Theology’s Task: Making the Familiar Strange

In a paper from last year, the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on how to write a theological sentence, riffing on Stanley Fish’s book, How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One. Hauerwas writes, “a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.” This is a truth worth exploring. I will riff on Hauerwas’s riff on Fish.

So often we think we must make the good news more respectable. We try to make the story of God palatable both for people who have not yet come to the Christian faith and those who are already the Church. In doing so, we run the risk of removing the shocking and radical nature of the gospel itself. Christian commitments to forgiveness, for example, often run counter to our common sense. Rather, our task is to talk about God (i.e., do theology) in such a way that the familiar becomes strange. That is not to say our talk about God must be unintelligible, intentionally obscure, or unnecessarily offensive.

Hauerwas’s paper offers several solid examples of proper theological sentences making the familiar strange. I appreciate the essay greatly because Hauerwas refuses the temptations to turn Christianity into only a set of ethical practices or philosophical ideas. Our lives must reflect our beliefs and the Christian story must mean something true. One sentence from that essay has haunted me since reading it. Hauerwas recasts the common challenge, what difference does believing in God make in the lives of Christians? He crafts a sentence that cuts deeper: “We live lives that would make sense if the God we worship did not exist.” This sentence stops us in our tracks. It immediately requires reflection. If the God I worship did not exist would my life make sense? Do my values and actions correspond more to the dominant culture around me or to the values of Jesus Christ? Are my commitments to my socioeconomic class more important to me than my commitment to God? Hopefully reflecting on Hauerwas’s sentence will lead to our repentance.

My church is currently looking at the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans for our sermon series. As we have read and reread this very famous work, I am once again struck by how Paul is an excellent theologian. So much of what he writes makes the familiar strange. Take his descriptions of the Christian life in Romans 6. In this chapter he describes being united with Christ as joining in Jesus’ death and being enslaved to righteousness. Even stranger, Paul sees such death and slavery as good things. This kind of God-talk shakes us from our stupor and makes us reconsider our commitments. In contrast to much contemporary Christian talk that turns Jesus into a motivational speaker helping us improve our marriages or deal with stress at work, Paul’s shocking images make the familiar strange. A familiar idea would be Jesus wants to make us better versions of ourselves. But Paul makes that familiar idea strange when he writes Jesus wants to kill our old natures and bring about altogether new lives. When contrasted to the truth of the gospel, the idea that Jesus is a self-help guru is certainly strange. Jesus has no interest in making us more comfortable. He wants to give us real life, which requires our death and resurrection.

Or consider Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12.1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (NRSV) This verse has been repeated so much its strangeness can be lost on us. Let us stop and appreciate the twists Paul writes. Living sacrifices? That image alone could make us stop us in our tracks. How does a sacrifice continue to live? If Paul’s statement is true, if real life can only be found in offering our lives in worship to God, the idea of a living sacrifice makes our pursuit for self-fulfillment strange. Paul does the work of a real theologian. He takes what we assume to be given and brings it under the light of God’s love, revealing our givens for what they truly are: strange assumptions.

In the tension between the world and the Church, something has to give. It depends on where we stand. If we accept the world as normal we will see the Church with its commitments to God and sacrificial love as incomprehensible. If we agree with Paul that true life can only be found in giving our lives to God and others we will reject the familiar selfish demands — self-fulfillment, self-protection, self-satisfaction – as strange.

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Readings, Prayers, and Candles for Lent

March 5 of this year is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar. Lent offers us space to reflect on our sin and Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. Through fasting and other acts of penitence we come to terms with our need for God’s grace. During these forty days we repent of our sins so we can recommit to God’s mission in the world.

