, an add-on to our lives. The church is the baptized community, a people who have put on Christ and now carry Christ to a sin-sickened and dying world.

Third, we must remember the Eucharist. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their desire to be exalted, to sit in the best seats and to be called Master in public. In the Eucharist, we remember that Christ was exalted in his humility. He, who is the King of all Glory, gave up his throne to come to earth. In the Eucharistic feast, we remember that Christ was humble in his life and practices and in the way that he faced death on the Cross. However, he was exalted in his humility. In the Eucharistic feast, we remember that we are not humble for humility’s sake. We are not called to be masochists. Instead, we are called to be His Body, the Church. To remember our identity in Him and to give thanks, rejoicing in what is to come when the last will be first and the first will be last.

We live in a day and age when the individual is celebrated, elevated, and exalted. We live in age of cultural narcissism. It is very easy to fall into this sin, to gaze at ourselves in the mirror. We live in dangerous times, and it is much easier to build fences and put up walls than it is to go out into the world and risk everything. It is much easier to ignore what is going on “out there” and remain in the comfort of the world we create for ourselves. However, baptism reminds us that our life is not our own; we have now put on Christ. The Eucharist reminds us that God is remaking the world, and invites us as his body to participate in that glorious work. The ministry of the keys reminds us that there is good and risky work to do in the world. We must go out and name sin, bind up sinners by speaking the truth in love, and then set them free in the name of Jesus Christ.

The powerful temptation we face today is to be narcissistic, to believe that we are pretty and perfect, just as we are. When we do this, we seek only to glorify ourselves. We begin to believe that we are the center of the world. We will build all kinds of things: programs, buildings, and ministries. But these will all be to celebrate our own power and glory.

During the Civil War, George McClellan took a faltering Union Army and built it into the most powerful army in the world. He painstakingly trained and disciplined his army until it worked like a machine. In his mind it was both perfect and beautiful. In his worship of his creation, he forgot that armies are created for one purpose: to fight wars. Finally, Abraham Lincoln, exasperated by McClellan’s delays wrote the general and asked him, “General McClellan, if you are not doing anything, may I borrow your army, I have a war to fight.”

All around us today, the world is mired in the depths and despair of sin and evil. All around us people are perishing outside the saving love of our Lord. Will we be a people that remember that the Church has one end: to be the Body of Christ, His flesh and blood presence in a world gone mad. Can we begin to move out and tear down the walls and gates that we have erected in a vain attempt to protect ourselves? Will we journey out, in His name, to do the glorious work he has given us?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Reading Radical Orthodoxy

In an earlier post, David asked for reading recommendations for Radical Orthodoxy. I thought I would provide sort of a rough reading list, and then others could contribute to fill in the gaps (As I am writing this, I see that Eric has already offered up an excellent list in the comments section). I will begin with introductory books/articles, and then offer up other books. I have read about ten of the RO series, so this is hardly complete. I know there are some excellent books that I have not gotten to. I will list them below, also.

Introduction to Radical Orthodoxy
1) James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy
I think Smith does a fantastic job providing an overview and introduction to RO. I confess that I skimmed the sections about the Dutch Reformed church.

2) John Milbank, "Postmodern Critical Augustinianism: A Short Summa..."
Modern Theology, 7:3 (April 1991), 225-237. This article is also contained in Graham Ward's, The Postmodern God. In this book, Catherine Pickstock also has a very good article about how modern liturgical reforms (asyndeton) altered the way we understand God, worship, and faith.

In this relatively short article, Milbank provides an overview of his theological project. I find this to be a very helpful introduction.

3) John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, & Graham Ward. Radical Orthodoxy.
As Eric highlighted, Cavanaugh's chapter, "The City: Beyond Secular Parodies," is outstanding. Iwould also read the introduction, chapter 1 by Milbank, chapter 5 by Michael Hanby, Chapter 8 by Graham Ward, and Chapter 12 by Catherine Pickstock.

After the Introduction
John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory
This is Milbank's extraordinary critique of secular reason. It is unbelievable in its scope. Hauerwas declared that in this one book Milbank was able to "gore everyone's ox." This one will take some time to read, but he absolutely takes apart secular reason. The last chapter calls for a Trinitarian ontology and reveals how he is seeking to reappropriate Augustine.

Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: The Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy
This book supposedly won Dr. Pickstock an audience with Pope Benedict XVI when he was a Cardinal. In this book, she first takes on Derrida's reading of Plato, and then discusses how the Medieval liturgy is the culmination of philosophy, language, and art. This book is not an easy read, but a very fruitful one. I am still working my way through this one, but I love what she is doing.

John Milbank, The Word Made Strange
In the last chapter of Theology and Social Theory, Milbank begins his constructive theological project. In this book, he begins to expand on his Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology. There are some fantastic essays in this book. As I wrestle with this book more, I like it much more than on the first reading.

John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas
I must confess that I have only skimmed this book. My mentor and friend who is a church history professor at Trevecca believes that they read Aquinas correctly and dangerously so. This is by far probably the most controversial of the RO series since Thomists of all stripes have attacked it. I noticed this topic coming up quite frequently on your blog, and so I bumped it up the list. This is definitely an RO reading of Thomas. I would be interested in your thoughts.

Dan Bell, Liberation Theology after the End of History
This book is an excellent analysis of the Catholic liberation theology movement in Latin America. Bell sees that liberation theology lacked an ecclesiology capable of resisting capitalism. He provides an excellent analysis of capitalism, as well, focusing on how capitalism disciplines our desire making us into docile subjects. This is an outstanding work.

Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism
Like Eric, I find this book to be profound. I am still working my way through it, but I see Cunningham addressing some of the frequent criticisms made of Milbank's work. I find his reading of nihilism to be fascinating.

Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity
I am shocked that this book does not get more attention. I read this book deeply as I read it in a directed reading I was taking on Augustine, and again in a class I took on Radical Orthodoxy. He takes apart the traditional modern claim that Augustine stands in direct line between Plato and Descartes in terms of the creation of the autonomous self. He also works through Augustine's Trinitarian theology and soteriology. Hanby articulates the idea of a doxological selfhood. This is a RO reading of Augustine.

Related to RO
William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist
This is not in the RO series, but Cavanaugh has written an exceptional essay mentioned above. This book, though, provides an ecclesial example of how the core elements of RO look on the ground in resistance to the Pinochet regime. Words cannot express how excellent I find this book to be.

Stephen Long, The Goodness of God
Eric recommended Long's Divine Economy, which is published in the RO series. That is also an excellent book. However, this is my absolute favorite book of Long's (though I haven't read his most recent which I hear is also quite good).

Bell, Long and Cavanaugh are students of Hauerwas, to whom I am deeply indebted to for forming me as a Christian and a pastor. I confess that I am more Hauerwasian than RO, and that bias is probably represented in this list.

Critiques of RO
David Toole, Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo
I checked this book out on interlibrary loan, so I only had it for two weeks. It attempts to critique RO from the perspective of John Howard Yoder. Toole claims that ultimately Milbank is unable to outnarrate nihilism, because he lack an apocalyptic understanding of the world. I wish I had more time with this book because I think he raises some serious issues that RO has yet to address with regards to pacifism.

I hope this helps. There are several other books in the series as well as other related books that are coming out. I believe this is a good start.

