Thursday, November 26, 2009

Veteran city manager challenges ideas of the "good life"

"We need courage, another spiritual gift. We need courage to stand up to the sacred cows of Western society--to challenge the idea that everyone has a right to a big car with an internal combustion engine so they can drive whenever or wherever they want, regardless of the environmental consequences. We need to challenge the idea that the best way to live is in a large, isolated home built on one-half an acre of good agricultural soil that we proceed to fill with grass that in turn is maintained with heavy applications of pesticides, herbicides, and a lawnmower with a two-stroke engine that puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in an afternoon than a car does in a month."

Gwendolyn Hallsmith, The Key to Sustainable Cities: Meeting Human Needs, Transforming Community Systems (Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2003), pp. 246-247.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Monsters in Recovery

Radovan Karadzic was a genocidal mass murderer. But, as Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić chillingly points out, he was also a physician, psychiatrist, and accomplished poet. Which leads me to ask: If being cultured and creative and, to all appearances, an all-around cool guy, is not enough to keep one from murdering 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, what is? Certainly becoming devoutly religious is not the cure - it can make matters worse. So what does it take?

"You must be born again," says the Jesus of John 3. This phrase that no doubt hit the original readers with the confounding force of a Zen koan has in our day been reduced to religious marketing, emptied of meaning, and filled with ideological implications and cultural associations that would have felt alien to the original audience. But in an ancient community of slaves and poor peasants, sharing food and possessions, encouraging one another in resisting the spiritual forces they believed animated Roman oppression - as they unfolded the scroll that had just arrived from their beloved teacher and read these words aloud for the first time in their sacred gathering, it must have meant something awfully powerful.

What did it mean? I suspect that deep down we all know. We get more in touch with the answer the more we are truly willing to ask the question, and vice versa. We "get it," not so much as individual seekers, but - as the early followers of Jesus knew so well - as a community of resistance seeking strength from the Spirit that we find in one another to swim against the tide.

The question of spiritual transformation is not distant or theoretical; it is intensely personal, practical, and urgent. For are we really less "monstrous" than Radovan Karadzic if, faced with ecological perils that jeopardize not only an ethnic group but the living systems of the entire planet, we remain paralyzed into inaction or impotent half-measures by the seduction of special interests, the anesthetic of air conditioning, and the blind darkness of our own apathy?

The practical paths love requires in our current circumstances can seem so onerously uncharted, is it any wonder we shy away from looking at the problems of our society and planet honestly? And yet Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden light. And, note well, the extortionist tax collector we meet in Luke 19, who gave away possessions and resolved to repay his victims four-fold, was not glum but exuberant. In taking what seemed to be the most burdensome step, he found liberating lightness. I'm looking for, longing for that lightness, for practical ways to put my life in alignment with justice and peace. Is that your longing? Write me. Leave a comment below. Maybe we can help one another chart a practical course, and step into a lighter and less monstrous way of life together!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Books Guiding an Urgent Journey

Here are a few books I have found very worthwhile of late....

The Clashing Worlds of Economics and Faith, by James Halteman.
This book by a veteran professor of economics and Mennonite leader outlines a practical vision of Christian economic lifestyle today, and argues that the best that the world's economic systems offer is none too good.

Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts, by Reta Halteman Finger.
This work of historical investigation and biblical interpretation by a noted feminist scholar applies social science insights to uncover the robust lifestyle of economic sharing that the author believes early Christian communities practiced, as well as the socially and historically conditioned biases that she believes have prevented much past scholarship from recognizing this.

Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, by Lester R. Brown.
This book, published in 2001, details the ecological perils we are facing and outlines practical steps to take. I plan to order his 2009 book Plan B 4.0 which covers the same ground in the light of updated research. One chapter subheading in the 2009 work, I think, says it so well: "Our Global Ponzi Economy." Brown is wonderfully specific in his ecological claims and remedies. If you want to take issue, take issue with the specifics. Or perhaps you will, like me, find the facts and arguments Brown presents convincing, realize that the dream of unrestrained economic expansion as usual is neither desirable nor possible, and resolve to join hands with others in forging a more responsible path.

These matters are so urgent, I believe we need all hands on deck: Everybody, on your block and mine, should be reading, debating, discussing, and working to implement practical changes to build a sustainable and livable future. "Everybody" includes persons of pro-life convictions, who will be unavoidably disturbed by Brown's advocacy of abortion. However, while Brown himself might consider the point non-negotiable, it is by no means the centerpiece of his agenda, and the otherwise strong case he makes for the urgent necessity of ethically reducing human population should not be thrown out on this account.

Herman Daly, Robin Hahnel, Michael Albert, and Bryant L. Myers are among other authors who have been part of this conversation for me. I have just begun to dip into Vandana Shiva, whom I think I will find rewarding, though my initial impression is that her work may be aimed more at rallying troops than winning converts. What can one put in the hands of conservatives and libertarians who are captivated by the promise and compelling internal logic of infinite capitalist expansion, to open their eyes to the larger limiting ecological parameters? Herman Daly and Lester Brown effectively engage the categories of traditional neoclassical economics, and make a case that is hard to refute. At least they worked with me. And, difficult as it may be, I think generating genuine dialog with the unconvinced is the only way we will ever get past current impasses and move the project of saving the planet forward.

What readings have helped guide your journey of late?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Community Gardens and Schools

Are your kids sick of the food in their school cafeteria? Jim Diers has a suggestion for you. This Seattle community developer traveled to Havana to visit some of the 1,700 COMMUNITY GARDENS that have been planted in the city since 1992. All of these gardens are organic to avoid the costs of fertilizers and pesticides. Diers writes:

I was especially impressed with the way in which gardens were integrated with schools. A large garden I visited was surrounded by an elementary school, a middle school, a school for the deaf, and a school for swimmers. The students work in the garden for two hours each day to fulfill their community service requirement. Culinary arts classes teach students how to prepare meals from the fresh produce that is then served in the school cafeterias. I may never have eaten better tasting tomatoes, certainly not in my school cafeteria.
--Jim Diers, Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), p. 126.

Cuba certainly isn't the only place where school grounds are being gardened. It's happening in a charter school system right here in south Texas, where VERY fresh and nutrition-packed produce is nourishing kids from low-income families. Do any of you have experience with this where you live? Please post a comment and share how that is going.

Why shouldn't this be done everywhere?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ancient Tactics for Social Change

An Internet discussion group has recently been discussing how to avert the spectre of Socialism in an impoverished country. Here are a few thoughts of my own on that topic....

