NCM, 2014-2015:

September 21, 2012

Madison Green Salon

Meeting once a month, usually the third Wednesday of the month,
to discuss theological, philosophical, and political issues
raised by the environmental crisis.
7:30-9 AM, Memorial Union Cafeteria, UW-Madison
for more info, contact: C. R. Boardman,

Missiology Discussion Group, Meeting once a month, over Skype,

to discuss theological, philosophical, and political issues
raised by the missionary expansion of the church around the world.
For more information, contact: Ned Hale, 608-334-5418

Some comments on Laudato Si (2015)

July 31, 2015

Laudato Si (2015) may turn out to be the most important statement of Roman Catholic social teaching since Rerum Novarum(1891), perhaps the most important such statement ever. For Rerum Novrum was largely concerned with the internal justice of a rising industrial society, especially the proper relationship between capital and labor, while Laudato SI has to do with a much larger and more basic question, the justice of a fully developed industrial society in relation to the fate of life itself.

At 184 pages, Pope Francis’s “urgent challenge to protect our common home” is a complex and broadly developed document, well worthy of a more extensive response. Because of time constraints, however, these comments must necessarily be brief.

As a document with a practical end in mind, the encyclical is extremely timely, appearing, as it has, six months before the upcoming Paris negotiations over climate change, and three months before Pope Francis’s projected appearances before the UN, the US Congress, and the Roman Catholic conference on the family. As Hannah Arendt has said, the right word at the right time IS action…

But the right word at the right time is also a matter of content, and on this front the encyclical shines as well.

For one thing, the encyclical strongly supports the scientific consensus on the impact of rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases on climate change, an important matter because of the attacks on climate science by climate science skeptics, so potent in the larger American Christian community.

For another, the encyclical brings forward, in a very compelling manner, the environmental concerns of previous Popes, as well as similar concerns by bishops and church leaders from around the world, and sets them in the context of a well-thought-out Biblical theology of the environment. Few reading this text will be able to avoid the judgment that concern for the environmental crisis, and especially its impact on the poor and marginal around the world, is not an optional matter, but a necessity for people of faith.

And finally, the encyclical places the responsibility for our dismal state of affairs squarely where it belongs, on the leading elements in our civilization, not only for their mismanagement of the science, technology, and markets which characterize our civilization, (i.e., capitalism and its supporting institutions), but also for something deeper—an arrogant attitude of domination toward the creation, or even—as Francis suggests at one point—a desire to play God.

All of this, is well taken, appropriate, and powerful, and it has been interesting to watch the public response to this powerful encyclical as it unfolds in various sectors of the population.

While watching the reaction to the encyclical unfold, however, it must be remembered that the Pope has made some further suggestions about what ought to be done in the midst of the environmental crisis, and his comments deserve at least some brief attention.

Quite appropriate, in the midst of our confused and distracting situation, is Francis’s assertion that what is needed now is action at the most general, corporate, political level as well as at the individual, local level.

Well taken is the Pope’s judgment that at the level of politics what will be happening at the Paris meetings in November and December will be of decisive importance for the future of the world, and that constructive efforts to limit the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses being put into the atmosphere need to be supported in as many ways as possible.

Also appropriate, over the longer run, is his judgment that the rich countries must now step up and begin to develop ways in which to repay their environmental debt to countries in the developing world, as is his suggestion that we need to work for reform at the national level in such matters as overcoming the financialization of our economic system.

Of special interest to environmentalists is Francis’s negative judgment about the value of cap and trade programs that, in the European context at least, have proven to be ineffective and subject to corruption. But missing, as far as I can see, is any recognition by the Pope of the virtues of a carbon fee and dividend system, a scheme which shows great promise in for the task of weaning us from fossil fuels and creating the conditions for a carbon-free energy system.

Also well taken is Francis’s support for the value of “small steps” that might be taken toward environmental responsibility at the local, individual level. Such actions, he writes, are to be appreciated in themselves, and are also to be valued because small steps can lead to larger, more extensive steps, later on.

Beyond responding in the immediate situation, however, Francis asserts that over the long run something deeper is needed, and that is a change of heart on environmental
 matters. We need an “ecological conversion,” and the Pope suggests that this might be brought about through the development of a new approach to technology, by a new educational effort, and finally, through traditional religious means.

Francis’s suggestion about developing a new approach to technology involves the creation of what he calls “integral ecology,” in which the controlling attitude typical of our practice of technology might be balanced with a contemplative, receptive attitude toward the human and natural world, a change that he feels might result in a more appropriate scientific, technological and business practice.

Furthermore, Francis suggests that we need to consider an educational reform, and this on two fronts: on the one hand, by encouraging a more active immersion in nature in such a way that the beauty of nature might increase our motivation to care for our injured
 sister (overcoming what some have called our “nature deficit” disorder), and on the other hand, by encouraging the development of more ecologically responsible character traits and habits. Here, the Pope shows himself to be a true son of the church and its Thomistic/Aristotelian emphasis on education.