Grace and Peace,

suggested reading

I'm relatively new to R.O. therefore I'm asking for suggestions on a reading list. I see that James K.A. Smith has developed a good bibliography, which needs to be updated. If you had to choose the first 3-10 books to read in regards to R.O., which ones would they be? Which books are the most important? The books that you suggest can either be from the R.O. Series or other books by the scholars of this camp. Thanks ahead of time for doing this for me.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

A Testimony to Ecumenism

On the Feast Day of William Temple

Today’s lectionary reading in the daily cycle brings us this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 13:18-23 (NRSV)

18 "Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."

One of the great oddities of contemporary American Christianity is its insistence on division as a means of holiness. It lacks either the creativity or comprehension of a faith that is vibrant enough to engage the world that surrounds it as an exile in the model of Jeremiah and diaspora Judaism. As a result, it attempts to manipulate the state into a means of spreading Christian dogma through legal means, consider it an Evangelical version of Franco’s Spain. Domination of the other seems to be one of its primary goals and it considers this goal as a means of converting the unbelievers.

Unlike this approach, Jesus offers us the parable of the sower and the seed. The seed is sown, God waters it, and it will grow depending on where it lands. This landing should probably not be understood in predestination terms (a la Calvin), rather it should be understood as the place we are when we hear it. The point is that the seed cannot be coerced into growing. The models of the Inquisition and of Franco are contrary to the gospel Jesus gives us.

Rather, in light of the testimony of William Temple, let us examine the beauty of the Elizabethan compromise. While this claim was certainly a political move, it also codified the via media. The idea that “all may, some should, none must" is at the heart of the Anglican via media. It presupposes the dignity of the human person and grants the freedom to make decisions free of coercion. It understands that the seed cannot be forced to grow; rather, the seed is best left sown and allowed to grow as it may. If it snatched away, it must be resown. If it is shallow, it will soon wither. If it is entangled in the cares of the world or the lure of wealth, it will not thrive. If it lands in good soil, it will blossom.

William Temple was renowned for his ecumenism. Ecumenism requires that Christians of varied traditions allow others to interpret specific passages and dogmas differently, yet understands that the resurrection of our Lord is at the center of Christian identity. It understands that we are the Body of Christ and dependant upon each other in order to truly reflect our Lord to the watching world. To use Milbank as an interlocutor, it understands that an ontology of peace allows for difference that creates harmony rather than chaos. We do not need homogeneity, we need to be the Body of Christ without schism or division in order to reflect the unity of our God. Holiness is certainly part of who God is, but separation need not be monastic or exclusionary. As Jesus sat with those that the holy called sinners, he reflected the Kingdom come.

On the feast day of William Temple, one of the doctors of the Anglican Church, let us celebrate the Church catholic. Let us hope for a day when we see more similarity with our brothers and sisters in the faith rather than our differences. As we work together for that day, let us be encouraged by the life and thought of William Temple and allow the seed to bear fruit a hundredfold.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Enough Is Enough: A Devotion in Honor of Rosa Parks

Enough is Enough:
A Devotion in Honor of Rosa Parks

Acts 16:16-40

16As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17She followed Paul and us, crying out, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." 18And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour.

In the telling of the stories of the saints, we most often seek to narrate their lives through the stories given to us in the Holy Scriptures. This devotion is no exception. As I reflect on the life of Rosa Parks, immediately this narrative of Paul in Philippi came to mind. Paul is called to "help" in Macedonia, a place devoted to the cause of the Empire and the worship of Caesar. In other words, Macedonia was enemy territory, a land enslaved by the prinicipalities and powers. Of course, as the Book of Acts reveals time and again, slavery and imprisonment are not defined by chains and bars. Paul and Silas are followed daily by a slave girl who made her owners a great profit through fortune telling. Every day, she follows Paul and Silas and announces their identity to the crowds. One particular day, Paul decides that enough is enough and speaks, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And the demon came out that very hour.

So who is Rosa Parks in this story? On one hand, it would be easy to compare her to the servant girl, forced by sheer power to serve unjust people to make them a profit. Certainly, the Jim Crow South established both legal and social structures to force African Americans to live in conditions little different than while slavery existed. Certainly, Mrs. Parks was set free by Christ to live free of the principalities and powers in a bold way. However, that is not the comparison I want to make this morning.

For me, Rosa Parks much more closely resembles the Apostle Paul. She was a woman of deep faith, and also a woman who worked hard. One day, on the bus ride home after a long day at work, a white man approached her and demanded that she give up her seat. That was the law after all. When asked, black people were expected to move to the back of the bus, without comment and without complaint. To do so would warrant arrest or far worse. On this particular day, Rosa Parks was probably not only tired but also irritated. She looked at the man, in the eye, and said, "No." She refused to give up her seat! Her act of public defiance of segregation was the first salvo in a battle to liberate the United States from the spirit of racism and exploitation that so thoroughly possess it. This shot heard round the world would not result in the instantaneous expulsion of the evil spirit, but it did begin the process of exorcism.

She was arrested, booked, and placed in jail. The principalities and powers probably imagined that the prospects of jail would frighten a woman into ending her defiance and do anything to escape imprisonment. However, bars do not a prison make. Far from being intimidated, Parks' arrest led her young pastor to stand up and join her in jail. Her announcement that enough is enough sounded a call to a generation of young students who were also both irritated and fearless. Within ten years, they would storm the bastions and redoubts most heavily devoted to the service of the spirit of racism. They conquered this spirit in a most unique way. You see, when Paul and Silas were locked in the deepest belly of the Philippian jail, chained and bound, they sang hymns and prayed to God. And then came a holy earthquake that shook the very moorings of the prison and of Roman society itself. I am sure that Rosa Parks and her young pastor prayed and sang because a great earthquake soon began to shake the moorings of a racist and exploitative social structure known as Jim Crow.

Casting out the evil spirits that possess not only individuals but also social structures is both an instantaneous and progressive movement. On that day in Philippi, the demon was cast out of the girl, and later that evening, the jailer was released from his imprisonment. It would take another three hundred years for Paul's command to be heard throughout the Roman Empire. On that day when Rosa Parks said no, the thralldom of the South to the spirit of racism began to wane; however, the collapse of principalities and powers takes time, is costly, and they do not go quietly into the night.

In remembering Rosa Parks, we must remember her call. Just as the Macedonian man spoke to Paul, asking for help, so too does the voice of Rosa Parks also speak to us some fifty years later. Enough is enough. The time has come for us to begin again to imagine the beloved community. The time has come for us to be willing to challenge the principalities and powers on their home turf, where they are most entrenched. It is time for the church to rise up together, sing our hymns, chant our Psalms, receive Christ's body and blood and be made into that body ourselves. For too long, when confronted by the evil spirits that have captured our age, we have stood and moved to the back of the bus. Rosa Parks was an ordinary woman, yet her actions emboldened a young pastor to step forward and be what his church demanded, a prophet leader who would stand firm and sound the call of justice and judgment, of peace and healing, of tearing apart and building up again.

Are we capable of hearing the wonderful testimony of Rosa Parks?

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Eucharist Makes the Church

The recent discussions on other blogs referrring to de Lubac and Ressourcement led me to call one of my dearest friends and mentors to ask him about this movement. He said that after he moved through Will Willimon, Hauerwas and the Duke school, he came to de Lubac and Ressourcement. He recommended the book, The Sacrament of Salvation: An Introduction to Eucharistic Ecclesiology, by Paul McPartlan. For those more familiar with Ressourcement, where does McPartlan fit in Catholic theology.

