Archives For William Cavanaugh

In Episode 66, Taylor and Jason speak with William Cavanaugh, author of The Myth of Religious Violence, Torture and the Eucharist, and Being Consumed. William Cavanaugh is a Professor of Theology at DePaul University where he has been teaching since 2010. He received his B.A. in theology from the University of Notre Dame in 1984, and an M.A. from Cambridge University in 1987.

In this episode, William talks about religion as a construct of the State, welcoming the stranger, and imposing your values upon your children.

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160706064731-baton-rouge-police-shooting-alton-sterling-cell-phone-video-polo-sandoval-dnt-nd-00010108-large-169“What’s happening to America?”

I’ve overheard such comments, exasperated and worried, frequently of late. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Nice, Baton Rouge again: “Has the world lost its mind?”

I sympathize with the sentiment; nonetheless, it betrays a naivete of which Christians, of all people, should not be guilty precisely because Christians, of all people, are those people who know we’re guilty. Sinners, that is.

Christians do not have the optimistic assessment of human nature or romanticized visions of our societal institutions such that we could be shocked or surprised by news stories of police corruption, racial furor, and terrorism.

During World War II, the Catholic worker Dorothy Day based her advocacy for Christian nonviolence not on utopian delusions about the Church or upon Christians’ distinction apart from the common lot of sinners but on a deep penitential awareness of Christians’ solidarity with all other human beings in sin. Day believed nonviolence was the mandate upon Christian practice not because Christians are fundamentally peaceful creatures but because we’re not at all. We’re sinner; that is, Day preached Christian nonviolence not because we’re a people who know peace is the better way in the world but because we’re a people who know we cannot be trusted with violence.

Rather than asking “What’s happening to America?” (Because, of course, the correct answer is that nothing new is happening to America, it’s just being videoed with greater frequency today), Christians should be pointing out- confessing- that it’s not just that we’re all individual sinners. We’re sinful creatures who create sinful, sin-prone institutions. Of course police departments and justice departments can be corrupt and, even, racist. Of course movements like Black Lives Matter can be not entirely innocent or have members whose motives are pure. Of course America continues to reap what it sowed in the antebellum south.

A woman who worships at my church, who’s obviously a skilled writer in addition to being a gardener, put it this way to me:

“Gardeners understand original sin because the weed seeds are already in the soil – they’ve been there for years. In fact, the work you do to break up the soil, to prepare it for something good, brings weed seeds up to the surface. All the compost and aeration you put in the soil makes it prime real estate for weeds as well as for your plants.”

Christians have a language to describe what video and social media expose with alarming regularity these days. The language of Sin. We’re all captive, as St. Paul says, to the Principalities and Powers, and we’re all from time to time, unwittingly even, in service to them, aiding and abetting, despite our best intentions, whom Paul calls the “prince of this world.”

It’s a language I hear almost no one speaking, possibly because you cannot speak it without also simultaneously confessing your own complicity. Even I, for example, perpetuate a racism that my own boys, who are not white, will inevitably be effected by one day.

Sin is the reason why appeals to unity (“We’re all Americans”) ring false and hollow. As the theologian William Cavanaugh argues:

“our mysticism of nationalism tends to occlude our class divisions such that those who point out the class divisions in American get accused of waging class warfare, which is analogous to arsonists complaining that the fire department keeps reporting to the blazes they’ve set.”

You can replace “class divisions” with “racial divisions” and Cavanaugh’s point still holds. Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas et al- when so many are shocked and anxious these days, Christians should be those people who are not surprised at all that another fire has come ablaze, for only through such an unsurprised people will others hear the news that we cannot, even in America, save, redeem, heal, or even better ourselves.

Gardening and fire-fighting are apt metaphors for the work Christians call confession, for Christians know that we’re seldom in a position to know the truth about our sin until we have made our lives available to others in a way that we might be shown the truth about ourselves, especially in matters where the wrong cannot easily be made right, which, as Stanley Hauerwas says, “is the character of most matters that matter.”

In other words, making confession is not possible apart from making the relationships necessary to expose the extent of our sinfulness. Black lives matter for, without them, white Christians cannot know ourselves sufficiently to confess our sin.

 

Jesus-Christ-With-Shopping-Bags-by-BanksyFor our fall commitment campaign this year, we’re doing a sermon series around Adam Hamilton’s book Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity.

In his warmth, winsomeness and measured inoffensiveness, Rev. Hamilton is like the alternate universe version of yours truly.

We all serve a purpose, right? I suppose if I was a pastor in Kansas where Christians are inclined to conceal and carry in the sanctuary, then I’d tone it down too.

In most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God.

Or not.

As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

if you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re sleeping with or how much they make and give to their church…almost everyone will opt for Door #1.

Because I’m a contrarian by both nature and desire, I’m supplementing Hamilton’s book by rereading a little book by the postliberal theologian, William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire

Cavanaugh is an Augustinian, which lends a corrective to something I think gets obscured in Enough. Adam Hamilton leverages the anxieties provoked by the Great Recession- and now the sequestration and shut down here in DC- to encourage his readers to desire greater simplicity in their lives.

That’s all well and good obviously, but as St Augustine would point out desire is the root problem.

Ask any sinner- one should be easy to find- and they will tell you that very often our desires are given to us.

They’re not freely chosen.

We do not form our wants and desires like my son composes his Christmas list for Santa. Our wants and desires are formed for us by external forces and powers.

Actually my son’s Christmas list is a good example, containing as it does several things he’s never before expressed a desire for (and I know as his father he won’t enjoy) until he recently saw them in a commercial.

Our economic system is premised on the belief that each should be ‘free’ to choose his or her own ends. I’m free, in other words, to choose simplicity and generosity or I’m free to choose a McMansion.

As Friedrich Hayek says, “the individual is ultimately the judge of his ends. There is no unitary order to our desires.” 

Free market economics, then, assume that choose particular actions and objects based on the wants and desires of which we’re in control.

Freedom so conceived is 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 of God.

In other words, as telos-driven (Kingdom/God-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.

Freedom then, as Paul describes it, isn’t independence itself but dependence on God.

When we try to live our lives without acknowledging our dependence on God, our loves become disordered, directed towards some other end but God. As Paul saw it in his own pre-Jesus life, what we think of as freedom is actually slavery.

Augustine saw his pre-faith life in much the same way. In his Confessions, the memoir of his conversion, he says famously that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee (God).’

Question:

Why is it that the pursuit of, say, material happiness so often leads to sensations of emptiness and meaninglessness? Even nothingness?

Here’s why, according to Augustine.

Because creation is given as a gracious gift, the goodness of creation is only ‘good’ insofar as it participates and points back to God’s greater goodness. Wine is good, for example, because its a sign of the graciousness of what God has made.

However, when you’re 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.

They are, in the same sense in which we talked about evil, no thing. Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism.

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

Sin is anything but a free act. Sin is a disordered love that upsets the God-given trajectory of our lives. Sin is a privation of goodness in our lives. It’s nothingness that intrudes onto the life God would have for us. In a very real way, the more we sin the less human we become, the less real.

Sin is not a free act or decision at all.

It’s slavery.

That’s why, ironically, ‘desiring’ simplicity and generosity not only isn’t enough but will ultimately prove futile.

Augustine would point out  that our desires themselves are what need rehabilitation. Or rather, the way to simplicity and generosity is by cultivating the right desires.

Simplicity is made possible not by purging away our stuff or simply desiring a simpler life. Simplicity is only made possible by throwing ourselves so deeply into the way of Jesus that we’re given all new desires.

 

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.

I’m not exactly sure how or when Ayn Rand (Ayn is Russian for ‘worst fiction writer ever’) became a prized philosopher. Or, for that matter, I’m not sure when she even qualified to be considered a philosopher as such.

While the recent terrible film version of Atlas Shrugged demonstrated Rand’s limits for plot, character and pathos, her work as a philosopher continues to receive praise and self-serious examination.

What’s even more troubling is to see how her unembarrassed espousal of self-interest has been adopted by self-avowed Christians. It seems more than a little obvious that the world seen through Rand’s eyes could not be more divergent than the one seen through Jesus’ eyes. That the previous sentence might be interpreted as a partisan attack only proves how far Christians have gone in forgetting their core story or, perhaps, in being able to apply that story to the world around them.

It’s one thing to agree to a free-market as a means for our common life together. It’s another to treat it as an end in and of itself, a move a Christian should not agree to make.

For that statement to make sense, though, requires a reminder of just what Christians mean by the word ‘sin.’

The church’s way of thinking about sin is a function of how it thinks about creation and evil.

We are creatures made to desire an end (telos).

God and God’s Kingdom is the End to which we’re properly oriented; that’s how God made us.

Because we’re end-driven creatures, human freedom is different than how we typically define it in modern America. Culturally, civically and 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.

Freedom then, as Paul describes it, isn’t independence itself but dependence on God. When we try to live- or shop- without acknowledging our dependence on God, our loves become disordered, directed towards some other end but God. A Paul says of his own pre-Christ life, the freedom he thought he enjoyed was actually slavery.

Augustine says famously that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee (God).’

Question:

Why is it that the pursuit of, say, material happiness so often leads to sensations of emptiness and meaninglessness? Even nothingness?

Here’s why, according to Augustine.

Because creation is given as a gracious gift, the goodness of creation is only ‘good’ insofar as it participates and points back to God’s greater goodness. Wine is good, for example, because its a sign of the graciousness of what God has made.

However, when you’re 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.

Think of the pervasive sin of consumerism.

As 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.” 

In this way, the ‘free market’ as we tend to think about it isn’t free at all. In the words of Paul, it’s slavery. Or, put the other way round, only someone who loves God can participate in the market without becoming a slave.

Sorry Ayn.

Here’s a good story from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the rise of Rand.