Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, & the Origin of Evil

Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man & the Origin of EvilTheodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man & the Origin of Evil by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First an explanation of what it means to "read" 500 pages of old philosophical prose--you skim through sections looking for the good, engaging material, the new idea, the argument you really want to focus on. You don't always painstakingly read every word.

For a while I was overwhelmed by the thoroughness of this book, so unlike Leibniz's Discourse and Monadology which are short and succinct. But eventually I grew deep admiration for Leibniz.

For one, he may have been one of the most well-read intellectuals ever. The sheer breadth and diversity of figures he sites is incredible, some of them now minor or forgotten folk (like his detailed discussion of the supralapsarian theologians). This contrasts with what I read about Descartes last year in a biography, that he didn't like reading other people's books.

Also, Leibniz will spend pages and pages trying to fully grasp another authors arguments, sometimes presenting it in a better light than the author themselves did, before then refuting it with objections.

So, a monumental intellectual achievement . . . but I still disagree with him about most of his conclusions. I am not persuaded that this is the best of all possible worlds, that pre-established harmony is the solution to the mind-body problem, and more.

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Mordecai Johnson

A few years ago when I read Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, I posted a series of blogs about the book, particularly the various figures he discussed.  At the time this was the third book I'd presented in this way, also having done so with Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy and David Brooks's The Road to Character.  Dorrien's book was his attempt to do something he thought lacking in the history of American religion--discussing the various movements in black religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the development of a distinct theological tradition of the black social gospel.

Now I've begun reading his second volume in this history, Breaking White Supremacy, which takes us from the 1920's up to Dr. King.  Part of Dorrien's aim is to show how King stood within a rich, well-developed tradition.

Mordecai

The first figure discussed in this new volume is longtime Howard University president Mordecai Johnson.  As with many of the figures Dorrien writes about I have previously known either nothing or very little about them.  Reading about Johnson fascinated me.  

Johnson's mother Carolyn named him after the character in the Book of Esther, believing that her son has a special mission in life.  He used education as a means of advancement.  At the University of Chicago he experienced modern science, liberal theology, and socialism, merging both with his Christian faith and throughout his life advocating that Christians should never fear knowledge.  Otherwise the faith would face a credibility problem.  Dorrien writes, "In Johnson's experience education was liberalizing and empowering, and he wanted as much as he could get." 

At Rochester Seminary he soaked up the social gospel theology of Walter Rauschenbusch.  Johnson wrote in a letter, "Religion is going to be a great factor in the new adjustment.  There never was such a reformation as we are now on the verge of.  This religion reemphasized with new aspects to suit the modern needs will bring forth great moral and spiritual engineers.  God grant that I may be one of these among my own people!"

In his early preaching career in West Virginia, he advocated three themes: "'the brotherhood of man,' the necessity of Christian unity, and the Christian mission to build the kingdom of God."  He preached, "If the church is to live there must be a Christian movement to give reverence to human personality, a movement to use all the forces of modern knowledge and technology to build a social order which will raise and enlarge the life of every human being."

Also, "A selfish human being is a monstrosity, is a monstrosity.  Any human being who lives for himself and himself only is a monstrous creature.  The very foundation of his life is the basest of all human qualities--ingratitude.  For a man to be selfish in such a world as this, he must shut his eyes and his mind and his heart to all the great things that he has received from the human race."  Selfishness was the root of sin, even racism and lynching ("the most diabolical crime in the universe").

In 1922 he spoke at Harvard's commencement and gave a powerful speech on  American racism.  Dorrien summarizes "Johnson still believed that Christianity and American liberal democracy--'our American faith'--offered the best and most light.  But the actually existing United States betrayed both."

When Johnson went to Howard, as the first black president, he wanted to build a major and influential institution that would promote blackness.  His time was filled with controversies, and some viewed him as an overbearing leader.  But he succeeded in building a black intellectual powerhouse that trained leaders of the civil rights movement.  

He was an early supporter of Gandhi, believing that the movement against Jim Crow had much to learn from him.  He viewed Gandhi as "the epitome of true religion."  He spent forty days in India in 1949.

Democracy is "the highest friendship that we have known."  It must be built upon respect for the human dignity of all people.   Moreover, anyone who opposed the sacred worth of the individual was not a Christian. 

