Saturday, February 23, 2013

What temptations do we face? Luke 4:1-13

As Christians, we model our lives on following the behavior of Jesus Christ, as it is described in the Gospels. Or, maybe I should say, we should model our lives on following Jesus' behavior. In this section of Luke, we see how Jesus responded to temptation, but there is more to this passage than meets the eye. It's about Jesus' temptation, and his temptation is personal, for him, not for me, not for you, but for him. When we look at these verses, we have to take into consideration that when he was tempted to turn the stone to bread, it was a real temptation for two primary reasons: (1) he could do it, and (2) he was hungry.

I've been hungry, not malnourished, famished, or starving, but felt like it was mealtime and I wanted to eat. But, I cannot turn a stone into bread. No matter how tempted I am to try it, I know I can't, so the temptation is not very real. On the other hand, the evil that lurks within all of us is in me too, so there are plenty of areas in which I am tempted. You might recall that I used to sporadically poke fun at smart phones, like the i-this or i-that. You might also recall that I stopped making fun of smart phones.

Electronic gadgets can be a temptation for me. I enjoy the features and researching the technical specs. They are tailor-made for an analytical mind like mine. I stopped talking about smart phones because I bought one. I used my money to buy this little gadget from ebay. It was money I could have used to buy ten mosquito nets from Church World Service, or I could have bought 2 goats through Oxfam or World Vision. Instead, I have this gizmo. It's great and terrible, at the same time. It's great because now I can get my email anywhere. It's terrible because now I can get my email anywhere. No longer do I have to wait.

This has gotten way too personal, but that's the nature of temptation. Each one is custom designed for you, or for me, or for Jesus. Throwing himself from the temple and having angels from heaven save his life would solve some of his problems. For instance, he would no longer have people doubt he was who he said he was, and he might not have been crucified on the cross. And that's problem with temptation.  Giving in to it is a step down a dangerous path. Oscar Wilde writes, "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it." It might be funny, but it doesn't really work that way.

Going back to my phone, as much as I would rather not, shows how this works. The temptation was to buy something I didn't truly need. I gave in. A few months later, I realized that it doesn't do everything I want and there is another one that does. Every so often I find myself on ebay, looking at shinier, newer, more feature laden gadgets. Do I need it? No.

That's the nature of temptation. The word used here is peirazo, which is Greek for to make a proof of, attempt, test or tempt. Our word for temptation comes from Latin temptationem, and it comes to us through the Old French in about the 13C. Does this mean that the temptation we experience only goes back 700 years or so? No. Going back further, James 1:14, "One is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it." Each one of us has temptations within us. They lurk beneath the surface, nagging us to give in.

Lent is the season in which we prepare our hearts for Easter. We need to prepare because the Christian life is not one we can do on cruise control. Just like in driving, we must stay fully engaged. Have you ever been distracted while driving? I've never told a story about my mother-in-law while preaching; I'm not going to break my streak. On the other hand, I have been driving along with my family, when I look at the stereo to find a certain track or look at the heating controls to see why I suddenly feel too warm, and I hear "Whoa!" I look up to see that I've veered closer to the line.

It is easy to get distracted. Something comes up and it deserves all of our time and attention. Suddenly we can't squeeze our daily devotions in any more. Then, things get a bit busier in life and Sunday mornings seem like the perfect me time--I just want to sleep in and then read the paper while enjoying my morning coffee. What seemed like such an innocent break (I'll just skip my time with God today, but will get back to it tomorrow) has suddenly grown into pulling us away from Christ. The temptation to live our faith unfocused or on cruise-control is always there.

During Lent, we prepare our hearts for Easter, in part, because it helps us deal with ever-present temptations. Jesus was tempted to turn the stones to bread because he was hungry. It was a real temptation, and he resisted. Why? Because he was prepared.

If we prepare our hearts, we are better able to resist temptation. Jesus set the example in this regard and it is beautifully displayed in this passage. He resisted because he was prepared. The opening lines of Luke 4 are, "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned…" and it goes from there. What was he? Full of the Holy Spirit. How many of us can say that we are full of the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to be full of the Holy Spirit? It means that we are fully engaged with God.

This Lenten season, as we begin our Lenten journeys, let us be fully prepared for the temptations that surround us. Every one of us faced different temptations. You might be tempted to buy things you don't need. Maybe a juicy piece of gossip is too good not to pass along. I'm not even going to mention the temptation to over-eat. Maybe you face darker temptations: drug or alcohol addiction, infidelity, betrayal of friends or loved ones, greed, lust, licentiousness, envy, pride… the list goes on and it includes all of us.

