Posted by: dacalu | 5 March 2014

Ash Wednesday

We have no right to be lonely / or sad or afraid.

We are but dust / and to dust we shall return.

For wind blows through the ashes / and they dance.

We are stirred up / by the very breath of God.

And that breath makes us one in spirit / one in truth.

That breath sticks us together / like oil / consecrating us for something holy.

That breath makes us / more than we are.

We have no right to be but dust.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 March 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Justice (part III)

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In the last two posts, I began to explore the meaning of justice to see whether it could stand alongside love as a core ethical principle, or whether justice was simply an application of love.

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Social Virtues

I want to look more closely at justice as a social virtue, something that applies when we are dealing with many people at the same time. In my last post, I introduced this idea that justice included some social virtues – principles that must bow to love in one-on-one interactions, but allowed us to think about our obligations to a large number of people all at once. Liberty is one of those social virtues. It is not worth granting or exercising for its own sake, but it is important in fostering communication. Thus it will be important for societies and governments to grant liberty to all, so that they might know and love one another.  In this post, I explore a few more social virtues.

 

Equality

I have never met two people with the same needs and I have never met two people with the same abilities. Thus, when thinking about any two relationships, I never have identical obligations or identical expectations. In matters of personal relationships it will be terribly important to recognize that no level of balancing will make two partners equals. The only thing we can ask is that they be invested in serving one another to the best of their ability. Honesty and curiosity force me to recognize that equality is practically useless on a one-on-one basis. Nor do I see anything in the Bible which commends equality. It appears to be an import of modern Western society into Christianity.

Having said that, I think equality can be a useful tool in assessing relationships of all kinds. When dealing with large groups, equality can be a measuring stick. How do I know if I’m paying full attention to all of my students in the classroom? I can ask whether one gets more attention than another. If one student gets more or less attention, more or less care, it tells me something interesting is going on and I can ask myself why.  How do I know whether a couple is truly invested in a marriage they are proposing? I can ask whether attention and energy are flowing one way or another. If the current is strong in one direction, it tells me something interesting and I can ask why. Equality is not a virtue, but inequality is always a warning sign. We must be aware of what it tells us.

 

Responsibility, Punishment and Reward

Responsibility is another popular American virtue that finds little Biblical support. Christians have been quite clear through the centuries that we are to blame both good fortune and bad fortune on God. We should never consider individuals fully blameworthy when something goes wrong. We can never give them all the credit when something goes right.

The rejection of full responsibility in Christianity serves several purposes. First, it emphasizes the power of God working in the world. Second, it reminds us the communal nature of life and the choices we make. Third, it leaves the door open for reconciliation at all times. “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Few things are as distressing to me as the prevalence of accountability language and theology in modern Christianity. We are not called to blame one another for failures (Luke 6:42; John 8:1-11), nor are we ever called upon to reward one another (or take credit) for success (John 4:37-38, I Corinthians 3:3-9). Rather we are to accept all good things as gifts of God (Matthew 20:1-16). The idea of worthy and unworthy should be completely wiped away by the entirety of Matthew 5-7 (esp. 5:45) and Romans (esp. 3:21-30). This does not deny our call, indeed our obligation to respond to the free gift by giving freely (as Jesus continues in Matthew 7:13-27 and Paul in Romans 6).

Even if personal responsibility encourages you to take up service I cannot commend it. Enforced obedience is not faith and service for the sake of reciprocity is not love. It is only worship of balance (Luke 6:27-36).

Responsibility and reciprocity strike me as virtues only insofar as we use them as measures of equality, and equality is a virtue only insofar as it encourages love. We must not mistake American values for Christian values.

I think we will need one more post to deal with the question of whether we have an obligation to use these social virtues when teaching. What if our goal is to instill good ethics (love) and know that punishment causes people to have good behavior…do we then have an obligation to punish? Next time, the ends and means question.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 March 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Justice (Part II)

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In the last post, I began to explore the meaning of justice to see whether it could stand alongside love as a core ethical principle, or whether justice was simply an application of love.

