Monday, June 24, 2019

Religious Asylum for Our Neighbors


In the spirit of witness,
In the spirit of justice called to us by Jesus,
I want to remind us of a tool in our belt as Christian leaders.
I challenge our denomination to a radical and bold action
– an opportunity to get in the wheelbarrow.

With respect to our witness against immigrant family separation,
I challenge us and propose that we mobilize
To extend an extravagant welcome
To families facing imminent ICE threats
To offer religious asylum
through our churches – this day !
This day because Paul writes “now is the acceptable time!”

I would invite our Church to extend that welcome to other faith communities.
(If you don’t have immigrants in your area, mobilize to support those that do.)

Walking with Jesus may not always be comfortable,
but we are called to Christ’s mission of peace
and commitment to God’s kingdom on Earth!

Let us walk together in radical love of God and our neighbor – all of God’s children!
And May She shine her light upon us
To get in that wheelbarrow!


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Re-visions and Re-formations: Nature of Humanity from Luther and Calvin


Re-visions and Re-formations: Nature of Humanity from Luther and Calvin
Tony E Dillon Hansen
Chicago Theological Seminary

In accordance with RH 3440 History of Christian Thought.
Re-visions and Re-formations: Nature of Humanity from Luther and Calvin
From my youth, I have grown into the Catholic ideas of free-will and justification. My family has roots in the Lutheran tradition via my father, but this has not been part of my theological study until recently.  Since I have been called to serve as pulpit supply for UCC churches with Reformed history, I feel compelled to review John Calvin.  Additionally, the two reformers, Luther and Calvin, present challenges to the Catholic ideas (e.g. Erasmus), which altogether, are shaping my personal theology.  This is continuously evolving and re-forming where I sense myself holding onto some of the Catholic ideas of works while integrating the faith components.
Through Calvin’s (1539) Institutes of Christian Religion and Luther’s (1520) “Concerning Christian Liberty”, we have a sample view of the two reformers. In addition, through the discussion of predestination, there is a sample of the ideas that support notions of sin, atonement and justification.  This paper will consider how these inform as well divert from my perspectives of sin, atonement and justification.

The Catholic Background

Sin can be described as a separation from God or a more deliberate disobedience of God. (McKim, 1996). From my Catholic catechism sin is an ever-present temptation and according to Erasmus (n.d.), a person always has work to do and we have free will as a gift from God (Unger, n.d.) Atonement is then to align oneself closer to God through overcoming the inclination to sin. (Miles, 2005, p.301). This process involves a combination of denial, prohibition or hopeful pre-occupation of other things. Essentially, justification is then declaring a “sinful” person right with God. (McKim, 1996, p.152). Yet, we never know if we have done enough to atone or be justified, and I saw the pain this can cause via my dad’s stated worry during his last months. As a queer person, I am grateful for this gift of “free will” because it is amazing. Yet, it has been tainted by religious structures that restrict one’s expression of that “free will” such as being queer.

Considering Calvin’s Total Depravity and Predestination

Calvin’s theology is the genesis of the Reformed and Congregational churches of the UCC, however it feels like he preaches from a core of negativity. His notion of all humanity as totally depraved where we, as human beings, are sinful and displeasing to God by nature seems completely defeating. It puts Augustine’s idea of original sin, where we are descendants from the fall, into overdrive. Further, he fully casts blame upon Adam’s “infidelity” and “revolt” because we are now irrational and inherent “viciousness.” (Calvin, 1539).   This however points away from one’s own actions. Through Christ’s obedience, we might have forgiveness in the afterlife; however this theology does not seem to encourage forgiveness today, especially for Adam.
The atonement then is to “abandon all dependence upon [one]self” and “meditate upon divine worship” in order to clamor and to crave the grace. (Calvin, 1539, p. 3). This sounds like Buddhist ideas of enlightenment paths (if we ignore the craving.) While one must clamor for God’s grace, this feels fruitless, especially with the idea of divine election where being elected through Christ is justification. I can see why this would appeal to people to be part of a select group as it can appeal to ego to be part of this group.  Yet, one would wonder (or erroneously assume) whether we belong to that people because this is a coin-flip chance of justification before one/I even took a breath.
As well, through this predestination theory, Calvin challenges universal equality within humanity. (Beveridge, n.d.). In regard to history, I see how this has been foundational to abusive slavery policy and robbing Native Americans because those hateful actions were justified through this idea of presupposed, elect people. How did birth give one presumed privilege whereas others are presumed to be doomed? Inherently, this is not hospitable to social cohesion in an equal society – because such a society does not exist to Calvin. This explains some of the attitudes towards queer people as well because we might be automatically assumed as inferior by nature simply because we are different.
Even without regard to history, this theology raises many questions for me. God has already made my destination. What else is there for me to do because obedience and craving for justification feels futile. If we are elected, one is not compelled to be or to do Christ’s work. I just “praise God from whom all blessings flow” to give thanks for being selected (or so I hope.)
I do align with Calvin’s ideas that Spirit works through scripture and we might be “drawn to obey” in part because of the “irresistible” grace (Miles, 2005, p. 272-273). I agree with the idea that, without Spirit, the Bible page is “nothing but black marks on a page.” (Miles, 2005, p. 273). The Scripture is how we know Spirit, sin, atonement, and justification.  The Spirit lifts these lessons for us to learn and to see in our experience.