With Jesus, we don't get a magic cure. We get a model to imitate. We can follow Jesus' example. We can be full of the Holy Spirit if we seek God with our whole hearts. When the temptation comes to just reduce our engagement with God a little bit, resisting the temptation will make us stronger. Together, on this Lenten journey, let us pray for one another to be strong and resist temptation.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Virtual reality and the noösphere: Vernadsky's futuristic vision

The following is a paper originally presented at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Philosophy of Religion Section, March 17-18, 2011, New Brunswick, NJ.

In 1924, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and Edouard Le Roy (1870-1954) met with Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) in Paris. The three men created the concept of the noösphere. The word traces its etymology from the Greek root noos, meaning mind or thought, and sphere, meaning world. Thus, the noösphere is the planetary area of human thought. Vernadsky called it "the last of many stages in the evolution of the biosphere in geological history."[1] In The Heart of the Matter, Teilhard refers to it as "the Earth's thinking envelope."[2]

In this paper, I will focus on Vernadsky's definition of the noösphere because its manifestation in virtual reality is an evolutionary step. Virtual reality is an epoch-reflecting development stemming from technological improvements and human imagination. During the Cold War, the military-industrial complex in both the Eastern and Western world sought technological improvements in order to achieve an advantage over one another. Technology progressed along these military lines, but naturally spilled into the private and public sector. At the end of the Cold War, improvements in computer technology began to dramatically increase graphic display capabilities. In the 1990s, the pace of new technologies provided a vehicle for displaying the inner workings of human imagination. If one could imagine it, a computer could graphically display it. Thus, virtual reality came into existence through evolution in technological development.

Likewise, the concept of the noösphere follows evolutionary science; it begins with the geosphere (inanimate matter) and then develops into the biosphere (biological life). Next, humankind evolved and is evolving into the noösphere, which, as stated above, is the sphere of thought. However, the concept of the noösphere has received few references in Western thought. One example comes from the book The Internet Imaginaire (MIT Press, 2007) by sociologist Patrice Flinchy. In it, she cites an article from Wired magazine and writes, "The emergence of an informational membrane enveloping our planet and unifying the human mind… was a perfect description of the internet.[3] Yet, Flinchy does not scratch beneath the surface to find out what the concept of the noösphere means.

There are few other references to the idea found in popular culture. Here are three examples: the novella Mortimer Gray's History of Death by Brian Stableford, the anime cartoon Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the first-person shooter video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. In Stableford's novella, humanity dreams of the noösphere. This understanding is inconsistent with Vernadsky's definition because it portrays the noösphere as analogous to heaven or something to be experienced. In the anime series, some of the characters wish to reach the goal of the noösphere, which makes the noösphere sound like an ontological level instead of a sphere of thought or the mind. In the video game, the noösphere is something to be manipulated. In each of these examples, one could argue for viewing the noösphere in a way that would allow for it to be used as the author has, but I believe that argument is difficult to make.

The problem with these pop-cultural uses is viewing the noösphere as something to be obtained or experienced. It would sound nonsensical to make one's goal to achieve the geosphere or biosphere. The noösphere is an evolutionary step, just after the biosphere. Just as the geosphere did not cease to exist when life began and the biosphere came into being, neither the biosphere nor the geosphere ceases to exist with the coming of the noösphere. There are still rocks in the garden outside my home (geosphere) as I munch a carrot and metabolize its vitamins (biosphere) and conceive of the words to type on my computer for this paper (noösphere). The noösphere exists. It is not a goal; it simply is.

Part 1--Defining the Noösphere
If the above examples from popular culture get the noösphere wrong, how do we define it correctly? For Vernadsky, "the noösphere is a new geological phenomenon on our planet."[4] He writes about the concept during the climax of World War II, and placing oneself within Vernadsky's milieu, he is a naturalist, not a theologian or a philosopher, and he views the cataclysmic events of the twentieth-century's two World Wars as "part of a single great terrestrial geological process, and not merely as a historical process."[5] Thus, the noösphere is a label for what is happening, not, as viewed in popular culture, something to be achieved. Vernadsky looked at world events and saw an epoch shift.

In an essay about the development of the concept of the noösphere, Vernadsky describes his position in Russia in the Academy of Sciences and the Council of the Productive Forces. He draws the connection between the goals of science in his positions and the need for science to support the military. The connection he makes between the military and growth in science during the two World Wars is parallel to the connection between the military and computer technology improvements during the Cold War.

In Vernadsky's work, he draws a distinction between life and living matter. He writes, "'Living matter' is the totality of living organisms. It is but a scientific empirical generalization of empirically indisputable facts known to all, observable easily and with precision. The concept of 'life' always steps outside the boundaries of the concept of 'living matter'; it enters the realm of philosophy, folklore, religion, and the arts."[6] This distinction between life and living matter is essential to understanding the noösphere. Life is a concept--e.g. to have a life, get a life, what is the meaning of life--whereas, living matter can be quantified. A life to me might not be a life to you. Progressing along the evolutionary trajectory, the geosphere precedes the biosphere but the biosphere does not abrogate the geosphere. Both coexist. With the entry of the noösphere, there is a new understanding, the sphere of human thought or the envelope of the mind.

