December 1, 2013 marks the beginning of a new three-year lectionary cycle in Christian congregations. For a new perspective on these texts, this guest post is from a member of my congregation, who is in the middle of publishing a trilogy of resources: Theology from Exile: Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary for an Emerging Christianity by Sea Raven, D.Min.:
Volume 1 The Year of Luke (published January 2013)
Volume 2 The Year of Matthew (September 2013)
Volume 3 The Year of Mark (forthcoming October 2014)
This series is for “believers in exile,” who are drawn to the social justice mandate found in Jesus’s teachings, but no longer find meaning in orthodox interpretations of Old and New Testament scripture. The project is grounded in the biblical scholarship of Karen Armstrong, Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the Jesus Seminar, as well as the transforming work of Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, whose theology of Creation Spirituality has reclaimed Catholic mysticism for postmodern cosmology. Four questions are introduced in The Year of Luke and continue in The Year of Matthew:
1) What is the nature of God? Violent or nonviolent?
2) What is the nature of Jesus’s message? Inclusive or exclusive?
3) What is faith? Literal belief, or commitment to the great work of justice-compassion?
4) What is deliverance? Salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?
These questions define the difference between the normalcy of civilization and its retributive systems of control, and participation in the ongoing program of restoring God’s distributive justice-compassion, as taught by Jesus: The answers for the authoritarian right (Empire) are: violent, exclusive, literal belief, and salvation from hell in the next life. The answers for the countering partnership on the left (Covenant) are nonviolent, inclusive, commitment to the great work, and liberation from injustice in this life, here and now. These answers provide guideposts to the authentic teachings of Jesus, and to a faith that might swing the balance to sustainable, conscious life on Planet Earth.
The context for the above four questions is the postmodern era of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Generally, historians speak about time in terms of premodern, modern, and postmodern. Premodern refers to the time before the Enlightenment and Descartes. The modern era (post-Enlightenment) lasted for about 350 years. During that time, God was a separate being or entity who created the universe, and proclaimed humanity to be the fulfillment of God’s creativity. The “postmodern” era might be argued to have actually begun with Charles Darwin. But regardless of the timing, “postmodern” means the time in which humanity began and continues to deal with the nature of the universe as science has defined it. “God” as a separate being who intervenes in human life from “heaven” somewhere beyond Antares no longer makes intellectual sense.
This leads to another term that has migrated from postmodern science into postmodern spiritual and religious language. In common usage, “cosmology” means the science or theory of the universe. But the term as used by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox in his ground-breaking theology of original blessing goes beyond the scientific. Cosmology for Fox means humanity’s intellectual understanding of the nature of the universe. “Cosmology,” as Fox (and this writer, among others) uses the term, describes the mind-set of premodern, modern, and postmodern people, as each of these evolutions of human thought has understood our place in and our relationship to the universe and to God. If, as John Shelby Spong argues, Christianity is to have any relevance at all to postmodern spirituality, changes in focus and metaphor must be made.
As these essays have developed, beginning with Year C, a slight modification to the third question has emerged: What is faith? Literal belief, or trust and commitment to the great work of justice-compassion? The postmodern meaning of faith is usually belief, regardless of the circumstances. The more basic meaning is trust – either in a person’s (or God’s) word, or actions, or in a process set in motion by a god, a prophet, or a leader. The Apostle Paul’s letters make little or no sense to postmodern minds unless the distinction between faith as literal belief and faith as trust is clear. Further, as literal belief becomes untenable in the third millennium of the Common Era, Christian “faith” is increasingly confronted with John Shelby Spong’s challenge to change or die. To the extent that Christian “faith” continues to mean “literal belief,” the twenty-first century is a “post-Christian” era.
In addition to the four questions, the theme that determines these interpretations of the lectionary readings is the meaning of justice. Civilization defines justice as retribution – payback; an eye for an eye. But the deeper meaning of justice is distributive: the rain falls on the good, the bad, and the ugly without partiality. Civilization does not use that definition except in cases where there is clearly injustice if partiality enters the picture. The classic example is that in the United States in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, if you are rich, white, and male your chances of serving jail time for possessing cocaine is an order of magnitude less than if you are poor, black, and female, charged with possessing marijuana.
The positive understanding of distributive justice is contained in the term distributive justice-compassion. The normal development of civilizations has historically led to systems for assuring safety and security of citizens. But as any reader of Charles Dickens must be aware, those systems often exclude the poor, the uneducated, those who are presumed to have no economic or social power (women, minorities). Members of societies who are denied access to those powers often become ensnared in activities deemed anti-social or criminal in order to survive. Distributive justice-compassion would not demand payback or retribution for such activities, but would provide solutions: reeducation, rehabilitation, redress of grievances. Distributive justice-compassion holds sway in the Covenant relationship with the non-violent, inclusive, kenotic realm or kingdom of God. Justice as retribution/pay-back holds sway in the normal march of humanity into civilization. The short-hand term for the seemingly inevitable systems of injustice that are the result of that march is “Empire.”
The Apostle Paul was convinced that Jesus’s resurrection was the resurrection of a spiritual, mystical body, which was automatically part of the kingdom of God – and that we who are living today can also participate in that kingdom if we choose God’s nonviolent distributive justice instead of the violent imperial theology of piety, war, victory. In God’s kingdom of distributive justice, no one is judged by circumstance, but everyone is presumed to be transformed – or at least capable of transformation. The classic Biblical example is Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1–32). Like it or not, the prodigal son’s brother learned there is no place in his father’s house for payback, for getting even, for locking people up and throwing away the key, for the death penalty. In God’s realm of distributive justice the assumption is rehabilitation and hope; in God’s realm of distributive justice the assumption is that everyone has access to power and the assurance of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and peace regardless of who they are or where they come from. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians that “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” John Dominic Crossan suggests “What better deserves the title of a new creation than the abnormalcy of a share-world replacing the normalcy of a greed-world?” Because the coming of God’s justice is ongoing – for upwards of two thousand years now – we are called to participate in a new creation– a new paradigm – a world based on letting go, and sharing (distributive justice-compassion), rather than keeping and greed.
Third, in this series of commentaries “God” is understood as non-theistic and “kenotic.” Kenosis classically means “emptiness.” As a Christian term it has been defined as in Philippians 2:6-7: “[A]lthough [the Anointed One] was born in the image of God, [he] did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot. . . . [H]e was born like all human beings. . . .” In John Dominic Crossan’s words, a kenotic god is “the beating heart of the Universe, whose presence is justice and life, and whose absence is injustice and death.” In these commentaries, kenotic “god” becomes interchangeable with kenotic “servant,” as the creative force that both contains and is contained by the universe. In answer to the four questions, the nature of that force is nonviolent; Jesus’s message is inclusive, faith is trust in an inclusive, non-violent universe, and deliverance is liberation from injustice. The context for human personal, social, and political life then becomes a Covenant with justice and life, and commitment to the ongoing struggle for liberation from injustice.
Finally, too much of Christian fundamentalism has become United States domestic and foreign policy. We can’t counter it if we don’t know the Biblical story in its context. While much of the history of the creation of the New Testament may be “old hat” to graduates of liberal Christian seminaries, lay folk must know something of the scholarship that is doing its best to lead Christianity out of the clutches of fundamentalism. The continued existence of a Christian “faith” as a religious system of belief is clearly under siege by twenty-first century Biblical scholarship as well as the continuing evolution of scientific knowledge. The question addressed by this series of commentaries is whether and how ancestral scriptures remain relevant and revelatory to twenty-first century cosmology.