cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
As part of his "Questions That Haunt" series, Tony Jones has taken on the question of theodicy and come to a startling conclusion (emphasis his):
I know this: No one — not the Jews, not the Romans — was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. God was was ultimately responsible. That blood is ultimately on God’s hands. God could have stopped it; God didn’t. And so we’re all left to wonder about God’s responsibility for that act of evil, and for all acts of evil.
First off, I find Tony's disavowal of human responsibility for the crucifixion perplexing. It doesn't follow obviously from anything else he says (as far as I can tell) and, at least for me, seems to me to undermine the power of the Incarnation, the entire point of which was for God's Begotten One to enter into our human suffering and become vulnerable to human evil. Even if we were to agree that God were ultimately responsible, it's not at all clear to me how that absolves Judas of Jesus' betrayal or Pilate of Jesus' condemnation.

The question of God's responsibility, however, is much more interesting and challenging. Here's some more of Tony's logic:
God is ultimately liable for the evil in the world. On my theory, God could reclaim omnipotence at any moment, step in, and stop evils and horrors. The fact that God doesn’t, implicates God.

Does this make God less than perfectly benevolent? Maybe. Maybe God also abdicated “benevolence” at creation, or at least perfect benevolence. Or maybe God’s all-in-allness means that our conception of “goodness” and “benevolence” is swallowed up in God’s fullness.
I think much of this is at least partly right. Certainly it is probably a mistake to think of God's omnibenevolence as just like human benevolence, only better. But I think a lot is also caught up in the word "could." Could God step in and stop evils and horrors? At first glance, it seems like to deny this is to deny God's omnipotence; of course, God could, because God can do anything and, being the highest authority, answers to no authority higher than Godself.

But God is answerable to Godself, to the perfect goodness of God's own nature which requires God to respect the dignity and free will of God's creatures created in God's own image. This is no more to speak of a limitation on the part of God than it would be to say that God "cannot" create a stone so heavy that God "cannot" lift it. In both cases, the true limitation resides in the ability of our language to describe that which lies past its limits. Instead, to speak of God's "inability" to act contrary to God's nature is actually to speak of the very perfection of divine freedom; there is no division in God's will and thus no force which could possibly coerce God into acting against Godself.

Of course, without getting needlessly metaphysical, the above does assume there is some sort of enduring character to God's goodness, that God cannot and would not simply decide today that respecting human dignity and free will is a good thing and decide tomorrow that it is bad. This, then, is against what Roger Olson calls "nominalistic voluntarism," the claim that "“Whatever God does is automatically good and right just because God does it":
[The nominalistic voluntarist believes that] God does not have an eternal nature of character; he [sic] is pure power and will. God is whatever God decides to be. The result is that the “good” is whatever God commands and God does not command anything because it is good. It is good only because God commands it.

[. . .]

This makes God truly monstrous because God, then, has no virtuous character. “Good” becomes whatever God decides and does and, ultimately, becomes meaningless because it has no essential connection with anything we know as “the good.”
Drawing then on the scriptural truth that "Ever since the creation of the world, the eternal power and divine nature of God, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made" (Romans 1:20), I affirm that the enduring nature of moral goodness is discernible, if imperfectly, by human beings through the dialectic of human reason and history, as I note in my blog post on Liberalism and Moral Absolutes and perhaps most fully in my essay History and Christ. While our understanding of what is good and evil is always evolving and improving through history as it is led by the Spirit, good and evil themselves do not change, and certainly not at the whims of a capricious deity. So when the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia asserts
As to whom we are to obey, there can be no doubt that first we are bound to offer an unreserved service to Almighty God in all His [sic] commands. No real difficulty against this truth can be gathered from putting in juxtaposition the unchangeableness of the natural law and an order, such as that given to Abraham to slay his son Isaac. The conclusive answer is that the absolute sovereignty of God over life and death made it right in that particular instance to undertake the killing of an innocent human being at His [sic] direction.
I simply cannot go there with it. If God had allowed Abraham to kill Isaac at God's direction, God would have revealed Godself to be a moral monster unworthy both of worship and of obdeience. Following a line of throught I encountered (if I remember correctly) in Elie Wiesel's Messengers of God, I tend to assume that Abraham knew this too. By going ahead and carrying out God's outrageous command, Abraham was calling God's bluff, so to speak--putting the Lord God Almighty to the test.