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Living in Community

I want to turn now to aspects of justice relating to communities. Often we have ethical obligations to groups as well as to individuals and it can be hard to decide how to treat people relative to one another. I’m a firm believer that organizations, both secular and religious hold fast to principles such as liberty, equality, and responsibility and yet I see them primarily as ways we deal with general policy, but not specific cases. Often there are too many relationships involved to deal with on a one-by-one basis and we are forced to average our ethical concerns over a community.  It’s painful, but necessary.  This does not mean that we can then fall back on the rule when troubles arise, but it does allow us to generate more general policies.

Consider public restrooms as an example where generic ethics need to be applied in regards to sex and sexuality. I take it as given that public buildings need to provide restrooms and that, in many cases, the volume of people makes it impractical to construct a separate restroom for every individual. At the same time, there are a number of reasons to separate men and women. I hope to return to this subject in detail later on, but for now, let me say that one of the most important reasons, from my perspective, has to do with the (unfortunate) power differential between men and women (in our society) and the need for women to have spaces they can go where men cannot follow. It is not simply a matter of gender roles or clothing requirements. In small communities I might be able to assess both power and gender dynamics of all members and come up with another solution (perhaps mixed sex bathrooms with closed stalls). In large communities, I have to do the best I can, envisioning the most common as well as the most dangerous situations. As I do so, liberty (the ability of everyone to find a toilet), equality (equivalent accommodations for everyone), and responsibility (strict expectations about who uses which room) will be important criteria.

The common solution, of course, presents difficulties.  How do we accommodate transgender members of the public? Some people do not have matching gender (social role/clothing/…) and sex (biology/anatomy). [For details of language, see here.] Occasionally – when sex obviously does not match gender – a transgender person may have difficulty dealing with social expectations for which bathroom to use. These situations call for loving concern for the particular people involved, not retrenchment in the rules-of-thumb we invoked earlier. The easiest solution is often to have a one person, gender-neutral restroom available.

I only sketched my moral reasoning here.  The point of the example is, rather, to demonstrate the difference between the core ethical principle of love and the pragmatic rules-of-thumb: liberty, equality, and responsibility. The latter are necessary when dealing with large numbers of people, but only so that we can apply the core principle reliably. They yield to love when conflicts arise, and thus should not be considered core ethical principles.

As I explore several more aspects of “justice” in the next post, keep an eye out for where they might apply for communities and whether they will ever arise as issues for individuals.

Posted by: dacalu | 2 March 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Justice (Part I)

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. In this post, I look at justice as another possible standard.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Proper Proportion

Many people see justice as a key component of ethics. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Indeed, many passages of the Bible point toward the importance of justice and it forms a cornerstone of modern American civil ethics. I have two major concerns, however, for setting up justice as a core ethical principle.

First, I think we have a tendency to be imprecise.  Most people agree that justice is important, but few people agree on exactly what constitutes just behavior. In a post last year, I set out five notions of justice, all of which have enjoyed some success in Western culture: egalitarian, meritocratic, need based, hierarchical, and pragmatic.  You can read the full argument, but I would note here only that the mottos “from each according to ability, to each according to need” and “equal rights, equal responsibilities” lead to radically different ethical outcomes. If we use justice as a core ethical principle, we’ll need to have a common understanding, and I don’t know what that would be.

Second, and this may surprise you, justice is only rarely invoked as an ethical principle in the New Testament. A quick word search shows that it almost never appears and when it does, it refers to God’s justice and not humans’.  Rather, we are admonished to not judge (Matthew 7:1; John 8:15; Romans 2:1, 14; James 4:11-12). God may have a standard of justice that is not love, but we do not.

Thus we will need to be very careful when invoking justice as a principle for human action.  I think it serves as a useful by-word for love, rights, responsibilities, and respect in proper proportion, but I’m not convinced it has any value for us beyond what may be found in the other principles. I value justice, but mostly as a word for private and communal ethical behavior.  With that in mind, I want to say a few words about ethical principles which people often try to sneak in under the rubric of “justice” (other than love, obedience, purity, and stewardship, which I already addressed).  We can spell them out and see if they are worth adding in.

