Showing posts tagged Bible

Interviewing Ikons: Christian Smith

imageChristian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Smith’s research focuses primarily on religion in modernity, adolescents, American evangelicalism, and culture. Smith received his MA and PhD from Harvard University in 1990 and his BA from Gordon College in 1983. Smith was a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 12 years before his move to Notre Dame. He is the author of 14 books, including The Bible Made Impossible, How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. He also coined the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe the prevalent religious beliefs held by American teenagers. I am thankful to Dr. Smith for taking the time to answer my questions.

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Early Church | St. Gregory of Nyssa: Why was God Born Among Men?

imageWhen it comes to Early Church texts about the Incarnation of Christ, many will rightly go to St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. However, many forget St. Gregory of Nyssa’s often overlooked work entitled The Great Catechism. So why did God become man? A few common replies state that Christ came to save humanity from the devil, to take on the wrath of God, and/or take us to heaven. Are we limited to these interpretations? How did the early church understand the Incarnation?

One of the major questions about the Incarnation is how can Christ be both God and man. According to St. Gregory, the realm of the Incarnation belongs to mystery, because “we have yet no exact knowledge of the method of the union, so in that other inquiry of the union of Deity with manhood… we are not capable of detecting how the Divine and the human elements are mixed up together.”[1] However, the issue of mortal birth and death seem to pose another problem: How can God be born and die? St. Gregory asserts that we must look farther:

But what went before that Birth and what came after that Death escapes the mark of our common humanity. If we look to either term of our human life, we understand both from what we take our beginning, and in what we end. Man commenced his existence in a weakness and in a weakness completes it. But in the instance of the Incarnation, neither did the birth begin with a weakness, nor in a weakness did the death terminate; for neither did sensual pleasure go before the birth, nor did corruption follow upon the death. [2]

Drawing upon the texts of Scripture that point to Christ’s pre-Incarnate status, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection, we see that Christ’s “birth and death were independent of the conditions of human weakness”.[3] This lack of “human weakness” does not mean St. Gregory denies the humanity of Christ. He states earlier that “God was born in the nature of man.”[4] There is a tension, here, with the “union of Deity with humanity” that brings up this question: Then why did the God humiliate himself by becoming human? [5]

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Interviewing Ikons: Fr. Stephen Freeman

imageFr. Stephen is an Orthodox Priest under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America. He serves as the Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is the author of numerous published articles and the book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. He is also the author of the popular podcast, Glory to God, on Ancient Faith Radio. Fr. Stephen has a B.A. in Classical Languages from Furman University (1977), a M.Div. from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (1980), and a M.A. in Theology from Duke University (1991). On his blog, Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Stephen discusses Orthodox theology and its relationship to culture and the spiritual life. I am thankful to him for taking the time to answer my questions.

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The Homeless Lazarus and The Rich Man’s Spikes

imageThe issue of homelessness has recently been brought to the forefront of the public mind due to the installation of “defensive urban architecture”, otherwise known as anti-homeless spikes. The spikes appeared in London, but certain U.S. laws carry similar “anti-homeless” sentiments: people arrested for feeding the homeless (here, here, and here), homeless people criminalized for sleeping outdoors (here is a list of examples and a major example in Dallas, Texas) and attempts to ban sleeping in cars, as well as certain areas now criminalizing panhandling. In America, student loan debt is crippling financial stability for individuals and family alike, with many college graduates, dropouts, and those unable to complete their education facing the possibility of homelessness themselves. Were it not for the benevolence of family or friends providing a place to stay, some college students would have no place to lay their head. Even those who obtain a strictly minimum wage job in America cannot truly afford one-bedroom housing. What do the streets have to do with the Church?

