Friday, January 12, 2007

Conventional Theology

In conventional theology Jesus Christ takes the sins of the entire world - past, present and future - upon himself. Through his sacrificial death he achieves forgiveness for all sins; through his resurrection we are assured of eternal life. Since Jesus Christ is "fully God and fully human", the second person of the trinity, according to the orthodox position he can accomplish redemption: as God he has the power to do so and as man he stands for and includes all human beings in his saving death and life-giving resurrection. ....
Personally, I have never been able to believe it.
Sallie McFague: Life Abundant, p. 157-158.
Almost had you going there, eh? According to McFague this is a theology that today, for North-American Middle-class Christians, is "not believeable and bad theology". It does not correspond to today's understanding of reality. This kind of theology, she says, puts the "offense of Christ in the wrong place", that is, it makes faith about a conflict with science rather than with a conflict with a sinful way of life.

It is bad theology only from our particular perspective of course. It is bad because in this kind of Christology "Jesus does it all". It does not engage us in creation, it does not motivate us to get involved in the "project in which we join God in Christ to help all creature's flourish".


Thomas Adams said...

While I'm sympathetic to McFague's larger goal (namely, to encourage first-world Christians to live in a more sustainable, eco-friendly manner), I don’t buy her idea that “orthodox” theology is the blame for our present condition. That is to say, developed countries don’t exploit the environment because their atonement theories are bad, as you seem to suggest.

Also, as a Lutheran, I have to object to your comment that a “Jesus does it all” Christology is “bad theology”. After all, the whole point of the Reformation was that “Christ is our righteousness”, so your post appears to relegate Luther and Calvin to the “bad theologians” pile. Of course, Pelagianism will always be a popular option for those, like McFague, who want to use religion to advance their political agendas, whether they be liberal or conservative. Thus, it's not surprising that she find orthodox Christianity so offensive, as grace has always been an offensive concept to those who want to acheive their own spiritual and/or political salvation.

Finally, a point of fact: despite what McFague says, the vast majority of middle-class American Christians still believe in traditional atonement theories. It’s only liberal, mainline Christians like McFague that find orthodox theology so objectionable. Moreover, given the incredible diversity of American Christianity, does it really make sense for her to talk in such general terms?.

AmandaLaine said...

I am one of those "North-American Middle-class Christians" who actually does subscribe to exactly this idea that McFague says we don't. I easily know a good 50 people that subscribe to this view. (We don't all sit around and talk about theology for me to know exactly what they believe BUT I know what churches/schools and other institutions they are associated with.)

If McFague doesn't believe these orthodox beliefs, what does she believe? Something must replace it.

And what is meant by "today's understanding of reality"? This phrase seems to have huge weight for the rest of the conversation and should probably be defined. This seems to correspond with the statement that "it makes faith about a conflict with science rather than with a conflict with a sinful way of life." I am very curious about this. How does the belief in Jesus' atonement for sin equal a conflict with science? Is this a reference to the common view that anything supernatural/metaphysical is in conflict with science?

Last, I can't see how the idea that "Jesus did it all" means believers have nothing left to do. That would require ignoring many passages in scripture.

Anyway, my thoughts for the moment. This was a very intriguing post!!

Patrik said...

Thomas and Amanda,

Thanks for you comments.

First of all, please be fair to McFague and do not judge her on these few lines I quoted out of the entire book.

She does not suggest that Luther and Calvin where bad theology, she would say that they were good for their time, but today our problems are different and therefore we need to interpret Christianity differently. She is not teaching Pelagianism, she is trying to create a "working theology" that enables us to see reality different.

She does not consider orthodox Christianity to be the cause of our present day problems, only that this particular interpretation (that is more medieval than orthodox), fits very well with the worldview that suggests that we are individuals pursuing material good irrelevant of the consequences to other people and earth such a worldview causes.

Instead she presents a Christology that is mostly based on various liberation theologies, a combination of an interpretation of Jesus' preaching as an attempt to change our life from self-centred to God-centred, and a sacramental theology interpreted as God's yes to creation (the whole creation - not just human souls) through the incarnation.

And of course, she agrees that most middle-class North American Christans subscribe to this "classical" theology. That is why she wrote the book. I'll do recommend it, she uses a lot of pages to describe "today's understanding of reality", and this is stuff everybody should read.

Incidently, as a Lutheran, how would you connect the problems of the environment to Lutheran theology, Thomas? I'm not Lutheran, but live in the most Lutheran country in the world, so I'm interested in that (McFague is an anglican IIRC)

Thomas Adams said...

Patrik – First, I hardly see how orthodox Christianity "fits very well with the worldview that suggests that we are individuals pursuing material good irrelevant of the consequences to other people and the earth.” In the entire history of the Church, greed and exploitation have never been considered “orthodox” behaviors, although particular Christians have undoubtedly been guilty of such crimes. McFague assumes that we need to radically alter our theology in order to deal with modern problems. But I’m not convinced. So please explain to me why orthodox Christianity, as taught by Luther and Calvin and Augustine, is incompatible with the progressive political aims of McFague & company, such as fighting poverty and preserving the environment.

The relationship of Lutheran theology to environmental issues is too big an issue for me to deal with here. I’ll just say that Luther’s commitment to “justification by grace alone through faith alone” in no way reduces humanity’s responsibility to act as good stewards of the Earth. In fact, the grace of God frees us for such service. The problem with liberation theologians like McFague is that they place ethics (i.e., works) above grace, with the hope that this strategy will improve people’s behavior. They cheapen grace in order to elevate their human agendas. But Lutherans understand that grace, the gift of Christ, is what makes all of our good works possible in the first place, and thus we always give grace (and Christ) priority. In the end, Christ truly “does it all.”

