The real difference between Christians and non-Christians lies in how God is present within the church and is eschatological in character. That is to say, Christians are involved in relations of simultaneous distance and belonging with their non-Christian neighbours. Such relations occur because the church is to be a people specified by its relationship with Jesus Christ, and at the same time it is to display a given culture's eschatological possibilities. Therefore, Christians cannot stand outside their culture, or against it, but must participate in their culture and the enterprises of their neighbours as those transfigured. In this age, no clear dividing lines can be drawn. Instead of clearly demarcated lines separating Christians and non-Christians, questions about what to reject and what to retain confront Christians constantly as they participate in, and bear witness to, God's transfiguration of their context.
... when confronted with moral problems the church develops specific patterns of thought and action. However, the response of the church is not developed in isolation from the life together of its neighbours. As it develops its response, the church will be engaged with the life of those around it, who will inevitably be involved with and inform its discernment. In conjunction with the life of its neighbours, the church will also seek to establish patterns of sociality which bear witness to how a particular moral issue is transfigured by the actions of God. The patterns of thought and action that constitute the response of the church to a particular issue are constantly open to further specification in the light of who Jesus Christ is. Such specification and alignment is a constant and ever-present task... some its its neighbours will participate in the church's response to the issue, some will reject it, some will ignore it, and some will actively oppose it. Mediating disputes over moral problems which confront Christians and non-Christians is not a question so accommodating each other's view, nor or compromise between two positions, nor of rivalry as one tradition seeks to vindicate its answer against the answer given by other traditions. The only criterion by which the church can accept or reject the thought and action of its neighbours is whether such thought and action accords with thought and action directed to god. Empowered by the Spirit, the only response the church can make to moral problems is to bear witness to their resolution in and through Jesus Christ. The church must either invite its neighbours to follow its witness or it must change its own pattern of life as it discerns in the life of its neighbours patterns of thought and action that bear more truthful witness to Jesus Christ. The church, following after Jesus, is both the guest and the host of its neighbours and in being a good guest and a faithful host the holiness of the church is shown forth.
Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness, p. 197-8.
The principle that governs Christian compassion... is not 'minimize suffering.' It is 'maximize care.' Were our goal to minimize suffering, no doubt we could sometimes achieve it by eliminating sufferers. But then we refuse to understand suffering as a significant part of human life that can have meaning or purpose. We should not, of course, pretend that suffering in itself is a good thing, nor should we put forward claims about the benefits others can reap from their suffering... The suffering that comes is an evil, but the God who in Jesus has not abandoned us in that suffering can ring good from it for us as for Jesus. .. Our task is therefore not to abandon those who suffer but to 'maximize care' for them as they live out their own life's story. We ought 'always to care, never to kill.'
Gilbert Meilander, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 65-66, cited in Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness, p. 173.
"But what does that have to do with real life?" I have come to expect an occasional question like this in courses on systematic theology. I confess that I am often tempted to snap back, "If you would just abandon your vulgar notions of 'real' life and muster some intellectual curiosity you could spare us your question!" Usually, I overcome the temptation and give a little speech instead. If students complain that theology is too "theoretical," I invite them to consider Kant's argument that nothing is as practical as a good theory. If they object that theologians entertain outdated and there fore irrelevant ideas, I offer them a Kierkegaardian observation that the right kind of non-contemporaneity may be more timely than today's newspaper. I conclude by explaining how ideas that seem detached from everyday concerns may in fact touch the very heart of those concerns.
And yet, when I am done with my disquisition, I have dealt with only half of the worry expressed in my student's skeptical question. We theologians sometimes do teach and write as if we have made a studied effort to avoid contact with the "impurities" of human lives. We do so partly by our choice of topics. The number of pages theologians have devoted to the question of transubstantiation -which does or does not take place durng any given Sunday -would, I suspect, far exceed the number of pages we have devoted to the daily work that fills our lives Monday through Saturday. We also take flight from the concerns of the quotidian by how we treat great theological themes such as the Trinity, Christology, and soteriology. As thinkers we rightly focus on conceptual difficulties -"How can God be one and three persons at the same time?" "How can Christ be both God and man?" "How can we owe salvation to nothing but grace and yet be free?" -but in the process we sometimes lose the larger significance of these doctrines. Moreover, as academics we are caught in the movement toward increased specialization. On the one hand, specialization seems a necessary condition for fundamental research. On the other hand, it tends to make us lose sight of the overarching subject of theology. The scholarly interests of theologians then fail to match the realities of the people in the pew and on the street.