Observing Lent is a deeply personal experience, but it runs the risk of becoming private. We have to acknowledge our families, communities, and churches need to repent as well.  Recently I learned about a growing practice of communal Lent observation using readings, prayers, and candles. The idea is not that different than the wreaths of candles used during Advent. Whereas Advent begins in the dark and we light another candle each week until Christmas representing the growing presence of Jesus, the Lent candle cross begins fully lit and each week we extinguish another candle as we move toward Good Friday. This growing darkness reminds us we had Jesus physically with us, but we rejected and killed God incarnate. We tried to snuff out the light of the world.

A Lenten candle cross is easy enough to make. It has places for six candles, one for each Sunday in Lent.

A Lenten Cross

The first Sunday begins with all six candles lit, the second Sunday with five lit, and so on. My church is going to include this observation during the season and I have written some readings and prayers  for our services. I have included these readings and prayers in a PDF. Feel free to use them and adapt them however you wish. Just don’t sell them.

Readings and Prayers for Lenten Candle Observances

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Civility Project: Finding Commonality, Letters from a Working Mom and an At-Home Mom

In her post, “A Letter from a Working Mother to a Stay-At-Home Mother, and Vice Versa,” Carolyn Ee publishes two letters of mutual appreciation between people who often find themselves pitted against each other. Some people think at-home moms have capitulated to outdated standards of gender hierarchy. Others view working moms as selfish women unwilling to put the needs of their family above their desires for career advancement. The moms writing these letters don’t accept those reductive and uncharitable descriptions of the other. They don’t express feeling threatened in their lifestyles simply because someone else took a different path. Instead they exhibit civility in a beautiful way. By naming the contributions of the other, the moms who write these letters show their admiration. In expressing their empathy for each other they discover that they really are on the same side.

Take these two examples.

In her letter to the at-home mom, the working mom writes:

SAHM, I don’t know how you do it. I admire your infinite patience, your ability to face each day cheerfully and bring joy into your children’s lives even when they wear you down. I admire your dedication to being a constant presence in your children’s lives even if it isn’t always easy. I admire the way you work without expecting any reward – no promotions, no fame, no salary. I know you want your children to feel important and loved, and SAHM, you do this the best.

In her letter to the working mom, the at-home mom writes:

I see you everywhere. You are the doctor I take my children to when they are sick. You’re my child’s allergist, the one who diagnosed her peanut allergy. You’re the physiotherapist who treated my husband’s back. You’re the accountant who does our tax returns. My son’s primary school teacher. The director of our childcare centre. My daughter’s gymnastics teacher. The real estate agent who sold our house. What sort of world would it be if you hadn’t been there for us? If you had succumbed to the pressures of those who insisted a mother’s place had to be in the home?

So often we fall into the temptation to think because we disagree on a topic or have taken different paths in life, we are diametrically opposed to one another. These letters show that if we take a step back, we might see that our intentions are often the same. In the case of these mothers, their similar goal is to care for their families, even though they have chosen different means of doing so.

I often find in our rhetoric, political and otherwise, a knee-jerk assumption of the worst motives in those who disagree with us. It is not enough to think someone’s views are wrong, we also assume they have malicious intent. But what if we made it a practice to say what we appreciate in our opponents? What if we took the time to verbalize our gratitude for their contributions and affirmed their good intentions (no matter how wrong we might think their views are)? We might discover, like the moms who wrote these letters, that we are not so different as we think we are.

That is not to say we are going to agree on all matters. I don’t believe that is the goal of civility. Instead, civility creates the space where we hash out different points of view. Because of civility we can listen, understand, and accurately agree or disagree with one another.

The kind of civility these moms exhibit requires a great amount of humility. We have to allow ourselves to believe that other people have a contribution to make and we may not have all the answers.

Who would you consider your enemy? Which people do you find yourself disagreeing with on a regular basis? Take a moment and consider what they contribute positively. What do you appreciate about them and how might you learn from them?