Ironically, it seems to me that a fair measure of "socialism" is needed to curb "Socialism," defined very informally, for the purposes of this post, as follows.... 

socialism (lower case s) -- People taking care of one another, so that nobody falls through the cracks, where people are rewarded for their effort and sacrifice, and not for the sheer lucky fact of having inherited lands and other forms of capital, and where everybody is given education to develop skills that contribute to the well-being of the society. Individual income, perqs, and social recognition are tied to the efforts and sacrifice people make, but not to an extent that it creates a class of people whose families have a permanent advantage over other classes, and who therefore have incentive to do everything in the power to preserve their advantages by means of corruption. Policies such as public education (mentioned in The Communist Manifesto), publicly funded health care, etc. are socialistic policies that most people now accept. Huge disparities of wealth and privilege are discouraged, and an effective social system is nurtured, so that people are no longer motivated to preserve unjust privileges while ignoring the needs of others, but are motivated to preserve and strengthen the life of social cooperation that is providing them basic needs and security and a modest but decent lifestyle. This kind of "socialism" takes various concrete forms, and has been implemented in varying degrees and manners in such places as Canada and Europe, where people are better off in general than in the U.S., which has implemented less of it. On a smaller scale, it is also practiced in successful co-ops, such as the Mennonite colonies in Paraguay that supply most of that country's dairy products. Now people who have a visceral reaction to the word "socialism" may want to choose a different word. But what I am referring to using a lower-case "s" is simply a consistent and thoroughhgoing advocacy of the same sorts of things that most people reading this advocate and consider normal and inevitable, thanks to the combined past successes of socialist and social democratic movements, the New Deal, etc. in shaping the societies we grew up in.[1]

"Socialism" (upper case S) -- I think what people have in mind as something to fear and abhor is this...a system in which a group of would-be elitists conspires to cut the old elite out of the game, and establish a dictatorship. Thus a new elite replaces the old elite, by subverting the democratic process which the old elite previously also continually subverted to its purposes, while also clamping down ever tighter on the ability of the rich old elite to air their opposition by means of the media they own. The new regime seeks to control public opinion with somewhat more sophisticated means than the old elite did, to wit: In addition to subsidizing or buying off media organizations, as the old elite did, they also organize the poor (something the old elite were reluctant to do, perhaps because they were afraid of getting lice or smelling bad or somesuch), and entice or compel them to participate in public demonstrations, on pain of missing handouts or losing jobs (if they have a job to lose). An even more sophisticated tool of thought control is to form a network of informants, so that if anybody is spouting less than the orthodox line, the authorities can be alerted, and send that poor soul to a re-education camp. The new media and organized poor are thus trained to parrot a party line. Of course the original intent according to the new elite's professed ideology was to indoctrinate the people and get them to parrot a line that is truly in their interests, but which they're too dumb as ignorant country hicks to advocate of their own accord; in practice, however, the party line morphs into being whatever serves the interests of the new class. In exchange for these services for and on behalf of the poor, the class of professional revolutionaries (the new elite) takes their "cut" in the form of a publicly subsidized life of amenities and privileges that the poor will never enjoy.

My basic problem with Socialism (upper case S) is the top-down tactics that are typically employed. Rather than first inculcate the values and lifestyle of practical love and mutual care in the populace, and nurture the movement until it reaches a critical mass that can transform society's institutions, they put all their effort in gaining political power so they can impose change from the top down. They may think that once they get the right PERSON in power, once they quell resistance by stripping the old elite of their wealth, media organs, etc., and the new cadre of revolutionary functionaries are in charge, then everything will be easier to implement and maintain from then on. Invariably, however, the original stated intentions are subverted, as the "new class" takes over and exercises power to the advantage of their own new class interests, and as those among their comrades who insist on remaining true to original principles either defect or are purged.

To my knowledge, the top-down approach has never really worked. And its fatal flaw, it seems to me, is that it puts the cart before the horse. The theory says that once the external circumstances are changed--less disparity of income, availability of free education for all, etc.--then the internal mentality of people will change, and the tendency to cling to personal privilege at the expense of social well-being will evaporate. So the tactic is to deploy a dedicated core of revolutionaries to cajole, manipulate, threaten, indoctrinate, propagandize, cultivate and channel mass rage, by telling the truth, telling lies, and doing or saying virtually anything that furthers the goal of coming into power. This is considered necessary and justified, because, of course, once they have the reins of power they will then be in a position to effect the necessary changes of circumstances in order to restructure incentives and balance interests into a social equilibrium. But my question is, will they really?

A related flaw is that epistemological chaos often comes to pervade the entire movement top to bottom, leaving various levels of the movement with differing and conflicting understandings of what the movement is really about and where it is headed. This happens whenever a movement decides, practically speaking, that it is appropriate to counter the old elite's program of lies by propagating an equally massive barrage of lies and/or truth, whatever works to further the end of seizing power. As a result, like an Eastern mystical sect, "esoteric gap" inevitably comes to separate the various ranks of the movement, from the peasants at the lowest rung who are fed simple slogans and recruited as cannon fodder, to the mid-level ideologues who at least hope that their principles are really guiding the movement, to a privileged few in the inner sanctum at the top who may be pursuing a game plan very different from what the movement is ostensibly about.

How can we put the horse before the cart, and really get somewhere? I think we need to START by changing beliefs, values, ways of life, and the fundamental motivations of our hearts, from the ground up, rather that seek to change external circumstances and conditionings first, from the top down. Then, as people come to internalize values of social concern, we must organize ourselves into voluntary societies in which the principles of hard work, frugal living, mutual aid, and social commitment are lived out and modeled to the next generation. Then, as this countercultural movement grows and a critical mass of society comes to adopt the new mentality and lifestyle, the structures and institutions of the larger society that formerly militated against social cooperation and mutual care and that entrenched oppression by the rich and powerful against the poor masses are replaced by new and transformed structures and institutions. Epistemologically, what you see in such a movement is what you get--"This is what we stand for, come and kill us if that bothers you"--with no staircase chain of esoteric doctrines distinguishing ranks of initiation--and no smoke and mirrors of manipulative strategies. What is said to the public is what is believed by all in the movement.

To be sure, it will be objected that this approach cannot work, because it is thought that every attempt to change people's mentality and inculcate a lifestyle of social concern will be undermined and co-opted at every turn by the pervasive influence of contrary institutions that buy people off and dilute their commitment to the alternative culture. Can we really believe in the ability of the human spirit (aided by God, as I see it) to overcome these obstacles, before external institutional inducements have been sufficiently implemented?

