28 June . Comment

Speaking truth to power

Jesse Williams (an actor you might know from Grey’s Anatomy, amongst other roles) gave a powerful and convicting speech at the recent BET Awards as he accepted the Humanitarian Award. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to take a platform like that and speak such searing truth.

27 June . Comment

Tweets of the week

23 June . Comment

Re-membering nature in Christianity

Elizabeth Johnson is someone whose work I’ve long loved. Her book Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love offers a very different read on what some have called a tension between evolution and Christianity. One of the ways Christianity has slipped into toxicity, particularly of the racist, sexist, homophobic (etc.) kind, begins when we as humans lose our deep organic connections:

Love, of course, can be interpreted in myriads of ways; the literature on love could fill whole libraries. … Among human persons a loving mature relationship builds up the strength of personal autonomy in those loved, whether they be on an equal footing like spouses or friends or at different stages of life like parents and children, teachers and students. Rather than suppressing the gifts of the other, love brings about their flourishing. Rather than stifling the power to act freely, love promotes its growth. Not all manner of relationships do this. In controlling, manipulative, fearful, narcissistic, and egocentric relations, one party seeks to gain advantage by bending the other to his or her will. The core integrity of the other is disrespected by ploys that intend to dominate. Mature love moves in the opposite direction. … In similar yet infinitely dissimilar fashion, creating a universe capable of its own evolution is precisely an expression of the living God who is love, mature divine love. (159)

It seems to me that it is so easy to forget this, slipping God into the web of interactions as though the divine were simply a bigger and better secondary cause. But the philosophical distinction between the ultimate and proximate causality enables thought to hold firm to the mystery of the greatness of God and the integrity of creatures in equal measure. Everywhere present and active, the Creator is not an individual factor among others that bring forth species. Instead, the Spirit of God continuously interacts with the world to implement divine purpose by granting creatures and creates systems their full measure of efficacy. This is a both/and sensibility that guarantees the integrity of the created causal nexus while affirming the gracious and intentional immanence of the transcendent God active within worldly purposiveness. To my way of thinking, it is a technical way of interpreting how mature Love acts. (166)

Then the most fundamental move theology can make, in my view, is to affirm the compassionate presence of God in the midst of the shocking enormity of pain and death. The indwelling, empowering Creator Spirit abides amid the agony and loss. God who is love is there in solidarity with the creatures shot through with pain and finished by death; there, in the godforsaken moment, as only the Giver of life can be, with the promise of something more. (191-192)

23 June . Comment

Anthony Trollope on sermons

And now for something completely different…. Back in 1857 Anthony Trollope published a novel called Barchester Towers. I know this because I watched the Amazon series Dr. Thorne (which was done by Julian Fellowes) and decided that the book HAD to be better. I started reading it — and it was, by far! (Don’t waste time on the series.)

Trollope’s books are in the public domain, so they’re a nice set to read via e-pub for free. And Barchester Towers had this lovely monologue in it on the topic of sermons:

“There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling audiences to sit silent, and be tormented. No one but a preaching clergyman can revel in platitudes, truisms, and untruisms, (sic) and yet receive, as his undisputed privilege, the same respectful demeanour as though words of impassioned eloquence, or persuasive logic, fell from his lips. Let a professor of law or physic find his place in a lecture-room, and there pour forth jejune words and useless empty phrases, and he will pour them forth to empty benches. Let a barrister attempt to talk without talking well, and he will talk but seldom. A judge’s charge need be listened to per force by none but the jury, prisoner, and gaoler (sic). A member of parliament can be coughed down or counted out. Town-councillors can be tabooed. But no one can rid himself of the preaching clergyman. He is the bore of the age, the old man whom we Sindbads cannot shake off, the nightmare that disturbs our Sunday’s rest, the incubus that overloads our religion and makes God’s service distasteful. We are not forced into church! No: but we desire more than that. We desire not to be forced to stay away. We desire, nay, we are resolute, to enjoy the comfort of public worship; but we desire also that we may do so without an amount of tedium which ordinary human nature cannot endure with patience; that we may be able to leave the house of God without that anxious longing for escape, which is the common consequence of common sermons.

With what complacency will a young parson deduce false conclusions from misunderstood texts, and then threaten us with all the penalties of Hades if we neglect to comply with the injunctions he has given us! Yes, my too self-confident juvenile friend, I do believe in those mysteries, which are so common in your mouth; I do believe in the unadulterated word which you hold there in your hand; but you must pardon me if, in some things, I doubt your interpretation. The bible is good, the prayer-book is good, nay, you yourself “would be acceptable, if you would read to me some portion of those time-honoured discourses which our great divines have elaborated in the full maturity of their powers. But you must excuse me, my insufficient young lecturer, if I yawn over your imperfect sentences, your repeated phrases, your false pathos, your drawlings (sic) and denouncings (sic), your humming and hawing, your oh-ing and ah-ing, your black gloves and your white handkerchief. To me, it all means nothing; and hours are too precious to be so wasted—if one could only avoid it.

“And here I must make a protest against the pretence, so often put forward by the working clergy, that they are overburdened by the multitude of sermons to be preached. We are all too fond of our own voices, and a preacher is encouraged in the vanity of making his heard by the privilege of a compelled audience. His sermon is the pleasant morsel of his life, his delicious moment of self-exaltation. ‘I have preached nine sermons this week, four the week before. I have preached twenty-three sermons this month. It is really too much.’ ‘Too much for the strength of any one.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered meekly, ‘indeed it is; I am beginning to feel it painfully.’ ‘Would,’ said I, ‘you could feel it—would that you could be made to feel it.’ But he never guessed that my heart was wrung for the poor listeners.”