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Multiple Bottom Lines: Reforming Capitalism

In a column for the Autumn 2013 issue of Prism, “Bono on Capitalism with a Conscience,” Rudy Carrasco cites Bono’s defense of capitalism as a better means of lifting people out of poverty than aid. This shift seems to have surprised some folks given Bono’s famous campaigning for increased aid and debt relief, as if these endeavors are mutually exclusive to other forms of economic development. Regardless, Bono has become a vocal supporter of capitalism. In a 2012 speech at Georgetown University, he said, “Aid is just a stopgap. Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid.”

Carrasco explores some of the hesitations with embracing capitalism among justice-minded folks.

I know where the ambivalence comes from. We who consider ourselves justice advocates do not subscribe to a single bottom line, the financial bottom line. We desire a multiple bottom line, one that acknowledges people, purpose, and planet alongside profit as vital components to the “life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:19).

Carrasco then highlights a couple of businesses with a multiple bottom line, including Broetje Orchards, which pursues “people, planet, profit, and purpose.” Expanding the bottom line beyond mere profits is an important development, one I believe makes capitalism more just and humane. In a capitalist system, businesses will succeed and fail, but if those businesses which succeed are interested in the common good as well as their own balance sheet, the negative effects of failure and success can be better mitigated.

At the same time, I do not necessarily fault justice advocates for being hesitant about fully embracing capitalism as it currently stands. I would venture to guess the vast majority of large corporations and defenders of capitalism don’t espouse a multiple bottom line. Instead, they would likely agree with economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, one of the most articulate and influential voices supporting a radically free market. In 1970 he wrote a seminal article in The New York Times Magazine entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” He criticizes the idea that executives of corporations have any responsibility to guide their businesses’ practices so that they might help society. His argument says executives work for shareholders and are playing with shareholders’ money. Friedman sees any use of shareholders’ money that does not maximize profits as essentially a tax and those who believe a business might have more than one bottom line are “preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism.” (How it can be socialism when one may freely buy shares of a business and seek to fire executives or divest from the company if one is disappointed, Friedman does not say.)

What we then need is a capitalism where more businesses are encouraged to pursue multiple bottom lines. This means reforming capitalism and reclaiming it from those who see profit as the chief end of businesses. We need to pay attention to success stories of companies like Broetje Orchards or even high-end office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, whose former CEO, Max DePree argued profit is only a means to an end. He writes in Leadership is an Art, “Corporations can and should have a redemptive purpose. We need to weigh the pragmatic in the clarifying light of the moral. We must understand that reaching our potential is more important than reaching our goals.” (69) We must remember humans create markets, they are not naturally-occurring forces like the tide. Our values and beliefs shape markets. We decide what the bottom line is. We must also remember that while our values shape markets, the markets return the favor. If we value monetary profit above all other things, our markets will primarily reward monetary profit and will shape us to only value profit more.

So let us ask, what do we value and how can we shape markets to reward excellence, innovation, and efficiency in areas other than profit?

I am of the opinion that it would be wonderful for a greater embrace of business and free enterprise among justice advocates. The successes of capitalism to bring communities out of poverty should not be diminished. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should remember aid is meant to address short term needs. The transformation of communities in poverty requires more than one-time assistance. A healthy economic environment is the result of many factors that aid alone cannot achieve—e.g., good governance, sustainable capital, etc. Equally important, I believe it would be wonderful if our business schools and corporations taught more about ethics and morals. We must measure the success of a business by more than the balance sheet. In order to reform capitalism, I believe we need to engage the system. Support and invest in businesses pursuing a multiple bottom line. Let’s change that bathwater.

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Civility Project: Brandon Ambrosino on Gay Marriage and Homophobia

I proclaimed 2014 as the year of civility here at The Space Between My Ears. In this Civility Project I want to highlight concrete examples and writings that display respectful interactions between folks who disagree with each other about topics they deem important. I hope and pray that by focusing on this important virtue, we will become more civil toward others.

