Archives For Pope Francis

My man-crush muse David Bentley Hart asked to return to the podcast so he could get some gripes off his chest about the new president, critics of Pope Francis, and the role Christianity in the public square. DBH’s essay on Donald Trump and the Devil which I quote at the beginning of this episode can be found here.

If you don’t know already from the blog, David Bentley Hart was my first theology teacher when I was a first year undergrad at UVA and a relatively new Christian. He is the author of significant books such as the Beauty of the Infinite, the Doors of the Sea, and the Experience of God.

Be on the lookout for the second part of this conversation where David discusses his forthcoming translation of the New Translation and what he learned by going back to the Greek text without the presumptions modern translations have given him.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got a cross-over 4th of July podcast with Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. 

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Over the past couple of weeks folks in and out of the faith, mostly at the gym, have marveled to me how so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump, America’s very own Banana Republic candidate.

‘That’s because they’re liberals,’ I’ve discovered I enjoy replying.

Pause for look of confusion.

‘Theological liberals.’

Pause for further confusion.

‘Don’t look at me. I’m not one.’

What the term ‘liberal’ means in the theological world isn’t the same thing as political liberalism. The two can overlap in sensibilities and conclusions, but not all political liberals are theological liberals, for example. In fact, I would argue that evangelicals, most of whom are conservative when it comes to their politics, are liberal in the theological sense when it comes to their biblical interpretation.

So what’s theological liberalism?

Big picture: theological liberalism is how Christianity reacted to the challenge of modernity.

Specifically, it refers to how Christianity reacted to the Enlightenment discoveries regarding the origin of the universe, evolution of creatures etc. Suddenly with Darwin, Newton and the rest, the literal, biblical view of our world was cast into question. A rational, objective account of Christian faith was cast into question.

One branch of the Christian tree reacted by vigorously defending the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith and asserting how they could be rationally demonstrated as true.

This was the birth of modern evangelical fundamentalism- see it’s not that old a tradition. It’s younger than the 13th Amendment.

Another branch of the Christian family reacted by instead adapting traditional, orthodox Christianity to the culture of the Enlightenment.  This branch redefined Christianity’s “essence” so that it no longer conflicted with the “best” of modern thought.  Rather than worrying about demonstrating the rational truth of scripture and doctrine, this branch redefined Christianity as primarily about human experience.

That is, doctrines are nothing more than attempts to bring human experiences of God to speech.

This branch distinguished between ‘facts’ (Science) and ‘values’ (Religion), or a better way to put it: Science describes the world as it is and Religion describes it as it should be. Thus, Christianity became less about rationally demonstrable beliefs and more about ethics. Whereas Branch 1 reacted to modernity by trying to rationally prove, say, the Resurrection, this Branch reacted to modernity by interpreting the Resurrection as symbolic of a deeper rational ‘truth.’

No longer are the stories of Jesus literally true, they are moral lessons that are universally accessible through our faculty of reason.

If you want to know why most preaching in mainline churches is moralistic finger-wagging and why mainline Christians seem incapable of actually talking about God or their faith… this is why and whence it comes.

Notice what both branches above share:

1. The assumption there is something called ‘Truth’ that is universal, not contingent upon language or culture, and accessible to all.

2. The assumption that Truth is accessed by or through Reason.

3. The assumption that because Truth is mediated by universal Reason then scripture must be an objectively, factual text (Branch 1) or objectively, factually incorrect (Branch 2) thus requiring ‘adaptation’ to fit our modern worldview.

This leads Branch 1 to give scripture too much authority (inerrancy) and Branch 2 no authority beyond its practicality (say, the United Methodist Church  )

In other words-

They both reacted to modernity’s challenges by assuming modernity’s premise was accurate: that Truth is mediated rationally and accessible to all regardless of language, culture or perspective.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

That’s why or how most evangelicals (who fall into Branch 1) can be politically conservative (and, in Trump’s case, tribal) and still be theologically liberal. It’s how, for example, that evangelical preachers as disparate as Franklin Graham and Joel Osteen are, in fact, more liberal, theologically speaking, than Pope Francis. Liberalism is what makes it possible for Donald Trump to quote scripture out of context at Liberty University, completely removed from any participation in and submission to a community of interpretation.

Once you’ve bought into the dominant, underlying premise of your surrounding culture, its difficult to avoid having it shape your fundamental identity and form your ultimate loyalty no matter how much you rail against the culture and its elites.

