‘Taste’ and see that the Lord is good?

foodSeveral years ago on a warm fall evening at Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, I enjoyed a memorable meal. Roughly 100 people had gathered for a community feast. Though some of the meal was prepared by cooks from Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, the rest was potluck, and so included some of the freshest and best-tasting greens, tortillas, salsa, and chicken I have ever had. As our backdrop we enjoyed a double rainbow on a massive thundercloud to the east, while the sun slowly made its way down the horizon behind us. Children were running around blowing and catching bubbles. Others danced to the sound of a live bluegrass band. The taste of delectable food, the sounds of laughter and singing, the aroma of fresh flowers and harvest, the hugs of friends and neighbors, and the sensation of a cooling fall night all came together in what I considered a foretaste of heaven.

Why should I or anyone else think that this meal mattered? Is the invocation of heaven not overdrawn? After all, the evening has passed, and the physical sensations are no longer effective in me. No matter how much or how finely I eat, I, along with all the other animal and plant bodies, will still die, and so return to the soil out of which we came and upon which we daily feed. But what if that night and the communion it enacted is indeed a glimpse, however imperfect, of what life ultimately is meant to be?

In this book I develop a theological account of eating, a framework for assessing eating’s immediate and ultimate significance. Though it is possible to describe food and eating in countless ways, from a Christian point of view what food is and why eating matters are best understood in terms of God’s own Trinitarian life of gift and sacrifice, hospitality and communion, care and celebration. Trinitarian theology asserts that all reality is communion – the giving and receiving of gifts – because it has its source and sustenance in the eternal Triune love described by theologians as perichoresis, a making room within oneself for another to be. This means that nothing in creation exists by itself, in terms of itself, or for itself. Creatures are marked from beginning to end by the need to receive the gifts of nurture. Inspired by Jesus Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to turn our homes into places of hospitality and ourselves into nurture for others. At its best, eating is a sharing and welcoming movement that makes room for others.

According to this theological view, we don’t really understand food until we perceive, receive, and taste it in terms of its origin and end in God as the one who provides for, communes with, and ultimately reconciles creation. Created life is God’s love made tastable and given for the good of another. The mundane act of eating is thus a daily invitation to move responsibly and gratefully within this given life. It is a summons to commune with the divine Life that is presupposed and made manifest in every bite.

This claim will be difficult to swallow for people who are convinced that food consists of little more than a bundle of nutrients that we simply need to get in the right quantities, variety, and proportion. According to this view, food is primarily a fuel we need to keep our machine-like bodies running at an optimal level. Though some food may taste better than other food, there is little about it that should give us pause for wonder or reverence. Though people in the past may have stopped to say grace before eating a meal, today’s educated eater is taught that food is simply a manufactured product that we control.

This is an impoverished description of food. While it is certainly true that we can speak of bread as a collection of material elements (water, salt, yeast, flour), reducing food to this level is like opening a letter and judging it to be nothing more than a page covered with random markings. Rather than reading the marks “I LOVE YOU!” to communicate a life-altering pronouncement inviting a response, all one sees are characters on a page worthy of little more than a passing notice.

Similarly, we can look at a meal and see only a random assortment of nutrients, oblivious to the grace of God made manifest in it. We can forget that food is one of God’s basic and abiding means for expressing divine provision and care. To partake of a meal is to participate in a divine communication. The Psalmist (104:10–15) puts it this way:

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal…
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.

To grow food and eat in a way that is mindful of God is to collaborate with God’s own primordial sharing of life in the sharing of food with each other. It is to participate in forms of life and frameworks of meaning that have their root and orientation in God’s caring ways with creation.

It takes education, a catechesis within particular communities and traditions, to enable a person to see that the marks on a page are actually words that, if one has the requisite intelligence, sympathy, and imagination, can convey a wide range of meanings. Sometimes these meanings are shallow or of merely temporary interest. But other times they are profound and personally transformative. Knowing the difference is part of what it means to be a good reader. Though one may learn to read, the possibility always exists that one will be indolent, inattentive, or indifferent; the reader sees the words but has not really digested them.

