Monday, October 17, 2016

How Evangelicals Understand LGBTQ People (or don't)?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Calvinism recently.

One catalyst for this has been a marvelous article called Teaching Calvin in California, by Berkeley history-of-religion scholar Jonathan Sheehan. Sheehan argues for the educational importance of engaging with that dread text of the Reformation, Calvin’s Institutes, including the (then and now) outrage-inducing doctrine of double predestination – that is, that both the saved and the damned are the way they are because of God’s choice, that this choice is just and cannot be disputed, and that both the salvation of the saved and the damnation of the lost equally display God’s glory.  “The classroom erupts in protest”, writes Sheehan.  Calvin teaches us, Be careful what you believe in. Investigate what your own views demand…”    By their own engagement with “the terribleness of Calvin’s challenge”, Sheehan’s students are already obtaining a hands-on education – “participating in the intellectual revolutions of the modern world.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

And Now, A Word from Dr Karl Barth

Barth and MLK, Princeton, 1962
It's hard to find something quotable from Barth's Dogmatics because of the way the book works.  It's not just an exposition of a series of loci like a traditional dogmatics - it is more that each locus (doctrine) is used to tell the story of all the other loci from the perspective of that locus.  Or think of a vast, interweaving web of stories like Tokein's Silmarillion (multiplied by about 25 times in length).  The effect of the whole work just is in the interweaving and circumincession of the different themes - and quoting a little piece hardly seems to do justice to that.

Still, there are some nuggets and one of my favorites comes at the end of volume IV.2 - that is the tenth volume (if I am counting correctly) and we are on page 837 of this enormous work.  There are still three volumes to go but there is a sense that the end is approaching - not the end of Barth's ideal Church Dogmatics, which famously would have included a series of volumes V.1, V.2,... about pneumatology, but of the work as it actually stands, limited by Barth's declining health and ability to continue.  Right at the end of IV.2, which takes as its focus "Jesus Christ: The Servant as Lord" (preceded by "Jesus Christ: the Lord as Servant" in the volume before - see what I mean about his style)  Barth gives an extended exposition of the "love passage" in I Corinthians 13.  He concludes by vamping on "Love never fails" (verse 8).  Let me quote (at length, but still abbreviating significantly)

There is a particular emphasis on the "never"... ουδεποτε πιπτειν means that it [love] is the one form of Christian action which does not require and is not subject to transformation or absorption into a higher and future form, and to this extend to destruction.  In virtue of love there is already in the temporal existence of the community and Christians a υπομενειν [verse 7] - a persistence in the face of hostile forces....Love is the connecting link between now and then, between here and hereafter.  In the famous sentence of Troeltsch, it is "the power of this world which already as such is the power of the world to come."
You see what Barth is up to here? Perhaps it helps to know that one of the primary distinctions that drives the whole Dogmatics is that between God's redemptive action in Christ and "religion" - there is even an early section entitled, IIRC, "The Word of God as the End of Religion".  So the idea that there is something in human life that makes a "connecting link" in the sense that Barth describes here - after 8,000 pages - is quite a surprise.  Of course the point is that love is itself a gift of God, the highest gift.  There are many things of which we religious humans are quite proud, of which this cannot be said.  Read on...

[Verse 8b] "But whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away."  The futures [that is, future tenses] are references to the end and goal of the present age.  Prophecy, tongues and knowledge will then be subject to the relativization to which they are already subject as determined and seen from this standpoint... "We shall all be changed" - this is the future which already determines its present.  In the eternal light to which we move, prophecy, tongues and knowledge will be taken up into a new and higher form.   Their present form will certainly be destroyed.  Prophets will have done their work, and those who speak with tongues will no longer need to deliver their ecstatic utterance because the extreme case will one and for all have become normal.  And Paul definitely says of knowledge in v12 that it will not be set aside or abolished but will take place in a new and more perfect form: επιγνωσομαι... Theological research and instruction will then be outmoded. Demythologization [a long-running theological feud between Barth and Bultmann] will no longer be required. There will be no further scope for the investigation of a correct hermeneutics and debates concerning Law and Gospel, etc. No more volumes of Church Dogmatics will  be written.
 Don't you love the way this guy can laugh at himself and at his life's work?
Not because these things are vain and futile, not because they are ashes or wind,  but because they will all be genuinely real only in their telos or perfection, which includes the fact that their worth and worthlessness will all be weighed on the eternal balances, that the wheat will be separated from the chaff, that they will all pass through the refining fire of 1 Cor 3:12ff in which it will be shown whether the building is of gold, silver or precious stones or wood, hay and stubble, and there will be surprises in both respects for all theologians, both small and great, both regular and irregular, both orthodox and heterodox.   This wholly salutary relativization is the πιπτειν to which love is never, never exposed even there and then.  And when the Christian loves he [or she, Uncle Karl!] does something which is not exposed to this relativization but abides absolutely.  Even in the best of cases this cannot be said of [his] prophecy, tongues and theology in themselves and as such.
There are three more pages but I'll have to urge you to read them for yourself!  Here is the final piece.

