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October 2012

Religious liberty is also about being free from ecclesiastical authority

As the Omaha archdiocese begins placing banners about religious liberty, they should keep in mind that religious liberty, as understood in American history, was also freedom from ecclesiastical authority trying to impose itself on people.  To quote from a 1948 sermon by my predecessor, the Rev. Harold Janes:

The Protestant insists upon liberty for himself because he believes in the inherent value of religious liberty.  He is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God’s truth.  Each group sees a part of the truth.  “We know in part,” as Paul said.  Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God’s purpose for our lives.  When John Robinson said farewell to the Pilgrims as they left Leyden, Holland, he told them he believed that “The Lord had more truth and light to break forth out of his holy word.”  Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty.


Not By Power, Nor By Might

Not By Power, Nor By Might

Job 42:1-6

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

28 October 2012



    One thousand and seven hundred years ago today Constantine road into battle bearing the sign of the cross. The battle was at the Milvian Bridge, which crosses the Tiber north of Rome. His opponent, Maxentius occupied the city and was defending the river. In the ensuing battle, Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber. Constantine entered Rome and was declared Emperor. The next year it would become the official law of the Roman Empire that Christianity was a tolerated religion, whereas just a few years before Christians had endured one of the worst persecutions in our history. Constantine did much to promote and advantage the new religion, and it later became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Of course, it has been the dominant religion of Europe and Europe's colonies ever since. It is possible that all subsequent Christian history in Europe relies on the Battle at the Milvian Bridge.

    But was this battle a victory for the Christian faith? Many wonder – did Rome convert to Christianity or did Christianity convert to Rome? For what developed in the wake of Constantine the Great was an imperial Christianity which wielded the power of the state. Church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch writes that "the new imperial Church asserted itself as the one version of Christian truth for the world to follow." And that truth was tied intimately to military force. Is there not great paradox in the fact that Constantine, Emperor of Rome, road into battle under the sign of the cross? The cross was an instrument of torture and execution used by the empire to dispense with trouble makers. What others had interpreted as a symbol of sacrifice and God's grace and forgiveness became a symbol of military victory. MacCulloch writes, "For Constantine, this God was not gentle Jesus meek and mild, commanding that enemies should be loved and forgiven seventy times seven; he was a God of Battles."

    For over a thousand years after the time of Constantine the Great, that imperial Christianity continued to grow and to develop. Not everything that occurred in those years was bad. There was great spiritual wisdom and personal piety and brilliant advances in theology, worship, and art. But there were also crusades and inquisitions and an incredible record of abuses.

    This led, in time, to the protest of reformers. Today is Reformation Sunday, the day every year when we remember and celebrate Martin Luther's act of nailing the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg chapel, the act which publicly commenced the Protestant Reformation and launched the theological traditions of which we are a part. It is interesting that this year these remembrances coincide. For much that Luther protested against is what Constantine initiated.

    But Luther and the Protestant tradition are not free of Constantinianism. Protestants continued to align themselves too closely with the power of the state and even set up theocracies in places like Geneva and Massachusetts. The dark side of our own denominational heritage is that our Puritan ancestors in Salem burned witches.

    On Reformation Sunday in 1948, my predecessor in this pulpit, the Rev. Harold Janes, preached a sermon entitled "Why We Are Protestants." In that sermon he affirmed Protestant principles of salvation through faith, religious liberty, the priesthood of all believers, and that the religious life can be lived within normal family and work relationships. On religious liberty, he proclaimed


The Protestant insists upon liberty for himself because he believes in the inherent value of religious liberty. He is certain that no one religious group or order has a complete insight into all of God's truth. Each group sees a part of the truth. "We know in part," as Paul said. Only as we share our truth with each other is it possible for us to have a growing knowledge of God's purpose for our lives. When John Robinson said farewell to the Pilgrims as they left Leyden, Holland, he told them he believed that "The Lord had more truth and light to break forth out of his holy word." Only as we have freedom to search for that truth, without ecclesiastical or political restrictions, will the Lord be able to reveal that truth unto us, and so the true Protestant declares himself in favor of complete religious liberty.


