In this series, we’re reviewing the book, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy. In this post, we’ll be reviewing chapters 14-16.
Chapter 14: Honoring Creation
In this chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy show how a dualistic view of creation can be detrimental to our world. They counter that with what theologians call “panentheism.” “Not to be confused,” they say, “with the ‘God is everything’ of pantheism, theologians have dubbed the subtle yet very different understanding of ‘God in everything’ as panentheism” (pg. 138). And later, they say,
Embracing a consciousness of the Divine in everything and everything being enveloped by the Divine counters the dualist idea of God being somewhere “out there” with a profound and immediate awareness of the divine presence here and now (pg. 138).
This plays to my Celtic leanings. For those who don’t know, the “Celtic” Christians of yore had a unique understanding of the world, as compared to that of the “Roman” Christians. While the Roman Christians tended to view others with suspect, the Celtic Christians seemed to see G‑d in others and nature. As John Scotus Eriugena said, “Every visible or invisible creature is a theophany or appearance of God.”
Felten and Procter-Murphy go on to say:
Consider the lilies of field and the porpoises of the sea — the tide pool and the stars. Being awestruck implies a sudden experience of mystery, an awareness of beauty and power that transcends the mundane. That awareness and awe of seeing God in all things and all things in God is an integral part of the spiritual life — and pleads for a response (pg. 139).
Of course, since the “Roman” way won the day at the Synod of Whitby, most of our Christian heritage is steeped with their understanding of the very things Felten and Procter-Murphy are discussing in this book — original sin, substitutionary atonement, eternal torture and hell, and our view of the earth and our responsibilities to it. As they say in pages 139-140,
Unfortunately, the hoped for response from some Christians has not been gratitude or responsibility, but exploitation...driven by the conviction that God has granted human beings “dominion over...every living thing that moves upon earth” (Gen. 1:28)...[Some rapture-oriented Christians] believe that the divine plan is for God to dramatically and violently enter into history and remake the world. From this perspective, environmentalists are obstructionists, and Christians who defend the environment out of a sense of obligation to be good stewards are seen to be working counter to God’s will.
And while Felten and Procter-Murphy acknowledge these types of sentiments haven’t been “openly promoted,” they’re embedded within the subconscious of so many people. For example, I remember having a conversation with my Mother about this many years ago. And I think what I said to her was something like, “Why take care of the planet if it’s just going to be destroyed when Jesus comes back?”
Felten and Procter-Murphy end this section with a quote from Megan McKenna:
Most of [the environmental destruction that’s] happened on the earth has happened in the last fifty years, when Christian nations have been the apex of society, using religious texts to validate what they do. Never once are we asking, “Are we insulting the God of Creation by the way we live and what we do — and using the God of Creation to destroy it?” That’s spitting in the face of God (pg. 141).
Next, Felten and Procter-Murphy move from a general concern for the planet to concerns for animals when they ask, “WWJE” (what would Jesus eat; pg. 141)? They start that section with a brilliant quote from Henry David Thoreau:
Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.
Felten and Procter-Murphy then spend some time looking at something I’ve seen — a vegetarian diet seems to be the “biblical ideal for not only human beings but the animals, as well” (pg 142). They trace the same passages I do in this post. Next, they quote theologian John Sniegocki who “advocates vegetarianism as a ‘powerful way of modeling God’s love through nonviolence, compassion for animals, care for the earth, care for our bodies, and responsible use of the earth’s resources’” (pg. 143). The last paragraph here is spot on:
Part of honoring creation will involve unlearning the notion of dominion as license to do whatever we want with creation. A dominion pattered on care and responsibility will help address the unsustainable use of land, water, and energy that our culture has fallen into. As we wrestle with the depletion of resources that threaten the future of humanity, even the food we choose to eat can become a part of our spiritual discipline (pg. 143).