But the Pope, although a Jesuit, seems to be a Franciscan by avocation, and thus a follower not only of Thomas but also of Bonaventure. Thus his final suggestion is that an ecological conversion might be advanced by taking up the environmental issue in the context of Roman Catholic worship and liturgical life. (Might one assume that Orthodox and Protestant worship, if alive in the Spirit, might also have the same impact?) Through a renewed relationship with God, Francis implies, a more meaningful ecological spirituality might be born, one that more adequately looks out for the welfare of the creation as well as that of the poor and marginal of our world. As John Shea, a Jesuit scientist responding to the encyclical said recently, “One does not simply read Laudato Si, one prays with it.” (The Jesuit Post: Real Presence and the Living God, July 2, 2015, p. 1).

One last comment, however, in relation to those of us reading the encyclical with philosophical questions in mind.

Anyone reading this encyclical will note the conspicuous absence of any references to utilitarian or pragmatic philosophers in the text of the document. Instead, there are numerous references to Thomas (Aristotelian) and to Bonaventure (a Platonist, and Augustinian). What is going on here?

One clue might be the fact that in the 184 pages of text of this encyclical, one phrase was repeated at least 12 times: “everything is connected…” What is the meaning of the continuous refrain that “everything is connected…”?

If one takes the sentence “everything is connected…” seriously, it means at least the following: that nothing exists alone, in its owns right, but only in relationship—and that these relationships, therefore, must receive their due, or there will be trouble, and life will ultimately be endangered as a result.

The recognition of the ontological importance of the notion of relationship has many implications for the conduct of human life.

For example, in relation to the notion of human freedom, so very important in American life, the recognition of the fundamental importance of relationship means that a strictly negative doctrine of freedom, in which freedom is seen in the context of an increasing absence of restraints on one’s behavior, is inadequate for the situation in which we find ourselves. For, if no one or no thing exists alone, but only in relationship, then freedom must have some positive content, namely what justice requires in each of the relationships that constitute our lives.

If the notion of freedom having content, which is the understanding of freedom in the classical tradition, makes any sense—and it makes more sense every day as the environmental crisis expands into every area of our lives–then the question must be raised: in an era in which human power has become a dominant element in the life of the planet, what is the positive content that freedom demands of us in our time? Given our historical situation, must we not make the judgment that freedom today demands a concern for, and response to, the welfare of the whole world and the multiplicity of its
 most significant relationships? In other words, shouldn’t our orientation be toward what the Whiteheadians call “world loyalty,” and our chief calling be to understand what such a loyalty might mean in our response to the contemporary world?

(Written for a projected text on Laudato Si (For our Common Home, 2015) by participants in the conference Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization, June 4-6, 2015 (10th World Conference on the Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and the 9th World Conference on Ecological Civilization). 

Seven Stanzas at Easter, by John Updike (1964)

March 29, 2015

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.


I like this poem, by one of my favorite authors, John Updike, not because it is an argument for the resurrection, which it isn’t–but because it makes an accurate judgment about what sustains the Christian Church…


Needed: A New Institutional Context for the Church’s Presence on Campus

January 31, 2015

Recently, on a trip to Madison, a friend dug into his file and retrieved the following, which I wrote after one of InterVarsity’s “Following Christ” conferences for graduate students in the 1990s. The piece is a little dated, but it seems to me that the argument still makes sense. My intent in this piece was to affirm IV’s Grad and Faculty Ministry, especially as it expressed itself in the “Following Christ” conferences (which, I believe, have been suspended for financial reasons), but that something more was needed. Some new projects on campus may answer this need…


A proposal for establishing a
Center For Advanced Christian Studies
On the UW-Madison campus

 By Vern Visick

If the university has become central in the life of modern society, then the church ought to have an effective presence within that institution. If the modern research university, as we find it in such institutions as the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan, Illinois and California, has become the dominant form of the university, then the church’s ministry on campus will be incomplete, and it will never reestablish itself within the university, unless it relates to the research faculty and graduate students that make up the heart of the contemporary university.

(As briefly as possible, state what we’re proposing as an answer to the problem just outlined: basically, a Center for Advanced Christian Studies (CACS) on the UW-Madison campus…)

We propose the establishment of a graduate-level “Center for Advanced Christian Studies (CACS)” on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The aim of the center would be to make a basic contribution to the deepening and broadening of Christian scholarship, and in so doing, to help reestablish the Christian faith at the heart of the contemporary university.

The CACS would share in the “search for better knowledge and understanding” within the context of the programs and activities of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but would do so from an explicitly Christian point of view. The special focus of the CACS would be on “places of interaction between Christian theology and disciplines of the humanities and the natural and social sciences, addressing these interactions in classes, seminars, conferences, workshops, study groups, lectures, courses and discussions…” (Yandell)

The core members of the CACS would be senior research scholars at the peak of their careers who enjoy the respect of colleagues within their various fields of study and who, at the same time, are committed to classical Christianity. The core members would be joined by junior research scholars of promise and graduate students of similar caliber with other students being accepted from time to time depending on the program.