 

Was8864155Like many of you I’ve been- in equal measure- transfixed and sickened by the horror ISIS/L has brought to TVs and computer screens all over the world.

Watching martyrdom in the moment all but sanctions an anything goes retaliation, which can be seen in many Democrats’ willingness to jettison their rather clear Constitutional obligation when it comes to declarations of war.

It’s exactly when we think an enemy deserves no love and no forgiveness, neither compassion nor quarter- that we should submit to Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemies.’

It’s exactly when we’re faced with an evil for which there is no justification and to which any violent response seems justified that we should recall how we are justified- made right with God- by the faith of Jesus Christ alone.

            The faith of the One who died rather than kill unjustly.

The minute we think we’re facing a ‘real world’ situation for which the words and witness of Jesus have no ‘practical’ application is the moment in which we should shed ourselves of the pretense and cease bothering to follow Jesus.

Jesus’ commands are not abstract teachings to which we look for the exceptions; they are teachings to be applied no where else if not to the ‘exceptions.’

While pols and pundits now debate the scope and nature of President Obama’s ‘war’ it may be helpful, I think, for Christians to remind themselves that- speaking Christianly:

action against ISIS cannot rightly be called ‘war.’

The Christian journal Sojourners this week posted an editorial entitled ‘War is Not the Answer’ which seems to me not only cliche but beside the point. Dangerously so, for to accept the use of the term ‘war’ all but forsakes the Christian field of view.

ISIS is a terror group, a criminal network, representing no state (their chosen moniker aside) or government and abiding no exact borders- certainly not massing at our borders.

According to the demands of Christian Just War Tradition, then, war against ISIS cannot be just.

Indeed it cannot be war.

According to the Christian Just War tradition, the just and appropriate response to something like ISIS cannot be narrated in the language of war but only in the language of policing.

ted-cruz-350.gifStopping them. Not, as Joe McCarthy Ted Cruz recently said to cheers, ‘wiping them out.’

This isn’t just semantics or language games, for truthful speech requires that if a war is not just- if it’s not even rightly called a ‘war’- then we must call it something else and how we speak of it will necessarily shape how we prosecute it.

I suppose it’s not surprising (being Catholic and all, where the Just War Tradition has remained robust and urgent) but Pope Francis recently framed the threat posed by ISIS and a potential response in clear Christian terms.

That is, unlike President Obama et al, Pope Francis spoke Christian:

pope-francis-im-not-a-marxist

“Where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor…

I underscore the verb ‘to stop. I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ but ‘stop him.’ The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated.

Stopping the aggressor is the legitimate [goal].”

 

pope-francis-wavesWhat’s become more traditional this time of year than tree-trimming, shitty Rod Stewart Christmas albums and the Christmas Story marathon on TNT?

Fox News’ War on Christmas.

Like the ability of a fat dead ancient slave elf-holding saint to squeeze down my chimney unnoticed in the night, the “War on Christmas” is

A) mostly make believe and

B) a crass, gift-wrapped excuse to turn a profit.

In this case, Fox’s.

As Gail Collins writes in the NY Times:

Some social conservatives embrace a seasonal victimhood this time of year, complaining that Christians are continually being mugged by anti-Christmas atheists bearing court orders. 

In its ongoing effort to protect the American public from the War on Christmas, Fox News has a special online map highlighting current reported atrocities. I am looking at it now, and the message is clear: as problems go, this one is imaginary.

Or as Sarah Palin (I wish she’d poke her eye out moose hunting) puts it in her new-straight-to-the-discount-bin book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas:

[The War on Christmas is] “the tip of the spear in a larger battle to secularize our culture and make true religious freedom a thing of America’s past.”

Let me be clear, this isn’t cheap Fox News or Sarah Palin bashing.

Like Palin- if one can suspend disbelief and judge her alarm-sounding to be motivated by sincerity instead of sales- I believe secularism is rapidly advancing threat to orthodox Christian belief.

I believe secularism will prove to be the greatest and perhaps gravest challenge the Christian Church has faced in her 2 millennia of Jesus-following.

But the hyperbole and sloganeering around a “War on Christmas” obscures the fact that secularism is not a new phenomenon.

Cultural shifts and rival world views do not appear overnight or even in a generation.

Fox’s obsession with the “War on Christmas” (and the liberals waging it) misleads its (conservative) audience into believing that they too are not happy warriors for the advancing secularist front.

In fact, the secularization decried by Palin et al is at least 300 years old. It began not with the election of Bill Clinton but with the Enlightenment.