The truth is that such obstacles were faced before, and to a large degree overcome, by an ancient spiritual-social-political movement whose precedent I think is essential for us to review today. I am referring to the anti-imperial struggles of the Christians of the early centuries of the common era.[2] Now I have to say at the outset that it is difficult to even talk about this precedent, because it is so widely misrepresented and misunderstood today. If you, the reader, are one for whom organized religion raises red flags, rest assured, the ancient social revolutionaries of whom I am speaking would be just as hotly opposed by religious and political leaders today as they were crucified and thrown to lions by the religious and political establishments of their time.[3]

To understand the anti-imperial and society-transforming dynamic of this movement, we need to get in touch with the socially and politically charged times of the 1st Century, and to recover the sense of early Christian sayings and symbols in their original context. An imperial slogan of the day was, "Caesar is Lord," and people were required to acknowledge this in a civil ritual, thus affirming the ultimacy and divine origin of the Roman social order that was built on militarism, elitism, and slave labor. In bold defiance, the early Christians proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord." That is to say, it is not Caesar, but an obscure Galilean prophet--who relied on God's power rather than a military machine, who stayed true to his principles of love and justice and compassion even to death, and whom his followers believed God vindicated in resurrection--who will have the final say. They mocked the intimidating power of Rome by holding up the cross--the ultimate symbol of Roman terror--as their central symbol, because they believed Jesus had decisively defeated it. Strangely, the early Christians did not take up arms to overthrow the pax romana. Most of them were slaves, yet they did not organize slave rebellions. Confounding the play books of other revolutionary movements of both their and our day, they renounced violence and subterfuge, but were open about their ultimate allegiances, and, when arrested, went joyfully to their deaths. In all this they steadfastly refused to acknowledge the validity and ultimacy of the Roman system of oppression, but instead proclaimed an alternative "gospel" of him who was slain and conquered death. The original defiant irony in this use of the word "gospel" tends to be lost on us today, until we realize that in the 1st Century the word was used to announce the accession (or birthday) of an emperor who was supposedly going to usher in peace and make all things well. Not Caesar, who imposes injustice by force, but Jesus, who prevails in love and faithfulness, is the true victor.

Moreover, the early Christians lived lives that affirmed absolute equality of dignity of every human being, regardless of class or background, sharing with one another according to need, staying behind in plagued cities to care for the sick, and even going to the municipal garbage heaps to rescue exposed infants and raising them as their own children. Such a lifestyle and set of values was unheard of in the Greco-Roman world, which was saturated with a cruel personal hedonism and a rigid hierarchy of privilege based on rank and power.

This story reads almost like a fairy tale to us today--were there REALLY such people as this, and really so many of them, living lives of moral rectitude and sacrifice, and being sustained by inner joy even as they were being led away to death in arenas of hungry lions? And yet everything I have mentioned thus far, to the best of my knowledge, is factual--I have purposely left out any detail that historians are not generally agreed really happened. And the result was that greater and greater numbers of people became ATTRACTED to the movement, which became the cultural cutting edge, and came to regard the old values as moribund and empty. Socially just values and lifestyle were reaching further and further across the length and breadth of the cultural landscape. The Christian movement was building toward a critical mass by which the whole structure of the world's kingdoms built on ruthless power and oppression would crumble, and a new rock, cut not out of human hands, would become a mountain filling the whole earth (the imagery comes from Daniel 2, which Jesus and his friends had very much in mind).

But then the empire struck back, in the person of Constantine, who legalized Christianity, and then made it the imperial religion. At that point throngs of people swelled the ranks of the church without really understanding what it was really about. Even though the rise of Constantine and subsequently of "Christendom" might have seemed like the fulfillment of Daniel 2, it was in many respects a counterfeit victory that arrested the progress of genuine Christianity. If the reading of Christianity and its politically-relevant origins that I am narrating seems alien to the impressions you may have grown up with, please consider whether that might be because centuries of the Constantinian legacy have clouded our vision.

In subsequent history there were various times and places in which the radical social implications of biblical faith made a comeback, not least in the movement of Whitefield, the Wesleys, the "Clapham Sect" aristocrats (e.g., William Wilberforce, whose personality and battle to end the slave trade was depicted with reasonable accuracy in the film "Amazing Grace"), and others. The legacy and achievements of these people were enormous--they ended the slave trade, introduced education for women, reformed prisons, reformed the East India Company, introduced schools that prepared India for modern democracy, etc. In their personal lives, they opened their homes to the poor, practiced an ethic of modest personal consumption that would scandalize most middle class Americans and American expats, and gave liberally of their time, money, and relational energy to help others.

In all this their modus operandi was persevering love. But in times and places where reform was rebuffed and corruption entrenched, a vacuum was created for movements that despaired of such means, and resorted to rage, violence, intrigue, and a cold "scientific" manipulation of the masses....

Which means that the choice is ours. Either we will change the world in one way, the way of the early Christians, the way of Wilberforce, the way of radical persevering love, the way of personal concern and involvement in the lives of the excluded, the way of personal spiritual transformation to become people motivated and energized by love. Or we will remain complacent in our short-term comforts, until the pot boils over into violence that in the end makes things as bad or worse.

Some may say that what I am proposing is too radical and idealistic for the real world. Honestly, my friends, get real! The early Christians were real. Wilberforce was real. Unspeakable injustice and oppression and social and environmental degradation are real. And unless we start living in a new way, there may BE no real world for us or our children or grandchildren to enjoy!


[1] Lumping such diverse social-economic arrangements as these under the one label "socialism," for the informal purposes of this essay, is not meant to color over the differences between them. On the other hand, the term is becoming remarkably broad even in formal academic discourse. My purpose here is to emphasize the commitment to cooperation rather than competition as the guiding principle of social and economic relationships that these diverse arrangements share.

[2] The brief historical survey below is written to the best of my knowledge, though I am not an historian myself and would invite anyone who has relevant training to correct any deficiencies in my telling of the story. I am emboldened to do this because I believe the story has such rich meaning for our lives that it deserves to be grabbed ahold of and told and re-told by children, teenagers, and everyday women and men, not just the professional historians. But why should I care whether I have the facts straight? If myth were what we were after - that is, a story that gives meaning to our lives when lived out or enacted ritually but which may or may not be based in historical fact - if we had to settle for such as the only means at our disposal to create a sense of meaning in an otherwise apparently meaningless universe - then this story would serve the purpose well, though not necessarily better than other fabricated tales. The remarkable thing - what gives this story its special power and classes it in my mind as the story of stories - is just how historical AND relevant it really is! C.S. Lewis saw Jesus as the Myth who became Fact. That is why I CARE about whether my understanding of the story is accurate and invite correction of others, because a story that is both historically true and gives meaning to our lives if true, is a priceless treasure. If the conclusion that God has acted in Jesus Christ in time-and-space history can hold up to historical investigation (even though historical investigation by itself cannot draw such a conclusion), then that is extraordinary confirmation that our lives are unspeakably significant and infused with divine meaning. It therefore also loudly proclaims how much acting justly toward our fellow human beings and the life systems of our planet really MATTERS. And it empowers me to resist the lure of rival myths that claim to be rooted in fact, such as the dominant American myth which exalts competition and individual material consumption as the highest values over against the cooperation in love and justice which Jesus modeled and enjoins.

