Profoundly Disagreeable Interlocutors

Every now and then, students ask me for advice as they prepare to graduate and move into ministry. The advice they seek in not about anything in particular, just some bit of wisdom they believe, rightly or wrongly, I may have gleaned in the church and academy. Over the years, the pearl of wisdom I have acquired is this: Find a life-long conversation partner—preferably more than one. Such conversation partners should be authors, Christian or otherwise, whose thought strikes you as sufficiently profound and their corpus sufficiently copious. Turn to their works over and over again for the next fifty years to find insights that will give depth to your own understanding of people, the Divine economy, and the God who has called you to ministry. It is not difficult, after all, to tell the difference between ministers who are readers and those who stopped reading after seminary. And this has nothing to do with how many books are on our shelves. However, this piece of wisdom comes with a caveat my students do not expect: one of the conversation partners for life should be a profoundly disagreeable thinker.

Profoundly here carries a double meaning. First, profoundly marks the disagreement as one pertaining to a profound matter on which you profoundly differ. Therefore, profoundly disagreeable interlocutors are thinkers who hold a worldview fundamentally at odds with your own. Their metaphysical assumptions about reality are contrary to those foundational to your conception of reality. Your respective notions of the Good, which, like the North Star or the Southern Cross—that fixed point one uses to check the straightness of one’s course—are decidedly different.

In a second sense, profoundly is an adverb that describes the manner or quality of the disagreement. Profoundly disagreeable thinkers are ones who challenge others to reflect more profoundly about an issue. They press others to probe more deeply and even reexamine opinions or understandings of the world. They are a refreshing contrast to those political pundits and social commentators of both the right and the left whose facile arguments and simplistic, binary visions of life, which divides the world into “us” and “them,” leave us merely irritated or indignant. The profoundly disagreeable thinkers do not let us walk away or dismiss them off-hand. Indeed, we may want to interrupt a line of argument and raise objections as we are reading. Our blood pressure may become elevated. We may even feel defensive. Nevertheless, we keep reading because their questions are so probing and their arguments are so textured that we find ourselves thinking about their ideas and arguing with them when we are in the shower or waiting for the bus.

In a culture that is increasingly polarized—politically, aesthetically, religiously—public discourse is becoming narrowly partisan and uncharitably strident. We are, therefore, becoming habituated to avoid the social commentators on “the other side,” and instead, read only those “in our own camp.” When such propensities become habits, our thinking becomes narrowly partisan and the gospel we preach, instead of transcending party divisions and speaking words of prophetic judgments on both the GOP and the DNC, merely affirms our own cultural sensibilities and political predilections. This betrays the gospel, for Jesus, who challenged both the Pharisees and Sadducees, today casts a plague on the pretenses of elephants and donkeys alike. One of the highest compliments a preacher-friend told me she ever received for a sermon—and it was not intended as a compliment—was this: “That sermon did not sound like you.” “That’s the point,” she replied, with a polite smile. “It’s a sermon, not a blog. The word of God let’s no one walk away unscathed.” If our message is to be faithful to the breadth of gospel, then we need to listen ongoingly to voices other than the monologue in our own heads. We need conversation partners that do not allow us to succumb to the temptation in our culture of “group think.”

One last qualifier. In order for our disagreement to be profound—to be a real conversation—there must, paradoxically, be some shared set of intellectual commitments. If there are not at least some common touchstones—points of reference both parties use to ground the conversation—we will not even know where to begin. An author may be quite profound, but if she writes within a Derridean idiom and you have never plumbed the depths of Derrida, then you will be speechless—and likely frustrated. I remember a colleague’s description of attending a theology conference with people coming from radically different points on the Christian continuum. It was, he said, like listening to Charlie Brown’s mother, who in TV animations was never seen but only heard speaking gibberish, “Mwaw mwaw mwaw.” Unless there is a shared idiom, speech is unintelligible.

Very often, the point of difference that renders dialogue nearly impossible is the different starting point each takes. Two parties may agree about an central point, but if they have arrived at the same conclusion from wholly incompatible assumptions, then there will likely be a fundamental disagreement even in their respective understandings of the agreed upon point.

A commonplace example is the difference between those who approach the study of church history with a hermeneutic of suspicion and those who begin with a hermeneutic of charity. Both may agree that the history of the church, like that of ancient Israel, bears ample testimony to the reality of sin and how self-centered love leads to actions, policies, or teachings that are self-serving. If, however, a scholar makes sin, rather than the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the starting assumption when analyzing the catholic tradition, then his narrative will be decidedly different than the scholar who primarily views the church as an earthen vessel filled with spiritual treasure. The former tends to read history with a hermeneutic of suspicion (à la Nietzsche and Foucault) that, even if not entirely reductionist, assumes that power relations are at the heart of the issue. The latter, though not blind to issues of power, assumes that even in the midst of the debris of sin God is continually active in the church and the catholic tradition remains a repository of wisdom. In neither group, however, is there a univocal interpretation of the church’s history.

Even in groups where theology is not viewed an epiphenomenon—a feature of the ideological superstructure that, in Marxist terms, is a mere rationalization for society’s economic system—there can be rich disagreements. Katherine Tanner, Gene Rogers, and Rowan Williams are all theologians I greatly respect. And yet, I disagree with them on the subject of homosexuality. Since they respect the catholic tradition and engage the thought of its greatest luminaries, we can “reason together” within the logic of the catholic tradition using its resources alongside the resources of modern science. Such is not the case with those who think only in the terms of secular society.

It is important to change the character and quality of contemporary debates within the church and for Christians to contribute substantively to the debates within our pluralistic society. Having profoundly disagreeable interlocutors is an excellent way to hone our reasoning and our reflections.

Vocational Education

During a conversation with faculty from the Divinity School and the College of Arts and Sciences, a colleague observed that during times of social anxiety there is a noticeable decrease in the number of liberal arts and humanities majors and an increase in pre-professional majors, such as business, law, and medicine. Often the pressure to major in these areas comes from parents anxious that their daughters and sons will have jobs that both pay well and carry a social cache of which they can be proud. After all, unlike divinity students or English majors, med students rarely are asked incredulously, “Why [on earth] do you want to study medicine?” Then this colleague ended his remarks with a troubling conclusion: If young people are going into fields of law and medicine primarily to accommodate their parents’ ambitions and anxieties, it means that the doctor who is treating me may not really want to be practicing medicine and the lawyer representing me may not really want to be my advocate. One should not jump to the conclusion that simply because a person does not enjoy her work she is bad at it. After all, even a job that matches our greatest passion entails necessities that we do not enjoy and often loathe. In fact, few people are fortunate enough to have jobs that carry an intrinsic sense of satisfaction. Nevertheless, my colleague touched upon what should be an important issue: the problem with a purely instrumental view of education driven primarily by social ambition and the desire for economic prosperity.

This, however, is nothing new. As I listened to my colleague’s complaint about the dilemmas facing modern higher education, my mind instinctively jumped back to Book I of Confessions where St. Augustine gives a vivid and troubling picture of education in 4th century Roman Africa. Book I sets up a contrast between the end for which God made humanity and the ends for which boys of his social class were educated. It begins famously with a statement of Augustine’s doxological anthropology: Human beings were made to find their highest joy in knowing and praising their Creator. For, praise is an expression of holy pleasure found in our encounter with God’s goodness and mercy in our memory; that is, in the recollection of his work in our own individual lives and in the collective life of his people, the church. While our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving should also come in works of charity and compassion, here Augustine is primarily concerned with language as the medium by which we know and praise God. Since in this age man is not able to think about things without the aid of words, God has given us the capacity of language so that through verbal signs God may be the object of thought and thus the source of our highest pleasure.

