Archive for November, 2009


Tis the season…

Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is soon upon us.  Once the semester ends, I intend to post some more substantial work with scripture.  At the moment, however, I’m thinking about last year’s Black Friday tragedy in which people were injured and even killed in what are called “door rush” sales.

This is the time of year when many, many people make large and small donations to various charitable causes and spend significant amounts of money on gifts, to make others happy.  And yet, and yet…

1 Corinthians 13:3  3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Yes, yes I used the AV on purpose, for its little gloss on the poor.  Nevertheless, the thought remains with me that charity (love, actually) is not really a function of money, but of the impulses and their expressions that lie behind our interaction with each other.  Paul seems to have thought that it is quite possible to love from within the depths of poverty, and equally possible to be unloving while engaged in charitable activities.

And that’s a sobering thought because it’s far harder to guard one’s thoughts and motives than it is reach for a dollar bill when you hear that little bell tingling…


Speaking of Justice

And speaking of justice, here’s something to think about…

One the more interesting little vignettes in the Abraham narratives is his dialogue with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God has come down to see if the information that has reached him concerning the depravity of the two cities is correct.  When  Abraham overhears his potential decision, he is moved to speak out for justice (Gen 18:23-29):

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?  Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it?   Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.  Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?”

And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.”

Again [Abraham] spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.”

[God] answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.”

Now this little dialogue is usually characterized as “haggling” but I wonder about that description. The point of the conversation is clear enough: God will spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous.  But if this is really to be called “haggling,” then you might expect something more along the lines of:

Abraham: Will you destroy the city if there are fifty righteous people?

God: Fifty?  You must be kidding me!  I cannot consider allowing Sodom and Gomorrah to go on unless you can find at least one hundred righteous men.

Abraham: One hundred is ridiculous, why no city on earth has had one hundred righteous men since you raptured the City of Enoch.  You’ll make a better name for yourself if you spare them after finding sixty righteous men.

God: Sixty will never work.  You are obviously some kind of a bleeding-heart hippie rather than my #1 candidate for Father of the Righteous.  I must find at least eighty righteous men or else my reputation as the God of Vengeance is toast!

So you know, God and Abraham don’t really seem to be haggling, or at least they’re not doing it the way we [I] understand the activity.   They’re converging toward a point at which they both agree that God is just, but  what’s in Genesis 18 doesn’t really look much like haggling.  Hm.  It makes me wonder what cultural form, precisely, this little dialogue in Genesis 18 is modeled after.


Creation groans

So writes Paul in Rom 8:19-22

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;  for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.

The imagery is, I think, very powerful.  Whatever the mechanisms to accomplish this might be, Paul thought that we humans are bound to our larger environment, and that this environment must wait for us in order to come into its own.  It is impossible to think of our relationship to the rest of the world in anything other than terms of some level of human responsibility.

In that light, I watch the recent controversy generated by the release of emails and Fortran code from East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit with interest.  For one thing, they validate my own sense that the reports of climate change  are based on more than what can be attributed to the data we have, or the certainty that we might reasonably have about our data.  But there is another aspect, which we might call theological, that also deserves some thought.

Like many of my colleagues, I teach a divinely ordained obligation to care for the earth at points where this naturally comes up in the course.  In LDS terms, I teach stewardship.  Unlike many of my colleagues, however, I have declined to link this theology to any specific scientific theory or political initiative.  In addition to the doubts I mentioned above, I also think it unwise to link what I consider an enduring aspect of our larger relationship with God and the rest of creation to something as transitory as science or politics.  My sense is that theology, science, and politics work best on different time scales, but I need to think about that before I write more.

Beyond the challenges presented by linking theology and science, I also want to point out one other issue that pertains.  Sometimes those with the best of intentions attempt to motivate behavior that pleases God by dwelling on the consequences of God’s displeasure.  This is a form of negative motivation that will prevail only as long as the object of the manipulation is more frightened of God than of the other things that fill our lives.

Likewise, a pedagogy for wise environmental stewardship that is based on fear generated by what might happen if we don’t do something is inherently unstable and weak.  The better course, I think, is to teach the love of creation as a response to God’s love of us.   As long as the love of God endures, then we should find ourselves interested, anxiously engaged even, in caring for the world in which we live.  How best to do so should be a matter of the widest and most open debate, so let’s hope that events will now move the discussion into more fruitful paths than it has heretofore taken.