I am reading a two part interview with Father McPartlan conducted by Zenit. It is very interesting and quotes de Lubac that in the first millenium the Eucharist made the church, but in the second millenium switched to the church makes the Eucharist. I just wanted to post these two interviews and see what issues/thoughts come to mind.

Everything about Radical Orthodoxy pushes us towards the Eucharist as the center of our lives, and yet we all raise questions about the embodiment of just such a theology. I love the quote that begins the second interview:
"The Eucharist contains riches to feed and forgive us, to strengthen and unite us, and to guide and protect us on our pilgrim way."
What are your thoughts?

Part 1 of the Interview
Part 2 of the Interview

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Lectionary Readings for This Week

Joshua 3:7-17
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Here are the readings for the week. What are your thoughts? What are your insights? What is at stake theologically in these readings?

Saturday, October 22, 2005

David Bentley Hart on Robert Jenson

First Things has an interesting article by David Bentley Hart, who wrote The Beauty of the Infinite, on the "neglected" theology of Robert Jenson. Hart discusses how Jenson may be the best American systematic theologian, and yet few American seminaries and religion programs address his Systematic Theology, vol. 1 and vol. 2. My understanding of the Trinity has been deeply shaped by Jenson's theology, and I always find his thought challenging, interesting, and truthful.

I'm just wondering, since we are a fairly diverse group, how much exposure do you have to Robert Jenson? What are your thoughts about his systematic theology?

Here is an outstanding article of his that was in First Things back in 1993.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, October 21, 2005

Dangerous Times Call for Drastic Measures

I still remember the first time I discovered that the world was a dangerous place.

Aunt Sally and Lib lived up on the hill in front of my house. Aunt Sally was a retired school teacher, and Lib was her mentally challenged younger sister. By the time I was born, they both seemed ancient. Their lives revolved around snooping (reading our mail), gossiping about family and neighbors, cleaning our little Methodist church, teaching Sunday School, and raising chickens. Their house was not one of my favorite destinations: I thought it smelled funny, and they liked my brother better, anyway. I did, however, really like the chickens. When new chicks were born, I spent many hours chasing them and getting flogged by the mother hen. Finally, one day at the age of 7, I achieved my life-long goal and actually found a chick that had been abandoned by her mother. I took this chick with me and nursed her, fed her, and carried her everywhere I went. For a few days, this chick was the center of my every waking moment. After school one day, my brother, who was 2, and I were in the yard playing with the chick. When my bird tried to run away, I yelled to my brother, "Stop it." He thought I yelled, "Stomp it." And the rest of course is history. I discovered on that day that the world was a violent and dangerous place.

After the funeral procession and burial, I waited the appropriate three days, and dug my chick up to see if she had come back from the dead (A boy can always hope). The chick was still dead, and eventually my mother made me stop digging her up. I then began to devise a system so that in the future, we could prevent such tragedies. I was determined to create a world where abandoned chicks would be safe. Since my mother would not let me take the instant option of giving my brother away, I developed rules (No brothers allowed around any future chicks), I fixed a box on my bookshelf that was beyond my brother's reach (I had to go to school), I worked on my brother's enunciation (stop and stomp mean different things), and tried to think through how I could make a dangerous world safe for chickens. Dangerous times call for drastic measures.

There is a powerful temptation for us to try to make the world safe. Over the past few weeks in Waycross, we have experienced the death of a teenager in a tragic car accident, a double murder at a convenience store committed by a 17 year old, and the conviction of a high school teacher to 35 years in prison for molesting a 15 year old student. Earthquakes in Pakistan, hurricanes in Louisiana, and roadside bombs in Iraq remind us just how dangerous the world is, and our inclination is to take any steps necessary to make the world safe for ourselves and for our children. Dangerous times call for drastic measures.

Israel discovered very early in her history just how dangerous the world is. From the beginning, she was surrounded by powerful neighbors, superpowers who constantly were at war with each other and with their neighbors. By the time Jesus was born, Israel felt daily the boot of Roman oppression: foreign occupation, high taxes, and the powerful temptation to abandon the Jewish faith for the faith of the Empire. All around them, the peoples of the world began to embrace the ways of the Romans: names, customs, even practices that were odious to Jews. Faithful Jewish parents feared what would happen to their children in such a dangerous world. The Pharisees were one of the groups that emerged in an effort to make the world safe for Jews.

They knew that their survival depended on keeping their identity. That in a world gone mad, they must remember who they were and who their God was. They established a way of life based on radical adherence to the Law, attempting to integrate the Law into every facet of their daily lives so that they could be a people who were completely faithful to God. They gave their lives to learning the 613 laws of the Torah and then working out how these laws should be carried out in their daily living. The Pharisees were far from evil; they were faithful people seeking to survive in a dangerous world.

Of course, when you live in a dangerous world, you have to make difficult decisions. When your survival depends on your morality, you cannot be weak-minded or overly tolerant. You must sacrifice the individual for the good of the whole community. Thus, sinners had to be excluded. The disabled had to be excluded. The weak had to be excluded. The system put in place to make the world safer had to be carried out with zeal, or all could be lost.

To say that Jesus threatened the security of the Pharisaical system is an understatement. When he rolled into town, he performed miracles that worked to restore the excluded back into the life of the community. He cast out demons; he healed the sick; he opened the eyes of the blind, and unstopped the ears of the deaf; he touched lepers and restored them to good health; he raised the dead. He ventured into the situations and places where they could not and would not go. Even more frightening, he taught with authority, and what he taught threatened to unravel the whole system. They erected a "wall" to protect the faithful from the evil of the unfaithful, and he threatened to disassemble the wall. He did this claiming to be speaking with the authority of God. He was dangerous. In a dangerous world, he threatened to destroy the very walls that protected them, their way of life, and the future lives of their children. In dangerous times, sometimes you have to take drastic measures.

Thus, when Jesus comes to Jerusalem and enters into the Temple, the Pharisees see this as their opportunity to test him and put him in his place. They are foiled with the Herodians in an attempt to trap Jesus with a question about Caesar. They retreat, and after Jesus silences the Sadducees, they return with a new question. They bring forward their best lawyer with their best question. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" Whatever answer he gives will open him up to criticism. He will be put in his place.

Jesus' answer stuns them. He states that the greatest commandment is, of course, the first commandment: "You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." He adds, "And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." And there it is. Jesus quotes to them the bedrock of Jewish faith, to which no faithful Jew could ever disagree. Jesus places himself squarely in the middle of Jewish tradition. He even connects himself to an issue dear to the Pharisees, stating, "On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." Jesus not only places himself within orthodox Jewish faith, his answers sound like answers a Pharisee would give! However, through his actions and teachings they know he has radicalized the idea of "neighbor." Jesus' conception of love and neighbor threaten to re-narrate the entire Jewish tradition as they stretch beyond the comfortable (and safe) walls erected by the Pharisees. To follow Jesus means to enter again into a dangerous world where people get hurt and everything might be lost. To follow Jesus is to realize that life is not in our immediate control. To follow Jesus would redefine what it means to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. In short, to follow Jesus would mean to tear down the walls and gates and risk everything to belief in God.