Johnson praised King: "You have led your people on a victorious pathway seldom tried in human life.  You have shown them how to mobilize the fullest powers of their souls for effective resistance to evil and who to overcome humiliation and abuse without violence and without hatred in deed or in words."


The Charterhouse of Parma

The Charterhouse of Parma (Everyman's Library, #102)The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There are some amusing passages in The Charterhouse of Parma, particularly the early sequence of young Fabrizio running around the field of battle at Waterloo seeking meaningful adventure but stumbling into one misadventure after another.

What most surprised me was that this book read like a much older style of novel, with a weird series of various plots all piled up together with almost no connecting thread and no psychological depth. By the time Stendhal wrote the novel had already reached well beyond this state.

Almost every interesting and good turn to the story is immediately followed by a completely wasteful development. And the ending was awful.

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The Wounding and Healing of Desire

The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and EarthThe Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth by Wendy Farley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this book in 2016 and gave it only three stars. Last autumn I was looking over part of it to use in a sermon and what I read really resonated, in a way I didn't remember it resonating before. So, this winter I've re-read the book and this time I found much that I really liked. I highly recommend it if you are someone who has been deeply hurt and are looking for healing spiritual practices?

2016 review
How do we respond to and spiritually mature through our suffering? A worthy contribution to spiritual theology standing in the tradition of some of the great mystics like St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, Simone Weil, etc.

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Called to Mission

Called to Mission

I Corinthians 1:10-2:5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

26 January 2020

            Well, after his warm greetings Paul immediately launches into the first problem facing the Christians in Corinth—their splits.  Factions had emerged, each one holding up a different apostle or teacher as their authority.  And some really obnoxious folks saying, “No, I’m not a follower of any of those people, I follow Christ!” 

            Paul will have none of it.  These divisions are not good for the Christian movement.  They are a power struggle, rending apart the community that should be united, according to commentator Anthony Thiselton.  He points out that the divisions really aren’t about theological disagreement, but about who is in charge.  And that attitude will be deadly for the small congregations just getting started. 

            Thiselton writes that Paul isn’t expecting theological agreement on every point of doctrine, but he is advocating a “noncompetitive attitude that sets aside all hint of power play.”

The congregation needs to be united in a common mission and not competing with one another.

            Fortunately, splits and factions are not an issue for our congregation.  One of the strengths of First Central, I believe, is your capacity to handle disagreement well and to create fair decision-making processes that generally result in consensus and concord.  Maybe the best example was when we remodeled this chancel.  That could be a very touchy subject, as people can be very sensitive to changes in the worship space where they are married, their children are baptized and sing in Christmas programs, and where their loved ones are remembered at their deaths.  And Lord knows it took us a long time to arrive at the best plan—the whole project was seven years in length.  But when the committee tasked with coming up with the plan made this proposal to the congregation, the final vote was unanimous.  I’ve had colleagues tell me I should write a book on how that was accomplished.

            So, the problem Paul identifies is not our particular problem, but it remains a problem for the universal Christian church.  Plenty of congregations and denominations do have factions fighting for power.  And clearly the church universal remains divided into our various denominations, sects, and traditions.  Christians do not speak with a unified voice.  We are not unified around God’s mission in the world.  So working for that unity of mission remains an important project for us as we participate in the wider church and the ecumenical and interfaith movements.

            Paul quickly turns from addressing this particular problem to raising a larger issue about power and also about wisdom.  For clearly one aspect of the divisions in the Corinthian church was that some people thought they were wiser than others.  So the key questions for this passage are “What is power?  What are wisdom?”

            In her book The Wounding and Healing of Desire, the theologian Wendy Farley writes that divine power as revealed in scripture is “mind-bendingly strange.”  That’s because on the one hand there are stories of “outrageous power” combined with stories of “equally outrageous powerlessness.”  She points out that this is maybe the strangest at Advent and Holy Week when “more than at any other time we are exposed to oxymoronic symbols of divine power.”  She sites a couple of hymn lyrics as vivid examples: “Infant holy, infant lowly, for His bed a cattle stall; Oxen lowing, little knowing Christ the babe is Lord of all.”  And “What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss To bear the heavy cross for my soul, for my soul.”  The manger and the cross are not exactly images of triumphant power.  Golden crowns, scepters, thrones, white horses, images like that are what we usually associate with power.  But in the key moments of the Christian story we get a trough where animals feed, shepherds, a teenage mother, and subsequently a donkey, a cross, and an empty tomb.

