Theology Feed

Adams, Liberal Christianity, Moral Virtue, and Democracy

John Adams
I'm rushing through Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy but am woefully behind in my blogging I want to do about it.  So, let's begin trying to catch up.

The first full chapter was on John Adams as a paradigm example of the development of liberal Christianity out of Puritan Calvinism in the 18th century and how that liberal Christianity was connected to the development of democracy.

Back in college I researched and wrote some on this topic and now want to find those papers.  I remember reading about Adams' pastor Lemuel Briant and Briant's role in introducing Adams to John Locke.  Though I had read this, I've never encountered the thought again anywhere, so was glad to see a discussion of Briant in this book.  I had also written a college paper exploring how a phrase of Locke's had entered the Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention.  That led me to the Cambridge Platonists, who also are discussed in this chapter.  Dissidents on both sides of the pond were reading and interacting with each other as liberal Christianity and democracy were developing hand-in-hand.

Part of what spoke to me as I read this chapter was the importance of the moral virtues.  My reading solidified thoughts I've been having that in the unvirtuous Age of Trump we must focus upon the cultivation of the virtues.

She writes that Adams grew up in a home with a "lifestyle of simplicity, modesty, and charity, and the regular enforcement of Christian order at home."  Adams did not continue the strict Calvinism of his father but she boils down his moral ethic as "one that valued the common good over self-interest, extolled the pursuit of knowledge as a way to worship God and his creation, and insisted on both the divine right of private judgment and the related, God-given 'dignity of human nature.'"  Yes, we are in sore need of those virtues.

Another valuable thought--"Human limitations are woefully apparent--and this is why liberty matters.  It is the necessary precondition for the fight against sin."

18th century liberal Christianity developed three rules for right reasoning:

The first rule was for Christians to acknowledge that they are not yet in possession of truth.  Call it humility, call it partiality, call it fallibility, it is objectively true from a Reformation Christian perspective that no one can claim to possess the whole truth any more than they can claim to be free of sin.  Therefore all must continue to seek more truth.

The second rule taught the critical thinking necessary to discern between doctrines.  Truth-seekers must be open-minded, honest, and sincere.  They resist appeals to authority, tradition, or superstition, thinking for themselves and being both candid about what they think and willing to consider all claims.

The third rule of right reasoning directed the Christian to consider the effects of a doctrine as indicative of its degree of validity.

Elaborating the final point (which according to the narrative in the book ultimately becomes Jamesian Pragmatism in the late 19th century) she writes, "in the American Reformation, the right of private judgment pointed to a duty of public expression too, evaluating the results of holding this or that belief by measure of the virtue or nonvirtue such a belief produced."

As I get time this weekend, I'll try to catch up with further blogging.

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of GodStand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A searing read, this theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin with an analysis of America's founding myth of Angl0-Saxon exceptionalism and supremacy and how the black faith tradition points to a future beyond this violent myth.

There were times in part one, the analysis of the myth, that I disagreed with nuances of the historical interpretation, but the book soars in the second part as it engages the black faith tradition both as critique and as hope.

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The Freedom of God

An excerpt from Kelly Brown Douglas' Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, a theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and other young African-Americans.

The transcendent freedom of God is essential for a black faith born on the soil of the oppressor's faith, directed presumably to the same God.  It was an awareness of God's transcendent freedom that enabled enslaved men and women to know that the God their enslavers spoke of was not truly God.  They recognized that their enslaver's God was as bound to the whips and chains of slavery as were their own black bodies.  Their enslaver's God was for all intents and purposes a white slave master sitting on a throne in heaven keeping black people in their place as chattel.  The black enslaved knew that this was not the God who encountered them in their free African lives.  They were certain, furthermore, that this was not the God they encountered in the Bible.  The God of their enslavers simply was not free.  The God of the enslaved, which they soon understood to be the God of the Bible, was free.  Doubtless, it was the African religious heritage of the enslaved that facilitated their profound understanding of God's freedom and transcendence.

Cobb Quotes

From John Cobb's Jesus' Abba

The modern scientistic vision leads to concluding that there is no such thing as reason or thought [because of determinism], no distinction between truth and falsehood, and nothing that could be called 'meaning.'  Most adherents of the modern worldview do not press consistency very far in this direction.  There is, of course, no empirical evidence for these conclusions.  They follow from a rarely examined metaphysics.