    Rev. Janes placed us firmly in opposition to any imperial Christianity which declares itself "the one version of Christian truth for the world to follow." Instead, we believe that each of us sees only in part and when we share our insights with one another then together we grow in knowledge. This remains as true for us in 2012 as it was in 1948.


    And so it is with these historical reflections on liberty, authority, power, and faith that we arrive also at the close of the Book of Job. This month I've been preaching on Job and last week our children beautifully performed a drama based upon God's speech from the whirlwind. Let's review the story.

    God and Satan enter into a wager to test Job's righteousness. God believes that Job will remain faithful, even if his blessings are taken away and great suffering is inflicted upon him. That is precisely what happens. This bit of the Book of Job comes from an even more ancient folktale. But the author of the biblical book takes this folk tale and from it develops a profound exploration of core theological claims of our faith tradition.

    In the midst of his suffering, Job is visited by three close friends. After seven days of mourning Job speaks and curses the day of his birth. He calls into question the moral order of the universe and demands that God appear, answer his questions, and vindicate him. Job's three friends, in a series of speeches, defend conventional wisdom and offer up a lot of platitudes. Job does not find these platitudes to be comforting, and he rebukes his friends.

    I have argued that Job stands at the edge of our Judeo-Christian theological tradition prompting us to reexamine our core theological claims. The Book of Job rejects easy, inherited answers; it speaks in many voices, offering multiple interpretations; therefore, it compels us to enter into our own search for meaning.

    God does eventually appear – in a whirlwind. Some take God's very appearance to be a vindication of Job, but what God says from the whirlwind does not answer Job's questions. Nowhere does this book answer the central question of why innocent people suffer. Rather, God beautifully and poetically speaks about the cosmos – about stars and constellations, about clouds and rainstorms and hailstorms, about ostriches and lions and horses, and about wild mythic beasts – the Behemoth and the Leviathan. What God reveals is the wild beauty of nature. It does not appear to be a nature centered on humanity or deeply concerned with our moral issues. It is wild and creative and free.

    And in response we get two short statements from Job. In the first he basically says that he has no more to say. Then he does speak again in the passage read earlier.

    The possible interpretations of God's speeches and Job's responses are so varied that even trying to summarize all of them would require a seminar, not a sermon. Scholars can't even agree on the proper translation of Job's response. Translations vary in ways that dramatically alter the possible interpretations. James Crenshaw, for instance, writes, "Throughout this reply, we cannot tell whether Job is submissive, sarcastic, indignant, or obsequious." Each one of those options would present wildly different ways of interpreting and applying this book to our lives.

    So, if we cannot discover one clear and convincing way to read this response, do we simply ignore the book as too confusing to be of any use? Not, I think, if we follow the lead of my predecessor the Rev. Janes and his claim that none of us possesses the whole truth, but rather we grow in faith when we hear multiple perspectives. Let me contend that because the Book of Job is open-ended, it invites our free, creative engagement with the story in our own pursuit of truth and meaning. That there are multiple possibilities is a strength, therefore, and not a weakness.

    Among the many possibilities, theologian Catherine Keller believes that the truth revealed in the whirlwind is that God creates "a living, whirling, open-system of a world." A world that is wild. And this wild, chaotic world is "intensely alive," a place where new life is always happening. "Therefore," she writes,


even for one as tragically hurt as Job, new life can take place. This may only be possible because he . . . has grieved and raged and confronted the meaning of life.


    This wild openness which compels our own participation in the creative process, gives us clues about God. God is not like Caesar, giving orders that we must follow. God is "the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire" [Whitehead]. What God wills is not submissive obedience, but freedom, creativity, grace, and an affirmation of new life.

    And so the Book of Job comes to an end. God rebukes the three friends of Job for the things they have wrongly said. God invites Job to pray for them. When Job prays, God forgives the friends and restores the fortunes of Job. What God rewards in Job is not his response to suffering. God rewards Job's gracious, forgiving, and loving act toward his friends.

    Then Job's siblings and more friends gather in order to share a meal together in sympathy and comfort. Each guest gives Job gold, something with which to begin again. Job lives a long and grace-filled life.