            But this is the biblical tradition, where power is usually turned on its head—a reversal of our normal values.  I think the key founding text in this tradition is the Song of Hannah, sung by the mother of Samuel when she, who was infertile, gives birth to a son she dedicates to God.  She doesn’t merely sing God’s praises with thanksgiving, she sets up an entire biblical tradition.  Here’s part of her song:

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by God actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. . . .

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
God brings low, God also exalts.
The Lord raises up the poor from the dust;
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.

            In the great hero stories of the Old Testament this idea is manifested in David—the young shepherd boy, young and least of the children of Jesse, with no claim to power or authority.  And, yet, the boy slays the Philistine giant Goliath and rises to become King, lauded as the greatest of Israel’s kings.

            The Bible lets us know that Jesus grew up in this tradition of the reversal of values, because when Mary, the young teenager herself with no claim to status or authority, becomes pregnant and understands her child as a gift from the Holy Spirit with a divine mission, she too sings a song modeled on Hannah’s, a song we call the Magnficat:

 “My soul magnifies your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you my Savior.
For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant,
and from this day, all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Mighty One, have done great things for me,

and holy is your name.
Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm;
You have scattered the proud in their conceit;
You have deposed the mighty from their thrones,

and raised lowly to high places.

You have filled the hungry with good things,

While you have sent the rich away empty.

You have come to the aid of your servant Israel--
mindful of your mercy--
the promise you made to our ancestors and their descendants forever.

            True power, then, is not found in the normal status categories.  Divine power often appears in the guise of weakness, in the underdog, in the poor, in the outsider.  Or, as Paul vividly states in this passage in the Letter to the Corinthians, in the cross.

            The cross which most people would view as a stumbling-block and a scandal.  For only the worst criminals are crucified, right?  How could the cross become an image of power? 

            Paul holds up the cross as a sign for this entire tradition of the reversal of values.  All status categories have been undermined.  The aristocratic values are subverted.  By claiming the social stigma, everything is turned upside down.

            Anthony Thiselton writes, “The gospel itself is the proclamation of the cross: folly to many it may be; but effective reality and transforming power it is to those who are on their way to salvation.”

            This gets to the most surprising thing about what Paul writes in this passage of the letter.  All of those standard ways of judging power, wisdom, and success—those are mere folly.  Thiselton writes:

People are wrapped up in illusions of wisdom while living in folly.  The cross now becomes a sifting criterion that exposes the difference between folly lived in an illusion of wisdom and a humble, realistic appropriation of the true wisdom of God, which is effective in leading to salvation.

Reading this passage made me think of my favourite line in Christian hymnody—“In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.” 

            As I pointed out last week, Corinth was a prosperous, important city.  It was also a new city.  The ancient city had been destroyed by the Romans and a new one established in its place, with new settlers who were military veterans, freed slaves, and immigrants from other places in the Empire.  As such, it was a competitive, entrepreneurial place.  Paul, in the opening of the letter, praises the gifts of the Corinthians that have allowed them to succeed and prosper.

            But now we see the negative side of these gifts when they are not used for Christ’s mission.  Competitiveness can divide and separate people, causing harm.  Success can breed marks of status and pride in those who have achieved.  They can begin to think they are better than other people and judge people by these criteria. 

            But the Gospel knows no status markers.  All of us are equal, standing equally in need of God’s mercy and equally receiving God’s love.  The Christian church is open to everyone.  All people are More Than Welcome here. 

            Yes, the church recognizes that people have different gifts, and some will be more effective leaders than others.  But those leaders must lead as servants.  Their gifts are no more valuable or important than anyone elses. 

            And, Paul reminds them in this letter, most of them really weren’t such hot stuff anyway.  He writes, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose was is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are.”

            Damn.  Paul is that friend who tells it like it is, bluntly giving you the truth.  “You weren’t so great, you know.”  And, to be fair, he says the same about himself, you notice.

            But Paul doesn’t leave them in this lowly state.  He also reminds them that they have been made great.  Great because God has filled them with God’s love and grace and because of that they now have power, they now have wisdom, they now have glory.  Not because of their personal talents and achievements, but because they are beloved children of God.  And now their talents can be most effective, not at building themselves up or distinguishing them from others, but most effective when used as part of God’s mission in the world, to create a new beloved community, to bring about more peace, justice, kindness, and love.