How old is America again?

And therein lies the bitter irony about Fox News’ obsession with the “War on Christmas” because the Enlightenment’s vaunting of the individual, personal liberty and the supremacy of reason, its consignment of religion to the private interior of the believer and its resultant eviction of God from the public square not only gave birth to secular modernity but to America as well.

More to the point, America would not have been possible without the very same paradigm-shift that made secularism possible.

The worldview otherwise promoted wholeheartedly by Fox News had as its inevitable outcome the secularism seasonally scorned by Fox News.

Taking Christ out of Xmas began when the Founders put him in believers’ individual hearts where he couldn’t mess anything too important in the real world.

The “religious freedom” Palin rhapsodizes is in fact the first-born love baby of the secular Enlightenment.

What the “War on Christmas” provocateurs seem not to understand is that secularism is a much bigger enemy to Christianity than Fox News imagines.

And its one both (political) conservatives and liberals are fighting for.

Liberals fight for it when they insist that Christians remain in the closet.

Conservatives fight for it when they insist on the primacy of laissez faire- even if they use the veneer of religiosity to do it.

If you think I’m wrong, look no further than the way in which American (political) conservatives have reacted to a non-American conservative:

Pope Francis.

When conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are given to calling Pope Francis a ‘Marxist’ you can be sure the “Christmas” they wish to defend has little to do with Christ and more to do with their version of ‘America.’

Of course, when liberals assume a (conservative) Christian like Pope Francis is actually one of them- simply because he cares about the poor and critiques callous capitalism- you can be sure they’re every bit as secular as their conservative counterparts.

 

martin-lutherI’ve got to confess.

And I’ll do it publicly here.

Because, after all, I’m a Protestant and- on paper at least, even if its seldom practiced in most congregations- I believe in corporate confession.

I don’t need to duck inside a little private booth (note to Protestants: most Catholics haven’t used those in a long while, no matter what you saw in Keeping the Faith) to have a priest mediate my confession and prayer for absolution to God.

I can do it all by myself. With and in front of others.

There doesn’t need to be anyone who comes between me and God (note which noun comes first in that subordinate clause).

Which just nicely guarantees that very little communication, to say nothing of confession, passes from me to God.

While famous corporate confession from the Book of Common Prayer:

“…We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders…”

is incredibly pointed and powerful, I daresay it’s salvific sting would be felt more keenly if I had a confessor forcing me to own up and articulate exactly how what I’ve ‘left undone’ in my life and relationships that’s deserving of the label ‘sin.’

I’ve already shown my hand without actually fessing up:

I’ve got to confess.

I’ve got a serious case of Catholic-envy.

A virus that was perhaps latent within me since John Paul but has flared up to near-fatal levels by the arrival of Pope Francis.

While my own denomination continues to sever itself over North American issues of homosexual ordination, I’ve got to admire (if not agree) with a tradition that at least has the logical consistency to demand celibacy of all its clergy, gay or not. In a denomination severing itself over issues of homosexual marriage while about 1/2 of its members- let’s not talk about its clergy- divorce, I’ve got to admire (if not agree) with a tradition that has the logical consistency to teach that marriage is a lifelong covenant. In a denomination that is inescapably ‘American’ I’ve got to admire a tradition that is thoroughly ‘universal’ even while it universality means its rate of change seems incredibly slow to this American.

But really, like so many others, Pope Francis is the reason for my Catholic envy.

How I wish my own tradition had a globally recognizable leader in whom the life and teachings of Jesus were so palpably and incarnately demonstrated.

Just check out this picture. If not worth a thousand words, it def rates a short homily or a Broadway billboard:

Screen-Shot-2013-11-08-at-7.26.28-AM

The other Francis was right.

You don’t need evangelism when you’ve got leaders like this who are like a flesh-by-numbers display of the Gospel.

Had I not already signed on to a particular Jesus tribe and were, right now, ‘seeking’ a place to follow him, I gotta confess I’d give our Romish brothers and sisters a try.

Which but leads me to another confession that IS corporate for most my Protestant tribe:

Why are we not Catholic?

Or rather, in what ways are we still meaningfully Protestant?

I don’t know what church you attend or denomination you belong to but, chances are, you’re not ‘protesting’ anything anymore. Even if you are protesting things, odds are good it’s got more to do with ‘social justice’ or ‘the conservative agenda’ and little to do 16th century theology.

After all, the main points of contention that compelled Martin to post his 95 Theses have long since been reconciled.

Abuse of indulgences? Check.

Scripture and liturgy in the vernacular? Check.

Justification by faith alone? Double Check.

Every year it strikes me as odd that Protestant churches actually celebrate Reformation Sunday.

Even if you agree with Luther’s vision of Christianity, schism isn’t something to celebrate. That’s like celebrating your parents’ divorce- I know firsthand that even when the separation is necessary it’s still tragic.

You’d think it strange if I offered prayers every late October celebrating the rupture of family wouldn’t you?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America, a region where the United Methodist Church is all but unknown so small is its population share. There, the Jesus family is divided into 2 homes, Catholic or Evangelical (usually meaning ‘Pentecostal’). Truth be told, I’ve got a lot more in common with the former there than I do the latter. In terms of worship, theology and how mission and service are to be done.

I wonder, given the changing contours of post-Christian America, if our future is to be found in Latin America?

Do our increasingly diverse cultural options make it necessary to winnow down the Christian options to two basic choices: Catholic or Pentecostal?

Could it be the Protestant affection for Pope Francis is a harbinger of things to come?

By the way, here’s a great article from First Things that echoes.

Queen’s to you:

Why are you Protestant?

Why are you not Catholic?

And does your reason trump the cause of Christian unity?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Not going to say anything. It’d just get me in trouble…oh hell, sure I will:

Apparently Sarah Palin isn’t just out to protect Christianity from the nefarious teachings of the *uber-liberal Pope Francis.

She’s also out to protect the ‘heart’ of Christmas, which, it turns out, isn’t the incarnation but America…and shopping.

So long as the store greets with a ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of a ‘Happy Holidays.’

At least in these divisive partisan times, we can all agree that Sarah Palin is that rare public figure whose every uttering is nearly as illogical as it is motivated by transparent self-interest. She’s like Bill Clinton if Bill Clinton spoke in non sequiturs.

Here’s a biting review of Palin’s Christmas book.

And it’s ‘good tidings of great joy’ not ‘and.’

*Any dude who believes in the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, transubstantiation, who is celibate and dresses without irony in 4th century clothing is by definition not liberal. That Pope Francis strikes so many Christians as liberal says more about the secular, capitalist drift of the Church than it does about the Francis. 

Brian_-_September_30__2008Pope Francis has called for today to be a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. Catholic or not, at a time when Christians are diffused over so many different communions and traditions, Pope Francis offers a helpful singular voice of faith, a Christ-like perspective that transcends national and cultural distinctions.

There’s absolutely no defensible Christian reason not to do exactly what Francis calls Christians to do. I’ve now been at my present congregation long enough that youth I once saw dressed awkwardly for their confirmation are now wearing uniforms. I don’t want to see them wearing flags, as palls. As for their parents, this is more than an academic, theological question for me.

Francis’ is the loudest Christian voice reflecting on the Church’s vocation in times of war.

Popular author, Rachel Held Evans, has this piece in which she also counsels prayer and fasting.

Mark Tooley, at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has this one, in which he concedes more than counsels that Christians can pray for peace.

Meanwhile, Brian Zahnd, a pastor and author in Missouri, has this post, essentially urging Christians to be a prayer for the world.

The distinction is important.

While I can’t say I’m a fan of Rachel Held Evans, I do admire the openness with which she wrestles the Christianity of her upbringing. My lack of fandom probably owes only to the fact that, unlike her, I grew up neither Southern nor Evangelical. I’m also aware that minus Fleming Rutledge there’s a paucity of female theologians referenced on this blog so I feel badly that I’m being critical now.

Nonetheless…in her post, ‘When It’s Too Big,’ RHE commends prayer because the Syrian issue is too complex and the right ‘solution’ too elusive. Because it’s ambiguous what Christians should do, the least they can do is pray.

I’m likewise reticent to critique Tooley’s post because I don’t want to be excoriated on the IRD blog the same way Rachel herself was a time ago. Still, reading ‘Syrian War and Churches’ you’d conclude Tooley thought Christians were just foolish people except that he’s one himself.

‘Syrian War and Churches’ lauds the Archbishop of Cantebury’s support of Syrian intervention because it meets Just War criteria, which, in its lack of any defined, measurable goal, it most definitely does not.

Let’s never mind the inconvenient truth that Just War Theory has NEVER prevented Christians from engaging in war. That it hasn’t suggests Just War Theory is less about discerning how Christians should navigate their dual commitments to State and Church and is more about providing a logical pretense for doing what you were going to do anyway- whatever the State wants you.

The sweeping way Tooley dismisses non-violence as a legitimate form of Christian witness is a post for another day, as is the way in which his defense of Just War Theory is replete with the fingerprints of Consequentialism.

Like in RHE’s post, Tooley allows for the role of prayer but scolds that Christians should not keep their faith from being serious about the solutions that may or may not be necessary when it comes to war.

Though they’d never want to share the company, Tooley and RHE both share the assumption that its the calling of Christians to find the right solution and contribute towards it.

Clearer put, they assume its the job of Christians to make the world come out right.

Brian Zahnd, on the other hand, gets right what I think both Tooley and RHE get wrong.

To the charge, which echoes Tooley’s post, ‘We have to be realistic’ Zahnd writes:

Being “realistic” does not exempt us from faithfulness to Christ. If we tell ourselves that Jesus has called us to “change the world” then we quickly find ways to justify our violent means. But Jesus doesn’t call us to change the world — he calls us to be faithful to his ways of peace. If in our faithfulness to Jesus we happen to change the world, fine, but our first call is to remain faithful. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, not because this is an “effective tactic,” but because this is what God is like.

To the counter that sometimes violence is necessary, Zahnd replies:

If we think violence is a viable option you can be sure we will resort to it. If violence is on the table, imagination is out the window. First century Jerusalem could not imagine any other way than violent revolution against the Romans. Jesus could. Jesus not only imagined the alternative, he embodied it. On the cross. And he calls us to follow him. If we don’t know (or refuse to know) the things that make for peace, we march blindly toward another fiery Gehenna.

Zahnd’s internal monologue goes on:

“You’re not being practical.”

No, I am not.

“You’re being foolish.”

It depends on whose lens you’re looking through. I grant that there are ways of looking at what I’m saying as foolishness. But I also insist that to live Christlike in a Caesar-like world is to risk being called a fool or worse.

What Zahnd gets right that others miss is that Christians are not called to solve the world’s problems, to offer solutions as though with our worldly wisdom and worldly ways we can bring the Kingdom of God ourselves.

Rather, as Jesus said right before he ascended to the Father, we’re called to witness to the Kingdom.

That’s a very different proposition.

When Jesus leads his disciples up to the Mt of Olives in Matthew 25, they ask Jesus: When will temple be destroyed and what will be the sign of the coming age?

Rather then answer them directly, Jesus responds with a series of parables about what kind of people his People should be in order to anticipate the coming age.

And the setting for all of this is the Mt of Olives, the place where Jews believed God would begin to usher in the new age (Zechariah 14.1-5).

Jesus predicts destruction, he takes them up to this mountain that’s loaded with symbolism- so why wouldn’t the disciples ask: ‘What will be the sign?’

Because the setting is the place where Jews believed God would end this age, to read the parable that follows rightly you have to go all the way back to the very beginning of scripture, to God’s original design, and God’s promise for a New Creation.

The Hebrew word for that harmony is ‘shalom,’ a word the New Testament translates as ‘peace.’ But it’s not just a sentiment or a feeling of tranquility. It’s restoration. Throughout scripture God’s judgment is against those who work against shalom.

Shalom is not just an abstract theme of scripture; it takes tangible form in the Torah where God lays out Israel’s special charge to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the sick, the poor- whether they’re on the inside of community or the outside of the community because, as Leviticus says, ‘they’re just like you’ (19).

Implied in the Jewish Law is the reality that the stranger and the widow and the orphan and the poor lack an advocate in this world. They are a sign of what’s broken in creation; therefore, God intervenes for them by calling Israel to labor with him in establishing God’s shalom.

This partnership between God and God’s People- this is how God puts creation back together again. This is what the Old Testament is about.

Then, in the New, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ to model shalom for us. Until God brings forth the New Heaven and the New Earth he calls the believing community to embody in every aspect of their lives the shalom that is made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The works of mercy listed in Jesus’ parable- they’re not just a simple list of good deeds.

It’s a summary of what God’s shalom looks like.

This parable isn’t a superficial reminder to do good to others. It’s a description of Israel’s vocation, a vocation taken on by and made flesh in Jesus Christ.

This parable is Jesus’ final teaching moment before his passion begins. It’s the equivalent of the end of John’s Gospel where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says: ‘My shalom I give you.’

The point is not that we will be judged according to our good deeds per se.

The point is that we will be judged by the extent to which we embody Christ’s life.

The point is not that our faith or beliefs in Jesus have nothing to do with how we will be judged.