Yet, our words ultimately fail us. After an early passage in which Augustine has enumerated God’s manifold perfections, he waves the white flag of surrender. The task is too great. “In these words what have I said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness? What has anyone achieved in words when he speaks about you? Yet woe to those who are silent about you because, though loquacious with verbosity, they have nothing to say,” (Conf. 1.5.5; trans. Chadwick). Yet in the quixotic venture of naming the God who surpasses all categories of thought and speech that ends in a helpless silence, we have nevertheless offered praise. Our silence bears witness to God’s glorious transcendence. The real problem lies, not in our inability to speak adequately about God, but in not trying and instead filling our lives with words concerned with the vanities of the world.

Having established man’s proper telos and the role of language in pursuing that end, Augustine begins narrating his own life by describing both his acquisition of language and his early training in rhetoric. Only a few chapters in to the narrative, we see the tragic irony that is the punchline of Book I. Although human beings were endowed with language to praise God, his parents paid for him to study oratory so that he might grow up to be praised for his clever use of words in a law court and so rise to a higher rung on the social ladder. Whereas God intended that we use words to confess him who is Truth itself, the advocate he trained to be learned to craft his words so as to bend the jury to his will, often by deception (Conf. 3.3.6). This was his parents’ ambition. Their only immediate desire for him, Augustine says, was that he “should learn to speak as effectively as possible and carry conviction with [his] oratory,” (2.2.4). Augustine’s father, Patricius, was concerned about neither his son’s character nor conduct so long as he learned to be a persuasive and entertaining speaker (2.3.5). As his education progressed, Augustine distinguished himself as just that, an eloquent orator. Amid the many accolades, he became intoxicated with what, in retrospect, he would call gaudia vanitatis, namely delight in the praise and the hope of greater praise to come (3.3.7).

Indeed, Augustine was not so much in love with the beauty of words as he was with the honor and status they could bring to the speaker. The picture of Augustine’s life, from his days as a schoolboy to his early adulthood as a teacher of rhetoric in the Roman capital of Milan, is of a man who has made himself thoroughly unhappy in the pursuit of vain honors and social status through his exceptional oratory. He achieved his parents’ ambitions but at the cost of self-inflicted misery: “the goads of ambition impelled me to drag the burden of my unhappiness with me,” (6.6.9).

The ultimate irony of the narrative is that Augustine attained through his oratory and his writings as a preacher and theologian fame and glory far surpassing that which his father or mother or even the young Augustine could have imagined. He received glory more lasting than the honors he might have gained had he remained an orator renown only for mendacious panegyrics for the emperor. His boyhood and adolescent training in rhetoric made no minor contribution to this end. This education cultivated his skills as a wordsmith that enabled him to produce one of the greatest literary works of Western culture, Confessions. Yet his education in Classical literature and rhetoric enabled him to produce such literary fruit only when he had a subject worthy of his eloquence and a cause, guiding others in their study of God’s word, worthy of his intellectual energy.

Christ’s body is composed of many members who serve the many needs of the church and the world. Their different works bear witness to Christ’s kingdom on the factory floor and the corporate boardroom, in a chemical laboratory and an oncology clinic, in an elementary classroom or an overseas military base. Therefore, our education, whether it is in a high school vocational-technical program or a post-doc in astrophysics at MIT, acquires true meaning for us as Christians only when it is understood within a sense of Christian vocation. The sense that our work is an ongoing response to the call to discipleship we answered in baptism and confirmation. It lies in God’s calling us to use this time of formation, not for securing a job that promises financial security or climbing the social ladder or even attaining the modern equivalent of ancient glory and honor—i.e. celebrity status—but as an expression of praise that honors God by seeking first his kingdom. Such a vocation does not free one from the drudgery and frustration that accompanies all human endeavors; it may even lead to a cross. But more important than any worldly promise of ease and security and recognition, it liberates us from the self-imposed misery of carrying “the goads of ambition” or the totally inglorious Hobbesian experience of life as “nasty, brutish, and short.” On the contrary, in discovering liberation from vainglorious pursuits we may experience, even if only for a fleeting moment, a foretaste of eschatological peace and happiness when we lose ourselves in the service and praise of God who is infinitely more interesting and more important than ourselves.

Theology and Classical Music: Partners in Evangelism

In their introduction to a collection of essays, entitled Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation between Two Worlds (InterVarsity Press, 2017), W. David Taylor and Taylor Worley name forthrightly the antipathy between the modern art community and the church.“They are two different worlds, with their own logics, their own gravitational fields, their own ecologies…. At the extreme, each finds the other scarcely worthy of any careful thought or charitable feeling. At the very least, they have found themselves in a common state of frigid or indifferent relations.” Although Taylor and Worley are primarily thinking about the world of visual arts, their description applies across all artistic media. Artists, visual or musical, jealously guard their freedom and independence, both in artistic expression and manner of life.

For the church, by contrast, freedom is understood as submission to the lordship of the Spirit; consequently, artistic expression and manner of life must operate within theologically determined parameters. Whereas artists focus on the sensual experience—loving the object of art in and of itself—Christians of an Augustinian stripe view works of art, like all material creation, as signs that point beyond themselves to the One transcendent source of beauty and truth. As early as 1922, Max Weber observed this developing cultural divide: “[Although Christianity has been] an inexhaustible spring of artistic expression, the more arts becomes an autonomous sphere…the more art tends to acquire its own constitutive values, which are quite different from those obtaining in the religious and ethical domains” (quoted in M. Chaves, Congregations in America [Harvard University Press, 2004], 166-167).

This divide between church and artists is ironic because it is in local congregations that ordinary folk, who generally do not go to a museum or have a season subscription to the symphony, are exposed to the arts. In Mark Chaves’ analysis of the 1997-98 National Congregations Study, he found that arts of all varieties (choral music, dance, drama, etc.), both“high” and “low,” are prominent elements of the worship, educational, and recreational life of most congregations. It is precisely because of this lamentable irony that we have cause for rejoicing when the two come together.

Such was the case at a recent concert produced by the Duke Initiative in Theology and the Arts, entitled “Home, Away, and Home Again: The Rhythm of the Gospel in Music,” arranged and conducted by theologian and musicologist Jeremy Begbie. Originally entitled, “Sounds of Exile and Return: The Gospel of Homecoming through Music,” the production traced the pattern of home, exile, and return common to the narratives of the Pentateuch and salvation history as a whole. In most concerts I have attended, the music is treated the way fine paintings or sculptures are displayed in many art museums. The pieces stand alone, removed from an original context and placed in a completely white, sterile environment where the aesthetic qualities of the piece are experienced in themselves, pure, and with minimal commentary. The presentation seems intended almost exclusively for those already familiar with the piece or gifted with an educated ear or eye capable for discerning the nuances of the work.

This performance, however, proved different. After opening with the gentle beat of kettle drum and the call of the trumpets in Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which set us on familiar ground, Begbie began a commentary that prefaced each piece, interpreting it within the matrix he called the rhythm of the gospel—a dialectic of creation, fall, and redemption. Copeland’s Fanfare was, for many different Americans, “home,” not just because of its familiarity but because the percussion and the clear peal of the horns give one the feeling of solidity, of strength, of surety. This, Begbie explained, is our starting point—home—in the One who is our source, the ground of our being, the One in whom we live and move and have our beginning. Yet because of sin we do not stay there long.