Liberty

Perhaps, the most popular American virtue, I can find no evidence of it in the Bible, or much in Christian theology.  There will always be a tension between the desires of individuals and the desire of communities.  The Bible always favors communities while at the same time demanding that those communities care for the last and the least.

I find liberty to be a useful tool when figuring out how to apply love. We must allow others the freedom to express themselves so that we may know them, truly and fully. Only in that knowledge can we come to love them deeply and well. This will turn out to be especially important in questions of sex and sexuality.

Liberty must be bounded, though, by concern for others, for their liberty but also for their well-being. I believe that the deepest hell is, in fact, the absolute fulfilment of liberty.  With no concern for the will of others, with no responsibility, we will find that we have nothing to live for.  It is the constraints of life that provide the greatest blessings, ever acting for the good of others. This is nowhere more apparent than in sex and marriage, where one discovers the challenge, intensity, frustration, and fulfilment that come from exploring exactly where the self ends and the other begins.

I value liberty to the exact extent that it restrains the powerful from overwhelming the weak. It is a manifestation of love that we nurture and strengthen those without strength so that we can come to know them better. It is also a manifestation of love to express the deepest part of yourself so that you can share it with another. I see no role for liberty beyond the end of love. Whenever it arises in conflict with concrete care for another, I think it must be viewed as a vice.

It looks like justice will require a couple more posts as I explore concepts like equality and responsibility.  Stay tuned.

Posted by: dacalu | 27 February 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Stewardship

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In recent posts, I have addressed love, obedience, and purity as possible candidates for core ethical principles. Here I turn to stewardship.

Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one
day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

All Things Come of Thee, O Lord

Love of God requires us to love all that God creates. Far too often, we have seen ourselves as the paramount of creation and its only proper end. Scripture advises us otherwise. The whole book of Job counsels that there are things going on beyond the scope of humanity. Chapters 40-43 in particular speak of the vast extent of nature, which goes beyond our interest, our power, or even our comprehension. Jonah 4:11 reminds us that God cares for the cattle just as Matthew 10:29-31 (and Psalm 84:3) remind us that God cares for the sparrows. We are not alone in God’s regard.

The two accounts of creation diverge with regard to stewardship. In Genesis 1:29 God gives all the plants for our use, saying, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.”

Note 1: It appears to be a free gift, though made to all animals, not just humans. “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Genesis 1:30) Humans are given dominion over the animals in 1:28, but no permission to eat them until after the flood (Genesis 9:3).

Note 2: There is, I think, an important distinction to be made between giving for use and giving for ownership, but that is a discussion for another time.

In Genesis 2:15, God is clearer about human responsibility: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” The accounts differ, but the ethical mandate is the same. We must care for creation. In the first account, we value the earth as a gift from God and a heritage for our children. In the second account, we value the earth as God’s own property, which we keep on God’s behalf.

We have an obligation to care for the land and its produce, just as the tenants in a vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16; I Corinthians 3:7-9). While that care may be derived from love of God and neighbor, I feel it worth setting aside as a particular ethical principle because it emphasizes a point. God’s care, and ours, extends beyond things with personalities. We have obligations to the animals, plant, even the stones of the earth.

I am not arguing that our care of these things should trump our care of humanity, but I do think we have this duty even when no human interests are being met. I think we are called to care for all of creation, which stands witness to the hands that created it.

A Temple of the Holy Spirit

We have a special obligation to care for ourselves, our souls and bodies, made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19). That care extends beyond what we would wish for ourselves; it must include what God wishes for us and what service we may do. This is more than an appeal to obedience, though it has that aspect. It is also, I think, an important gloss on how we balance love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self. Thus we have a variation on the theme of purity that makes it into Christian ethics, if in a rather narrow way; it must always exist in tension with love (which sacrifices) and obedience (even unto death).