Considering Luther’s Wandering Mind and God’s Will

Luther’s (1520) approach is to understand the person as twofold: of spirit and of the body.  Our body causes us to wander about in sin where various parts of our lives are sinful activity or thought. Yet, our spirit can reconcile those and make us closer to God through faith in God’s divine plan. Then, Luther’s understanding of atonement to sin is that faith is enough for a person to gain justification, which solves the enough question. Had I known about this around my father during his last days, this idea of faith would have provided much comfort, especially since my father was raised in the Lutheran tradition. From my perspective also as a Catholic, queer person constantly examining my thoughts, this feels like it allows me to be queer and spiritual.
Further, Luther (1520) says our nature as free and equal Christians already positions and encourages us to do God’s work. This equality is in stark contrast to Calvin’s human nature as shameful and unequal. Yet, faith becomes mere rhetoric without a need to demonstrate the good of Christ through our actions.

Re-forming My Vision

My evolving vision derives from each of these while arguing against points in each.  Interestingly, there is a common element, which purpose was meant to help identify the particular group. Catholics and the reformers each embraced a form of exclusion and intolerance against other theology. This was partially a result of the violence and heresies being issued by churches. Of this cordial belief of presumed supremacy, I find tremendous fault because it has been historically destructive. Christ was with all people regardless of belief or status like with “non-believers” like the woman (John 4:4-42), Roman soldier (Matt. 8:5-13), and on the cross with a thief (Luke 23: 43).
As a member in a progressive Congregational church, I enjoy that God may foresee but does not dictate nor limit where I or people go, and this feels like free will. For Plymouth UCC, we may not address notions of sin often, but examinations, like this here, can help us to understand world history and how it has come to be. I submit that Calvin, however, is so concentrated upon innate failure that he limits the potential for success, with or without Christ. Luther also subscribes to the notion of God’s will but offers a version of equality and liberty from sin. Luther helps this by giving us access to grace even though we sin and not just because we were pre-selected for it. Plymouth’s roots in Calvin do not seem apparent as I do not feel excluded or inferior here, and in some ways, it feels like Lutheran ideas of equality.
I enjoy the reformers’ reliance upon scripture to inform them, and as Calvin suggests, the Spirit works through these pages. Yet, the reformers ought to understand the suffering they have endured via exclusion is what they proposed for others that do not subscribe to their version. I am broken and fall short, but God has made us what and who we are. There is a path to reconciliation, and like Luther and Calvin suggest, faith is a part of that process. Sometimes, as Aquinas (1274) might suggest, evil is there to help us understand the good we can do.

Summary

I find myself falling somewhat closer to Luther along with the Catholic ideas of free will.  As a Buddhist, craving even “irresistible grace” can be a source of problems. Further in that mindset, evil cannot be my focus or else my being will be consumed by evil. We fail and we will again. God has revealed to us that God is forgiving, even during judgment (e.g. exile and return to Israel.) Jesus tells us in Luke 6:36-38 to forgive because God already has. So, let God be where God is, and listen to the Spirit speaking to us in scripture for paths that may be destined for us because God invites us to our journeys.
While not being comprehensive of my theology, the reformers and I have some shared traits, but I also question the nature of reforms and traditions lifted. Further, my experience with the abuse of these paths challenges what they could be. As a young queer Catholic then exposed to Asian traditions, I view Luther and Calvin with hopeful, but critical, pause - especially Calvin. I like what he says about Scripture and how he somewhat agrees with Luther about grace being given to us, yet he put significant conditions upon that. This has scared me with respect to my role in my denomination, but I resolve to let Calvin be where he was. The Church is big enough for both of us.  I pray that “asking [God’s] blessing …knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own (Kennedy, Jan 1961).
References
Aquinas, T. (1274). Summa Theologica. CCEL.org  Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.html.
Beveridge, H. (n.d.) John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion. Retrieved from https://ctschicago.instructure.com/courses/85/pages/required-erasmus-luther-and-calvin-on-free-will-and-predestination?module_item_id=6564.
Cole, H. (n.d.) Luther, The Bondage of the Will. Retrieved from https://ctschicago.instructure.com/courses/85/pages/required-erasmus-luther-and-calvin-on-free-will-and-predestination?module_item_id=6564
Calvin, J. (1539) Institutes of Christian Religion. Retrieved from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iv.ii.html.
Kennedy, J. F. (Jan. 1961). Inaugural Address. JFK Library. Retrieved from https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/historic-speeches/inaugural-address
Luther, M. (1520). Concerning Christian Liberty. Retrieved from http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/cclib-2.html.
McKim, D. K. (1996). Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.