Jesus compounds their dilemma by asking them a question. "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" They answer, "The son of David." Jesus responds by quoting from Psalm 110, where David refers to the Messiah as "my Lord." Jesus asks, "If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?" The Pharisees imagine the Messiah as one in the line of David who will rule them with strength and authority as David did, restoring their place in the world and defeating their enemies. Then, through the strength of his right arm, the world will be safe again. Jesus escalates the tension by proposing that the Messiah is more than a son of David, that he is also Lord of David, meaning, of course, that the Messiah is divine. While Jesus does not declare himself to be that Messiah, the move towards this conclusion is rapidly approaching for the Pharisees and for the entire Jewish religious hierarchy. He has thwarted each of their challenges and tests. He has now raised the stakes. The authority with which he teaches is not just being spoken on behalf of God. His authority stems from his speaking as God, as the Lord of David. At this point, Matthew tells us, "And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him anymore questions." The time for talk is over. The Pharisees withdraw to plan for what comes next. Dangerous times call for drastic measures. Jesus threatens the entire system, all of Jerusalem. Caiaphas will prophetically state, "It is better for one man to die than for the entire nation to perish" (John 11:49-50).

We also live in dangerous times. We live in the post-9/11 era, where as a society we have stopped asking questions. Being threatened, we simply withdraw to construct a safe place free from danger. We buy big cars that insulate us from the noise of driving through the poor sections and mobile home parks. We buy alarm systems to protect our homes. We move to the suburbs. We build more prisons, hire more police, get bigger guns. Yet crime goes up, and our feeling of safety becomes nothing more than an illusion. As a nation, we do not ask questions about what is going on. We are willing to do anything to give us the illusion of safety. In the name of safety, we are even willing to sacrifice our sons and daughters in foreign lands to give us the illusion that the world is safer. The reality is the world is a dangerous place, despite all of our efforts to make it "safer."

As the church, we also realize that the world is dangerous, and we realize that we also must take drastic measures. But what actions do we take? What do we do?

1) We can go with the Pharisees downwards on the path of the Law.
We can continue to try to build a safe world of our own making in our own image. It will appear safe on the surface, but will remain so only by herculean effort, smoke and mirrors, and mass deception. Ultimately, death and danger will stay away only as long as we continue to sacrifice our children to death. The cost of building walls, identifying enemies and destroying them is overwhelming. Safety comes at an ever-increasing cost and will ultimately fail. As St. Paul reveals, "The end of the Law is death."

2) We can go with Christ upwards on the path of Love.
We can confess that the world is dangerous, and that we will probably lose everything, including our lives. The path of love is risky and costly. Rather than building walls to keep out thosee we fear, the path of love journeys straight into the homes of our enemies, and it is a two way street. Instead of division, there is an invitation to fellowship. Instead of the sounds of unending war, there is the sound of people singing sweetly. Instead of a road littered with broken dreams and broken lives, there is a glorious parade headed up to the cross, where we can lay down our lives, not in the worship of the illusion of safety, but with the hope of resurrection and entrance into the kingdom of God.

During the early years of slavery in North America, slave masters often sought to convert their slaves to Christianity. However, as conversions grew rapidly amongst the slaves (more rapidly than in the white community), these conversions were ordered to end. In South Carolina slaves outnumbered plantation owners by a margin of over 9:1. Church services were frequently banned, unless they could be carefully controlled. We wouldn't want slaves reading about Moses, would we? Dangerous times call for drastic measures. There is one chilling story about a group of slaves who held worship services in a barn over a wash basin filled with water. In this context, they could sing, pray, and cry out to God without fear of being heard and beaten. One day, the overseeer discovered their worship service, and with a whip violently broke up the service. Everyone ran for cover except for one man, who continued to pray while the overseer whipped him. His prayer was "Father, forgive him for he knows not what he does!"

Dangerous times call for drastic measures. Instead of being a people known for wielding the whip without questions, can we be a people able to feel the bite of the lash and still forgive our enemies? Could our drastic measures be becoming a people who trust so much in the Lord that we are willing to believe that our salvation comes from worshiping God with all of our heart, soul, and mind? Would we be a people willing to love our neighbor as ourself even if our neighbor hates us?

On a dangerous morning in a dangerous land, will you take the drastic step of coming to His table? Know that this is a dangerous journey and a dangerous meal. It is a table where questions are asked and truthful answers are given. Prejudice and hatred are present, but they are being washed away in baptism. Sin is not ignored, but it is confessed. Death is not denied, but it is defeated. As you eat from this table, a miraculous transformation will take place, our bodies together will become His body. Our drastic measure is nothing more than to be His body broken for the world and His blood spilled for the salvation of the world. To eat this meal is an invitation out of the violence of the world and into the peace of God's kingdom. Will you come this morning?

Thursday, October 20, 2005


"To love God with the whole heart is the cause of every other good."

(Cyril of Alexandria)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Beyond Morality: The Five Notes of the Gospel

Milbank identifies "Gift, End of Sacrifice, Resurrection, Plenitude, and Confidence" as the five "notes" of the Gospel. Contrary to the marks of morality, he is intentionally drawing on the Augustinian notion of a harmonious and musical Trinitarian ontology. In the following comment, I will briefly examine each of these notes and then begin to connect them to the Matthew reading for this week.
  • Gift
    Milbank states, "In the beginning there was only gift: no demon or chaos to be defeated, but a divine creative act..." (228). Thus, Christianity is not reactive to some prior chaos or evil. Christianity does not require an enemy or a battle to elicit virtue. Instead, Christian faith participates in the Triune economy of superabundant love marked by doxological exchange between the Father and Son in the Spirit. To exist is to receive, to share, to give. This is deification, the doxological return of creation to God, the healing of the ruptured relationship, and the renewal of creation's participation in the Triune love. Milbank states,
    "I exist in receiving; because I receive I joyfully give, and one can add to Luther a more Catholic stress that one can only receive God who is charity, by sharing in the giving of this charity- faith is (against Luther) from the outset a habitus and from the outset the work of charity, our work only insofar as it is God's" (228).
    In postmodern circles, as well as in much modern theology, the question of the motives of the giver are often brought into question. Hence, Derrida's question, "Can a gift be given?" Indeed, Victorian theology asked a similar question and attempted to connect God's love with the Cross, that God's love originated on the Cross. Against this view, Milbank declares that Victorian efforts to see "God's love as taking its origin from the sacrifice on the cross, or else as only guaranteed by the cross" (228) are misguided. Milbank argues,
    "Under the dispensation of death indeed, we only see gift via sacrifice, but the genuine sacrifice, supremely that of the cross, is only recognized as such insofar as it is the sustaining of joyful, non-reactive giving, by a hastening of death as the only way of continuing to give despite the cancellation of gift by death" (228).
    Christ, who knows the love of the Father in the Spirit, does not cease to love when faced by death, but will instead continue to "go on loving by fearlessly embracing death" and is thus able to do good (229). It is in the participation in the Triune economy that death is revealed as "an absolute harm, a mere nihil, a nonsense" (229). Jesus embraces death fearlessly and ferociously not in order to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but because he has received the gift of the Father's love and now trusts the Father to give the gift (His own life). In short, Jesus trusts the Father to be a God of plentitude and not of scarcity.

  • Plenitude
    Milbank's conception of plenitude emanates from his belief in creation ex nihilo. God is a God of abundant love not scarcity. This is evident with regards to how Christianity views death. Milbank declares,
    "It is, of course, quite simply impossible to be a Christian and to suppose that death and suffering belong to God's original plan, or that the struggle of natural selection ... is how creation as creation rather than thwarted creation genuinely comes about... To believe in plenitude is to believe in the already commenced and yet-to-come restoration of Creation as Creation" (229).
    Creation has a telos, the return to life in the Creator and full restoration as creation. This journey is made possible by God's love which is both plenitudinous and inexhaustible. In this economy of superabundant grace, Christ trusts the Father to be a God of the living and not of the dead, simply because he understands the Father's true nature. Moral action, then, is not the heroic overcoming of some adversary at the risk of one's life, but is instead life lived in doxological exchange and the reorienting of one's life towards participation in the life of the Triune God.

