The Bible As… Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Jon Prater

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This blog post is part two of a four-part series adapted from transcripts preached during a revival at Forest Chapel Church of the Brethren.

The Word of God should not only be approached as rule. No, in fact, one of the most quoted Scriptures in regards to Biblical inspiration states that there must be multiple ways of engaging Scripture.Paul, in 2 Timothy 3:16, says “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” which speaks to the array of ways we can, and should, use the Word of God. If we search past the Word as rule we will next see the Word as confession.

The Bible as Confession

Consider books such as Lamentations or Psalms- the scope of these books is much broader than instruction. Yes, there are factual pieces of these books, but their greater use is in confession. After all, doctrine is of no value if there is no confession attached to it. A criminal can know the rules of the land, but until they confess to the value of the system the laws create, their knowledge does not transfer to a common value system. In other words, our society is much better off when people not only avoid drunk driving because they will face consequence if they are caught, but they also understand and confess to the more significant value of human life and the ways this law contributes to a more healthy society.

The Bible itself speaks to the Scriptures as confession. In Romans 10 Paul is expounding on thoughts regarding evangelism, the climax building to verse 9 when Paul states that those who “believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths will be saved”. However, this is not the end of the thought Paul is giving. If we track Paul’s train of thought we come to verse 17 “Faith,” says Paul, “comes by hearing and hearing comes from the Word of God” (emphasis mine). The word Paul uses here is pistis which is defined as “a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervor born of faith and joined with it[1]

What this means is confession in the life of a Christ followers not only an admission of guilt but also an acknowledgment of truth. We can confess and not be guilty. Many theologians such as Knox, Luther, Augustine, and Lewis all have published some kids of confession- that being the core belief that forms who they are and the way that they interact with the world and God. This faith that Paul is speaking of, this burning passion is undoubtedly more than law. Faith, in this context, is not just what you believe, but what you do with your belief. To tap into James, this is related to the tension between faith and works; one drives the other; they are indicative of one another; not similes.

The Word of God as rule guides our behavior, but the Word as confession guides our identity. When we engage Scripture through the lens of rule it tells us how we are to live, but engaging through the lens of confession tells us why we are to live that way. Consider the framing of the Laws given in Scripture, most of them are framed in a structure of confession and rule. Take Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments, for example. God speaks to Moses a decree for confession before giving the Law. The terms of confession are found in 2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” God sets up the formula- declaration for confession, followed by action or consequence- if you believe I am God then this is your rule.

The problem that the church has seemed to battle for a majority of history is getting this formula out of order. Instead of allowing our identity to affirm our doctrine we invert the process so that our rule, or doctrinal infrastructure, informs our identity. Our convictions work contradictory to the grace God has given us; our church culture states that if your doctrine is right, you can identify with us; when in reality what the Scriptures seem to suggest is that if you identify with us, your doctrine should follow suit.
In recent years there has been debate on the traditional order of identifying with Christ. Traditionally practitioners have prescribed to a believe, behave, belong order for identifying with Christ. However, as the Emerging church movement gains momentum, this traditional rule has been called into question by many leaders. For the emerging church, a more efficient order for identification is belong, believe, behave. While some argue that this model leads to more ethical dilemmas, it certainly seems to fall more in line with Paul’s train of thought in Romans 10.

The lens of confession is rooted in the Christocentric and community hermeneutic. By offering a standard community confession, we are strengthening the fabric of the faith community. When asked why the Law was so central to the Israelites we are quick to identify that it kept them separate from other nations. I am not debating the truth in that statement, but I lift a consequential truth alongside it- it held the Israelites together. Sure, the sectarian truth is prevalent here, but the Israelites also shared their experience and tradition across their stories. The common confession that they shared in Yahweh led them to a common rule of practice and drew them around a collective identity- people of the Lord.

Perhaps this is one of the core pieces we can learn as faith communities- the Bible as confession invites following the rule of faith and practice to be a fruitful experience, not oppressive. Also, this pushes us past the individual adoption of doctrine and belief. When we move past these, we place the center of discerning rules of faith and practice back into the community setting, allowing for a more significant connection to our neighbor.

Jon Prater is the pastor of Mt. Zion Church of the Brethren in Linville, Virginia where he has served since 2020. He is a current MDiv student at Bethany Theological Seminary and has an undergraduate degree in Biblical Theology from Liberty University. A former church planter, Jon is a public speaker and workshop leader on subjects including church planting and church vitality. He is husband to Jessica and father to twin sons Aiden and Elijah.

  1. “Greek 4102.” Strong’s Greek: 4102. Πίστις (Pistis) — Faith, Faithfulness, Biblehub,Com, biblehub.com/greek/4102.htm.

Other referenced works

“Create a Sense of Belonging.” Psychology Today. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pieces-mind/201403/create-sense-belonging.
“Genesis Chapter 1 (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Accessed January 13, 2017. https://www.blueletterbible.org/kjv/gen/1/1/s_1001.
“Spiritual but Not Religious.” Psychology Today. Accessed October 14, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hot-thought/201610/spiritual-not-religious.

Image Credits: Protestant, and Christian Unity Ministries

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Sabbath as Creation Care – Guest Blogger, A.J. Swoboda

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Creation was created perfectly. Everything that it needed to function properly was included. God created an environment perfectly suited for life to thrive. Examining the biblical account, we see the Sabbath is an integral part of God’s creation. Although on the final day, Sabbath is as much a part of creation as light, water, the sun, food, livestock, germs, chickens, the garden, and people. Can you imagine, for a brief moment, what our planet would look like if we no longer had water? Or light? Or food? What if we decided trees were unnecessary and cut them all down? In the end, cut any of these elements of creation out of creation and assuredly creation would not continue as a place suitable for life. Why do we think Sabbath is any different to the well-being of creation than sunlight, water, and food? In creation, everything is affected by everything else because the perfect Creator knew what he was doing when he made the planet. By ignoring the Sabbath, the world suffers tragic consequences. Let us examine how keeping a Sabbath helps heal a creation that is “groaning” (Rom. 8:28).

Like any living entity, the earth is cWhat-is-Sabbath-Should-We-Keep-The-Sabbath-Day-or-The-Lord’s-Day-672x372reated to have rhythms of rest and respite. The land needs a break from productivity. Certain animals need to hibernate. The ocean needs breaks for fish populations to be replenished. Like human beings, when creation is robbed of a chance to rest, it quickly begins to communicate its exhaustion to us.

As the Psalmist writes, God actively “causes” the grass to grow for the cattle God has made (Ps. 104:14). [1] God does not create accidentally. He creates intentionally. God made a system for life, not just a system of life; an intricate system with Sabbath built into it. In this system of life, everything is dependent on something else to thrive. The system must be protected—or, tragic things begin to happen.