There is yet another important reason for a perceived disconnect be tween theology and so-called "real" life. It lies in the distinction between the theoretical and the practical sciences that goes all the way back to Aristotle and his disciples. According to this distinction, the goal of the theoretical sciences is truth, and the goal of the practical sciences is action. Aristotle considered the theoretical sciences, in which knowledge is pursued for knowledge's sake, a higher wisdom than the practical sciences, which are pursued for their usefulness. It has long been debated how theology fits into this Aristotelian scheme -Thomas Aquinas, for instance, weighed in on the side of theology being a theoretical science, and Duns Scotus argued that it was a practical ones. Obviously, if theology is a theoretical science, then it only secondarily has something to do with practices; one has to make separate inquiry into practical implications of knowledge pursued for its own sake. But if theology is a practical science, then practices are from the start included within the purview of its concerns.
From Miroslav Volf, "Theology for a Way of Life." In Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life. Edited by Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p. 245-6.
I come from a Christian tradition that eschews the organisation of worship. Drawing on an approach to worship developed in the 20th century which drew on Romantic thought, spontaneous worship was seen as more authentic and repetitious liturgy deadening to the soul. My own experience has been quite the inverse. I found spontaneous worship to be surprisingly repetitious and only different in that the level of care was lower and many crucial elements of worship (particularly confession and absolution) were often omitted. I love the prayerbook and find worship using Cranmer's prose to be uniquely nourishing to my soul.
I bring this sensibility to my reading of liturgy, particularly those texts in the New Testament which are so often wielded as weapons by the anti-liturgical. One of these came up today in the sermon, and liturgy was far from the topic which was eloquently covered by the preaching today, it still struck me as an interesting challenge for biblical interpreters striving to remain contemporary while not anachronistic.
The text is from Mark 7:
“Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:1–13 ESV)
The Pharisees and scribes, described as coming from the liturgical police in Jerusalem, were probably sent to undermine Jesus' ministry by pointing out the lax conduct of his disciples here. Mark even provides his readers with a gloss in verse 3 explaining the basis for their criticism. There is a polemic against the Pharisees on several levels here.
First, that they are slavishly attentive to ritual behavior without getting at the heart of the matter. Jesus drives this home by quoting Isaiah 29:13.1
Second, and perhaps worse still, this attentiveness to ritual is based on an overwrought respect for the "tradition of the elders" (Greek: paradosin tōn presbyterōn) as Jesus notes, "You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8). He goes on to intensify this critique of tradition in verse 9 and following as he notes that the practice of corban is a "You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!"
As I've seen, our response to this very incisive critique by Jesus can be overextended, and I tend to think that an over-reaction which seeks to abolish 'tradition' and purge our religion of 'ritual acts' has its own consequences. In some ways, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre's appeal to tradition as a basis for the cultivation of coherent moral action, is a 20th century reaction to the 19th and early 20th century to the sort of over-reaction by Protestant Christians I am describing here.
So if we are to try and avoid overreaction, I would like to explore some possible ways we can read this text (and others like it) more carefully and less anachronistically.
First of all, as my good professor of NT studies at Regent college suggests, it is important to get the Phrarisees right: the trouble with the Pharisees is not that they sought to construct impossibly elaborate ritual schemes that imprisoned people. Rather, as Rikk Watts suggests: "we often hold them to be hypocrites and fairly nasty people" but actually, "you’d probably like having a Pharisee next door, they were good people: no late night parties; no wild women or loud cars; no drugs; a bit over keen on being religious, but not too bad. In fact they were respected by the people; even though the people couldn’t live up to their expections... Why then did they come in for such flack [from Jesus and his disciples]? Because they are the ones who are offering the most serious alternative to Jesus. Populist to a degree; not distant and self-interested like the Sadducees; not violent like the zealots, nor off with the visionaries in the desert: which for most was just not an alternative." (a few quotes from Rikk's brilliant Introductory NT course, in the lecture on Jewish and Palestinian Backgrounds to the NT).
Jesus' rejoinder to the Pharisees changes the language slightly, which is also noteworthy - while the pharisees are concerned that the disciples seem to be unconcerned with the "tradition of the elders" (paradosin tōn presbyterōn), picking up on the opposition posed in Isaiah 29, Jesus suggests that they "abandon God's commandments" and instead "hold to the tradition of men" (krateite tēn paradosin tōn anthrōpōn) - in verse 9 his reference is just to "your tradition," elders are not mentioned again until Mark 8:312. It helps if we note that this opposition is a specific one: between the commands of God, probably a reference to the Torah (or books of Moses) and the tradition of men (which is probably a reference to the accumulated oral tradition of rabbinic halachah, which involved exegesis on scripture). Taken in this light, Jesus' example in vs. 10-13 makes a good deal of sense: primacy is given to the Torah where we read in the law of Moses that one is to honor father and mother3. We may interpret that text, but if our interpretation overrides its plain meaning, this is unacceptable. But this example is itself a noteworthy defense of tradition, both in the sense of affirming the primacy of the original statement of the covenant over against innovative new interpretations, and in the very basic affirmation to honor one's parents - which is itself the most basic definition of tradition.
So we can not only rescue tradition here, but in fact affirm that Jesus is calling the Pharisees to a conservative form of tradition reception. But what of the dismissal of liturgy that we find in Jesus' words here? There are two different sets of ritual acts noted in the text: first ritual handwashing which Mark observes is not merely Pharasaic practice, but universally Jewish (in vs. 3 "...and all the Jews" GK: pantes hoi Ioudaioi). The second is added by Mark in vs. 4, where he refers to other sorts of ritual washing: "And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches." I'll have to do a bit more background work on this before I'm confident about my conclusions here, but I'll preliminarily suggest that the same opposition holds for this example. Ritual washing for all people is nowhere prescribed in the Hebrew bible. We find the instruction in Exodus 30 that Aaron and his sons wash their hands before approaching the altar (which may have provided the basis for the rabbinic instruction), but this is as specific as the Hebrew bible gets on the matter. So the rejection here of ritual washing is not a rejection of a liturgical practice prescribed in Torah, but a creative extrapolation of one. This seems to me to be an important distinction, and affirms that we are not rejecting liturgical worship, but a dangerous method of interpreting scripture as the basis for commending certain liturgical forms.
Of course, I'm not so sure that the intention here is to reject creative biblical interpretation either, but I'll save that one for another post!
- 1. “And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” (Isaiah 29:13–14 ESV)
- 2. “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31 ESV)
- 3. ““Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12 ESV)
Sometimes "justice" isn't the most comprehensive response to evil:
As Martha Minow puts it: in the face of collective violence, "...closure is not possible. Even if it were, any closure would insult those whose lives are forever ruptured. Even to speak, to grope for words to describe horrific events, is to pretend to negate their unspeakable qualities and effects. Yet silence is also an unacceptable offense, a shocking implication that the perpetrators in fact succeeded." From Between vengeance and forgiveness: facing history after genocide and mass violence (1998), p.5.
"...ethics cannot be understood and ventured as an independent discipline working on its own presuppositions and and according to its own methods, but only as an integral element in dogmatics." (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.4 §74 "The Central Problem of Special Ethics").
I resonate with this statement by Barth so deeply, yet find the application of this conviction in contemporary theological writing so often results in moral reflection that is superficially engaged and deeply disappointing. Even though we may conceive of ethics as a part of the task of theological reflection, this does not mean that a degree in Christian Doctrine leaves one properly equipped to conduct the task of Christian ethics.
It has been a blessedly full year! Our son is now 1 year old and babbling, crawling, climbing, and walking all over the place. This blog has been a casualty to that new paternal vocation, but we're finally getting settled back into some family rhythms and I'm happy to be back to some writing.
You may also notice that my blog is suddenly much uglier. I've made a transition from wordpress to drupal, which is something like moving from a honda civic to a porsche. There are an abundance of new features that I'll be rolling out on this blog over the course of time, but there is a steeper learning and maintenance curve that I'm working hard to master. So, for now, apologies for the ugly layout. I'll be working to clean this template up into something sharper in the near future.