In a similar manner, eaters can consume a wide variety of foods and not really savor any of it as God’s love made nurture for us. To eat with theological appreciation presupposes reverence for creation as the work of God’s hands. It entails spiritual formation in which we allow God the Gardener (Genesis 2:8) to conform us to his image as the one who looks after and provides for creatures. In this work we learn where and who we are by becoming tillers and keepers of God’s edible garden (Genesis 2:15). Without this ongoing catechesis we run the risk of reducing the gift of food and the grace of eating to a desecration. We risk undermining the ecological and cultural conditions necessary for healthy and convivial life together.

In advanced industrial societies, where speed, convenience, and cheap prices have become the most valued characteristics in food consumption, it is hardly surprising that eating has become thoughtless and irresponsible. Though everyone chews, relatively few eat with much understanding of or sympathy for the widespread destruction of the world’s agricultural lands and communities or the misery of billions of factory-produced chickens, sheep, pigs, and cattle. Today’s handling of food does not often go much beyond concerns for its appearance, availability, and price. In our global economy food is a commodity much like any other, serving the business need for profit, the consumer desire for cheapness, and the political quest for power. In this context, food ceases to speak as the grace of God. Eating ceases to be the occasion through which we experience life as a membership of belonging, responsibility, and gratitude.

(From the Preface of Norman Wirzba’s Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating)

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Christ the Heart of Creation

heart of creationI have my eye on Rowan Williams’ new book Christ the Heart of Creation (2018) to purchase when it reaches the top of my to-read list and as soon as my allowance permits. From the table of contents it looks to be like a published (expanded?) version of his 2016 Hulsean Lectures “Christ and the Logic of Creation” which, it seems, you can listen to, and download, in their entirety here.

So looking forward to these!

God as Sacrificial Love

eikremThere is much to say about Asle Eikrem’s God as Sacrificial Love (T&T Clark, 2018). I got out of pure interest, suspecting it would be another run of the mill passibilist account of God as being the truth of our pain and suffering. But it’s not that. It’s much more. I’m nowhere near processing it, but I’ll offer his thoughts on one issue about which we agree – mortality:

“To begin with, I will argue that death, as such, is no penalty. It is simply a consequence of being a finite human. Furthermore, Jesus did not experience death as absolute ontological separation from God. Rather his death and resurrection revealed the only relational power able to transform the meaning of mortality as an existential condition of humanity in a way that overcomes it as the ultimate threat to fellowship. Jesus did not die the death of a sinner, but died in God and so ‘by the power of an indestructible life’ he freed those ‘who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’ (Heb. 7.16; 2.14b, Mk 5.36; 1Jn 4.17). Does this mean that the death and resurrection of Jesus do not confront human beings with their sin(s)? No, but this confrontation is not related to the manner of his death on the cross, but to his prophetic critique of injustice, his practice of healing and forgiveness, and in his resurrection from the dead. Also, and importantly, the resurrection of Jesus is not only that of someone who died, but also that of a murder-victim. The way in which Jesus died was an expression of someone becoming the object of sin (Rom 8.3). It was not a divine penalty, but an affliction brought on him by the hands of human beings. God’s ultimate judgement upon sin did not manifest itself in Jesus’ suffering on the cross, but in the empty grave.”

Regarding love as essentially ‘self-sacrificial’, he writes:

“The second line of critique rejects that just relationships will ever be established if we depart from explicating the relationship in God, and between God and humanity, by recourse to such relational dynamics. If self-sacrifice means self-emptying (or selflessness) it is a relational problem, not a solution. Insofar as true love requires the existence of relaters who are truly other to each other, the absorption of one of the relaters into the other makes true love impossible. What we need then is a notion of God, the relational life of whom is one of strict mutuality (or equality), both in relation to Godself and in relation to humanity…True love (or justice) will only be actualized where two (or more) persons give to each other without giving up anything of that which constitutes them as persons, that is, their capacity to pursue their own aims in freedom. This will neither be achieved if we base our moral lives on a Trinitarian theology according to which the Son gives himself up to the Father, the Father gives up his Son, or where the Father gives up himself in the Son. Correspondingly, the Christological problem is that neither a Christ emptying himself of his humanity, nor of his divinity, will actualize true mutuality. True mutuality is only present where the personhood and equality of all involved are preserved and nurtured.”

(Asle Eikrem is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Norway.)