I believe that Abba is in every cell in the body calling it to do its part for its own well-being and for the well-being of the whole.  When we pray for healing for ourselves, we are aligning ourselves with Abba's working within us.  We are also directly affecting our bodies, encouraging the cells to be open to what Abba wants to do in them and with them.


Mutual respect cannot mean that we hold that every opinion is worthy of equal respect.


A good education involves a continual expansion of awareness of possibilities not previously imagined.

Jesus' Abba

Jesus Abba: The God Who Has Not FailedJesus Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed by John B. Cobb Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Succinctly and in a confessional style John Cobb gives a passionate, intelligent presentation of of the key theological and philosophical positions of process theology. This might be a great introduction to that school for those who don't know it.

My favourite line fits paradoxcially with the subtitle. In a discussion of prayer and divine power Cobb writes, "My guess is that God often fails."

Process thought has been arguing for more than a century against traditional notions of divine power, and you can sense some frustration on Cobb's part that these arguments still have to be made. Just yesterday I saw a post of a friend's on Facebook angry about what he perceived as God's role in a friend's illness and why some were suggesting prayer. I wrote that I had a different understanding of prayer and rejected that understanding of divine power. I agree with Cobb that the great mass of humanity would be liberated into new thriving and greater, problem-solving community if we would just rid ourselves of bad metaphysics, particularly the Greco-Roman notion of divine power that is actually alien to the Judaeo-Christian notion.

I once heard Cobb asked if someone had to learn all the details of process theology, and he answered no that it was sufficient "if you believe that God is not a jerk." Though he doesn't use that line in this volume, that's what it is about--Jesus' vision of a God who is loving parent of an infant and not a jerk.

And so divine power is the lure, as Whitehead called it, or "the call forward" in Cobb's phrase. God is that Spirit which calls us forward to the ideals. Anyone sitting in my congregations will realize that I use this language all the time--without getting into in-depth exigesis of process philosophy and its sometimes difficult terminology.

This volume is probably the last published work of a wise, compassionate soul, his final hopeful message for the world.

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The Much More

Enjoyed this paragraph from John Cobb's Jesus' Abba in my reading today:

In these and many other instances people realize that the world contains possibilities that cannot be measured in terms of degrees of pleasure, enjoyment, or satisfaction.  There is something more, something much more, a treasure or many treasures that belong to a different dimension of experience.  These moments of blessedness feel like a gift.  It is natural to give thanks.

Wendy Farley Quotes

"Redemption is fundamentally about power," writes Wendy Farley.  "It is the power that begins to unbind every form of bondage and to unblock everything that resists that flow of the Divine Eros through creation."

"Christianty and Buddhism are both built around an intuition that we are strangers and dangers to ourselves.  We act in ways that are completely inappropriate to our desire for happiness.  We are bound to misery that we conceal from ourselves by a thousand distractions and comforts that further numb us to the reality of our situation.  Our capacities to give and receive love are bitterly damaged.  All of these are ways of saying that our fundamental condition is one of bondage and illusion."

"The journey inward is dangerous and painful."

"Much of human life can be understood as addiction to patterns of life that ease pain but are physically and spiritually debilitating. They give the appearance of help but conceal their price."

"During Advent and Holy Week more than at any other time we are exposed to oxymoronic symbols of divine power that constitute a residue of Christianity's great wisdom."

"Deep compassion for all beings needs roots in something deeper than ethical principles."

"Nothing happens to our spirit, good and bad, that is not written in the details of our body.  Nothing happens to our body that is not at the same time a spiritual event."

"Darkness does not arise because we are terrible sinners or because God has abandoned us.  Darkness is the dismantling of the habits of egocentrism that have been so destructive to us."

"During periods of darkness, the virtues that were easy for us become impossible; the vocations that we loved are now confusing, dull, even a kind of torment.  The darkness of these assaults is only intensified by the desire to be good, loving, faithful people."

"The powers of the soul are released bit by bit as we practice them."

"The practice of patience helps to expose how raw and tender we are against everything that thwarts us.  But if patience is to be a virtue, a power, it must not be confused with self-deception or passivity.  It is not the repression of anger or bitterness."