[3] It is also important to note, contra some Marxist interpretations that make out the early Christians as supporters of violent revolution, that in fact the early Christians were persecuted in part because they did NOT support violent revolution. They were opposed from all sides, because they believed that neither deification of the Roman social order nor involvement in resistance movements built on human rage and violence was an acceptable way forward. My own historical understandings in this regard are informed by such New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, and others.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Sowing in Tears...Reflections on Van Jones' Resignation

Van Jones, who resigned as Special Advisor on Green Jobs over questions about past political involvements and his choice of vocabulary in describing Republicans, is the latest victim of what Beau Friedlander calls partison politics' policy of "mutually assured distraction"--where the welfare of the nation takes a back seat to the project of scoring cheap political points at any cost.

Jones wrote in his resignation letter:

On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me. They are using lies and distortions to distract and divide. I have been inundated with calls -- from across the political spectrum -- urging me to 'stay and fight.' But I came here to fight for others, not for myself. I cannot in good conscience ask my colleagues to expend precious time and energy defending or explaining my past. We need all hands on deck, fighting for the future.

If the worst that has been told is to be believed about Jones' background, then he was at one time a "communist" and has made common cause with Maoists. But for several years he has been promoting constructive eco-friendly business initiatives and jobs programs that employ low-income people of various racial backgrounds to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels--arguably a practical step toward defusing one of the greatest factors leading to war and terrorism and instability in our world. So then, if indeed the darkest possible spin on his past is true, then it is a story of transition from ways of fighting injustice that give inordinate place to a natural and inevitable rage, to an older and wiser approach centered around win-win constructive engagement. Precisely if that is the case, then it is a story that should be celebrated, about a person to whom we should be listening.

But his assailants in conservative media--straight white males who have never seen life through lenses other than those of a complacent dominant culture--are selling a very different story, a story that contains two morals that could prove exceedingly poisonous for our nation and planet:

1) Nothing ever justified the rage, because everything is really OK.

2) Overcoming evil through persevering love is a strategy that doesn't work.

The same message lay at the root of conservative outrage over Sonia Sotomayor's having dared suggest that life experience as a Latina woman might make her more sensitive to the reality of injustice--an observation that I think has obvious validity. I think it is important to stress at this time that, while they may have won one battle (toppling Jones) and lost another (blocking Sotomayor), the venom of the underlying narrative must not be allowed to seep into hearts and minds and kill the spirit of those who would seek justice in love.

Conservative media organizations are after ratings, as conservative politicians seek to win the next elections--neither seem to care about the dangerous long-term backlash their actions could provoke, as they seek these short-term goals through cheap shots, instead of promoting healthy and substantive national dialogue over policies. Let us hope that defeats of worthy opportunities for constructive change in the Obama era do not lead people to give up on nonviolent win-win strategies, and turn to the despair and futility of violence.

And here is where I believe that Jesus and his death and resurrection--if understood in the context of the remarkably similar 1st Century political and social conflicts in which the story was originally told, and not in the moulded-to-white-suburban-ideology way it gets told today--give hope and strength to carry on....

"Human anger does not produce the kind of justice that God is after." (James 1:20)

"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with love." (Romans 12:21)

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." (Galatians 6:9)

"Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." (Hebrews 12:3)

"Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy." (Psalm 126:5)

The grace Jones demonstrated in his resignation letter, and his willingness to put personal political advancement aside, suggest that he has no intention of giving up fighting the good fight of love.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Anti-Environmentalism as "Christian heresy"

I have occasionally heard opponents of the environmentalist movement accusing environmentalists of being modern-day "Gnostics," and, indeed, there are varieties of environmentally-minded people today who consciously identify with that label.[1] It is arresting, then, to read ecological economist Herman Daly turning the tables on anti-environmentalists, by exposing their resistance to taking environmental constraints into account in policy-making as a functional current-day expression of that ancient "heresy."

Daly concludes a highly critical review of Peter Huber, Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (A Conservative Manifesto), as follows:

"What I personally learned from reading Huber is that the ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism (salvation by esoteric knowledge that allows transcendance of matter) is still a perversion to be reckoned with. The salvific knowledge is now less spiritual and more technical, but the heresy of human transcendence of the material Creation by esoteric knowledge is the foundation of Huber's book, and that, unfortunately, will appeal to many readers."
--Herman E. Daly, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Selected Essays of Herman Daly (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2007), p. 183.

At issue here is whether there are any hard limits imposed by our natural environment that constrain healthy human economic and population growth, or whether we can assume that the application of human knowledge and ingenuity will always overcome such limits so as to justify perpetual unfettered economic activity and reproduction. Daly believes that the ability of humans to use ingenuity to alter the carrying capacity of our environment to sustain healthy and happy human beings, while far greater than, say, a snail's, is nevertheless finite. Daly's position, then, is really a common-sense middle position between two impossible extremes--one extreme denying our unique capacities as human beings to comprehend and work intelligently within environmental parameters, and the other extreme saying we are like gods (cf. Genesis 3:5; 11:1-9) who are not subject to such limits of creaturely finitude. This reminds me of the late Francis Schaeffer's thesis in his book Pollution and the Death of Man that fundamental to any authentically Christian approach to environmental questions is the need to recognize that humans, who are created by God in his image, are at once a part of the creation as well as, in a very limited and qualified sense, above the creation. (Schaeffer understood this hybrid position of human beings in contrast to God, who is entirely above creation, and to animals, which are entirely a part of the creation. I do not know whether Daly himself would share Schaeffer's rendering of the biblical metaphors, but that is beside the point I am making.) It follows from Schaeffer's point that human beings are capable of reflecting upon and taking into account in their decision-making the fact of their own creatureliness and the properties inhering in that creatureliness, and taking rational action as stewards under God. Thus, unlike snails, humans are capable of conceiving the very notion of "carrying capacity" and can seek to assess (imperfectly, of course) the extent to which that can be tweaked in the case of humans and other creatures via human action, as well as the limits to that ability. And I for one certainly can see no biblical reason to suppose that humans, who have been blessed to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) are not endowed with the capacity to assess what "fill" means and therefore when "fullness" has been reached, and to "subdue" by means of rational constraint and technology their own creaturely instinct to reproduce and thus avert calamity by means of "Malthus's preventive checks (lowering the birth rate) rather than the positive checks (high death rate)" (Daly, 117).[2][3]

Daly says that Huber, on the other hand, like many liberatarians I have read, believes that "the natural environment is entirely unnecessary" (Daly, 180), and quotes Huber as follows:

Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet-covering crypt of concrete and computers... There is not the slightest scientific reason to suppose that such a world must collapse under its own weight or that it will be any less stable than the one we now inhabit.

Daly understands Huber as arguing for Teddy Roosevelt style conservationism purely for aesthetic reasons, and not because it is necessary for human survival and well-being. "All we need is knowledge," Daly says Huber believes, "and that is unlimited."