God giver not seeker of value

william-sloane-coffin1I come back to William Coffin (pastor, Yale Chaplain, peace activist, writer) every year. Some writers spray buckshot and hope to hit something. Coffin was a sniper – every sentence a focused truth that strikes the center. He writes:

Of God’s love we can say two things: it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift…Because our value is a gift, we don’t have to prove ourselves, only to express ourselves, and what a world of difference there is between proving ourselves and expressing ourselves. (Emphasis mine)

That God’s love doesn’t seek our value but create it (and unconditionally so) may be the single most important truth I’ve been learning and growing in the past few years. The theological implications are profound, for what one must supposes God to be for it to be the case that he creates or gives all created things their value as opposed to seeking their value. It may be the deepest flaw and weakness of Process theology (and other ‘relational’ theologies, open and otherwise, of a passibilist persuasion) that they view God as enriching himself through the pursuit and realization of value that exists outside himself.

Happy New Year.

Suffering and the search for meaning—Part 1

suffer3I first met Richard Rice in Boston nearly ten years ago. He’s a brilliant thinker and a kind and generous conversation partner. I circle back around to his contributions in Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists (2009), especially Ch. 4 “Process Theism and the Open View of God: The Crucial Difference,” from time to time. He understands and appreciates Hartshorne but clearly sees the inadequacies of process theism. Just today I reread (I’m in reread mode this week) his Suffering and the Search for Meaning (2014), a book he published to summarize conversations and conclusions reached from having taught a class on suffering and theodicy to graduate students in the field of health sciences.

There are three reasons why I like this book:

The first is it seeks to explore the practical consequences our beliefs in God have for informing and sustaining us during times of suffering. The question it tries to answer is: How do we find meaning in suffering? And whenever someone honestly sets himself to address that question, count me in the conversation. Rice recognizes the value of purely philosophical arguments. They have their place. But in the end their usefulness is for life, for living well and meaningfully in and through suffering. So the practical-existential challenge of living is why we are even philosophically interested in such questions. A nice feature of his attempt to deal with the practical, ‘lived’, dimension of our beliefs is that each approach to suffering is worked out in terms of people’s actual stories. So you get to observe how somebody holding that particular view of God ‘world constructs’ or ‘makes meaning’ within the constraints of and resources provided by his/her view of God’s relationship to their suffering.

The second reason I like this book is that it gathers into a short volume helpful summaries of popular approaches to the question of suffering. Separate books have been written on each approach, but it’s nice to have the main options in a single volume.

The third reason I appreciate Rice here is that he doesn’t take a narrow, fundamentalist posture about the options. He has definite convictions, sure. But he recognizes there is something of value in each approach, something good that each approach recognizes and seeks to protect. He also recognizes the integrity of every person’s honest attempt to integrate suffering in a meaningfully and purposeful way. He is never condescending, insulting, or dismissive.

I’d like to briefly summarize the approaches Rice presents and then come back in Part 2 with some responses. I’ll also add an eighth approach to Rice’s seven. Here are his seven theodicies:

God Never Makes Mistakes | Perfect Plan Theodicy
Perfect plan theodicy is essentially that deterministic view of the world that sees every event of life as unconditionally determined by God. Whatever happens to us, however heinous the evil or devastating the loss, God specifically wills it, and nothing occurs outside God’s meticulous determination of things. Obviously how a person world-constructs within the framework of such a view is dependent upon the meaning-making options this view provides. One’s attempt to construct meaning and purpose, regardless of the suffering experienced or the nature of the evil behind it, can never step outside viewing such evil as unconditionally determined by God. There is no gratuitous evil, and whatever purpose God may have in determining suffering and evil for me, the fundamental truth that shapes my ‘meaning-making’ process in suffering is simply the conviction that nothing happens to me that is not meticulously decreed for me purposefully by God. There is, Rice notes, a certain appeal to this view of things. It appeals to our innate desire for order. We naturally want to fit the events of our lives into a purposeful narrative, and the ‘perfect plan theodicy’ eliminates all talk of risk, change occurrence, and capriciousness.

