Theology, Twenty Feet Up

Posted in Uncategorized on September 22, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’

hang in there 2—Luke 10.27

OK, I am going to go out on a limb . . . ever so tentatively and out just a little ways.  I am on this limb for three reasons.  First, I am addressing what some might consider a rather sensitive issue, i.e., the relationship between faith and science.  Second, I am hoping to do so in these very limited pages of reflection.  Third, my thoughts here are prompted by reflex as much as by reflection, reacting to a recent movie trailer I saw, a trailer for the movie A Matter of Faith.  In other words, I am responding not to the movie itself, since I have not seen the movie.  Yet, I am taking the trailer at its word on the subject matter it covers and the purported and predictable means by which it appears to address that subject.  While potentially accurate in its portrayal of a debate that might actually occur on a university campus between conflicting world views, the premise upon which the movie rests has at its heart a false assumption of a presumed necessary conflict, i.e., the Bible and faith on one side verses scientific data and reason on the other.

While undeniably representative of ideas circulating in our world today, the film’s premises are theologically and philosophically shaky, at best, and almost certainly unfaithful for the Christian committed to Jesus’ admonition of a mindful-faith as recalled in Luke’s gospel, above.  Ultimately, it seems that this film perpetuates the false dichotomy between faith and science, advancing a kind of religion that is anti-intellectual and serves only to bolster neo-atheism’s caricaturizing and dismissal of all religion.  Such an anemic position discourages a kind of faith that demands rigorous intellectual investigation, the kind of rigorous religious investigation properly endemic to a liberal arts college of the church.  More than that, such a premise, as assumed in the film, concedes the necessary presence of a kind of rational explanation for how things are to philosophical ideas that rely on an understanding of the world that is fundamentally detached from the divine.  In other words, truth—narrowly defined—is discovered through observable facts. This philosophical presupposition looks for data to offer ultimate claims, forcing the Christian apologist to turn the scriptures into texts to be data-mined rather than a poetic telling of God’s enduring work to shape a people who love and live in the world as God does.  Said another way, the religious in the film have already lost the argument because they agreed to play by a set of rules that undermines the very fundamental claims they really want to affirm.

Let me (briefly) explain.

Alice Ogden Bellis and Terry Hufford in their text on the relationship between science and scripture labor to determine exactly what scientific research is attempting to do and what it is not attempting to do.  Parsing scientific claims from other claims, Bellis and Hufford hope to dispel any myths as to what scientific research says and what it never labors to purport.  Accordingly, they maintain that science is always probabilistic (Bellis and Hufford, 8).  That is to say, science refrains from making absolute truth claims about anything.  All scientific statements are statements that have been tested over time and have not, as yet, been disproven.  Bellis and Hufford maintain that—contra religious dogmatism—science is not concerned with truth but with probability (Bellis and Hufford, 20).  Bellis and Hufford, also, advance a second characteristic of science:  it is about empirical observation.  Science observes the natural world, attempting to identify patterns, connections, and the functions of natural phenomena.  Science, rarely, is purely speculative (Bellis and Hufford, 8).

Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse emphasize a similar point in their work on science and the church.  Following this initial agreement, Jones and Yarhouse diverge from Bellis and Hufford.  Unlike Bellis and Hufford, Jones and Yarhouse argue that science—challenging its given purview—does occasionally attempt to make truth claims (Jones and Yarhouse, 16).  In Jones and Yarhouse’s estimation, if both science and theology seek to make absolute truth claims, then an inevitable, possibly intractable, tension arises.  Jones and Yarhouse assume such a tension might realistically be resolved if both scientists and theologians understand what they are both actually endeavoring to do.  Jones and Yarhouse offer four possible postures to be assumed by the church and science, each differently suited to address this potential tension.

First, they consider perspectivalism.  Perspectivalism is the idea that science and theology are attempting to describe the same thing from different perspectives.  Science asks how something works and theology asks why.  Science is about the physical and theology is about the metaphysical. The two perspectives, while complementary, are mutually exclusive, not influencing the other (Jones and Yarhouse, 14).   Second, imperialism maintains that science and theology are competitors for the allegiance of their adherents.  As one advances, the other retreats (Jones and Yarhouse, 14).   (If it is not obvious, this is the premise assumed by the film’s producers.)  Third, they present the notion of postmodern relativism.  Postmodern relativism dismisses universal truth claims in favor of narrated, particularized realities.  Postmodern relativism questions our epistemological interpretative models, including both science and theology.  As such, both science and theology are open to reinterpretation (Jones and Yarhouse, 15).  Fourth, critical realism argues for a real and certain interpretation of an ultimate reality, but a reality that is interpreted conditionally through our hermeneutical biases.  This compromise theory attempts to incorporate the disparate acute angles of approach assumed by perspectivalism with the nuancing of postmodern relativism.  Here, science and theology are mutually informative.  And, in Jones’ and Yarhouse’s estimation, critical realism allows us to make absolute claims without sounding imperialistic (Jones and Yarhouse, 15-16).  While laudable, such a posture seems difficult given the preponderance of culturally conditioned conclusions that determine our claims to what is reality and what is absolute.  Nevertheless, their fourth model seems most useful for our thoughts, here.

