a few words

Month: September, 2008

Doctrine, Ecology, and Justice (part 1 of 3)

Over the next few days I will post a reflection paper written for a course in ecological theology. The assignment was to draw connections between Christian doctrine, ecological integrity, and social justice.

To study the history of the human race is to encounter a startling variety of brutalities and barbarisms. When we learn about the Roman Empire and the pax romana, we inevitably hear rumors of the ardor surrounding the ritual blood and gore of the Empire’s arenas. The high-mannered civilization of Victorian England appears resplendent with strong moral fiber, but cast a long dark shadow over lands where putatively ignorant natives were either enlightened (by assimilation) or pressed into service. In the seemingly endless iterations of this dual theme, we marvel that people capable of such beauty and sensitivity can simultaneously be so crude, myopic, and morally deranged. In the unprecedented technological development and material standards living in North Atlantic culture (now making inroads as global culture through the machinations of the free market), what is the latent barbarism to which we are, presumably, anaesthetized?

When the students of 2200 or 2500 or 2700 AD recount the life of the 20th and 21st centuries, will they find that our short-sighted obsession with ever-expanding economic growth in the face of obvious ecological and social harm simply beggars belief? Will they ask how people could be so foolish as to undercut their own health and happiness while coercing billions of others with the whims and wastes of their greed in enforced and anonymous silence? Our seeming ignorance of the insoluble link between ecological integrity and social justice (or our willingness to disregard both) may be the most shameful aspect of our society’s legacy.

The public speaking advice to “imagine your audience naked” can be performed as a global antidote to pretense. The beggar from Delhi’s slums and the corporate officer in the Leer-jet overhead are, despite the “different worlds” they inhabit members of the same species—complete with moles, holes, wrinkles, and hair in bodily nooks. A little ecological imagination is a tremendous way to relativize the power relations that attend differences in class, wealth, or education! Despite modern (and pretentious) attempts to think about human history apart from creation—casting nature in the role of passive backdrop, raw material for development, or muse for aesthetic inspiration—human beings are organisms that arise from the dirt in order to breath air, take nutrients from plant and animal flesh, excrete their wastes, reproduce, socialize, and die back to the dust.[1]  Human history is natural history; there is no realistic trajectory of “progress” that leaves the integrity of the whole planet out of the picture.

Concurrent with the forgoing thoughts, [the assigned reading from] Professor Christine Hinze and James Nash establishes the inseparability of social justice and ecological integrity. The degradation of the natural world cannot but affect the people whose lives are inseparable from nature. From the perspective of the whole human species, ecological degradation is nothing less than suicidal self-endangerment. Injustice becomes apparent insofar as the wealthy and powerful are better able to insulate their lives from the effects of their folly, temporarily passing their impact off onto others. Christine Firer-Hinze argues, “If my ecological location includes my body, and my survival as an embodied, spiritual being depends on certain positive relations to my physical environment, then it is not possible to speak morally about human dignity apart from ecological concern.”[2]  The degree to which we actually honor the human dignity of others, then, is revealed by the way in which we protect the ecosystems and land in which others live, or by our failure to do so. Thus, the impulse to look after the health of the planet is not an aesthetic preference for those fortunate enough to enjoy “wilderness.” It is first of all a moral imperative relative to our fellow humans. Furthermore, it is a task with deep moral and spiritual consequence relative to creatures co-inhabiting the planet and the land on which they live. We cannot be whole and healthy human beings in abstraction from our place in the ecological order; thus, human flourishing (including salvation!) must be described in terms of re-integration with the natural world—or, more biblically, peace in the land.

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[1] Jürgen Moltmann (rather unusually) describes postmodern thought, not as the deconstruction of gender, identity, culture, or political discourse, nor as the final abandonment of metaphysics but rather as an attempt to think ecologically. Breaking the illusion that human history can be thought over-against nature as a line tracing human progress re-introduces the ecological interplay of every species of life with every other. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), xvi, 194-95. Or, as Joseph Sittler is reputed to have said often, “All the createds are relateds.”

[2] Christine Firer Hinze, “Catholic Social Teaching and Ecological Ethics” in And God Saw that it was Good, ed. Christiansen and Grazer. (Washington DC: US Catholic Conference, 1996), 176.

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ecological thinking :: the basileia of God

The Greek word basileia underlies the “kingdom” of “kingdom of God” in English translations of the New Testament. The word can, and has, be translated by a range of terms, from “reign” to “empire” to “regime” and more.

I’m wondering what would shift in our thinking about the human relationship with creation (or conversely, what might shift in our thinking of the human relationship with God) if we began to use another term, already theologically freighted, namely “Dominion.”