Let Freedom Ring | The Free Will Defense
The second theodicy Rice summarizes is the Free Will defense. It’s an explanation with a long tradition with different versions. From this view, God does not decree or will evil and suffering and so is not responsible for it. Rather, God has endowed us with a certain measure of ‘say-so’ or free will. And that, not some divine decree, explain the origin of evil and suffering.

Rice is aware that this brings up the question (for those views that view creation as a free act of God) of whether giving human beings such freedom to self-dispose is good and wise. It also leaves unaddressed (or very awkwardly addressed) the question of natural evil (animal suffering and suffering caused by natural catastrophes unrelated to any human moral agency). Nevertheless, a person seeking meaning and purpose in suffering within this view would world-construct very differently that the above ‘perfect plan’ perspective. One populates the world with agents exercising their wills in ways God does not determine or decree that they should, what suffering means to my life and purpose is viewed quite differently. I don’t look for some specific purpose in and behind every evil. Whatever meaning and purpose I construct within the context of my suffering, I do not begin with the assumption that God has decreed my suffering for me. God is responsible for the possibility of evil, but not the actuality of evil. For the perfect plan theodicy, suffering fulfills God’s purposes and designs. For the free will defense, suffering conflicts with God’s objectives.

No Pain, No Gain | Soul Making Theodicy
Soul making theodicies resemble perfect plan theodicies in some ways and the free will defense in other ways. Proponents of the “soul making” theodicy agree that we are free in a non-determinisitc way, but they integrate suffering purposefully in ways free will theists often deny. They believe evil and suffering have positive roles to play in shaping or ‘making’ us, but they don’t necessarily see God’s will behind every evil. John Hick is largely responsible for the use of the term “soul making.” Hick grounds his arguments in the views of the Church father Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202 AD) who argued that human perfection was the ‘end’ and not the ‘beginning’ of human existence. We were meant to ‘become’ mature, responsible, loyal, obedient, good, etc., and becoming this requires pain and suffering. No pain, no gain.

jobWhile there is a certain appeal to this approach as well, Rice questions its stand along adequacy. Do evil and suffering always achieve their ‘soul making’ objectives? It seems they do not. If the purpose of suffering is to perfect our character, where are the perfect people? So the question arises as to whether or not the benefits that come from suffering a worth the costs, particularly in the case of “horrendous evils” (Rice brings in Marilyn McCord-Adams work here). Some evil is so horrendous, so overwhelmingly definitive of one’s experience, leaving many permanently damaged for life, it’s hard to imagine benefits that would justify a divine soul making policy which exposes innocent children to evils far greater than their capacities to integrate.

An Enemy Hath Done This | Cosmic Conflict Theodicy
With this explanation of evil and suffering, the material created order is viewed as the stage upon which a cosmic war is being waged between God and fallen angelic agencies led by Lucifer (Satan, the devil) who are in active rebellion against God’s creative purposes. Rice develops the main lines of this view nicely and notes the relevant proponents, focusing on Greg Boyd’s work (in addition to Ellen White) as a recent good example of this worldview.

This view has certain advantages. It’s able to take the biblical narrative about spiritual agencies working at cross purposes with God seriously without dismissing it as so much mythology. Very little of the serious work being done on theodicy even takes time to mention the reality and role of malevolent spiritual forces. Cosmic conflict theodicies essentially do away with the distinction between ‘moral’ and ‘nature’ evil (moral evil being evil brought about through the moral choices of responsible moral agents; natural evil refers to suffering caused by natural evils – tornadoes, tsunamis, mud slides, earthquakes, tree limbs falling on passers-by, etc.) presumably unrelated to the choices of any moral agent. Boyd argues it’s false to view natural evil this way, that in fact all such events are ‘moral’ in the sense that they are caused by the choices of malevolent spiritual agencies perverting the natural order and orchestrating matter toward destructive ends.

A proponent of cosmic conflict theodicy like Boyd would of course make use of the resources within the free will defense and open theism. But cosmic warfare theodicy adds an element not explicitly a part of these other approaches, for now even natural events are to be viewed as the effects of choices being made by innumerable spiritual agencies (causing tornadoes, pushing tectonic plates, orchestrating mud slides and forcing lava from volcanoes). This would certain redefine the explanatory resources a person suffering from natural disasters would have. If I suffer the loss of someone I love due to a flash flood or a tornado, I needn’t suffer the additional pain of wondering why an omnipotent, loving God would not stop such events if doing so would interfere with no one’s free will. On this view, all events in the nature order are the consequence of a host of competing wills (divine, angelic, human). Spiritual agencies promoting and contesting God’s will are at work behind all natural events. Everything is contested.

