Lenten Lunches: Thursdays in February & March

Lenten lunches started yesterday. They are held Thursdays from 12-1PM and rotate among several churches in Waterbury.

What are Lenten lunches? They are an opportunity to break bread together in unity and love during Lent in the Waterbury area. Lunch begins at noon with a short devotional led by the host church with lunch to follow provided by the host church. There is no charge for the meal but an offering basket is available to support the Waterbury Good Neighbor Fund which helps those in need in our area. Let us prepare in fellowship and joy to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus in the unity and love of the Holy Spirit from different churches but one in Christ.

Here’s the schedule:

  • 2/19 at the Waterbury Congregational Church, hosted by Wesley UMC Waterbury
  • 2/26 at & hosted by the Waterbury Congregational Church
  • 3/5 at & hosted by the Waterbury Center Community Church
  • 3/12 at & hosted by the Hunger Mountain Christian Assembly
  • 3/19 at & hosted by Saint Andrew Church in Saint Leo’s Hall
  • 2/26… To be announced

We hope to see you there!

Elizabeth Fram Show Opens March 1

Starting to plan for our next Meetinghouse Arts show in March: the luminous textile collages of Waterbury artist Elizabeth Fram.  Here’s a sample to tempt you:

The show will be available for viewing from 8:30 to 4:30 on Tuesdays through Fridays, or by appointment.  Free and open to the public!

You can find more about Ms. Fram at her website, here.

Hart’s, The Experience of God, Intrigues

After that last post, it seems that I should immediately write another one.  I do not want to give the impression that I am learning nothing from reading David Bentley Hart’s book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  I am enjoying it.  I just have some fundamental disagreements.

I am not one to think that trotting out the word “mystery” is a good thing to do, by and large, in theological writing.  I have a mentor who instilled in me a profound respect for the word.  He did not advise against it, just noted that 99.9% of the time “mystery” is just a sign of intellectual confusion.  Hart obviously did not have such a mentor.  His writing is not riddled with mystery, but it is used enough to make me cringe.  On the other hand, his writing is almost poetic, even while being obviously of the genre of philosophy so I have tried to remain alert to a potential offering in it.  And I see a thinker really grappling with great questions and doing so from the perspective of a questioner, not a knower.  I like that.

. . . this book is to a great degree a rather personal approach to the question of God.  I do not mean that it is subjective or confessional; rather, I mean that it takes the structure of personal experience — not mine particularly, but anyone’s — not only as an authentic way of approaching the mystery of the divine but as powerful evidence of the reality of God (9).

In any other genre of writing, you would not see the idea of mystery as expressive of reality.  In on sense of the definition of the word, if it’s a mystery, it’s unknown.  Of course it can also be used to define something that is difficult to understand.  And I think that’s what Hart’s up to.  He inspires me with his following description of his method.

In a sense, the perspective from which I write might vaguely be described as “Platonic.”  I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we speak them; indeed, we know them — though with very little in the way of concepts to make them intelligible to us — even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence (9).

Indeed, it is the this emphasis on experience that compelled me to purchase the book initially.  So much of the serious theological literature forgets this point and the result is that theology becomes the distillation of other ancient experiences of God, into propositions for belief, which you accept or deny upon your salvation.  Such “theology” has been the ruination of church.  I am convinced by such thinkers as John Cobb and Philip Clayton, that we must change theology or witness the end of church.

Their thoughtful members are more aware of the problems with the Christian beliefs that inform their liturgy, creeds, and hymns than of solutions offered by Christian  thinkers. They find reasons to continue to be supportive and active, but they are reluctant, or perhaps unable, to encourage others to share Christian beliefs that they  themselves find problematic. Even their children are unlikely to be inspired to shape their lives according to these beliefs. As social pressure to take part in church life diminishes, they are likely to drift away. As the future of the institution becomes more uncertain, its leaders typically become more cautious. Controversy seems ever more threatening. To avoid controversy is to avoid facing theological issues. It becomes increasingly difficult to introduce theological discussion into congregations. . . the only form of the oldline church that is worth preserving is the one that is open to all truth and ready to reformulate its faith in light of new learning. Such a church is ready to change its practice to conform to new understanding, but it must do so as a faithful response to the gospel, not as compromise with the world. This can happen authentically only through continuous rethinking and reappropriation of its heritage. In short, it is a major theological undertaking.  (John Cobb, “Do Oldline Churches Have a Future?”, 1998).

It feels to me like Hart is trying to be a faithful response to the gospel as it is also responding to 21st century realities.  Scientific understandings have exploded beyond the ken of most laypersons to grasp beyond an extremely rudimentary way, and the religions of the world have been forced to interact in ways they never have, leading to hardened exclusivism on the one hand and pure relativism on the other extreme hand.  Hart wants to use science and to be a responsible citizen of the world and to be a responsible theologian.  That’s a trinity I can get excited about precisely because it might lead to the kind of reappropriation of our heritage that the church requires today.

There are other moments that under my skin in a good way.  Here are two:

When I say that atheism is a kind of obliviousness to the obvious, I mean that if one understands what the actual philosophical definition of “God” is in most of the great religious traditions, and if consequently one understands what is logically entailed in denying that there is any God so defined, then one cannot reject the reality of God tout court without embracing an ultimate absurdity (16).

It is true that a great deal of the rhetoric of the new atheism is often just the confessional rote of materialist fundamentalism (which like all fundamentalisms, imagines that in fact it represents the side of reason and truth); but it is also true that the new atheism has sprung up in a garden of contending fundamentalisms.  There would not be so many slapdash popular atheist manifestos, in all likelihood, if there were not so many soft and inviting targets out there to provoke them: young earth creationists who believe that the two contradictory cosmogonic myths of the early chapters of Genesis are actually a single documentary account of an event that occurred a little over six millennia ago, and that there really was a Noah who built a giant ark to rescue a compendious menagerie from a universal deluge, or Hindu nationalists who insist that Rama’s Bridge was actually built by Hanuman’s monkeys, and so forth.  Here, certainly new atheism has opponents against which it is well matched (24).

Hart and Hartshorne

In our conversation on Wednesday about Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, I indicated some uneasiness with his metaphysics.  We all wondered if indeed he wasn’t setting up his own straw men, despite his criticism of the New Atheist’s own illicit use of straw men (is there a licit use of straw men?).  Then, last night, I picked up where I’d left off when I lent the book out and I knew he was, in fact, setting up straw men, or at the very least, simply not as informed about the options regarding the argument at hand, namely, Anselm’s ontological argument (see pages 114 – 122).  Hart is correct when he asserts that Anselm’s argument is remarkable and “not quite as lacking in subtlety as some of its detractors imagine, and it has certainly yielded a remarkably rich array of philosophical meditations over the centuries.”  But he is absolutely incorrect in his assertion that it was Alvin Plantinga, a “distinguished American philosopher” who was Anselm’s “most ingenious proponent.”  That honor belongs to Charles Hartshorne, as Plantinga himself would acknowledge — even though he differs from Hartshorne by remaining an essentially classical metaphysician.  I don’t know enough about Plantinga’s specific proposals to critique Hart’s analysis.  I suspect he’s correct in it.

What I mean by classical and neoclassical metaphysics is important.  Hart is a classical metaphysician which means that he uses the classical (Greek) notion of perfection as it relates to God.  God is perfect; what is perfect cannot admit of any need for change; God is changeless.  A neoclassical metaphysics argues that this idea does not square with our actual experience of God as love for love to be love cannot be otiose.  So, based on the philosophical insights of Alfred North Whitehead, Hartshorne, and other neoclassical metaphysicians, have showed that it makes more sense to divorce ourselves from the Greek notion of perfection, and, based on the requirements, both of God as God, and of the internal and external relations required by the idea of love, they have proposed a dipolar divinity.  God is not merely abstract, but also concrete.  In the words of neoclassical metaphysics, God has both properties of necessity and contingency.  God is not “simple” for these theologians. God is, as befitting the higher ideas, “complex.”