The CACS would begin its operations in facilities operated by Madison Campus Ministry at Pres House (in the heart of campus across from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library), but it is hoped that the center might eventually be housed in the top two floors of a high-rise parking ramp/apartment building to be built over the present parking lot behind Pres House.

(As briefly as possible, outline the context in which the proposal is being made: basically, the rise of the multiversity, the marginalization of the church, and the ambiguous corporate and personal impact of the process….)

In the development of the contemporary university, as George Marsden has pointed out in his book, The Spirit of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, the university (which initially grew out of the church, and up until the turn of the century was still strongly influenced by the Christian faith) has become free from almost any significant influence by the church. Indeed, the case might be made that in many ways the university has become an antagonist of the church (the “established nonbelief” to which Marsden refers).

From the point of view of the church’s mission in society, such a division is a serious matter because it means that the church’s cultural influence is diminished–far below what one might expect given the number of active Christians in our society.

But the situation is also questionable in terms of the internal life of the two institutions as well.

The separation between the university and the church certainly protects the university as a whole from interference by misguided churchmen and religious zealots, as well as the problem of constructively relating to the multiplicity of sects operating in a community like Madison. But the separation between the university and the church also isolates the university from the wisdom and power resident in the classical Christian tradition, thus contributing to what Robert Oppenheimer called “the thinning of common knowledge” in the university and leaving the institution more vulnerable than it might otherwise be to capture by weak, inadequate, or (sometimes) perverse ideologies. From the standpoint of the overall welfare of the university, it seems obvious that a high-level “community of rational discourse” would be facilitated by close contact with a community that has a living relationship to the God who called its subject matter, the structure of reality, into being in the first place, and to the tradition that testifies to Him.

The impact of the separation between the university and the church on the life of the church is equally ambiguous. The separation certainly protects the free practice of religion from interference by state agencies and organizations, and perhaps in the short run protects the church from the presumably “secularizing” influence of the university. But the separation also means that theological reflection is isolated in the seminaries, thus harming the vital interaction with the contemporary self-interpretation of society as expressed in the work of the various reigning disciplines. Pastorally, the church loses contact with the actual working life of increasing numbers of its members, who are more and more drawn into the expanding activities of the “idea complex” of the modern university. Preaching, teaching, and pastoral care are cheapened, simplified and made more superficial and the practical activities of the church are forced to move forward without the help of the disciplines so prominent in the modern university. Without a way of effectively relating itself to the dynamics of the modern university, the church is drawn into a pattern of protective isolation, on the one hand, or absorption into the dominant culture, on the other.

Likewise, at the individual level, the separation between the university and the church deprives persons of the full presence of the church on campus. Non-Christian students and faculty are left without the resources (intellectually and inter personally) that might be provided by the presence and activities of strong and effective Christians within the university context.  Christian faculty and students are isolated and unsupported by the kind of high-level Christian academic community that is necessary for them to reach their full potential as scholarly members of the university community. The latter situation, especially, sometimes leads to a split between professional and personal life that is the cause of a great deal of suffering on the individual level.

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Conversation about Ecological and Familial Sustainability

January 31, 2015

Conversation to Conference…

Conversation between Jay Knight, Vern Visick and Don Browning leading up to the January conference

Jay….Almost all the time we hear of a “sustainable economy” or “sustainable agriculture” we are talking about a new basis for our economy. But no one ever talks about a sustainable social structure. I don’t hear anyone commenting and thinking about the unsustainability of a society based upon autonomous individualism and personal choice. Personal choice as a “constitutional right”, no less. Do you know of anyone writing about sustainability in this way? How can you have anything like a “sustainable” economy when your moral social structure is degraded and fragmented? Is this not what Torah speaks of in Deut. 30:19?


Vern: Over the long run, I donʼt believe that we can have a sustainable society without a sustainable family life (and interpersonal relationships generally, i.e., friendship relationships).

The negative side of this situation is the drivenness that comes out of disrupted family and primary social relationships, which when healthy introduce an element of mutuality and mutual care into relationships that is important in bringing forth the kind of person who rightly evaluates things at other levels, and is able to make good choices.

The kind of freedom you speak of in your note is what might be called “negative freedom,” freedom from, rather than “positive freedom,” or “freedom for the good.” In my opinion, only when one uses one’s freedom in the first sense to choose rightly for freedom in the second sense, do you have the basis for sustainable family, interpersonal and social relations.

