God, Virtue Ethics, and Rythm

God, Virtue Ethics, and Rythm

This post originally appeared on Groundmotive.net

There are countless ways of understanding God’s nature. New atheists such as Daniel Dennett, for example, reject a variety of theisms that defines God as a supernatural agent who desires humanity’s worship. Peter Rollins, a self-identified emergent Christian defines God as “that which we cannot speak of [and] the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.”* Rollins finds inspiration in Christian mystics such as Meister Eckert, tending away from anthropocentric understandings of God like the one Dennett rejects. Like Dennett, Rollins aims to disturb conventional theism while, unlike Dennett, maintaining a semblance of orthodoxy. Jack Caputo, taking these ideas a step further, conceives of God as an “insistence” with little agency in the world other than the ability to disturb and haunt our actions.

Conceptions of God play a critical role in shaping our moral lives; some theists practise an escapism because their God shuns the world, while others become champions of social causes because that is what they believe God desires of them. This post will work backwards, so to speak, considering how our daily attempts to act ethically can shed light on God’s nature. To this end, I will employ virtue ethics’ approach to moral life, a school of ethics that emphasizes virtues, opposed to an emphasis on the need to follow rules (deontological) or an emphasis on the consequences of one’s actions (consequentialism).

In a nutshell, virtue ethics claims that we should always make decisions that encourage health. On a personal level, this means being concerned with one’s character, believing that if one engages in the daily practice of care, for example, one will be prepared to act caringly when a weighty ethical situation demands such action. Similarly, on a societal level, a subscription to virtue ethics would aim to develop life together in ways that encourage healthy relationships — for example, by building neighbourhood landscape that create opportunities to practice hospitality.

But what does this ethical school have to do with our conceptions of God?

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Psalm 137’s Haunting Violence

This post was originally given as a prayer at Westview Christian Fellowship

Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem

  • 1 By the rivers of Babylon—
  •    there we sat down and there we wept
  •    when we remembered Zion.
  • 2 On the willows[a] there
  •    we hung up our harps.
  • 3 For there our captors
  •    asked us for songs,
  • and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
  •    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
  • 4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
  •    in a foreign land?
  • 5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
  •    let my right hand wither!
  • 6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
  •    if I do not remember you,
  • if I do not set Jerusalem
  •    above my highest joy.
  • 7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
  •    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
  • how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
  •    Down to its foundations!”
  • 8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator![b]
  •    Happy shall they be who pay you back
  •    what you have done to us!
  • 9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
  •    and dash them against the rock!

~Psalm 137

It’s difficult to accept the fact that the Bible describes revenge in such brutal detail as found in Psalm 137. There are other Psalms that ask us to direct our anger in ways that promote peace rather than perpetuate violence but not Psalms 137. Psalm 137 doesn’t temper an author’s fierce anger towards injustice and desire for revenge. It’s important to hear and remember the extent of the anger expressed here because it was apocalyptic verses like these that inspire Christ. He too is angry at the injustice he sees around him and condemns Israel in a similar way as Jeremiah (the prophet we think authored Psalm 137) condemns Babylon.

Psalm 137 is remembered for its violence but also because of the haunting tune set to its lyrics by Don McLean titled “Babylon” linked at the beginning of this post. If we let them, the song and its lyrics can haunt us in three healthy ways.

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On Enjoying Wolf Stew: the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:3-32)

It’s important to make two preambles before I begin. First, all the most interesting insights found below are taken from Amy-Jill Levine’s fantastic book Short Stories by Jesus. Second, this post is an attempt to deal with the parables as we think they were given by Jesus. In doing so, I avoid dealing with Luke’s interpretation, the way he relates them, in the voice of Christ, to repentance (more on this at the end). I want to be clear that this doesn’t imply that Luke’s interpretation and repentance are unimportant, but rather to do justice to both would require more space than a normal blog post allows.

Parables have a way of surprising us by inverting our expectations, forcing us in some cases to reconsider commonly held beliefs or to ask difficult ethical questions. Consider the parable of the “Three Little Pigs.” After two failed attempts, the wolf, in desperation, jumps down the third little pig’s chimney only to land in a cauldron of stew. Pig’s enjoying wolf stew is a surprising result (and in some ways disturbing). Similarly, when Christ told parables his aim was to provoke and disturb and it’s no coincidence that he uses parables to do so.