As Vernadsky unpacks the meaning of the noösphere in his article, he finds that humankind "becomes a large-scale geological force… it can, and must, rebuild the province of its life by its work and thought, rebuild it radically in comparison with the past."[7] He sees an imperative need to continue the geological and biological evolution, and he does not necessarily think humankind has achieved the end result. In a moment of prophetic clarity, he writes, "It may be that the generation of our grandchildren will approach their blossoming."[8] The generation to which he refers does experience the embodiment of the noösphere in virtual reality.

When Vernadsky looks to the future and consider how the noösphere will play out, he asks, "How can thought change material processes?"[9] Of course, he acknowledges, "thought is not a form of energy," but referencing Goethe, Vernadsky sees a limitation of science in answering a question of "why".[10] In other words, science should be able to explain how something happens, even if it presently lacks the tools to do so, but science cannot explain why something happened. Regarding the noösphere, he cites native aluminum, a mineralogical rarity which never before existed on the planet but is now produced in whatever quantity humankind wishes to have it. Thus, he writes, "Chemically, the face of our planet, the biosphere, is being sharply changed by humankind, consciously, and even more so, unconsciously."[11]

Vernadsky's reference to "unconscious" implications of anthropogenic impact on the biosphere is a second prophetic allusion. When he wrote, people were unaware of the implications of human-impact on the biosphere on a macro-level. With humankind's increasing understanding of anthropogenic climate change, Vernadsky suddenly sounds seventy years ahead of his time. However, this is part of the noösphere. There is fluid movement between the mind envelope surrounding the planet and thinking that is limited to conventional wisdom, like assuming anthropogenic climate change is inconceivable.

One of the fundamental aspects of the noösphere for Vernadsky is human ability to create resources by the transmutation of elements. He views the noösphere as the experience of using thought to change material processes. By conceiving of a means by which ore can be refined to aluminum, the human experience is augmented by, according to Vernadsky, changing the elements. He sees the outcome on a macro-level as the profound impact the transmutation of elements will have on life on the planet. In other words, we have aluminum when we did not have it before, and we have it through a world in which the mind retrojects changes to the biosphere or geosphere. Therefore, the noösphere can have an impact on the biosphere or geosphere, just as the biosphere had an impact on the geosphere.

The ability of humankind to change the planet using the sphere of thought has played out with dire ecological consequence, but Vernadsky's view of this aspect of the noösphere is a negative consequence. It is also reflective of his milieu. Expecting Vernadsky to anticipate something like anthropogenic climate change is unrealistic. Therefore, we can take his thoughts about the evolutionary process of moving from the geosphere to the biosphere to the noösphere, and see how his theory has played out. We can do this without ascribing thoughts to Vernadsky that he did not have. We can also do this without indicting him for being overly-optimistic about the positive impact of the transmutation of elements.

Part 2--Virtual reality as an embodiment of the Noösphere
If Vernadsky is correct, and humankind has entered a new evolutionary epoch in which thought or the mind is the preeminent sphere of existence, what does it mean? Setting aside his idea of the transmutation of elements, let us consider what a sphere of thought looks like for humankind today. Perhaps Vernadsky's vision of a world of thought has played out, but instead of reaching its fruition with changing ore into aluminum (or any other example of large-scale industry), it reached its fruition with virtual reality, an entire world that exists solely in the human mind.

With texting, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media surpassing printed letters, landline-telephones, and email as primary modes of communication, human existence is moving from one in which people physically connect with one another to one in which connections are more often electronic (or connections exist in a person's mind). Instead of the tangible piece of paper of a printed letter or hearing another person's voice on the telephone, pixels display symbols that represent communication, including emotions and sensory interactions.

Vernadsky's description of a world of thought is eerily familiar when considered in light of virtual reality and cyberspace. Beyond the movement from interpersonal interaction to electronic interaction, virtual reality represents a complete embodiment of the noösphere. Virtual reality is a term to describe computer-simulated environments. They can simulate physical presence in the real world or in imaginary worlds. Although, virtual reality is currently primarily limited to visual and auditory experiences, technology continues evolving to allow for sensory experience in virtual reality. Like theologian Paul Tillich's use of cultural artifacts,[12] philosophy of religion and religious studies can engage with these virtual environments in order to better understand human interactions, and when considering the implications of the noösphere, virtual reality begs more questions about a future world of thought than it answers.