Here is Hartshorne addressing a common concern of attributing complexity to God.

Philosophy can scarcely refuse to deal with the idea of God.  For (in spite of some psychoanalysts) no other idea more obviously transcends the scope of the empirical sciences.  Yet “God” properly stands for the object of worship.  Can a worshipful deity be the object of rational analysis or demonstration?  Must not what we analyze be an it, rather than a thou?  We encounter God, it is said, as we do friends and enemies; we do not define or prove Him or them.  I believe that this objection rather inconsistently presupposes a rationalistic theory of the nature of deity, a theory which I which to challenge.  This is the theory that God is a single something, an entity so essentially “simple” that there can be no distinction between His reality as a whole and  any definable positive characteristic by which we could conceptually identify Him, in contrast to other beings.  My own rationalistic theory implies that while no essence, to be captured in a human concept, could possibly be the entire actual God whom we confront in worship, yet such an essence could very well qualify God and no one else.  It would be an it, though God is not.  But the Thou could include the it, and indeed the personal includes the impersonal, not vice versa.  — Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection, p. 5

It seems to me that Hartshorne pins down the squeamishness that someone like David Bentley Hart has in going in all the way with his project:  He cannot, or has not yet seen, that philosophy and the philosophy of religion require each other.  Or to put it Hartshorne’s words, conceptions of God and of creatures are correlative.  They are not the same; mistakes in one tend to produce mistakes in the other.

A perfect example of this I tried to express Wednesday with regard to Hart’s concept of creation as purely contingent.  My thinking, which I did not express very clearly, is that the world and God both have properties of contingency and necessity, not in the same magnitude or order, but logically they require each other.  God, cannot be purely necessary and create a contingent world.  The creation of a contingent world (or worlds) implies creativity on God’s part, as some world or worlds could be created instead of this one or these. This kind of creativity, no matter how you slice it, is part of what we mean in the idea of contingency.  For God, however, it cannot be that God cannot create, for creation is of more value than its negation.  God’s contingency is of a piece of God’s necessity.

His discussion of the world, of creation, is equally one-sided.  The world is contingent.  Period.  There may be other worlds, and they do, as he asserts depend on God as the creator of those worlds, but the worlds are in no way necessary — that’s God’s domain.  But in what way could a creation (any creation — this world or another) not in some respect be necessary as the necessary product of God’s necessary creating?

All of this Hart absolutely denies.  He writes, “God alone, by contrast, has necessity in and of himself” (p. 116). He goes on to say in the remainder of that paragraph to describe what that necessity looks like, and here he’s absolutely correct.  God’s necessity is more than indestructibility — God’s existence is analytic.   Or this: “all physical reality is contingent upon some cause of being as such, since existence is not an intrinsic physical property, an since no physical reality is logically necessary.” (p. 145).  Of course all physical reality is contingent.  But to deny that it is in no way necessary is not to take very seriously God’s role as Creator.

Hart properly notes that it was St. Anselm of Canterbury who most famously attempted to prove, from this basic axiom God’s existence.  And he notes that Anselm has had a great many critics, both in praise of his attempt and scornful of it.  Most famously Emmanuel Kant is said to have demonstrated the impossibility of an ontological argument (as this is called) for the existence of God by dismembering Anselm’s argument.  I took pen to paper today because, while Kant is widely assumed not only to have definitively poked holes in Anselm’s Argument, in the aftermath he is said to have once and for all put an end to metaphysics.  The only theologians or philosophers of religion I have ever read who have successfully pointed out the problems with Kant’s popular analysis are Charles Hartshorne and his intellectual descendants, Schubert Ogden, Philip Devenish, Pamela Dickey Young, Franklin Gamwell, to name four of the best — and so very little of the current theological literature addresses their ideas.