Love Makes the World Go Round | Openness of God Theodicy
Open theists argues that the relationship between God and the world, as it regards providence and outcomes, is very interactive. They share the essential commitments of the free will defense and may enjoy the perceived benefits of both the soul making and cosmic conflict theodicies. The unique contribution that open theism makes to a person’s ability to explain evil and integrate pain and suffering into a meaningful and healthy narrative for living is its claim that God does not eternally foreknow future contingencies, that is, divine providence is not the unfolding in time of an absolute blueprint of precisely how the world’s events occur. Whether the blueprint is conceived as determined by the will of God (perfect plan theodicy) or simply foreknown (timelessly or otherwise, along classical Arminian and even Orthodox lines), open theism argues there is no one blueprint in God’s mind or will that maps out exactly how the world’s possibilities will as a matter of fact unfold, certainly nothing that would be providentially useful.

The perceived existential benefit here is that a person suffering from some evil isn’t attempting to reconcile their suffering with the fact that God eternally knows this specific evil shall occur as it does and that God determined to permit such evil on the basis of such foreknowledge (as some traditions argue). That explanation of my suffering isn’t available to the open theist. I may seek to integrate evil and suffering in the construction of an existentially viable worldview based on God’s foreknowing such evils as a possibility, but there’s no place for an understanding of providence that includes a blueprint worldview.

Even God Can’t Do Everything | Finite God Theodicy
Process theism offers resources for world-construction and meaning-making which are radically different from other approaches here described. On the immediate surface of things, Process affirms generally what other Christian approaches affirm, i.e., that God cares deeply about the world, that God involved in and responsive to the world, that he wisely and lovingly pursue the world’s highest good. “But,” Rice summarizes, “there is only so much God can do. God doesn’t have the sort of power that enables God to achieve everything God wants just by willing it to be so, or by directly, unilaterally, acting within the world to accomplish it.”

From the Process view, the idea that God wills or permits all events and omnipotently brings all things to pass is mistaken. Power as coercion, or as unilateral determination, of any created entity is out of the question on the Process view. God lures, convinces, draws, influences, yes. God cannot determine things. This is so because some measure of creative self-determination is the sine qua non of creation’s integrity as non-divine. But as clearly as Process theists insist upon the reality of every Created entity’s distinction from God, they are as passionately committed to the belief that the God-World relationship is necessary and mutually determining of both God and the world. God suffers fully and essentially in and with the world and both God and world are in a process of mutual becoming.

Obviously theodicy follows the contours of such a view of God, the most serious considerations (in my view) here are eschatological in nature. With few (vague) exceptions, Process theologians do not hope for the permanent survival of personal existence beyond the grave, nor are no ultimate or final guarantees regarding temporal outcomes in the near future nor for the defeat of evil in the long run. God is present suffering with us, grieving as we grieve, and always offering the world creative aims for future possibilities, but we are “on our own” outside of these provisions. God cannot offer metaphysical closure to the question of evil.

Rage Against the Dying of the Light | Protest Theodicies
Protest theologies, as the name suggest, represent a fundamental rage against attempts to reconcile the world as it is with the existence of a loving and competent Creator. These needn’t be thoughtless or uninformed viewpoints. Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov represents as thoughtful and penetrating a protest imaginable (perhaps the only protest really imaginable). But one can find a range of less carefully thought out reasons for protest. Rice has some very good observations in this chapter about the weak foundations upon which atheism and protest theodicies are built, but since they don’t represent a version of faith enduring suffering, I’ll leave things there.

Back in a few with Part 2.

Theology in the Flesh

sandersJohn Sanders is a first-rate scholar and a real gentleman. At lunch this past week we got a bit of an overview from him about his upcoming book Theology in the Flesh. I’ve pre-ordered mine. It’s coming out this August. So we’ll definitely have something to talk about this fall! Greg’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (Is that what it was finally titled?) is due out a year later.