Cows are beautiful creatures. Sadly, our economic system has grown an unhealthy dependence upon them—and their abuse. In the natural order, cows get pregnant when they are in heat. But in modern agricultural practice, cows are artificially inseminated while still secreting milk from their last pregnancy. Why? So they can be milked nearly without break. In industrial dairy practices, cows are milked for ten months out of the year compared to just five to six months in places where traditional dairy farming is practiced. Our cows are given almost no rest between pregnancies and they are being milked during most of their pregnancy; and it turns out that when cows are not allowed to rest, human health is put at risk. Pregnant cows’ milk contains significantly higher amounts of sex hormones than milk from cows that aren’t pregnant. Studies have indicated that the increase in sex hormones may affect cancer rates, as well as human development. [2] Additionally, livestock are often given steroid hormone implants used for growth and increased milk production.

One of these, estradiol, is listed as the naturally-occurring sex hormone estrogen on the Food and Drug Administration’s website. [3] This is a misnomer, however, as estradiol is a synthetic sex hormone which is an endocrine disrupter by nature. [4] These steroids, which regulate hormones and the reproductive system, are given to livestock to increase dairy production. As a result, large amounts of synthetic estrogens are excreted in manure, then spread on fields and eventually end up in our water supplies. [5] Because sex hormones are not removed from wastewater before it heads to our rivers and seas, fish populations are harmed. [6] Along the Potomac, Columbia, Colorado, and Mississippi rivers, fish are found to be “gender-swapping” as a result of the presence of sex hormones. [7] These intersex fish exhibit sex traits of both male and female fish, which in extreme cases are found to have been made sterile. [8] If this is the effect endocrine disruptors has on fish, one might wonder what effect they could have on humans. [9]

However, when a cow is given the rest it needs, these large doses of dangerous sex hormones do not end up in our milk, our water, or our streams—everyone, from fish, to humans, to the cows, are protected. It’s remarkable how the Sabbath is integral to the well-being and flourishing of the “critters” in the animal kingdom. “Remember that Sabbath … On it you shall not do any work … nor your animals” (Ex. 20:8; 10).

When humans Sabbath, they intentionally immerse ourselves, as God did, into the creation order. This is reflected in the fact that Sabbath was not for humans alone, but the livestock, land, vineyards, and fields. Sabbath had far-reaching implications beyond humans all non-human creation. Sabbath is, at its core, an ecological principle. This is not accidental. God intentionally designed and created the world in a pattern that would allow for the flourishment of all. Long before we started burning out, long before the land started dying, long before disaster struck—there was God! And God created this world beautifully, intricately, and interconnected. And part of that interconnected beauty is located in the need for rest.

Swoboda (105 of 106)Dr. A. J. Swoboda is a professor, author, and pastor of Theophilus in urban Portland, Oregon. He teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at Portland and Fuller Seminaries, including a number of other universities and Bible colleges. He is the lead mentor of a Doctor of Ministry program on the Holy Spirit and Leadership at Fuller Seminary. Additionally, he is the founder and director of Blessed Earth Northwest, a center that helps think creatively and strategically around creation care issues in the Pacific Northwest. Alongside this work, he serves as the national director of the Seminary Stewardship Alliance—a consortium of Christian higher-ed schools that are thinking strategically about Christian training in creation care. Previous to this, A.J. served as a campus pastor at the University of Oregon. His doctoral research at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) explored the never-ending relationship between the Holy Spirit and ecology. He is a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Pentecostal Studies. A.J. is the author of The Dusty Ones (Baker), Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology (JPTSup, Deo), and Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Baker Academic). You can find his website and blog at www.ajswoboda.com, or follow him on Twitter @mrajswoboda.

1 It should be pointed out that the Hebrew text uses a causative verb “to grow” implying that God is not passively making the grass grow—God himself actually makes it sprout and grow so that the cattle can survive.

2 Josh Harkinson, “Turns Out Your ‘Hormone Free’ Milk Is Full of Sex Hormones,” Mother Jones, April 20, 2014. http://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/04/milk-hormones-cancer-pregnant-cows-estrogen

3 “Steroid Hormone Implants Used For Growth In Food-Producing Animals,” 2015. Fda.Gov. https://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/SafetyHealth/ProductSafetyInformation/ucm055436.htm.

4 Holly Grigg-Spall, Sweetening the Pill: or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control (Alresford, Hants, UK: Zero Books, 2013), 46.

5 Darryl Fears, “As more male bass switch sex, a strange fish story expands,” The Washington Post, August 3, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/as-more-male-bass-switch-sex-a-strangefish-story-expands/2014/08/03/89799b08-11ad-11e4-8936- 26932bcfd6ed_story.html?utm_term=.2750181679e8

6 Jessie Black, “Hunting Ways To Keep Synthetic Estrogens Out Of Rivers and Seas,” NPR, June 19, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/06/19/415336306/hunting-ways-to-keep-syntheticestrogens-out-of-rivers-and-seas 7 Darryl Fears, “As

7 Darryl Fears, “As more male bass switch sex, a strange fish story expands.” It should also be noted that there are several other endocrine disruptors at play here such as the pollutant BPA.

8 Lindsey Konkel, “Why Are These Male Fish Growing Eggs?,” National Geographic, February 3, 2016. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/160203-feminized-fish-endocrine-disruption-hormoneswildlife-refuges/

9 I wish to thank Madalyn Salz and Alec Eagon for bringing these to my attention. There are alarming connections between these issues.

Image Credits: True Jesus Church SG and Portland Seminary

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God’s Green Earth Recap – Chibuzo Petty, Social Media Editor

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Webpage-MastheadLast week, I had the joy of participating in Bethany Theological Seminary’s joint Young Adult and Presidential Forum, God’s Green Earth: A Call to Care and Witness. The event included great presentations from students, faculty, and invited guests from the national stage. We’ll be featuring some of the speakers in the coming weeks on the Brethren Life & Thought blog. Some of the speakers will also have pieces featured in the fall issue of the print journal. For the next few months, we’ll be focussing the blog’s content on eco-theology while continuing to share a variety of posts on our Facebook page.

I, like many of the planning committee, found myself confused and frustrated, though not entirely surprised, by the comparatively low turnout and by some of the negative pushback received. With so many prominent evangelical organizations working toward environmental justice, it’s more than a bit perplexing, and, quite frankly, vexing, that so many conservatives in the Church buck at the mention of creation care. During the opening panel, we discussed one email response from a Brethren pastor who said we should be more concerned with saving souls than saving the planet. While that assertion alone deserves a whole blog post, I’ll simply say, here, that I, like Bethany, strive for a both/and approach.

The Forum included a wonderfully diverse lineup of speakers. Age, gender, racial, and theological diversity were are present. This makes it even sadder that the audience was almost completely white. This is an issue with which Bethany, and the Church of the Brethren more broadly, really struggle. By my count, of the 75+ in attendance, there was only one person of color who was not also speaking. Even so, those in attendance were able to hear from three black speakers. (I, for instance, had the opportunity to speak several times during the Forum.)

I shared about food justice alongside senior Bethany MA student Jonathan Stauffer. Jonathan shared from a rural perspective and his presentation dealt with the changing economics and politics of agricultural. I shared from an urban perspective and focussed on the ways diet and inaccessibility contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. One of the most intriguing presentations was from Rachel Lamb of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA). Lamb spoke of her experiences in Washington D.C. working toward environmental justice. YECA, which can be found here at http://www.yecaction.org/, have committed to one hundred days of prayer to coincide with the first one hundred days of the new Trump administration. They are also actively praising and supporting the bill introduced by seventeen Republican legislators on March 15 that seeks to find conservative, market-based approaches to combating climate change. Lamb seemed to receive the most questions after her presentation, something I found to be hopeful.

Another highlight was the promotion of Green Circle, Bethany’s chapter of Seminary Stewardship Alliance (SSA). SSA, which can be found at http://www.blessedearth.org/featured-one/seminary-stewardship-alliance/, co-sponsored the Forum. Readers of the blog will recall Jonathan Stauffer’s recap post from our trip to the national SSA conference in Portland, Oregon last fall. A.J. Swoboda, director of SSA, will be featured on the blog April 6. Green Circle, led by Bethany professor of theology, Nate Inglis, coordinates annual creation care-focused worship gatherings, encourages sustainable practices within the institution, and much more. All four Green Circle members who attended the national SSA conference, me, Jonathan, Nate, and Liz Swenson spoke at the Forum. Green Circle member Katie Heishman spoke as well. Katie will be featured on the blog March 30 and Lize will be featured April 27.

In addition to our Green Circle members, we’ll be featuring several eco-theology themed blog posts in the coming weeks. Until then, I invite you to reflect on these words from Psalm 8 (NLT).

 

1 O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!

   Your glory is higher than the heavens.

2 You have taught children and infants

   to tell of your strength,

silencing your enemies

   and all who oppose you.

3 When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—

   the moon and the stars you set in place—

4 what are mere mortals that you should think about them,

   human beings that you should care for them?

5 Yet you made them only a little lower than God

   and crowned them with glory and honor.

6 You gave them charge of everything you made,

   putting all things under their authority—

7 the flocks and the herds

   and all the wild animals,

8 the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,

   and everything that swims the ocean currents.

9 O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!

 

Image/Photo Credits: Bethany Theological Seminary

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Theopoetics Conference Recap – Guest Blogger, Evan Underbrink

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A man, masked in the guise of some immortal earth spirit, rumbles in his deep baritone a song as he comes onto the improvised stage, to an audience of some fifty theopoets and scholars. His hair is moss; his eyes shine through the hip-bone holes of some vernal skeleton, the mind’s eye being born from mother earth. His hands hold a basket, or womb, or crib, redolent with the leaves and needles of trees. He sings:

            I am stretched out, on your grave
            and I’ll stay there forever.

This begins the “acceptance speech” turned performance from the Rubem Alves Award for Theopoetic excellence. This award, in honor to a giant within our field, was given to Tevyn East, director of Holy Fool Arts, who would shortly join her husband Jay on the stage, in the dress of Mother Nature, which had been formed from dumpster finds. She and her husband Jay were performing a small portion of their “Carnival de Resistance.” In their act, they deftly stitch together dance, song, stagecraft, Bible verses and allusion, poetry, and social activism:

            Did not your prophets tell of the burning of the cedars of Lebanon?

The award winners were well-chosen, as the themes of art and activism would be a unifying strand throughout all the papers, workshops, and panels which studded the conference.

It all began, however, with Jillian Weise, and her poetry reading. Having time for a brief refreshment and some introductory remarks, the poet and scholar was introduced to a room she was very shortly to own. Her pieces touched the intersection of art and the embodied life of the person with a disability, a term which she presented with no small ambivalence, preferring instead to call herself a “cyborg.” She first read “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex,” which proffered this advice:

            to create an uninhibited environment for your partner,
            track their hands like game pieces on a board.

Continue reading below after enjoying this song. Reflect on the lyrics and meditate on the music’s movements.

In the Q&A that followed, Jillian talked provocatively about her activism, her body as a place where the battle for the rights of the disabled – a term she adopts with great ambivalence, preferring to call herself a “cyborg” – was waged. The community applauds, celebrates, and breaks up into talk and refreshments. Outside, a simple blackboard sign, facing the street, reads, “Poetry & Party Tonight. All Welcome.”

The first-morning panel held Scott Holland, a theopoetic scholar and regular in the field, the Transgender Social Justice Educator and writer J’Lissabeth Faughn, Lisa Hess, a scholar of interreligious learning, conscious feminine leadership and Christian spirituality, and the black theologian and scholar Adam Clark. They danced with questions of aesthetics and activism, with what is this thing theopoetics, and offered the reflections of their own fields and selves they each saw therein. An argument slowly unfurled itself over conceptions of gender, the purposes of art, the failures and benefits of preaching. As one witness later put it, “by the end, I thought it was about to go down!” And yet, we seemed to have found some peculiar gift which allowed for deep disagreement to coexist with deep connection. No small feat, given the seemingly inevitable sacrifice of one or the other in most communities.

The panels kept the discussion going, each session stretched with wide spaces for conversation, connection, and honoring of disagreement and divergence. These stretched the gamut of topics, from the esoteric nature of resistance to be found in the figure of Herman Melville’s Bartleby and expressed by Daniel Boscaljon, to the quiet and profound poetry of Jeff Gundy, under the title “Beauty is Something to Love”, to the joy and laughter of Jan Voigts “The Bible through a Comic Lens.” Beauty, activism, connection, and hidden in the corners of our conversations was some love of that surplus necessity; the idea that the best of what we were doing were the things which could not be captured in our speech, theories, and arguments.

Before our final meal together, and the Holy Fool’s performance, Troy Bronsink, the founder/director/spiritual director of The Hive led us in an embodied, contemplative grace:

            Allow yourself to feel gratitude,
            starting from the top of your head, and moving down…

Some would have called it worship. Others meditation. Some would refrain from putting that time in strict categories. Regardless of our words, we were together, in an expression of gratitude for our bodies, ourselves, our community, our weekend together, and that time we had to cherish that time.

The next day, a smaller group of us would gather at the local Bed and Breakfast to try and name those things, to keep some expression of them in the next conference. Words and concepts were offered, considered, and appreciated from all around the table:

17103594_1461965687171127_3646029071182532306_n
Callid Keefe-Perry, as Evan puts it, is one of the Saints of Theopoetics.

            “Connection.”
            “Not like other academic conferences.”
            “A place where artists and scholars meet.”
            “I saw respectful disagreement.”

In the end, it was Callid himself, the founder and head of our theopoetic group, who named the darker elephants in the room. With impassioned, reddened eyes, he said: “At this time, when there is so much fear, and some many things falling apart, we need this. Everything is falling, and we need to be here, building something up.” Looking around, at the faces of hopeful artists, thoughtful scholars, and perhaps one silly lover of Dante, I have to agree.