Daly, as he argues in all of his books, believes that the multiplication of human beings and artifacts has already exceeded a point beyond which additional growth yields diminished rather than enhanced well-being for humanity and the rest of creation as a whole. We therefore need, Daly insists, to replace long-prevailing "empty-world" assumptions in our economic models and policy-making with "full-world" assumptions. The problem is that the ongoing quest for unfettered growth continues to bring CERTAIN human beings comforts and advantages in the short run, at the expense of the long-term well-being of humans and other species in the long run. And since it is these particular people who have the most money and political clout, we are faced with the "conflict of a physical impossibility (continual growth) and a political impossibility (limiting growth). But in the long run the physically impossible is more impossible than the merely politically impossible. One hopes that growth will not prove politically impossible to limit, once we come to accept that growth can be uneconomic. But we may have to suffer a bit before that becomes clear." (Daly, 11)

The application of the concept of "Christian heresy" in this context is interesting, and perhaps a bit daring of Daly to invoke given currently prevailing misconceptions of what that means. Historically, when Christians have labeled a given belief "heresy," what they meant was that an essentially un-Christian idea had taken root within the Christian community and was threatening to re-define Christian faith in ways that were irreconcilably opposed to the intentions of Jesus and the apostles. But the legacy of Constantinianism and the resulting practice that eventually took over the church of executing (or otherwise suppressing by means of the power of the state) rather than debating alleged heretics has associated the very notion of identifying "heresies" with oppression in the public mindset. Yet when it is realized that that very same Constantinianism and resulting state repression is itself one of the greatest heresies from which the church has yet to fully extricate itself, then we can see that Daly's intended use of the concept is a salutary one, concerned with opposing the subversion of faith to serve narrow selfish interests. Such corruption is surely lethal to healthy spirituality and human well-being.

So then, when the hard limits kick in and ecological catastrophes that could have been prevented alter life on the planet as we now know it, and a future generation bitterly recalls the rapacious consumption and missed opportunities of our day, is there any doubt that those 20th/21st C. "Christians" who opposed taking environmental constraints into account will be seen as having been guilty of a perversion of the faith they espoused? And will it not be evident that environmentalists (be they Christians, atheistic humanists a la Carl Sagan, pantheists, panentheists, gnostics, Wiccans, or however else they sought to articulate their vision of ultimate reality) who took practical steps to preserve the well-being of humanity and the rest of creation in the light of environmental constraints were acting more Christianly, and thus better embodied the biblical notion of God's intent that we reflect his image by stewarding his creation for the benefit of all?[4]

And is it really too late for those of us who operate consciously within the biblical and Christian conversation to recover the univocal testimony of Scripture and ancient Christian tradition on matters material--namely, to be content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8), to eschew the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5), to pursue equity of burden (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)--and face the facts of our ecological circumstances squarely, unfiltered by the wishful thinking by which we imagine that we can maintain our present lifestyles of consumption without degrading the prospects of future generations?

Can we not rise up and take appropriate action, drawing inspiration from the story of Esther, who made common cause with the oppressed against the self-serving interests of elite schemers bent on genocidal extermination, and seized the opportunities God gave her to act "in such a time as this"? (Esther 4:13)


[1] The Gnostics of old sought to transcend matter by uniting with pure spirit, an idea that seems to clash, at least formally, with biblical conceptions. And Vishal Mangalwadi has pointed out--revealingly, I think--that, historically, similar anti-material ideas in the East have emphatically not led to care for the material creation or for social justice (cf. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India). Moreover, as the renowned New Testament historian N.T. Wright has pointed out, it was not the gnostics but the readers of Paul and the canonical gospels whom the Romans considered a threat and threw to lions, precisely because the latter understood Jesus Christ as the climax of the socially-concerned, anti-imperial, politically-relevant telling of Israel's story in the Jewish Scriptures, while the former's philosophy was abstracted from any such narrative of a divinely-influenced quest for shalom and justice in time and space.

The irony is that disaffected Westerners of our day who search far and wide for spiritual nourishment, after having been abandoned to starve by expressions of Christianity that have abetted environmental and social degradation, and Christians who seek to recover the social-creational concern that pervades the biblical conversation beginning to end (cf. Genesis 6:11; Revelation 11:18), may have far more in common with one another, on a practical if not formal conceptual level, than is commonly supposed, even as other Christians, whether through ignorance of our present circumstances and/or the recent influence of unbiblical notions of unlimited expansion of material wealth, deny the reality of that degradation and oppose steps to reverse it.

[2] Just as I am concerned in this essay to show that certain recent and localized expressions of Christianity have lost touch with the general drift of the whole of that ancient conversation as touching economic matters, Daly is concerned, in this chapter entitled "The steady-state economy and peak oil," to show where sound thinking in a centuries-long conversation among economists went off the rails, as neoclassical economics favoring perpetual growth replaced the view of classical economics that a steady-state economy was inevitable, and, in the case of John Stuart Mill, desirable. Writes Daly:

In classical economics (Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Mill) the steady-state, or as they called it the "stationary state" economy was a real condition toward which the economy was tending as increasing population, diminishing returns, and increasing land rents squeezed profits to zero. Population would be held constant by subsistence wages and a high death rate. Capital stock would be held constant by a lack of inducement to invest resulting from zero profits thanks to rent absorbing the entire surplus which was itself limited by diminishing returns. Not a happy future--something to be postponed for as long as possible in the opinion of most classical economists. Mill, however, saw it differently. Population must indeed stabilize, but that could be attained by Malthus' preventive checks (lowering the birth rate) rather than the positive checks (high death rate). A constant capital stock is not static, but continuously renewed by depreciation and replacement, opening the way for continual technical and qualitative improvement in the physically non-growing capital stock. By limiting the birth rate, and by technical improvement in the capital stock, a surplus above subsistence could be maintained. Mill also believed that the surplus could be equitably redistributed. Unlike the growing economy, the stationary state economy would not have to continually expand into the biosphere and therefore could leave most of the world in its natural state. The stationary state is both necessary and desirable, but neither static nor eternal--it is a system in dynamic equilibrium with its containing, sustaining, and entropic biosphere. The path of progress would shift from bigger and more, toward better and longer lived. (Daly, 117)

The neoclassical economists, Daly says, re-employed the term "steady state" to refer to a theoretical benchmark where capital stock keeps up with population in potentially infinite growth, a notion foreign to the classical economists.