It is one thing to dismiss these writers’ ideas because they are shown to be illogical or self-contradictory.  It is another to assume the modern western stance that nothing can be done about Kant and to proceed doing theology as if it does not matter.  It absolutely does.  Why bother, as Hart himself acknowledges, if atheism’s arguments are water-tight?  On the other hand, why bother defending theism against the new atheists, if the best of what modern theological thinking has to say against the logic of Kant’s anti-metaphysics is that it is unassailable? Any thing else is just building a castle on sinking sand.

I have not finished reading The Experience of God.  I may be ultimately wrong about his project.  But his chapter on being does not leave me sanguine about his prospects.

I conclude with his concluding passage to the chapter on being that saddens me:

This has been a long chapter, as could scarcely be avoided, given the centrality of the metaphysics of being to the traditional understanding of God.  I may have said too much; but, then again, I may have said far too little.  I have paused before a few philosophical thickets that I would rather have summarily circumvented, had I seen a clear path; but I have not made the sort of effort it would require to clear any of them entirely away.  In my defense, I can plead both the narrow particularity of my avowed purpose in this book and a healthy abhorrence of redundancy: these arguments are millennia old, and the literature upon them so compendious that I cannot imagine what I could add to it apart from yet another very partial distillation of certain of their elements.  Presuming permission, therefore, I shall once again, simply wave a limp, lethargic hand in the direction of my postscript (p.149).

Oh, that’s helpful.

Sermons in Brown Envelopes

I mentioned last week that the Vermont Conference annual meeting at the beginning of June was a success.

 

One of the successful things about it, from my perspective, was having the Rev. Robin Meyers as a keynote speaker. Meyers has been a clear theological voice over the past decade calling the church to go “underground.”

 

That’s a purposefully provocative image. What he means by it is too much to tell today — but the nutshell is fairly simple to grasp:

 

Jesus’s ministry called people to place their trust in God. His call was a return to ancient Jewish insights like “You were once a stranger in a strange land remember that you are God’s and the stranger is too.” Or, relevant to our reading today, “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Jesus challenged his hearers to put aside all idolatry — not just the idolatries listed in the writings, but everything that circumvented trust from God.

 

And for awhile that was the way the church functioned. But it wasn’t long before the church itself became the locus of trust and loyalty. It’s thinking was thinking designed to protect the institution and when that thinking was combined with the such things as popes and property, salaries and pensions, the church had become the very expression of idolatry it had meant to challenge.

 

An underground church challenges it’s own self image — reforming itself in the attempt to realign its patterns of trust. It is underground because breaking the old patterns creates disturbances with the old alliances. Meyers rues the fact that no one passes around sermons in plain, unmarked manilla envelopes — plain and unmarked so that the NSA won’t track them down. You and I know he doesn’t mean that literally . . . The very fact that this is a joke indicates the kind of challenge the church faces: We have colluded with the NSA. I use that word collude with some consideration.

 

The whole point of my sermon today is to talk about that collusion.

 

II. Naboth and the King

The main action here is not centered on Jezebel, despite our fascination with her. She’s a foil. It’s really about a farmer and a King. It’s about power — but the interesting thing is that it’s not just a story of the bald exercise of power — it’s a story about good intentions gone bad because of the usual collusion with power is thwarted. Naboth is supposed to trust in the power of the King — he’s good. He wants the best for Naboth.

 

We don’t know much about Naboth. He never appears again in the Old Testament after this rather unfortunate incident. For that reason alone we could consider him a commoner. But he’s also a farmer and he’s very naive. Everyone knows that you don’t refuse a king without going underground. Naboth is just a poor farmer with no sophistication and before the week is out, of course, he’s dead.

 

 

III. The Unsavory and Simon

In our New Testament story of Simon and the unsavory woman, who is, as usual, unnamed. the issue, similarly, is the issue of failure to collude with the centers of power.

 

In this case the woman, about whom we know, like Naboth, only enough to say that she’s not really welcome there, enters the house of an official in order to be with Jesus. There is some concern in the air about Jesus’ hanging out with unsavories. The prologue to today’s story makes it all clear — Jesus had been engaged in ministry that caused all kinds of people to take notice. Mostly they were concerned.

 

Anyway, in walks this uninvited outcast, and instead of blaming her, (an act of collusion with the powers that be) Jesus embraces her, and she him, in an act that anyone around the banquet table would have recognized as an act of devotion as to a god. The message is loud and clear — Simon’s well-prepared and planned out dinner, meant to put him on a pedestal in the eyes of his peers, is overturned by loyalty to God. Jesus and the woman display faith, not to the idols Simon well knows he himself should spurn, but to God. In doing so, they are upsetting the old alliances. They soon will have to go underground. The church will soon have to begin passing around sermons in unmarked envelopes.

 

In the prologue to this story, John the Baptist is one who does some of the asking about Jesus. John’s in prison. Which is where people who subvert these old alliances end up. And he wonders? Could it be possible? Could it be that the Son of God, the Messiah, the One Who Is To Come, could be an upstart too? Could it be that this messiah figure was going to be powerless too? It would be radical.

 

 

 

IV. The NSA and The Marketplace

Last week, after the leak about the NSA data collection program on all of us, President Obama complained about all of us who were making a stink over it. He said, trust us. If you can’t trust the executive branch and congressional oversight, and the federal judges then we’re in a bunch of trouble.”

 

I tend to agree with the rather mainstream Thomas Friedman, who wrote in an editorial last week noting that all the people who are making noise about this seem to have forgotten that we live in a different world. That they’re “behaving as if 9/11 never happened — that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot how to topple our tallest buildings or bring down U.S. airliners with bombs planted inside underwear, tennis shoes or computer printers.”

 

But I’m not sure the issue is about intrusion so much as it is about whom we trust. Trust in government for the last decade or so has been at an all time low.

 

But that low is not because we think the government is spying on us. We may think they’re inept or corrupt. But I think the real issue is that we don’t trust government in the way we trust the free market. By it’s very nature, as an institution designed to protect the rights and goods of all people, it should have some issues with people like Ahab who want, in the condemnatory words of the prophet Isaiah, “To join together land with land until there is no room left for the poor.”

 

Harvard Law professor, Yochai Benkler wrote in last week’s New Republic about this completely ignored aspect of the Snowden debate:

 

The technology companies named in the PRISM presentation have all denied cooperating with the program, or even knowing about it. What should we believe? We have two options. One is that the companies are telling the truth and that the U.S. government has for seven years hacked into the systems of some of the country’s biggest companies. The other option is that the U.S. government used a combination of secret court orders, promises of immunity, and appeals to patriotism to get technology companies to cooperate. Whichever interpretation you think more likely, there seems little doubt that the NSA program reveals a deep danger caused by the levels of private surveillance that our law permits.

 

My argument is that we will not trust the government until it begins to act like government. And even then, so deeply do we collude with those companies who have provided all of the information, I’m not sure that we have any choice but to go underground.

 

V. Conclusion

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who’d recently been on a missionary trip to El Salvador. She was uncomfortable about the way in which she and her group of privileged Americans acted — assuming positions of superiority among the natives, spending lots of money, talking loudly, etc.

 

This is a woman who’s heading underground because her deepest impulse is to be in dialogue with her fellow El Salvadorians. They are she, and she they. She has, in the language of James Baldwin — been taught well. She is examining her society and asking questions.

 

 

Talk about going underground is so difficult for us, I think, because it is so hard to imagine that conversation. The church, in fact, has been taught not to ask questions. We’ve been taught that conversation is pointless because revelation is King — because dialogue does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that God is in heaven.

 

When we collude with the king we “live.” But the question Jesus poses, if we let him, is whether that is the kind of life we really want. Jesus’ example is clear