In online experiences like Second Life, individuals can create a physically nonexistent persona, a virtual self. This is a prime example of the noösphere because the persona created on Second Life only exists in virtual reality, or in people's minds. Yes, there is computer code, digitized signals of 1s and 0s, networked in a web of multi-user and web-server connectivity. And, there are physical machines running these programs, but the entire experience is virtual. Although elements from the geosphere are used (and transmuted) to build the computers, they are present on a micro level, and the elements from the geosphere (like silicone on a microchip) are not part of the experience. This is why virtual reality forms an embodiment of the noösphere, and Second Life is an excellent example of this embodiment.

Within the thought world of Second Life, within the noösphere, religious groups have begun meeting. For example, has some virtual space in Second Life, and, according to their website, they list two reasons for entering virtual reality. First, they wish to proselytize people to Christianity.[13] Second, their website states, "We want to create an environment where … users and others who are a part of our online community can experience what we do in a more immersive environment than a web page."[14] The key to understanding the religious implications of the noösphere is's "immersive environment." Instead of going to a traditional religious worship gathering, users can create and augment their experience. They are also less constrained by cultural norms than they would be worshiping in the geosphere/biosphere.

Christianity is not the only presence in the noösphere. There is also an Islamic presence in Second Life. Egyptian-owned Islam Online offers a virtual visit to Mecca. During the 2007 Hajj, they hosted 7000 virtual visitors.[15] In the 2010 Hajj, there were over 12,000 virtual visitors.[16] There are also areas for people of other beliefs: IR Shalom, a Jewish city named after the ancient precursor to Jerusalem, and The Buddha Center, a Buddhism meditation area.

In virtual reality, in the noösphere, worship is an immersive and highly customizable experience. To say it does not exist denies the existence of the noösphere. When thousands of people claim to have religious experiences in this virtual world, Vernadsky seems to be right. A sphere of human thought follows the geosphere and the biosphere. It is still too early to say exactly what the noösphere means for humankind. To say it is illegitimate does not take into consideration the number of people who find existential fulfillment through virtual reality. But, to the people who claim fulfillment in virtual reality, is their experience really fulfillment?

Vernadsky, along with Teilhard and Le Roy, had a bold vision for the sphere of human thought. Vernadsky understood it as having the ability to create resources. Another virtual space is the game Farmville in the social networking website Facebook. According to one videogame magazine, over 32 million people play Farmville every day.[17] They log-on, make transactions, grow crops, and tend their farms. Yet, to date, not one single person has eaten something grown in the virtual world of Farmville. Perhaps Vernadsky's bold vision for a noösphere with the ability to create resources still has some distance to go.

[1] Vladimir Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 21st Century, no. Spring (2005): 21.
[2] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of the Matter, trans. René Hague (New York: Harcourt, 1978), 31.
[3] Patrice Flichy, The Internet Imaginaire (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 111.
[4] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[5] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 16.
[6] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 17.
[7] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[8] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[9] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[10] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[11] Vernadsky, "Some Words About The Noösphere," 20.
[12] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume 2: Existence and the Christ (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 13ff.
[15] "Second Life Visit to Mecca For the Hajj"

Book Review--Introduction to Modern Theology by John E. Wilson

The following review was published in Anglican Theological Review.  90.2 (Spring 2008).

Introduction to Modern Theology: Trajectories in the German Tradition by John E. Wilson. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 286 pages. $29.95 (paper)

John E. Wilson’s new introductory text on the past two centuries of German theology will give readers an insightful overview of modern Christian doctrine.  There is no area of modern theology that escapes the influence of German nineteenth and twentieth-century theological thought; therefore, Wilson’s book is an important contribution to religious studies literature.  He organizes the book chronologically around a thorough list of influential theologians and gives each one a digestible section that could either be read individually or in sequence.  The book will be a good survey for graduate students to get an overall sense of the German theological tradition.  Other well-informed readers might find this book a useful reference to refresh their memory regarding any of the included theologians.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a period or stream of thought.  The first chapter provides a historical overview of Germany, and Wilson draws relevant connections between historic events and their impact on German thought.  The second chapter devotes much attention to Kant and discusses the formative period in modern German thought.  Wilson also includes sections on Hegel, Schleiermacher and others in chapter two.  The following chapters are about mediation theology, Ritschlianism and liberal theology, antecedents of dialectic theology, dialectic theology, post-liberal American theologians, and German theologians emerging in the 1960s.

Each chapter gives space to the most prominent theologians in each respective school of thought.  Wilson does not presume to provide an exhaustive list of German theologians, so some readers might find the list incomplete.  However, Wilson is careful to cover the most important contributors making economic use of the space he has available, recognizing the individuality of the various theologians.  In the Preface, he writes, “Understanding theology is a matter of understanding the language of its concepts” (ix).  He illustrates this important point by including heterogeneous viewpoints.  For instance, among the six theologians within the chapter on mediation theology, Wilson writes about August Tholuck and Julius Müller as primary examples of the school of thought, but he also includes F. C. Baur as an example on “the left wing of mediation theology” (118).