The point is we will be judged by the extent to which our faith in Christ has allowed us to conform our lives to witness to his way of life- which is the life God desired for all of us before Sin entered the world.

Ask yourself: who is it that welcomes the stranger, loves their enemy, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, brings good news to the prisoner?

This is a description of Jesus’ life.

The sheep in Matthew 25 are saved not because of their good deeds.

The sheep are saved because they’ve dared to witness to the life that redeems the world.

The sign of the new age that the disciples were asking about?

The sign of that new age are a people bold enough to embody the life of Christ. That’s why Jesus tells this story.

When we say that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we don’t just mean our belief in Jesus is the only way to the Father.

We also mean Jesus’ way of life is the only way we get to the Father’s love.

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.

Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime.

Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us.

The Christian life isn’t being ‘realistic’ as the world defines it, and it’s not about solutions to creation’s problems.

It’s about witness to a different reality; it’s about a witness that anticipates and ever so slightly contributes towards the New Creation.

In a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and refuse the sword and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one.

An alternative.

Not a solution.

And so Zahnd and Francis are absolutely, urgently right. Prayer isn’t what you do when the realistic solutions are elusive and its not what you do after you’ve gone about realistically solving the world’s problems.

If God raised Jesus from the dead, the prayer of an alternative community is the most realistic thing there can be.

 

2004 banksy_christOkay, the title is just to get you to click over.

Yesterday I posted about Pope Francis’ recent comments critiquing the West’s idolatrous ‘worship’ of the free market.

You can read the post here and the Pope’s own words here.

No sooner did the post post than I got email after email lambasting me NOT (as expected) for praising the Catholic Church and its office of a Teacher among Teachers.

No, the emails all but tarred and feathered me for endorsing the ‘extreme,’ ‘fringe,’ and ‘anti-freedom’ views of ‘Marxist, Socialist liberalism’ seeking to ‘destroy the Tea Party.’ 

I won’t even take the time to note the discontinuity between those last three adjectives: Marxism, Socialism and Liberalism.

Pope Francis- I think we can all agree by virtue of being elected Pope- is definitely NOT liberal.

In fact, theological training has it uses. I can say with some authority that Francis was only speaking from the historic (Augustinian) Christian tradition.

Quickly then:

According to Augustine, both the Protestant and Catholic Church’s most important thinker, we are creatures made to desire an end (telos).

As creatures, God and God’s Kingdom is the End to which we’re properly oriented. Because we’re end-driven creatures, human freedom is different than how we typically define it in modern America.

Culturally, civically and especially economically we tend to think of freedom in the negative; that is, freedom is the absence of coercion.

Thus, the ‘free market’ is a market without any external controls or values imposed upon it.

“Freedom,” in such a context, is not directed to any End.

Or rather, it’s directed to whatever End the individual decides.

 

For Christians, however, freedom isn’t defined negatively as something that exists in the absence of coercion.

Freedom isn’t freedom from something; freedom is freedom for something.

Freedom is freedom for the Kingdom.

In other words, as telos-driven creatures we are free only when we are directed towards and participating in the Kingdom, only when we’re wrapped up in God’s will, and only when our systems of life together- our politics and our economics- contribute towards that End.

When people and their systems are no longer directed towards or participating in God’s End, the Kingdom, you effectively strip the material things in creation from God’s goodness. They no longer have the purpose for which God gave them. They no longer have any meaning- like a paintbrush without ever having a canvas.

Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism and the praise of the ‘free market’ as an end in and of itself.

BELIEFS-popupAs modern Augustinian, William Cavanaugh says:

“All such loves are disordered loves, loves looking for something worth loving that is not just arbitrarily chosen.

A person buys something- anything- trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine (by which he means our having been created to desire the Kingdom). And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing and he has to head back to the mall to continue the search.

With no objective End to guide the search, his search is literally endless.”

We tend to think of sin simply as a private act we do to break one of God’s rules. We think of sin as an individual free act that violates God’s honor.

Sin is anything but a free act and it’s not always or even primarily about individuals.

Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. And sin is corporate and systemic. 

In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real. 

And a free market system for its own sake, one that either exploits the global poor or turns a blind eye to them, one not directed towards the End for which we’re all created, will only succeed in reducing all of us to unreality.

A feeling, let’s be honest, we all feel a hint of every time we go shopping.

Only a market that is free not from controls but for the common good can point toward and participate in God’s Kingdom.

