August 1914

I was not going to post again until August. I have been staying out of the man cave in order to do some painting, yard work and house repair. But the approach of August and a planned visit to the Liberty Memorial WWI museum in Kansas City has me reminiscing.

From 1970-73 I was in seminary. I read what they told me to read. So I had not really read any novels since before that. (Well, I had read Larry McMurtry’s Last Picture Show, but that was a pastoral necessity. Yes, that’s right, I read McMurtry for a pastoral purpose. I will do a post about that soon just because it is an interesting story.)

I was eager to do some elective reading. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 was newly published. So it was the first book I read after seminary. This was the first and shorter edition. Solzhenitsyn added to the already huge book later.

This is the centennial of the beginning of Word War I so August 1914 has been on my mind. It is a historical novel about the Battle of Tannenberg when the German and Russian armies faced off in Prussia. In 1973 the Cold War was fully on and Solzhenitsyn was still trying to work in the Soviet Union. His book outwardly criticized the poor preparation of the Czarist army and the cowardice of most of its officers. But there was irony. Was the ridiculous situation in 1914 really any different from the inefficient Soviet bureaucracy and the craven Soviet officials of the 1970s?

The irony is what I best remember about this book. He portrays the German army as efficient and highly organized. Orders were carried out precisely. Not so the Russian army. Orders were taken as mild suggestions. So the Germans got into trouble when they tapped the Russian telegraph lines and intercepted orders. The Germans assumed the Russians would follow orders as the Germans would do. So they wasted a great deal of effort countering Russian maneuvers that never happened.

You should not misunderstand novelistic character of this book. It is mostly real history. Scott Yenor, in the video below, compares what Solzhenitsyn was trying to do with what Thucydides, the Greek historian, was trying to do. Soltzhenitsyn was trying to show the sickness of nations that led to the startling violence and bloodshed of World War I. There might be something to help us in 2014.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Johnson-the community paradigm

Today I finish my July project of reading, summarizing, and reacting to Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.

She points to three paradigms for understanding the human place in creation.

First, there is the dominion paradigm. This derives from the Bible’s mandate for humans to have dominion over the earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:28, Psalm 8:6). The church has let this paradigm overshadow others. People have used it to justify making human need paramount and discounting the importance of the rest of creation. But there are other ways to understand this idea.

The second paradigm is stewardship. This has been developed especially by evangelical scholars. It modifies the notion of dominion by stating that the human race has been given a caretaking responsibility for the environment. This means that people must act for the well-being of other species as well as our own. Johnson criticize this emphasis as not lifting up the interdependent nature of our relation with all life on earth. It keeps the top-down relationship between humans and other life.

So she proposes the community paradigm. Rather than being top-down or human centered, this view is God centered. When God speaks to Job from the whirlwind, it is to show that humans like Job share in a theocentric world where Job is not supreme. Also the passage (Job 38 ff.) implies a profound divine joy and pleasure in creation.

From Job, she moves on to Psalm 104 where man is just one of the many creatures to whom God gives life and breath. God cares intimately for many species. There is no trace of the dominion idea.

The Prophets bring another dimension to this. The animals suffer and face threat along with humans

Therefore the land will mourn,

and all its inhabitants will perish. 

The wild animals,  the birds of the sky,

and even the fish in the sea will perish (Hosea 4:3 NET Bible).

Also, the creation shares in visions of restoration.

Let the desert and dry region be happy; 

let the wilderness   rejoice and bloom like a lily! (Isaiah 35:1 NET Bible)

This all feeds into what became St. Paul’s vision of creation groaning together with humans in anticipation of the renewal of  the resurrected world Romans 8).

My only criticism here is that Johnson seems to want to hold the community interpretation up as correct and see the dominion interpretation as incorrect.  They are both in the Bible.  The dominion interpretation has been misused.  But it is part of what Israel Knohl would call the “divine symphony.”  So we have point and counterpoint, not exclusive alternatives.  But Johnson does a good job of showing that there are alternative ways to imagine the relation of people and the species.