 

img_04772Evan is a published short story author and student of Theopoetics at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana. Evan‘s editor has told him that he has to write a more human bio than he first submitted. This has turned out to be a daunting prospect, as writing about himself in the third person seems a rather artificial act, leading to inevitable self-calumny. Evan feels in this moment as if he is doing the equivalent of standing in front of a mirror, that most sacred of contemporary artifices, and attempting to describe himself in writing to someone with very little point of reference. Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” comes to this mind. Therefore, Evan would like it known that he is most certainly not a rhinoceros.

 

Photo Credit: Evan Underbrink

“Gungor – “Late Have I Loved You”,” YouTube, April 04, 2010, , accessed March 16, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WoCwuPXhvM.
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Permaculture Recap – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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The Seminary Stewardship Alliance (SSA) met in Portland, Oregon on October 13-15 for its 5th annual conference. All seminaries that are participants of the consortium, from the American East Coast to a couple from Australia, and a handful of undergraduate colleges were in attensbp1dance. The theme of the conference was, Permaculture: Developing a Creation Care Culture in Christian Higher Ed, and the program consisted mostly of plenary speakers and breakout sessions among regional and theological cohorts. It’s a rare occurrence to see denominations like Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and peace churches agree to talk about any common interest. However, all attendants came to discuss the need for developing creation care principles and actions through our respective Christians institutions.

Assistant Professor Nate Inglis and three students (Chibuzo Petty, Elizabeth Ullery-Swenson, and I) represented Bethany Theological Seminary. Regarding the conference, Elizabeth shared:

In the midst of an early seasonal deluge, we were reminded that the challenges facing our global climate are dire and demand a response. During our time together we talked about our Biblical responsibility to care for all God’s people and all of God’s creation. The wide range of theological backgrounds made for challenging conversations, but I believe that everyone left with a sense of urgent purpose and direction. Personally, I came away with new Biblical grounded ways to find common ground across theological difference regarding our responsibility to care for God’s creation.

sbp2

I appreciated the spectrum of Christian traditions that were in attendance and was stimulated by the opportunity to network with faculty and students from other schools that were also passionate about caring for God’s earth. Daniel Brunner, professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, presented the opening plenary on Friday morning about Luther’s theology of the cross and how it pertains to ecological justice. Chibuzo most appreciated the discussion of the Book of Job:

We’re all familiar with the basic buffet of creation care verses. Hearing we would be exploring Job as a creation narrative certainly peaked my interest. Kathryn Schifferdecker, professor at Luther Seminary, spoke about her book on the subject Out of the Whirlwind. Her reimagining of eco-theology within the context of suffering and divine justice in Job was creative. She provided attendees with a much needed reminder of how radically non-anthropocentric God’s creation is.

On one afternoon, I attended a breakout session with representatives from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. There we discussed a common heritage on our traditions with small-scale agriculture and the challenges that a range of theological perspectives within our denominations presents in promoting creation care ministries. Overall, I found the SSA conference an instructive and encouraging experience.

A complete list of schools represented can be found here: http://seminaryalliance.org/partner-schools/.

Each of the members of Bethany’s SSA delegation will be speaking at Bethany Theological Seminary’s Presidential Forum and Youth and Young Adult Event, March 16-19, 2017: God’s Green Earth—A Call to Care and Witness. SAVE THE DATE!

Jonathan SJPS_Tweed_Ride14tauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. He is currently a student at Bethany Theological Seminary where he is finishing his MA with a concentration in theological studies.

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Reflections on Rooted and Grounded at AMBS – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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Are human beings given free dominion of the land, or does God care what we do with the creation? Participants explored these and other profound questions at the Rooted and Ground conference held at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Six students, from Bethany Seminary and Earlham School of Religion, and two Bethany professors attended the creation care conference from Thursday, October 1 through Saturday, October 3rd.
Around 140 participants brought a range of ecumenical perspectives to address a variety of environmental concerns. Activities at the three-day conference included presentations, worship services, and immersion experiences. From the assorted presentations and conversations, participants envisioned a variety of Christian responses to the ecological crisis.

The bulk of conference events centered on a multitude of presentations. Several papers and workshops focused on biblical, theological, and ethical principles in relation to creation care and social justice. Nate Inglis, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Bethany Seminary, presented “Conversion to the Community of Creation: Bridging Anabaptist Theological Anthropology and Ecology” on Thursday afternoon. Scott Holland, Professor of Theology & Culture at Bethany Seminary, and Bethany MA student Kristy Shellenberger presented a workshop about theopoetics and creation care on Friday morning.

Presentations also featured practical suggestions that care for the land and local communities. Farmers described their methods of organic production. At the urban level, pastors shared how gardens were employed in liturgical practices and served the food needs of marginalized communities. “As demographics continue to shift in this country, it is important that the Church adapt and be equipped to minister in these new realities,” remarks Shayne Petty. He continues, “It is crucial that we expand the conversation about eco-theology to include the voices of those, demographically, not typically associated with agriculture. It can be incredibly empowering for persons of color, most of whom, especially Blacks, living in urban areas to be given theological language to reflect upon the beauty of God’s creation in the city.”

Worship services employed rich liturgical themes of creation’s praise to God through hymns and responsive readings. Three keynote speakers presented thought-provoking messages for conference attendees. 2015-10-02 12.14.53

Wilma Bailey, Professor Emerita of Hebrew and Aramaic studies at Christian Theological Seminary, spoke at the Thursday night worship service. She explored various Hebrew terms found in the creation accounts of Genesis 1-3. Bailey also reflected on the wildness of creation. Lions and other predators caution us humans that we are not as fully in control of nature as we like to assert.

Our Friday night speaker provided even more profound reflection. Sylvia Keesmat, an organic farmer and adjunct professor at Toronto School of Theology, interpreted from the Letter to the Romans, particularly between chapters 1, 8, and 12. She claimed that the apostle Paul expressed profound grief over the Roman imperial occupation – an occupation that degraded both social and ecological health – and explored how that grief still pervades in our present global crisis. “It was humbling,” notes Katie Cummings, “to lament together our shortcomings and to confess our idolatry.” Keesmat also professed an inspiring hope, following Paul’s message, that God’s love for all creation will prevail and includes faithful acts of earth care.

Ched Myers, biblical scholar and activist theologian, spoke as keynote for Saturday morning worship. He explained the principles of “watershed discipleship,” a recent model of Christian community formed by natural bio-regions and local economies. It recognizes the sacredness of the land in providing not only for human needs, but also for all processes that God created to sustain life.

Before the conference began, participants selected between options for immersion experiences scheduled on Friday afternoon. Four Bethany Seminary participants, myself included, went on the “Trail of Death” tour near Plymouth, Indiana. A Potawatomi tribe once inhabited two sites around the Twin Lakes area until they were expelled in September 1838 by military force. For the next three months, the tribe marched west under oppressive conditions. The survivors settled in Oklahoma territory in November. As we walked between sites, I took time to reflect on the plight of the Potawatomi tribe and what true reconciliation with American Indian communities would look like. We then made a brief tour of the Indian exhibit at the Fulton County museum and headed back to AMBS.

