Sunday, September 30, 2012

Quakers, Puritans and the Bible

"Very many of the early Quakers, as is evident from their writings, were deeply versed in the inspired volumes [of the Bible] and most highly prized it; though they rebelled against the legal statute-book light in which it was held by the Puritans, and not very infrequently used by them whilst in power as a shield for cruelty and intolerance." - John Stephenson Rowntree, 1859 (Quakerism Past and Present)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Quaker Meeting Voices

A short video of 10 Quakers in Yorkshire, UK which provides a little taste of what a Quaker "unprogrammed" meeting for worship is like.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Theological Study in a Nutshell

From the book Essential Theological Terms by Justo L. Gonzalez:

"While Calvin disagreed with Luther, he also disagreed with Zwingli..."

That is theological study in a nutshell.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to Change the World

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The New Testament is not the Law

I came across two interesting quotes recently which come from vastly different sources yet say much the same thing:

“I think Paul would roll over in his grave if he knew we were turning his letters into torah.” — F. F. Bruce, Evangelical Bible scholar and preeminent authority on the life and teachings of the apostle Paul

"I have no doubt but when the apostle, under the influence of Divine Love, addressed an epistle to the Corinthians, that he was rightly directed therein. And as he knew and was led into a right knowledge of their states, so he could administer to their needs and to their instruction. But I don't apprehend that he had the most distant idea that he was writing to nations yet unborn, and of whose states and conditions he could have no knowledge. Nor do I believe the Divine Wisdom had any design, when he influenced the mind of the apostle to write his several epistles to the Corinthians, that he intended them for after-ages. For had that been the case, he would have made them as plain and clear as he did the law to Israel, so that every one should understand it alike. And although the law to Israel does not concern us in the present day, yet every one that sees it, reads it alike--it admits of no controversy. But not so with the writings of the apostles, for the best and wisest of men generally all disagree respecting them. And the Scriptures of the primitive Christians from the early ages of Christianity have been one principal cause of all the division, all the controversy, all the war, and all the persecution and cruelty that have convulsed and drenched Christendom in blood ever since it has been called a Christendom.

And does it not impeach the wisdom and goodness of our Gracious Benefactor to suppose he ever intended those writings as a rule, when the best of men cannot understand tham alike? Surely had he intended them as a rule to after-ages, he would have made them as clear as he did his law to Israel.

But the reason is obvious--as the gospel law is inward and spiritual, and cannot be comprehended in outward characters, but must be written in every heart distinctly. As our states and conditions are all different and distinct from each other, so the law of God is distinct in every heart, and is always suited to the state and condition of every heart, and of course must act diversely in each mind, according to the diversity of their several dispositions, propensities, and passions. Therefore no literal law or creed can take place under the gospel--except in moral or outward things--for no outward law can bind the soul, as the government of the soul is exclusively the prerogative of God and not of man." - Elias Hicks, 19th century Quaker minister, Letter to William Poole, 1823

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cidade de Refugio

Cidade de Refugio (City of Refuge), Brazil's first gay Evangelical Christian church.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Big Bang

"If the big bang is truly the beginning of the cosmos, then it is astonishing that it had just that character that made possible the emergence of life in general and of sophisticated forms of life as well. So many things that appear arbitarary in themselves had to have just the character they had and have in order for this to be. The role of a cosmic intelligence concerned for the emergence of complex forms of life would be a natural explanation." - John B. Cobb, Jr., theologian/philosopher

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Violent Reactions to Blasphemy

In the year 1656 James Nayler, one of the leaders of the Quaker movement, was convicted of blasphemy by the British Parliament. He narrowly escaped the death sentence. Instead his punishment was to have the letter "B" branded into his forehead, have his tongue bored through with a red-hot poker, be publically whipped in both London and Bristol and be imprisoned with the requirement that he perform hard labor in order to receive food.

Just a few hundred years ago, throughout Christian Europe and its colonies, one could be arrested, tortured, imprisoned and executed for heresy against the church or blasphemy against Jesus. The words or actions that could get you in trouble might vary from Protestant England and Germany to Catholic France and Italy, but throughout Christendom religious orthodoxy was maintained by force of law and threat of dire punishment. A person who expressed unorthodox beliefs might escape official sanction but still be subjected to mob rule. Again, as an example, Quaker men and women were often beaten by angry Puritan mobs. Anabaptists, Cathars and other minority sects within Christianity suffered similarly on the European continent.

If that was the behavior not so long ago of those who claimed to be defending the honor of Jesus, why should we be surprised to see the same kinds of violent reactions to blasphemy and heresy among some Muslims in Libya and Egypt and Yemen? The problem isn't Islam. The problem is fundamentalism and ignorance and factionalism. The problem is sin and evil masquerading as religion (as it so often does).