The best part of this book for me has been the theological.  The adoption of a green environmental perspective contains much that I have heard before and do not entirely agree with.  But her interpretation of death and suffering in an evolving world of life as cruciform, her interpretation of the incarnation as deep and embracing plant and animals flesh as well as human flesh, and her interpretation of resurrection and the last things as including all creation–these insights were very helpful.

In my career I have had to deal with people who want to know if I believe that God created the world “just the way the Bible says he did.”  I have always used that question as a way to start a conversation about what the Bible actually says.  On the other hand, from seminaries and theologians in my tradition has come process theology as a way to integrate evolution into theology.  I have not found this necessary or helpful, because it seems to me that process theologians tend to lose core Christian doctrines.

Elizabeth Johnson has been helpful because it is apparent that she really believes in the incarnation and the resurrection, precisely the core doctrines that worry me in process thought.  Yet she also believes in evolution and , further, believes that evolution is beautiful and comes from the hand of God.

So she affirms that the contradiction so many assume exists between evolution and Christian faith is not real.

So I have enjoyed this book.  I will long ponder many of its insights.

Posted in Bible, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Demon possession and illness in ancient Babylon

This article is pretty interesting.  It describes some Babylonian ideas about disease.  They were good at describing symptoms, but had to resort to superstition in ascribing causes.

The Bible obviously was caught up in the same dilemma.  The writers did not receive supernatural information about the brain or germs.  They didn’t know about the role of either related to symptoms.  They did know about some physical causes, like snake bites and blunt force trauma.  But they did not know about more invisible and complex causes. So they speculated based on a world-view similar to that of the Babylonians.

Posted in Bible | Tagged | Leave a comment

Johnson-orthodoxy and enviromental activism

This blog series is about Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts, which  is a contemporary theological dialogue with Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species. There are many theological attacks on Darwin from people who want to take the Genesis creation accounts as precise history. However, Johnson’s dialogue with Darwin has produced deep insights into orthodox Christian doctrines about the creation, the incarnation, and the resurrection and last things.

She successfully shows that Christianity and Darwin’s theory are not necessarily in conflict. In fact it is Christian heresies that adopt a spirit-body dualism which are actually in conflict with Darwin. One should note that Johnson does not stray into a loose or watered down theology. She remains an orthodox Catholic throughout. The Nicene Creed is her standard.

I have to admit that a lot of people who have come under Darwin’s influence have left the reservation as far as Christian orthodoxy is concerned. Johnson shows that is not necessary.

Where she does come off as a liberal is in her chapter on environmentalism. She sees the current situation with regard to man and nature as one of androcentric, hierarchical human sin. Now I agree with her that pollution, over harvesting of the seas and forests, and disrespect for animal life are major problems, often the result of sin. The trouble, it seems to me, is that environmentalism and feminism have fallen into an ideological straight-jacket. For instance: environmental problems are androcentric (male centered) and not gynocentric (female centered)). Really?

She seems to me to support a low or no growth economy as a solution to environmental problems. The consequences of this in human misery are already visible where growth has drastically slowed in the world. So I would have appreciated more discussion of the trade-offs involved. She claims that environmental activism and social justice are not in conflict. But she did not present much evidence. Furthermore, she does not seem to consider how there may be technological solutions apart from politics.

But the problems of human-caused species extinctions and abuse to the environment are real. It is just a pet peeve of mine that much of the talk about this comes from urban and academic environments that are out of touch with farmers, fishermen, oil drillers, and loggers–the people who actually live in and work with nature.

I have lived most of my life in what I call “pick-up truck country” where people produce the foods and materials the cities depend upon. People out here know a lot about nature and are trying to balance respect for nature with our need to feed and supply the human race. It is not all sinful greed.

Ok. Enough of that.

I have loved this book.

Last winter my wife and I fled the polar vortex and spent nearly a month on Florida’s Gulf Coast. At that time of year the manatees come into the rivers where there are warm springs. The ocean gets colder (especially this year). The manatees come up the rivers. A few years ago manatees were in real danger of extinction. But they have been turned into a tourist attraction. This has had a lot to do with saving them. In January people flee the weather up north and the manatees flee the colder oceans. They meet each other just north of Tampa.