The whole classical tradition reasons in this manner (both the Platonic and Aristotelian streams of it). In each of these systems, it is not the (simple) freedom to choose that one is after, but the freedom to choose rightly (all things considered, and in the light of the most profound wisdom of the race). You can read about the necessary quality of relationships about which we’re speaking in Erik Erikson’s series of books, beginning with Childhood and Society. The notion of positive freedom is also important in Niebuhr’s and Tillich’s systems, and in most of the classical theologians in church history (Hooker being one in the Anglican tradition, Aquinas in the Roman Catholic tradition).

However, there are two practical problems with the notion of positive freedom Iʼve outlined above.

One is, we may not fully understand or know the good which we ought to be reaching for (this is the reason why basic theological, psychological, and political studies, which seem abstract and useless to many people, are actually one of the most practical things a person can study, because they help us in scoping out the basic dynamics of the situation in which we wish to act). Further, there is always the complication of the historical situation, which may change one or another particular about our grasp of the concrete good toward which we need to act.

The other practical problem about what Iʼve outlined above is that we may indeed know the good, but find ourselves underpowered or distracted in relation to moving toward it (as the Apostle Paul says, there is another law in our members…)

These two problems are the reason why health in family relations, and in interpersonal and social relations generally, is a matter that requires not only serious, disciplined study, but also action that is informed by the nurturing, teaching and discipline of the church.

Without the quality of life described above, we may indeed move toward a sustainable society, but it probably will require a lot of coercion (as you see it outlined in Robert Heilbroner’s The Human Prospect). Or, nature itself, rebelling against the way in which we relate to it, will force the issue, and then we’ll HAVE to do what we ought to do to survive, not out of free choice, but out of necessity (like the person who has to have a heart attack to change his diet, rather than freely choosing beforehand to eat in such a way as to not set himself up for a heart attack).

Good questions, Jay, questions that the environmental movement would do well to dwell upon more than it does.

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Remembering “E”

October 7, 2010

Recently, via an Alumni website, I learned that “E” (not her real initial), the most beautiful woman in my freshman class in college, had died of cancer.

Since I was dating a friend of E’s, and we had some interaction with E, I had a chance to observe her interaction with others, female and male.

Females were upset when E entered the room, because all the male attention in the room went to her. Male attention went to E like iron filings to a magnet.

This was my first experience of someone so beautiful that she could literally stop the conversation in a room simply by entering it. I saw it happen many times.

One would think that being so beautiful might be a big plus in life, but at least in E’s life, the situation was much more ambiguous.

E was studying for an education certificate, and eventually she accomplished this feat, as well as an MA in English from the University of Washington. It appears, however, that she never had much of a career as a teacher. I had thought that her beauty would be a plus in a junior high school class, both for males and females. But it appears it was more of a distraction than a help.

Nor did E’s beauty bring her happiness in romance. Many of my friends made a play for her, but she stiff-armed all of them. Gradually, I came to the conclusion that something bad must have happened to her romantically, or even that she really didn’t like men.

Years later, a friend of mine from the West Coast reported that E had been a stewardess on one of the West Coast airlines on which he flew. In that role, she totally charmed the passengers on the plane, and had passenger cabin under complete control.

After college I moved to the Midwest for seminary and graduate school, and I gradually lost contact with my West Coast friends. But E remained in the back of my mind for several reasons.

You can’t study ethics, as I do, without encountering the question of the relationship between the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the relationship of all of these things (including beauty) to human fulfillment.

One can speak of the perfection of form, or the relationship of form to function, or the relationship of beauty to proper proportions, as architects are prone to do when discussing the “golden section.” One can also speak of how earthly beauty points beyond itself to the beautiful itself, or God. Or, one can be agnostic about all of the philosophical arguments about beauty, but still observe that whatever it is, it stimulates a lot of human activity, on the part of both females and males.

(The latest movie illustrating the phenomenon was The Devil Wears Prada, which tells the story of a young female college graduate (played by Ann Hathaway) who makes the transition between being a cute coed to a strikingly beautiful woman, thanks to the impact of the New York fashion industry on her young life–but not without some threats to her integrity as a person.)

I still think a lot about these matters, but in the meantime I’ve come to a conclusion: it is not a good thing in life to be given too much beauty (or wealth, or power, or any of the other good things of life).

Beauty is a great good, and a cause of great delight in God’s creation, but most people do not have the wisdom to relate to it properly, either in themselves or in others. Rather, in the spirit of Proverbs 30:1, it would be best to be given some, but not too much, of ANY of these good things, beauty included.

Whatever the complications of  E’s life and relationships, they are past now, and she is in the presence of the One who heals all hurts and repairs all damaged relationships. RIP, E.

Being Neutral is Oh-So-Hard-To Do…

July 27, 2010

Stanley Fish, not usually one of my favorite commentators, has written an excellent Op-Ed piece on the recent supreme court decision regarding the Christian Legal Society and its conflict with the Hastings School of the Law in San Francisco. His commentary, along with an amazing series of reactions by bloggers around the country, can be found here. For Fish’s review of the controversy created by his column, click here.