Excerpt From: Anthony Trollope. “Barchester Towers.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/cOzUD.l”


22 June . Comment

Re-membering the work of silence in Christianity

Lately I have been reading and pondering women mystics across the ages, and what we need to glean from them for engaging in adaptive action today. I have been deeply moved by Maggie Ross‘ writing on the “work of silence.” She’s an Anglican solitary, and writes eloquently of this practice in her book Silence: A User’s Guide.

(5) The simmering conflict between hierarchy and silence erupted once again in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Institutional and imperial advocates sought to nail down definitions so that everyone would believe in the same way. They were opposed by those who understood the provisionality of language, who sought to restrain the temptation to define, categorize, and politicize the indefinable, which they regarded as blasphemous.

(12) … for what makes us human is not language, tool use, artifice, or self-consciousness – current research is showing us that many animals have these gifts as well – but rather the ability of the human mind to come full circle and forget itself in silence.

(14) If we are to recover our balance – and our humanity – we need to unblock the flow of communication between the limited world of our self-consciousness that is linear, finite, two-dimensional, static, and dead, and our core silence – our deep mind – that is global, infinite, dynamic, and multi-dimensional. It is a mistake to say that the former is “rational” and the latter “irrational.”

(127) … the human detachment from the environment entails the degrading of this formerly organic understanding of the mind, both the refusal to undertake the work of silence that opens the person to direct perception, and the absence of self-forgetful engagement and disinterested self-observation. The dis-equilibrium of human beings in their destructive relation to the ecology today reflects the dis-equilibrium of the modern mind.

(128) Ignorance of – or the refusal to undertake – the work of silence invariably increases the momentum of ecological destruction. Without self-forgetful engagement with the living non-human context at the deepest level, a vicious cycle develops, leading to an ever more deeply degraded and de-contextualized humanity.


(147-148) As Archbishop Desmond Tutu was fond of saying during the protests against apartheid in South Africa: “If governments knew how subversive contemplative prayer is, they would ban it.” Those who choose the work of silence raise awkward questions, they point out that the emperor has no clothes on. They are labeled “troublemakers” for exposing prevailing fallacies, for naming the other groups’ deliberate deafness to different points of view; for saying that this chosen denial is culpable.

22 June . 1 Comment

Re-membering Christian imagination

One of my favorite contemporary theologians is Willie James Jennings. We have been privileged to have him speak at the Religious Education Association conference, and at Luther. I continue to return to his book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, for his trenchant analysis of the heart of Christianity and the ways in which Christians have so often walked away from it, rather than towards its mutuality, inclusivity and deep love.

You can find excerpts, lectures and reviews of his work all over the web, but here are just a few quotes from that book:

(81) Detached from the land, oblivious to the ongoing decimation of native ecologies, deeply suspicious of native religious practices, and most important, enclosed within Iberian whiteness, the performance of Christian theology would produce a new, deformed, and deforming, intellectual circuit.

(83) The faith that believes and the faith that is believed are tightly bound together, and the ambiguity of the new situation rests first in the believing subject but soon enters the content of faith. The inner coherence of traditioned Christian inquiry was grafted onto the inner coherence of colonialism.

(106) Christianity is a teaching faith. It carries in its heart the making of disciples through teaching. Yet its pedagogical vision is inside its Christological horizon and embodiment, inside its participatio Christi and its imitatio Christi. The colonialist moment indicates the loss of that horizon and embodiment through its enclosure in exaggerated judgment, hyperevaluation tied to a racial optic. Pedagogical evaluation in the New World set the context within which the theological imagination functioned. Theology was inverted with pedagogy. Teaching was not envisioned inside discipleship, but discipleship was envisioned inside teaching.


22 June . Comment

Re-membering Christianity

I try, in all of my writing (which includes my social media) to continually share the thoughtful and profoundly inclusive religious imagination of all faiths I have contact with. Lately, given the extreme Islamophobia permeating the US, I have maybe spent more time doing that with Islam, than with other faith traditions.

But this morning I read something one of my colleagues posted. Dr. Najeeba Syeed wrote:

I am sorry but it’s not enough for Christian scholars to say they don’t rep the ways Christianity is being used for hate. I am asked everyday about my Islam and to justify its existence in order to save my own existence. I am not asking the same actually of Christian scholars….I am asking empathy for our position but also calling on the best of your tradition to speak up, stand up and play the prophetic witness I know your tradition and scripture embody. I will stand with you. It’s no longer about standing up against something it’s about defining what we stand for….separately and together. Many of you are already doing this, this post is in response to some I’ve seen who seem happy to just say “that’s not me” using Christianity for hate and leave their statements at that. If the learned of each religion who know these beautiful traditions do not speak up for what sake has God granted us this sacred knowledge?

I think she’s right, and it has spurred me not only to share the positive pieces, but with respect to my own home in Christianity, to share some of what recent theologians are helping us come to understand about the ways in which Christianity has been distorted to advance vile and toxic beliefs.

So for the next span of time, I am going to try to return to this blog more regularly and share the writing of these wonderfully thoughtful contemporary theologians. I’ll just share brief excerpts, but I hope it will entice people to read more of them. I’m going to do so using the subject line “re -membering Christianity” — so that we literally, bring back into family, re-member, all of what Christianity has been, so that we might grieve, seek forgiveness, and move towards repentance and reconciliation.

Christianity has a lot to answer for, and with political candidates such as Trump in the public eye, we need, all the more, such critical engagement.

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