It is not too much of an oversimplification to say that the classical economists were concerned with adapting the economy to the dictates of the economy. In an empty world the dictates of physical reality are not immediately binding on growth; in a full world they are. Consequently, and paradoxically, it is the older classical view of the steady state, Mill's version, that is more relevant today, even though the neoclassical view dominates the thinking of empty-world economists. (Daly, 118)

Daly offers his own updated definition of the steady-state economy as "one that maintains itself with a constant throughput that is within regenerative and absorptive capacities of the biosphere." (Daly, 118)

[3] It may be well to note, as well, that Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish Presbyterian preacher in Industrial Revolution Scotland whom many conservative Christians today revere for his work in mobilizing churches to help the urban poor get on their feet economically and off of government welfare, was a staunch Malthusian, and succeeded in his project in part by consciously applying the Malthusian remedy of limiting births, by means of encouraging sexual restraint and delayed marriages among the impoverished classes (an approach that I suspect was scarcely less counterintuitive, culturally out of sync, and "doomed to fail" in his day as it would be if it were attempted in American inner city ghettos of our day). The irony here is that many of the voices today who laud Chalmers' accomplishments are precisely those who downplay environmental constraints and would excoriate such thinking as Daly's as "neo-Malthusian."

[4] It is not the point of this essay to consider the overall or relative merits of various worldviews in promoting practical environmental concern. I do wish to argue, however, that the common notion today that such concern does not find a ready and natural home in a biblically-informed worldview is patently false. In footnote 1 above I alluded to the observation that has been made by many scholars of religion that Christianity is particularly activistic in seeking social change in the theater of history. It would go beyond the scope of this article to consider the particular objections of the Roman Catholic Church to the use of contraception, which I think are an unjustified and tragic misstep. But I think it is beyond credible doubt that each of the major world religions, in their predominant tendencies, are united in being skeptical of recent Western notions of unrestrained economic growth, though that would be a topic deserving separate treatment of its own.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Honduran crisis, seen from the ground....

We hear in the media that there is a crisis in Honduras. That's interesting, because FOR YEARS, long before the events of June 28, 2009 that put Honduras on the world's radar screen, organizations like the Association for a More Just Society have sought to bring attention to the Honduran crisis--the crisis of hunger, malnutrition, poor education, a justice system that doesn't deliver justice, corruption, selectively enforced laws, and violent land disputes that keep the great majority of the population in abject poverty--which people in Honduras tell me neither ousted president Manuel Zelaya nor his predecessors ever did much about, notwithstanding their promises and rhetoric.

"Conservative" and "liberal" news organizations in the U.S. have been dishing out remarkably conflicting information and assumptions concerning the Honduran crisis. But have either of them even been asking the most important questions? Both kinds of media seem to be selling the news their listeners want to hear, filtering highly complex realities to fit rigidly polarized ideological configurations and narrow interests. And yet, ironically, they both whisper the exact same subliminal underlying message that many Americans of all political bents seem to desperately want to believe:

"You can change the world without much personal sacrifice, just by lining up with the appropriate political movements and ideologies, without personally caring for anybody in particular, or getting into the nitty gritty of specific people's struggles."

The inspiring videos at the link below reflect a refreshingly different point of view....

Friday, May 1, 2009

A gradual "fall"?

RJS, a working scientist whose posts at the Jesus Creed blog I've found very helpful, wrote in a post entitled Science and the Sacred:

...although I waver at times on the importance of the Fall as an historical event.

I'm leaning these days toward seeing "the fall" as a genuinely historical but gradual and not necessarily unidirectional development, an accumulation of choices and their results. Finding themselves conscious of God and of right and wrong and experiencing a more robust capacity than we enjoy today to choose the way of cooperation, and, indeed, having an innate sense that the way of cooperation and justice was God's intent, various among our distant ancestors suppressed their sense of God and chose the way of grasping at advantage at the expense of others. The accumulation of such choices--and the "microscopic" view of this, if it were accessible to us, might actually reveal trends and countertrends over many thousands of years--has resulted in a kind of watershed in cultural and genetic coevolution which makes it more difficult for us today to choose God's way, even though something deep down still tells us it is our truest intended destiny.

Fastforwarding countless millenia, the author of Genesis finds humanity trapped in this conflicted situation, inclined to evil, but knowing there is a better way. We observe the battle to reverse this state of affairs at full pitch as we read Genesis, the Ten Commandments, and the rest of the law and the prophets of the ancient Hebrews. The author/redactor of Genesis, perhaps an exile living under the oppressive shadow of Babylon and its imperial ideology, and bathed in stories such as that of Abraham who fled the corruption and idolatry of his homeland in Ur of the Chaldees and who shunned the allures of Sodom, of Moses who spurned the pleasures of Egypt, etc., was keenly aware that our conflicted condition had ORIGINS. And he (or she or they) need not have had any awareness of evolution to grasp and communicate these origins with genuine and relevant insight.

And who shall deliver us from this body of death? In the fullness of time Jesus the incarnate Son of God lived the way of love and faithfulness, even unto death. In the resurrection, Death--with its imperious dicate that we grasp at what we can at the expense of the honor of God and the well-being of others--was decisively defeated.

The view that Gen. 3 is recapituted in our lives is not at all incompatible with this view. I would just suggest that the choices of some among our ancestors may have been more scandalous, relatively speaking, than those of people who have inherited the results of post-"watershed" cultural and genetic coevolution.

And because this "watershed" is really quite a relative affair, there is no need in this view to posit scientific details that may someday be disproven. The science underlying this view is scarcely in dispute. Few would disagree that belief in God or gods is nigh universal in humans in most environments, as is a moral sense. What is disputed is the meaning of it all, the question of whether these perceptions, evolved by means of selective pressures having to do with survival and reproduction, have taken on a teleological "life of meaning" of their own, so as to enable us to perceive a REAL Creator and REAL moral law (cf. Justin Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?), the philosophical question of "choice," etc. And these are questions scientific observation simply CANNOT speak to, while the Scriptures and the testimony of our own hearts speak to them very clearly.

And I find this view satisfying on the biblical end, because it avoids positing a significance to Gen. 3 that is alien to the purview of the author, as Hugh Ross and others do in the case of the "days" of Gen. 1. Whether things happened as the view I am expressing states above, or whether they happened some other way, writing from the standpoint of a people called to reverse the state of corruption in the world, to stand against the great contrary tide of historical and cultural precedent, Genesis, employing a nonliteral mode of communication that nevertheless speaks truly to our situation, and in a way that neither assumes nor requires any particular view of science, could not have been written in any better way.

I explore this view further in an "evolving" post called On the Evolutionary "Chisel," the Divinely Intended "Sculpture," and the Glorious Meaning and Destiny of our Lives in Christ, which addresses a number of key issues concerning this thesis not addressed here. In that essay I think I have many of the needed concepts in place, though future revisions may state some of them better.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Politics of Jesus

Have you ever had a nagging suspicion that the story of Jesus you may have grown up hearing was not quite the story that was originally meant? If so, read on, because what follows may confirm your suspicions. It may also surprise you in a number of ways. Over the last several months I've been looking at a view of early Christian origins that turns a good bit of what I thought I knew on its head.