Gates and Grace

Long week and longer weekend, but I’m home from the latest Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) meeting.  New Orleans is an interesting place.  Although I had a great many other things to do, I did make it a point to walk the three blocks from my hotel to Bourbon Street.  Hm.  Since this is a family-friendly site, I shall desist from saying more.

Anyway, I always learn a great many things at the SBL meeting but most of them are useless to normal people, or even to other-than-normal people who still have to function.  But one of the things I did run into that struck me with a strong sense of its power is a note about the gates of the New Jerusalem:

And the [New Jerusalem] has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day– and there will be no night there.

Its gates will never be shut!  At one point in my life I thought a lot about justice.  People ought to get what they deserve, you know.  But now I’m not so sure, because I’m quite sure that I don’t want what I, in most cases, deserve.  These days, I look forward to each new revelation of God’s superabundant grace.



One of the threads of Christian thought I like to pursue in my own research is the matter of what early Christians thought Jesus was doing once he finished his mortal ministry with his disciples.  Within the NT, this point is rather fluid.  In Mark, the disciples flee from Gethsemane, while in John’s Gospel Jesus is with some disciples until his death.  In any case, there comes a time at which Jesus is separated from his original companions.  At this point, those who reflected on Jesus’ continuing activities begin to take a variety of paths.

One of the paths I tend to return to often in my private contemplation is this passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (10:11-13):

Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering frequently those same sacrifices that can never take away sins.  But this one offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God;  now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.

In the final phrase, “now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool,” I find a sense of anticipation.   To me, it’s pleasant to think that Jesus is waiting, just as we are, so that he can return and finish out what he began so long ago.


Strange Relations

I am always reminded at this point in the semester of the words of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce on the occasion of a debate among members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science over Charles Darwin’s thoughts on evolution.  Wilberforce summarized his reaction to Darwin’s thoughts by noting that the conclusion implied by Darwin, namely that “mosses, grasses, turnips, oaks, worms, and flies, mites and elephants, infusoria and whales, tadpoles of today and venerable saurians, truffles and men, are all equally the the descendants of the same aboriginal common ancestor” was certainly surprising, but one that must be admitted if the evidence so indicated.

Now Wilberforce didn’t find the evidence for evolution persuasive and he attacked it on precisely those grounds, noting the absence of fossil records as well as the lack of any evidence of new species.  At the end of the debate, he sincerely believed that his arguments had carried the day.  What always catches my attention, however, is how Wilberforce handled the relationship between the Bible and evolution.  He declined to critique Darwin’s inference of “our unsuspected cousinship with mushrooms” on biblical grounds because “it was most unwise to try judge the truth of scientific theories with reference to revelation.”   Wilberforce was certainly right about the difficulties involved in hasty comparisons of biblical stories with modern science, but it is his use of the expression “unsuspected cousinship with mushrooms” that just makes me laugh every time I read it.


Go, Be Dead!

One of the lesser known treasures of early Christian thought is the Apophathegmata Patrum, or Sayings of the Fathers (hereafter, AP).   The Fathers in question are the early Egyptian monks (300-500 CE or so), who are sometimes called the Desert Fathers.  Entries in the AP are short and pointed.  This felicitous combination of brevity and perspicuity makes them memorable.  In fact, readers usually remember the stories long after they’ve forgotten the name of the monks involved!

These little gems usually start out very simply, by recounting what one monk said to another.   Among them are a group characterized by discourse between a younger and an older monk.  The younger searches out the old and asks for “a word,” by which he means some sort of advice on salvation.  The response of the older will show a remarkable depth of insight into human nature and how to overcome the frailties that keep us from approaching God.  Thus we learn that one day a brother came to Abba Macarius and said “Tell me a word: how can I be saved?”

Abba Macarius told him to go to the local cemetery and speak rudely to the dead.  The young monk was to curse them and throw stones at them!  When he returned to Abba Macarius the older man enquired about how the monk had been received by those he reviled.  The monk noted that there had been no response.

Then Abba Macarius suggested that he visit the cemetery a second time, and that this time he honor the dead, including accolades naming those interred there as apostles, saints, and the righteous. When the bewildered monk returned to Abba Macarius, the older monk enquired again about the response of the dead, and was once again assured that there had been no response.

The lesson that Abba Macarius drew for his supplicant was this: “You have seen how you cursed them and they did not say anything to you, and how you glorified them and they did not respond at all.  It should be the same with you, too:  if you wish to be saved, go, be dead, having no regard for people’s contempt or their honors, like the dead, and you can be saved.

Mormon Archipelago

November 2009
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