In chapter four, which is devoted to Ritschlianism, Wilson begins with the neo-Kantian thought of F. A. Lange and Hermann Lotze before writing about Albrecht Ritschl and his successors.  American readers will likely appreciate Wilson for including a section on Walter Rauschenbusch in order to connect Ritschlianism in Germany with American theological development.  Chapter five is about the antecedents to dialectic theology, and chapter six is devoted to dialectic theology, giving prominent attention to Barth, Brunner, and Bonhoeffer.  Dialectic theologians “agreed with their Neo-Kantian and Ritschlian teachers on the impossibility of a scientifically valid philosophical metaphysics, but in almost all other areas they were quite critical of them” (171).  Dialectic theology was a break with the past, but it was in dialogue with the earlier schools of thought, including giving more attention to Kierkegaard than the previous schools had given him.

The final two chapters are about post-liberal American theologians and emerging German theologians of the 1960s, respectively.  Just as the early chapters point to the development of dialectic theology, the last two chapters trace developments out of dialectic theology, illustrating the importance Wilson gives this brand of theology.  The book ends slightly abruptly, but for the purpose implied in the title, Introduction to Modern Theology, it is quite useful and a valuable contribution to the literature.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Changed by God--Exodus 34:29-35

I love the whole story about Moses. And, this passage is one episode in that long, full section of our Bibles about Moses' life, his work, his commitment to God and his interaction with the Hebrew people. This passage is about change. When I think about a passage and a keyword describing a passage (in this case, the keyword is change), I try to relate it to something with which we are familiar.

When is change good? What do we need to change? Lots of examples come to mind: the air filter in the furnace, the oil in our cars, socks everyday. Some changes are really nice, and we notice them right away, like putting fresh sheets, right from the drier, on the bed. Some changes cannot be avoided, like changing the cat box, if you have an indoor kitty. Babies really don't like it when we try to put off a change until mommy gets home.

In church, there tends to be an aversion to change. It has almost become cliché in church life to mock those who say: We've never done it that way before! Changes are often feared or we do not take time to understand what is involved in a change or why a change is taking place. Often, we like things the way they are, and changes disrupt our ordered life.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, "We can never walk through the same stream twice." He recognized how ever-present change is in our life, and he compared it to the flowing water of a stream. If I walk through a stream, even if I turn around and try to retrace my steps, the stream will be different--new, fresh water will flow around my ankles, and it will be different water than the water through which I first walked.

The story of the Hebrew people unfolds in Exodus. As it begins, they are in Egypt and need to get out. Things have gotten bad, and they get worse. Moses is born and placed among the bulrushes. Pharaoh's daughter finds baby Moses and you know the story. In Exodus 14, Moses leads God's people across the Red Sea. The pursuers are drowned trying to follow, and although we have a brilliant song of praise in Exodus 15, God's not finished with the people yet. The same ones who said, "Amen!" when Moses sang, "The Lord is my strength and my might," will build a Golden Calf in Exodus 32.

Now, in Exodus 34, Moses has gone up Mt. Sinai, and he brought two tablets down with him. His encounter with God has changed him, just as it has every time he encounters God. This time, his face shines, reflecting the brilliance of being in God's presence. When the people saw how he had been physically changed by being in God's presence, they did not want to come near him. They were afraid because something was different. The passage goes on to reflect the way we (all of us) are changed when we encounter God.

Moses encountered God at the burning bush in Exodus 3. He was never the same. That encounter led to his role in leading the Hebrew people. This encounter in Exodus 34 gives greater rule and structure to their lives, but the Bible does not let us wonder whether encountering God is just an inward, intangible change. When Moses comes face to face with God, his face reflects the encounter.

For us, who, at our worst, fear change, and at other times, would simply rather avoid the inconvenience or disruption, we can be assured that our encounter with God will not leave us where we are. From day to day, meeting God draws us to grow closer and into new areas. Moses was not meeting God for the first time in Exodus 34. He had known God his entire life. He met God in the most explicit way in Exodus 3, at the burning bush.

Here in Exodus 34, Moses meets God in a new way and it leaves him with a glowing face. Few of us would suggest that meeting God leaves just as we were before. We may sing, "Just as I am," but we don't really believe that we stay just the way we were. God changes us, moves us, and draws us into new places.

Growth in our Christian journey might mean thinking about something in a new way, and this gets to the heart of why change is so frightening. If we think about something in a new way, or we accept a change, we acknowledge that we were not perfect the way we were. Think about that. This is the most convicting part of considering any changes in our lives. If we change, we acknowledge that we were not perfect the way we were.

Friends, you are not perfect. I am not perfect. Thomas R. Kelly writes, "The deepest human need is not food and clothing and shelter, important as they are. It is God…" [A Testament of Devotion p. 99]

Since we are imperfect, we need God to keep working on us, to keep perfecting us, changing us, and molding us into the new beings we can be in Christ.