    The Book of Job, which began with a disturbing wager, included shocking curses, terrifying suffering, an appearance of God, and the celebration of the wild power of the sea monster, now closes with these simple, domestic acts of felicity – praying for one another, visiting the bereaved, a shared meal, the giving of gifts. These are what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called "the tender elements of the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love."

Not by power,
nor by military might,
nor obedience to rules,
nor because they possess the one truth for all humanity,
but by

Reformation Sunday Sermon Cut Piece

This section, which had seemed central to my preparations earlier in the week, has been excised from the final draft, but I wanted to share it nonetheless:

Among the many possibilities, this is the interpretation I offer for you to consider today.

             Gerald Janzen, who was a Professor at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, interprets the Book of Job as rejecting the conventional view that there is a strict moral governance of the world.  In this view, good people receive blessings and bad people are cursed, and everything seems to follow this strict law.  Janzen believes, instead, that there is a felicity to the world, a freedom and a grace to it. 

When God speaks from the whirlwind he cannot vindicate Job in the way that Job wants to be vindicated because the world does not work that way.  Instead, God’s speaking to Job honors Job’s integrity and his humanity.  Humans are not presented as one creature among many, but as those whom God enters into conversation with.  The questions God poses, then, become challenges “to take up the divine image through engagement” with the world.  God is inviting us to explore the cosmos and pursue the answers to these questions.  God is inviting us to be responsible agents, not passive recipients, of this world.  For Janzen, the Book of Job is the creation of a new humanity.

I was helped in this interpretation by watching our children prepare for the drama.  During our very first rehearsal, when Stephen would read one of the questions posed by God, rather than remaining silent or humbled, our children would offer up answers.  And sometimes they actually knew the proper scientific response to the question.  Humanity has taken up the challenge posed by the voice from the whirlwind, and now even our children know facts about sea monsters and the movement of the stars.


Anti-black attitudes affecting the presidential race

An academic paper reveals the prevalence (I was surprised that the levels were so high) and their impact upon the presidential race (this did not surprise me).

The	proportion	of	Americans	expressing	explicit	anti‐Black	attitudes	held	
steady between 47.6% in 2008 and 47.3% in 2010, and increased slightly and
significantly to 50.9% in 2012. The proportion of Americans explicitly expressing
pro‐Black attitudes declined slightly from 46.7% in 2008 to 45.6% in 2010 and
41.9% in 2012
Consistent	with	past	research	(Sniderman	&	Carmines,	1997;	Tesler	&	Sears,	
2010b),	explicit	racism	was	more	common	among	Republicans	than	among	
Democrats in all years. In 2008, the proportion of people expressing anti‐Black
attitudes was 31% among Democrats, 49% among independents, and 71% among
Republicans, highly significant differences (p<.001). In 2012, the proportion of
people expressing anti‐Black attitudes was 32% among Democrats, 48% among
independents, and 79% among Republicans, again highly significant differences


An anthropologist studies evangelicals

A church member gave me a copy of a paper from the journal Current Anthropology entitled "A Hyperreal God and Modern Belief: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind" by T. M. Luhrmann.  Here is the abstract:

This article argues that there is an epistemological style associated with much American evangelical Christianity that is strikingly different from that found in never-secular Christianities.  This epistemological style is characterized by a playful, self-consciously paradoxical framing of belief-claims in which God's reality is both clearly affirmed and qualified.  One can describe this style as using an "epistemological double register" in which God is described as very real -- and as doubted, in some way.  The representation of God generated by this complex style is a magically real or hyper-real God, both more real than everyday reality and in some way fictive.  The article goes on to argue that these epistemological features can be understood as generated by and generative of particular theories of mind.  The article argues for the development of an anthropological theory of mind in which at least four dimensions are important: boundedness, interiority, sensorium, and epistemic stance.

Luhrmann claims that evangelicals because they live in a pluralistic "deeply shaped by the awareness of doubt' have developed a "deliberately playful, imaginative, fantasy-filled experience of God" that is unlike anything previously seen in traditional cultures.  This is a supernaturalism that is "both vividly, concretely real and, at the same time, as playful as a kitten."