The film assumes as position of imperialism as response, possibly rightly, to perceived imperialisms all around them.  However, as I have hoped to demonstrate above, imperialism is only one option, does not seem to be the most laudable one, nor the one option that takes into account the beautiful complexity of knowing and believing.  What would seem more useful would not be to attack or defend but to listen and share.

So, here, I sit, some distance from the ground and out on a limb wanting to make a potentially helpful yet risky claim, all the while not wanting to fall.  Mainly, I want us to use the vantage gained by sitting out on this limb to surveying our mental landscape, noticing the complex contours of our lives and our overlapping, shared world, filled with multiple intersections and blessed diversions.  While up here, may we resist the temptation to make definitive, debatable claims and be more willing first to be inspired by the view.

Have a great week and see you along the way.

One Weird Washing by Lauren Neal

Posted in Uncategorized on September 15, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took foot washinghis place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

—Luke 7:36-50

So Jesus goes to dinner, and a woman wanders in and begins to wash his feet with her tears and her hair.  This passage is particularly strange to our modern minds.  Our conceptions of propriety and personal space are offended by the thought of a person coming to a dinner table and washing another’s feet with their tears and hair.  But, this is exactly what happens in this passage from Luke’s Gospel.  And, you know what?  This passage was likely just as offensive to the original audience, not to mention the Pharisee in whose home and at whose table the event occurs.  For a strange woman to barge into the house of a Pharisee, for her to interrupt his dinner by engaging in peculiar and intimate actions would have seemed inappropriate even then.

We don’t know anything about the woman, other than the fact that she was of some ill-repute.  The Pharisee challenges Jesus by saying that if he were really a prophet he would know what sort of woman she was, implying that if he knew how much of a sinner she was, he would never let her near him.  We, of course, know something that the Pharisee didn’t know: we know that Jesus was more than a prophet; he was and is the Son of God.  We also know without a doubt that he knew what kind of woman she was and that this is precisely what draws her to Jesus.

Jesus then turns the table and says to the Pharisee: “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair” (v 45).  Next he connects her actions to her love, saying that her great love grants her great forgiveness, “but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (v 47).  Now Jesus is the one doing the implying. He looks at the woman and tells her that her sins are forgiven, and notice that he doesn’t say anything of the sort to the Pharisee.

This passage is weird and even a little off-putting.  You can imagine a person barging in on a private dinner only to cry over someone’s feet and wipe them with her hair, and if that happened, the host, like the Pharisee, would probably be offended.  But Jesus takes no offense to her.  Even in her sinful state, Jesus welcomes her humility and her act of service; he does not send her away.  Isn’t that beautiful?  The only person in the story in any position to judge the woman is Jesus.  The Pharisee judged her, but he had no right to. Jesus is God and had every right to judge her, but just as he chooses to die for all of our sins, Jesus also chooses to love us in spite of those sins.  In the woman we see the perfect example of how to respond to that love…to love in return.  To love Jesus, and to respond to him in service even to the point of seeming a bit weird!

The Thickness of Water

Posted in Uncategorized on September 8, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

scotland coastAs many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

—Galatians 3:27-29

Why is it that when I stand at the edge of the sea, my life immediately becomes introspective?  Is it the external vastness, the yawning expanse that prompts such internal thoughts?  Is it some complex equating of infinity with eternity, merging the sea’s infinite stretch toward the distant horizon with my pondering eternal truths or hopes or fears deep in my heart?  Any answer I might give, here, invariably lacks precision.  My only certain answer to these questions is that, without fail, the sea makes me think. 

For the last week, I laid my head on a pillow beneath a window that famed the North Sea, a sea that even during the summer looks cold and distant and brooding.  There it washed, each night, as it has since before the first eyes looked upon it, the first stones laid in the soil to build the university, the first steps I took toward my time of fellowship and study at the university in St. Andrews. Those waters wash away time, linking past with present.  Those waters erode space, dissolving miles that separated friends and colleagues.  For a short moment in that ocean’s memory, a new community forms, a community drawn from continents washed by waters from that same sea, a community defined by difference and distance yet drifting together because of another body of water. 

I was staggered by the distance and the diversity that defined us. While only a few dozen, we were conservative and liberal, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox, North American and African and European and Asian and islanders, old and young and in-between, gay and straight, clerical and non, cloistered and secular.  While an amazing mixture, in some respects we were exactly what I should have expected because we were all drawn together because we have all been washed towards each other by the waters baptism.