Moses shows us that we are not yet complete because he was not complete. God kept working on him and through him.

Throughout our lives, we encounter God and are changed by the encounter. Yes, we need food, clothing and shelter, (& there is economic poverty) but we also need something greater, something more profound. For Christians, we find it in God, and the something greater brings joy and contentment. If you don't have full joy and contentment yet, even though you call yourself Christian, it doesn't mean you have not yet encountered God; it doesn't mean you are any less of a Christian. In recognizing the incompleteness of joy or contentment in your life, you can see the work--some of changes--God has for you.

We all have areas in which we can grow. We all have work God can do in our lives. The key is to recognize it and acknowledge it. Moses probably did not expect to be shining when we walked down that mount. What about you? Are you open to change? Are you open to God?

Let us make it our prayer to be open to God transforming our lives, to be open to be changed by God, because that's the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book review--Lord, Giver of Life by Jane Barter Moulaison

The following book review appeared in Anglican Theological Review.  90.3 (Summer 2008).

Lord, Giver of Life: Toward a Pneumatological Complement to George Lindbeck’s Theory of Doctrine by Jane Barter Moulaison. Toronto: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007. 180 pages. $65.00 (cloth)

In Lord, Giver of Life, Jane Barter Moulaison examines George Lindbeck’s theory of doctrine, focusing on the pneumatological aspects in Lindbeck’s work.  She puts Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic model in dialogue with an interesting mix of theological approaches by Lindbeck’s supporters and detractors, and patristic theologians.  Moulaison’s intent is to push Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic model into new areas, which she does while trying to answer relevant contemporary questions.  This book will be most useful for scholars interested in Lindbeck’s pneumatology.  Other scholars and graduate students will also find this book contributes an original perspective to understanding Lindbeck’s theology.

In the first chapter, “The Spirit Who Saves,” Moulaison introduces the book and her method.  She identifies three regulative principles in Lindbeck’s work: monotheistic, historical specificity, and Christological maximalism.  She then adds pneumatology as a fourth regulative principle based on the Trinity.  Moulaison writes that adding a reconstruction of pneumatological confession “is not intended merely to expose Lindbeck’s faulty recollection of historical doctrine; rather, it is meant to consider this surprisingly pre-empted reconstruction of historical doctrine as an intriguing clue as to what might be overlooked within his own constructive theology” (8).  By following Lindbeck’s concern in The Nature of Doctrine, Moulaison answers Lindbeck’s critics by theologically addressing anthropological concerns of formalism.

In the second chapter, Moulaison defends Lindbeck against critics who contend there is an ontological deficit in The Nature of Doctrine.  She asserts that ecumenism is the primary question Lindbeck is addressing.  Moulaison describes “the picture of theological language that holds us captive” in the first section (16-22), and the second and third sections address epistemological and doctrinal questions.  In chapter three, Moulaison places Lindbeck in conversation with Alister McGrath and the Cappadocian Fathers.  She writes that her second chapter is “animated by a quest for an adequate account of the relationship between the res significata (the thing that is signified) and the modus significandi (way of signification)” (35), addressing the post-Kantian dependence on res, while acknowledging exceptions like the assertions of Lonergan and McGrath.  Moulaison writes, “McGrath’s critique of Lindbeck’s theory of doctrine and his alternative theory on the nature of doctrine have, unwittingly, demonstrated the clear superiority of the cultural-linguistic model as an adequate account of both the genesis and nature of doctrine” (56), but she concludes the chapter, “Lindbeck’s project retains vestiges of the epistemologically prominent picture of the self-determining individual of which he sought to rid theology” (64).

The two primary foci of chapter four are intra-textual theology and intentionality.  Moulaison writes, “The dual nature of Lindbeck’s definition of un-translatability--irreducibility and sufficiency--is in keeping with Patristic understandings of the Bible” (83).  She places Lindbeck in conversation with Patristic scholarship and explicates Lindbeck’s metaphor ‘the text absorbs the world.’  “The text does not simply absorb the world; rather, because it is issued from the God who loves us, its address embraces, trains, and even saves us, insofar as the text is illuminated by the Spirit who saves” (98).  The chapter concludes Lindbeck’s text/world relationship is guided intentionally by the Holy Spirit. 

In chapter five, Moulaison examines Lindbeck’s “people-of-God ecclesiology, and she offers a patristic description of Church life.  This leads her to a brief exploration of the political implications of radical pneumatology at the end of the chapter.  Moulaison concludes her study with a chapter about the continuing role of the Holy Spirit.  She begins chapter six by tying the previous chapters together, including an examination of faith and reason, absorbing the world, and church and polis.  The majority of the chapter is a succinct restatement of her pneumatological complement to Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic model, and brings the book to logical conclusion.  I would recommend this book to scholars interested in exploring Lindbeck’s pneumatology.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Spring is surely coming

The following is a sermon I delivered at Kilmarnock Baptist Church on November 29, 2009. It was just before Advent, and I was looking ahead to hope and joy. Today, as we enter a beautiful late-winter day on the Northern Neck, I was reminded of this message of hope. The text is Jeremiah 33:14-16. I hope it speaks to you. 