Is this not part of evolution too? The two species give something to each other. The adorableness (a word I think I just made up) of manatees is a trait that make humans want to save them. It is a survival trait.

Maybe it is just my social circle. But I seem to be surrounded by people who are crazy about animals. The connection and interdependence between humans and the world of animals is something that will continue to evolve. Our love for animals may be the salvation of some species, at least.

There is a final chapter about the community of creation.  So I should conclude this series with one more post.

Posted in Ethics, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Johnson-cosmic redemption

I am continuing to read and reflect on Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts.

When I was in seminary long ago I had to read the medieval theologian, Duns Scotus.  I had no clue what he was trying to say and pretty much faked my way through an oral presentation about him.  Maybe I should have tried harder.

Johnson sets Duns Scotus’ view of the work of Christ over against that of Anselm and most of the western tradition.  That tradition says that Christ died for our sins.  It, therefore,  excludes nature and the cosmos from redemption.  Yet there are a number of passages in the New Testament (Colossians 1:15-20, Romans 8:18-25, Ephesians 1:10, Revelation 5:13 and 21:5) that talk about “the whole creation”, “all things”, or “every creature” being redeemed.

According to Johnson, Duns Scotus did not connect redemption directly to human sin. Christ would have come even if humans had not sinned.  God’s love would still have sought union with the beloved creation.  The divine desire for union with creation would still have required the incarnation.

So saving us from sin was only one aspect of what Christ’s death was about.  The power in the death of Christ was “not in satisfaction rendered to a God whose honor has been violated, but in the presence of divine love in the flesh enacting an historical solidarity with all who suffer and die” (p. 226).

She talks about how Karl Rahner built upon this idea.  She does not mention Wolfhart Pannenberg.  But his thought about this is similar to Rahner’s.  The world’s history has already revealed its hopeful fate in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

She makes a case for the inconsistency between our love of creation, our love of plants and animals, and the idea that they are not included in the restoration and redemption of the world.  Does God love these things less than we do?

Let me mention here something that comes from pastoral experience.  When the church had a program for children that drew many children from families where the parents were unchurched, we would close the program with prayer requests.  With these children there were more prayer requests for pets and animals than for people.  Adults apparently learn that you don’t make prayer requests for animals.  But the children are more real.

This, I think, backs up Johnson’s case.  People care about the natural world.  It is not necessarily a sentimental thing.  People who are very much involved in the cycle of life and death in the natural world love animals as much or more than others.  I am talking about people who raise animals for slaughter, who hunt and fish, and who eat meat.  I have a recently deceased uncle who did all of those.  He was a bit of a mountain man, a throw back to the pre-digital era.  But no one loved animals and the natural world more than he did.

So Western Christianity with its neglect of the notion of cosmic redemption may have made itself seem unrelated to life by leaving out of salvation a huge part of the life we care about.  And there is no good biblical or theological justification for doing so.

Posted in Bible, Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Johnson-deep resurrection and some thoughts about how we know

I am reading, summarizing and commenting on Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts. Today I want to highlight two related discussions in the book.

First, she connects the resurrection of Jesus to her view of the incarnation as God joining the physical universe.  The resurrection does not undo the incarnation.  It does not extract Jesus from his human existence and solidarity with the evolving cosmos.  It does not turn him into a purely spiritual being.

This is the danger with the metaphor of transformation attached to the resurrection.  We cannot imagine the result of the transformation but we most easily imagine it as becoming something non-material.  She quotes Ambrose of Milan as saying, “In Christ’s resurrection, the earth itself arose.”  With Jesus’ resurrection the corporeal life of the evolving world was lifted right into the heart of divine being.

This is the meaning of the New Testament’s insistence that the resurrection of Jesus was not just his personal vindication but that it predicted the fate of humanity and the physical world.   It represented a down payment on something greater.  It represented the first fruits of a greater harvest.