His argument, with which I substantially agree, is that neutrality is very hard to achieve in a public institution, and often measures taken to insure neutrality backfire, and suppress the rights of groups that don’t fit into normal “liberal” categories. The CLS, in his opinion, is a group that doesn’t fit very well in a “liberal” society, largely because it not only has an orthodox theological commitment but also a commitment to what might be called “orthopraxy,” or right practice, specifically in the matter of sexual ethics. Thus, in Fish’s opinion, the CLS didn’t receive justice in the supreme court decision under review.

At another point, I’ll comment about the arguments on both sides, and explain why in this case I side with Fish (and Alioto) on the arguments in question.

In my initial take on the controversy, however, what is amazing to me is the nature of the response to Fish’s article.

I would say that more than half of the responses are “ideological,” and depend almost entirely on the responder’s prior position on gay and lesbian issues.

Those who support the “liberal” take on sexual issues tend to take their stand on the principle of equality, while damming the opposition with charges of bigotry. Those who might have a more “conservative” take on sexual issues tend to argue on the logical merits of the case, while exhibiting a variety of interpretations about what exactly the logical merits might be.

In the exchanges I read as of last night, I would say that the conservatives made a realistic effort at discussing the matter in terms of the logic and history of court decisions in this country, and appeared more technically “reasonable.” But the liberals were winning the debate emotionally, because no one was able to challenge them on whether or not the principle of equality applied in this particular instance.

Sophistry is a live and well, as we can see from the way in which the debate over Fish’s article has been conducted. But the other thing that can be seen in this debate is that where there is no common grounding in deeper agreed upon principles, things degenerate into a simple conflict of power, a sobering phenomenon in our current political culture.

This situation, as a number of commentators have noted, is deeply troubling for the future of the democratic way of life in a liberal culture, for such a culture can’t endure forever in a state of deep conflict.

For Fish’s reaction to the controversy created by his column, click here.

How Not to Change the World

June 13, 2010

One of the more interesting books published this year was James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010–not just because of his analysis and prescription for Christian action toward culture change, which are significant but flawed, but also because of the reaction it has caused in the evangelical Christian community.

For the reader’s benefit, I list here the most significant reactions so far:  Andy Crouch’s initial review in Books and Culture, Christopher Benson’s post-publication interview with Hunter in Christianity Today, and, in the same journal, Crouch’s response to Hunter’s specific criticisms, Charles Colson’s response to Hunter’s larger argument, and, finally, also in CT, Hunter’s later response to Crouch and Colson.

In my opinion, Colson in his brash way, and Crouch, in his gentler, kinder way, get the best of the exchange, while admitting Hunter’s sociological point: that when it comes to making an impact on culture, Christians need to pay attention to institutions (Crouch agreeing, in principle, Colson in actual practice).

Basically, while appreciating Hunter’s work, both Crouch and Colson try to correct Hunter’s either-or style of thinking about cultural change, agree with his critique of American individualism, and raise legitimate questions about Hunter’s drift toward sectarianism in the latter part of his book.

So in this case, the practitioners turned out to be more profound than the professor theologically, although both could profit from his sociological analysis of culture change, within limits.

In the first part of the book, Hunter criticizes evangelicals for the individualism, idealism, and ineffectiveness in the task of cultural creation. He points out that evangelicals number in the multi-millions in the USA, but are ineffectual in their impact on the larger culture–in contrast, say, to the Jewish and gay/lesbian communities.

So, one might conclude, study how the Jewish and gay/lesbian communities influence the larger culture–and go thou and do likewise.

But Hunter has more on his mind than simple sociological description. He has a bone to pick with most of the Christians involved in social action in the USA. They may be divided into “Defensive Against” (Christian Right), “Relevance To” (Christian Left), and “Purity From” (Neo-Anabaptists) parties, they are driven by ressentiment, and they are all after political power understood as the ability to command the coercive might of the state against their presumed enemies.

Here, again, Hunter’s “either-or” style of analysis, and perhaps his desire to isolate a space for his preferred style of “faithful presence,” betrays him. Although the parties he discusses in this section differ in their various emphases, especially in their reactions to the issue of poverty and to the exercise of violence, all of them have positive as well as negative emphases, and each has a vision of purity. James Dobson, Jim Wallis, and Shane Clairborne are all more complex than Hunter’s caricature suggests. I suggest rather that people focus on the genuine differences between these various parties, take seriously their critique of each other, and decide on the Biblical merits of the case.

My main objection to Hunter’s analysis, however, is his truncated view of the political as the realm of legitimate coercion, a view he shares with many other sociologists, and his related view of power as domination.

A favorite theologian of mine defines the political as the constitutive function of a history bearing group, and in this understanding, there may be coercive aspects, but there are many positive aspects as well, including the “vocational identity” of the group. And he defines “power” as the capacity to stand out of non-being. Typically, there may be aspects of domination involved in the capacity of a finite creature to endure and to flourish as a human being, but there are many other capacities as well, including the capacity for language and technology, both of which help the finite creature to be what it can be. Finite, human power, is limited, but God’s power is unlimited.