Christianity seems to have grown up and moderated itself considerably in the last few hundred years. We still make war in God's name and try to prevent mosques from being built in our neighborhoods but, by and large, we don't kill and maim our fellow citizens for believing differently than we do. Even the more radical elements in Western Christianity seem mostly content to hurl insults and taunts (sometimes in the form of Internet videos) rather than stones.

The religion of Islam began in the early 6th century. It is 600 years younger than Christianity. Islam has not yet had its great Reformation as Christianity did in the 16th century, but some Muslim scholars think that is coming. If some Muslims in some countries are acting now like some Christians in some countries acted 400 years ago, then why shouldn't we also consider that Islam will continue to become more moderate, as Christianity has done. Maybe Christianity just had a head start.

All three of the "Abrahamic faiths"--Islam, Christianity and Judaism--still have a lot of growing up to do.

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." - Jesus

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

This I Believe (Podcast)

In 1951, newsman Edward R. Murrow began a radio program entitled "This I Believe" in which people from all walks of life would give a brief speech describing their core belief, personal philosophy or guiding value. The program ran for a few years and was later revived by NPR.

For one of my seminary classes, we were tasked with creating our own "This I Believe" podcast. Here is mine:

Danny Coleman - This I Believe (MP3)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Let he who is without cash cast the first stone...

I've been thinking about something... The Bible has a lot more to say about sin as it relates to wealth than as it relates to sexuality. An average middle-class American is much wealthier than a majority of people in the world and is outrageously wealthy compared to most people in Biblical times. That being the case, if we want to be preoccupied with sin, we should be plenty busy wrestling with our own--just on the wealth front if nothing else. If we American Christians--being so wealthy--can presume to be accepted by God without having to give up our wealth, why do so many of us presume that other people aren't accepted by God (and therefore not welcome in our churches just as they are) because of their sexuality? We are all beloved ragamuffins before God.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Preaching Up Sin

George Fox and the other early Quakers of the 17th century were not known to shrink away from controversy. In fact, they often seemed to have sought out confrontation with Anglican priests and Puritan preachers. One of the common charges the Quakers levied against the Calvinist Puritans in particular was that they focused too much on "preaching up sin." I always imagine Fox having a bit of a wry smile when leveling this charge against the "hireling preachers" (as he called them) of the day. But I also think there is a deadly serious truth behind the criticism of "preaching up sin" that goes to the core of the meaning of the Christian faith and how we live our lives from day to day.

The Bible, of course, has much to say about sin. I have studied the topic of sin (Hamartiology) in some detail and I think it is an important term to define. Is sin rebellion? Is it ignorance? Or is it simply falling short? My favorite definition of sin comes from Mark Biddle in his book "Missing the Mark", which is that sin is our failure to develop into the fullness of being human and to embrace authentic freedom. I believe that sin is, at its essence, the failure to allow God's love to do its transformative work within us.

A few months ago I led a group through an in-depth study of Atonement Theories (atonement, or at-one-ment, is a word coined by 16th century theologian William Tyndale to describe the reconciliatory work of Christ). Our study lasted several weeks and looked at Christus Victor and Ransom and Satisfaction and Penal Substitution and Moral Influence and Covenantal and Governmental and (my favorite) Narrative Christus Victor. One of the key factors that we discussed was the degree to which the believer participates in appropriating Christ's atoning work. Many, if not most, of the Atonement Theories developed during the history of Christendom are transactional in nature: A transaction was made between Jesus and God (or between God and Satan) in which humans play no direct role other than being dependent upon the success of the transaction for salvation. In those theories, atonement is an abstract and external event. God changed his orientation towards humankind because of Christ's atonement--humankind doesn't change (except perhaps to concur with the necessity of the transaction). Our justification is imputed, rather than infused. And so the bumper sticker says "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven." It follows naturally that if one's theology is built on a transactional view of atonement, then the effects of the atonement are going to be abstracted. Thus, for the Protestant Reformers, humans are always sinners--born into sin and consigned to sin until we die.

But another way to look at the work of Christ is not so much as a change in status from God's perspective that is projected upon us (through the blood of Christ) from the outside, but instead as an intrinsic change that occurs inside of us through the power of Christ. Redemption occurs from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in. Salvation is a process, rather than an event.

The ramifications are profound. An imputed justification from a transactional atonement does not provide (it could be argued) the motivation or empowerment to overcome sin in one's life. It is not transformative. Thus, "preaching up sin" is ultimately a defeatist theology. On the other hand, if we view the work of the Spirit as a redemptive process occurring deep within us--that we can choose to surrender to and cooperate with--where we are convicted but also empowered by God, it results in a hopeful, overcoming and practical theology. As the believer undergoes inner transformation, they transform the world around them (as William Penn wrote, "True religion does not draw men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.").

