Tag Archives: United Methodist Church

Open Theology, Clement, Stoicism, and Prevenient Grace

There are many parallels between Clement of Alexandria’s theology and John Wesley’s. In fact, there was a study that I read and recommend, A Definitive Study of Evidence Concerning John Wesley’s Appropriation of the Thought of Clement of Alexandria by Neil D. Anderson.  Today, I want to briefly look at what John Wesley and Arminian theologians call preparatory, or preventing grace.  Prevenient grace is where “Wesley believed that God places a little spark of divine grace within us that enables us to recognize and accept God’s justifying grace.”  My apologies in advance for the long quotes followed below.  

“So there is no absurdity in philosophy having been given by Divine.  Providence as a preparatory discipline for the perfection which is by Christ; unless philosophy is ashamed at learning from Barbarian knowledge how to advance to truth.”

– The Stromata (Carpets/Miscellanies), Book 6, Chapter 17

This selection is one but many where Clement refers to the philosophies of the Gentiles as objects of preparation. As such, as Clement argues, these ideas and practices are in no way equal to the revelation that the Scriptures passed down to the Church attest to. On the subject of the Stoics, Clement of Alexandria was a bit critical of their doctrine. “Thence also the Stoics have laid down the doctrine, that living agreeably into nature is the end, fitly altering the name of god into nature; since also nature extends to plants, to seeds, to trees, to stones.”- The Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 19.

Now, the subject matter, the literary context where Clement is talking about the Stoics confusing nature for god is what’s crucial. If nature is god (similar to process naturalism), god is an impersonal force. In the paragraph before, Clement is discussing Plato, and how Plato says that happiness is to be in the likeness of God. But Plato, according to Clement’s account, plagiarized Moses, and so it’s really only through the Exodus God that Moses wrote about that we can know personally who to (YHWH) and how (the Ten Commandments) to participate in the life of the Creator. “For the law calls assimilation following; an such a following to the utmost of its power assimilates. ‘Be,’ says the Lord, ‘ merciful and pitiful, as your heavenly Father is pitiful. [CoA citing Luke 6:36]’- ibid.

Following Clement’s argument, CoA is arguing that to partake in the Triune God’s life is to obey and be on one accord with the One True God of the Exodus. In his commentary on the Decalogue, on the first commandment, Clement explains there is but one God who revealed Godself to humanity in the deliverance of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.  YHWH freely defines Godself as a Loving and Just Divinity by showing pathetic acts of mercy.  It is in this self-revelation of the divine that humanity knows God in God’s pathos, the self-humiliating journey from the throne of heaven to the world.

Not only is the Exodus Creator God willing to demonstrate God’s holiness through acts of self-giving and self-revealing acts, God is awesomely generous.  God’s grace, as the Gospels say, is like the Sun, that shines on the just and  unjust.  For Clement, Truth has revealed himself in the Logos.  Speaking to the “Greek preparatory culture” since Clement was located in Alexandria, the Greek speaking city of Roman Egypt, Clement compares the salvific work of the Good Shepherd who not only takes “care of sheep, but the care of herds, and breeding of horses, and dogs, and bee-craft.”  While all of these philosophies differ, they can be useful for life. Now, question is how does Clement define “philosophy.”  They are in his words “whatever has been well said by each of those sects, which teach righteousness along with a science pervaded by piety,” and more importantly, Clement stresses, “But such conclusions of human reasonings as men have cut away and falsified, I would never call divine.”

Two important notes: first, Clement says that what ever is beneficial to Christian holy praxis, these philosophies are worthy.  However, these truths and practices are not to be understood as universal or binding, never to be called divine, or ever on par with Scripture.  These philosophies are glimpses of indirect contact with God,”in the way showers fall on the good land, and on the dunghill.” (above quotes taken from,The Stromata/The Carpets Book 1, Chapter 7).  The difference between the God as self-revealed, personal, and covenantal living with God’s people in the Promised and Athenian sophists speculating on a dungheap is great.  For example, take Clement’s critical appropriation of the Stoics, once more, “Now the Stoics say that God, like the soul, is essentially body and spirit.  You will find explicitly in all their writings.  Do not consider at present their allegories as the gnostic [Christian mystical] truth. presents them; whether they show one thing, and mean another, like dexterous athletes.  Well, they say that God pervades all being; while we [Christians] call Him solely Maker, and Maker by the Word,  They [the Stoics] were misled by what is said in the book of Wisdom: ‘ He pervades and passes through all by reason of His purity,’ since they did not understand that this was said of Wisdom, which was the first of the creation of God.” (Stromata/Carpets, Book 5, Chapter 14).