  • Resurrection
    God's plenitude is revealed most fully in Christ's resurrection. In swallowing up death by the death of the Son, the resurrection reveals that death, sin, and evil lack any being. They are nothing. The love of God flows so excessively that even death is overcome. The ramifications extend not just to the Christ but to his entire body, the Church. Thus Milbank states,
    "As resurrection cancels death, and appears to render murder non-serious, it restores no moral order but absolutely ruins the possibility of any moral order whatsoever. That is to say, any reactive moral order, which presupposes the the absoluteness of death. For the Christian, murder is wrong... because it repeats the Satanic founding act of instituting death, or the very possibility of irreplaceability, and absolute loss. But in the resurrected order there need be no law even against such Satanism, because it is so manifestly senseless, because the possibility occurs to no one, because here the only law is that of nature, that of life, but specifically human life which consciously partakes of the creativity of God" (229).
    On the cross, the wisdom of humanity is judged and found lacking. In the resurrection, God justifies Jesus as the Christ, and as his body, the church is to begin to be a resurrected order, whereby "the occasion for the exercise of death-presupposing virtue ... drops away, and only charity- gift and counter-gift - remain" (229).

  • End of Sacrifice
    Resurrection transforms sacrifice from the conception of the mark of sacrifice present in morality. For Milbank, morality requires the willingness of one to sacrifice herself as a mark of virtue. Again, this sacrifice to death makes moralistic accounts of virtue complicit with death. In the resurrected order, it becomes fully "moral" to "give ourselves sacrificially" because we
    "now have confidence that this does not cancel out our own existence. Christ goes to his death blindly, but yet in absolute trust of the father; we can give ourselves non-suicidally unto death, since we know that in this dying we also live" (229-230).
    Resurrection, according to Milbank, is not simply the negation of death but instead "reinstates a fully human and natural death, namely the offering of ourselves back to God" (230). Under the sacrificial systems of morality, the "parts are given up for the whole, passions for the intellect, and heroes for the city" (230). In the ending of sacrifice in the cross, Christian sacrifice is marked by "the person and the city together- [being]... absurdly given up, not for any higher gain, but for or as the receiving back of themselves as a gift from God which is same-yet-different" (230). Sacrifice is ended and transformed into the participation of both the self and city in the love of God. This leads to a completely different conception of Christian life that exceeds accounts of morality.

  • Confidence
    I will close with the last two paragraphs of the essay, as I think they summarize things beautifully and paint a very different conception of our Christian life together:

  • "The confident man, believing in plenitude, does not steal, and does not need to tell lies to protect himself. The confident man, trusting in God, is like the good husband who never needs to impress his wifewith an exceptional work nor needs a manual of instruction for marriage, but out of his confidence improvises exactly good and always non-identical good works all the time... The Christian good man is simply for Luther an artist in being, trusting the perfect maker of all things. Essentially his message is that of Augustine: without the virtue of worship there can be no other virtue, for worship gives everything back up to God, hangs onto nothing and so disallows any finite accumulation which will always engender conflict. Confident worship also knows that in offering it receives back, so the temporal world is not denied, but its temporality is restored as gift and thereby rendered eternal. Only the vision and hope of heaven makes us socially and politically just on earth- and how is it, one wonders, that we have ever come to think otherwise?

    So no, the Christian man is not a moral man, not a man of good conscience, who acts with what he knows of death, scarcity and duty to totalities. He has a bad conscience, but a good confidence: for he acts with what he does not know but has faith in. In absolute trust he gives up trying to be good, to sustain a right order of government in himself... Instead to be good as first receiving from the all-sufficiency of God, and acting excessively out of this excess" (231).

More to come later on the connections between this and the Gospel reading...

Thinking About This Blog

When I began this blog, I did so as kind of an intellectual exercise to be very intentional about my theological conversion to a strange mix of Radical Orthodoxy with a certain anabaptist flair (Hauerwasian/Yoderian account of Christian pacifism vs. Milbank's heavily qualified just war position). As a senior pastor, I realized that my theological work did not always come through in my preaching. Instead, I realized how much of Protestant preaching is formed by some variant of fundamentalism or biblical positivism (both of which are strongly related). What I was initially seeking was to begin to think about how preaching should be reconfigured given the theological insights of Radical Orthodoxy. For those of us who seek an escape from the church growth methodologies and incommensurability of comfortable left and right moralities (that essentially say the same thing), is there a way forward that preaching might again make the Word strange, the Word holy, and the Word catholic?

Over the past few weeks, I have been impressed by the number of people out there who are struggling to take theology seriously and look beyond the pitfalls and travails of modernity. On this blog, we have assembled a very diverse theological group (Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans) from across the United States and the world. This is truly an opportunity to practice the Triune practice of a peaceful harmony in the midst of great difference. I look forward to wrestling with theology and life together in our current context. I do want to take a moment to try to cast some vision for the blog (Please feel free to comment on this).

Focusing solely on preaching probably limits the scope of who can participate as not everyone signed on as a contributor preaches every week or at all. At the same time, I want to keep the focus on the connection between the Scriptures (as given by the Revised Common Lectionary) and theology of the RO persuasion (broadly expanded, I think, to include the theologians of the Ekklesia Project and La Nouvelle Theologie). So, what I propose is a theological conversation where we examine the lectionary readings, identify what is at stake theologically, and begin to examine the connections from our different theological perspectives. Towards the end of each week, I hope to offer my sermon for each respective Sunday, as well as focus us on the seasons of the Christian calendar.

I encourage everyone to visit the blogs of our contributors as there are many interesting things going on. I appreciate all of your hard-work and devotion to the Church.

Grace and Peace,

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, aka My Main Man

From The Episcopal News Service:

“Congress and the President must come together and focus on poverty that exists across the nation, and not exacerbate poverty [by passing] a budget that further impoverishes one group of poor people in order to help those impoverished or further impoverished by the hurricanes,” said Griswold. “Nothing could be clearer in the Gospel than Jesus’ identification with the poor. ‘When I was hungry you gave me food. When I was naked you clothed me, sick you cared for me, truly I tell you, what you did for the least of these, you did [it] for me.’ And so for a nation to declare itself under God and neglect the poor in its midst is tantamount in my mind to blasphemy.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Can Morality Be Christian: The Five Marks of Morality

In The Word Made Strange, John Milbank crafts what I believe is my favorite RO essay. The title is "Can Morality Be Christian?" He responds by stating,
"Let me tell you the answer straightaway. It is no. Not 'no' there cannot be a specifically Christian morality. But no, morality cannot be Christian... Christian morality is a thing so strange, that it must be declared immoral or amoral according to all other human norms and codes of morality" (219).
This is a bold statement since so much of the language of Christian praxis is nothing more than the language of some moralism of the left or of the right. In the Church of the Nazarene, our doctrine of entire sanctification is quickly being replaced by the cheap grace of the church growth movement appended with the comfortable morality of the neocons. In other words, it is increasingly easier to be considered holy simply by being "right" on abortion and "right" on homosexuality. Many mainline denominations today are equally paralyzed by a leftist morality that deems righteousness along the same philosophical lines, though with different answers to the above issues. Alasdair MacIntyre describes these approaches to virtue as incommensurable, since only extended arguments without any connection to tradition, to narrative, or to standards of excellence. The end is a religious morality consisting solely of values (what "I" value and believe to be true). It is this type of morality that Milbank declares is antithetical to the Christian gospel. In the essay, he identifies the five marks of morality and the five notes of the Gospel. In this post, I will address his critique of morality in light of this week's reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Tomorrow, I will address his vision of the five notes of the Gospel. The five marks of morality are Reaction, Sacrifice, Complicity with Death, Scarcity, and Generality.