On the sidewalk leading to our church, just outside the window, there are two trees.  Both have lost their leaves for the winter.  As summer turned to fall, the leaves followed the changing seasons and fell from their branches.  In each of these two trees, there is a bird’s nest.  Twigs, leaves, string and other materials are tightly bound together into two little bundles, hanging on the thin branches, one nest in each tree.  When I walk past the nests, I think about the birds that have come from that home.  I imagine a female finch, frantically gathering things together to form her nest.  Then, after finding a male finch, she lays her eggs and waits.  She keeps them warm, tries to protect them from invaders, and then, when they hatch and the chicks cry for food, she goes hunting and returns to give them nourishment.  The days slide by and the chicks grow.  She gathers food and returns.  The chicks get bigger and stronger, and then, one day she nudges them out of the nest and they take flight.  They, the mother and her offspring, all move on, and the nest is empty.  My life is not connected to theirs.  My life is not part of their life-cycle.  I walk by their nest and am merely an observer, but I know spring will come again.  Birds will return to their nests and there will be beauty all around us.  But, not now.  Now, it is time to wait.  Spring will come again, but first we have to wait.  Advent begins our season of waiting, and one of the biblical passages often associated with Advent is Jeremiah 33, where we read:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’  [Jer. 33:14-16, NRSV]

Jeremiah chapters 32 and 33 present a social vision encompassing restoration.  It is like seeing a bird’s nest in late autumn.  Right now, the nest is devoid of the life it will contain in the future, just as our lives are nothing, no matter how good things can get, compared with what they could be.  But, the prophet writes, “The days are surely coming… and [the Lord] shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  There is a promise, and as we enter Advent and begin looking toward Christmas, we hear this promise, “The Lord is our righteousness,” our justice, our virtue, our morality, our integrity. 

We will celebrate Jesus’ birth in a few weeks.  The springtime in our spiritual lives began on that blessed day, so many years ago in Bethlehem, in relative obscurity.  We picture the baby Jesus being born in a stable or manger, and from such an extremely humble beginning, the light of the world entered into the world.  However, we are not ready for shepherds and sheep, magi and wise men, a star, King Herod--the crazed-psychopathic king who commits infanticide.  We are not quite ready for the unwed couple, including a virgin mother, traveling for Herod’s census.  The angels who sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven” will be silent for another few weeks.  All of the lovely Christmas traditions will have to wait a bit longer.  The poinsettias and other greenery will arrive shortly.  We will light three more Advent candles, but not yet.  Eventually, we will sing Christmas carols, but the first Sunday in Advent is a time to begin waiting, yet we do not wait in vain; we wait having been given God’s promise of delivering the world.  “The days are surely coming…and [the Lord] shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

Spring will surely come again.  There is a promise of God’s righteousness, and as we enter this season of waiting-for-the-arrival-of-the-Messiah, we are reminded of this promise.  It is a vision of a bright future, pulsating with life all around, like birds singing in vibrant green trees, but we do not receive a promise of immediate gratification.  In this passage,

We are reminded once again that the vision of the future and of God’s blessing that permeates the Scriptures is not simply spiritual, interior, and personal.  It is richly material, life-enhancing, socially sustaining, and enjoyable.[i]

As we enter Advent, today we stand in tension between our celebration of Thanksgiving this past Thursday and the beginning of our journey to Christmas and the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Most people are aware that Thanksgiving began with the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors in 1621, but prior to Abraham Lincoln declaring it a national holiday in 1863, Thanksgiving was mostly a regional holiday.  As a holiday, its popularity grew slowly until the twentieth century.  Now, it is a national holiday, emphasizing family and giving thanks for the things we have.[ii]  Christians often extend the notion of giving thanks to mean giving thanks for God’s blessing, and the tension between Thanksgiving and Christmas exists because of the “ambiguous relationship between blessing and possessions.”  We give thanks to God for the blessings we have received, but too often we include possessions in our understanding of the way God blesses us.