Luke presents a series of three parables: “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Lost Son”. All three parables follow a similar pattern: (1) a wealthy individual loses part of his or her wealth, (2) he or she finds the thing that was lost, and (3) its recovery is celebrated with a meal. These three parables follow the “rule of three” whereby the first two in the series set up the third. Again consider the parable of “The Three Little Pigs;” the first two pigs with their homes of straw and sticks set up the story of the third pig with his home of brick. Although the three parables in Luke are similar, the first two help explain the events of the third. To understand how Christ provokes his audience, than, it’s helpful not only to understand how the stories are similar but to also notice the details that make the third story unique. Below is each parable, with a consideration of the way in which Christ uses the story of “The Lost Son” to challenge expectations and ask difficult ethical questions.prodigal_son_by_rembrandt_drawing_1642 Continue reading

Judas’ offence (Mark 14:10-21)

Judas’ offence (Mark 14:10-21)

This post was originally presented as a sermon at The Commons and published on their blog.

The gospels are not shy in their portrayal of the way the disciple’s struggle to understand Christ’s potentially life-changing lessons. Part of this difficulty is due to the offensive nature of Christ’s message. In most gospels, it’s not difficult to understand how Christ offends the teachers of the law. Less clear is the way Christ offends his disciples. In the Gospel of Mark, we find evidence of at least two disciples, Peter and Judas, offended by Christ’s teaching. The offence takes place in the moments leading up to and following Christ’s arrest.

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A Reflection on the word “Apostle”

A Reflection on the word “Apostle”

This reflection originated out of a request from The Commons to talk on my favourite apostle. 

The New Testament describes the way Christ’s disciples become apostles. This word “apostle” means, literally, “to send away.” In order to send someone away, he or she must first be with you. The apostles must have been at some point in the presence of Christ before he dismissed them before he sent them away. And it is this event — the send-off — from which their title is derived. Typically Christians focus on being with Christ, following close behind him, being “Christ-like.” However, to be an apostle means something a little different; it emphasizes a departure from Christ, a commission.

My two adorable little boys follow Jen and me everywhere as they learn, grow, and mature. But a day will come when they must be sent out from under our feet into the world where, as Leland likes to say, it’s “too sunny”. The shift from child to young adult or disciple to apostle is a significant movement. Continue reading

Apocalyptic Literature: A Primer to The Book of Revelation

Apocalyptic Literature: A Primer to The Book of Revelation

This post originally appeared on Westview Christian Fellowship’s blog and was adapted from a sermon.

I remember growing up thinking that the Book of Revelation was impossible to understand. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was able to acquire a “toehold” on the meaning of the text. This came through a better understanding of the history of apocalyptic writing and a few of its distinctive markers.

What does the word apocalyptic mean?

Often we think the word “apocalyptic” refers to the end times or the destruction of the world. This is partially correct. But a more accurate description defines apocalyptic as the transition between historical ages. As a description of a historical transition, apocalyptic literature describes the old age coming to an end as it experiences destruction and then the beginning of a new age.

Although there are many distinctive characteristics of Apocalyptic literature, I want to consider two: that it originates in oppressive situations and that it uses insider language.

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Belonging as Illustrated by Simon of Cyrene

Belonging as Illustrated by Simon of Cyrene

This post originally appeared on the blog Groundmotive.net

Simon of Cyrene, as his name suggests, was a visitor to Jerusalem. His story is found in all three synoptic gospels but is noticeably absent in John’s account. Each gospel account begins with Jesus mocked and beaten by soldiers, after which he descends to Golgotha. However, as he begins his descent, the soldiers force a man from Cyrene, Simon, to carry Christ’s cross on his behalf.

I want to draw your attention to three aspects of this story. First, Christ needs help, he depends on Simon. Simon, in a sense, saves Christ’s life. Without help, it seems, Christ would have died even before he was able to begin his march towards the place of the skull. Second, Simon is forced to help, although just a sentence or two in each gospel, each account makes sure to specify that Simon doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Finally, it’s noteworthy that the idea of carrying one’s cross is foreshadowed in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke Chapter 14, Christ tells his disciples that the cost of discipleship will require them to a) hate their family and ultimately hate their own life; and b) take up their cross and follow him. Although I don’t want to discuss the specific meaning of this verse here, I think it’s fair to say that Jesus, and Luke specifically, considered carrying one’s cross to be related to one’s sense of belonging to a particular family. With these three points in mind, let us consider a contemporary parallel.

Jean Vanier recently wrote an op-ed for The Globe and Mail that addressed the issue of assisted dying. Although some may be disappointed that Vanier doesn’t absolutely condemn assisted dying, I believe that he accurately describes a dangerous failure in our society that must be considered regardless of our views on this sensitive issue.
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