The First Mark: Reaction
For Milbank, morality fails to be Christian because it is reactive. Morality assumes that the world is agonistic and adopts an ontology of violence. As a result, morality can only be reactive. He states,
"Virtue... always secretly celebrates as its occasion a prior evil, liv[ing] out of what it opposes... Here, at the beginning of every virtue, lies a failure to turn the other cheek" (221).
Morality is thus onto-theological in that it assumes some being before the gift of God. Creation ex nihilo is replaced with the notion that order was imposed upon some primordial chaos. Virtue, then, is possible only if there is a war to fight or an enemy to overcome. Virtue comes solely in reacting to the events that threaten death.

The Second Mark: Sacrifice
As a solely reactive process, a person must sacrifice. Specifically, an individual's sacrifice begins simply by making any moral judgment. Immediately, an inner sacrifice takes place as the "cruel foregoing of something" (222). This is the offering up of an alternative position that one secretly desired to hold. At the same time, there is also an outer sacrifice. Virtue comes about in the resistance of some evil or in the fighting of some war. In resisting this external threat, there is the risk of one's life, and one must be prepared to sacrifice one's own life. As a result, Milbank concludes,
"In morality, there is no love for the other nor opening to the other, but always and everywhere a principle of self-government, whether of the soul or of the city. In order that the totality may be, and be the site of a principle, it must rule itself, divide itself from itself, sacrifice itself to itself. Thereby it repels the intruder predefined as evil" (223).
Morality presupposes a sacrificial economy that is the result of reactive ethics and is ultimately complicit with death, the third mark of morality.

The Third Mark: Complicity with Death
Milbank states,
"If Reaction requires Sacrifice, then both concern death: in fact a threat of death repelled by a willingness to die... Death for death to secure life against death: this is 'morality', this is 'ethics'.. So ethics must covertly celebrate death, for only our fragility elicits our virtue" (223).
Morality's presupposing of reaction and sacrifice require death for there to be any conception of the good. If there is no death, there is no threat adequate to compel one to be good. Death must be a potential outcome, or there will be no desire for one to be good. Thus, morality secretly celebrates death as the underlying premise of moral virtue. The mover of morality is not the Triune God and the end is not charity. Instead, the principle mover is death, and the end of life is nothin more than the avoidance of death by being good. To which Milbank states,
"Yet all these triumphs [overcoming death through sacrifice and reaction] are enabled by the continuation of death which is the only factual form that sin can take, its one mode of actuality, although it is always in reality the termination of the actual, since every isolatable being is already at an end, already is not, is 'known as dead.' And to hold death back, to perpetuate life for a while, is also to perpetuate a life which must in the end die all the more..." (224).
Thus, morality's complicity of death makes life "scarce", which is the fourth mark of morality.

The Fourth Mark: Scarcity
Milbank states,
"Because life is in short supply, because it might run out on us, sooner or later, we must invest, we must insure" (224-225).
Morality becomes a method for us to stave off death that we might maximize our enjoyment of life. Thus, in an economy of sacrifice and scarcity,
"Ethics is not written philosophy, it is banks, it is sexual jealousy, it is the sacrifice of self-realization for the sake of others, it is insurance companies, mortgages, and the stock exchange. For in fearing that there will not be world enough or time, we insist on our own identity, our truth, our space, denying that of others" (225).
The fear of not having enough is really nothing more than a lack of trust in the plentitude of God to provide for his creation. Milbank turns to Luther, who surmises that stealing comes as a result of "the fear there will not be enough for us" (225). Milbank further declares,
"Do not steal means, for the Gospel, positively 'be generous', and as Luther says, 'faith is the master workman and the motivating factor behind the good work of generosity' . Generosity or true not stealing acts out of the assumption of plentitude, our confidence in God's power" (225).
Morality, then, can offer again only a view of life as a scarce commodity. Thus, it very quickly shifts away from participation in the life of the Triune God, to the vain attempt to grab enough of God's grace and power to insure survival. Thus, rather than "pure" faith that emanates from a plentitude of charity, the moral person falls prey to the temptation to secure "enough" to guarantee survival.

The Fifth Mark: Generality
Generality is the Kantian requirement that any moral act should be one that is universal. In other words, if it is the moral thing to do, one is bound to perform this duty regardless of the cost. Generality becomes necessary to morality in order to sustain unity, albeit in an abstract form such as law. Milbank states,
"And it is precisely because of this abstract character of the law that, as Paul realized, the law is a letter that can never be fulfilled. Not in the sense that love can never be fulfilled, since this follows from the inherently excessive, self-exceeding character of love, but in a sense which follows from law's presumption that something is lacking, and that something will resist it. The abstractness of law ensures that we will never have sufficiently accorded to its demand which can always be more perfectly embodied" (227).
As with the other marks, there is a sense of attempting to enclose morality, to define laws so as to "secure a finite, spatial catalogue of virtue, an exhaustive list" (227). Morality is an attempt to insure against the idea of a bad infinity. Thus, generality, expressed in the form of moral laws, seeks to close the loop of the moral universe and to end the uncertainty brought about by faith. Trusting in God is much more difficult than by not adhering to a law that demands us to stop stealing, and then abstracts the definition of stealing to a much lower level than Luther, for instance, considered in a previous example.

The Five Marks of Morality and the Debate between Jesus and the Pharisees
After silencing the Saducees, the Pharisees come forward in an attempt to "put Jesus to the test." They send forward a lawyer who attempts to trap Jesus with a question, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jewish scholars identy 613 separate commands from the law of Moses. 613 laws to govern the faithfulness of daily living, and to trap Jesus into identifying which was the most important. Jesus, though, gives an interesting answer. He quotes the Shema, "Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, and mind. He then adds to it, "And love your neighbor as yourself." He adds that the entire Law and Prophets rest on these two commandments. Jesus refuses to reduce the faith passed on by the saints to be reduced to moralisms and morality. Instead, he reveals that the purpose of the law is love- love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. The Pharisees, who view themselves as the caretakers of the Law, have sundered their relationship with God, instead wielding the Law as a weapon against God, their neighbor, and ultiamtely even themselves. Once doxology ceases, the Law is easily used to draw lines, creating insiders and outsiders, the holy and the profane.

Once the Law is severed from love, it becomes just another form of morality. The question posed by the Pharisee's lawyer is indicative of what has happened. The Law has been reduced to the level of "values." If Jesus singles out one particular commandment as the greatest, that will leave room for much criticism as to why he chose that one and not this one. Ultimately, that debate would prove incommensurable, as it would revolve solely around what each person/group valued most at that given time. Indeed, the Pharisees obviously reconstruct a different image of God to support their reading of the Law.

There is much more I want to say about this, but I want to stop for now and wait until I work through Milbank's five notes of the Gospel, because I think it will be more complete at that point.