It would seem, then, that [we] have little hope of understanding what to think about and expect from God's blessing apart from a prior proper understanding of the God who does the blessing.  Only in the light of this understanding could we then hope to understand the ways in which the blessing…will help us order all of our lives--including our possessions--so that we live and work to God's praise and glory.[iii]

We are still looking ahead, looking ahead toward Christmas, and as many of us enter a season that includes indulgent shopping, the reminder of waiting for the Messiah and a proper understanding of God’s blessing in Jesus might serve to offset an over-emphasis on materialism.  In other words, with God’s blessing in Jesus, we can see stuff in a new perspective.  Thanksgiving is designed to be nostalgic and make us feel good, both as Americans and people who are in a relationship with God.  It is a wonderful time to reflect on our Christian lives.  Christmas is also a feel-good holiday.  We have songs, stories, and presents, and it is a celebration of Jesus’ birth and life.  However, we do not have the sense of waiting for God’s movement in Thanksgiving or Christmas, like we find in Jeremiah.  Sure, we have to wait for Christmas morning and that waiting is difficult for little ones, but when the sun rises and Ebenezer Scrooge shouts out his window, “What day is it?” and the little boy answers, “It’s Christmas, Sir”, we find gratification.  The wait is over.  And if we believe that, according to the divine promise in Jeremiah that “The days are surely coming,” we are deceived because the wait continues.  With Christmas morning and our excitement of Jesus’ birth, we have his life, death, and resurrection to celebrate, but the wait is not just about waiting for Christmas.  It is about waiting for God.

The passage from Jeremiah under our consideration this morning has often been interpreted as relating to God’s messianic promise fulfilled in Jesus.  This is why the lectionary includes it as one of the passages for the first Sunday in Advent.  I can see how people might draw the connection between this passage and Jesus, and I am not trying to wrench these verses away from waiting for the fulfillment of prophecy.  I would simply like to suggest that there is another way of reading this passage.  God’s promise to Israel relates back to Genesis 15, with descendents as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5) and a promise of a specific piece of land (Gen. 15:7).  Waiting is an integral part of the Jewish tradition: i.e. waiting to be delivered from Egypt, waiting for the Messiah, waiting to be liberated from oppression, and so on. 

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, toward the end of the show, during the song “Sunrise, Sunset,” conditions have been deteriorating, and one character asks, “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the return of the Messiah for long time.  Wouldn’t now be a good time?”  The Rabbi replies thoughtfully, “Perhaps we are meant to wait someplace else.”  Waiting and patience are good lessons for us to learn.  Waiting can help us to refocus on the things that truly matter.  In Christian theology, waiting teaches us about relating to and trusting in God’s promises.  As an example, consider Joanna Adams.  She is the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Georgia, and recalls her cataract surgery.  She writes:

Days before the procedure, I was given several kinds of drops to put into my eyes daily.  The drops came with complex instructions and warnings.  After the procedure, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to sleep on my back or pick up a sack of groceries or even touch my eye.  I became convinced that if I did not do exactly as I was told, I would never see again.  Yet I could sense the deep care and compassion of my doctor and others on the medical staff.  Every day for a week after the surgery, someone in the clinic called to inquire about my well-being and vision.  Apparently the point of the warnings and the compassionate concern, coming together as they did, was to help me see better.[iv]

She had to wait.  She had to wait before the surgery and make specific preparations to get ready, and then she had to wait after the surgery, following specific instructions during the healing process.  Following God’s promise, “The days are surely coming,” we might experience spiritual cataract surgery.  That is, we can begin to see things for what they are and are less inclined to be fooled by the clatter of voices around us.  Our worldview is then marked by “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”[v]  Our Lord “wants us to be able to take the long view so that we can see the arrival of a world marked by God’s justice and righteousness.”[vi]  This long view includes waiting in a spirit of “unarmed truth and unconditional love,” and as we wait, we are bound by faith not to be weighed down by the worries of life.

In Jeremiah, we find the prophet drawing out the idea that the God who saves is also the God who blesses.  It is part of God’s promise and is as reliable as the changing of the seasons.  Understanding this idea of blessing is part of deepening our faith and our relationship with God.  Spring is surely coming.  Birds will return to their nests.  And, on this first Sunday of Advent, we begin waiting, not only for the arrival of baby Jesus on December 25th, but also entering a long view of life in which a spirit of “unarmed truth and unconditional love” dominate as we are confronted by a barrage of marketing during this holiday season.  People will try to convince us that happiness and fulfillment are contained in buying more and more stuff.  But, as we encounter advertisements this year, consider “the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet our heavenly Father feeds them.”  The long view infused with “unarmed truth and unconditional love” is the kind of life the one whom we celebrate on December 25th would have us live.  Amen.

[i] Patrick D. Miller, "Jeremiah," in New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 827-28.
[ii] Elizabeth Pleck, "The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States," Journal of Social History 32, no. 4 (1999).
[iii] Stephen Fowl, "Being Blessed: Wealth, Property, and Theft," in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).
[iv] Joanna M. Adams, "Light the candles," Christian Century 123, no. 24 (2006): 18.
[v] Adams, "Light the candles."  Cf. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech,"  (December 10, 1964).
[vi] Adams, "Light the candles."