When we just consider what happens in biology, we see that new life arises out of death over time.  But the cost in suffering, annihilation, and the extinction of whole species is high.  The story of Jesus, though, gives hope that out of the pain of life God’s Spirit bears creation forward toward a promise beyond what we can imagine or empirically verify.

The mention of verification brings up the second point.  Jesus’ resurrection has a powerful coherence with Christian experience, but it is not provable by science.  Also the claims that God created the cosmos and that he will bring it to a life-affirming end are not the results of direct observation.

Johnson says we have to base these assertions on more than hunches and fancies.  Her solution is to base the bookends of creation and last things on the insight of the community.

“Borne up by the conviction that God is faithful, the community’s understanding can then be predicated backward and forward beyond time, to where no experience can go” (p. 212).

She points out that this is what Israel did.  Through the exodus, the Israelites came to an understanding of God that enabled them to affirm that this God created the world and also that he would redeem Israel in the future.  The church’s experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit enable Christian theologians to do the same kind of thing.

“Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future” (p. 212).

I do not necessarily disagree with this.  It is not much use in talking to people outside the community who have no such experience, though.  There is an old metaphor about stained glass windows.  From outside the church, they look dull and dark.  But, when the sun is shining, they bathe you in glorious light inside the church.  You have to go into the church to experience this.

There are grounds for believing things beyond empirical proof.  John Henry Newman, Ian Ramsey, and the great Canadian Jesuit writer, Bernard Lonergan have all made detailed arguments for this.  Newman wrote of an “iterative sense.”  Ramsey talked about how a culmination of evidence and experience could cause the “penny to drop”.   And Lonergan wrote a massive book about insight, which is actually an important theory of consciousness.

Epistemology, however, makes my head hurt.  Like most people, I think I know what I know.  But I get all tangled up trying to explain how I know it.

Posted in Theology, Church | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Johnson-deep incarnation

I continue my blog series about Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Ask the Beasts.

Incarnation is the Christian doctrine that, in Jesus, God became flesh (John 1:14).

Some modern translations of that verse say “the word became a human being.”  Johnson wants to go beyond this.  Flesh has a broader meaning than just human beings.  When Jesus became flesh as a human being, he joined the vast, evolving body of life in the cosmos.  He entered upon the matrix of growth and decay.  He entered upon the struggle for existence that characterizes all life.  And, she says, he joined not just with biological life, but with the soil (dust of the earth) from which it arose.  He joined the material world right down to its roots.  She adopts the term “deep incarnation”.

The theory of evolution is a gift for theology.  It helps us appreciate the scope of the incarnation.  She says:

Viewing Jesus as God-with-us in this way entails a belief not at all self-evident for monotheistic faith which Christians share with Jewish and Muslim traditions.  It affirms the radical notion that the one transcendent God who creates and empowers the world freely chooses to join this world in the flesh, so that it becomes a part of God’s own divine story forever (p. 196).

She notes that for someone who is seen as primarily a spiritual figure, Jesus actual ministry had a lot to do with physical healing, touching, and food.

Most of all on the cross Jesus shared the physical fate of every living thing.  He died.  But his death was not the result of a natural process.  It was a violent death, a historically and politically induced death.  Of course, not every living thing faces that kind of death.  That kind of death has its own meaning.  Still, it is a fact that Jesus died like all living beings.  And the incarnation allows believers to see in that death the suffering of a God who is in solidarity with all life.

She thinks this means God is present and available in suffering and death to all creatures taking away the loneliness.

Seemingly absent, the Giver of life is silently present with all creatures in their pain and dying.  They remain connected to the living God despite what is happening (p. 206)

This is a beautiful thought.

I am going to put off most commentary until I have read what she says about the resurrection.  However, I will say that I appreciate that she preserves the incarnation as an event.  Protestant process thinkers often adopt a panentheism that implies that the incarnation is not historical but that God as the universal process is by nature incarnate in everything.  Jesus is only an illustration of this principle.  Johnson and Catholic thinkers like Karl Rahner, on whom she draws, seem to avoid this.



Posted in Theology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment