Rev. Charles Allen on the Inclusive Lesson of Acts 3

To those who say that the Bible offers no precedent for breaking with heteronormative traditions, I often like to point out that the New Testament’s vision of spiritual equality between Jews and Gentiles overcame a far more central and well-documented Scriptural taboo. In a recent issue of Out in Scripture, the Human Rights Campaign’s weekly GLBT-friendly religious newsletter, the Rev. Dr. Charles W. Allen, an Episcopal priest, offers these thoughts about Acts 3:12-19:

Christian claims about fulfilling prophecy made their common Scriptures say things the original authors never intended. They had no qualms about forcing Scripture to speak good news to them in light of their current experience. They didn’t timidly ask, “Does Scripture include us?” They made it include them. Why should LGBT folk hesitate to do the same? Scripture does include and challenge us, but one of its challenges is that it demands that we read it from the standpoint of all that we have found to be holy, gracious and life-giving in our own lives.

Read more of Dr. Allen’s articles and sermons on his website.

What Rowan Williams Should Do for Gay Christians

In March, the Atlantic Monthly published a sympathetic profile of Rowan Williams, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Anglican Communion. In his article “The Velvet Reformation”, Paul Elie observes that “the place of gay people in the church is one of the bitterest disputes in Christianity since the Reformation” but the archbishop’s “distinctive theology and leadership style may offer the only way to open the Anglican Church to gay people without breaking it apart.” Is he being too generous?

Unlike the Catholic Church, which operates more like a monarchy, the Anglican Communion is a big-tent church, a loose confederation of Christians with different beliefs and cultures, bound together by a common worship service. Ever since Queen Elizabeth I used it to subdue England’s religious strife, the Book of Common Prayer was meant to represent “mere Christianity”, a down-the-middle statement of creedal basics that leaves Anglicans free to disagree about doctrinal details. Williams’ limited authority reflects this preference for pluralism. As Elie writes:

[T]he Anglican Communion is a dramatic testing ground, because it—alone among the churches—has sought to have it both ways: at once affirming traditional Christian notions of marriage and family, love and fidelity, and adapting them to the experiences of gay believers.

It is not a church, strictly speaking, but an aggregation of 44 national or regional churches claiming 80 million believers in all. In theory, its leaders have dealt with conflict by trying to follow the via media, the middle way between extremes. In practice, this means that extremes coexist, jostling each other. Sunday service can feature brilliantined choirboys, or an organist, or dancing women in kente cloth. C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot were Anglicans; so are George and Barbara Bush. The Episcopal Church has a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its presiding bishop, while the Church of England has no women bishops at all. If this church cannot find a way forward on homosexuality, then none can—and the clash between gays and Christians over marriage and the like may go on for much of the millennium.

All of this puts Williams in an impossible position. Like the pope, he is at the top of an organization with all the treasures and furniture of empire. But his actual power is closer to that of the Dalai Lama: the “soft power” of example and persuasion. And just as the Dalai Lama’s commitment to dialogue with China strikes some people as accommodation, so Williams’s willingness to let gay-friendly leaders and anti-gay ones each occupy space in the church can seem indecisive, even bumbling. But it is grounded in the conviction that the true Christian, rather than rushing to judgment, is willing to wait, confident, as Williams has put it, that it is “through the events of conflict and rupture, through the crisis of acceptable religious meanings,” that the way forward is found.

Later in the article, Elie praises Williams’ 1989 speech to the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, “The Body’s Grace”, where the then-professor at Oxford made a compassionate and theologically sophisticated case that monogamous same-sex partnerships could be an important vehicle for God’s grace and love. (Read the whole speech here.) However, as Archbishop, Williams signed off on the appointment of an openly gay bishop, but then asked the man to resign when traditionalists pushed back.

From Elie’s interview with Williams, the Archbishop seems to feel that he had more freedom as a theologian than as a church leader. He doesn’t want to use his authority to cut off the conversation and disrespect any group within his flock.

“Archbishops become the focus of people’s expectations in a very big way,” he said. “I want to say, ‘Don’t expect a magical resolution: I can bring what I’ve been given, and what the office gives, but I can’t guarantee outcomes. So bear with me.’”

I remarked that people saw a difference between his approach as archbishop and his personal views, and I asked how this applied to “The Body’s Grace,” the essay on gay sexuality. People were calling him a hypocrite: Was he?

“Never in my career did 5,000 words make such a tempest,” he said, and went on to distance himself from the essay—but not really. “I wrote it as a professor of theology contributing to an increasingly tense debate in the Church of England. I didn’t think, I’d better be careful what I say, in case I become a bishop one day. When people ask have I changed my mind, I can only answer, ‘Well, the questions I raised there are still on the table. They’re still questions. And I still think they’re worth addressing.’ That essay is my contribution, made in good faith at that time. Now my responsibilities are different. The responsibility is not to argue a case from the top or cast the chairman’s vote. It’s to hold the reins for a sensible debate—and that’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

Couldn’t it be that all the questions having to do with homosexuality were actually being pushed off the table—pushed by him?

“They’re not going to go away, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are,” Williams said. “But my question as archbishop of Canterbury is: How do we address this as a church, not just a group of local religious enthusiasts here and there? The ordination of Gene Robinson had effects that were extremely divisive because people elsewhere felt it committed them to a position they had not arrived at themselves. So part of my job becomes to ask: If there is to be any change, how do you decide what change is appropriate? And that leads to the characterization of being indecisive and all the other things that everybody always says.”

Reading his books, I’d been struck by his confident account of the life of faith as “human actions that seek to be open to God’s action.” How, I asked, did he hope God would act in the crisis?

He paused, steepling his fingers, then answered carefully. “I think the challenge that God is putting to us is this: Granted the differences of conviction, with how much positive expectation and patience can you approach the other? It doesn’t mean you stay together at any price, but it is a matter of whether we can demonstrate to the world a slightly different mode of operation than that which the world commonly operates with.”

It was a good answer, clear, subtle, truthful, and yet, listening to it, I couldn’t help but think of the night before, when Desmond Tutu had led a prayer service at the church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. Several hundred people crowded in. Archbishop Tutu stood at the foot of a staircase and spoke, in his singsong voice, about Robert Mugabe’s misrule of Zimbabwe, and although most of us could hardly see him, his blend of confident righteousness and puckish self-deprecation united us in minutes. This was charisma as a form of leadership: the charisma of a man who is not divided internally, who knows what he thinks.

Even to Elie, who was obviously charmed by the Archbishop, it seems clear that he could do more:

Rowan Williams is one of the strongest, subtlest voices in all Christianity. Surely it is right for him to try to moderate the discussion about the place of gay people in the church. But that is not enough. He is a leader, not a stage manager. He should also take part in the conversation; he should somehow declare himself for the course of action he favors—which seems obvious—if only to say that he doesn’t favor it yet.

I would go a lot farther than this. Whether or not Williams thinks it would be appropriate to weigh in as archbishop, he has an obligation to use his gifts as a theologian to counteract the anti-gay Biblical interpretations that cause so much suffering, particularly in the developing world, where there are no civil rights laws to protect gays from religiously motivated violence.

Because professors and students at most Christian colleges in the US are required to renounce, and often to denounce, same-sex intimacy, the folks who can best “talk the talk” with respect to the Bible are either anti-gay or unwilling to risk their careers to express a different view. Liberal Christians tend to be weaker at the verse-slinging game, having been scared away from deep study of the Bible because they associate it with prejudicial attitudes. Then their opponents say, “See, acceptance of homosexuality leads to heresy.”

It’s incumbent on inclusive theologians like Williams to make the best possible case that we don’t have to choose between the Bible and justice for gay Christians. He doesn’t have the right to sit back and let the “conversation” go on, ignoring the fact that gay and gay-friendly members of his flock in Africa are being forcibly silenced. (See the Other Sheep East Africa website for stories about these persecutions.)

I’ll end with some excerpts from “The Body’s Grace”:

Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.

The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.

The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy. It is not surprising that sexual imagery is freely used, in and out of the Bible, for this newness of perception. What is less clear is why the fact of sexual desire, the concrete stories of human sexuality rather than the generalising metaphors it produces, are so grudgingly seen as matters of grace, or only admitted as matters of grace when fenced with conditions. Understanding this involves us in stepping back to look rather harder at the nature of sexual desire; and this is where abstractness and overambitious theory threaten….


…[I]n sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am. Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body….


…[T]he moral question, I suspect, ought to be one of how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects….[S]ome kinds of sexual activity distort or confine the human resourcefulness, the depth or breadth of meaning such activity may carry: they involve assuming that sexual activity has less to do with the business of human growth and human integrity than we know it can have. Decisions about sexual lifestyle, the ability to identify certain patterns as sterile, undeveloped or even corrupt, are, in this light, decisions about what we want our bodily life to say, how our bodies are to be brought in to the whole project of “making human sense” for ourselves and each other.

To be able to make such decisions is important: a conventional (heterosexual) morality simply absolves us from the difficulties we might meet in doing so. The question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body’s grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other. Not surprising, then, if the reaction is often either, It doesn’t matter what I do [say] with my body, because it’s my inner life and emotions that matter” or, “The only criterion is what gives pleasure and does no damage”. Both of those responses are really to give up on the human seriousness of all this….


…It’s worth wondering why so little of the agitation about sexual morality and the status of homosexual men and women in the Church in recent years has come from members of our religious orders; I strongly suspect that a lot of celibates do indeed have a keener sensitivity about these matters than some of their married fellow Christians. And anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to the celibate life; almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky, for the homosexual than the heterosexual.

It is impossible, when we’re trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from; and in this last part of my address I want to offer some thoughts about this problem. I wonder whether it is to do with the fact that same-sex relations oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t. When we’re thinking about the latter, there are other issued involved notably what one neo-Marxist sociologist called the ownership of the means of production of human beings.

Married sex has, in principle, an openness to the more tangible goals of producing children; its “justification” is more concrete than what I’ve been suggesting as the inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself. If we can set the movement of sexual desire within this larger purpose, we can perhaps more easily accommodate the embarrassment and insecurity of desire: it’s all in a good cause, and a good cause that can be visibly and plainly evaluated in its usefulness and success.

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace. It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?

The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God’s relation to humanity. God as the husband of the land is a familiar enough trope. but Hosea’s projection of the husband-and-wife story on to the history of Israel deliberately subverts the God-and-the-land cliches of Near Eastern cults: God is not the potent male sower of seed but the tormented lover, and the gift of the land’s fertility is conditional upon the hurts of unfaithfulness and rejection being healed….


In other words, if we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be. When looking for a language that will be resourceful enough to speak of the complex and costly faithfulness between God and God’s people, what several of the biblical writers turn to is sexuality understood very much in terms of the process of “entering the body’s grace”. If we are afraid of facing the reality of same-sex love because it compels us to think through the processes of bodily desire and delight in their own right, perhaps we ought to be more cautious about appealing to Scripture as legitimating only procreative heterosexuality.

In fact, of course, in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures. I suspect that a fuller exploration of the sexual metaphors of the Bible will have more to teach us about a theology and ethics of sexual desire than will the flat citation of isolated texts; and I hope other theologians will find this worth following up more fully than I can do here.

This is a good and eloquent essay, but it is a philosophical essay, not a Biblical argument. Williams surely has the ability to do both. Does he have the will?

Wheaton College Conference on Spiritual Formation: Part 4

Finishing up my report on last week’s theology conference at Wheaton College, here are Friday’s highlights:

Dr. Jim Wilhoit, a professor in Wheaton’s Christian Formation and Ministry department, gave an introduction to centering prayer, a modern-day contemplative practice developed by Fr. Thomas Keating in the 1970s. Keating, a Yale-educated Cistercian monk, saw young people in the 1960s and 1970s turning to Eastern religions and cults because there was no lay contemplative practice available to them in the church. Along with fellow Cistercians Frs. William Menninger and Basil Pennington, he developed a prayer method that combined silent contemplation with a Christ-centered awareness.

The method of centering prayer, as Wilhoit described it, is basically just sitting quietly before God for 20 minutes twice a day. Keating intended it as a method of being present before God, not a substitute for more content-based prayers but rather something that enhances them. Lectio divina (attentive Scripture reading; see my previous post) should precede centering prayer so that you will be meditating on something Biblical. This emphasis on correct content distinguishes it from Buddhist meditation, which Wilhoit somewhat oversimplified as “emptying the mind”. (There are actually many styles of Buddhist meditation, including metta, the compassion meditation, and vipassana, awareness of thoughts and sensations; Wilhoit was perhaps overly anxious to create a straw man here.)

The intention of centering prayer is to consent to God’s presence. It’s about intention rather than attention, i.e. the goal is not to have a particular object of awareness, but to maintain a consistent intent to be with God. To do this, you need a plan for respecting your intention, so that wandering thoughts don’t snag you. Four steps: (1) Choose a sacred word as symbol of intention. (2) Sit quietly with eyes closed, contemplate sacred word. (3) When you become aware of thoughts, gently return to the sacred word. Don’t force yourself to empty your mind, just let the boats of thought drift past on the ocean of your awareness, without attachment. (4) Conclude practice by remaining in silence for a few moments and end with “Our Father” or similar prayer.

The sacred word is meant to renew our intention to release our attachment to the flow of our thoughts and rest in God’s presence. Every thought is an opportunity to return to God. Can you stay long enough on God’s lap to receive the love you need?

Centering prayer is not just a technique but a way of seeing that God is present everywhere, i.e. having the mind of Christ. Keating believed that the main practice of the spiritual life is to participate in the presence of God through Christ. Wilhoit described it as “a therapeutic intimacy with God”–we identify with Christ on the cross and are healed of our emotional wounds, as we experience the reality that perfect love casts out fear. God’s love provides the anesthetic so we don’t feel the operation; we rest in love and wake up healed.

Though he is a practitioner of centering prayer, Wilhoit seemed to feel some anxiety, which I gathered was not uncommon among evangelicals, about whether open-ended contemplative practices would lead people too far astray from Biblical content. Would Gordon Fee call this an example of Christians being afraid to let the Holy Spirit do its work? My own experience with vipassana meditation has convinced me that pure awareness practice is an enormously helpful supplement to a Christian prayer life. Let’s not rush to fill our minds with thoughts, even orthodox thoughts, to such an extent that we never stop to see what’s already in there. If we’re trying to “seek first the kingdom of God”, it helps to notice what we’ve been seeking instead.

Speaking of Gordon Fee, his daughter Dr. Cherith Nordling was the next speaker. Nordling, a visiting professor of theology at Wheaton, spoke about how church music shapes our theological education, for better or worse. Confusion can set in when we sing songs out of their original context. We sing about servant leadership while living lives of privilege. “God Bless America” sits uneasily alongside “For All the Saints.” African-American spirituals like “I’ll Fly Away” came out of oppression that was so severe that the singers couldn’t envision freedom this side of the grave. However, outside of that extreme situation, these songs can give us the Gnostic misconception that we should shun this world. (I liked this observation because I’m a fan of Southern gospel music, but it creeps me out how jaunty they sound about the Rapture.)

Nordling said we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make sure that our church music is balanced, conveying both immanence and transcendence, God’s own attributes as well as our experience of God. We need creedal hymns that talk about God to teach the congregation, but also hymns that speak to God, because that draws us closer to Him. As I reflect back on my favorite Episcopal hymns, I’m thinking that we have a lot more “about” songs (“The church’s one foundation”), or songs addressed to the congregation (“Come ye faithful, raise the strain”), and not too many direct addresses to God. Time for us to drop our stodgy manners!

Dr. David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer College and the president of Evangelicals for Human Rights, spoke about spiritual formation and the sanctity of life. This was by far my favorite presentation at the conference. From the title, I was expecting a pro-life talk, but Gushee’s vision was far broader. He was a principal drafter of evangelical declarations against torture and global warming. What he is trying to do is to develop something like the Catholics’ “consistent ethic of life” or “seamless garment” worldview among evangelicals. He has been frustrated that both liberal and conservative Christians only seem to get half the picture on the sanctity of human life. Liberals are good on issues like torture, war, capital punishment, and civil rights for minorities, while conservatives are good on abortion, euthanasia, and eugenics. Our society, he said, is deeply utilitarian and honors the sacredness of life only in fragmentary and politicized ways. Here’s Gushee’s own manifesto:

“The sanctity of life is the conviction that all human beings, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, nationality, gender, character, behavior, physical ability or disability, potential, class, social status, etc., or any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as sacred, as persons of equal and immeasurable worth, and of inviolable dignity. Therefore they must be treated with the reverence and respect commensurate with this elevated moral status, beginning with a commitment to the preservation, protection, and flourishing of their lives.”

In practice, Gushee said, this governs his opposition to abortion on demand, stem-cell research, the coarseness of our violent media and humiliating reality-TV, assisted suicide, inadequate health care, our routine resort to war and complacent acceptance of nuclear weapons as US foreign policy, lack of care for the environment, the death penalty, sex trafficking, the Christian “demonization of homosexuals”, and the frequent internal viciousness of Christian culture. (It’s only fair for me to mention, given the crabby gay activist tone of my Wheaton posts this year, that this positive comment was the only reference to the i
ssue by any of the speakers. Thank you, David.) Gushee is not an absolute pacifist, but he urged Christians to work harder to find creative alternatives to war.

Gushee was very clear and convincing about the Christian theological underpinnings of this position. The inward journey of spiritual formation, he said, must never be disconnected from the outward engagement with our suffering world. “Just me and Jesus” is a distortion that flows from privilege, or conversely from such personal misery that we need to withdraw. Sometimes the privileged invite the miserable to join them in escaping the world, but that’s not right.

God, the majestic, just, holy and loving God, created and redeems the universe. The human being is infinitely sacred in God’s sight. (During the Q&A, Gushee extended this imperative to non-human creatures and the environment, though not in a way that made them equivalent to humans.) Jesus connected these two ideas with his great commandment to love God and neighbor. Everything hangs on the quality of both of these loves. Social justice is a subset of the sanctity of life. Christian spiritual formation must be about never sacrificing any group of neighbors for any reason!

Only God is strong enough to ground the sanctity of human life. Romans 12:1: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Only a totally committed Christian spirituality will give us the strength and single-mindedness to resist normal violent ways of doing things. Gushee didn’t think secular human rights movements could take us all the way there, because they have the Christian values but can’t articulate a non-utilitarian basis for them. The sanctity of life is grounded in our faith that God created us in His image, made us for eternal life, and commands in His eternal law that we treat each other with reverence, not least because Jesus took on human form and died for us.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection for grounding the sanctity of life. The paradox is that when divinity stooped to us, humanity revealed its vicious lowliness, and yet was elevated forever by God’s love. It is unearned and inalienable. If God became human, no human being can be treated as worthless–not only Christians but everyone, everywhere, equally. Because the arc of Jesus’ life included every stage of human existence, we include the unborn all the way to old age and death. Matthew 25 links Incarnation to the sanctity of life. God came not just to dwell in one man but in all of us. Mother Teresa saw Christ’s face in everyone. Karl Barth, after World War II, said that every man is Christ’s brother.

Jesus came in a human body that experienced suffering and death, and was resurrected in a glorified body. The real mystery of Easter, according to Barth, is not that God is exalted by that humanity is exalted. Because Christians believe that God is spirit, we have struggled not to denigrate the body. But God cares what happens to the bodies of our friends and enemies, and so must we. Think of what the cross implies for the sanctity of life. How can we grieve over Christ’s suffering yet permit our enemies to be tortured and humiliated? Commitment to the majestic worth of the human person is based on awareness of the majesty of the God we love. It’s an aesthetic issue–how do we see each other? As the song says in “Les Miz”, “to love another person is to see the face of God”. To hate, or demean, or ignore another’s suffering is to spit on the face of God.

I really, truly loved Gushee’s talk and will be buying his book on this subject when it comes out. He articulated the ethical implications of the Trinity in an outstanding way. I wish more people understood the connection between human rights and the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Maybe then the creed wouldn’t seem like such an abstract and scary litmus test for some of my liberal Christian friends.

Dr. He Qi, the leading Chinese Christian artist, gave a presentation about his work, which was on display in the college’s Billy Graham Center museum. His paintings aren’t the style I usually go for, but I appreciated the joy and peace in his compositions and his wonderfully bright colors. His humble and sweet personal manner suited the “peaceful message” he hoped to convey in his work. He said he was trying to change the image of Christianity as a foreign thing in China by blending Eastern and Western techniques and cultural references in his art. He Qi told how he’d ruffled some feathers in China with an article criticizing Chinese Christians for building Neo-Gothic cathedrals instead of using indigenous and contemporary architectural styles. Once, he said, a Chinese pastor asked him to paint a copy of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and he refused. Da Vinci’s characters, he said, were the indigenous art of his time and place, Renaissance Italy. European styles are not the only way to express universal Christian ideas.

Dr. Dallas Willard brought our exhausting and enriching day to a close with his keynote speech on “Spiritual Formation as a Natural Part of Salvation”. His basic point was that churches tend to emphasize justification at the expense of sanctification. True, we are cleansed from sin, instantly and completely, when we accept Christ, but the process of actually being transformed into a disciple requires lifelong effort. “Getting saved” doesn’t produce transformation all by itself.

Spiritual formation in Christ is not primarily behavior modification, though a change in behavior results. Nor is it acculturation into a particular tradition. That would be legalism all over again. It’s the process of reshaping the inner life until one has the peace, joy, mind and heart of Jesus. It is formation of the human spirit, by means of the Holy Spirit. Obedience is not the end goal (legalism again) but the outcome of knowing and loving God, which turns you into the kind of person who routinely obeys God’s will.

Salvation is by grace through faith. That is often misunderstood to mean that nothing we do (even, perhaps, the act of belief!) has any impact. Grace is unmerited. It is always “cheap” for the person who receives it, but you can’t solve the problem by making grace expensive, only by making it active. Grace is not incompatible with effort, only with earning.

Willard went through some Bible passages about the “new life” in Christ and showed how they were about more than going to heaven when we die. They’re about becoming a different kind of person in this world, too. In fact, if you’re not living differently, living more lovingly, you don’t have Christ in you. In John’s epistles, for instance, he constantly says that he who loves his brother abides in life, and he who is without love abides in death.

Confidence in Jesus as the real Lord of the universe is the first step in growing into this new life. It is this, and not a heavenly credit transfer, that constitutes a personal relationship with Jesus. But it requires more than assent to doctrine; we must actually live as if God were in charge and working for our good.


And now for something a little bit different…I had to turn comments off this winter, because this blog was being taken over by homophobic attacks, but I do miss the dialogue with my regular readers, so I’ll occasionally excerpt their emails to me in a blog post. Teresa Wymore at Flesh & Spirit had these insightful remarks about my Wheaton posts and the struggle for feminists to find a home in the church:

How jealous I am of your attendance at the Wheaton Conference! From your blog, it sounds like it was a lot of food for thought if not food for the soul, although maybe some of that, too. Your summary reminded me that we live in a time when Christians, perhaps more than any sect, live with a profound lack of faith–not to mention idolatry. The Bible is about the last place I would go to meet God, written and shaped as it was by patriarchal agendas in a classist, racist, misogynistic world. Unfortunately, it’s the only indirect experience of God to add to our own experience….

My 6-year-old daughter argued with me the other day because I called God “Her”. I said God is a mother. She said he is a father and a boy. I asked her how she knew. She couldn’t really tell me. No one had ever explicitly said that to her. She’s in Catholic religious education which is all about God’s love and how special she and every child is. They make paper mache butterflies, grow plants, and draw rainbows. Good stuff, right? But the insidious use of exclusive pronouns and codified prayers has taken its toll already.

People ask me how I can be Catholic, and honestly, it’s hard. But Cunningham is right. There is a full house of things to pick from, something the Church has tried to get hold of with terms like “cafeteria catholic”. But dissent to the current authority is as much a part of the tradition as anything else. I cling to that!

As you quoted in a post from last year, the Church displays a lack of “openness to the complexity of creation.” The myopia that says everyone else is creating their own worlds (not humbling themselves to God’s plan), while the Church is not, is scandalous — in the very essence of that word. Many Christians are being driven away and those who continue to cling are being driving to ever greater hypocrisies. It’s all so Girardian….

The gender issue is a big one for me as well as the gay issue. They are essentially the same.

I’ve always thought the Christian emphasis on forgiveness, unconditional love, and primacy of relationship made it natural to express god as mother, but the patriarchy dichotomizes gender to begin with — relegating the practical burdens of providing nurture to women and then co-ops the glamour parts to a masculine god.

Read more of Teresa’s incisive writing about spirituality and sexuality here.

Wheaton College Conference on Spiritual Formation: Part 3

As I continue to blog my experience at Wheaton College’s annual theology conference from last week, here are some highlights from Thursday night and Friday morning, plus the usual uppity feminist critique of same:

Dr. Gordon Fee was Thursday’s keynote speaker. He’s an emeritus professor of New Testament studies at Regent College, as well as an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God church (a Pentecostal denomination) and a heavy hitter in the world of New Testament commentaries. Fee’s pithy and provocative speech was called “On Getting the Spirit Back Into Spirituality.”

Sounding a common theme, he argued that the word “spirituality” is widely misused both inside and outside the church to mean anything non-physical or vaguely religious. What would happen if every time we saw the word “spirit” or “spiritual” in the New Testament, we understood it as a reference to the Holy Spirit? For instance, when Paul observes in Galatians that the only God-given antidote to legalism is a thorough-going reliance on the Holy Spirit, he encourages those who are “spiritual” to restore the brethren who are falling into sin. The chapter break at Gal 6:1 obscures the fact that he is talking not about a generic trait of “being spiritual” but about the fruits of the Spirit in Gal 5. Similarly, at the beginning of Ephesians, Paul says God has blessed us through Christ “with every spiritual blessing”, but what is a spiritual blessing? Is it the opposite of a material blessing? If we look at Paul’s usage of “spiritual” in its original, Trinitarian sense, Fee said, it is the divine origin of the blessing that is important, not its content.

Fee gave the mainstream church a serious scolding for being insufficiently Trinitarian. Most Protestant religious practice (in the Q&A he extended his indictment to Catholics too) is Father-Son only. The Spirit is boxed up in the creed instead of let loose to be a vital and scary part of church life. Evangelical believers, he said, need to check their tendency toward Apollinarianism, where the deity of Jesus is so foregrounded that his humanity disappears. We also tend to miss the fact that Christ’s miraculous and loving life on earth was made possible because God was with him exactly the way the Spirit is with and in us now.

Fee’s speech was short and his Q&A responses perfunctory, so we didn’t get to hear specifics of how this played out, but I for one was excited to hear a revered Biblical scholar make the case for a more fearless, trusting, and dynamic way of discerning how God is speaking to us now. To his credit, Fee seems pretty progressive on gender issues, as shown in this online summary of his thoughts on women’s equality in ministry. I skimmed through some pages of one of his books on Spirit-led interpretation at the Wheaton bookfair, where he urged Christians not to shrink from the New Testament’s radical relativizing of gender. In a society where traits like gender, ethnicity, and family status defined your whole personhood, the early church dared to suggest that these traits were secondary in God’s eyes.

My heart sank, however, when I saw his footnote on homosexuality. Oddly, though recognizing that there are persons with same-sex orientation and that what he was about to say would be “hard on them”, Fee insisted on the standard line that this was not God’s intention for humanity and that Romans 1:26 is correct in deeming it a source of shame.

I have to say that this caused me physical pain. Our families’ lives are not a footnote. If gender is relative for God’s love, why is it absolute for human love? Why does an illusory category suddenly become reified beyond debate? Family is the primary means of spiritual formation in love, for the majority of people who are not called to celibacy. It’s where we learn to trust, to serve, to be honest, to forgive and be forgiven…or not. Once you acknowledge that same-sex orientation exists and that gender is relative, you can’t slam the lid back on the Spirit box and condemn 5-10% of the human race to a disembodied solitude that fails to reflect the nature of the Trinitarian, Incarnate God.

Now, I realize that I am becoming the kind of person whose first question is always “Is it good for the queers?” Is it true, as one of my evangelical friends feared, that I am subjecting the authority of God’s word to human political standards when it should be the other way around? I’ve prayed and wept and worried about this a great deal, and I really don’t believe that’s the case. If the author of a treatise on kindness kicks his dog, I don’t care how lovely his arguments are. I am committed to following God’s will, but I won’t take the self-styled interpreters of His will at face value. I want to know whether their hearts and eyes are open, whether they value human beings more than texts, whether they would rather love than be right. As the evidence of happy, healthy, God-fearing gay lives becomes undeniable, opponents are increasingly thrown back on text-worship versus openness to the possible promptings of the Spirit.

As I have now spent several times more ink on this issue than Gordon Fee did, I’ll move on to Friday’s lectures.

Dr. Chris Hall, the Dean of Eastern University in Pennsylvania and a member of the Anglican Church, spoke about the theological foundations of lectio divina, a monastic prayer practice of rereading and meditating on short passages from the Bible. In a charming marriage of old and new, Hall uses his iPod for lectio divina, replaying a few verses several times in a row, to make the words sink into his heart and subconscious mind. Interestingly, the practice developed in part from technological scarcity, as monks had few reference books and commentaries in the era before the printing press, and had to chew over difficult verses patiently on their own.

There is something about hearing the Bible that helps it soak in better than visual reading, which can keep us stuck in our analytical minds. Mere analysis can be a dangerous way to read, because we may try to control and limit the text’s ability to transform us. Lectio divina is a way of reading that is not just information-gathering. It is connecting with the real voices of the Biblical characters as they live, love, suffer, and worship.

Undergirding lectio divina is the Trinitarian belief that the Eternal Word continues to speak to us through the Spirit. As we embrace Christ in faith by listening deeply to his words and imitating his actions, we are increasingly changed into the image-bearers we were always meant to be. Lectio divina can heal a disordered imagination and fill it with new thought patterns, so that we experience Christ’s mind as our own. It will beckon us to imitate Christ instead of false teachers.

I would have liked to hear some details about how lectio divina practice with particular verses led Hall to new insights and behaviors that he wouldn’t have found through an analytical reading alone. His evident delight in reading the Bible this way left me wanting to explore this prayer discipline further. (Here’s a YouTube video from Fr. Jim Martin explaining two methods of lectio.) Praying The Daily Office has some of the same effect because certain passages are repeated daily or monthly, but it’s become clear that I need more than 25 minutes a day with God. To say the least…

Dr. Susan Phillips, the Executive Director of New College Berkeley, was the conference’s first female s
peaker. Phillips, a sociologist and spiritual director, gave us an introduction to modern-day spiritual direction and how it differs from secular counseling. Before beginning her lecture, she lit a candle. This small liturgical gesture was somehow very comforting to me, making me feel that we’d moved into a prayerful space and were not merely addressing God with our intellects.

A century ago, she said, the sociologist Max Weber observed that our formerly unified worldview had been split into rational cognition and mystical feeling, with the former being privileged in public life. According to Weber, in our secularized world, privatized religious experience is the result of a search for meaning when the public worldview of science and reason, including secular psychotherapy, doesn’t seem to address important dimensions of the person. But the quest has become lonely and individualized, without church, tradition or community.

The contemporary resurgence of interest in spiritual direction has occurred because people need guidance and companionship in their spiritual formation. There’s been a proliferation of privatized spiritualities that are stitched together from many traditions, with no system or community. Spiritual directors help people “navigate” their lives according to the time-tested “map” of church history and doctrine. The test for any text or spiritual discipline is whether it helps us better attend to the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus, express God’s truth and love, and make us more integrated.

Phillips spoke eloquently of the “ministry of listening”. In modern culture, we have a lot of ways to communicate, but precious little space to be quiet with God or one another. Jesus was the great listener. For all of us, there is a special grace in regular, confidential, holy listening. Spiritual directors are particularly called to listen to how God is acting in another’s life, and then to keep redirecting that person’s attention to God’s presence. A spiritual director can remind a person about the ways God acted in his life, helping him hold fast to memories that sustain his faith. “Spiritual direction is one way of improving the acoustics in the temple of your soul.”

Spiritual direction, Phillips said, shares some methods with psychotherapy but differs in that its ruling paradigm is prayer and discernment, not treatment and cure. The church needs to rethink the modern practice of outsourcing character formation and soul care to secular professionals.

To read more about Phillips’ work and to purchase her book Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction, visit her website.

Dr. Dallas Willard gave the chapel address on Friday, as well as the keynote speech that evening (to be blogged next time). I appreciated that his talk was heartfelt and used language that was accessible to the lay person, without in any way sacrificing spiritual depth.

Willard said that a spiritual life, in the Christian understanding, is a life lived from the direction, power and motivations of Jesus. What does that look like specifically? See Matt 6:33, where Jesus says to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and everything else will be added to you. In other words, let your many concerns rest for awhile and pay attention to seeking God. Don’t even worry about finding, because God will find you if you seek Him. When you seek something, you look for it everywhere, and finding it is your first priority.

Why do we have to seek God–why isn’t His presence obvious? Seeking is important because our wants constitute who we are. We need to reorient our desires toward God. He leaves us free to decide what we want. That’s what determines the shape of our life. God could put an end to all deviations from His will simply by being fully present to everyone, but instead, as Jesus, He became incarnate as an inconspicuous person and only appeared to a few people after resurrection. God wants us to ask the spiritually formative question: what is my life really about? Do I want the kingdom of heaven, or do I just want a little help from God with my self-generated project?

When Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, he means “it is now available to you” as opposed to being a possession of a particular group. The good news of the Beatitudes is that the marginalized are equal in the kingdom.

(Unless you’re queer? That depends, I suppose, on whether queerness is an identity or a detachable sinful behavior. I think that’s an empirical question, like the age of the earth, and not a theological question, like whether Jesus is the Son of God. Therefore, my Scripture-based belief in the radical equality of all people compels me to defer to gays’ own self-understanding, because I don’t occupy a position of superiority to interpret their lives. Your average evangelical, on the other hand, might start and end with texts like Rom 1:26, just as his grandfather might have backed Genesis against Darwin.)

Okay, girlfriend…back to the main topic…humility!

Willard quoted Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” A spiritual life is the life of one who acknowledges God in all their ways and recognizes His presence in all that they do. People don’t find God because they’re trying to run their own lives. “God’s address is at the end of your rope.” Willard then cited 1 Peter 5:5-7: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another…Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” When you trust God, you will lead a life of sufficiency, but from the hand of God–being exalted when God chooses, not when you choose. God wants to exalt you but only when it’s really in your best interest.

To be humble, Willard said, just means that you’re realistic about yourself. That will bring you to see that you can’t manage your life without God. You put yourself in God’s hands. It’s not about self-mortification. “It’s the person who very simply just is who they are.”

The three rules of humility: Never pretend. Stop wasting so much energy putting up a facade to protect your ego. Never presume. Don’t expect special treatment, don’t assume you are up or down, just be where you are without comparison to others. Never push. Stand for what is right, stand for who you are, stand for God, but let Him take care of the outcome.

The question that keeps coming up for me is: How can you be true to who you are, in Christian honesty and humility, and not “lean on your own understanding”? I’d like a clearer picture of the difference between integrity and arrogance. (And I’m sure everyone who knew me as a teenager wished that I had known the difference, too.)

Still to come: lectures on centering prayer, the sanctity of life, and Christian art, plus feminist commentary on this blog series from Teresa Wymore at Flesh & Spirit.

Wheaton College Conference on Spiritual Formation: Part 2

Today I continue blogging about the Wheaton College theology conference I attended April 16-17. See my last post here.

When last we left our intrepid heroine, she was eating cookies from the awesome Wheaton dining hall during two afternoon lectures on spiritual formation in the writings of classic Protestant theologians. These lectures were more specialized than the preceding ones, and probably most interesting to folks who had read the authors in question, but still contained some useful insights for the average person.

Dr. Kelly Kapic, a professor at Covenant College, spoke about John Owen’s concept of “evangelical holiness”. Owen was one of the leading 16th-century Puritan theologians; his many books included Communion with God. (Four hundred years later, he has his own fansite; according to the thumbnail bio, “In his early twenties, conviction of sin threw him into such turmoil that for three months he could scarcely utter a coherent word on anything; but slowly he learned to trust Christ, and so found peace.” Oh yes, I’ve been there.)

Kapic said that for Owen, “evangelical holiness” was not only about right actions. In fact, Owen used “moral virtue” as a negative phrase, because self-generated effort is inferior to the holiness produced by grace. Sinful humanity likes to create a substitute (external or civil morality) for real spirituality, which does nothing to close the chasm between the holy Creator and the rebellious creature. True holiness is dependent on the gift of the gospel.

The moral law tells us what to do, but doesn’t give us the power to do it. That comes from our knowledge of God as He has revealed Himself in Jesus. The gospel is the only thing that brings spiritual strength, cheerfulness, courage, perseverance, and relief from fear and despair. The Law is still our guide for action, but we now live out of the freedom and power of the gospel. (Once again, I would have liked to hear about some specific spiritual practices that make this a psychological reality for the believer; one could easily walk away from a conference like this with the impression that the gospel message is a magic wand that taps us on the head and turns a frog into a prince. I wonder if many Christians suffer silent despair when they agree with all the right ideas but don’t feel better inside.)

Owen’s emphasis on divine gift, said Kapic, does not nullify his call to self-discipline, but it’s a matter of priorities: the ultimate goal of spiritual life is not self-improvement but communion with the Triune God. “Triune” is an important word here. Evangelical holiness is Christ-centered. God is most clearly represented when we look on the face of Jesus. It is the only way that humans can see the essential glory of the invisible God. By contrast, Kapic criticized some modern evangelical theologians for talking about God’s attributes without much discussion of Jesus.

The difference between the Holy Spirit and false spirits is that God’s true spirit always points people to Christ. In Owen’s day, there were a lot of religious enthusiasms and awakenings, and he wasn’t convinced that all of them were truly from God. The test: does this spirit shape you into the image of Christ, in your mind, body, and affections?

According to Owen, all the blessings of the Christian life flow from our being partakers of the same spirit with Christ. By virtue of this union, Christ suffers in our afflictions. (Does this mean Owen was taking a position against the impassibility of God? If so, good for him.) This union is participatory and life-giving, not only transactional and abstract. The cross doesn’t only point to the past reality of salvation. It continues to shape the present reality of his body, the church–the wounds we bear by virtue of being godly in a fallen world.

Owen distinguished communion from union with God. Will we lose ourselves in absorption in God, and lose our creaturely distinctness? No, we do not lose our individuality, but rather participate in God’s spirit, each in our unique ways, brought into harmony but not obliterated. Unity with Christ glories in that diversity, while overcoming the sins that divide us.

Sadly, it was hard for me to believe the proponents of this utopian vision, given the evangelical church’s discrimination against sexual minorities. More than in past years, I found myself struggling with trust issues, and had to remind myself that the speakers might know some things about God even if their hearts were not open to everyone He created.

Dr. Bruce Hindmarsh, a professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, discussed how early evangelicals like John Wesley and George Whitefield appropriated and popularized pre-Reformation resources on spiritual practices to develop a modern Protestant vocabulary for spiritual formation. I have to confess that I did not take very good notes on this presentation. Not having read the authors in question, I had only a limited interest in Hindmarsh’s detective work to trace how they read and reprinted one another’s writings, though I was moved by his reverence for the centuries-old book that he showed us.

He made an interesting comparison between Protestant and Catholic treatment of new movements that arise in the church. Protestantism splits into new sects, while the Catholic Church prefers to incorporate them as new “schools” (to use Prof. Cunningham’s terminology from his lecture) like the Franciscans, Dominicans, and so forth. Had Wesley and the evangelicals appeared before the Reformation, they might have become a new religious order within the wider unified church. A school of spirituality could be described as a particular way of hearing and relating to the gospel, identified with a particular cultural milieu and group of people.

That’s enough fun for today. Next time: Gordon Fee puts the Spirit back in spirituality; Dallas Willard reveals the three rules of humility; and some women are allowed to speak.

Wheaton College Conference on Spiritual Formation: Part 1

With the cognitive dissonance for which this blog would be famous if it were famous, I’ve decided to follow yesterday’s post on NOM parody videos with my report on the theology conference I attended at Wheaton College last week. The topic of this year’s event was “Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective”. Wheaton is the leading U.S. evangelical college, acclaimed for its rigorous academic program as well as the quality of its dining-hall food, and I partook liberally of both resources. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the Saturday morning session because of my flight time, so this report will only cover Thursday-Friday.

Dr. Jeffrey Greenaman, a professor of Christian ethics at Wheaton, introduced the theme of the conference with a clear and lively lecture that defined spiritual formation as “our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world.” He then unpacked several aspects of this definition. It’s a continuing response because formation into disciples is a lifelong process (a theme picked up by Dr. Dallas Willard on Friday in his lecture on sanctification). Greenaman emphasized God’s grace because the fear of works-righteousness looms over discussions of spiritual formation. We can only change because God chose to offer us new life, but on the other hand, we have to do the work. Formation into what? Into the likeness of Christ, the suffering servant who is humble and gives himself for others. However, this process does not end with the individual or even with the church. Formation is for the sake of the world because the church is a sent body. (This phrase made me think of Christ, who was sent to us in a human body.) The church is not an end in itself, Greenaman said; it exists to be the presence of God in the world.

Greenaman also said that “the chief purpose of theology is whole-person formation for mission.” If your theology has no bearing on the formation of a whole person (head and heart) in God’s service and in community, it’s got some problems. He recommended Elizabeth O’Connor’s Journey Inward, Journey Outward.

This was a useful reminder because intellectuals (myself included) tend to get lost in worshipping beautiful abstract systems. Notwithstanding this, at some points during the conference I still felt that we were becoming too bogged down in history and theory, considering our practical topic. This was also influenced by my personal gripe that evangelicals sometimes pay more attention to the Bible, as a sacred object, than to the world in which it is applied. But I digress.

Dr. George Kalantzis, an associate professor of theology at Wheaton, discussed “Spirituality and the Mimetic Impulse”. Kalantzis, a Greek Orthodox Christian, is the director of Wheaton’s new Center for Early Christian Studies. He was one of the speakers who addressed the meaning of “spirituality”, that much-abused word that can mean anything from a vague religious feeling to a serious faith practice. According to Kalantzis, spirituality reflects the radiance of Christian faith in daily life. It is the charism (anointing) of the Holy Spirit, a life transfigured and cleansed of evil.

Kalantzis described the second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr’s journey from classical philosophy to Christian faith. Like Christians, Greco-Roman thinkers understood the transitory nature of cosmic existence and tried to find a way for the soul to transcend the temporal and be united with the eternal good. Justin sampled various philosophies and stuck with Platonism for awhile, until one day an old man asked him how the philosophers could talk about a God they’d never seen. Truth cannot be reached through the mind alone; you need God’s self-revelation. Justin prayed, was converted, and studied the prophets, “friends of God” who had direct knowledge, not just theory.

(Since I’m all about empiricism these days, I wonder if there’s a lesson here for Christians who behave as if the bare text always trumps personal experiences and real-world observation. Has the era of prophets ended? How would we know?)

Kalantzis then discussed ascetic disciplines as a means of spiritual formation, another trait the early Christians had in common with Greco-Roman sages and some Jews (the Essenes). Martyrdom was the first such extreme practice. It was an anticipation of the eschaton, in which the power of the Spirit was revealed by the super-human deeds performed by weak and marginalized people (slaves, women, etc.).

After Christianity was legalized and then made the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century, “the world was in the church” and it was no longer so easy to distinguish the holy from the hypocrites. Thus the era of martyrs gave way to the era of monks as the new exemplars of spiritual perfection. Martyrdom became self-martyrdom. The desert fathers’ writings were a program for theosis, humans becoming God-like through the grace of God who became human. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we cooperate with God through practical obedience, assenting to let the spirit transform us. Human will and divine grace interpenetrate, rather like the persons of the Trinity. The monk’s progress leads to apatheia, or passionlessness, letting go of attachments to particular forms. Contemplation springs from simplicity. Then perfection follows, the true knowledge of God.