I think this fundamental difference in ramifications is what the early Quakers were getting at when they spoke out against those who were constantly "preaching up sin." Their criticism strikes me as being just as relevant today (and the solution proposed by Friends just as life-giving) as it was in the 17th century. Belief in substitutionary atonement is the norm for Evangelical Protestantism (many aren't even aware that there are other views) and in recent years there has been a resurgence of neo-Calvinism.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Heresy and Orthodoxy

“Heresy is the youth of truth. Orthodoxy is its decrepit old age. Heresy is thought. Orthodoxy is habit. Heresy is initiative. Orthodoxy is inertia. Heresy is that which is to be. Orthodoxy is that which is and is passing away.

Orthodoxy is self-satisfied, and intolerant of heresy. Heresy is equally self-satisfied, and intolerant of orthodoxy. The orthodox should think better of the heretics. The heretics should think better of the orthodox. For every orthodoxy was once a heresy, and every heresy is fated to become an orthodoxy, for there are successive generations of ideas and institutions, just as there are successive generations of [people] to tell the endless tale of death and life renewed.

All our states were founded by traitors. All our churches were founded by heretics. The patriotism of today glories in the treasons of yesterday. In our churches we bend the knee in cushioned prayer to saints who were once dragged before the tribunals of the orthodox and condemned and hung for their unbelief.

Half of us are heretics. The other half worship heretics. Not even the orthodox worship the orthodox. Every orthodox faith is founded on some old-time heresy. The [people] who conform to the old never win immortal palms. History is unanimous in giving first place to those who find new paths, who think new thoughts, who build new institutions, who found new faiths.

We all like heretics, only some of us like them alive and others like them dead.”

-Herbert Seeley Bigelow (1870-1951), The Religion of Revolution

Monday, September 03, 2012

Does Clint Eastwood represent the values of the Republican Party?

There is something I've been pondering for a few days now... To provide some context, I consider myself, politically, a left-leaning Independent. I am a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. I believe in small government, but I think we should begin with a smaller military. I think legislators have a responsibility to regulate businesses in order to curtail malfeasance and that our tax dollars should be used to provide order, infrastructure and assistance for the least among us. I think social programs are generally a good thing, though I would like to see them managed in a more efficient and less bureaucratic way.

On to the thing I've been pondering: I watched the Republican National Convention (and I will watch the Democratic National Convention). In a nationally televised political convention of this sort, as I understand it, the position of speaking just before the presidential nominee on the final night is extremely important. By that time, the venue is packed and the television viewership is at its highest. It is prime-time and the eyes of America (if not the world) are watching. This is the moment for the party to send a clear message about who they are and what they stand for.

And so, as we all know, the Republicans chose Clint Eastwood for this key speaking slot. I'm not going to say anything here about Mr. Eastwood's speech itself (that horse has been deservedly flogged elsewhere). My point is this: The Republican Party positions itself as the moral, Christian party that believes in "traditional" values, yet for the prime-time warm up to Mitt Romney they selected a man whose fame and persona derive from ultra-violent "Dirty Harry" movies; a man who has fathered seven children by five different women and whose affairs and dalliances are well known. Despite Mr. Eastwood's talent, the message conveyed by having him in this honored speaking slot doesn't match the Party's rhetoric about what it stands for.

And this is what I have found consistently in the Republican party (of which I was a member from the first time I voted--for Ronald Reagan--until sometime during George W. Bush's second term). When you compare the talk to the actions (or better yet, compare the actions against the teachings of Jesus) you see a glaring disconnect. It doesn't match up. At this point in time, I think the Democratic party is probably closer--on the whole--to reflecting the ethos of the Christian faith, as taught by Jesus (which does not mean I consider either the Dems or Repubs to be a godly or "Christian" party).

I'm looking forward to comparing the Democratic National Convention this week with the Republicans last week. I'll be particularly interested in hearing the speech scheduled on the final night, just before President Obama, which will be given by Pee-wee Herman.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The expression on his face says it all...

Quaker Integrity

"Integrity has always been a goal of Friends. It is essential to trust, to all communication between people and between people and God. Integrity grounds our beliefs, thoughts, and actions in our spiritual center and makes us whole. Friends believe that we are called to speak the truth. A single standard of truth requires us to conduct ourselves in ways that are honest, direct, and plain, and to make our choices, both large and small, in accord with the urgings of the Spirit." - Quaker Advices & Queries