Does this understanding of the relationship between God and goodness require us to posit some independent existence for goodness in some Platonic heaven in order for God to perfectly embody it? Of course not, and I plan soon to write a post on Wittgenstein's metaethical mysticism to gesture towards how we can talk practically about enduring good and evil without getting needlessly caught up in metaphysics.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City during the Celebration of Christmas Lessons and Carols on Jan. 1, 2012 C.E.

Genesis 3:1-15
Isaiah 40:1-11
Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

So here we are, the Eight Day of our voyage through the (relatively short) season of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Name. “When the eight day arrived for the child’s circumcision, [the child] was named Jesus.” This, the first shedding of Jesus’ blood, stands of course as a prefiguring of the Cross. It also stands as a powerful testimony to the truth of the Incarnation, that God became fully human, suffering out of love all the pains and frailties that we suffer out of sin.

We know that we are subject to injury, to pain, to illness, to temptation, and ultimately to death because of sin, because of our own turning away from God’s Love. The account of the Fall found in the Book of Genesis expresses this important truth in figurative terms. Yet Jesus was without the stain of that sin, and still Jesus’ blood was able to be shed, first at the circumcision and ultimately at the crucifixion.

Just as “in the free, overflowing rapture of [God’s] love, God makes a creation that is other than [God]self” (Jürgen Moltmann) in the Genesis accounts, in the Incarnation our loving God empties Godself, taking the form of a slave.

Think of the sacrifice! The omnipresent Christ becoming limited to a single human body in a single place; the omniscient Christ needing to learn and grow as human children do; the omnipotent Christ made weak and helpless. And then, on the eighth day, well, you know.

Fiction writers from Anne Rice in Out of Egypt to Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ have written novels trying to imagine what that sort of experience for the young Christ would have been like as Christ “grew in size and strength” (Invlusive Bible) and “increased in wisdom and in years” (NRSV), as two different translations of Luke 2:40 put it. There is no definitive answer to that question, of course, but we should not be surprised that so many authors’ pens have been inspired by the powerfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, confronting and conquering the worst of our human natures-- fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and perhaps, as in The Last Temptation, even lust--out of love rather than out of sin.

It’s true that here in the western Church we are more likely to talk about Jesus having two natures, one human and one divine, united in one person--what’s called the Definition of Chalcedon--while our siblings-in-Christ in Eastern Orthodoxy are more likely to speak of the humanity and divinity united in a single nature. But the underlying core doctrine--that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine--represents a central orthodoxy for the entire Church catholic in all her branches: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant alike.

But . . . so what? Hopefully I am my own harshest critic, but I can just imagine a hypothetical parishioner sitting in their pew, going, “Well, it was fun, reading lessons and and singing Christmas carols, but then we had to let the theology geek get up and talk.” Well, that hopefully fictional parishioner would be in good company: no less a personage than the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther himself once wrote: “What is it to me that Christ had two natures?” He did not, of course, mean that the doctrine was altogether unimportant, but his comments represent a tendency we sometime see in some parts of Christianity to view the Incarnation as a mere prerequisite to the Cross, something God had to do in order to accomplish the plan of salvation just as it might be necessary for a high school student to take Algebra I before she can take Algebra II. Roger Olson speaks of it as a “rescue mission”: “its only purpose being to get God the Son onto the cross to change God’s attitude toward us from wrath to love. This,” Olson says, “does not take the truth of the incarnation seriously enough.”

Richard Rohr writes of the Incarnation as “God [. . .] saying yes to humanity in the enfleshment of [God’s] Son in our midst. [. . . A]ll questions of inherent dignity, worthiness, and belovedness were resolved once and forever—and for everything that was human, material, physical, and in the whole of creation.” Rohr reminds us that for St. Francis, St. Clare, and the community they led at Asissi, “incarnation was already redemption.”

Earlier I mentioned the Definition of Chalcedon, the formula we in the western Church use to grasp as best as we are able the holy mystery which is Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity. The full text of the definition as composed at the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 of the Common Era can be found on page 864 of your Prayer Book, albeit in incredibly small type, but part of that definition--and I’m tweaking the translation a bit here--states that Jesus is “truly God and truly human, of a rational soul and body, of one being with the One whom Jesus called 'Abba' according to the divinity of Christ, and of one being with us according to Christ’s humanity.”

Let’s say that again: by virtue of Jesus’ humanity, we are one in being with Christ. We share Christ’s essence, Christ’s substance, Christ’s being. Talk about a weighty message!

So when Mary and Joseph bring their infant child to be presented at the temple, in a sense it is all of humanity which is being presented before God. When that infant’s blood is shed according to the covenant made with Sarah and Abraham, all of humanity is bound in a New Covenant. And when that child is given the name Jesus--meaning “the LORD brings salvation”--that becomes our name, our promise, our truth.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
As preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City, at their Morning Prayer service on the 8th of August, 2010. . . .

Proper 14 (Sunday Closest to August 10), Year C

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Many of my friends, including all of my housemates, are members of a nearby congregation operating under the Brethren in Christ, so most Sunday evenings I find myself worshipping with them at their weekly Public Meeting. Their style of worship there is fairly different than ours here; sometimes it seems that they think it is more important for sacred music to be loud than pretty. It’s really not at all my style of worship at all, really, and at times I find myself more alienated than uplifted.

Back during Lent, I was at the public meeting, and I’m surrounded by these energetic figures, fellow twenty-somethings who are just exploding with their love for Christ, and I’m left completely cold. And then I was blessed to look over to my right and I see a married couple I know, about my age, and on the husband’s lap is their then-eight-month-old daughter, gleefully smiling and clapping.

Holy Scripture talks about the hardening and softening of hearts. I think that’s the best way of describing what happened: the Spirit softened my heart. Seeing that baby girl take such innocent joy in worshipping the Lord helped me recenter my focus away from my own own nitpicks about the theology of the lyrics or the aesthetics of the melody, and back towards God.

When I got home, I got on my computer and posted a status update to my Facebook: “Cole Banning has been inspired by the faith of a child.”

It got me thinking about what that means, the faith of a child. The phrase is of course biblical: Jesus tells us in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that it is a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But what is it, exactly?

Often it seems we use it to mean a totally uncritical acceptance, belief without doubt, so-called “blind faith.” But that’s not what happened in the case of Baby Lydia. Her faith was far from blind. Instead, it was a response to what she saw and heard in front of her. Even as a baby, even prior to her acquisition of language, she was able to recognize the goodness of God’s creation and respond by giving praise to glory to God in the simple ways available to her, by participating in our worship, in what our Psalm today calls “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

I wonder sometimes where that notion of a child’s faith being blind or uncritical comes from. I’m not a parent, but one thing I know about children is that they’re constantly questioning. It’s an iconic image: the young child, incessantly asking “why?” Why this? Why that? And when given an answer, responding to that answer with the question “why?” and if one is willing to answer that too, once again meeting the answer with “why?” unto infinite regress. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” This is not an uncritical faith but rather a faith which seeks to learn, to grow, to challenge what it is told.

In our epistle reading, the author of Hebrews talks about the great faith of Abraham and Sarah and their family. I think that Abraham had the faith of a child. When we think about Abraham, we tend to think about his obedience, obedience which was important and a right and goodful thing. But I think we can appreciate the passage from Hebrews best if we remember that Abraham’s faith was larger than just obedience, a relationship with God that consisted of more than just Abraham following commands.

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, there is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which the Torah tells us God destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone. The Torah also tells us that Abraham argued with God over the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah: he negotiated, bargained. “Will you save the cities if there are 50 righteous people to be found?” “Will you save the cities if there 45?” “What abouty forty?” Talk about the faith of a child! I’m reminded of a child at a cookie jar: “Can I have a cookie, Mommy? Can I have two cookies? Three? Three and a half?”

Abraham, while always remaining obedient to the will of God, was at the same time willing to challenge God, to question God, in his attempt to understand God’s will.

Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson whom Isaiah also mentions, wrestled with the angel of the LORD at Penuel. When God revealed Godself to Moses, the descendent of Abraham and Sarah and the great leader of Israel who only saw the promised kingdom from afar, Moses too argued. He said, “I don’t think I can do this, God.”

And God said, “Okay, I’ll send your sister and brother with you to help you.” That’s dialogue: a process which consists of both give and take for both persons involved.

Moses constantly negotiated with God on behalf of the people of Israel. Indeed, we think of Sinai as this place where God’s will was committed to human beings, but it’s instructive to remember that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Sinai before he brought down the Decalogue: they had a lot to talk about up there.

Isaiah writes: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.” The underlying metaphor in the Hebrew is that of a law court: Israel is standing trial for its sins. But it presents us with a call to enter into dialogue with God. The Inclusive Bible translates the line as “Let’s look at the choices before you,” while it is rendered in the New American Bible as “let us set things right”: this dialogic encounter with God opens an opportunity for a process of self-discovery that allows us to set order to the way in which we live our lives.

This then is, I think, the picture of authentic Biblical faith which Scripture provides us: a relationship with God which is primarily experiential, rooted in our encounter with the divine: in prayer, in service, and of course in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood -- back next week!

Thomas Merton reminds us that “faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.”

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff makes a similar point when he writes that “[f]aith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from the outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others.

“Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling -- the heart, the intellect, and the will.” “Close quote.”

I think this type of response, described by Boff, is the type of response which Jesus describes in our Gospel reading today, being “dressed for action” and having our “lamps lit,” making our treasure in heaven by our works of mercy and charity, through our voluntary poverty. So too in Isaiah when God tells Israel, and us, to cease evil and learn to do good; to seek justice and rescue the oppressed; to defend the orphan and plead for the widow.

This Wednesday is the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. Now, Clare is my favorite capital-S Saint because she’s the patron saint of television, which makes her in an indirect sort of way the patron saint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Clare, who ran away from her aristocratic family to join Saint Francis in his example of God-devoted poverty, also models for us the Gospel call we’ve heard read today.

But let’s be frank: the type of response we hear called for in today’s readings, that we see in the life of Clare, is not one that can come out of obedience alone, a response only to the mere commands of a perceived spiritual authority. All the threats in the world will do no more than compel us to do -- reluctantly -- the very least of what is called of us.

And that’s not good enough. Isaiah tells how the Israelites’ offering of sacrifices and their keeping of festivals brought no delight in God, for the people had turned away from God’s will in spirit.

The radical commitment we’ve heard described is only possible through being transformed by the Spirt so that we may abide in the love of Christ Jesus. This transformation is the legacy of our baptism, but it is not a free ride. Neither is it some massive mystical revelatory encounter where Jesus appears and sets all our doubts to rest. God knows I wouldn’t mind one of those, but it’s not necessary.

No, instead it takes active participation, both by us and by God, in an authentic encounter grounded in the activities of our everyday lives: coming to church on Sunday, listening to Father and meditating on his words--without necessarily always having to agree with them; praying and reading Scripture throughout the week; performing service for all our sisters and brothers and siblings here on planet Earth through our works of mercy and justice-seeking social action; engaging in conversation and discussion with other members of the Body of Christ--a process which should begin at coffee hour but not end there.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We must work to develop our faith lives, to question why we believe what we say we believe and why we do what we do. We cannot be afraid of the difficult questions, or be ashamed of those doubts which are a natural element of a mature faith.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We are called to challenge too-simple truths, to reject fallacious authority, to argue with our God. God does not need or want yes-men and yes-women and yes-persons: God is God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God wants and needs a family of sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ--a communion of saints.

My hope and prayer for us, therefore, is that we may be inspired by the incredible faith of those who have gone before us that we may be empowered to follow the examples of the matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, and saints: that of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, of Clare and Francis, and -- perhaps most of all -- of that annoying little child, incessantly asking . . . “Why?”

Amen.

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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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