So Clement continues the line that the Greeks, even the Stoics, badly plagiarized concepts from Scriptures.  While the Stoics saw an impersonal force of nature throughout everything, Clement argues to say that it is the work of the Logos, the Wisdom of God.  An impersonal force cannot share life or any of its attributes with creation.  This ancient version of what we now call  process naturalism. This is why Clement, like a few other Church Fathers had to radically redefine ideas like impassibility.  God is covenantally and dynamically sovereign over Godself and the world, is in control of God’s emotions, but God also chooses to use passions to accomplish God’s mission in the world: salvation.  I will save Clement’s thoughts on grace, wrath and atonement for another post.  On God’s happiness, Clement says,

“And for this reason we rightly do not sacrifice to God, who, needing nothing supplies all men with all things; but we glorify Him who gave Himself in sacrifice for us, we also sacrificing ourselves; from that which needs nothing to that which needs nothing, and to that which is impassible from that which is impassible.  For in our salvation alone God delights.  We do not therefore, and with reason too, offer sacrifice to Him who is not overcome by pleasures […] The Deity neither is, then, in want of aught, nor loves pleasure, or gain, or money being full, and supplying all thing to everything that has received being and has wants.And neither by sacrifices nor offerings, nor on the other hand by glory and honor, is the Deity won over; nor is He influenced by any such things but He appears only to excellent and good men, who will never betray justice for threatened fear, nor by the promise of considerable gifts.”-

 

Stromata/Carpets, Book 7, Chapter 3

The Triune God is not some self-glorifying Johnny Bravo as Piper and the New Calvinism teaches, neither is God the recipient of all of human experiences as forms of process theism teach.  Rather God freely determines Godself, whose freedom and covenantal natural when God reveals Godself to us, operates as the source of what Clement calls “the self-determination of the soul.” Because “believing and obeying are in” our [the Christian mystics’] power, works always out of neighborly love, so that their neighbors may experience goodness, and become good themselves.  The person who is justified in Christ first rules over herself, and by partaking in the true, shared life of the Trinity, becomes a most moved mover and shaker co-creating a more just society with the God of the Exodus [Clement gives the example of Moses, specifically in politics] (ibid).  In conclusion, in order to understand what true justice is, and the purpose of social justice, humanity must have Justice revealed to them

Solidarity Over Charity: Social Justice Christianity 101

English: "Social Justice," founded b...

English: “Social Justice,” founded by Father Coughlin, sold on important street corners and intersections. New York City Medium: 1 negative: nitrate; 2 1/4 × 2 1/4 inches or smaller. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

THIS IS MY CONTRIBUTION TO THE DESPISED ONES SYNCHROBLOG: solidarity, social justice, and the American Dream!

Perhaps one of the hot topics last week was the issue of Christianity and social justice. Its an underlying issue on when it comes to the definition of what it means to be an evangelical. Aside from Rachel Held Evans and her critics, evangelical Christian Professor Roger Olson posted his beliefs the other day, defining why he is an evangelical: Why and How I am a Confessing Evangelical: A Response to Al Mohler. Mohler is a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, to give this some context, and some SBC leaders (not all), have a habit of playing gatekeepers of who is in and who is out, while ignoring the importance of nuance and context. At the same time, I agree with some thinkers like Denny Burke, that it is important to set boundaries. Unlike C.S. Lewis, I do not believe in “secret Christians” where we can look at our neighbors and friends who haven’t believed on Jesus and call what they do Christianity. I think that is a disservice to our neighbors first and foremost, and for anyone who does hold that view, I see it as a colonizing gaze imposing ourselves on that person’s practices. It may seem like a compliment, but it is condescending at best, imperialist at worst.

My purpose today is to start a conversation about what Social Justice Christianity is for BOTH those who are unfamiliar as well as those who THINK they know but really don’t and resort to all sorts of false assumptions. For starters, I have qualms with the terms social justice, it does have it’s use, but it has become a catch all phrase for anyone who wants to take up a cause. It’s too general and abstract of a term, and so I like to turn to particularity (as I normally do), and prefer the term Christian Justice, since this is the position where I stand. Under the umbrella of Christian Justice, I am also committed to economic,racial, and gender justice. I do not have the usual liberal progressive conversion story where one is raised as a white evangelical/fundamentalist, goes to college or some trip, and then has an experience where they start on the road to Social Justice Christianity/Justice-Oriented Christianity. No, from a young age, I believe 3 or 4, it was in the living with my brother that we learned from our mother the Sermon on the Mount, as well as Jesus’ command which he said was the greatest of all the of the commandments, as well as the summary of the entire Law (the 10 Commandments and the first 5 books of the Bible).

The Great Commandment is this:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”– Matthew 22:37-40 NIV

I was baptized in a black Southern Baptist Church that did not have anything to say about social issues, so it was primarily from home that I learned about the Resurrection of Christ, the Second Coming, and Jesus’ ministry to the poor and oppressed. No where in Scripture or in Jesus’ life does it require Christians to be beholden to ancient Creeds. In fact, the one creed we are obligated to follow first and foremost is the Great Commandment, which flows from the Jewish Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

For more on that, I would highly recommend Scot McKnight’s The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others.