Quickly, the musical selections shifted. For each of the pieces—Dvorak’s Slavic Dance, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 (second movement), Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.2, Bartok’s Divertimento for Strings, and Sám! Sám! (Alone! Alone!) by Auschwitz survivor Karel Berman—except for Dvorak’s, composed during the period from the Russian Revolution through the Second World War to the Soviet occupation and domination of eastern Europe, Begbie explained the social and historical context and the way musically each expresses a different sense of being “away.” Sometimes the exile was literal; sometimes it was the feeling of being in exile because one’s home is so changed that it is no longer and never will again be home.

After intermission, Begbie took us “home again” with his interpretation of the opening movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.2 as resurrection. It is, he said, a joyful musical theme that is repeated in ever greater, ever expanding expressions that push the theme to the limit of variation. It then moves beyond that to a new height of grandeur, surpassing what one could imagine to be possible. Thus, Bach conveys the “ordered superabundance”—a musical experience of epectasy—of the grace of the infinite God to whom we return and whose excessive display of mercy and joy—like the father’s response to the prodigal’s return from the far country—swallows up the loss and hurt of exile. There were other wonderful musical moments along the way. For example, there was Luke Powery, the Stanford-trained vocalist and Dean of Duke Chapel, singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot and a five minute tambourine solo (who knew it could produce such a variety of interesting sounds). All of this seemed to build to the wordless climax of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” from Gayne and the jazz masterpiece “Tico, Tico” by Zaquinha Abreu.

If sin is, as Paul describes in Romans 1, the enjoyment of the creature’s goodness rather than the Creator who is Goodness itself, then the eschatological redemption of soul and body must entail both the perfection of the material creature and the purification of the sight of the redeemed soul so that our worshipful gaze does not stop at the creature but rises to the Creator. In the resurrection, the soul simultaneously apprehends the goodness of the creature and delights in the beauty of the Creator revealed in the creature. Perfected creation becomes pure sacrament. Moreover, this vision of God’s incomparable glory and love will, like Paul’s vision of the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2-4), so surpass our experience of any creaturely beauty that we will be at a complete loss of words—a truly apophatic moment—and our praise will be expressed in a language unlike any we know now, except perhaps the language of music. Begbie’s theologically-rich narrative gave us words with which to think faithfully along with the music. It was fully an aesthetic experience that went beyond the experience of sight and sound because of his theologia. Yet in the end, pious joy replaced commentary as Begbie allowed the music to carry our souls into a register of doxology beyond words.

If love (caritas) is THE virtue, which is the source of perfection of all other virtues, then the perfection of this virtuoso performance came shortly before the musical climax. Before the final pieces were performed, Begbie brought up a middle aged woman known as Miss T. She is a member of the Reality Ministries community in Durham for “teens and adults with and without developmental disabilities to experience belonging, kinship, and [the] life-changing Reality of Christ’s love.” Miss T. told a story about how, after her care-giving grandmother died, she lived a home-less existence being passed from various relatives and foster care families until she came to Corner House—one of the homes that makes up the Reality Ministries community—where she found “home” in the love and affirmation of new friends in Christ. After she read a poem, one of the Reality Ministries staff led us in prayer for the people of Corner House and Begbie conducted us in singing “Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer.” In that moment we were more than an audience—listeners—at a concert. We were synagogue. We were ecclesia. In that atmosphere of compassion and worship, we were church. (Incidentally, the proceeds from the concert went to support Reality Ministries.)

A final word needs to be said about the musicians, whose remarkable gifts and lifetimes of practice with instruments of wood or metal, blessed us that night. The musical quality was simply first rate. It was performed by The New Caritas Orchestra composed of musicians from the Boston Symphony, the American Baroque Ensemble, the National Symphony and university orchestras from around the country who are Christians seeking to bring their two worlds together. What a delight to see the pleasure they took in the performance—one unlike any they had done before.

The next morning the musicians gathered for a three-hour seminar by Begbie and theologian Alan Torrance on theology and music. Trombonist, David Yeo, who played for the Baltimore Symphony (1981-85) and the Boston Symphony (1985-2012), reflected later on the experience: “I confess that the three hours spent in this seminar were revelatory…. Jeremy’s discussion on the Holy Trinity have given me much to think about and meditate on. God was at work at Duke Divinity School last week and I left there refreshed and challenged.” I image that these musicians went back to their orchestras and told their peers—some of whom may well be skeptical of the church—about this strange concert with theological commentary and a speech by a woman with a developmental disability at a university divinity school. That is evangelism pure and simple. It is sharing the joy of the good news that touches our universal and primal desire for home and that reveals the God who desires us to find in him our home and our joy. That concert scattered seeds of the kingdom and so carried out the ministry of reconciliation that tears down dividing walls and unites strangers—Christians and artists—as fellow lovers of Christ’s beauty.

The Resurrection: Recovering an Old Starting Point for Modern Debates about Sexuality

Whatever side one is on, or wherever one’s sympathy lies in the United Methodist debate over homosexuality, all of us grieve our seeming inability to reason about our ecclesial life together and its witness to the gospel. At Annual Conference, a colleague commented, after a resolutions debate on this topic, that the quality of our debates has become less substantive over the years. Perhaps we are just tired, so we grow impatient listening to each other’s views. Perhaps we are impatient because we think we have already heard all the arguments.

I would suggest another reason for the unsatisfactory debate about homosexuality in The United Methodist Church. To date, the debate has been too narrow in its focus. We have focused almost exclusively on whether the Bible condemns homosexual conduct and, if it does, whether its teachings on human sexuality are relevant today in the face of some psychiatric claims about sexual orientation. This way of framing the debate, however, has proven inadequate, because neither simply appeals to the Bible, nor appeals exclusively to modern science are sufficient for adjudicating the question.

An interpretation of Lev 18:22 and 20:13 and Rom 1:26-27, while an appropriate starting point for Christian reflection, is not in and of itself sufficient to settle the matter. Simply determining the meaning of Leviticus does not answer the larger question: Why do we accept these Levitical prohibitions but ignore others, such as the dietary prescriptions? Moreover, Paul’s argument in Rom 1 employs an argument from natural law: engaging in homosexual relations is exchanging “natural relations for unnatural relations.” A similar argument from natural law appears in 1 Cor 11:2-16, where Paul reasons that men should not have their heads covered in church but women should (vv. 14-15). In no United Methodist church that I know, however, is it expected that women enter church with their heads covered. Why do we overlook Paul’s argument from natural law in the case of head-coverings while accepting the same argument against homosexuality?

Furthermore, consider the Bible’s position against homosexuality and on slavery. It can be said that the former is outdated and no longer reflects the general scientific and moral sensibilities of modern society, while the latter is no longer accepted because it conflicts with our modern notion of human rights. But by making modern, Western custom normative for judging biblical teachings, we strip the Bible of its ability to speak prophetically to the church and to the world. When is the Christian life to be countercultural, and when does it simply mirror the norms of the larger society?

Obviously, we have failed to give any criteria that distinguish those biblical teachings that are normative for the church from those that are not, and those Western norms the church accepts from those determined to be unacceptable.

Up to this point, we have also failed to begin reasoning from a distinctly Christian-theological framework that guides our interpretation of Scripture and our analysis of modern Western culture. But homosexuality in particular, and human sexuality in general, can be rightly understood only when discussed within the framework of theological anthropology. In other words, sexuality cannot be analyzed as an isolated dimension of human experience. Instead, it must be examined within the larger context of the flourishing or happiness proper to our human nature – what the ancients call eudaimonia. A Christian understanding of human flourishing must be based on an understanding of human nature grounded in Christology and eschatology.

When the fourth-century Cappadocian pastor and theologian Gregory of Nyssa begins his treatise On the Creation of Humanity, he describes his aim: “to leave nothing unexamined of all the things that concern humanity – of what we believe to have taken place previously [i.e., at creation], of the results which are expected to appear afterward [i.e., at the general resurrection of the dead], and of what we now see.” A full and proper understanding of human nature cannot, he says, be rightly understood by looking only at the life of the human being right now

The question that troubles Gregory, and that sparks the writing of this treatise, is this: How can human beings whose present existence is characterized by suffering and misery be made in the image of the supremely blessed God? His answer is that we do not now bear the divine image as God intended from the beginning. Due to sin, that image, while not completely erased, has been corrupted and distorted. We cannot, therefore, rightly understand human nature as God intended it to be by looking at humanity’s present desires and orientation. Instead, we must look at the biblical accounts of the creation of human nature in the beginning and of the perfection of human nature at the general resurrection. For Gregory, eschatology is critical for a Christian understanding of humanity because it shows us God’s purpose for humanity. Even as the acorn cannot be understood rightly without knowing the oak tree into which it will grow so too we cannot rightly understand what God intends for human nature if we base it solely on our observations of what it is now. We are not what we shall be, Paul tells us. Our bodies in their present form are but mortal seeds that will be buried in order that at the resurrection they may be transformed. And not our bodies only. But our whole person shall be purified and perfected in love for God mirroring God’s holiness and glory.

How do we who live in this world see what we shall become? Where is the oak tree that gives us a vision of what our acorn-like nature will grow into? Gregory’s answer, not surprisingly, is Jesus Christ. Christ, as the Father’s coeternal Son, becomes in the incarnation the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). The divine Word, who becomes flesh and strikes his tent in our midst (John 1:14), makes the spiritual and incorporeal Godhead known in physical form. As the Father’s perfect image, Christ is the divine image after whose likeness humanity is created. He is archetypal humanity. When Christ united himself to our human nature restoring and perfecting in us the divine image, Christ reveals not only the nature of his Father but also perfect humanity. Thus, Christ is the new Adam (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:22,45), who by his perfect obedience reconciles us, his fallen brothers and sisters, to God the Father. By his death and resurrection, Christ does not merely accomplish a forensic redemption in the merciful judgment of the Father, but He redeems actual human nature, indeed all of creation, by inaugurating the new creation.

When the women at the tomb and the disciples in the locked room see the resurrected Jesus, they do not see merely a resurrected man. They see resurrected humanity! They see what we shall become: a humanity that has put off corruption and mortality, and has been clothed in divine incorruption, the likeness of God’s glory and holiness.

As Irenaeus put it, Jesus Christ is the “recapitulation” or “summing up” not only of all previous revelations of God, but of humanity itself. He is perfect humanity bearing not only the image of God’s rational nature but the likeness of God’s holiness. He is what God willed that Adam’s race would become. Gregory of Nyssa shares this view. For this reason, Gregory explains that when Colossians describes Christ as “the firstborn of all creation,” it does not mean that the Son is the first creature. Rather it means that the resurrected Jesus is “the firstborn of the new creation.”

This new creation inaugurated by Jesus Christ’s resurrection becomes the lens through which we understand human nature as God wills it to be. The new creation revealed in Christ becomes the model by which we think about the life to which we are called in the present. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creature, not merely because sins have been forgiven, but because through the forgiving waters of baptism, the believer is, as Ambrose of Milan expresses it, made a participant in Christ’s resurrected humanity by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit’s indwelling, the resurrecting power of God, which will liberate us from bodily corruption, is already at work sanctifying us and liberating us from the residual power of sin (Rom 8:9-11). The life of the resurrection, therefore, is not some theoretical possibility or distant reality – though, to be sure, we still groan with creation in travail as we await in hope Christ’s return in glory. Although the vestiges of sinful desire linger, Paul exhorts us to grow into the full stature of him who is our head by a proleptic (or foretasting) participation in the life of the resurrection. In other words, we let the vision of our life in the general resurrection inform our manner of living in the present. The eschatological destiny, for which we hope, determines the way of life we live, and the goals we pursue, in the present age.

How does this Christological and eschatological view of human nature inform our view of sexuality and sexual practices? How does this vision of our eschatological destiny frame our understanding of sex? Or to put it most simply, what does the resurrection have to do with sex and homosexuality? Theologians of the early church recognized the connection because they took eschatology more seriously than we do, and because they confronted difficult passages of Scripture that we often sidestep.

One of those passages, that is important to this matter, is Jesus’s conversation with the Sadducees about marriage and the resurrection (Luke 20:27-40). After laying out the hypothetical story of a woman who was married to seven brothers in succession, the Sadducee asks Jesus, “So whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” This is a classic reductio ad absurdum that tries to show the foolishness of the resurrection – by proving it leads to ridiculous consequences that are inconsistent with Mosaic prescriptions about remarriage. If there is a general resurrection, then there will be polygamy in the kingdom of God! Absurd! Jesus dismisses their foolish question by knocking out its central premise, namely, that marriages in this life will exist in the resurrection. “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34-36, RSV). Jesus’s logic is that in the resurrection there will no longer be marriages, since there will be no need for them. After all, in the resurrection, death will be no more. We will then be like the angels who partake of God’s incorruptibility and immortality, so there will no longer be any need for procreation to replenish the human race. Marriage, the only context in which sexual relations are holy, will, therefore, cease to be.

Jesus’s implication is that, whatever other goods come from marriage, its primary purpose is procreation. Earthly, sexual marriages will be replaced by the spiritual union of Christ, the heavenly bridegroom, to his bride, the church. Here Jesus reveals our eschatological destiny: to be “equal to the angels” who live an asexual existence content with the highest pleasure of beholding God’s glory and singing hymns of praise in an eternal thanksgiving. This is the proper end of human nature. This spiritual pleasure in God constitutes true eudaimonia.

This understanding of human nature and destiny, informed by creation and eschatology, has several important implications for how Christians today should think about sex.

First, sex plays an important role in God’s design for the present age. It is the means for perpetuating the species. The procreative telos of sex means that it cannot be viewed primarily as recreation or pleasure for pleasure’s sake. It is our participation in God’s ongoing work of creation and, as such, is holy. While sex carries with it pleasure that strengthens the bonds between husband and wife, its pleasure should not be isolated from the context of family wherein offspring of that union can be faithfully raised and nurtured.

Second, the value of sex lies exclusively in this age and will have no place in the resurrection, because there will be no need for procreation. In other words, the good of sex is entirely reserved for the present time, but it will pass away. Whatever goods are proper to holy sexual unions in this life are either left behind at the resurrection or accomplished through some asexual means.

Third, since sex will not be part of our eschatological existence – when our nature comes to its perfection intended by God in the beginning and made possible by Christ’s resurrection – it is essential neither to human nature nor to human flourishing (eudaimonia), in other words, the fulfillment of the highest ends proper to our nature. Were sex essential for human happiness, it would necessarily remain part of our eternal existence in the resurrection. Since it is not essential to human happiness in the fullness of God’s kingdom, it is not essential for human happiness in the present life.

This point challenges a fundamental assumption of modern American society, namely, that sexual expression and fulfillment are essential for human happiness. One is not living a fulfilled life, our society insists, unless sexual desires are met. This assumption leads to the popularly held conclusion that denying anyone the right to satisfy sexual desires denies the ability to live a happy and fulfilled life and therefore is fundamentally unjust. However, when we think about sex through the lens of an eschatological anthropology, we see how unmerited is the exaggerated importance our society places on sex. Since sex is not essential to human flourishing, the scriptural regulations about sex do not unjustly deprive any class of people what is necessary for their fulfillment. Rather, Scripture’s teaching on sex, when understood within the theological understanding of human nature and destiny, is rightly seen as ordering our lives toward, and preparing us for, the perfection of human nature in the resurrection, the destiny for which we were created.

This view does not “target” people with homosexual or bisexual or any other sexual desires. Its implications hit home for heterosexuals as well. True human happiness depends, not on sexual intimacy with another human being, but on fellowship with God through trusting, faithful obedience. Therefore, Jesus did not impose an impossible or unfair burden when he prohibited remarriage after divorce. Nor is the church depriving heterosexual couples, young and old, an essential element of happiness by calling them not to engage in intercourse outside the covenant of marriage.

The life of chastity is not easy. It is fraught with many of the same temptations and frustrations experienced even by married couples living in healthy relationships. But for faithful Christians, of whatever sexual orientation, the good news of the gospel is that in the resurrection those struggles will end when we are “equal to the angels.” Then the hard life of self-discipline, that characterizes our present struggles, will be replaced by the peace of resting in the one in whose perfect love we find perfect happiness.

Holy Living Holy Dying Redux

In the documentary for PBS’s Frontline, Atul Gawande — the author of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End — reveals two troubling facts about medicine in twenty-first-century America: how hard it is for physicians to tell patients that they are dying and how quickly patients grasp at experimental treatments that hold out only the slimmest of chances of overcoming their disease.

Gawande, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Boston and member of the Harvard Medical School faculty, begins his book with a refreshingly frank and humble confession: “I learned about a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them.” He goes on to recount his experience as a medical student reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich for a class on physician-patient relations, and tells of his classmates’ sense of horror at Tolstoy’s brutally honest account of Ivan’s deteriorating physical health and his anger at the obviously (self-)deceptive assurances of his family and physicians that the treatments were working and eventually would restore him to health. They avoided any discussion of Ivan’s death, yet all the while anxiety about the inevitability of his death intensified. Gawande recalls how superior he and his classmates felt when they considered the “primitive” treatment Ivan received from his nineteenth-century Russian doctors. Surely they would be more compassionate and honest, and certainly more skilled at treating an illness that places us at the edge of death’s precipice. Then Gawande describes his encounter with a twentieth-century Ivan Ilyich, a cancer patient whom he names Joseph Lazaroff. The cancer was incurable. Yet when the team of doctors gave Lazaroff the option of a highly risky operation that would neither cure the disease nor restore the bodily functions the cancer had stolen from him, Lazaroff demanded, “Don’t you give up on me. You give me every chance I’ve got” (p. 4). Lazaroff did not die on the operating table — as he might well have done — instead he lived out his remaining fourteen days in an ICU in worse physical and mental condition than before the surgery.

Reflecting on his medical school discussion of Tolstoy and his own encounter with a terminally ill patient, Gawande reflects, “We did little better than Ivan Ilyich’s primitive nineteenth-century doctors — worse, actually, given the new forms of physical torture we’d inflicted on our patients. It is enough to make you wonder, who are the primitive ones” (p. 6). Gawande make the case that all physicians need to learn from palliative care specialists. Specifically, they need to learn how to talk with patients about the reality of their mortality, the inevitability of their impending death, and the options for living out their days in a way that will maximize their enjoyment of the goods they value most and that are within their physical and mental capacity.

As I read Being Mortal and watched the documentary, two things kept stirring my thoughts. The first was the recollection of my mother’s final month in hospital. Her renal doctors, who had known her and cared for her the longest, were compassionate. They were gentle and respectful; for that I will always remember them with gratitude. Yet they never once said, “This is the endgame. Your mother is dying.” They simply said, “Your mother is very sick.” And I never asked, “Is she going to die soon?” When she finally went into cardiac arrest, they knowingly disregarded the DNR and so placed in my hands the decision to remove her from life support. How much better it would have been for us to have spoken the dreaded “D” word and have moved her into hospice care. There she could have lived out her final days in a place other than a sterile cubical in the ICU. The doctors’ reluctance to name a condition as terminal and discuss honestly my mother’s immanent death is understandable. The telos of medicine is healing, holding at bay the forces of degeneration, disease, and decay that snatch our life from us. Death marks the failure of medicine to accomplish its telos. It exposes both our physical finitude and the finitude of human technology. It confronts us with the reality that life fundamentally is not ours; it is gift. We cannot exercise absolute control over it.

The second thought that came to me was how profoundly un-Christian was the doctors’ inability to speak of death. The locus of a Christian’s identity — her self-understanding — is baptism. At the font, a child of the first Adam is put to death — dying with Christ, dying to sin and the world — so that a child of God may be born, raised by the power of the Holy Spirit a new creation, remade in the image of the second Adam. While the dying of baptism has a moral dimension that defines the Christian’s life in relationship to the world — as Paul says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4) — it dramatically depicts our eschatological future. As we are sacramentally buried with Christ in the waters of the font, so too will our perishable body be buried in the earth. And as we are sacramentally raised from the font, so too shall our body that is sown in corruption be raised incorruptible like Christ’s body. Baptism is God’s promissory note that as Jesus was raised from the dead so shall we be also. As we sing on Easter morning, “Soar we now where Christ has led . . . following our exalted head . . . made like him, like him we rise . . . ours the cross, the grave, the skies.” Baptism is the sacramental confession of our identity as Easter people whose telos lies not in the preservation of life in this age but in the resurrection, when we shall abide with the saints in the Lord’s luminous presence.

Even as there is no entry into the joy of Easter except by going through the cross of Good Friday, so too there is no resurrection without death. (I bracket the question of how those who are alive at Christ’s return will be transformed and put on his glory.) Christ’s victory over death, as David Kelsey put it, proves redemptive for our lives in the present because it reframes our thinking about suffering and death (Imagining Redemption [Westminster John Knox, 2005]). Death — which was the final enemy — we now see has become God’s instrument for the ultimate healing and raising of our body. An Easter people should not fight against death. Ours is not the desperate defiance of Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Nor is it Stoic resignation. No, ours is surrender and confession: surrendering one’s life and the pretensions to control over life to the One from whom life comes and in faith confessing the hope of resurrection.

What does Easter’s reframing of death look like? What is the Christian alternative to the denial of death that marks modern American medicine? In graduate school, I had a classmate who was dying of AIDS. His gaunt form gave startling testimony to Paul’s words, “the outer man wastes away.” Yet in his final days, the inner man was being renewed. His pastor and closest friends gathered around his bed to journey with him toward death. They kept their vigil by singing every hymn in their hymnal, starting at the front, singing right through to the end, and then starting all over. My friend was surrounded by the words and music of the Church bearing witness to the healing power of the risen Christ. That is the counter-cultural witness of holy dying.