“Dominion” is, of course, the English word most frequently used to translate the Hebrew word kabash from Genesis 1:28, and is a familiar term in Christian circles. It is also a pejoratively loaded term in ecological circles because it is (mis)taken to imply that humanity has a God-given right to do whatever the hell they want with God’s green earth, because it’s all here to serve us human-beans anyway. Some of us are convinced that human beings belong in both ecologically-minded circles and Christian circles, and are trying to wrestle out the best way to think about these things.

If Jesus’ ministry is to announce and inaugurate the dominion of God, setting prisoners free, restoring sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, what does that imply for our “dominion” on the planet? What do “dominion” and “love” have in common?

worship and service :: theological epistemology is praxis

“The pluralism of biblical symbolism reflects the real multivocity of human experiences of salvation granted in Christ, experiences that are contextual and perspectival. The variety and even apparent incoherence of the corresponding symbolism can be but little reduced and never resolved through conceptual analysis and systematic theology. Instead, salvation and the cross must be integrated and appropriated through the kinds of Christian practices (liturgy and ethics) within which New Testament metaphors for salvation were generated in the first place.” 

The range of metaphors that Scripture contains for the salvific human encounter with God cannot be contained in a single book or system. The word of God itself strains beyond itself, stretching at the limits of the language in which it is heard to express what that salvation is and how it has come to us through Jesus Christ. In the end, Christians can only come to understand the various aspects and dimensions of salvation by participating in the worship and the life of service which is (or ought to be) found in the church. Salvation is about the liberation of economic and political justice—and one learns this by means of concrete solidarity with people whom Jesus loves. Salvation is about the forgiveness of human guilt and shame—and one learns this in the daily rhythms of the community that sings and prays to the God who has carried human guilt all the way to hell. Salvation is about transforming broken human lives into images of God’s faithfulness—and one learns this by proclaiming the gospel of God’s basileia (reign) and being transformed in the process. One learns the multi-faceted significance of Scripture’s teaching about salvation by actively participating in the community (the body) whose historical experience stretches across the centuries to include the writing of that very same Scripture. 

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Lisa Sowle Cahill, “The Atonement Paradigm: Does it Still Have Explanatory Value,” Theological Studies 68 (2007): 421. 

Tertullian on military service :: Christ among the barbarians

Tertullian

Tertullian

“To begin with the real ground of the military crown, I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. What sense is there in discussing the merely accidental, when that on which it rests is to be condemned? Do we believe it lawful for a human oath to be superadded to one divine, for a man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mother, and all nearest kinsfolk, whom even the law has commanded us to honour and love next to God Himself, to whom the gospel, too, holding them only of less account than Christ, has in like manner rendered honour? Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? Shall he, forsooth, either keep watch-service for others more than for Christ, or shall he do it on the Lord’s day, when he does not even do it for Christ Himself? And shall he keep guard before the temples which he has renounced? And shall he take a meal where the apostle has forbidden him? And shall he diligently protect by night those whom in the day-time he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear the while with which Christ’s side was pierced? Shall he carry a flag, too, hostile to Christ?…Is the laurel of the triumph made of leaves, or of corpses? Is it adorned with ribbons, or with tombs? Is it bedewed with ointments, or with the tears of wives and mothers? It may be of some Christians too; for Christ is also among the barbarians.”

 

Tertullian is arguing in support of a Christian soldier who refused to put on the laurel crown given to his company after a military victory. Wearing the laurel crown had some connotations of devotion to the civic deities of the Empire and was against the practice of the North African Christian community. The crown itself, however, is not the major issue in Tertullian’s mind as he is writing. He is more concerned with the unity of the church’s witness to the surrounding culture than with buttressing any legalism. At least some of the Christians of Carthage were beginning to question whether it was really a grave matter to participate in some aspects of Roman civic religion. Tertullian’s answer refuses to honor the legitimacy of the question about precisely where to draw the line of idolatry. Not only does he question the crown, he questions the actions that lead to being rewarded and recognized as a servant of the Empire.  In this context, he offers a powerful argument against Christian participation in the military—Christ is also among the barbarians!

As much as Tertullian wants to distinguish “Athens” and “Jerusalem,” it isn’t because he’s consigned Athens to eternal destruction. As he writes in polished Latin, drawing on the best of the philosophical and rhetorical traditions of his day, Tertullian is concerned that Christ should be honored everywhere that he may be found—and not at the point of the world’s sword.

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Excerpted from De Corona, chapters 11 and 12.

apologies

The silence in this region of the ether lasted longer than I intended. The trip to California was wonderful for a whole host of reasons. Someone I know sums it up pretty well, “Good things happen when people in mountains meet, this is not done by jostling on the street.”

In addition, I’ve now begun the program at Fordham and I’m now in the slow process of adjusting to a heavy load of course-work, an Albany-Bronx weekly commute, periodic separation from Carolyn, and the rhythms of life within a new community. All of this likely means that posts will continue slowly around here for a while. But don’t give up just yet…