Or, if one doesn’t like the Platonic style of assimilation, there is the sophistic style of differentiation, and here the political philosopher Hannah Arendt sheds light on the matter.

“Politics,” she asserts, is the capacity of humans to get together and, beyond the necessities of labor and work, to act in concert, and what springs up between persons in this kind of community is “power.”  Far from being a realm of coercion, politics as she understands it can only arise when coercion isn’t present. And power is not the legitimate use of violence; rather, it is the utter opposite of violence, even though it is often found together in the same community. Power, she asserts, is its own end, while violence, which typically requires instruments, can never be the end of anything.

The understanding of such basic concepts as “politics” and “power” is proven by their capacity to help us understand otherwise misunderstood phenomena of our our contemporary lives–such as the “power” generated by such movements as Gandhi’s movement in India against the British, or the movement against the Shah in Iran, or the East German uprising against the Communist state toward the end of the Soviet era. In each case, movements of great power were created, without access to the far superior means of violence wielded by the British, the Shah, and the East German Communist state.

And, in the realm of religion, both the theologian and the political philosopher do a better job of understanding the power of the early church, developed entirely apart from any control over the means of violence, and strictly in response to the predicted penetration of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the members of the early church. “And ye shall receive power, after the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” Acts 1:8.

Nevertheless, as Hunter makes his transition beyond sociology into theology, he takes up some important issues. If the inadequacies of his point of view drive us to a deeper understanding of things than his “radical orthodox” community, then his book will have done us all a good service, and it can be affirmed.

I Believe in the Resurrection…

May 30, 2010

Easter Sunday, 1992

“I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

This week we reach the turning point in the church year, shifting our attention from Jesus in his interaction with his disciples to our lives as they relate to him.

And the question with which we are dealing today is the most basic one in our lives: for what, and on what basis, can we hope in this life? When it comes right down to it, what is the reality on which we can really count, and how can it be manifested in our lives? Do we have any right to expect a happy ending, and if so, what is the nature of that happy ending?

As we sing the songs and recite the old familiar phrases of the Christian celebration of Easter, we would like to think that the answer has something to do with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The story just read in Acts attracts us, the hope of the writer in the book of John inspires us, and most of all, the spirit of the early Christians recounted in First Peter, as they faced the numerous trials of their difficult lives, makes us wish that we had their strength, their power, and their ability to deal with the world in which they had been put.

We would like to believe it all, but if we are honest with ourselves, and we begin to think the matter through, it all seems fantastic, hard to comprehend, unbelievable.

Why is it that the resurrection is so hard for us to accept in this day and age?

Some Problems

Well, one reason might be that some of us have given the resurrection a bad name, and have caused other people to turn away from it to something else.

We must remember that the resurrection is an unusual, one of a kind event–an event with a factual basis, as the texts make clear, but also an event challenging the ways in which university people have come to understand historical reality.

But some of us have ignored the difficult and extraordinary nature of the resurrection and have approached it like any other historical event. So we point to the empty tomb, the recorded appearances of Jesus, and the veracity of the early Christians as proof that the resurrection really happened. Our mood becomes one of self-confident, and sometimes even, arrogant assertion of the resurrection, with the implication that those who do not believe are either unintelligent or morally at fault.

(I should say at this point that the empty tomb, the recorded appearances of Jesus, and the veracity of the early Christians–when taken in the context of the rise of the early church in the most difficult of circumstances–is convincing to me. The cause has to be adequate to the event, in my way of thinking).

But I have to remember, and WE have to remember, that no amount of evidence will convince a person if he is not ready to believe that a resurrection is possible, and for such people, almost any explanation of what happened is preferable to the one that animated the early church, and convinces me.

Intelligent, reasonable, and moral people of good will both believe, and disbelieve.

Something else is going on here, and we need to pay attention to it. Beyond all rational calculations, we need to remember that there is a mystery involved in the coming to faith of the early followers of Jesus, and of his followers down through the years, that there is a risk involved in the assertions of those who believe in the resurrection as traditionally recounted, and that there are other “rational” explanations for what we assert happened.

Intelligent, rational and moral people may have other explanations for what happened.

We forget that when it comes to foundational convictions about the meaning of life, that the reasoning process takes second place to our changing history, and to the action of God in that context. We forget that the best we can do is testify to the way it seems to us. And by our self-conscious and obnoxious over-certainty, we drive others, who might be willing to consider a less aggressively presented interpretation, away from the classical understanding of what happened.

Other interpretations

But let us now consider what happens when others of us, sometimes the very people who in an earlier time pushed the overly-certain view of the resurrection, come to the point that we feel we should consider alternative understandings of what happened and what it means–and reinterpret the resurrection in that context.