The Glory about to Be Revealed

Many Christians believe we have a special care for the world around us. We, being rational creatures, have a unique opportunity, and thus a unique obligation, to care for the world in a way that only we can. The issue will be less important in sexual ethics than in other areas – notably economics and environmentalism – so I will not go into greater detail here except to point out the important parallel between our personal physical health, the health of the church, and the health of the world. If we are to take seriously our commitment to the church as the Body of Christ, and the Bride of Christ, we must remain mindful of the health of the whole body. Likewise, we should remember Paul’s admonition in Romans that the new creation came through Jesus Christ not only to benefit humans, but to benefit all of creation. If we, the church, are to be part of that, we must share his concern for the last and least (even when they are not human) and act as his hands and feet in the redemption of the world.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 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; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:18-23

We must not forget that bodies are a central element in God’s plan for us and for the world. We must not forget that we are inseparable from one another and (if only for the present age) from the very dust of the ground.

In the next two posts, I plan to wrap up core ethical principles with a post on justice and a summary.

Posted by: dacalu | 25 February 2014

The Power of Amen

I’ve been thinking about liturgy this week.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about the word “amen.”  It is so short and so common; I wonder how much people have thought about it.

The word amen comes from a Hebrew word for “truth.” It signals consent, and it plays a particularly important role in the liturgy.  It allows the congregation to assent and participate in prayer.

Sometimes a single person will speak a prayer during a service.  In the case of intercessions, only one person speaks, because only one person knows what is in their heart.  The congregation speaks to affirm what they have said, to pray with them, and to enter into the prayer they only now are discovering.

In the case of communal prayer – such as the “prayers of the people” – only one person speaks as a symbol that the congregation speaks as one.  Often everyone knows the words, even speaks them in their heart, but only one person says them out loud.  This time, the amen allows the congregation to be part of the prayer retroactively.  The whole church prays with one voice, and that single communal syllable communicates the will of the whole.

In the case of priestly prayers, the role of spokesperson for the community has been intensified by years of ritual, training, prayer, and practice.  The Great Amen at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer provides an excellent example.  Only the priest says the words, not because she has some magic power, but because she, in that moment, represents not only the people gathered, but the whole Body of Christ, the church near and far from the time of Jesus to the present.  This is why many Anglican priests raise the bread and the wine (the Body and the Blood) above their heads for the Great Amen (the highest elevation during the prayer), because the defining moment of the consecration occurs in that one powerful word of participation.  It is a communion not only of food, but of will and action.  This is why I always say “Amen” enthusiastically at the end of the prayer.

We can underestimate the power of things done on our behalf and the importance of our assent, even if it is only outwardly manifest in one word.

I try to be mindful of my amens in the same way I am mindful of my signature.  I don’t say it unless I mean it.  I don’t assent unless I truly believe what has been said is right and good and joyful.

I must admit, I also use the amen as a safety net.  If my mind has wandered while I was saying the prayer, or if it has wandered while someone else has spoken important words on my behalf, I use that moment of mindfulness to return to the intent and love of the prayer itself.  I want to participate fully, even when my mind is not cooperating.  And I have this marvelous tool to do so.

As a presider, then – as a leader of prayer – I take special care not to invite an amen without care.  No, I do not complain about loud amens during a sermon.  If the congregation agrees, they should say amen.  If the sentiment, the thought, the intention is important, they should say amen.  Episcopalians could use more of that kind of heartfelt participation.  What troubles me more is when preachers invite an amen at the end of their sermon.  I do this sometimes, but only when I need to reaffirm for myself what I have said, and only when I feel the congregation has come with me.

We should never shame people into agreeing with us.  A particularly troubling instance of this appears in the invocation “And God’s people said…”  I know it’s hard when you’re a presider and the congregation doesn’t know when to add their voice, but this really should be accomplished through education, before you ask for assent.  An amen should be a conscious choice.  Nor would I wish to imply that anyone who doesn’t assent is, therefore, not one of God’s people.

So I’d like to make a request in this post.  Congregations, be mindful of your amens.  They are an opportunity.  Presiders, please stop expecting me to say amen by reflex.  It means something more if it comes from my heart.