(Thus) love is the "greatest of these".  It is the future eternal light shining in the present. It is that which continues. Whatever else may be revealed, one thing is certain, and that is that love will never cease, that even then the love which is self-giving to God and the brother [or sister], the same love for which the Christian is free already, will be the source of the future eternal life, its form unaltered.  Already, then, love is the eternal activity of the Christian.  This is the reason why love abides.  This s the reason why we had to say previously that it is love alone that counts and love alone that conquers.   This is the reason why it is the way.
 Okay, I've always loved this particular chunk of Barth (and I probably get more out of IV.2 than out of the other volumes I've endeavored, not very successfully, to read).  But with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, it comes back to me anew.  Firstly, the surprising words "wholly salutary" referring, if you remember, to the Day of Judgment.  That ties up to my experience right now.  I find myself resonating with the Psalms which look forward to that Day.  Whatever is revealed - whatever surprises may be in store, whether good or bad - I am glad that my life will be open to the Righteous One, the Healer who does not have to rely on blurry images from X-rays or CTs or MRIs but who knows for sure where the malignancy is and how (and at what cost!) it can be removed.  Second, I feel a great reassurance in the "Love alone endures".  As people's lives come to an end, they ask "What of all of this will last?"  (See Being Mortal by Atul Gawande).  I know that over the past years, one of the key choices that Liane and I have made has been love for our child Eli.   And, yes, I do believe and trust that this will last when much else is lost; that this love for which God set us free will endure, "its form unaltered". What that means I cannot imagine.  But it is worth looking forward to.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I won an award!

This showed up in my e-mail yesterday:

"Dear Dr Roe,
Congratulations! The Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium (PERC) has awarded you the title of Campus Sustainability Champion for 2016. You were nominated by one or more of your colleagues for your work to advance sustainability on your campus or in your community. The Campus Sustainability Champion title is awarded annually to students, faculty, administrators, and staff of Pennsylvania colleges and universities who have made meaningful contributions benefiting social, economic and/or environmental sustainability on their campus, in their community, or in society at large. Contributions can be in areas of teaching, research, co-curricular programs, campus culture, community service, and campus operations, including food recovery. Your award reinforces your credentials as a leader in the transition to a sustainable future"

Well, I'm embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of PERC, but I am excited that they had heard of me, and I will turn up to the awards ceremony in a couple of weeks primed to tell more people about the Mathematics for Sustainability course and book.  I'm also going to be sending off the book proposal to three publishers this week.  Regular readers will know the sense of vocation that I have about this project.  Yet  with my illness and the frequent sense of exhaustion that it (and the treatments) produce, writing is going a good bit more slowly than I had hoped.  I am excited by the recognition and the sense that others see what a meaningful thing it is too - and also motivated once again to keep going and produce something that is readable, challenging and clear.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Receiving with Thanksgiving

In my time, I've been a student group leader in a "Christian Union" - the on-campus ministries in British universities founded by UCCF, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, historically the ancestor of Inter-Varsity Fellowship here in the USA.

I've been a trustee of the Oxford Evangelical Pastorate, a student ministry founded in the 19th century.  In this place I was honored to share some time with Stella Aldwinckle, whom the Pastorate hired as chaplain to the university and who was the founder of the Socratic Club, the venue for many of C.S.Lewis' messages in defense of Christianity.

I've been the faculty adviser to a student ministry associated to a large evangelical church in the US.

And now, I'm the faculty adviser to Receiving with Thanksgiving - a new Christian group on PSU's campus.  It's not big.  It's not showy.  And I couldn't be more proud. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

A special invitation

This post makes me nervous.

I'm nervous because I want to address the post to my LGBTQA friends and readers, especially those in the State College area. And, however much I may strive to be an ally and supporter, I am straight and cisgender (and privileged in other ways too) and I'm worried about ending up using the word "you" too often.  Whereas when I write with my specifically Christian, or environmentalist, friends and readers in mind, it's easy for me to say "We".

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Sneaky Steward

Last Sunday's lectionary gave us the parable of the "dishonest manager" in Luke 16:1-13  It's a notoriously confusing passage to interpret - is Jesus really recommending dishonesty? what kind of financial arrangements are going on here? - but it should also come home with some force to believers who, like me, think of the language of "stewardship" as appropriate for delegated, human authority over the earth's resources - "What is this that I hear? You have been squandering my possessions! Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can be steward no longer!"

John de Graaf and David Batker wrote a book called What is the Economy For, Anyway?  The idea of the title is, of course, that if  you think the answer is obvious, you might just need to stop and think!  In the same way, Jesus' steward has his attention called to the question "what is wealth for"?  The resources he has been entrusted with will not be his for long; will it be possible for him, while the opportunity lasts, to negotiate an exchange for something of more enduring value - in fact, for some relationships that will support him even when this former wealth has faded to ashes.  The steward is shrewd because he appreciates the fading nature of wealth and acts promptly to secure something of more lasting value.  Just as de Graff and Batker advise that "it's time to stop chasing growth and start pursuing happiness" - or as any number of articles these days will tell you, buy experiences not things - the experiences will last longer.

But Jesus will have his disciples take this a step further.  What are the most lasting things they can "buy" with their wealth?  According to the parable, there are experiences, friendships, connections that can be secured which lead to being welcomed into "eternal dwellings" (aoinios - that is, dwellings that belong to the Age to Come, to the kingdom).  Who are the proprietors of these residences, which if the smart steward had only been a little smarter he would have recognized to be the most desirable of all?  We have to look elsewhere in Jesus' teaching for the answer.  In verses 19-31 of the current chapter, as well as in chapter 12  (especially verse 33), we see that building connection with the poor, the needy, is the way to provide yourself with "moneybags that don't waer out, and treasure that does not fail."   In the end, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also".

In my understanding, then, the "dishonest manager" is commended for his smarts in getting out of the financial "sinking ship" and investing in relationships instead - but the "children of light" should be smarter than he because they should recognize the unlikely kind of relationships that are really worth investing in; the ones where there is in fact no "earthly" prospect of return.  How does this circle back to the environmental stewardship question?  By asking me once again whether my concern for stewardship is truly a concern for the flourishing of creation - especially, for the flourishing of future generations who "desire to be fed" (verse 21).  Am I just offering leftovers?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Few Devotional Apps

My (non-electronic) prayer book, with dedication from my Uncle Wyatt
I first got a tablet device (iPad) in the winter of 2014, just after my then-startling cancer diagnosis.  I felt - correctly as it turned out - that I might be doing a lot of traveling time and hospital time and that the iPad would provide a good way to read books and keep up with the news.  (Playing games - beyond Words with Friends - was not, and mostly still is not, on my horizon.)

Of course, one soon discovers unexpected applications.  Liane and I found that time spent in the waiting room (and we were in waiting rooms every weekday for six weeks that summer) presented an ideal opportunity to do the New York Times crossword (there's an app for that!).  Two years later, the crossword is a much-anticipated pleasure every day. (Except for last Thursday's...that is another story!)

Another surprise to me though was how the iPad helped with my devotional life.  I'm a teenage convert, which means that I have been praying and reading Scripture for more than forty years - daily when I have had the time and energy.  I've used many different "patterns" over the years, including books like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, daily notes like those from Scripture Union, and study guides like Alan Stibbs' Search the Scriptures.  Change is good; this is not something that you "get right" once and for all, because you and your relationships are changing.  When I got the iPad, I found there were many prayer, meditation and Bible study apps available.  Some were terrible, but some have - for now - become a regular part of my life.   Here are a few that I use, with brief reviews.

  • iPray BCP - This gives the text of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with a calendar that (in theory) gives you the correct collect (special prayer) for each day - it seems to get a bit confused sometimes, especially towards the end of the church year,  but it is mostly accurate, and there are some collects (like that for the 6th Sunday after Trinity) which I love so much, I look forward to them for weeks! 
  • YouVersion - This is the best Bible text application, in my opinion, with many translations in different languages available, as well as the original Greek and Hebrew for those who want to wrestle with them. Also has many Bible reading plans available if you want them - too many "Christian Celebrity X Reading Plan" for my taste, but I go regularly round and round the one-psalm-a-day plan, and the app gently nags me if I miss one.
  • WordLive - This is Scripture Union's reading plan in app form (you can also obtain it as a podcast).  Each day there is a passage of Scripture to read, notes and relections on the text, and suggestions for prayer arising out of it.
  • PrayerMate - Keeping a prayer list is not an easy thing - I cannot say enough good things bout this app which helps me list topics, organizations and people for whom I want to pray; suggests a selection of topics each day; offers scope to make notes or send encouraging messages if you want to; and can be linked to the RSS feed (from a church say) if you want prayer news that automatically updates.  To me, really helpful (YMMV of course).
  • -This is a web site (though they have just come up with an app as well) based on A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro.  The daily prayers connect me with many saints from across space and time who I would otherwise never have heard of.  Challenging and beautiful.
  • Presence  - Multimedia app weaving together music, film, poetry and photography to deepen people's connection to God.

These have all been helpful to me in different ways.  Perhaps one or more of them may be a blessing to you also!