In the above passage from Galatians, Paul reminds his readers that they are familiar with the soluble yet binding nature of water because they all have enjoyed the washing of baptism.  Their baptisms have made a new people, dissolving race and class and gender.  In dissolving, those waters have, also, solidified a new humanity, a notion of humanity that forms all into one, irrespective of status or stature or station.  As Paul intimates, his readers are all Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.  And, that promise of Abraham as issued in Genesis is a declaration that all of humanity would one day be bound tightly to each other and to their God.  Here, Paul intimates that water has the perplexing capacity to draw the high to the low and the far to the near and the disparate to the desperate, making a new kind of people evidentiary of that primordial promise.  They are, Paul asserts, a body bound by water.  This water-bound body reflects, in the Genesis imagination, a vision of humanity incrementally seen, first in one people and then in all people.  For a moment last week, around a table I found myself drifting away from our conversation, wading through the same introspective gaze I offered the sea earlier in the week.  In that gaze, I caught a glimpse of the kingdom Abraham was promised and Paul envisioned, a kingdom of what might be, a kingdom serving as a witness to the power of water.  

This week, whether it is a mountain’s vista or a friend’s warm welcome, may we each find our own sea upon which to gaze, imaging a world that might be, a world defined by what we share and what might be more than what differentiates and what was.  May the waters wash over us all, mysteriously dissolving while forming.

Have a great week.  See you along the way.

The Shoreline by Emily Halstead

Posted in Uncategorized on September 2, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

shoreline

For everyone still standing at the shoreline, come.

Let that line sink in for a second. Picture yourself standing at a shoreline, looking out into the water. A boat is in front of you, floating a slight distance away and bobbing on the calm and peaceful waves. The boat is close enough that you can see a man standing, speaking out to yourself and the others on the shore.  He invites you. And you stand on the shore. Watching.    Just standing.    And watching.

Just let that image stay with you for a minute.

The new school year is now fully rolling here at YHC, and to me it finally feels like we are settling into a routine. Classes are moving, student orgs are up and running, res hall rooms are decorated, and we know to expect fried chicken in the dining hall each Wednesday.  Oh, that beautiful feeling of a simple routine.  Yet despite that comfortable routine that’s unfolding as each week passes, this point early in the semester still carries a certain feeling of anticipation—a feeling that you can still don’t know exactly what the year will hold.  A feeling of unease. A feeling of opportunity, yet a feeling of uncertainty.

To me, this moment in time feels a tipping point. We are standing on a shoreline, invited to come forward to something new.

And we stand.

And we watch.

And we face the decision of whether to partake in the water or embrace the comfort of the shoreline.

I believe that each of us is always standing on a shoreline, on the edge of growing closer to the person God is calling us to be. Times such as this, early in the semester—when we are caught somewhere between a new routine and a feeling of “anything can happen”—provide us with a prime opportunity to pause and contemplate exactly how God is calling us.

How is God calling you? It’s still just the beginning of a new year, after all. Is now the time for you to make something new of your academic career? Is now the time for you to serve others in a way you have not before? Is now the time for you to deepen certain relationships? Is now the time for you to enrich your prayer life? Is now the time for you to offer forgiveness? Is now the time to live with joy? Is now the time to live with faith? Is now the time for you to love in new ways?

A new school year brings the opportunity for you to create your new experiences, set your own goals, and to decide what your routine will be. How is God calling you to become the person you were made to be?

The line at the beginning of this blog post is taken from one of my favorite songs, “The Spirit and the Bride” by Matt Maher. The song reminds us of the fact that each and every one of us is always called by a loving God to step off the shoreline and join Him on the water.

For all the thirsty in need of the river,

For all the sleeping hearts waking from their slumber,

For everyone still standing at the shoreline, come.

So join me again in returning to our original visual—you are standing at the shoreline. Standing. And watching. Looking at that boat as it bobs on the small waves.  And then you hear a call: “Come.”

How will you respond?

Living Water by Lauren Neal

Posted in Uncategorized on August 25, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ’

 —John 7:37-38

Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, alsliving watero known as the Feast of Tabernacles is a Jewish festival which lasts about a week and is meant to remind the people of the time they spent in the wilderness, after leaving Egypt.  This week’s passage from the Gospel of John specifies that it is the last day of this feast when Jesus cries out to a crowd: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”

Right before Jesus says this, he encounters officers sent by the chief priests and Pharisees to arrest him, but his words in verses 37-38 change their mind.  Some of those in the crowd take his statement as evidence that he is a prophet and the anticipated Messiah, but not everyone is convinced.  However, the debate is enough to prevent the officers from following through with their orders to arrest him.  When the priests and Pharisees ask them why they failed to arrest Jesus, the officers reply that it is because they had never heard anyone speak as they heard Jesus speak. 