American Medicine and Easter Hope

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers a common-sense critique of Plato’s idea of The Good. The Good, for Plato, is the form that unites all other forms or ideals. Because the philosopher king knows The Good, he or she is able to unite the work of many citizens of the republic into a polis in which members work corporately to attain the common good. The many cannot, Socrates teaches, be united into one, just society unless the ruler knows the telos of the state and how the many threads of the social fabric should be interwoven in order to attain that end. Not surprisingly, therefore, Plato describes The Good as the light of the sun that allows the philosopher king to see each group within the society rightly and know how it contributes the common good, i.e. justice. Aristotle, however, counters that it is knowledge, not of The Good, but of one’s particular skill or art that makes a doctor a good physician or a general a master tactician (N.E.; 1096b30-1097a14). At first glance the argument seems obvious. The criterion I use for choosing the best doctor to operate on my loved ones or myself is not whether she is a virtuous person, but whether she is experienced and skilled at setting a bone or performing by-pass surgery.

Plato, however, would counter that it is not enough for a physician to be skilled; he or she must also be wise. For, only if she possesses the knowledge of The Good and understands how the art of healing serves the common welfare of society can the doctor rightly understand the limits of human life and of medicine. Only by knowing The Good can she rightly judge when to operate and when not to operate. In other words, if we think about the health of the body in isolation from a larger conception of human flourishing (eudaimonia), then we will make the error of thinking about the health of the body as an end in itself. The preservation of the body will become not merely one good among many, but the highest good.

If how a society spends its money is a reflection of the goods it most prizes, then US expenditure on health care reveals much about our values. A 2004 study in the journal Health Service Research (Amber E. Barnato et al., “Trends in Inpatient Treatment Intensity among Medicare Beneficiaries at the End of Life,” Health Service Research 39, no. 2 [2004]: 363-76) concluded that 30% of all annual medical costs in the US are incurred by 5% of beneficiaries who die within a year. One-third of those costs cover treatment in the last thirty days of their life. Similarly, Daniel Callahan, president emeritus of The Hastings Center for bioethics, says that 5% of patients with chronic disease and/or organ failure are responsible for 50% (roughly $600 billion) of total annual medical spending, roughly $1.2-1.7 trillion (New York Times, 13 January 2013). (For a more conservative estimate, see Melissa D. Aldridge and Amy S. Kelley, “The Myth Regarding the High Cost of End-of-Life Care,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 12 [2015]: 2411-15.) That figure reflects a doubling of the overall expenditure on health care between 1999 and 2011. According to a federal government assessment by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Service, America’s annual expenditure on health care in 2015 reached $3.2 trillion or 17.8% of GDP. To put that in perspective, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the US public expenditure on primary and secondary education in 2010 was 7.3% of GDP. What does this reveal about our values? How much will we spend to hold on to the last 30 days of life relative to the first 18 years of life?

Plato, in a provocative passage in Republic, wrote with considerable prescience when Socrates declares that a sure sign a society has become unjust and disordered is when “… many law courts and hospitals are open. [And] skill in pleading and medicine give themselves solemn airs when even many free men pursue them eagerly” (405A). In other words, the field of medicine gains an exalted place in society when people have not lived a healthy, temperate lifestyle, yet are afraid of death and so rely on doctors to save them from the consequences of their excesses. Doctors become our high priests who mediate life enabling us “to reach old age, dying a hard death all the while” (406B). Perhaps it is not so much that we value the health of the body – our excessive consumption and sedentary life style would suggest we don’t – but that we are afraid of dying and so cling tenaciously even to our final days.

This US expenditure on health care, especially end-of-life care, raises serious theological questions. How do we think about death and life in the present age? Where do we place our hope? What is the telos of the Christian life? To put the question another way, as people who confess that Jesus was raised from the dead and that by his death and resurrection he has opened to us the hope of eternal life in his new creation, how does resurrection hope reveal The Good, i.e., our relationship with God, that should determine how we look upon death and how we order our life in the present? How should a robust doctrine of the resurrection influence the way we as Easter people approach the allocation of funds for health care generally and end-of-life care specifically? How might an Easter faith shape the way we imagine the work of nurses, doctors, and medical researchers in sacramental terms?

An essay like this is certainly a better place to raise questions than to offer facile answers. But these are some of the questions I want to explore in upcoming issues of Catalyst. At the core of each is a common theological conviction, namely, if Christians are to make a substantive and distinct contribution to our nation’s discussion about health care and to guide our people in making faithful decisions about end-of-life care, then we must speak from the core of our faith as an Easter people who before the world confess, “The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed.” That good news has changed everything. And it is high time we reason together about the common good of society within our knowledge of the new reality that Christ’s resurrection opened to us.

A Tragic Case of Mistaken Identity

Some movies should not be seen alone. To experience the full pathos of the film requires the collective, emotional reaction of the whole audience. Hotel Rwanda is one such movie. It tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the Mille Collines Hotel, who turned this luxury hotel into a sanctuary for over 1,200 Tutsi refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide by the Hutu Interahamwe militia. In 2004, I saw it with a group of divinity students who then gathered to discuss the movie over pizza with Dr. Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan priest who has written on the genocide and reconciliation. Viewing and processing the film together allowed us to pool our collective memories and emotions to reflect more carefully about the lies and deceptions that led up to the genocide and the moral choices Paul made. Such collective reflection allowed us to confront together the question: How do we prevent this happening again? For us as Christians and leaders of the church, that vital question cannot be answered unless we confront an issue unaddressed in Hotel Rwanda, namely the church’s complicity in the genocide.

Chris McGreal’s short volume (88 pages) Chaplains of the Militia: The Tangled Story of the Catholic Church during Rwanda’s Genocide (Guardian Shorts, 2017) is a book not to be read alone. It should be read by the church catholic as a study in how the church, even in siding with a persecuted majority seeking justice, failed grievously to be the body of Christ. Unlike some conspiracy theories that pander to anti-Catholic or anti-clerical prejudices, Chaplains immediately strikes the reader as a highly professional piece of investigative journalism. McGreal is measured in his rhetoric and careful in conclusions. His subtitle, “the tangled story,” points to the complexities that accompany any narrative or conclusions about the diverse role of Catholics in this singularly violent slice of Rwanda’s history. Yet for all its complexities, the narrative’s conclusion is tragically clear.

McGreal begins with his interview of Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, who in 2005 was indicted by the UN International Tribunal for Rwanda for conspiring with the Hutu militia to kill Tutsis and moderate Hutu sympathizers. Interviews with survivors relate how Fr. Wenceslas, clothed in camouflage body armor with a cross around his neck and a pistol holstered on his hip, barred some Tutsis and Hutus from seeking shelter in his Kagali church, St. Famille. Others, including fellow Hutu priests, told how Fr. Wenceslas admitted many Tutsis, whom he denounced in sermons as inyenzi or “cockroaches.” However, he made lists of their names, which he handed over to the Interahamwe. Later he escorted the militia into St. Famille and allowed them to lead off those the asylum seekers to be slaughtered.

By contrast, Tutsi survivors have praise for Father Célestin Hakizimana, the Hutu priest in charge of the pastoral centre of St. Paul, which was adjacent to St. Famille. Father Célestin packed St. Paul’s with refugees. He too made lists he handed over the Interahamwe but these lists had false names or omitted the names of the Tutui leaders he knew the militia were seeking. When deception did not work, he bought off the militia to spare the lives of Tutsis who sought sanctuary at the St. Paul centre.

There are other such stories. Father Boniface Senyenzi, a Hutu, died with the Tutsis he sheltered in the rural church at Kibuye. Other stories we find nearly impossible to believe: among the genocidaire were two nuns, Julienne Maria Kizito and Gertrude Mukangango, who after turning Tutsis over to the militia gave them gasoline with which to burn Tutsis alive. The Catholic Church had no monopoly on such atrocities; Anglicans, Seventh Day Adventists, Presbyterians and others were equally guilty.

The stories of Father Célestin, Father Boniface, and Paul Rusesabagina are compelling. In their examples, as in the lives of the saints, we find the desperately needed hope that, if we were in their position, we too by God’s grace would have taken the road less traveled even to the point of death rather than following the wide path of larger society that leads to shame and perdition. The stories of Father Wenceslas and Sisters Julienne Maria and Gertrude cause us to grimace. We separate ourselves from them by reasoning that they are simply the most extreme cases. They are those nominal Christians who were never truly devoted to Christ and are not true representatives of the church. (The evidence McGreal presents about Father Wenceslas’s life before entering the priesthood easily supports such an interpretation.) Yet the larger history of the Rwandan Church that set the stage for the genocide does not let us dismiss the anecdotal extremes so easily.

After the transfer of Rwanda to Belgian control following the First World War, the Belgians governed Rwanda using members of the Tutsi minority (14%) who exercised power over the majority Hutu population (85%). Since the Catholic Church acted as an arm of the state, it naturally placed the Tutsis in positions of highest ecclesial authority as well. The vision of independence from Belgium in the early ‘60’s spurred Hutu hopes of overthrowing the Tutsis along with their Belgian masters who gave them authority. While the Hutus gained control of government in the early 70’s and drove many Tutsis into exile, some Tutsis sought to retain power in their ecclesial offices. In a letter to the archbishop of Kigali in April of 1972, a group of eleven Hutu priests protest that the church needs to be free of inyenzi Tutsi priests whom they viewed as “counter-revolutionaries who have not faced up to the fact that the Hutu majority [is] in charge of the country and should be in control of the church too.” The Hutu priests quote the Tutsi clerics: “Let the Hutu priests feel at home with their people and receive the favours of the government of their race. We Tutsis shall dominate in the church of Rwanda where we hold the reins of power and we shall not surrender those reins.” The seeds of the widespread clerical complicity or outright participation in genocide lie in these tribal divisions within the church. The Hutu clergy did not simply want to address the problem of disproportionate representation of Tutsi priests in positions of ecclesial authority – that was a reasonable goal that McGlear downplays – they wanted a revolution in the church that mirrored the political revolution that expelled the Tutsis from power in the government. Tribal identity trumped ecclesial identity.

The Rwandan Church failed to be an alternative politeia that found its identity in Christ who is firstborn of the new creation. He is the prototype of a new humanity in which all are united in him who has torn down the dividing walls erected by the arbitrary social conventions that reflect one groups rationalization of their will to power. A church, whose identity and way of life should have been guided by the narrative of the gospel, instead mirrored the narrative of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The church failed to be a countercultural voice to the racial divisions during the period of independence in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s or to the genocide in 1994. It failed then because in the colonial era it had sold its birthright as an autonomous communion independent from the Belgian colonial administration for the pottage of power and status from state patronage. In so doing, it sacrificed its authority to define relations between the people of Rwanda in theological terms. In place of biblical categories, it used European racial categories to establish the terms of social identity that would set Tutsi nationalism and Hutu Power at war. When the church allowed a secular, racial anthropology to replace a theological anthropology informed by a scriptural imagination, we should not be surprised that many in the Rwandan Church saw themselves as Hutu or Tutsi first and Christian second. When the papal envoy to Rwanda during the genocide in ‘94 heard priests and bishops justify the violence as moral cause, he asked, “Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?” I’m sure the envoy intended this to be a rhetorical question with an answer so obvious it need not be spoken. Instead, he received the surprising answer, “Yes.”

The history of the Rwandan genocide is a story not to be studied alone but in the community of the faithful. We need to hear in our ranks our collective “No” to the envoy’s question. While we may value our ethnic, cultural, national, regional, or political identities, their meaning and value must always be subordinated to that primary identity given us in the waters of baptism. The sacrament does not wash away those identities but pushes them from the essential center of our self-definition to the accidental margins so that they may never supersede our obligations to God and neighbor. May we be haunted by the image of camouflage-clad Father Wenceslas with the cross hanging from his neck and a pistol holstered at his side so that we may not forget the unimaginable consequences of ever subordinating our identity as Christians to any other allegiance or cause.

Augustine’s Totus Christus and the Inclusive Gospel

If I could make one minor change to the UM system, it would be that the quadrennial meeting of General Conference not coincide with that other quadrennial event, the US presidential election. The rancorous political climate of an election year with its polarizing rhetoric that divides the country into red states and blue states contaminates the atmosphere of General Conference and across the Church.

This past month – the weekend after the election – some 5,000 UM youth (my daughter included) and adults gathered for Pilgrimage 2016, the North Carolina Annual Conference youth event. On Friday evening, one youth group, which included a large number of Latino youth, encountered another group, some of whose members were wearing red caps with the slogan, “Make American Great Again.” The Latino youth felt greeted by hostile stares.

The next day the youth were invited to write messages on clothes pins and stick the pins to other kids’ nametag lanyards. They were intended to be signs of encouragement and love. Instead, some of the Latino youth discovered that someone had attached clothespins that read “I love Trump” and “Build a wall.”

That night the youth group leader, a Latina divinity student on her field placement, addressed the issue to all the youth. She spoke about her own experience as a young girl immigrating with her parents to North Carolina from Mexico. She recounted how in games of dodgeball the other children would say, “Get the Mexican. Get her out and send her back to where she belongs.” It was only when a small UM church in Winston Salem opened its doors to the Latino community that she “experienced love and compassion for the first time” and “felt welcomed.” She went on to talk about how excluded her youth felt when they found the clothes pins on their tags. Then, directly addressing the kids with the red caps, she said, “If you want to welcome the Holy Spirit … take off your red hats and instead wear the message of the gospel.” Although, by my daughter’s reckoning, there were only about ten youth wearing the red caps, a number of other youth groups walked out in reaction to her political challenge. There were diverse cries of indignation. Some demanded that youth events should be safe places for minorities, especially in the wake of the election. Others wanted Pilgrimage to be a place safe for youth to express their political views free from public censure. The one thing on which all could agree was that Pilgrimage 2016 mirrored the painful fissures within the nation as a whole and within the body of Christ.

Nothing under the sun is new. The animus of ecclesial division is certainly not a novelty in the church. I was reminded of this point recently reading Adam Ployd’s monograph, Augustine, the Trinity, and the Church (Oxford University Press, 2015), which analyzes how Augustine’s Nicene Christology informs his doctrine of the church in his anti-Donatist writings. Between December 406 and July 407, Augustine penned 41 sermons on the Psalms of Ascent (Pss 119-33), the Gospel of John, and 1 John. The doctrine of the church that emerges reflects his belief in the unity of Christ. The incarnate Christ, the Word united to a human body and soul, is one persona or prosopon. He is one man, unus homo. Yet the many who through baptism are united to his body have become incorporated into this one man. The unity of Christ to his mystical body, the church, Augustine calls the totus Christus, or “whole Christ.” What, therefore, is said of Christ, is said, not only of the Word or of the man Jesus. It is said of the said of totus Christus, of Christ and his church. Where Christ is, there is his body. Because Christ has ascended to the Father (John 3:13), we have ascended to the Father. To be united to Christ, is to be united to his body.

The error of the Donatists was that they refused to be united to the body of Christ because they believed the unholiness of Catholic priests precluded their conferring the grace of the Holy Spirit. Because Donatists desired a holy community of saints, they broke from Christ’s body. In breaking away from Christ’s unholy body, they broke away from the totus Christus. Our only hope of ascending to the Father is as a member of totus Christus. “For if you love the head you also love the members; yet if your do not love the members, neither do you love the head” (Homilies on 1 John 10.3; Ployd, 96). It is the love of God, the gift of the Spirit in baptism, that unites us to Christ and his body. To break from the body of Christ because it is deficient in holiness is to break the bonds of charity that unite up to Christ. We cannot be part of Christ unus homo without being part of totus Christus, warts and all. We walk away from our brother or sister at our own peril.

Augustine’s ecclesiology complicates our view of the church by revealing the unsafe nature of being in church. As the body of Christ, we reach out to people from all demographic groups, that through us they may experience the embracing love of God. At the same time, however, such an inclusive gospel welcomes people of all degrees of spiritual maturity and holiness: the skeptics and the devout, the more virtuous and the less virtuous. This is the paradox of the inclusive gospel: as Christ ate with tax collectors and sinners, Samaritans and Pharisees, we his body welcome all including those whose unholy prejudices predispose them to be unwelcoming and uncharitable to others. We seek the liberation of the oppressed (e.g., Lazarus) and the reclamation of the oppressor (e.g., Zacchaeus). We want to give the oppressed and the marginalized the assurance that the church is a place where they are safe and will not be ostracized or maligned. Yet the truth is that we invite them into a community that includes some of the very people who have ostracized and maligned them. Because we invite them into community of people like themselves, sinners who are more or less repentant and more or less loving of their neighbor, we are in fact not inviting them into a place that is safe. If there is one Christ in whose body all members are one, if we are the totus Christus, then all are called to a life of vulnerability – the vulnerability of confronting and confessing one’s own sin, the vulnerability of forgiving those who have hurt us, the vulnerability of sitting side by side with those who do not like us because of who we are or what we believe or how we live. The alternative to such vulnerability is to walk away and create a safe homogenous group.

Walking away for the sake of holy homogeneity was the error of the Donatists. The challenge for the leaders of the church is how, on the one hand, to exercise ecclesial discipline that confronts whatever is unholy and uncharitable within the body and protects those who are most vulnerable and, on the other hand, to embody a patient inclusiveness that welcomes, challenges, and supports fellow sinners as they grow in the grace that leads to holiness. Then and only then can we be the totus Christus living together in the bonds of charity.

A Different Way

“Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good, and excellent, and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

When we read Paul’s famous exhortation to the Romans, we immediately get his point. Christians should not imitate the immoral and unjust practices of the world: sexual promiscuity, consumerist greed, narcissistic individualism, indifference to the poor. We must not sink to what is low and base in society. There is, however, another, more subtle and so more insidious, manner of conforming to the world. It is the view that the Christian ethical ideal is essentially the same as the world’s highest ideals, and that to be good Christians we need only espouse the noblest sentiments of liberal democratic society — tolerance and equality, altruism and philanthropy, personal liberty and human rights. By equating Christian virtue with the virtues of the world we reduce the Christian ideal to worldly values. Then there is a serious consequence: Christian ethics loses its distinctiveness.

Identifying Christian ethics with the best of worldly wisdom is a practice that goes back to apologists of the second century. Claiming, reasonably enough, that all wisdom is God’s wisdom, they pointed to the similarities between Christian moral teachings and those of revered Classical and Hellenistic philosophers, no doubt in the hope that these shared values would make Christianity seem less strange, less threatening, and less deserving of persecution.

In the 17th century, however, a new narrative emerged about the relationship between secular and Christian virtues. In the Enlightenment account of Western history, when the human race was in its primitive stages God conferred on it the knowledge of morality through special revelation. With the dawn of the age of reason, we discovered that by the power of reason alone humanity had the ability to grasp the logic of the morality that had been revealed. We could “see” for ourselves what once had to be given and accepted on faith.

One of the consequences the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual reasoning was the lessening in importance of the church’s pedagogy. We could live just as virtuously as Jesus, but now without miracles, without theology, without the sacraments, and without the promise of heavenly reward. These were redundant. And for many in the increasingly secularized West, they have become almost extinct. In the December ‘89 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the cover essay carried the provocative title “Can we be moral without God?” The editor was promptly inundated by letters. Although some were appreciative, many others dismissed of the question altogether. “Morality evolved,” one reader wrote, “as human beings realized and stabilized relations with neighbors and kings…. We have managed to achieve an increasingly realistic perception of morality in spite of religion….” This particular reader concluded his letter by cancelling his subscription.

The church, therefore, faces a challenge. If we are called to be “a light unto the nations,” to bear witness to the truth of the gospel, “to prove what is the will of God, what is good and excellent and perfect,” then it is not enough to say we have an alternative to all that is corrupt and base in society. Rather, we must prove that we have something better than the world’s best. We have a vision of human flourishing that surpasses the highest aspirations of liberal society.

Recently the question of Christianity’s distinctiveness has returned for consideration among NT scholars in C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (Yale University Press, 2016). Drawing heavily on Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of the Enlightenment pursuit of objective knowledge, Rowe argues that Stoicism (represented by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius) and early Christianity (represented by Luke, Paul, and Justin Martyr) are two incommensurable traditions, each of which calls its adherents to a path of life that requires them to forsake all other paths. The either/or of Stoicism and Christianity arises from a recognition that each tradition rests on mutually exclusive, foundational assumptions about reality that render them “untranslatable” to the world view of the other. There is no transcendent common ground that allows Christians and Stoics to reason together. Rowe does not deny various similarities in terminology used by Christians and Stoics. Rather, he wants to show that the complex, overarching patterns that define each tradition are so radically different that even the shared terminology cannot make one tradition intelligible to the other. Rowe expresses the absolute divergence of these paths of life in the starkest terms: “[Their] incommensurable ways of inquiry … [have] no set of agreements that would be necessary to resolve the disagreements…. Rivals are rivals all the way down” (181). Key to this project is MacIntyre’s idea of “tradition.” Ideas do not have some freestanding existence; rather, they emerge within a tradition of reasoning that over time has developed norms governing not only how people think but how they live under the guidance of masters of the tradition. The truth of Christianity cannot be apprehended except in the light of the Holy Spirit. And the deep logic of the faith cannot be internalized and transform individuals apart from their formation by the living tradition that is the community of faith, the church. “Short of conversion, we are literally shut out of one by the life we live in another” (204).

As a work of NT scholarship, One True Life challenges the influential interpretations of Paul and the Stoics in the works of Abraham Malherbe and Troels Engberg-Pedersen. Deep down, as the work of devout churchman, it is a challenge to the church to recognize the radically different way we are called to walk in following the crucified Lord – a way that is incommensurable with the myriad other paths our pluralistic world offers. As Rowe puts it, we have only one life. If that life is to have any coherence and integrity, we have to be clear about the identity of the different God who is himself the different Way we are invited to walk.

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