And I salute Francis (his chosen name should’ve been fair warning) for pointing that out.

 

BELIEFS-popupI recently posted a reflection vis a vis Karl Barth on ‘Why I’m Not a Catholic.’ 

I took some crap from my Catholic brethren for being unfair to the Holy, Mother Church.

To do penance for that post I thought I’d mention a recent story that is indicative to me of what I take to be the greatest gift the Catholic Church presently offers the world.

In case you missed it, Pope Francis recently spoke about the need for global financial reform “along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. Money has to serve, not to rule” Francis said.

The new Pope went to excoriate Western society for its relationship to money and its worship of the free market, saying the worship of the golden calf of old, has now a new image, “in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” 

You can read the rest of the story here.

To get back to my reason for writing, Pope Francis’ strong words against unfettered capitalism remind the world that though the Catholic Church advocates against abortion and homosexuality it (the Catholic Church) does not fit into the  ‘conservative’ category, at least as its given to us in American culture. The very same seamless garment of life that prompts the Church to protect the unborn provokes it defend the prisoner and the poor.

The Pope before him took a dim view of America’s unprovoked war in Iraq and the current Pope just reminded everyone that the Church’s understanding of economics is both older than Milton Friedman and at odds with him.

And, to my mind, that’s the best thing going about the Catholic Church right now.

While all Christian bodies self-present as a global church, seldom do they meet that assertion.

My own Methodist tradition IS a global stream of Christianity yet that stream is comprised of myriad rivulets and eddies, with each taking the character, perspective and loyalty of their nation and culture. So in the United States we have United Methodism and in Korea we have the Korean Methodist Church and so on.

People called Methodists are not a singular global body with a unified witness.

We’re more like managers and employees of a franchise lacking a CEO.

What United Methodists, for example, say about a particular issue- conservative or liberal- inevitably sounds like what any one else from the United States would say, Christian or not.

jefferts-schoriNo where is this more true and obvious than with the situation in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican “Communion.” In case you missed it, (story here) the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA) used the holy day of Pentecost to cast the Apostle Paul (you know, author of most of the New Testament whether we like it or not) aside as a ‘bigot’ using the Book of Acts of all things to make her case.

One would think she could used a text actually authored by Paul for the one formerly known as Saul gives ample ammunition the cause. While I may have sympathies with the issue behind her sermon even someone who agrees with her on the issue of sexuality must admit the ethnocentrism inherent in her perspective, for to liken one’s position to a fresh outpouring of the Spirit is to put those other sincere Christians who disagree in what sort of light?

While I acknowledge all the flaws and imperfections in the following, I nonetheless believe:

Only the Catholic Church with its bishop among bishops, who is beholden to no other government, politics, military or culture, offers a voice free to be, firstly and thoroughly, Christian.

This is why, I think, on issue after issue, from war to sexuality to torture to economics, the office of the Pope is so routinely ‘all over the place,’ refusing  easy secular categorization.

Pope Francis’ words on economics would get pilloried (actually probably yawned at) as ‘Occupy Wallstreet’ language if a United Methodist had said them.

Fact is, he’s just speaking Christian. 

That Francis’ words on economics sound ‘political’ to us (or even ‘partisan’ when on another’s lips) is but an indication of how we’re more captured by our politics than we are by our Great High Priest.

BELIEFS-popupPope Francis: His Life in His Own Words is now out in bookstores. No sooner had the ‘habemus’ smoke hit the air than this book must’ve hit the press. It’s amazing how quickly the Catholic Church turn such a publication around. If it was the United Methodist Church, the book would be stuck in committee for a quadrennium.

The book is a collection of interviews with Pope Francis when he was still known by his first name, ‘Cardinal.’ One of the interesting notes in the book is Francis’ stress on the importance of rest as a Christian practice in need of recovery.

Francis says:

“Together with a culture of work, there must be a culture of leisure as gratification. To put it another way: people who work must take the time to relax, to be with their families, to enjoy themselves, read, listen to music, play a sport. But this is being destroyed, in large part, by the elimination of the Sabbath rest day. More and more people work on Sundays as a consequence of the competitiveness imposed by a consumer society.”

In such cases, he concludes, “work ends up dehumanizing people.”

In other words, it’s not simply about how you observe don’t observe the Sabbath, it’s about how your refusal to obey the commandment contributes to a system wherein workers, who may wish to observe the Sabbath, are forced to a punch a clock when they should be chillaxing in the grace of God.

Mark Oppenheimer who writes about the book in the NY Times adds this comment:

“Catholic social teaching is known for promoting the idea that workers deserve dignity, which includes rest. But Pope Francis seems to be saying something more: that an authentically Christian life includes a proper dose of leisure and family time.”

The article, which is worth a read, is here.

romeroYesterday a friend shared the news that Pope Francis has moved to ‘unblock’ the beautification of Oscar Romero.

Romero, in case you don’t know, was a Catholic priest in El Salvador who was shot to death in 1980 while saying Mass. What made Romero a hero to many made him an enemy to others: his solidarity with Latin America’s poor and his opposition to human rights abuses. Up until now, Romero’s beautification had stalled over concerns with his ‘liberation theology.’

Liberation theology, is a discipline within theology that is controversial only to those (Glenn Beck) who don’t know anything about theology- but that’s a post for another day.

When I heard the news about Romero, my initial gut reaction was to say:

‘Pope Francis has totally given me a bad case of Catholic-envy.’ 

It’s true; he has.

And judging by the amount of praise in Protestant journals, such as Christianity Today, I’m not alone.

From the news that Francis refuses to live in the papal mansion to his shunning elaborate vestments to breaking ‘tradition’ when it comes to Holy Thursday foot-washing, the new bishop of Rome seems to possess the one thing that’s almost extinct in our media-saturated world: authenticity.

And that makes me envious. 4577728-3x2-700x467

Where Catholics get a real-deal, legit Jesus-follower as the global face of their tradition, Protestants get what…? Who…?

Joel Osteen? Blegh. Franklin Graham? Lord, I hope not.

The frenzied excitement that each Pope Francis story generates in the press and among the public bears out at least 3 lessons from which Protestants, it seems to me, can learn.

#1: It’s About Jesus

While the ‘Nones’ may be on the rise and while the ranks of the ‘religiously unaffiliated’ swell, people are still- stubbornly so- captivated by Jesus. There’s still plenty of people in the world interested in how a crucified Jewish messiah could so haunt the world still that he produces someone like Francis. Someone whose whole life seems conformed to replicating as closely as possible the life of Christ- just like the Francis of the pope’s namesake.

The curiosity piqued by Francis demonstrates, I think, that though the ‘Nones’ are opting out of institutional Christianity (Institutionanity), they’re not necessarily writing Jesus off.

Mainsideline Protestantism, like United Methodism, is in decline, and with such decline the temptation towards institutional preservation increases in inverse proportion. Too often in the guise of ‘saving souls’ we’re really just trying to save our little corner of organized religion.

I think the appeal of Francis shows the dangers in such temptation. People aren’t interested in institutions, but they are- still- interested in Jesus. Part of the appeal of Francis is that he clearly cares more about Jesus than he does with the institution called Church.

#2: It’s About the Poor

Even non-Christians know in their bones that ours is a faith that was intended to be of the poor, by the poor, for the poor.

That’s the wisdom of liberation theology: our scripture is best understood read from the perspective of the poor.

Somewhere along the way many of us have lost the clarity of Jesus’ message. The Vatican has its opulence, sure, but we Protestants are no better. We have our prosperity preachers on TV who fly around in their personal jets (which Jesus blessed them with) and we have others who are content to do charity (Operation Christmas Child) without ever, in Jesus’ name, addressing the systemic causes of poverty. And then there are the rest of us (me: guilty) who think of ‘serving the poor’ as one church activity among other, equally urgent, ministries.

To the extent that we forget that Jesus’ Gospel was intended to be ‘good news for the poor’ ours will always be a Gospel with a hole in it.

I think so many have praised Francis’ declaration that the Church should be a Church in solidarity with the poor because they know, if just intuitively, that that’s exactly who we should be.

Because that’s who Jesus was.

#3: It’s About Integrity

Pope Francis is a walking, talking 21st century illustration of Marshall McLuhan’s maxim:

‘the medium is the message.’

Our mode has to match our message.

In other words: We’ve got to walk the walk if we’re going to talk the talk.

Far be it from me to criticize Joel Osteen but most people know there’s a dissonance between an affluent peddler of the Gospel and the one who initially proclaimed that Gospel. That Francis seems so refreshing a Christian leader is but an indication of how hungry the world is for people whose character corresponds and compliments their confession of faith.

As Paul says in Corinthians, we are ourselves like letters sent by Christ to a watching world. And none of the letters that made their way into the New Testament can undo the damage done by you or me, in our daily lives, when we make the love of Christ illegible or unintelligible.