Patrik said...

What McFague is suggesting is that the focus of the salvation of the individual that is very strong in post reformation Christian theology fits well with the anthropology that neo-classical economics is built upon. She does not suggest that greed is considered accepted behavior, it is the notion that we exist primarily as individuals that is the common link, a notion that has been severely criticised also by theologians without connection to liberation theology, for example Zizioulas or Rahner.

I'm asking you, because i personally feel that it is an inherent problem in Lutheran theology that although Lutheran theologians always keep saying that things like Stewardship of the earth, sanctification and so on are important, in practice they tend to disappear beneath the strong emphasis on sola fide and sola gratia. I'm not saying this polemically, I'm just suggesting that I think this is a problem in the practice of Lutheran Christianity, at least in the northern countries. Lutherans theology seem to more often than not lead to a separation of the spiritual sphere of life from all other areas of life, except maybe certain parts of the ethical discourse. When Lutherans want to affirm the value of engaging with political liberation or working for the good of environment, they usually, it seems, have to seek inspiration in catholic theology and tradition. Though I feel there is nothing wrong in this, I still wonder it it would not be worth while to try to address these problems also from within their own tradition.

Halden said...

This whole discussion is interest. D.W. Congdon and I have had plenty of lively conversations about the relationship between divine and human action and the question of the reformation emphasis on justificaion versus participation of creatures in God's work in the world.

I'd actually be curious to see what McFauge would make of Von Balthasar's theology. I see him treading a somewhat more radical via media in which divine action and human action both recieve their proper emphasis. Though, I'm sure she'd despise his theology of the sexes.

AmandaLaine said...

Thanks Patrik!

Really appreciated your answers.

Kevin said...

Interesting you say that Lutheran theology has not been good in addressing things like the environment, economics, socio-political spheres. What all brands of theologies need is to be a witness to the world. If Christ came to redeem the world, he also came to redeem the us as creation, the environment, and our relation to the world. Everything about humanity needs to be redeemed. Our sin has separated us from our world, from each other, and from ourselves. I believe that a redemption necessarily includes a full redemption of this world.

The only one who can do this is Christ "who is our righteousness". Thus, I agree that "Jesus does it all." Yes, Luther and Calvin contributed to a great reformation that changed our theology forever, and it will never be outdated. I don't think they ever left the social-political-economic realm with their theology. They didn't have a political agenda. However, their agenda for religious reformation overshadowed their desire for an exterior reform. I think if they were here to defend for themselves, they would agree that everything about humanity needs to be redeemed. Our hands-off approach or dichotomized outlook was never what the Reformers intended.

I have never read McFague and I will probably start to read some of her work to find out more about her. I have a feeling that Paul Tillich might be on the same wavelength as McFague. But I'm not sure.

Sandalstraps said...

To fully understand McFague's position concerning the relationship between Christian theology and what has come to be known as the "ecological crisis," you should probably read the (to my knowledge) first example of this sort of argument, Lynn White's 1967 essay The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.

This essay was extremely influential, and widely accepted. McFague, and many other theologians who dare to speak to the relationship between our beliefs about God and our interactions with the natural environment, use this essay as their starting point. It makes a powerful case for their being, at least in the past, a very real connection between certain Christian beliefs and the conditions which gave rise to our ecological crisis.

And, like McFague, White identifies himself as a Christian, and is less interested in issueing blame than in reforming Christianity so that it can become a part of the solution.

Patrik said...

Thanks so much for that link, Chris!

Patrik said...

Kevin, I think McFague's work could even be read as a continuation of Tillich's. Tillich's part in the creation of all things contextual has not been sufficiently acknowledged. She quotes him a number of times in her book, and much of her language seems to be very much influenced by him. God as being itself is the most obvious example. She also quotes his distinction between the Catholic Substance and the protestant principle.

Kevin said...

I do believe that the church needs a stronger theology that causes us to look more deeply at the sins against God’s creation. I’m not sure if I would see creation as the “body of God” or as God’s backside, but I do think (from what very little I know of her) that it seems like a creative way to approach environmental ethics that is theological. It seems that her view of God is pantheistic rather than incarnational, or perhaps, transcendent. I’ll have to try to read “Body of God” when I have some spare time during or after my studies. I would like great for the church-universal to be able to see “sin” inclusive of doing harm to God’s creation. This has always been the biblical view, in my opinion. Evangelicals have not been able to see this in the past; however, this has been changing in the church. Tillich’s theology can potentially be valuable for environmental ethics because he was able to see God’s presence in creation without being pantheistic. One participates in God when one worships God in nature. I like how Tillich sees sin as estrangement. How I read Tillich is that our sin against God’s creation and humanity is estrangement from God’s creation itself, from each other, and even from ourselves, which ultimately leads to estrangement from the ground of being—our Creator.

Patrik said...

Tillich and McFague both describe their vision of God and creation as Panentheistic rather pantheistic; that is, God is present in creation but is not the same as creation.

I'm not 100% sure about McFague's incarnation theology either, I'm not sure we need to see the world as the body of God to be able to see its value, I think the key point is that we are a part of the creation in the same way as squirrels, mountains and oceans.