Thanks friends and readers for your patience this past year as I've been slow to write both here and via email. I'm looking forward to getting back into correspondence with you!
‘Parks, street trees, and manicured lawns do very little to establish the connection between us and the land. They teach us nothing of its productivity, nothing of its capacities. Many people who are born, raised, and live out their lives in cities simply do not know where the food they eat comes from or what a living garden is like. Their only connection with the productivity of the land comes from packaged tomatoes on the supermarket shelf. But contact with the land and its growing process is not simply a quaint nicety from the past that we can let go of casually. More likely, it is a basic part of the process of organic security. Deep down, there must be some sense of insecurity in city dwellers who depend entirely upon the supermarkets for their produce.’
From Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language (1977).
Against Rome Augustine had argued that since property originates in the divine act of creation, the ownership and use of property should always be related to a divine and transcendent conception of justice in which God gives to each sufficient to meet their needs. In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas elaborated the implications of this Augustinian view when he founds his account of natural right and property on its derivation from providential relations between creator and creation, and between creatures. In Thomist political thought property involves responsibilities to uphold the common good, as well as rights to individual use, for if it is used in such a way as to deny the sufficiency of others then its original ordering to the individual by providence is undermined. In these circumstances the householder whose children are hungry for want of sustenance acquires a divinely given right to take bread from a person who has excess of bread who loses the right to call such an act theft.14 For Aquinas the act of taking what is needed by he who lacks does not involve a foundational conflict since the individual property owner is not an autonomous rights holder but steward of that which emanates from the providence of God and that remains part of created order, and not just a humanly constructed domain.
From Northcott, Michael S. 2011. Parochial ecology on st briavels common: Rebalancing the local and the universal in anglican ecclesiology and practice. Journal of Anglican Studies Pending Publication: page 8. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1740355311000167.
See also Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, ‘Natural Law and Perfect Community: Contributions of Christian Platonism to Political Theory’, Modern Theology 14 (1998), pp. 19-46.
In reaction to... discomforts, whites frequently claim to 'not see difference'. Ignoring race with black people (such as not mentioning slavery or the race of a famous figure) is comparable to 'that [behavior] exhibited by certain people on encountering someone with a visible physical handicap. They pretend not to notice that the handicap exists and hope, thereby, to minimize discomfort.' Indeed, as Toni Morrison points out, 'the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture'. Yet the will to 'not see' these differences, Cose insists, is a costly 'solution'. Aversive reactions eventuate in practices of avoidance and group isolation, providing supports for an obliviousness that is a denied, thus repressed, will-to-disregard. This obliviousness, importantly, can co-exist with belief in equality and (Christian) inclusiveness.
Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church, (OUP, 2007) p. 20. Referencing Ellis Cose, Color-Blind: Seeing beyond Race in a Race-Obsessed World (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), 189-90.
In the face of seeming Christian indifference about injustice, several commentators have sought to retrieve the force of Jesus' concern for injustice. Particularly against the portraits which paint Jesus in soft pastel hues with a happy lamb over his shoulders, smiling white schoolchildren at his feet, and happy crowds in tow; commentators have recently noted that Jesus did not always wear a smile. In fact, he had particularly strong words of judgement for perpetrators of injustice, particularly if they were religious insiders. We read of Jesus' indictment of religious insiders (perhaps the religious teachers of his day) who by their leadership cause their followers to stumble: “‘But anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith, would be better thrown into the sea with a great mill stone hung round his neck.” (Mark 9:42 NJB, see Matt 18:6–7, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:1–3). The statement in Luke is preceded by a particularly vivid parable about a rich man named Lazarus who feasts with indifferent extravagance in spite of great poverty just outside his door and as a result experiences harsh judgement (Luke 16:19–31). Similarly, Jesus shows his anger not with words but with action when he physically drove out those who were subverting the worship of God's people by creating a commercial opportunity for themselves in the temple (see Matt 21:12–13, Mark 11:15–17, Luke 19:45–46). Finally, in Matthew we find another parable which unflinchingly tells of judgement of "sheep" and "goats": “in so far as you neglected do this [helped the hungry and thirsty, clothed the naked, and visited the sick] to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.” And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life’ (Matt 25:31–46). Close study of each of these statements in context yields a far more nuanced reading than I have provided here, which in some cases can explain the reasons for Jesus' harshness. But one cannot deny that there is a measure of forcefulness, righteous anger, and judgement which lies behind these words. In short, commentators note, Jesus was no milk-toast.