"Patience, perhaps even more than other virtues, is extremely vulnerable to confusion with its 'near enemies.'"

"We are God-bearers.  As our trust in this reality becomes more stable, we will need to be less afraid."

Beauty beyond all knowing and naming

"Human consciousness plunges into depths to which we normally have little direct access. We might think of consciousness through the image of a spiral," theologian Wendy Farley begins her book The Wounding and Healing of Desire.  "Spiraling down deeper, we find the places where the ingrained habits of our spirit dwell . . . deeper still we come to an incandescent fire that has the power to burn away every obstacle to love.  When, like Dante, we pass through this sweet, excruciating fire we come to the great emptiness where the divine image burns beyond light and darkness in a purity and luminescence that nothing can stain."

This volume seems to be a meditation upon suffering and the spiritual ways of healing.  This summer I've mostly read books from areas of Christian theology of which I was only marginally (if at all) acquainted.  I've previously read two of Farleys books.  Her Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy we read in my undergraduate Evil and Suffering course and the book was transformational in my own thinking on the topic.  Gathering Those Driven Away I read a few years ago and it shaped an Advent sermon series on desire.  So, I'm reading this book because I enjoy Farley's writing and thinking.

This book is a little different.  More reflective and less focused.  At first this didn't engage me as much, but over the few chapters I've read, the style is connecting with me.  She wrote this as she was recovering from an illness and was listening to a lot of folk music, which she takes as a source of profound theology.

This beauty beyond all knowing and naming pulls us out of ourselves and toward ourselves and in doing so pulls us most intimately and scathingly toward the world.  It is impossible to be drawn to the beauty of Christ without entering more vividly into the beauty of everything else.

I'm in the final week of my sabbatical.  After 11 weeks of not working I am both eager and a little grieved to be returning to work.  It has been difficultly strange not to do what I love doing for so many weeks, but also a wonderful time of simply being and not focusing on a list of professional tasks to accomplish.

Yesterday we finished the patio installation and now look forward to design and landscaping and decorating in the coming months and next spring.  Today I did yard work and am, this afternoon, cooking a fun meal of old comfort foods--the beans are even now cooking, and how I delight in that smell.

Tomorrow I will head to Red Cloud to visit the Willa Cather site.  One more stop in my sabbatical endeavor to visit some of the locations in the region that I hadn't so far.  I've been thinking about the soundtrack for the drive.  Definitely some Emmylou Harris because of her song "My Antonia."

Song quotes

Here are some of the quotes and excerpts I marked from Choan-Seng Song's Third-Eye Theology.

Salvation is the external event in which God's pain-love succeeds in locating homeless people and winning them back to God.


Where there are people, I want to assert, there theology must be.  Where human suffering is, there theology must find itself.  Where human joy is, there theology must be also.  Theology does not take place in a vacuum.  Theology is an event.  It happens.  What else could it be?


Theology is not to be learned but to be lived.


If the cross cannot meet the lotus's thrust into a sea of suffering, how can we say the cross is God's redemption for people in all places and at all times?


Evangelization is an act of empowering people with the power to suffer unto hope.  It is an act which makes people aware that God does not condone social and political evil, that God does not accept suffering as the inevitable result of fate.


Strictly speaking, we cannot speak of the resurrection life as "life after death."  Rather it must be "life after life.". . . The resurrection . . . has removed this deadly obstacle to life. 


The life of Jesus from the beginning to the end is now perceived as the life of transfiguration.  What they began to see in their postresurrection encounter in Galilee must have been the Jesus who had been transfigured from a lowly carpenter into the herald of the good news of God's salvation, from an ordinary human being into the way, the truth, and the life, from a lonely religious teacher into a bold opponent of the powerful religious hierarchy of his day, and from an insignificant man of an oppressed race into a towering figure standing without fear before the oppressor's tribunal.


How then is it possible for the church to be the church of God if it refuses to take sides when a social and political situation demands it?  


God in the Bible is the God of surprises.  God always has a surprise in store for those who believe.  A God who has ceased to surprise us does not interest us.  Such a God is too predictable to forgive and forgive again, to redeem and re-redeem, to create and re-create.  A predictable God cannot raise Christ from the dead. 


The power of the resurrection makes us into "the living extension" of God's creating power.