Kalantzis ended with some wise words from Basil the Great, who thought that life in a monastic community was healthier for the soul than pure solitude. “If you’re living alone in the desert, whose feet are you washing? To whom are you last, if you are alone?” For Basil, salvation was personal but not individual.

Dr. Lawrence Cunningham of Notre Dame was not alone in lamenting that the modern usage of “spirituality” had stripped it of association with the Holy Spirit. Instead, it’s often deployed as a vaguely uplifting contrast to the seeming rigidity of organized religion. This way of speaking about spirituality was coined during the Enlightenment to mean religious experience without the discipline of living in community with ordinary worshippers. By contrast, the Catholic understanding of spirituality roots it in Romans 8, where Paul contrasts those who live in the spirit (i.e., under the impulses of the Holy Spirit) with those whose ruling impulses come from the flesh (not the body per se, but the world). The way of the Spirit is the way of holiness. God is holy, meaning, wholly other. All else is made holy only by having a nexus to God.

While Jesus is “the Way” (John 14:6), there are many ways of discipleship, Cunningham said, showing himself to be “catholic” in the small-c sense as well. Throughout church history, people were always trying out different methods of discipleship, and if a method seemed to work and gained adherents, it would become a “school”. Hence the various monastic traditions developed to emphasize different spiritual practices, such as the Franciscans’ giving up their possessions to serve the poor. Each school developed traditions specific to their community, including a different “pedagogy of prayer”: monks pray psalms in community, for instance, while Ignatians study the life of Jesus.

Cunningham compared the Catholic Church to a house that people have live
d in for generations and accumulated a lot of “stuff”: you may not use it all, but it’s all there for you to use. This rich and diverse vision held a lot of appeal for me personally.

More to come!

Best “National Organization for Marriage” Video Parody: Stephen Colbert

After the recent gay-marriage victories in Iowa and Vermont, a mysterious new conservative group called the National Organization for Marriage released an apocalyptic TV commercial, “There’s a Storm Gathering,” which alleged that gay-rights initiatives are taking away Christians’ religious freedom. Now, I could write a serious blog post about the contradictions of invoking the liberal-pluralist language of individual rights and tolerance to defend religiously motivated restrictions on gays’ civil rights. And maybe I will soon. But the parodies of the NOM video that have sprung up all over the web offer a more memorable rebuttal than I ever could.

First prize goes to The Colbert Report’s spot from Thursday night. Noting that New York’s Gov. David Paterson has introduced a same-sex marriage bill, our favorite mock-conservative mourns for “the good old days when our  governor upheld the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man, a woman, and an Emperor’s Club hooker.” There’s a great gay storm gathering, and “pretty soon the winds will be blowing each other.”

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Colbert Coalition’s Anti-Gay Marriage Ad
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor NASA Name Contest

The characters in Zane Johnsen’s spoof ad speculate on what will happen when a nice hetero family sees gay couples on TV: “It is like a flood in the living room and the whole family is being washed away by the wiles of Satan and his dark army of homos…Peter begins playing with Molly’s dolls…Your wife leaves the house a mess and goes back to college…”

This more serious ad from debunks the factual claims of the original. “There’s a bullshit storm gathering.” Indeed.

And for sheer creativity, as well as some adorable visuals, the prize goes to this ad sponsored by The National Association of Organizations Against Cat(s) Licking Each Other(s) Organizations Committee (NSOACLEOOC).

Thinking of creating your own video for marriage equality? Enter it in Project Pushback’s contest before May 18 and you could win $2,500. Project Pushback is an initiative of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.

Defense-of-Marriage Laws as Religious Violence

On the progressive Christian website Religion Dispatches, John Pahl, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, makes some concise and cogent arguments that “defense of marriage” laws such as Proposition 8 are a form of religious violence. Laws restricting civil marriage to one man and one women, Pahl writes, “violate sacred texts, are idolatrous, and scapegoat a powerless group.” I particularly appreciated this argument, which I hadn’t heard before:

DOMA Laws perpetuate an association of sex with power, and thereby do damage to any sacramental sensibility that might remain in association with even heterosexual marriage. As Hendrik Hartog and other historians have shown, marriages have shifted in the modern era from patriarchal patterns of coverture to social contracts in which couples seek mutual fulfillment. Such contracts might be compatible with a sacramental sensibility, since they entail pledges of sexual fidelity and commitments to share social resources and responsibilities, along with (one might argue) other gifts of God. DOMA Laws associate sexual fidelity with legislated forms of coercive power, and inhibit the deep trust and mutuality intrinsic to modern (and sacramental) marriage. They establish hierarchies of relationships, and associate heterosexual unions (and sexual practices) with dominance.

Read the whole article here. Other recent articles of interest at Religion Dispatches include an overview of progressive Christianity’s diverse roots, and an investigation of the Christian Patriarchy movement.

Poet Tom Daley on Finding the Universal Through the Particular

This quote is excerpted from an interview with poet and writing teacher Tom Daley in the April 2009 newsletter from Cervena Barva Press. Daley teaches at several schools in the Boston area and is a member of the faculty of the Online School of Poetry.

I think the most important lesson a writer finding her or his way can learn is the value of one’s own experience of the world as one is framing poems and prose pieces. Many writers come to the first couple of workshops with work that marches in the heavy boots of abstraction and generalization. I always hear some wrongheaded phantom whispering over their shoulder “No one would be interested in your story or your observation. You need to be universal to be understood.” I suggest that that they consider the old Russian proverb, “Taste mouthfuls–taste the ocean.” Or the adage (I think it is Paul Valery’s) “It is a thousand times easier to be profound than it is to be precise.” Precision comes from an acuity of perception, from giving expression to the individual genius that inhabits all mentally competent human beings, from mining the rich lodes of our unique experience in the world. This is the first and sometimes most difficult lesson to teach, because it involves not just a shift in aesthetic orientation, but also an acute shift in awareness.

His advice fits my own experience as a writer, and that of the aspiring authors who send us poems for critique at Winning Writers. We all find that our work is strengthened when we access universal themes through concrete particulars instead of only abstractions.

For me, trusting my personal vision tests how thoroughly I rely on God’s grace. Do I believe that God loves me personally–not just incorporated by reference into the salvation of all humanity–and that He had a good reason for making me the person that I am, with the mission He has given me? I’m working on it…

I’ll be at Wheaton College’s annual theology conference for the rest of this week, and will blog the highlights when I return. Y’all behave, now.