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The Potter and The Clay: Comparing Calvin with Early Church Theologians

image         What is the relationship between the potter and the clay, between God and humanity? John Calvin states:

Cannot I determine, saith God, with regard to men, as the potter, who forms the clay as he pleases? We must maintain this principle, – that men are thus formed according to God’s will, so that all must become mute; for uselessly do the reprobate make a clamour, object and say, ‘Why has Thou formed us thus?’ Has not the potter, says Paul, power? This is what must be said of God’s hidden predestination… God determined, before the creation of the world, what he pleased respecting each individual; but his counsel is hid, and to us incomprehensible. [1]

In the above passage, Calvin draws on Isaiah 45.9 and Romans 9.21 to comment on Jeremiah 18.7-10. For the French Reformer, the metaphor is disproportionate, because “God has much greater power over men than a mortal man over the clay”.[2] Calvin then points to St. Paul’s application of this metaphor, who, according to Calvin, “spoke of the hidden purpose of God, by which he has predestined some to salvation and some to destruction.”[3] In other words, “the potter will nevertheless have absolute power over his own vessels, or rather over his own clay.”[4] The logic of the potter and the clay metaphor seems straightforward enough: the clay is made how the potter wants it to be made, and God has made all of creation, with both good and evil events, with according to the Divine will (leading to the argument of the “best of all possible worlds” in high Calvinism). This interpretation can be found in numerous Protestant pulpits and theology books today.[5] However, I want to push back – is this interpretation in continuity with earlier theologians of the Church? Is Calvin going against the metaphorical flow of Jeremiah?

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Early Church: Chrysostom and the Poor in Plain Sight

imageAre the poor invisible? Commenting on the “Lazarus and the Rich Man” story, St. John Chrysostom remarks,

Do you not seem to see the whole situation as if it were present? …You saw him at the gate of the rich man; see him today in the bosom of Abraham… [W]hen we see those who need help standing by in complete silence… [we are] moved to pity. [1]

For Chrysostom, seeing the poor – encountering the Other in their destitution – should move us into action. What happens when we ignore the poor? What if we simply walk by them, allowing our annoyance to overpower our compassion for another person made in the image of God? This is what the rich man did, Chrysostom claims. “Like a stone, shamelessly and mercilessly”, the rich man walked by the beggar who laid at his gate.[2] Francine Cardman explains,

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Divine Exception; Or, How to Justify Violence

imageIn America, we are once again facing questions of institutional violence, stemming from two current stories: The botched execution of Clayton Lockett and Sarah Palin’s statement that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists” during her NRA speech. While many Americans argue that this “violence” is better termed “justice”, we must not forget that justice can, in fact, be violent. We then must ask: How do we justify violence? The American mantra that “freedom isn’t free” implies the necessity of war. If we were to lift the curtain to reveal what is behind this phrase, it might read “freedom isn’t free, so we must torture terrorists, send out drones to bomb Middle Eastern countries, send our able-bodied citizens to other countries, and intervene in conflicts that don’t directly tie to our own”. In short, Americans must do whatever is necessary to maintain this “unfree” freedom.

We cannot limit our discussions of violence to these two major events. We must reflect on certain reactions by the masses. For example, according to a recent Huffington Post article, sixty-five percent of Americans still support the death penalty, and, out of her entire speech, Palin’s baptism statement at the NRA meeting received the biggest positive reaction. On Facebook, a friend of mine posted an article concerning the death penalty, and two comments caught my eye: “I tend to view the death penalty now as a solution without a problem” and “I’m totally fine with [the death penalty]. I’m serious. The Bible prescribes stoning people.” It is here that we must consider the role of religion within this discussion.

Palin’s violent baptism statements were stated in the context of discussing enemies who would “carry out jihad” against America. Palin’s belief that America is a “Christian Nation” predisposes her to viewing Islam as a negative religious power and influence in Middle Eastern nations. Regarding Lockett’s problematic execution, Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma stated, “The people of Oklahoma do not have blood on their hands. They saw Clayton Lockett for what he was: evil” (I want to note here that I refer to Lockett as a representative of not just himself, but of all those who are on death row and have been executed). Whether Fallin is aware of it or not, having blood on one’s hands echoes Genesis 4.11, where God tells Cain:

And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. (NRSV)

The language surrounding public justice and violence in America is thoroughly religious. I agree with David Perry: “For Palin, this is a holy struggle.”[1] One is lead to ask the “new atheist” question: Is Christianity violent? And we must answer that question with more questions: “Which Christianity? Whose interpretation of God?”

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