Chapter 15: A Kingdom Without Walls
With this chapter, we start the last section of the book, Transformation. I have to say that this chapter reminded a lot of the Lindisfarne Community, the neo-monastic community of which I’m a professed member and an ordained priest. In this chapter, Felten and Procter-Murphy show that following The Way of Jesus is not about who’s “in” or “out” but about breaking down barriers between “us” and “them” (see Ephesians 2.14-16). Especially in regards to how we treat the “stranger.”
Over and over, Hebrew scripture lists three groups of people as worthy of special kindness, extra thoughtfulness, and intentional consideration: strangers, widows, and orphans (see Lev. 19:10; Deut. 10:18; 14:29). The legal mandates in the Old Testament are unique among the other known judicial systems in the Ancient Near East in their consistent and outspoken advocacy of the weakest, least protected, and disadvantaged members of the society (pg. 151).
Felten and Procter-Murphy explain that “‘strangers’ are listed with ‘widows and orphans’ because strangers were alone — they lacked any kinship connection that would otherwise protect and support them” (pg. 151). Then they quote John Shelby Spong as saying, “If the love of God is bounded by my tribe or my race or my gender or my sexual orientation or my religion, then the love of God becomes one more human idol” (pg. 153).
Exactly. Followers of The Way of Jesus must be like Christ and see past our own prejudices. As we say in the Lindisfarne Community, we must “be as Christ to those we meet, [and] find Christ within them.” And to do that, we have to get out of our comfort zones. For example, my wife told me yesterday that she took food to a homeless person she noticed sleeping under an overpass. She stepped out of her comfort zone (quite literally) and saw that person as a person — not as a stranger or a homeless person (or worse), but a person who needed “intentional consideration.”
Felten and Procter-Murphy go on to write:
Jesus repeatedly shattered the rules of ritual purity and cultural expectations of separation from “the other”...We’re called to love our neighbor as we do our own self. That love is more than just a superficial, Hi, how are you? It involves cost, risk, and vulnerability to provide a safe place for people who are lonely, rejected by society, or beat up by others or the circumstances of life (pg. 154).
And in their section on Hospitality or Hostility?, they write:
The word hospitality is translated from the Greek philonexia. Its root is the same word from which we get the word xenophobia. Our treatment of the “alien” or “foreigner” reveals our core values of hospitality or hostility toward those who are different. Seeing the face of Christ in the stranger at our door is often a challenge. But the spirit of hospitality found in the Bible recognizes the child of God in everyone and obliges us a to treat one another accordingly (pg. 157).
I couldn’t agree more. And I must confess, “recogniz[ing] the child of God in everyone” as one’s intention toward others is really hard to do sometimes! But, I’ll let you in on a little secret…
It will change your life.
The alternative, however, is to continue a type of hostility that the rest of the world knows all too well. As Felten and Procter-Murphy point out on page 160:
We have built theological walls of every conceivable type — language, actions, beliefs, liturgy, music, requirements, expectations, education, rigidity, race, class, sex, orienation, gender identity, etc. — all meant to keep out the people we think are somehow less deserving of inclusion than we are — all to promote the worship of the idols of conformity and status quo. Without giving a second thought to what it says to the outsider, some of us cling to these walls for the reassuring comfort that what we know and are familiar with will not change. For others, these walls are the final proof that what Christianity has to offer is primarily hypocrisy and selfishness.
It’s as if we have lost what Jesus even taught in words or actions. How is that we can claim that we are followers of Jesus if we don’t do the things he did? As Felten and Procter-Murphy rightly emphasize in closing this chapter:
The gospel makes an appeal to us to tear down the walls, to reach out to those who are strangers, those who are far off, those against whom we harbor prejudice — even our enemies. The gospel engenders a radical hospitality that requires boundaries be crossed, barriers be dismantled, and walls be torn down (pg. 162).
Chapter 16: Social Justice — Realizing God’s Vision
Speaking an authoritative word from Yahweh, the prophets of Hebrew scripture stood in judgment over the political and religious leaders of the people. Today, the popular notion of a prophet has been gutted of any suggestion of spiritual or moral insight in favor of the image of a prognosticator of sensational and superficial coming events (pg. 165).