For Christians, our Rabbi and Messiah Jesus of Nazareth added the Shema with a passage from Leviticus 19:18, “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” to teach us what the Law was all about. If Jesus is the Savior and Messiah of our religion as Christianity teaches, he is the final authority, and not those who pretend to speak of some religious orthodoxy. The Great Commandment comes first, and all else comes second, and when other things (yes, even creeds and practices), fall short of the Great Commandment, then they must be confronted and even dispersed with. Some Christians claim that our actions mean nothing, and hold to their Enlightenment view of truth as being propositional in nature, but they still fall short, because Jesus said He is the truth in the face of his oppressor, Pontius Pilate.

Now as for the creeds and formulas of the early Church prior to the Catholic and Protestant Reformations, I do affirm many of them, in so far as they affirm the Great Commandment and the One who taught it, Christ Jesus. Justice-oriented Christianity has a startling message: that God who is Invisible, took up a body (the Incarnation) and has a unique concern for the arrangement of human bodies (politics + economics). This Divinity is not the laizze-fairre pagan construct of Adam Smith who relied more on Greek philosophy than Christian theology; this very God is YHWH of the Old Testament, the God of Resurrection and Life. If we can make a claim about what Scripture says about God, it is this: that there is no passage that indicates that God is apathetic to social arrangements of humanity. There are a litany of verses that proclaim God’s love for the poor, the widows, and the foreigners, more than any of the “problematic” violent passages, more than anything about sexuality or ethnicity.

One of the most prominent words in the New Testament is “household,” and for our 21st century, Western ears and eyes, we can only think of a house, with a nuclear family of husband and wife, and children. Not so fast my friends. The Greek term that is translated to “household” is oikonomia, and with that comes notions of managing social arrangements. In the case of Christianity, the primary director of God’s household is the Resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has shown us that God has intimate knowledge and experience in being a member of oppressed peoples. Suffering is not beneath God, it is not some act of charity made from the standpoint of distance. This is solidarity, oneness with the victims of history. Let me repeat: this is not sympathy, this is NOT charity: this is compassion, with acts of solidarity. Having solidarity with and listening to the poor are things that US Christians have a hard time learning because we have been taught in church only about “CHARITY,” with charity being an act on our part, an act of privilege more precisely. I can use as an example the negative reactions to my posts on Hope For Haiti and solidarity So, I would argue that a Justice-Oriented Christianity is one that teaches the supremacy of SOLIDARITY over and against charity.

The emphasis on solidarity should lead reasonably to the other marker of Justice-Oriented Christianity, a celebration of difference over commitments to sameness. By being committed to solidarity, Justice-oriented Christians recognize the different positions and contexts they find themselves. Joerg Reiger, one of my favorite writers, likes to say that “context is what hurts.” Liberal and conservative (primarily white) Christians like to proclaim their pride in being “colorblind.” Colorblindness is a problematic method to begin with, because those who talk about color-blindness, are the ones who ALWAYS dismiss the experiences of People of Color. If a POC protests or suggests that what a person does or says is racially problematic, or tries to articulate the notion that race is A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT rather than any biological truth, “The Colorblind” in every instance (generally) will call POC “angry” as if “angry” is an insult to begin with. Colorblindness is a popular defense for racist practices and actions that both members of the left and right love to employ.

Fortunately, for Justice-Oriented Christians, we worship the Triune God who delights in difference. Dogs are born naturally color-blind but they can still discriminate abour which persons to bark at based on whoever has a darker hue. The Creator, however, made all of humanity in God’s infinite image. Everyone is created of immeasureable value, and this sacred worth can not be measured on a scale of “cultural hierarchies” or social classifications (especially race and class). Christian antiracism begins and ends with the Imago Dei, the very antithesis of racist masks such as colorblindness.

In sum, I have taken a different approach to making a case for Christian Justice. Rather than the typical white liberal/progressive talking point of discussing Jesus’ teachings, I point to the centrality of the Incarnation and Resurrection (Jesus’s sovereignty) that are complimented by what Christ taught. I hope to comeback to a discussion of the ancient creeds later this summer, and their relation to Christian justice. But, for now, the two markers of Justice-Oriented Christianity : celebration of difference and solidarity, reflect the paradox of the Church: joy and suffering, the Resurrection and the Cross.
 

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Constantine, Hillary Clinton, Mark Tooley @TheIRD and a History of Christian Tolerance

A TALE OF TWO METHODISTS

Official portrait of Secretary of State Hillar...