I hope that Jesus' concern for justice has been definitively re-established for our generation, but this is not actually my concern here. There is a further danger behind this (albeit partially authentic) recasting of an angry Jesus and that is that in the midst of our rhetoric we may "lose the forest for the trees." We cannot appreciate Jesus' full personality, if we fail to acknowledge the overwhelming measure of grace which he extended to all sorts of people, including those with wealth and power who acted with cruelty and abuse. Failing to acknowledge this, we have simply made the same mistake twice, substituting unmeasured but righteous anger for wimpy grace. Counter-examples abound, including the extending of grace for a cruelly religious Saul who acted in unrighteous judgement (Acts 9) and the tax-collector Zaccheus who made a habit of abusing his public office and extorting people and finds himself hosting Jesus at his table (Luke 19). I also wonder whether this over-correction with respect to Jesus may be a consequence of the failure to correct a popular misreading of the Old Testament which inversely finds only a God of harsh judgement. One cannot fail to note that there are surely stern words and acts of judgement in the pages of the Old Testament, but these exists in the midst of a text that largely expresses an extraordinary measure of grace and a commitment by God to the redemption of the whole creation. Jesus' offer of friendship and words of redemption were extended to the tax-payer and the tax-extorter alike, just as God's larger work of redemption is concerned with all persons. How we conduct ourselves is of the utmost importance, but we must not lose sight of the fact that God's grace is indefatigable particularly for the sake of "overheated" rhetoric about social justice.
But nowhere is the destructive influence of the modern home so great as in its remoteness from work. When people do not live where they work, they do not feel the effects of what they do. The people who make wars do not fight them. The people responsible for strip mining, c1ear-cutting of forests, and other ruinations do not live where their senses will be offended or their homes or livelihoods or lives immediately threatened by the consequences. The people re sponsible for the various depredations of "agribusiness" do not live on farms. They-like many others of less wealth and power-live in ghettos of their own kind in homes full of "conveniences" which signify that all is well. In an automated kitchen, in a gleaming, odorless bathroom, in year-round air-conditioning, in color TV, in an easy chair, the world is redeemed. If what God made can be made by humans into this, then what can be wrong?
The modern home is so destructive, I think, because it is a generalization, a product of factory and fashion, an everyplace or a noplace. Modern houses, like airports, are extensions of each other; they do not vary much from one place to another. A person standing in a modern room anywhere might imagine himself anywhere else-much as he could if he shut his eyes. The modern house is not a response to its place, but rather to the affluence and social status of its owner. It is the first means by which the modern mentality imposes itself upon the world. The industrial conquistador, seated in his living room in the evening in front of his TV set, many miles from his work, can easily forget where he is and what he has done. He is everywhere or nowhere. Everything around him, everything on TV, tells him of his success: his comfort is the redemption of the world. His home is the emblem of his status, but it is not the center of his interest or of his consciousness. The history of our time has been to a considerable extent the movement of the center of consciousness away from home.
Once, some farmers, particularly in Europe, lived in their barns and so were both at work and at home. Work and rest, work and pleasure, were continuous with each other, often not distinct from each other at all. Once, shopkeepers lived in, above, or behind their shops. Once, many people lived by "cottage industries" -home production. Once, households were producers and processors of food, centers of their own maintenance, adornment, and repair, places of instruction and amusement. People were born in these houses, and lived and worked and died in them. Such houses were not generaliza tions. Similar to each other in materials and design as they might have been, they nevertheless looked and felt and smelled different from each other because they were articulations of particular responses to their places and circumstances.
From Berry, Wendell. "Living in the Future: The "Modern" Agricultural Ideal." In The Unsettling of America. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986, 52-53.