–So, we reinterpret the resurrection existentially (we assert that the resurrection represents the affirmation of life in spite of what seems like a depressing and awful end)

–Or, we reinterpret the resurrection biologically (we assert that the life force rises up and fights the trend toward death, even in the face of disaster)

–Or, we reinterpret the resurrection in terms of one or another historical trend (we assert that we ought to really put our trust in evolution [overcoming human limitations], or the development of science and technology [overcoming the bonds of nature], or the revolution [which will overcome poverty and injustice].

Each of these reinterpretations, which you can hear in one form or another in many churches and on the public media at Easter time, revise the traditional understanding of the resurrection in favor of the kinds of things that inspire us as modern citizens of the university community. They constitute a serious attempt to find meaning in a world in which the traditional understanding of the resurrection no longer is convincing.

We should honor these attempts at finding meaning in our world, while at the same time realizing that they are inadequate to what is demanded of them.

Before we get too enthusiastic about these modern revisions, let us at least try to hear the witness of the Biblical writers about these and other attempts to discern meaning in our lives apart from the action of the one true God who alone has the power to deal with our problems.

The Christian View

Let us return for a moment to the statement of the problem mentioned earlier: the problem of our finitude and limitations, our self-contradictions, our lack of fulfillment and the negation of fulfillment in our lives–underlined and punctuated sooner or later by the death that must come to us all.

It is good for us this evening to remember the Biblical realism about death and its meaning for life, because only then can we really grasp why the hope of the resurrection was so important to Biblical people.

When the Biblical writers sum up life, they are not so melodramatic or Pollyannaish as we modern citizens of the university community tend to be. If we place our hope on anything in this life, they assert, the only realistic mood for us is melancholy.

Our life lasts for seventy years, according to the Psalmist, eighty with good health; but all it adds up to is anxiety and trouble. It is over in a trice and then we are gone.

Man, born of woman, says Job, has a short life,
yet has his fill of sorrow;
he blossoms, and he withers, like a flower;
fleeting as a shadow, transient
there is always hope for a tree, when felled, it can start again;
its shoots continue to sprout.
Its roots may be decayed in the earth
its stump withering in the soil
but let it scent the water and it buds
and puts out branches like a new plant

But man? He dies, and lifeless he remains;
man breaths his last, and then where is he? (Job 14)

The problem is that our life is a brief interlude in the onrush of things, beset by contradictions, full of trouble, ending in death. And, when faced squarely, the question arises: does such a life, with such high aspirations and such ambiguous results, have meaning? What is the meaning of life, if so much toil and trouble are connected with it? What is the use of striving, of trying, if it is all for naught?

If we looks at reality on a strictly earthly plane, the Biblical writers assert, we cannot be optimistic.

–resolute people may do what is right, but life catches up with them in the end, and they are defeated

–the life force may prevail, but we as individuals may be ground up and lost in the process

–the revolution may not come, and even if it does, it may not solve everything; in fact, it may create its own suffering and destruction

–our scientists and technocrats may be able to help us increase our command over nature, but they may not be able to control the technical processes they have unleashed

–the process of evolution may sweep everything before it, but what is the meaning of the human wreckage left in its wake?

Again, I repeat: the Biblical judgment is clear. All our worldly sources of hope, all of our techniques, all of our enterprises will be brought to naught. On the human plane, the Biblical mood is one of melancholy, of pensiveness, of frustration at the contrast between the height of human aspirations, on the one hand, and the measly achievements of our lives, on the other.

How is it possible to keep on working, struggling, sacrificing, in these circumstances?

There are really only two adequate responses to this situation, according to the Bible: the first is alluded to in the book of Ecclesiastes, and in much of the classical tradition, where the answer is that one can only courageously grapple with what fate has given us, plan to enjoy what little pleasure life has to offer, and gut it out.

The other answer is the main thrust of the Christian tradition: that our efforts may ultimately fail, but that the God who brought our forefathers up out of Egypt, led our ancestors to the promised land, gave us His son, Jesus, and has sustained the church down through the centuries, will somehow retrieve our individual lives and our history and that the God who has begun this good work will surely complete it.

For those with the eyes to see, the Bible seems to be saying, for those who realize how flimsy and weak are the sources of hope which inspire us as modern people in the university community, THIS is the hope that we can hang on to:

–that something happened on that Easter morning some 2000 years ago;

–that what happened strains the boundaries of human comprehension, but that it was real, for the early Christians, for Christian over the years since then, and it can be real for us;

–that it is not wise to be overly confident about many things about the resurrection–about the furniture of heaven, for example–but that we should have the confidence that “while it does not yet appear what we shall be,” nevertheless, “when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

The faith grounded in the resurrection is certainly fantastic, against all expectations, beyond what we normally think about as reasonable–but it is less fantastic, and more reasonable, than placing our faith in nature, or science, or technology, or the revolution.