Posted by: dacalu | 23 February 2014

Christians and Purity

This post continues a series on ethics. The series begins here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In my last two posts, I set forth Hebrew and Greek notions of purity, both potential candidates for a core ethical principle. Here I explain why I find them unsatisfactory for Christians.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Christians and Purity

In my last two blogs, I introduced two concepts of purity. The first, a Hebrew concept of safety protocols for dealing with the God Most High who dwelt with them, occurs frequently in the Old Testament. The second, a Greek concept of eternal perfection opposed to physical corruption, appears occasionally in the New Testament. I want to say unequivocally that the Gospel speaks against both. The Good News promises grace in the material world and peace with the spiritual. We no longer fear the danger of accidentally getting too close to God’s power. We no longer see ourselves as perfect souls trapped in filthy and constraining flesh. This is a profound shift in faith both for Hebrews and for Greeks and it came in the form of Jesus Christ, a physical, touchable, approachable Emmanuel – God with us.

It shames me that I have to write this. It shames me that Christianity has become associated with concepts of purity, self-righteousness, and disdain for the world God created. And yet I must write this, for the temptation to place ourselves above our neighbors and above creation is so strong that, even within the faith, many succumb. Nowhere is this more obvious than it is in matters of sexuality.

Jesus and Paul both speak of the benefits of eternal life and they also speak in favor of God’s Law. We are called to perfection and we are called to eternal life. Still we must recognize – Christians must always recognize – that we are so called in the flesh and brought into the Kingdom by one who became flesh and dwelt among us. The Good News is scandal to both Jew and Gentile for precisely for this reason: we are asked to meet God here and now, and see God’s presence in the impure, the imperfect, and the changeable.

Purity is not an acceptable core ethical principle for Christians.

Anyone interested in Christian sexual ethics should read Paul’s epistle to the Romans. This may surprise some of my liberal friends, for the words of Romans have so often been used as a bludgeon in debates about sex and sexuality. I would argue that there is no better weapon against self-righteousness. The letter is full and rich, but I will focus on the first 3 chapters which are so popular – if for all the wrong reasons. I encourage you to read the whole book, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the message. And, of course, I would encourage you to meditate or pray on it. It has become one of my favorite parts of the New Testament.

Paul against the Greeks (Romans 1:18-2:16)

In chapter 1, Paul points an accusing finger at Greek Christians. Note closely the language he uses. Paul is accusing them of being physical, of denying the immortal for the sake of the mortal, denying the truth for the sake of a lie. In short, Paul is accusing them of being bad Greeks. They know through their philosophy to pursue that which is perfect, and yet they run around chasing bodies. And yes, Paul uses homosexual acts as part of his accusation. I suspect Paul, as a Hebrew, had a very low opinion of homosexual acts. (We’ll see why in a later post.) Nonetheless, the primary objection is a Greek one. Women, he said, are acting from filthy passion, rather than for their proper and eternal end. Men, he said, are shamefully turning from the natural end of reproduction (which fulfills their animal nature) to the unnatural end of physical desire. Notice that lust is contrasted with animal reproduction. This is why idolatry and pride are so closely tied for Paul. The passage is about the proper object of worship and the proper perspective.  Non-procreative sex for physical enjoyment is seen as demonstrating rather than causing an inappropriate attachment to the body. [Incidentally, I am not agreeing with Paul’s sexual ethics here – or with Paul’s portrayal of Greek sexual ethics.  I am highlighting Paul’s accusation that the Greeks are not being good Greeks according to pre-Christian standards.]

Paul’s critiques extend beyond the Greeks, however. “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (2:1) Everyone, both Greek and Jew, both believer and unbeliever, suffers from messed up priorities.

Paul against the Hebrews (Romans 2:17-3:26)

In chapter 2, Paul turns to his Hebrew readers. They have been saying to themselves, “We may have the wrong priorities, but we are safe. We follow the safety protocols.” Hebrew righteousness is about action, not goals; it is about physical purity. Paul doubts that any truly do obey the law in its fullness and claims that Jews are in many ways worse off because they know about the law. They have a copy of the safety manual, but still do not follow the instructions. Worse yet, God expects more than rote compliance. “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.” (2:28-29)

For 500 years, Israelite culture had been moving away from the purity model of Leviticus. The books of the prophets are littered with references to God wanting more than Temple sacrifice.