Official portrait of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, I would like to briefly address a history of Christian tolerance. Where did the idea of religions tolerating other religions come from in terms of being participants in the public square? I don’t think there was ONE particular moment in human history where this happened, it was sort of a social development that just sort of happened, and today, “tolerance” is being emphasized because we live in a multi-religious, culturally pluralistic society. Of course, there have always been religiously pluralistic societies, where the prevailing religion was polytheistic, like with the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans. But in reality, with imperial politics playing a role in subordinating the masses, the emperor/king served as god with his own group of worshippers. If you did not bow to the emperor, you paid with your life. Religious tolerance then must be seen as ever elusive, even back during Pax Romana.

In recent days, violent events in Libya and Egypt have been used as opportunities for liberals and conservatives to use their talking points. For conservatives and arc-conservatives like Mark Tooley of The Institute on Religion And Democracy, it’s see, I told you so, those Arabs are inherently wild, uncontrollable and violent, and they must be put down (under the foot of the U.S. Military of course!). See Mark Tooley’s: Libyan Horror as an example. Chris rightly responded to Tooley Tooley, the United Methodist?: The IRD Prez TAkes aim at Moderation, tolerance, in the wake of Libyan Slaughter.

Tooley argues that religious tolerance is a liberal idea and must be squashed, and religious freedom includes the free speech of speaker (he is no pastor, I refuse to call him that!) Terry Jones of “Dove” World Outreach Center to start a race war. Burning the sacred books of people, and publicly doing so for the sake of intimidating them, is the exact same strategy that the Ku Klux Klan used(uses?) in burning crosses in front of Black Christian audiences to scare them. The notion that Terry Jones has the right to believe what he believes and to do what he wants to do is just not true. We are not allowed to go to movie theaters and shout, “Fire!” anymore than Jones can continue to yell for “War!” There are limits to our freedom of speech. Tooley would probably acknowledge that there are, but not when it comes to folks who agree with him and his crusading churchianity agenda.

For the first 3 centuries of the Common Era, Christians were persecuted, suffered from the “tolerance” and “enlightenment” of the Roman Emperor cult. Marcus Aurelius, he was more spiritual than religious. Each citizen in the Roman Republic was face with the Jewish Question which was transformed in the Jewish AND Christian Question. According to conservative evangelical scholar Peter Leithart, in his work Defending Constantine, Diocletian treated himself like the god Jupitor incarnate , dressing in fancy clothes, and it was his pax deorum Peace of the gods, for two decades which saw no persecution of Christians at first. But once Christians started to criticize ideas like the Tetrarchy (four rulers over Rome), Diocletian became threatened by what was then a vocal minority of 10% in the Roman Empire. Constantine, according to Leithart and others, understands toleration as “disapproval of certain religious expressions but refrains for principled reason from using state power to suppress the disapproved religion.” Constantine moves away from toleration to concord, a move towards unity. Constantine’s Edict of Milan is a putting of Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek into practice. Leithart criticizes the anti-Jewish flux of Constantine’s policy of religion (the Jewish Problem still a problem in the name of religious liberty).

Mark Tooley argues for religious freedom, with Terry Jones, and with protecting conservative evangelical Christians rights’ to their anti-abortion principles, see his conversation on “Young Evangelicals And Politics”; he claims he wants freedom and tolerance for his side,, but at the same time, he is taking away freedom from American Muslims. Tooley is following theories of religious freedom that are oppressive, as Leithart points out, with people like John Locke, who argued that religions should only be tolerated if they did not threaten the unity of the nation-state. Tooley, as I have argued in the past, who continues to get pacifism wrong, is far more concerned about the unity of the nation-state than he is Christians being free to be faithful to the Gospel. Country takes precedent over the Triune God.

Joel is right to criticize Tooley’s narrative of Conservative Christians being persecuted (oh no’s!); it’s just not happening. We as Christians are not being the sources of entertainment at Hollywood garden parties like what happened in the days of Emperor Nero. Just not the case. The problem is for folks like Tooley and the Washington, D.C., based think-tank Institute for Religious Democracy (that’s my awkward nickname for the IRD), they have deviated from conservative heroes such as Constantine, and would prefer the likes of John Locke instead.

Another Methodist who is more close philosophically to Constantine more than Locke is Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton, according to Living History, was raised Methodist, attended a Methodist youth group growing up, and it was there she learned about the grace and love of God, as well as the Methodist quest for justice in the world. Say what you will about her feminist politics or her association with Wal-Mart, I found her speech on Egypt, Libya, and religious freedom to be inspiring:

Perhaps instead of cannibalizing fellow Christians, Tooley and his Institute for Religious Democracy, should follow the Christian examples of Emperor Constantine and Secretary Clinton, in remaining faithful to religious traditions but still working for the freedom of other religious practitioners. Further, we as Christians and “THE” Church should take the steps promoting Christian nonviolence and love to overcome hostilities around the world.

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