In modern life we swim deep in a sea of technology, surrounded by artifacts and patterns of our own making. These artifacts and patterns, like water, are often transparent to us. They are everywhere and nowhere to be seen as we fin our way along chasing after whatever is new, stylizing and restylizing our lives. Yet something feels wrong. Leisure leaves us stressed. Time saving leaves us with no time. Freedom amounts to deciding where to plug into the system. Nature is pushed aside. Even our sense of who we are is transformed in relation to this surrounding sea. So we dart anxiously here and there trying one technological fix after another. It has not occurred to us yet that, like fish in polluted water, what may be wrong lies closest to us.
From: Light, Andrew. "Borgmann’s Philosophy of Technology." In Technology and the Good Life? Written by Eric Higgs and David Strong. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, page 19.
In our day, we are unable to envisage comfort except as part of the technical order of things. Comfort for us means bathrooms, easy chairs, foam-rubber mattresses, air conditioning, washing ma chines, and so forth. The chief concern is to avoid effort and pro mote rest and physical euphoria. For us, comfort is closely associated with the material life; it manifests itself in the perfection of personal goods and machines. According to Giedion, the men of the Middle Ages also were concerned with comfort, but for them comfort had an entirely different form and content. It represented a feeling of moral and aesthetic order. Space was the primary element in comfort. Man sought open spaces, large rooms, the possibility of moving about, of seeing beyond his nose, of not constantly colliding with other people. These preoccupations are altogether foreign to us.
Moreover, comfort consisted of a certain arrangement of space. In the Middle Ages, a room could be completely "finished," even though it might contain no furniture. Everything depended on pro portions, material, form. The goal was not convenience, but rather a certain atmosphere. Comfort was the mark of the man's personality on the place where he lived. This, at least in part, explains the extreme diversity of architectural interiors in the houses of the period. Nor was this the result of mere whim; it represented an adaptation to character; and when it had been realized, the man of the Middle Ages did not care if his rooms were not well heated or his chairs hard.
From Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, p. 67-68.
It would be worthwhile sometime to dwell at more length on the way in which the term revolution confirms the intellectual relevance of Gresham's law, according to which the coinage with the least sub stance, value, and character will get the most circulation. The word revolution has passed through so many hands, over so many tongues and pens, that most of its meaning has worn off. Shaving cream is revolutionary if they put lime perfume in the can with the soap. The compulsory village relocation program in the Mekong Delta was rebaptized Revolutionary Development after the 1966 Honolulu conference where the United States sought to dress up the Vietnam War as an alliance for freedom. But the fact that a word can be prostituted or violated does not take its proper meaning off our serious agenda.
From John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution, p. 166.
The items in a code stand to the moral law as bricks to a building. Wisdom must involve some comprehension of how the bricks are meant to be put together.
This has an immediate bearing on how we read the Bible. Not only is it insufficient to quote and requote the great commands of the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount. We will read the Bible seriously only when we use it to guide our thought towards a comprehensive moral viewpoint, and not merely to articulate disconnected moral claims. We must look within it not only for moral bricks, but for indications of order in which the bricks belong together. There may be some resistance to this, not only from those who suspect that it may lead to evasions of the 'plain' sense of the Bible's teaching, but from those who have forebodings of a totalitarian construction which will legislate over questions where it would be better to respect the Bible's silence. But in truth there is no alternative policy if we intend that our moral thinking should be shaped in any significant way by the Scriptures.
Oliver O'Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 200.
“How”, said I, “is such a conversion possible, that there should be a sudden and rapid divestment of all which, either innate in us has hardened in the corruption of our material nature, or acquired by us has become inveterate by long accustomed use? These things have become deeply and rad-ically engrained within us. When does he learn thrift who has been used to liberal banquets and sumptuous feasts? And he who has been glittering in gold and purple, and has been celebrated for his costly attire, when does he reduce himself to ordinary and simple clothing? One who has felt the charm of the fasces and of civic honours shrinks from becoming a mere private and inglorious citizen. The man who is attended by crowds of clients, and dignified by the numerous association of an officious train, regards it as a punishment when he is alone”
(Cyprian of Carthage, Ad Donat. 3. Cited in: Christopher M. Hays, "Resumptions of Radicalism. Christian Wealth Ethics in the Second and Third Centuries." Zeitschrift fur die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und Kunde der Alteren Kirche 102, no. 2 (2011).