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? … He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6,8; see also Psalm 50:8; Proverbs 21:27; Isaiah 43:24; Hosea 6:6)

No one, Paul says, neither Greek nor Jew, neither believer nor unbeliever, can make sufficient sacrifice to fulfill the law. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Purity as Pride

Paul turns the two notions against each other to show that God operates by the free gift of grace to humans, who do not deserve the gift, and yet are worthy of it through God’s love. There is no room for us to be prideful in either our intention or our effects. We have not achieved purity, by either standard. Where is the good news in this? We are justified (saved, redeemed, what you will) by Jesus Christ. We cannot have pride in our own efforts, but we can have pride in his. Jesus broke the Hebrew concept of purity by being God, but fully accessible – he’s a nuclear reactor you can hug. He brings the benefits of God’s power and Lordship without the danger traditionally associated with it. Anyone – absolutely anyone – can approach. Jesus also broke the Greek concept of purity by being the eternal Logos, perfect and unchanging, but also painfully human. He took on flesh, he ate and drank as one of us. He even showed his changeableness by crying, being wounded, and dying. [This, by the way is the original meaning of passion (Gk: passeo, to suffer or be subject to)]. Thus Christians cannot boast being closer to God through being safety certified; all can come close through Christ. Nor can we boast being closer to God through being less corrupted by the flesh. Jesus was fully human. God exists concretely and physically in the world and asks us to participate through concrete, carnal sacraments.  And yes, carnal is the right word. It’s the only word in English that comes close to the shocking physicality of sarx in John 1:14 and 6:51.

Some readers will turn to several passages in the New Testament which contrast flesh and spirit (notably John 6:63; Romans 8; I Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 5:17).  I would encourage you to read closely, however, particularly in light of what we have already covered.  Christ and Paul are arguing that it is not the body alone – nor the law alone, nor particularly acts of righteousness alone – the bring life.  The Spirit of God brings life.  We breathe that Spirit in and out like the air and like the air we cannot own or even hold it in our lungs and still live. Righteousness and grace and purity cannot belong to you. They are in you solely because God is in you.  The miracle arises because the flesh – useless on its own – can be enlivened by the Spirit.  It will even be transformed by the Spirit into something wholly good in the resurrection, but it will nonetheless still be flesh (I Corinthians 15:39, II Corinthians 4:11, Colossians 1:22, Hebrews 10:20).

Purity as Apathy

I am not denying that living flesh is better than a corpse or that the desires of the Spirit are better than the desire of the flesh.  I am only saying that, in Christianity, the opportunity for grace occurs in the flesh without regard to dignity, purity, or past accomplishment.  The wind (spirit) blows where it will.

We cannot be apathetic toward those we see as less pure than ourselves. We know that they may, perhaps even have, come closer to God than we have. Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man, every single person you encounter may be more holy than you, may have something to teach you about the glory of God. Every one has that opportunity and we are duty bound as Christians to help them achieve that goal.

And, as a special note to those who read their Bible closely, Abraham was not a nice man. He may have been faithful to God, but he treated his wife and concubine and sons horribly. He lied and cheated. If we are to turn to Abraham as an example – as Paul does in Romans – we cannot turn to him as an example of purity or perfect behavior. We must turn to him as faithful and beloved of God, despite and through his imperfection.

Christian Purity?

Purity then, at least as constructed by the Hebrews and Greeks, is not a virtue in Christianity, but an opportunity for vice. Insofar as it is a good thing, and I believe it can be, it represents a love of that which brings us closer to God and to the ideal of who we want to be. We cannot afford, however, to keep track. We cannot afford standards and measures of closeness to God or closeness to perfection. God is in all and made the world exactly as it is.

We can, should, and indeed must work for a better world. We may be called upon to sacrifice our desires, even our lives in order to fulfill the commandment to love God and neighbor. Jesus Christ has freed us from the bonds of dignity, honor, cleanliness, even religiosity so that we might pursue that goal. This is not an occasion for sin. It is not an excuse to behave badly, knowing we cannot earn or deserve grace. It is a chance to love fully and deeply, and even obey God’s will, without the limitations of Earthly convention. It is a chance to dredge the depths of humanity, the depths of creation for the last and least spark of divinity. It is a chance to find grace, even in a crucifixion.