This incident is reminiscent of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4.  He tells her everything she had ever done.  Like the experience of the officers in chapter 7, the words that Jesus speaks are astounding.  The officers are convinced that no ordinary man could speak this way.  And like Jesus’ words in 7:37-38, in chapter 4, he promises the woman “living water.”

So what is this “living water”?  The Feast of Booths is a time for remembering the scarcity of the desert journey, but it is also a time when the people would remember that even in times of scarcity, God always provided for them.  Similarly, the Samaritan woman at the well must struggle on a daily basis to gather the water she needs to survive, she understands scarcity.  This is why when Jesus mentions living water that will cause her to never thirst again, it sounds like a pretty awesome deal.  No longer would she have to trek back and forth to the well every day.  However, the provision that Jesus is talking about both to her and to the crowd later during the Feast of Booths is not a gift of physical water.

The question then becomes what do these situations have in common that might give us some insight as to what exactly the “living water” is?  In both cases, Jesus’ words are convicting.  The woman is made aware of her sins, and the officers are convicted away from their assigned duties.  In both situations, the people involved encountered the unexpected when they encountered Jesus.  Just as no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, no one ever expects to be confronted with their sins, with their mistakes or misconceptions; and unfortunately, that is why it is often so hard for us to recognize when we have been wrong. 

The “Living Water” is the power that can only come from Jesus Christ and the power to recognize the hardest truth of all, the truth about ourselves.  The world tries to define us by what we wear, what we do, and a whole host of other things that are really only incidental, but only Jesus knows who we really are, and where our hearts truly lie.  When we believe in Jesus and have the living water that he provides, then too can we begin to see the world as it truly is: broken and fallen but still beautiful and striving for perfection.  The world is thirsty, and the water is scarce.  Let us pour out our abundant living water that comes from Jesus Christ.

Drink Deep from the Waters

Posted in Uncategorized on August 18, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

Deer and waterFrom God sweeping over the deep waters of chaos at creation to Israel’s crossing the Red Sea, from Jesus’ life beginning in the waters of a womb to his offering a woman water to drink at a well, from Jesus feeding his disciples on a seashore after the resurrection to the waters of the River of Life flowing beside the nourishing trees in garden of the New Heaven and New Earth in the closing chapters of Revelation, water flows through the stories of the Christian faith, washing over us and reminding us of water’s essential contribution to life and the new life. 

Our iChapels are opportunities for us to reflect as a community on how faith and life and education intersect in sustaining and restorative and revealing ways.  This years’ reflections will focus specifically on the life-offering and faith-refreshing gift of water as an essential element of our spiritual and religious journeys as we explore, together, this year’s theme of “Drink Deep from the Waters.”  In addition to attending to the central role that water plays in the Christian tradition, we will, occasionally, reflect on those converging moments where the confluence of the Christian story and other traditions’ stories of faith flow together through their common use of water as fundamental to faith and a whole and holy life.

I am very much looking forward to our sharing in faith and conversation over the coming academic year.  I am more than delighted that you are back on campus or have joined us for the first time.  And, I awaiting with joyous anticipation the journey we are about to share, as we navigate the waters of life and the spirit this year.

To shape our initial ponderings, I offer the lyrics from the beautifully introspective hymn “As the Deer,” a hymn taken from Psalm 42: 

As the deer pants for the water,
So my soul longs after You.
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship You.

You alone are my strength, my shield,
To You alone may my spirit yield.
You alone are my heart’s desire
And I long to worship You.

Have a wonderful start to your week, semester, and year.

I will see you along the way.

(re)Imaging Endurance

Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2014 by yhcreligiouslife

hang in there

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope . . . .

—Romans 5:3-4

Well, we have reached that time of the year, again, where endurance seems to trump knowledge.  Platitudes like “hang in there” and “push through” and “buckle down” slip past our lips and define Facebook posts.  To add to the platitudinal whirl, I offer my own, bearing a hope for something more: Keep focused so that what you plant is lodged deep in the soil of your mind, taking root in your soul to endure for a lifetime.

For some encouragement, enjoy this poem from one of YHC’s own, Byron Herbert Reece.  Read it, study well, and “hang in there.”

Peace, much peace.

“The Generations of Thought”

By Byron Herbert Reece

 

The young tree’s reaching root

Spreads from the fallen fruit,

Golden and shaped like day

Before it knew decay.

 

The infant life, the child

Hopeful and undefiled

Springs from the unity

Love makes of two that die.

 

And though we guess not how

Thought thrives behind the brow.

 

The tree and child, who press

Onward to nothingness,

Scatter their seed and mate;

Themselves perpetuate.

 

And the generations of thought

That know not root nor sire

Nor seed nor even desire

Prosper and perish not.

 

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