I'm not talking about any of the spate of flaky popular revisionist books that have been published over the last few decades saying Jesus was a Marxist, or Jesus was a new age guru, or Jesus was whatever one's hobby horse happens to be. I'm talking about a particular scholarly point of view that is rooted in very, very serious historical research. To be sure, it's not the only view out there. But I find it compelling. If true, it has enormous implications, for politics and all areas of life.

As best I understand it, the story these scholars tell goes like this....

Jesus lived in a time of super-charged political tension. Many people today are concerned to prevent some kind of Juggernaut from taking over. Globalism, Communism, the New World Order, what have you, depending on your point of view. But in Jesus' day the Juggernaut was already in charge. The Roman Empire ruled with an iron fist. In Palestine, some responded to this by sucking up to the Romans, like the Herodians and the hated extortionist tax collectors--the complicit bottom-feeders. Others were fierce nationalists who plotted and patiently awaited the day when they would throw off the evil Romans, with God on their side. An earlier movement, the Maccabees, had successfully thrown off the Greeks, and so people were expecting the long-awaited "Messiah"--that is, the anointed national deliverer whom God would send--to do that again. (Does any of this ring a bell in modern times?) The masses generally sided with the nationalists, and there was a whole class of religious leaders of these sympathies that the masses looked up to, referred to in the bilbical gospels as the Pharisees (even if not all Pharisees were like those Jesus contended with). They were like the 1st Century equivalent of the Muslim mullahs today who advocate sharia law, decry America as the Great Satan and so forth. Then there were the Sadducees of the aristocratic priestly class, who had made a kind of delicate peace with the Romans, and were officially in charge of the Temple. The common people distrusted them, and questioned their legitimacy, but it was a dangerous thing to cross them.

There were a number of supposed "Messiahs," both before and after Jesus, who sought to rally the people around them and take on Rome. Each of these movements were crushed by the Romans.

But Jesus came along, and did something radically different. He took a handful of the fierce nationalists, along with a guy who had been one of the despised extortionist tax collectors, and brought them together into the very same group, as his closest disciples. In essence, he took the 1st Century equivalent of Democrats and Republicans, Islamicists and Zionists, somehow inspired them to all come together, and taught them a completely different notion of God's program. He taught them that Caesar was king in only a very limited, earthly, transitory sense. He also made the outlandish claim that he himself was the true King and that his kingdom of love would never end. And he told the nationalists that they were all so wrapped up in their ideological program, and congratulating themselves for being such righteous and pious patriots, that they were overlooking the things that really counted, like reaching out in practical compassion to the marginalized of society, and being a community of God marked by forgiveness and justice and mercy and love. Further, he predicted that before the people who were then living had died out, the Romans would come and put down the Jewish rebellion permanently, and destroy the Temple, the most treasured symbol of the nationalist movement. Further, he went into that very Temple, where the people in charge had a neat little financial scam operation that took advantage of poor religious pilgrims, carefully made a whip, and drove out all the crooks and their wares.

Now this managed to upset all the powerful elements of the time. The Romans were made to feel queasy about the rumors floating around about this "king." The Pharisees were infuriated at his telling the masses that their nationalist ideology was a recipe for disaster. And the aristocrats didn't take kindly to his affront to the Temple establishment. Essentially, Jesus was telling the people that the Roman agenda, the religious nationalist agenda, and the more secular-like "civil religion" of the aristocrats were all empty and corrupt and not the way of God at all. Loving God and loving one's neighbor were what really mattered. Now we have to understand that Jesus' message was NOT one that people easily understood; in fact, his own disciples repeatedly missed the point, as they later shared in the recollections that have been passed down to us. It was way easier for people to get wrapped up in one of the competing ideologies of the different classes that were competing against one another. Nevertheless, though few if any understood him yet, Jesus was winning the sympathies of the people, not least by performing miraculous healings of the blind, deaf, lame, leprous, etc. on a massive scale over a period of about three years. He even raised Lazarus, one of his friends, from the dead. At least the people were convinced, and so great masses were hailing him as the anointed king who was to come. All this bothered the Romans, the nationalist "mullah" types, the aristocrats, every power of the age. All these groups of powerful people despised one another, but there was one thing they all came to agree on: Jesus had to go.

It is at this point that Jesus made some amazing choices. After one point, he had so much popular support, he could have rallied the people around him and fulfilled every other Messiah's dream, to lead a violent revolt against the unclean foreign occupiers. Indeed, his action of clearing out the Temple likely signaled to the people that this is what he intended to do, because the celebrated Maccabean nationalists of a previous era had likewise liberated the Temple when they threw off the Greek occupation. Cleansing the temple and throwing out the foreign occupier went hand in hand in the people's expectation of what the Messiah, the anointed deliverer, was going to do. This is the sort of thing the people had in mind when they had seen the celebrated miracle worker entering Jerusalem on a donkey, and they laid a trail of palm branches in his path, welcoming the king who was coming to take power. And Jesus had the perfect opportunity at that moment. People from all over the country were in Jerusalem to celebrate the annual Passover feast, had just seen him cleanse the Temple, and were awaiting the next step....

But he didn't. And this choice, it is argued, changed the course of history.

He refused to seize that moment, and so the masses, eager for a national deliverer, quickly abandoned him. What a fool! He claimed to be "king" yet didn't take the opportunity that was presented to him to establish his throne! He claimed to be the anointed one that God would send to deliver his people from oppression, but refused to take up arms against the oppressors! He aroused the suspicion and anger of every powerful group in the land, but blew his best chance of beating them to the top! Instead, he said, "...the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) No doubt the masses who abandoned him considered him irrelevant at best, and faithless at worst, for failing to put their expected program in motion.

But if he had taken the option of leading a national rebellion, only calling down legions of angels would have prevented the Romans from massacreing him and all of the masses that would have followed him into the battle. Now he had already shown people the divine power to miraculously heal diseases. Could he not use that same power to successfully throw off the Romans, like many a hero of old? But he did not go that route. There was another kind of divine power he wanted to show to the world. He allowed himself to be arrested, and said nary a word during the illegal trial the local "good ole boys" of the Sanhedrin gave him. He died the inglorious death of a common criminal, on a Roman cross. While hanging on the cross he cried out to God for the forgiveness of the people who put him there. He maintained the way of love and forgiveness and peace to the end. And he died.

His movement came to a crashing halt. The masses, of course, had no interest in a dead national deliverer. One MORE messiah had bitten the dust. Would God's people EVER be freed? His death proved to all that he was not the one God had promised. His closest disciples, who had traveled with him for three years, were in despair, utterly disillusioned. Some who had been fishermen before were already heading back to their old business.

But on the third day something amazing happened that completely changed everything. Jesus appeared alive to his disciples, after he had been dead and buried. They didn't see a ghost. They saw and felt a physical body, a body with unusual powers, a body that seemed to belong to a new order of being, but a body that could eat and be touched nonetheless. Of course historians today debate whether this really happened.[1] The telling fact is that few historians deny that this is was what Peter and the other disciples themselves thought they were witnessing. Whatever it is that happened, it transformed the disciples' fear to boldness, and made them willing to live and die in defense of their testimony.