In my early days as an aspiring theologian, fresh out of undergraduate studies, I was keenly interested in the idea of social justice. It is hard to deny that we are by nature designed for community, and thus inextricably interconnected. In the light of this reality, the biblical call to do justly cannot be observed passively, i.e. not harming others, but must be seen as an active call. Each act we make (or moment of inaction) and each decision we make has consequences for others and we bear some measure of responsibility for these consequences, even if they are unintended or undesired. I don't mean to commend a lifestyle of constant hand-wringing or agonising over each act we undertake, as this can lead to a sort of paralysis or worse still apathy. Rather, I believe we are called to pursue a life of communally guided formation and submission which can lead us into increasingly positive choices. Along these lines, the key concern is not: how can I avoid oppressing a textile worker on a distant continent by shopping at the GAP; but rather how can I further the thriving of my neighbour by supporting their work. This sort of thinking does lend itself to localism, as the consequences of our actions are far more transparently evident when dealing more directly with out neighbours, but this is not exclusively the case.
Lately though, under the influence of the "Edinburgh-school" Christian ethicists, Michael Northcott and Oliver O'Donovan I've been drawn to a model of justice which is not only practice-oriented, but also one which is sensitive to the span of generations. You can read previous posts I've offered along these lines, when I suggested that political conservatives would do well to be attentive to the act of actually conserving something; in a series I did summarising and interacting with Oliver O'Donovan's common objects of love; and in my reflections on Edmund Burke's political philosophy. After several years of reflection on ecological ethics from the perspective of Christian theology, I'm convinced that any model for justice that is focused purely on one moment, or even one generation, is fatally flawed. Now that biblical scholars have laid to rest some of the more unhelpful eschatologies of the 20th century, it is time to turn our moral reflection to the future generations that God's will continue to sustain on this earth either with our help or--with what seems to be our present preoccupation--our hindrance.
It is certainly the case that preparing for the future requires a different sort of moral reflection than our acting in the present moment, but there are plenty of resources there to aid us. This generation's obsession with engineering-oriented science makes concepts such as the precautionary principle seem inaccessible. In spite of this though, we must begin to open our minds to the possibility that the slowing of technological achievement and economic growth in the present may be what is morally necessary to promote the flourishing of future generations.
This is, as Oliver O'Donovan observes in Common Objects of Love, the meaning of the fifth commandment:
The paradigm command of tradition is, 'Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which hte Lord your God gives you.' It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake. The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them. This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain. The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once. The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the 'father and the mother' as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on. Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, 'the land which the Lord your God gives you.' No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations. By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself.
H/t: Brad Littlejohn for typing the quote out.
I've just run across a particularly pithy summary of the classic critique of monetized economies in favour of a labour-oriented approach to economics:
One particularly prominent strand in Western discourse, which goes back to Aristotle, is the general condemnation of money and trade in the light of an ideal of household self-sufficiency and production for use. The argument goes something like this. Like other animals, man is naturally self-sufficient and his wants are finite. Trade can only be natural in so far as it is oriented towards the restoration of such self-sufficiency. Just as in nature there may be too much here and not enough there, so it is with households which will then be forced to exchange on the basis of mutual need. 'Interchange of this kind is not contrary to nature and is not a form of money-making; it keeps to its original purpose - to re-establish nature's own equilibrium of self-sufficiency' (Aristotle 1962: 42). Profit-oriented exchange is, however, unnatural; and is destructive of the bonds between households. Prices should therefore be fixed, and goods and services remunerated in accordance with the status of those who pro-vided them. Money as a tool intended only to facilitate exchange is naturally barren, and, of all the ways of getting wealth, lending at interest - where money is made to yield a 'crop' or litter' - is 'the most contrary to nature' (Aristotle 1962: 46).
"Introduction: Money and the morality of exchange" from Jonathan Parry And Maurice Bloch eds., Money and the morality of exchange (1989: CUP), p. 2.
I should also mention for those of you who won't go on to read the whole book that this is not the author's position, merely a very helpful summary of one in a spectrum of many options.
Wendell Berry opens his latest collection of essays, "Imagination in Place" with the following:
By an interworking of chance and choice, I have happened to live nearly all my life in a place I don't remember not knowing. Most of my forebears for the last two hundred years could have said the same thing. I was born to people who knew this place intimately, and I grew up knowing it intimately.
Berry goes on to suggest that this geographic rooting in a particular plot of land has guided his writing and reflection; by being anchored he has avoided a certain amount of unhealthy creative 'drift' and by being well-planted on his farm in Kentucky he grown to love not just for the generic 'environment' but a particular place guided by intimate knowledge of its geography.
I'm very convinced by the trajectory of Berry's suggestions. This notion of what the monks once called 'stability': purposefully anchoring yourself to a place, could go a long way towards dissolving the anomie that so much of our generation suffers from as we come and go from nondescript places where we work and live. Berry and others suggest also that by unrooting ourselves from a particular place it has become far easier to despoil God's creation and again, I think there is something to this suggestion.
My own life and experience is a nearly perfect inversion of Berry's tale. The demands of a graduate education have led my wife and I to relocate numerous times, from the Puget Sound region to upstate New York, to British Columbia in Canada, and most recently to Scotland. Digging back into previous generations, I've spent some time reconstructing our own family history from old census records in hopes that might find a stable family farm hidden somewhere in my past waiting to be reclaimed. But my family also is an inversion of this tale of being rooted in place. For the past four or five generations, almost every branch of my family has moved away from their place of birth to a different state - in most cases a completely different geography. For me, there is no family farm. For that matter, my family has invested itself so lightly in place that there is no family legacy lingering in any of those places they formerly occupied.
So with regards to being rooted in a place, I cannot escape the post-modern 'blessing' of self-construction. I suspect that I'm not alone in this predicament, both in desiring a place to call my own which I can commit our family to inter-generationally and in lacking an obvious option. What's more, former generations have re-engineered the American labour market to support transience. Many employers are now trans-national and they often expect a person to pick up and move at some point over the course of their career. The notion of local business has nearly disappeared into unplaced options such as Wall-Mart, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and McDonalds. These workplaces may offer excellent compensation and benefits, and even invest in local community projects, but they remain decidedly un-parochial - and at best impostors. Local musicians, artists, writers, and local government struggle to capture the attention of the occupants of towns and cities. In the midst of these realities, to choose one's "place" rather than inheriting it seems to represent a peculiar challenge, if not a fantasy.
While this essay might come across as a lament, I don't mean for my tone to convey despair. It's all well and good for Wendell Berry to enjoy his farm, but I'm in a different situation faced by a task that is perhaps more prefatory. I must first work to create the circumstances in which parochial life is again possible for my children and grandchildren. To this end, I have begun to search for ways to re-commit myself to those old parochial patterns. Here are a few that I've settled on thus far: finding culture generated by local people; ignoring presidential political theater until I'm confident that I understand and can participate in my local government and the issues it faces; spending my money at businesses which are not only staffed by local people, but which are owned and supplied by local people who choose to invest their wealth in their neighbourhoods. Finally, I've also begun to consider what features of their former homes led my family to leave their communities behind so that inasmuch as I can influence the shape of my future community it doesn't suffer from these patterns.
If we are to address the ecological crisis that threatens the future of our children, we must commit to making decisions which are not just superficially 'green' but also pursue patterns of life which produce healthy locally invested communities.
Some Further Reading...
- Berry, Wendell. Imagination in Place. Counterpoint Press, 2010.
- Northcott, Michael. A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming.
- Gorringe, Timothy. A Theology of the Built Environment : Justice, Empowerment, Redemption. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Bouma-Prediger, Steven, and Brian J Walsh. Beyond Homelessness : Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2008.
- Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. The Wisdom of Stability : Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2010.
- Inge, John. A Christian Theology of Place. Aldershot, Hampshire, England ; Burlington, VT, USA: Ashgate, 2003.
- Alasdair MacIntyre, 'Politics, Philosophy and the Common Good', in Kelvin Knight (ed.), The MacIntyre Reader, Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 1998, 235 - 252.