This is how Felten and Procter-Murphy start of this chapter. And, boy, is it a whopper! One would think a chapter on social justice would be about something other than prophets and prophecy, but that shows how far we’re removed from the role of prophets in scripture. Felten and Procter-Murphy point out that our understanding of prophets today has been “gutted of its distinguished biblical heritage” of speaking truth to power about social issues “in favor of divination of the future, clairvoyance, and a scandalous misuse of the bible to predict the apocalypse” (pg. 166). They contrast today’s view of prophets with that of Amos, one of my favorite prophets from the Hebrew scriptures:
Amos denounced israel and its neighbors for their reliance on military might, for grave injustice in social dealings, for their abhorrent immorality, and their shallow, meaningless piety. Needless to say, he was unpopular with religious and political leaders — and anyone else whose status, wealth, and security relied on maintaining the status quo (pg. 166).
Oh how we need true prophets like Amos today! Like Felten and Procter-Murphy point out on page 168, true prophets “remind us of God’s character.” When one reads through the words of prophets like Amos, one sees that G‑d cares about the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized, etc. The very people whom Israel used to be. And because of their former status, they should have a soft place in their hearts for them. But, as so often the case when one is no longer being bullied or oppressed, after generations of acceptance and power and status and wealth, one forgets what it’s like to be under the boot of a tyrant. This is what happened to followers of Jesus when the religion of Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. And for a lot of the Western world, that is still the case.
“Being a disciple is not only a matter of receiving, but doing,” Felten and Procter-Murphy state on page 171. They go one to flesh this out:
Upon closer investigation, it seems that what passes for Christianity today is really two different religions. One encourages people to ask, What can God do for me? (Save me, give me victory, make me prosperous and successful) while the other asks, What can I do for God? (What gifts have I been given to serve the less fortunate and change the world for the better?) When someone asks you, Are you saved? what he means is, Have you had a personal experience of God’s grace in your life so that ou can accept Jesus as your personal Savior? What he doesn’t ask is, Have you been in relationship with the poor in this world? Have you fed the hungry? Are you seeking justice for the oppressed?
I gather that what they’re meaning by this is that, while there are “two different religions” they’re supposed to be one and the same. The first should lead us directly into the second. But, for a lot of us, we camp out in the first part. And that, my friends, is not really good news for the world. It becomes a grotesque caricature of religion (remembering that “religion” comes from the word to re-join) masquerading as piety when it’s actually just another self-help gathering.
Christianity today has lost the cutting, biting edge of the cross.
Especially since it doesn’t address the needs of the outcast and marginalized. As James points out:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well” — but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless (James 2.14-17; NLT).
But what is one to do? Like Felten and Procter-Murphy point out on page 173, “For many...the thought of seeking social justice is an intimidating proposition.” Or, the totality of the issues is just so overwhelming. What with war, disease, poverty, abuse, rape, homelessness, climate change, inequality, etc., one can be completely engulfed by the tsunami of injustice and drown in its seemingly infinite power. The solution, however, isn’t the “big stuff;” it’s the little day-by-day things that make a difference. Quoting Emilie Townes, they note:
The prophetic life is one in which you live your faithfulness out of a steadiness...It is doing the right thing day after day after day and moment after moment. It is not these big movements. It is not the big statements of great profound eloquence. It really is doing it every day (pg. 173).
Felten and Procter-Murphy end this chapter with some very wise words that strike at the heart of the matter and address a desperate need in our world — hope:
The prophets appealed to the people of God to wake up to the injustices being perpetrated right in their midst. Each person standing up, striking out against injustice — even in the midst of the mundane — sends out a ripple of hope...The prophets clung to the conviction that judgment proclaimed out of hope for a renewed relationship with the Divine would yield a better, more just, and peaceful future. Far from being hateful or unpatriotic, today’s prophets engage in social criticism out of that same hope, a conviction that “doing justice” is essential to expressing both a vital faith and building a world at peace (pg. 174).
And what can one say to that but, “Amen.”
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.