The Rooted & Grounded conference reminds us that the whole creation knows God as Creator and is eagerly waiting for God’s people to return to this understanding. Oscar Lugusa Malande, a student at the Earlham School Religion, states this insight well: “At this conference, it occurred to me that the revelation of children of God is being fulfilled. [For a long time] the creation has been groaning for this revelation.” Compelled by this humbling truth, Christians must allow God’s priorities to inform our role in becoming responsible stewards for the health of the land, of our communi2015-10-03 11.07.40ties, and of other living creatures.

For more background information about activities and speakers, go to the Rooted and Grounded conference website: https://www.ambs.edu/news-events/Rooted-and-Grounded.cfm

 

 

 

JPS_Tweed_Ride14Jonathan Stauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. He is currently a student at Bethany Theological Seminary and beginning his second year in the Master of Arts program with a concentration in theological studies.

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Becoming Ecologically Aware – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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By Jonathan Stauffer

Several experiences in the natural world heightened my self-awareness and spirituality. These experiences began as a child living in the country and continue into my adult life. I once took for granted the value of Earth, but these experiences built the case for greater appreciation and protection of God’s creation.

I grew up on a family farm and had many outdoor experiences through work and play. One of my jobs during the summer was to pull weeds out of the corn fields. I fed calves as a part of our dairy operations as a year-round job. Each of these tasks gave me a sense of what living things need to grow, which I attribute as an early ecological awareness. I also had time to play on the farm. I pulled off the heads of dandelions and climbed trees. On clear nights, I beheld a multitude of stars. Looking back, these childhood memories often contained moments of wonder.

By my high school years, however, my attitude had changed. I underestimated the value of outdoor experiences, and I did not see farming as an appealing profession. My interests focused on science, and I wanted to become an engineer. I studied physical sciences as an undergraduate at Manchester where I learned about universal laws of nature as they pertain to energy and matter. I also realized concerns arising from pollution and climate change that I felt needed solutions. But looking back, my efforts to understand the crisis focused more on human interests than the broader issues of ecology.

A profound change to my ecological awareness came about 7 years ago. I agreed to teach nature classes at a Brethren youth camp with my friend, Randall Westfall. Randall introduced me to wilderness awareness skills. I learned practices for how to walk quietly, listen intently, and observe carefully in whatever place I walked. These practices added a greater definition to my vocabulary of the natural world and invoked my childhood wonder once again. I also received joy from teaching the youth some of these same wilderness techniques because I saw their own spiritual and intellectual growth develop at camp. From these experiences, I have a continued interest to serve in outdoor ministry and learn about the local place that I reside.

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I believe that wilderness skills are practice that contributes to human wholeness. Over time, I studied field guides to develop further knowledge of plants and animals. I learned about the ecology in my region. I no longer saw trees as green tops and brown trunks, but distinguished them by their leaves and bark. I memorized the features of several common medicinal plants and a few common bird songs. In this way, my awareness of biodiversity within creation increased, which is a natural order that God allows humans to comprehend.

Of course, there are also natural hazards that humans must heed. Caution towards the wilderness is not just for our own protection, but also serves to protect the rest of creation. We are reminded that God established creation a long time before humans came on the scene. As powerful as human knowledge has become, we are still limited in understanding the processes of the wild. Natural hazards provide a wisdom that humbles and sets ecological boundaries.

We must remember that humans are not detached from the creation. I believe wholeness (Shalom) includes turning to sustainable farming practices as well as developing renewable energy technology alongside ecological conservation. In order to best enable these changes we need to increase our understanding of the ecological processes that benefit our daily lives and pattern our build environments after them. Failure to do so will harm all creatures, including humanity.

Today, I view creation not only as a means through which God provides our food and fiber, but also as places for renewal and revelation. From this understanding of creation, I am grateful for the sacred intent that the Creator gives through nature. Such an understanding fosters simple living by assessing what are truly basic needs and what are empty desires. In fact, I question the accelerated pace of technology over the last fifty years, and wonder whether there are limits to its perceived benefits. I now am concerned about wholeness for both human and non-human inhabitants of the planet Earth.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to care for God’s Earth. Reading the Bible enhances our ecological imagination in addition to faith formation. Beyond the account of creation in Genesis, poems and wisdom teachings in the Old Testament relate to nature (Psalm 104 and Job 38-39). In the New Testament, the parables of Jesus employ nature as analogies for the kingdom of heaven (e.g. Matthew 13). Human interests are deeply intertwined with other creatures and the land, and God intended creation to be this relational. The Creator establishes these relationships to keep us in communion with all living things and the Divine.

As Brethren, we have traditions of simple living and covenant relationship, lifestyles that foster wholeness and aid in restoring the planet. Let us enjoy the God-given benefits of creation while also relieving the pain that we and other humans impose on it. Failure to act will be a missed opportunity in witnessing to the abundant living that Christ modeled for us.

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Jonathan Stauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. He is currently a student at Bethany Theological Seminary and beginning his second year in the Master of Arts program with a concentration in theological studies.

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Theology and Troubling Theologians

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What do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? Does bad behavior discredit good scholarly work? When concerning behavior is made public, what should be our response? When repentance has seemingly taken place, is there an appropriate length of time before the public forgives?

We recently examined what happens in baptism. My understanding has been heavily influenced by the work of two troubling theologians. Mark Driscoll and John Howard Yoder are two of the most famous theologians of recent times. They are, also, two of the most controversial. For my fellow theology nerds out there, it might seem odd that my theology could be influenced by two folks who are so different. If Driscoll and Yoder would have been locked in a room together, Yoder might have re-thought his pacifism. For now, though, let us focus on the questions from the previous paragraph.

Mark Driscoll is the former founder and pastor of Mars Hill Church, a multi-site megachurch in Seattle, and the former head of the successful para-church ministry Acts 29 Network which focuses on church planting. Driscoll was an early supporter of the Emergent Church movement and later became one of the most influential leaders in the New Calvinist movement.

Though Driscoll consistently received critiques from progressives for his complementarianism and hyper-masculine style, he started receiving nearly universal criticism in 2013. In May of that year an elder resigned and lodged a formal complaint against Driscoll stating that Driscoll’s sins included “not being self-controlled and disciplined, being domineering, verbally violent, arrogant, [and] quick-tempered.”((Murashko, Alex. “Charges Against Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church Executive Elders ‘Non-Disqualifying,’ Says Advisory Board.” Christian Post. March 27, 2014.)) In November of that year, Driscoll was faced with multiple accusations of plagiarism in both his published books and sermon supplemental material. The next year, it became public that Driscoll had used hundreds of thousands of church funds to purchase copies of his books to engineer sales numbers in order to suit his desire to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Things came to a head when a forum thread resurfaced and circulated online from 2000 in which Driscoll, under his pseudonym William Wallace II, was shockingly aggressive and vulgar – even for him. He was removed from the Acts 29 Network and resigned from Mars Hill Church which subsequently disbanded to form 11 independent churches.

John Howard Yoder was a theology professor with an expertise in Christian ethics. A Mennonite, he was a famous Christian pacifist. Yoder ended his career working at the University of Notre Dame. He began, however, working for Goshen Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Biblical Seminary. The two institutions later joined to form Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary which has since been renamed Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS).

Unlike Driscoll, Yoder was not particularly controversial and was even well liked by many across the theological spectrum. Even when his status as a troubling theologian became well-known he was, for the most part, not publicly lambasted or shamed. Folks in the seminary community had been aware, to varying degrees, of Yoder’s sexual behavior which was at its mildest strange and its worst violating. Numerous groups were formed to try to intervene with no success. The first group to really take any major action was from his congregation. This group received reports from 13 women of sexual violation which took place “in many places: conferences, classrooms, retreats, homes, apartments, offices, parking lots.”1 Due to the work of this group, Yoder’s credentialing was suspended and was never reinstated. This seems shamefully minor in comparison to Yoder’s actions, however. Though this initial case of 13 led to some action, once one digs deeper it becomes apparent that Yoder’s deviant behavior stretched much farther. During the 70’s and 80’s Yoder sexually violated over 100 women in multiple countries. What’s more, many knew and seemingly covered it up. Seminary president, Marlin Miller was not only aware, he took detailed notes about allegations, compelled women to remain silent, and later ended up destroying the majority of evidence against Yoder and the seminary. AMBS did finally apologize in a worship service on March 22 of this year in which folks close to the seminary community, including victims, were invited for a service of lament, open sharing, and prayer. Though this certainly is a step in the right direction, the overall response to Yoder’s actions is both perplexing and vexing.

Though these two stories have some similarities, the differences are what I find truly interesting. On the one hand, we have Yoder who actually broke the law – though he was never charged. Yoder also used methods – abuse of power, manipulation, and coercion – in his illegal activity which stand in conflict and diametric opposition to the Christian pacifism upon which his life’s work was based. All the while, Yoder’s fall from grace has not been widely discussed outside of Anabaptist circles and, as mentioned earlier, when it has been discussed by the broader public, he has not faced the sort of public backlash as others have for doing much, much less.

So, now we get to Driscoll who is one such person. Driscoll has been outright ostracized, as of late, for being un-Christ-like, unethical, and engaging in suspect business practices. Driscoll has, for the most part, been lambasted and shamed for behavior some, if not many, people are probably not surprised by. Anyone who has ever heard or read Driscoll’s works would describe him as aggressive, crass, and unapologetically blunt. For those outside the New Calvinist movement, his views on gender roles seemed backward and offensive long before his public fall from grace. Why, then, was the resurfacing of this blog thread from 2000 such a big deal? This is a serious question for a couple reasons. First, Driscoll had already confessed to this in one of his books, classifying his William Wallace II days as his angry prophet period – one he had since outgrown. Sure, you could still make a very compelling argument that Driscoll still was not acting Christ-like long after his angry prophet stage, but his behavior had noticeably improved upon his open confession and recognition of his former wrongs. Second, I wonder about the influence of our current internet culture on this storyline. If Yoder’s behavior, or at least its coming to light, had taken place in a world of social media and 24-hour news cycles, would things have been different for him?

Driscoll continues to be an outcast, some would even say he has been demonized. There was recently public uproar because Driscoll had been invited to speak at a recent Hillsong conference. He was not giving a plenary. He wasn’t even giving a speech or being asked to speak from any sort of position of authority. He was to sit down for a conversation with Hillsong pastor Brian Houston to talk about what if anything Driscoll had learned in the past year. People threw a fit to the point that Hillsong had to come out with a statement saying that Driscoll would not be present at the conference. The interview still took place and was broadcast via video at the conference which still got a number of people upset. Hillsong and Houston never endorsed Driscoll. Hillsong is a neo-Charismatic multi-site megachurch which differs from Driscoll and the former Marsh Hill Church in a variety of ways. Both are conservative evangelical, but Hillsong is egalitarian and has surprisingly moderate views on LGBT inclusion. So now what? Are we not even allowed to have civil discourse in public anymore? Are we not allowed to openly discuss our failings, and the failings of others, and examine what we’ve learned and how we’ve grown?

So, what do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? Ed Setzter says that while repentance must be both public and thorough, it must also ultimately lead to restoration.2 This is huge. Yoder has passed on. There is no longer opportunity for his public and thorough repentance and his restoration this side of the Jordan. There are opportunities, though, for the AMBS and broader Mennonite communities. It seems, too, that they are moving in the right direction. The same could be said of Driscoll. You may not like him as a person. You may not like his theology. But he does seem to be in the process of a public and thorough repentance. When, then, does restoration occur? Is there a time limit? What if God treated us the way many of us treat folks like Driscoll and other famous pastors who have public falls from grace? Can we forgive without forgetting, being permissive or affirming?

Two stories from Scripture, the parables of the prodigal son and the unforgiving servant come to mind. We are to forgive and welcome back into the fold those who turn and come back home. We are to forgive others who act inexcusably because God has done so for us and will punish those of us who refuse to forgive. I think of Noah and his naked drunkenness, David the murder and rapist, Moses and Paul who were also both murderers. God did amazing things through these broken people. I might not be a drunk, rapist, or a murderer, but I know how dark my sins are. I know that I’ve done things that are truly terrible and I know that I have hurt a number of people in my life, especially during my adolescence. I also know that I have helped positively shape the spiritual lives of many people by the Grace of God who chooses to use broken sinners for his glory.

So, I ask again, what do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians? I, for one, acknowledge that the theology is good while also acknowledging that the theologians sometimes were bad. Yoder and Driscoll have hurt countless people. That is a serious, serious issue and should never be minimized. Yoder and Driscoll have helped positively shape the spiritual lives of countless people. That is a serious, serious issue and should never be minimized. So, that’s what I do. What do you do?

  1. Waltner Goossen, Rachel. “The Failure to Bind and Loose: Responses to Yoder’s Sexual Abuse.” The Mennonite A Publication of Mennonite Church USA Providing Anabaptist Content The Failure to Bind and Loose Responses to Yoders Sexual Abuse Comments. January 2, 2015. []
  2. Setzter, Ed. “When Pastors Fall: Why Full and Public Repentance Matters.” The Exchange. April 22, 2014. []
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What Happens in Baptism

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This post begins a two-part series. Part I will deal with the question “What happens in baptism,” an important question for many Anabaptist-Pietists. Part II will deal with the question of “what to do with quality theology from troubling theologians.” At first glance, I imagine that these two questions seem pretty far removed. You might be wondering how they connect as parts of a two-part series. Read on and I hope it will become clearer.

Baptism is: an act of discipleship; our dying and rising with Christ; our joining the fellowship of believers, which is the new humanity. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears write of this theology of baptism succinctly by saying:

We believe that water baptism is for those Christians who have already received Spirit baptism, making them part of the church. In water baptism, Christians are immersed in water, which identifies them with the death and burial of Jesus in their place for their sins. Coming up out of the water identifies them with the resurrection of Jesus for their salvation and new life empowered by the Holy Spirit. … [It] is a symbol of something far bigger. It is a visible declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit expresses the believer’s death to sin, burial of the old life, and resurrection to a new kingdom life in Christ Jesus.1

Baptism is an act of discipleship.

Scripture teaches that Jesus and the apostles charged all Christians to be baptized. Baptism identifies one as a disciple. Jesus commissions the first apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).” Peter, too, speaking to the crowds after Pentecost calls the crowd to believe, repent, and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Acts records how baptism accompanied conversion. After Peter had finished preaching to the crowd, Acts explains that “those who accepted his message were baptized (Acts 2:41).” Acts 8 shares of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch who eagerly exclaimed, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” After being baptized, he “went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:36-38)2

Baptism is our dying and rising with Christ.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.

One of the central claims of the gospel is that God is reconciling people to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-19). We go from spiritual deadness and separation to being counted as alive in Christ. We are united with Jesus and submit to becoming part of his death. In Christ, though, we experience death that conquers death for in Christ “death is nor more” for it has been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

Baptism is our joining the fellowship of all believers, which is the new humanity.

In addition to being united with Christ, baptism unites us with the global church of committed disciples – the fellowship of all believers. In baptism, we proclaim that we are part of the true church of those converted, born-again, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and priests with unmediated access to God.

The church is the new humanity in which there is “a new inter-ethnic social reality.”3 The church is a people made up of all kinds of people. In Christ, God creates a new humanity that wrestles deeply with the problem of togetherness. In fact, this new humanity envisions a new way of living together “[as] a ‘multi-ethnic community,’ [that] does not quash ethnicity but relativizes it to the central claim that Jesus is Lord.”4 The same is said for other carnal attributes. This new path that showcases egalitarian living is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. The church is corporately made up of heirs of the Kingdom. “As ‘joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17) we receive the title to the coming kingdom, and even in this life we receive the ‘earnest’ or first installment of this inheritance.”5 In the church, and even more so in the coming Kingdom, God fulfills the promise to “take … from all the nations [and] gather … from all the countries” and give them his Spirit (Ezekiel 36:22-32).

Even the individuality of joining the church has the potential to lead to this togetherness as part of the New Humanity. Baptism, an act commonly associated with inauguration into the Church family, is rooted in many ways to the forgiveness of sin. It is a new birth – a new start that is available to the proverbial you. “The you here must refer not just to each person but to the other person – the stranger, the outcast, even the enemy or oppressor that one is inclined to view in terms of their past actions.”6 Because God can forgive you, he can forgive anyone. As all can be forgiven, the forgiven are one with Christ. As part of the new humanity, we are called to see passed our individual sinfulness and the sinfulness of others to our oneness in Christ. The new humanity aims to serve both the guilty and the hurting through reconciliation to God and to humanity. This new humanity works in the world, to bring about holistic change, under the guidance of Jesus Christ who is leader, shepherd, and judge. Under Christ’s supremacy, the church brings people into newness, continuing to proclaim that “The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So, what do we do when theologians don’t live up to their theology? What do we do when it seems as if the old things have not, indeed, gone away? Are they hypocrites? Do we dismiss their quality work because of their personal missteps? Does grace abound? Check back in next week as I ask the question: “What do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians?”

 

 

  1. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010). []
  2. See also: Acts 8-10, 16, 18-19., 22; Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-15; Titus 3:5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-14; 1 Peter 3:21. []
  3. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 30. []
  4. Russell Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy: Eight Views of Baptism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 28 []
  5. Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy, 127 []
  6. Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy, 35. []
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On Desire Lines: Sarah Coakley, Vulnerability, and What Turns Us On – Guest Blogger, E Lawrence

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DesireThis post original was published on the blog Women in Theology. In a culture which capitalizes so much on desire, exploring the topic is an important theological task. Though this is a longer discussion than is usually shared here, the E. Lawrence gives a helpful reflection on desire as a theological category. It is shared here with her permission. 

The older I get, the more I think that the crux of becoming a mature person, the person God has created you to be, is about discerning your desires. Your deepest desires. I have to admit upfront that I am not necessarily sure what you should do with your desires in all cases (especially since there are life-giving, truthful desires and selfish, destructive desires…), but I think we should decide it’s a good thing that desire is there, inside of us, and we should strive to know it.

Perhaps if I continue to get older, I will stop pursuing this line of thought and decide that something else is key. But, as it stands, as I am on the cusp of turning 30, I think that being honest about your desire lines is necessary for mature adult personhood.

If you’re studying Christian theology, I can imagine a certain uneasiness cropping up at this point, at least for some of you (especially some of my peers at my graduate institution). But no, I’m not blessing consumerist individualism. Or hedonism. Or any form of extreme self-indulgence, really. I’m not telling you to go in peace and excessively indulge in whatever happens to get you off, whether it be shopping or food or porn or sports.

I’m not even blithely endorsing expressive individualism, which, as a distinctively modern phenomenon, pivots around the centrality of the individual self and its unique worth, a singular identity that just has to be expressed. (“My self-expression is my only truth.”)

Importantly, I’m not adducing the concept of discerning your own desire as a way of ignoring the desires and needs of others. In reality, clarity about one’s own desires, and an ability to see—to empathize with—the hopes and wishes of others, should rise in tandem together. (But how all that gets concretely negotiated is obviously very complicated…)

Hopefully some of that throat-clearing is done now. What am I up to, then?

To begin, I’ll say that I’ve been reading Anglican feminist theologian Sarah Coakley lately. Also, she plays an important role in my dissertation. This return to Coakley’s corpus is especially timely given the impending release of her much-anticipatedGod, Sexuality, and the Self later this month in the US. (Could this turn of events be a beacon of hope for the coming release of David Tracy’s God book?! Do the books of lore eventually get published?!)

A couple things about Coakley. The cornerstone of Coakley’s work is a particular kind of prayerful practice: allowing oneself to be de-centered by God so as to become still, to be able to discern and follow through on the possibility of right relationships within the world. In her famous essay entitled “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing” fromPowers and Submissions, she writes (and I quote at length):

What I have elsewhere called the ‘paradox of power and vulnerability’ is I believe uniquely focused in this act of silent waiting on the divine in prayer. This is because we can only be properly ‘empowered’ here if we cease to set the agenda, if we ‘make space’ for God to be God…[E]ngaging in any such regular and repeated ‘waiting on the divine’ will involve great personal commitment and (apparently) great personal risk; to put it in psychological terms, the dangers of a too-sudden uprush of material from the unconscious, too immediate a contact of the thus disarmed self with God, are not inconsiderable…But whilst risky, this practice is profoundly transformative, ‘empowering’ in a mysterious ‘Christic’ sense.[1]

Even though I continue to have some reservations about the ease with which Coakley brushes past the potential psychological burdens of sustaining contemplative practice described in such self-effacing terms, I remind myself that she intentionally makes this argument in response to post-Christian feminist Daphne Hampson and the latter’s rejection of a discourse of kenotic vulnerability before God. In other words, Coakley is keenly attuned to the reality of women’s oppression and noxious infantilization under the rough hands of patriarchy. And, it is precisely in and through this concern that she argues that making space for a powerful triune God in prayer does not reinforce subjugation, but rather, gives one the strength to resist it. So, to understand Coakley, you’ve got to understand how important the paradox of prayerful human vulnerability before a powerful God is for her thought.[2]

But to really understand Coaklian vulnerability, you’ve got to locate it in proximity to her account of desire, and that is what currently interests me. For Coakley, the act of making oneself vulnerable allows for a couple significant things to occur: you become in touch with your desire for God, and, through that, you also become in touch with God’s desire for you: “There is our own primary desire for God, of course, which we strive in prayer to put first; but underlying that is God’s unique and unchangeable desire for us, without which all our own striving is fruitless.”[3]To make space within oneself for God, is to connect—and reconnect—with a yearning for God, to be filled with God’s goodness (“Our hearts are restless,” etc.). And, then, if we sit with this desire, we realize we are being buoyed up by a stronger, underlying undercurrent of divine love directed at us, permeating us, praying within us (cue Romans). In grasping for God, we realized we are always already being grasped (and this point reminds me of Rahner’s notion of mystery as superabundant, positive and gracious).

Importantly, this matrix of divine and human desire that suffuses prayer also affects our desires as directed at people and things within the world. Specifically for Coakley, this means that our sexual desires and our desire for God are entangled with each other: “No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered…Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will nor allow this, or not for very long.”[4] Among many things, I take this to mean that our sexuality, in its essential goodness at its root, is a compass to help us discern the precise ways that we each choose to love God in this life. And, inversely, our love for God directs us to expend our energy toward particular people in particular ways, including sexual ways, in our lives. (Perhaps surprisingly, though, Coakley, as I recall, defends celibacy precisely as a particular kind of channeling of sexuality into various other forms of intimacy with groups of people.)

I like the way Coakley retrieves the Christian insight that sexuality, specifically as a paradigmatic expression of desire, tells us about who we are at our deepest level, in relation to God (and it’s definitely there in the tradition. See the Bible, the mystics, other people). In making this argument, she—unsurprisingly—puts me in mind of Rowan Williams’s essay “The Body’s Grace” and the way he understands same-sex desire in a similar theological paradigm. I like what these Anglicans are doing.

At the same, time, however, as a Catholic who is all-too-familiar with JP II’s theology of the body, I know how this high theology of sexuality can easily be deployed in service of homophobia and static gender roles oppressive to women. (In sum: sexuality is amazing when you are in a heterosexual marriage and the husband/God/Christ “initiates” and the wife/humanity/Church “receives.” The ontology of Everything Ever, especially Your Interlocking Genitals, stipulates it!)

Furthermore, I am aware of the ways that construing desire almost exclusively in terms of sexuality can problematically reduce desire down to one particular slice of human passion and feeling. I don’t think Coakley actually holds such a narrow conception of desire, but all too often in her work, desire is glossed in terms of sexual eros, and then she rest content to play with the supposed scandal created by crossing the gap between that desire and the desire for God. But I want more. (Wording intentional there.)

So, in returning to the opening of this post, and my positing that discernment of desire is pivotal for becoming an adult, I’d like to take Coakley’s positive valuation of desire and think about it in ways that include sexuality but also go beyond that. I’d like to think about the importance of desire more holistically in living a good life.

Desire, to my mind, is about figuring out what—and who—gives you the energy to be an instrument, an agent, of divine grace within the world. What lights you up and sets your ablaze? What makes you fully alive for God’s glory? Where do your passions lead you? What gives you glimpses of exuberance, of ekstasis, of joy? In other words, in all senses of this phrasing: what turns you on?

This kind of discernment isn’t about opposing desire and work, or desire and self-sacrifice for others, or desire and other frameworks for moral reasoning. It’s about gaining the kind of self-knowledge that is rooted in being a creature of God. Note that, in the list of questions I offered, I didn’t separate the joy of authentic human desire from living for God’s glory. The two are together. That’s the kind of passion I mean.

As I’ve gone through my twenties, I’ve noticed that the push for adulthood as an escape from childhood seems to go hand-in-hand with trying to fit into the expectations and wishes of others for us. The pressure doesn’t have to be as blunt as your parents wanting you to have a Responsible Job even though you Let Them Down by doing something silly like going to graduate school for a humanities degree. (That’s actually not my particular situation, luckily.) Rather, the external pressure can be much more subtle and diffuse.

For example, if you’re at a prestigious graduate institution to get your doctorate, you can gradually imbibe through the general intellectual ethos that being a “good” scholar is about putting all your energy into research (so you publish like a maniac) and the intellectual crushing of opponents whenever possible (there has to be violence at some level…). Or, to take another example, you may think that one particular romantic partner is the “right” choice for you based on various external criteria you have appropriated over the years. But in both these cases, you may come to realize that what you’ve been “groomed” to think about what’s proper and ideal is not actually what gives you energy and sustains you. In the first case, maybe you want to teach and lead a quieter—but no less profound—intellectual life geared around mentoring. And in the other case, maybe you come to see that your partner, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit into your desire lines as they orient your life. Maybe you want to be with somebody else, somebody who doesn’t fit the profile. Maybe you want to be indefinitely independent and single and use that particular freedom as an opportunity to direct your energy in new ways.

I hope these examples show that my emphasis on desire is not a rejection of broader frameworks for moral reasoning that include discerning right/wrong, the rights and needs of others, the formation of empathy, etc. (and these frameworks, of course, are initially exterior/heteronomous before they are internalized and learned over the years, and that’s good and normal).

I’m simply saying that there are too many people walking around with a false sense of direction in their lives when, in truth, they really don’t know what they want from life, who they are supposed to be, or that it is a good thing to stop and contemplate these desire lines as a mode of adult spiritual and emotional askesis. Women in particular, please listen up.

Before you dive headlong into the task of Meeting Expectations, at least take a second and think about protecting your joy and your energy any which way you can. The thing, too, is that God wants that, anyway.


[1] Sarah Coakley, “Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing,” Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2002), 34, 35.

[2] To be clear, I am not sure that Coakley ever adequately answers Hampson’s (albeit bluntly overstated) critique. Something to ponder.

[3] Sarah Coakley, “Prayer as Crucible: How My Mind Has Changed,” The Christian Century (March 22, 2011), 37.

[4] Ibid., 37.

E Lawrence is currently a PhD candidate in systematic theology. Her academic interests include theological anthropology, specifically theologies of disability, and feminist and womanist theologies; the intersection of ethics and systematics regarding love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self; the relationship between suffering and oppression and the cross; and embodiment and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. And, as Netflix informs her, she also enjoys “TV shows with a strong female lead.”

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