Grace and Peace,


Matthew 22:34-46 (The Message)
The Most Important Command

34When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault. 35One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: 36"Teacher, which command in God's Law is the most important?"
37Jesus said, ""Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.' 38This is the most important, the first on any list. 39But there is a second to set alongside it: "Love others as well as you love yourself.' 40These two commands are pegs; everything in God's Law and the Prophets hangs from them."

David's Son and Master 41As the Pharisees were regrouping, Jesus caught them off balance with his own test question: 42"What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said, "David's son."
43Jesus replied, "Well, if the Christ is David's son, how do you explain that David, under inspiration, named Christ his "Master'?

44God said to my Master,
"Sit here at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool."

45"Now if David calls him "Master,' how can he at the same time be his son?"
46That stumped them, literalists that they were. Unwilling to risk losing face again in one of these public verbal exchanges, they quit asking questions for good.

It looks as though though the religious leaders are finally going to achieve what they have so desperately wanted to accomplish- to trap Jesus with words and send him down the road packing.

They confront Jesus with yet another litmus test to see where Jesus stands. But being rhetorical master that he is, Jesus skillfully dodges the religious leaders and even manages to rhetort with amazing words of truth.

This story makes me think of the litmus tests that some of our religious leaders in the church like to have in place to judge who is in and who is out. The arguments and rhetoric that comes from the religious right and left is nothing more than devisive and destructive to God's plans for an expansive Kingdom of Love. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for healthy discussion and conversation about the issues that we struggle around, but at the end of the day we still all come to the same table and receive eucharist from The Host.

So where does this leave us as a community divided by theology, doctrine, hot button faith issues?

3God tested us thoroughly to make sure we were qualified to be trusted with this Message. 4Be assured that when we speak to you we're not after crowd approval--only God approval. Since we've been put through that battery of tests, you're guaranteed that both we and the Message are free of error, mixed motives, or hidden agendas. 5We never used words to butter you up. No one knows that better than you. And God knows we never used words as a smoke screen to take advantage of you.
6Even though we had some standing as Christ's apostles, we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. 7We weren't aloof with you. We took you just as you were. We were never patronizing, never condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. 8We loved you dearly. Not content to just pass on the Message, we wanted to give you our hearts. And we did. 1 Thessalonians 2: 3-8

Paul writes that the good news of God is free of error and hidden agendas (that includes our liberal/conservative agendas that we tend to read into scripture) Words of scripture are never to be used as a weapon or litmus test but as a spirit breathed living document that guides the people of God. And we live together in a community that cares for one another in the same way that a mother cares for her children. What a practice for the children of God to take on.


Monday, October 17, 2005

Preparing for Advent

Advent is coming soon, and I wanted us to begin to wrestle with what are the connections between Advent and RO. Here are a list of some issues I identified in reading the lectionary passages and considering the season of Advent:
  • The Second Coming of Christ
  • Eschatology
  • Incarnation
  • Forgiveness
There are many others that could potentially come up. I will close this post with some quotes to try to get our minds going.

"How can you cope with the end of a world and the beginning of another one? How can you put an earthquake into a test-tube, or the sea into a bottle? How can you live with the terrifying thought that the hurricane has become human, that fire has become flesh, that life itself came to life and walked in our midst? Christianity either means that or it means nothing. It is either the most devastating disclosure of the deepest reality in the world, or it's a sham, a nonsense, a bit of deceitful play-acting. Most of us, unable to cope with saying either of those things, condemn ourselves to live in the shallow world in between. We may not be content there, but we don't know how to escape" (N.T. Wright, For All God's Worth: True Worship & the Calling of the Church, 1).

"Christmas is a beauty that is the beginning of terror: the Burning Babe, who has come to cast fire upon the earth. Before His presence, the idols fall and shatter... The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross: otherwise we are alone again, incommunicando, our signals and symbols bounced back to us off the glassy walls of the universe... Our hunger is met, we are talked and touched into new and everlasting life, our desire is answered- but only insofar as we have lived in an Advent of the religious imagination, struggling to let God be God, casting our idols of silver and gold to the moles and bats, 'for fear of the Lord and for the glory of his majesty,' longing simply for our God to show himself as God in the 'total and presuppositionless love of his incarnate speech to us" (Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections, 2-8).

Lectionary Readings for This Week

Sorry for the delay. My office floor was about to cave in, and we had to tear out the subfloor this morning...

Here are the lectionary readings for this week:

Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The Effects of Nihilism

"This leads me to define the logic of nihilism as a sundering of the something, rendering it nothing, and then having the nothing be after all as something" (Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, xiii).
"An important word for this book is provide... This word is employed in relation to nihilism so as to bring out the logic of the nothing as something. It performs this task because it can be made to suggest that nihilism 'provides' what it does not itself have- namely being... Discourses, such as Biology, appear now to be dealing with cadavers. This is the nothing as something" (xiv-xv).
"The subject begins to be negated or negates itself only as it mistakenly assumes itself substantially to suffice as its own end, whereas it is only as it participates in the ever-arriving gift of its doxological- which is to say, teleological- existence... For in positing itself, which apart from its gifted, participated existence ultimately is nothing, the will effectively performs a perverse desire for nothing as a positive object. In contrast, the ecstatic openness with which the doxological subject is ontologically configured rules out the idea that every reception is an a priori incursion, because the subject is always receiving itself as a gift, and indeed through confession being recapitulated truly as itself, from out of the future. Thus on Augustine's terms, nihilism can arise only when doxology fails, and all that is not doxology is nihilism" (Michael Hanby, Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, 115-116).
According to Milbank, nihilism is largely a negation, a deconstruction, a violence. Indeed, it is the refusal to receive oneself as gift; it is a refusal to participate in the charity of the Triune God. The result of this failure to participate is a negation of being. In other words, for much of Radical Orthodoxy, to fail to worship means to cease to be.

Conor Cunningham offers a nuanced approach to Milbank. Of course, nihilism deals with negation, but it is not solely deconstructive. Instead, Cunningham finds a logic of nihilism that is able to sunder the something (participation in the Triune God), render it as nothing (collapsing everything into the immanent plane, no transcendence), and then, after all, having the nothing to be something (a human making "outside" the co-operant work with the Holy Spirit). In essence, nihilism engages in creation ex nihilo, just as we believe the Triune God creates out of nothing. But, the nihilistic creation is not able to create out of plentitudinous love, but instead out of lack. Thus, nihilistic creation leads only to death and a morbid fascination with death. Thus, a culture/society/subject formed out of the nihilistic account of creation is not doxological but instead practices necrophilia. Thus, everything becomes an exercise in death: biology becomes the discourse of cadavers.

This plays out clearly in the Exodus passage this week. Prior to this week's reading, Moses ascends the mountain, and while he is gone, the people come to Aaron and demand that he give them a god "to go before us." Aaron takes their gold and crafts a golden calf that they begin to worship. Aaron's work represents the projection of the people seeking to be without YHWH (taking something and rendering it as nothing). As they worship this calf, they take nothing in a vain attempt to make it to be something (a transcendent god who will protect them and guide them). Immediately, the feast for the golden calf falls into debauchery. It then leads to death, first by Moses' hand, and then by the plague sent by God. This week's reading is Moses' attempt to restore relationship with God.

Moses seeks God to be present amongst them. He states, "Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?" (v. 15b). The Israelites have being only by the presence (and their faithful participation in that presence) of God. To not live in this presence, is to have their lives rendered as nothing. Moses, thus, beseeches God to turn away from his anger over the calf and to return to dwell amongt his children.

In the Gospel reading, the same dynamic is at work. Here, we immediately see that the community living in doxological praise of God has been set aside in order to deal with a "threat." Jesus has invaded the Temple and continues to pronounce judgment on the Temple practices and authorities. Now, within the Temple itself, an unimaginable alliance of Pharisees and Herodians attempt to trap Jesus. What previously might have been construed as a reasonable questioning of Jesus' authority to pronounce judgment is now revealed as just an attempt to destroy a challenger. Again, they have severed their relationship with YHWH, rendering it nothing, and instead seek to protect the Law and the Temple, as ends in themselves. They embody the very judgment that Jesus is pronouncing. As the Temple and Law become ends in and of themselves, they cease to be iconic. Instead, they become idols. The Pharisees and Herodians have invested heavily in these images and will defend them murderously. Hell hath no fury like an idol scorned!

What is at stake in this argument is the First Commandment. The Pharisees and Herodians have taken a god other than YHWH, a god constructed by their own hands and given the same name as the one true and living God. They attempt to trap Jesus by forcing him to take a stand on the taxation issue. For 25 long years, Rome has forced Israel to pay taxes for their occupation. The people chafed, and while most were bitter, there had been a number of revolts over the tax that led to crucifixions and other reprisals by the Romans. Consequently, the Pharisees and Herodians lay a carefully constructed trap, even baiting it with the sweet words of flattery, praising Jesus for his wisdom and objectivity. They ask whether or not Jews should pay the tax to Caesar. If Jesus says no, he will be deemed an agitator and removed by the Romans. If he says yes, the people will see him as a sell out to the Romans. Either way, the problem will take care of itself for the Pharisees and Herodians. Jesus, however, springs a trap of his own. In response to their question, he asks for a denarius. Out of their purses, they fetch a denarius, and he asks them, "Whose image and inscription is there on the coin?" They answer, "Caesar's." It is at this point that they realize they have been had. Jesus exposes the true idolaters. Those who believed themselves to be the Keepers of the Faith have brought the image of a pagan emperor, whose inscription titles him Son of God and High Priest, into the Temple of the Lord. In short order, they have revealed themselves not as faithful Israel, worshiping God through holy living and constant doxological praise, but as worshipers of nothing save pure power politics. They have rendered the something as nothing, and are now trying to reconstitute it as something. That the something is the one true and living God, and His gift of the Temple and the Law, heightens the degree of shame brought upon the Pharisees and Herodians. They withdraw, amazed by Jesus' teachings. He tells them to render unto God what is God's and unto Caesar what is Caesar's. In the logic of the Scriptures, everything belongs to God. Thus, he gives the radical answer they were hoping he would give, but in doing so, unveils them as the parody they have become, albeit a tragic parody. They have traded their birthright for a mess of pottage, and life for death.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Virtual Relationships

In response to my sermon for last week, et al asked a question regarding what I meant when I was critical of "virtual" relationships. Was I speaking of the blogosphere specifically? Or, was I speaking of the ways in which our entire culture is formed around "virtual" relationships? I hadn't really thought that deeply about it. Indeed, it was probably me just engaging in a little sermon rhetoric (That is what is great about preaching, what others hear and glean that you didn't really even think about). Again, I think I would start by referring to Ellul, and his noticing how technology, rather than just making our life easier begins to dominate our lives. In his day, it was the factory and the assembly line. In our day, it is a myriad of communication devices that places a virtual world at our fingertips. It opens up wonderful conversations across great distances that otherwise could not take place. At the same time, it allows us to potentially live in an almost disembodied, at least distended, state. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam discusses how he is more likely to talk to a friend halfway around the world than he is to go talk meaningfully with his next door neighbor.

I think one of the problems is the difference between technology and practices. A practice is bound up in a narrative and a tradition and contains standards of excellence (See Alasdair MacIntyre for the full definition). Technologies, on the other hand, are simply techniques that allow one to gain control over nature. In our current time, technology far outweighs any semblance of virtue or practice. Thus, these "technologies" begin to dominate our lives (Dan Bell's book Liberation Theology after the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering contains an excellent account of how these technologies discipline us to make us docile subjects re: Foucault). They even invade areas we would not expect: men whose lives are dominated by pornography, women's magazines filled with 10 new sexual techniques to "make him never want to leave you," children's guides to prepare them for a high score on the SAT, eating habits to make you develop abs of steel... The list is almost endless. In a culture that has lost any semblance of a telos (except for maybe progress), there is almost no end to the brokenness that will ensue.

I think there are wonderful aspects of the internet and blogs that we are taking advantage of now. At the same time, I believe so strongly in Triune theology and high ecclesiology centered on Eucharistic practice that I cannot help but see problems that lie at the core of moving away from embodied relationships within local contexts. They are messy, painful, often disappointing, and yet also the instance for the revelation of God's power and love. At the same time, it could very well be that it is the virtual world of internet technology and real-time communications that will break the stranglehold of power held by the nation-state currently. It could be that the virtual world will bring about some sort of catholicity, if not at least radically localizing every global context.

All that stated, I think I will just quote Graham Ward to begin our reflection on the nature of virtual relationships. As we are all part of a generation that thrives on internet technology, I thought this quote would help us begin to consider the connection between the virtual world and the embodied world. This excerpt is taken from The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader.

"Surfing the net is the ultimate postmodern experience. Facing your SGVA [It was written in 1997] display- low radiation/anti-static- poised over the multimedia controls, you launch into new forms of spatiality created by flows of electronic information. In Disneyland colours you download texts, pictures, video clips, voices from anywhere in the world, regardless of time zones. Electric libraries in Sao Paolo, chat-lines in Florida, info sites in Sydney, data banks in Vancouver, on-line shopping in Paris, audiovisual tours with 3D graphics of the Vatican, the White House, the Kremlin, the Taj Mahal- all are available at your fingertips, twenty four hours a day. Time and space as conceived by empiricists collapse into omnipresence and multilocality. And the ride is continuous, for the electronic tide maintains you on the crest of impending satisfaction, far above any ocean floor, fast forwarding toward endless pleasures yet to be located and book-marked. Time disappears, boredom is deflated. The drug of the ever new, instant access to a vast sea of endless desire which circulates globally; browsing through hours without commitment on any theme imaginable; dwelling voyeuristically in one location until the pull of other possibilities reasserts the essentially nomadic lifestyle of the net-surfer: these are the characteristic experiences of living in cyberspace. Cyberspace is an undefined spatiality, like the contours of a perfume, and you are an adventurer, a navigator in uncharted waters, discovering the hero inside yourself. You act anonymously, simply as the unnamed, unidentifiable viewpoint of so many interactive network games, and where an identity is needed, you can construct one. Reality is soft, malleable, permeable, and available only through the constant discharge of electronic energy signaling across the cosmos. Discourse is energized, sexualized... In this land of fantasy and ceaseless journeying, the experience of tasting, sampling, and passing on, truth, knowledge, and facts are all only dots of light on a screen, evanescent, consumable. This is the ultimate in the secularization of the divine, for here is a God who sees and knows all things, existing in pure activity and realized presence, in perpetuity. Divinization as the dissolution of subjectivity within the immanent, amniotic satisfaction, is the final goal and object of postmodernity. Cyberspace is the realization of a metaphor used repeatedly by Derrida, Irigaray, and Kristeva- the Khora, the plenitudinous womb, dark, motile, and unformed, from which all things issue" (xv-xvi).