If you see “purity” as a means of love or obedience, then I may be with you. Let us talk about how this virtue achieves those ends. If you see “purity” as that state of holiness which may be achieved through God’s purifying fire, at God’s hands and not our own, I am with you. If you see purity as a way to separate the sheep from the goats, those included from those excluded; if you see purity as a source of pride or excuse for apathy, then I cannot agree. Indeed, I can think of few things as harmful to true Christian faith.

We may ask for righteousness. We may strive for righteousness. But it is neither our birthright nor our reward. It is a gift from God.

Posted by: dacalu | 21 February 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Purity (Part 2)

This post continues a series on ethics. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. The last post introduced the idea of purity as a core ethical principle and explored the Hebrew concept of holiness.  In this post, I turn to Greek and later Christian ideas.

Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Greek Ideal

By the time the New Testament was written, Hellenistic culture (inspired by Greece, spread by Rome) surrounded the Mediterranean and extended into the Middle East.  Hellenes never picked up the Hebrew notion of purity.  Greek and Roman gods were more like humans than the Hebrew Lord of Hosts.  Even if you wanted to appease them, they were not predictable enough for the kinds of ritual compliance present in Israel.  Purity cults existed, notably including the Vestal Virgins in Rome, but no single practice could be said to spread over the entire population.  Rather there were countless deities, rituals, and communities considered appropriate to different times, places, and activities.  Each one had adherents and detractors; Rome was a very plural society.

Hellenes did, however share a number of cultural biases, philosophies that caught on broadly throughout the culture.  One such preference, closely related to purity had to do with the difference between body and mind.  From the classical period, Greeks were highly skeptical of the changeable nature of the world and a number of popular philosophies presented flesh and matter as imperfect, temporary, and undesirable.  Humans, possessed of a rational soul, had the ability to think and participate in a perfect life of contemplation.  Some even claimed they had a pure, perfect, and eternal aspect that would outlast the body.  The best thing you could do with your life would be to pursue the ideal aspects of your life and disregard or even weaken the physical aspects.  The details varied from school to school, but Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics highlighted the importance of choosing to pursue permanent ideal pleasures, rather than temporary physical ones.  The Neoplatonists and Pythagoreans went even farther in favoring thought over flesh.  [The Stoics and Epicureans, on the other hand, were much more inclined toward physical goods.]

We see this bias throughout the New Testament and it contributes to a particular kind of purity ethics in Christianity.  “So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:25) “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh;” (Galatians 5:17). Language of perishable versus imperishable, temporary versus eternal, and flesh versus spirit taps into this Greek idea of mind over matter. Likewise, language of Jesus as the “Word” (logoV) appeals to a sense of divine, overarching principle or idea of order.

“Flesh”

For the Greeks and Romans, to be fleshly was to be less than perfect.  It meant being caught up in the changeable reality of physical nature, rather than the perfect eternity of changeless ideas.  It meant suffering illness and disease, bowing to physical limitations, and ultimately dying.  If we are to make sense of the New Testament, but particularly Paul, we must understand him to be writing about this way of thinking. I do not think he was in favor of this kind of thinking, but that will have to wait for the next post.  For now, know that for many Hellenes, flesh was embarrassing, undignified, and a sign of weakness.

In summary, the Greek ideal of perfection is radically different from the Hebrew notion of purity.  Perfection had to do with a commitment to ideal, mental, and universal truths which conflict with the daily messiness of life.  In contrast, Hebrew purity had to do with the daily messiness that, regardless of ideals, must be maintained when living with God.  The two should not be confused. Nonetheless, they were, even in the first century. Hellenistic Jews had to deal with these very questions and Christianity would provide an answer.

In the next post, I turn to Christian thoughts on purity and perfection.

Posted by: dacalu | 10 February 2014

Creation and Evolution

I had the delight and privilege of worshiping this Sunday with the people of Grace Episcopal Church in Everett, MA.  Thank you to the Rev. Dr. Barbara Smith-Moran, S.O.Sc. for her invitation.  They were celebrating “Darwin Sunday” and dealing with questions of faith and biology.  The sermon appears on my project blog:

http://sciencespiritscripture.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/creation-and-evolution/

and I have placed a link here because so many people were interested.