The authentic Christian mood about these things is not triumphalistic, on the one hand, or stoically enduring, on the other. Rather, it is a mood of hope against hope, hope in the midst of the direct confrontation of life’s limitations and evils, hope that is grounded in God’s power, character and action rather than our own.

An Easter Celebration

The major celebration of Easter among the Moravians of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, takes place in the cemetery, or “God’s acre,” as they call it. From the point of view that we’ve been developing this evening, it could just as easily be called the acre of shattered dreams, unactualized potential, unfulfilled life.

This is how one observer describes the scene: “Between Holy Week and Easter, the Moravians arrive at the cemetery with brushes and pails of soapy water to scrub the grave stones, and on the Saturday before Easter every stone gets a bouquet of fresh flowers. Then, on Easter Sunday, before dawn, the whole community meets at the church and to the sounds of brass bands, they march to the cemetery, and there, among the tombstones, in the very teeth of death, they celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”

I have not personally observed this ceremony, but the reports of it are striking, and linger long in the memory.

“It is as if the cemetery is the only place to have such a celebration, out there among the tombs where death is unavoidable, even in the dawning light of an April day among the flowers that have not yet begun to wilt. By all reports, it is the mood which strikes the observer on this occasion. It is not brassy or arrogant, but it is not sad, or morose, either. The bands sound slightly cold as they play antiphonally from hill to hill. There is no sermon, just the reading of the familiar gospel texts on the resurrection.”

“It is understated, and there is about it a quiet waiting for the sun to come up, and for more.”

Additional comment by Wolfhart Pannenberg:

“The life to come is the strength of this life, the liberal German theologian Ernst Troelsch said….Contemporary secular men and women have lost this strength. The Christian proclamation should once more make it available to them and that could be done if only we contemporary Christians would ourselves recover the authentically Christian confidence in a life beyond death, in communion with our risen Lord and with the eternal life of God the Father in his kingdom to come.”–Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Resurrection: The Ultimate Hope,” in Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, edited by Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A. Hall, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002, p. 262.

Easter in Madison, 2010

April 20, 2010

I’m attending the Easter service at Geneva Campus Church, which is located in a church building right on the edge of multiple new constructions designed to support the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s position in the world of scientific research with a business pay-off.

As I drive to church, my habit is to listen to Wisconsin Public Radio, the local classical station, and I cannot help but notice the contrast between the glorious classical Easter music, on the one hand, and the sometimes friendly, and sometimes hostile, but typically distant attitude toward the Easter celebrations going on in churches around Madison. If asked, I’m sure that none of the commentators would be able to make the connection between the Easter events and the practically oriented, scientific university in which they live out their lives.

For those interested in this question, I’m reprinting below (with commentary) how Paul Tillich saw the connection in his audacious Inaugural address in June, 1929, upon assuming the chair of Professor of Philosophy at the University of Frankfort on the Main. Reprinted as Chapter 1, “Philosophy and Fate,” in The Protestant Era, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, pp. 3-15, translated by James Luther Adams).

The victory of Christianity is the victory of the idea that the world is a divine creation over the belief in the resisting power of an eternal matter. It is the victory of the belief in the perfection of created being in all its levels over the tragic fear of resistant matter, hostile to the divine. It is the radical denial of the demonic character of existence as such. It places an essentially positive valuation on existence. And this implies that it places a positive valuation on the whole temporal order of events, that the “order of time” harbor within itself not only, as with Anaximander, a becoming and a passing away but also the possibility of real novelty, a creative and formative power, a purpose and end that give it meaning. In Christianity, time triumphs over space. The irreversible, unrepeatable character of time, its meaningful directedness, replaces the cyclic, ever recurrent becoming and passing-away. A “gracious” destiny that brings salvation in time and history subdues a demonic fate which denies the new in history. Thus the Greek view of life and the world is overcome, and with it the presupposition of Greek philosophy as well as of Greek tragedy. (8)

In my opinion, Tillich is better at describing what took place, and what it means for thinking, than he is about the underlying cause(s) of it all, which may be a topic for further writing further on. But his description of what this historical shift meant for the thinking process is right on the money:

Greek philosophy had developed categories and methods of universal significance. But the religious character of Greek culture prevented them from being used for world transformation. They were used either for aesthetic intuition of the world, for ethical resignation from it, or for mystical elevation above it. In contrast to these uses, Christian humanism (the fruit of this historical change) employed Greek concepts for the technical control and revolutionary transformation of reality. Especially useful for this purpose was the mathematical-quantitative interpretation of nature as promoted by the Pythagoreans and Plato….Modern philosophy….overcomes the existential skepticism of the last period of Greek philosophy by a methodological skepticism as the basis of mathematical science and its technical application. And there is no better and more continuous test for the truth of this type of scientific approach to nature than the fact that the technical creations which are based on it do work and work more effectively every day. Ethical theories for the individual and legal theories for the state, fitting the world-transforming activism of modern culture, are added to the dominant philosophy of science….(9-10)