For my first post in the Civility Project, I want to draw attention to a December 2013 piece by Brandon Ambrosino in The Atlantic titled, “Being Against Gay Marriage Doesn’t Make You a Homophobe.” The article’s subtitle clearly articulates Ambrosino’s main argument: “Some people just aren’t sure about marriage equality—but their reasoning isn’t necessarily a reflection of their character.” (This article and Ambrosino’s generous tone sparked the idea for the Civility Project.) Ambrosino is a gay man who advocates for full recognition of same-sex marriage. His willingness to acknowledge the moral character of his opponents comes as a breath of fresh air in a debate in which hard lines are becoming the norm. Ambrosino responds to a piece on The Huffington Post by Paul Raushenbush declaring anyone against gay marriage is anti-gay. Ambrosino writes:

As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay. That’s despite the fact that while some religious people don’t support gay marriage in a sacramental sense, many of them are in favor of same-sex civil unions and full rights for the parties involved. To be sure, most gay people, myself included, won’t be satisfied until our loving, monogamous relationships are graced with the word “marriage.” But it’s important to recall that many religious individuals do support strong civil rights for the gay members of their communities.

In  the article, Ambrosino concretely practices civility. He seeks to first understand his opponents’ positions—he wants to know their arguments and how they reached their conclusions. At the same time, Ambrosino is clear that he believes his opponents are wrong for not supporting gay marriage and he finds their arguments sorely lacking. He does not take civil discussion to mean we have to ignore our differences. In our interactions with people who disagree with us, we must remember to not demonize them simply because they think differently than we do. In an acrimonious environment, this restraint and generosity are hard to practice. Ambrosino rightly reminds us, “Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.” It is so much easier to dismiss and dehumanize.

Ambrosino’s article is not the kind of writing that will make most people happy, especially in the midst of such a heated debate. We like red meat. We like to read why we are right and virtuous and the other side is full of evil idiots. I saw both sides of the gay marriage debate use the recent Duck Dynasty kerfuffle as an opportunity to rally the troops and raise funds. I thankfully did see some willingness to understand the other’s position — i.e., exploring why some people would be hurt by Phil Robertson’s descriptions of homosexuality or why others would support Robertson’s call for a traditional understanding of marriage. But writings of that sort were not the norm. I saw far more works immediately digging trenches.

I’m not deluded to believe we won’t encounter thinking or people who are morally suspect. I merely hope we can follow Ambrosino’s example in not initially assuming someone has poor character because they disagree with us. He is right to call us to first give the other person the benefit of the doubt before labeling them a bigot or a degenerate. This kind of civil posture toward others requires character formation and practice. It also requires a community of people committed to practicing civility so that we might hold each other accountable.


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2014: The Year of Civility

I’ve decided to proclaim 2014 as the year of civility here at The Space Between My Ears. I want to highlight examples and writings that display respectful interactions between folks who disagree with each other about topics they deem important. We need to remind ourselves to see our neighbors as our neighbors and not as sub-human because they hold different values than we do. My hope is not to downplay our differences, but to draw attention to folks who find ways to truly listen to what others have to say, appreciate alternative positions, and respectfully disagree. Given that in the U.S. we have a midterm election in November, I know I need a booster shot of civility before the political rhetoric grows even more rancorous.

More than simply celebrating examples of civility, I hope and pray that by focusing on this important virtue, that I will become more civil toward others. I hope that I can truly listen with an intent to learn and first focus on areas of agreement before moving to disagreement. I probably won’t get to be a cable news pundit following this route, but I’m OK with that.

I also plan to read Richard Mouwe’s short book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Otherwise Uncivil WorldPerhaps it will be a book club feature at some point so that folks who are also interested in this book can read it in an online community.

I created a category, Civility Project, for easy access to the posts on the topic.

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Francis, the Rorschach Pope

(Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

A satirical blog post on Diversity Chronicle has caught the attention of many people. The post states the following at the close of the Third Vatican Council:

In a speech that shocked many, the Pope claimed “All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge. Like a loving father, we never condemn our children. Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice! For conservatives and liberals, even communists are welcome and have joined us. We all love and worship the same God.”