 

 

Posted by: dacalu | 8 February 2014

Core Ethical Principles: Purity (part 1)

This post continues a series on ethics. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In a recent post, I set forth “Love of neighbor and love of God” as my core ethical principle. In this post, I look at another popular principle: purity.

Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

A Temple of the Holy Spirit

Some Christians turn to I Peter 1:13-16 for their key ethical principle. Both love and obedience may be viewed as a setting apart of Christians to be a holy and pure people, in the midst of a corrupt and corrupting world. “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Consider also Ephesians 1:3-4 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”

I Corinthians 6:19 provides greater detail: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Here, personal purity is not an end in itself, but a show of love for the Spirit that dwells in us and a commitment to making God at home in our bodies, our selves, and our communities.

The history and import of purity in Christianity means we need to be particularly careful around this idea. Purity and holiness can mean different things to different people and it will be important to pay close attention to the way the concept is used historically. We will find that purity ethics play a large role in many people’s conception of Christian sexual morality, but not always in the ways we assume.

 

Hebrew Holiness

When we encounter rules for purity in the first five books of the Old Testament, we find a concept of holiness that I like to compare to radiation safety training. The Israelites had been called to live in close proximity to the Most High and that carried serious risks. For them, the rules of purity were all about minimizing risk – how to avoid coming to harm when dealing with the Ark of the Covenant and other hazardous materials. Note the fate of Uzzah (II Samuel 6). Uzzah and his brother Ahio were Israelites chosen to handle the cart that carried the Ark back from the defeat of the Philistines at Baal-Perazim. The oxen jostled the cart and Uzzah reached out to prevent it from falling to the ground. I have heard debate over whether the cart and carters represent proper Ark protocol, but the take home message is this: Uzzah’s intent did not matter. Purity in the early books of the Bible has everything to do with the dangerous nature of God’s power and the need for humans to use caution in God’s presence.

Moses, considered chief among the Hebrew prophets, was afraid to look upon God (Exodus 3:6). Later in Exodus (33, 34), God says that no one can look upon the face of God and live. He grants Moses the chance to see his back as he passes by, just a glimpse, and even then Moses starts glowing from the exposure. He has to cover his face when he goes back among the people. Moses’ brother Aaron, as the first high priest, is the only one who is allowed into the presence of the Ark once it is placed in the tent and even he has to wear special gear to avoid dying (Exodus 28).

Leviticus must be viewed in this light. The Israelites had made an agreement to carry around the spiritual equivalent of a nuclear reactor with them and they needed to be careful.

“Abomination”

The Hebrew word rendered “abomination” in modern English refers to something being out of place. If you have taken classes in chemistry, you know that you don’t mix acids and bases because they will explode. You also don’t mix the pure water with the tap water because it will contaminate your experiments. Thus, for the Israelites, anything that confused Israelite (safety certified) with non-Israelite was dangerous, an abomination. Worse yet, anything that mixed up levels of purity was dangerous. Men were purer than women; Levites were purer than other men; Zadokites were purer than other Levites; priests were purer than non-priests; and the high priest was the purest of all. Anything that messed with those distinctions was an abomination.

“Abomination” is a technical term that Christians should only use in the technical sense. In the scriptures, it does not mean unnatural (a Greek or Medieval gloss) or disgusting (an Enlightenment gloss). It means kinds have been mixed in an improper way. It should only be used regarding sexual acts if you are also willing to use it in regard to eating ostrich (Leviticus 11:16), remarriage (Deuteronomy 24:4), and accrued interest (Ezekiel 18:13). It’s a useful concept, but I recommend speaking of “inappropriate mixing of kinds” if you don’t want to confuse non-specialists.

In summary, early Hebrew purity laws should be viewed as safety protocols rather than questions about character. Actions count. Desires don’t. Intentions don’t. In fact, Hebrew sin in general should be viewed as trespassing or debt, both of which can be taken on involuntarily. The idea that thoughts matter more than actions will not arise until much later.

In the next post, I will talk about how the concept of purity has evolved.

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