Luhrmann, who spent months engaging with members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, cites many examples of this playfulness.  One of the most vivid is the pastor who encouraged church members to pour a cup of coffee for God and act as if they were sharing that morning ritual.  God becomes the imaginary friend.  Luhrmann argues that this playfulness requires the congregants to "straddle multiple epistemic frames simultaneously."

In a section I found some affinity with, partly because it draws from C. S. Lewis (as much I did not find affinity with the theology revealed in most of the article), to experience God, one has to "live that romance, to recover the imaginative vividness of childhood, and through that fantasy to feel alive once more."  Or "You must go on a quest for God that is foolish and irrational not only in the eyes of the world but in your own."  Notice the use of "quest," which I obviously enjoy.  I too have defended the irrational aspects of faith, but more from the perspectives of Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Hauerwas, etc.

A concise conclusion is drawn, "It was as if people overreached to make what they reached for more real."  Jamesian over-belief?

Luhrmann writes that the playfulness has developed because the congregants have to convince themselves to overcome the doubts that obviously confront them in a modern, pluralistic society.  They know they have doubts, so the hyper-real, fantastical playfulness is supposed to move them beyond those doubts.  She writes, convincingly that that is not the attitude of "never-secular Christianities" who have never had reasons to doubt their belief claims.

In the comments that follow the article, there is consensus that this is an important paper, even when the responders have some questions.  One comment, by Rebecca J. Lester makes an interesting point, that what is at issue is not doubt in God, but "doubt in one's capacity to fully atune to God."

In the replies to the comments, Luhrmann makes another interesting point, "I do think that the dramatic and deliberately cultivated range in the use of God concepts by evangelicals may serve a functional role in helping to protect them from the skepticism they feel around them."

God and the World

Tomorrow I'm preaching on the ending of the Book of Job.  Also in my thoughts are Reformation Sunday and the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  As I was researching, I encountered a great Alfred North Whitehead quote which sent me back to Process and Reality.

The quote is "The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar."  This comes in the closing chapter of the great work, a chapter entitled "God and World."

Whitehead argues against the traditional images of God's power -- as imperial ruler, as personification of moral energy, as the ultimate philosophical principle.  Instead, he advocates the view revealed in Jesus.  This view "dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world.  Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals."

Whitehead rejects the notion of God using coercive power and, instead, advocates that God uses persuasive power.  God, then, is "the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire."  God and the World remain in relationship, affecting one another, advancing novelty for each other.

As a freshman I found Whitehead's view of God to be wonderful and have continued to delight in it.  It was beautiful to return to this chapter this week.

The closing sentences of the book are tantalizing, in that I never fully grasp them, but enjoy the beautiful intuitions they are attempting to express:

Throughout the perishing occasions in the life of each temporal Creature, the inward source of distaste or of refreshment, the judge arising out of the very nature of things, redeemer or goddess of mischief, is the transformation of Itself, everlasting in the Being of God.  In this way, the insistent craving is justified--the insistent craving that zest for existence be refreshed by the ever-present, unfading importance of our immediate actions, which perish and yet live for evermore.

Black Elk - Neihardt Park

Yesterday I participated in a funeral in Tekamah, Nebraska, which is a small town about an hour north along US 75.  It was a cold, wet, gray, blustery day.  The burial was atop a hill overlooking the Missouri River valley, and it was very cold.  [Note: this photo is from later in the day atop a different hill in Blair.]


On the way back to town I stopped at the Black Elk-Neihardt Park in Blair, Nebraska.  The website describes the park as "a place where Black Elk Speaks is realized in time and space, a place to contemplate the mystery of existence."


At the crown of the park sits the Tower of the Four Winds, a Christianized version of Black Elk's vision of the two paths, the sacred hoop, and the four winds.  It is a beautiful piece.  I too feel great spiritual power in Black Elk's vision and have described it as "the eschatological vision of the Plains."  I too want to merge it with my Christian theology and identity.  It was interesting to see someone's else take on the same themes.

The commemorative plaque at the base includes these words:

The universal Messiah with outstretched arms blessing all people stands within the tree of life.  Around them is an ever-widening circle of light forming the hoop of the world which holds all living things.