Snopes quickly debunked the article, which wasn’t difficult to do, since if there had been a Third Vatican Council, the world would have heard about it well prior to its close. These councils take years to complete and one would dominate headlines much in the same way that the election of a new pope does. Also, so many of the supposed declarations of the council—ordination of female priests, Catholicism no longer being strictly pro-life, etc.—directly contradict Roman Catholic teachings as well as statements that Francis has made this year.

Still, many people want a story like this to be true and believed that it was. Pope Francis’s shift toward inclusion has many people wishing he will rewrite Catholic dogma. Francis has become a sort of Rorschach Pope in which people see whatever they want to see in him. Because of his dramatic emphasis on compassion and active love, people assume he must believe all sorts of things, usually the things they believe themselves. I am reminded of American politicians who capture the imagination and people put all their views and hopes on these figures. I saw this with Barack Obama in 2008 prior to (and even after) he expressed his platform. Some liberal-minded folks saw him as standing for whatever they believed. I saw this phenomenon again in 2012 with some conservative voters and Rick Perry before he entered the race. Politicians wisely keep their mouths shut during this phase because once they say specific views, they risk alienating some of their supporters.

It has been fascinating to see the same projection placed upon Pope Francis. This projection has been odd as well because unlike American politicians beginning a presidential campaign, Francis has clearly articulated specific views. It’s not as if he’s been playing coy. As pontiff and throughout his vocation as priest, bishop, and cardinal before that, he has fully affirmed the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. True, he has emphasized the compassionate side of the Roman Catholic Church in ways that stand in contrast to his predecessors. This emphasis is most welcome and we cannot dismiss its importance. But as I argued earlier this year, Francis has not taken the Church in an entirely new theological direction—he has affirmed the Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage, and ordination, among other things. People rightly see the way he expresses the teachings of the Catholic Church as different. For example, in his interview with America Magazine, Francis claimed God focused on the whole person rather than merely the sin.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

This is a deeply compassionate statement and a wonderful challenge to Christians to be more welcoming, but Francis has not rewritten Catholic teaching on human sexuality. I applaud and am deeply challenged by Francis’ compassionate posture toward all people. I see Jesus Christ at work in him. His example compels me to behave similarly.

But I cannot assume because Francis has a more welcoming posture toward women in ministry that he is somehow changing ordination rules, no matter how much I would love to see the Catholic Church ordain female priests. If I were to make such an assumption, I would make Francis into my own image. The danger with such a move is that it renders his deeply prophetic witness mute. If Francis stands for all the things I stand for, what do I have to learn from him? I’m reminded of the quotation from Anne Lamott’s priest friend Tom, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Instead, when we allow Pope Francis to be himself, rather than a projection of our theological wishes, he becomes the gracious man that uncomfortably challenges our consumerism. When he blesses and kisses the disfigured man, he challenges us to cross our boundaries of comfort in order to love our neighbors. When he washes the feet of prisoners, he calls into question our prejudices of which people are worth our love and embrace. And because he does all these things concretely, he challenges our good intentions—intentions that support compassion and inclusion in the abstract but do nothing to drive us out to celebrate our birthdays with people staying in a homeless shelter.

Elizabeth Tenety wrote one of my favorite pieces of commentary on Francis’s young papacy: “Like Pope Francis? You’ll Love Jesus.” In it she articulates the source of Francis’s radical views on grace, forgiveness, and love. That source is Jesus Christ. And if Francis has become a Rorshach test in which we see whatever we want to see in him, then he stands in good company. We’ve been doing this to Jesus for millennia. He gets co-opted for just about any cause, whether it’s free market capitalism, socialism, democracy, feudalism, absolute monarchism, or anarchy. Projecting our causes onto Jesus reduces him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is far more challenging and prophetic than any of the projections we have created. It would seem wise to let him and Francis speak for themselves.

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