            For the power and wisdom they’ve received from God is the true power, the true wisdom.  And it’s effective.  Effective for their transformation and salvation, but also effective in dealing with reality.  Because God has actually designed the world to work this way.  And they will be working with the grain of world instead of against the grain. 

            So, our call is not to be great by typical human standards.  Our call is to be great by God’s standards.  To use the gifts we have for God’s mission in the world.  And here are some of the signs that we are doing that well—we work for unity, not division; we uphold the equality and dignity of all people, not creating categories of distinction; our skills and knowledge are used in service of the common good, not just to puff ourselves up; we don’t boast, instead we shine our glory upon God and one another. 

            When we do those things, then God’s power will effective work in us to change the world.  That is our mission, to what we have been called.


Making Haste from Babylon

Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their WorldMaking Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World by Nick Bunker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This year is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, and I read this book in preparation for activities at church (and a family vacation this summer). I really enjoyed this book.

Bunker wants to expand the scope of the normal histories of the Pilgrims in order to better understand them in their religious, political, and economic context. So we don't get the standard narrative of the voyage and the founding of the colony. We also get great details about the English villages where English Separatism arose, detailed descriptions of what was going on in Leiden, the wars of Europe, economic developments in London, and details about the trade in beaver furs.

I also enjoyed the highlighting of my ancestor John Howland at various points.

So, if you are looking for a book this year to better understand the Pilgrims and their world, I highly recommend this in-depth, well-written, engaging work.

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My Mother's Curse: A Journey Beyond Childhood Trauma

My Mother's Curse: A Journey Beyond Childhood TraumaMy Mother's Curse: A Journey Beyond Childhood Trauma by Christine Nicolette-Gonzalez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I met Christine in 2003 during my first week as a youth minister at Royal Lane Baptist Church. She was a parent with two children in my youth group. I vividly remember the first time I met her, she was excited for my arrival, and greeted me with a big smile, warmth, and curiosity. She was a devoted and proud mother. As a teacher she set for herself high professional expectations, and I felt she expected the same of others who worked with teenagers and kids. I remember when she praised a program I had created, and I received it as a great stamp of approval.

And of course I had no clue of the childhood trauma she was carrying. As a pastor I have learned that everyone is carrying some pain, often privately, which is one reason we should be kind and charitable to one another.

In this brave memoir, Christine provides details of her mother's severe mental illness and how it deeply affected her childhood. But the memoir also contains the story of how Christine built a different life as an adult, as a wife, mother, and school teacher, and the emotional and spiritual work of dealing with her own anxiety.

I recommend the book to everyone developing resilience in the face of trauma. Or those trying to better to relate to those who are.

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Say Nothing

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern IrelandSay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Troubles was such a dominant news story for much of my life until suddenly it wasn't. The American press definitely dropped it after the Good Friday agreement, so I was most intrigued by all the developments and lack of developments in the decades since.

Keefe tells a good story, but with lots of questions and gaps still remaining. There were times when I thought the structure could have made better sense.

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Christ the Heart of Creation

Christ the Heart of CreationChrist the Heart of Creation by Rowan Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Despite philosophical training in metaphysics, I'm not all that interested in theological metaphysics. My basic metaphysical approach is the organic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the traditions of Process philosophy and American pragmatism. But when it comes to theology I approach the language as metaphorical and shrouded in mystery and have no real impulse for the sort of nuanced language that can occupy theological metaphysics.

Which means this book was a serious stretch for me. Because Williams is very interested in the very nuanced and complex metaphysical Christological language in the church's tradition. I stuck with the book and found a few interesting points and gems here and there (the appendix on Wittgenstein was maybe the most interesting). But really I just spent most of the time unconvinced that anyone should spend time caring about these details.

It was also a stretch because my process/pragmatic worldview begins with a very different set of premises than Williams. Things he assumes again and again as starting points were to me the very things that needed to be argued for, for I often disagreed.

And Williams is not an engaging writer at all. I have enjoyed the theological metaphysics of John Zizioulas for instance, but his writing is very engaging. The same cannot be said for the former archbishop. Though this phrase did make me cackle (and text a Lutheran friend): "Luther was not exactly a monophysite."

So, the benefit of reading this book was stretching myself and reading a very different approach and style than my own.

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