The resurrection confirmed to them that Jesus truly was the King, the anointed deliverer sent by God. It was this remarkable divine stamp of approval on Jesus that finally opened their eyes to understand the radically alien nature of Jesus' message, and his radical redefinition of what it means to be "king" and "deliverer." These same disciples were hiding in fear after Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. But after a series of what they claimed were resurrection appearances, they began to proclaim Jesus as the true King. The movement spread rapidly, far beyond Palestine, and came to include people from every ethnic group in the empire. And the point to highlight here is that they acted in ways just as puzzling to the society around them as Jesus had among his fellow Jews in Palestine. The apostles performed miraculous healings, which gave evidence that they were no ordinary movement. And they dared to mock Roman power by celebrating the cross. They took the very symbol of the terror by which Rome kept many nations subjugated and made it the symbol of their movement. To add insult to injury, these same early Christians refused to perform what others considered a perfunctory ritual of allegiance to Rome--to burn incense to Caesar and call him "Lord." Instead, they went around declaring "Jesus is Lord." In addition, they preached a "gospel" of Jesus as king. The word "gospel" was typically used to announce a king's military victory, the news of his rule that was going to bring peace and prosperity to all, or somesuch. So even the early Christians' use of the word "gospel" was a mockery of Roman power. We don't quite get all this today, but the political implications were not lost on the Romans. And so at various times they launched persecutions, putting Christians to death. Macabre crowds cheered in the arena as Christians were fed to hungry lions. And all they had to do to avoid this fate was recite what considered as harmless as Americans consider their "Pledge of Allegiance."

The puzzling thing is that, for all their mockery of Rome, they never took up arms against Rome in the name of their "king." Most of the new Christians were slaves, but they never even started a slave rebellion. Instead they preached an ethic of radical service, humility, forgiveness, and love. There were early Christians who went to municipal garbage heaps, rescued abandoned infants, and raised them as their own. In times of plague, Christians stayed behind in the city to care for the ill, often dying themselves. As Jesus had said, his kingdom was not of this world. And yet it was a kingdom of divine love that was very much IN this world. It truly was political, by radically undermining the validity of the pretentious claims of the political agendas of their time. And, in a sense, it really was about conquering the world, but without using the weapons of the world.

So what was the point of this movement, and its strange behavior? The message of all this, as best as I understand it, as best as I understand what these scholars are saying, was this: Our deliverer Jesus has defeated death. So we no longer live in fear. We will no longer be slaves to corruption. We will no longer consider any oppressive ideology to have true legitimacy. Nor will we put our hope in any "new boss" who claims to deliver us from the "old boss." We have power that transcends all that. And nothing, not even death, the threat of death, or any kind of earthly deprivation, will keep us from living lives of faithfulness, mercy, and love.

The early Christians believed Jesus really was the deliverer whom the prophets had foretold, in passages such as these:

"Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever." (Isaiah 9:7)

"Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth."
(Isaiah 42:1-4)

Even as this movement was spreading throughout the Greco-Roman world, back in Palestine the nationalist movement had grown and come to a head. In A.D. 70 the Romans crushed the rebellion, and destroyed the Temple, as Jesus had warned. Meanwhile, the apostles continued to proclaim Jesus as the true King of the world. Most of the apostles and other original eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus were put to death. Not one of them ever recanted their testimony, even though we have reports of many others, who did not have this singular experience of seeing the resurrected Jesus, who renounced their faith to avoid being put to death.

You can read this story in greater detail in such books as The Challenge of Jesus, by New Testament scholar and historian N.T. Wright, and The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder. For me, this is quite a different story than the one I grew up with. Certainly, it has very different emphases. Personally, I find the historical arguments of these scholars compelling, and this perspective makes sense of a lot of biblical passages that previously seemed enigmatic. Not that I'm sold on everything they say, but it's compelling food for thought.

So let me close with some questions that are on my mind. I'd love to hear what you think.

1. In what sense was the movement of Jesus genuinely "political"?

2. Is the politics of Jesus the same as today's Christian Right"?

3. Is it the same as today's Christian or secular Left?

4. What are the practical implications of all this for our lives?

5. What do I live for? What am I willing to die for?



[1] For the view that the origin of Christianity is just awfully hard to account for historically if the resurrection did not really occur, see The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N.T. Wright, or a condensed presentation of the same arguments in Wright's lecture/article "Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?" Wright goes head to head with John Dominic Crossan, another major New Testament scholar, in the book The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan And N.T. Wright in Dialogue, edited by Robert B. Stewart. Crossan, if I recall, admits that the main reason he doesn't believe it happened is because such things simply do not occur, and proposes alternatives. The exchange is good-natured, at times humorous, and in my opinion very worthwhile. Both agree that something extraordinary happened, and that it should motivate and inspire us to combat injustice in our world. I hope in a future post to explain why I believe the resurrection really did happen and why I think this question is absolutely crucial.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Finding company on the journey

As any reader of this blog knows, over the past year I have come to believe in evolution, and in a way that fits quite comfortably with belief in God and in the Bible as divine revelation. To my surprise and relief, a fog of questions that for years had seemed impenetrable has been clearing before the bright rays of the sun. And I can say that the end result is no watering down of vital faith, but a new unleashing of passion for the kingdom of God. I documented the main points of this journey in a post of Dec. 20, 2008 (re-posted to this blog earlier today).

By way of update, let me heartily recommend a book that I have read since then, and mentioned in another post today--Understanding Genesis, by Nahum M. Sarna. Sarna makes me feel like I've got my Bible back, finally, after it had been long held hostage to forced interpretations motivated by extraneous agenda arising out of Darwinian controversy of the last century and a half. This feeling of "getting my Bible back" is similar to what I felt years ago when the "biblical-theological" tradition of Westminster Theological Seminary and related Dutch Reformed currents liberated my understanding of the Bible from the extraneous agenda and assumptions that the dispensationalism in which I had been raised had imposed upon the text, and which had turned biblical faith into a private, other-worldly affair that had little direct impact on the suffering and injustice of our world. I believe that both these developments constitute advances toward reading the Bible on its own terms.

Sarna, a Jewish scholar who wrote in the 1970s, strongly confirms what I had long suspected (from at least the time I read I Believe in the Creator, by James Houston, who evidently also benefitted from the stream of biblical and ANE research to which Sarna contributed), namely, that Genesis is best understood as using a shared regional literary idiom (that is not literal history in any sense in which we moderns understand that) to deliver a pointed polemic against debased views of humanity and society and the gods held to by the Babylonian imperial ideology and other prevailing belief systems of the region, and to school the people of Israel in divine call to reverse the state of corruption that had come to dominate the world. Combined with a spate of readings of N.T. Wright on early Christian origins and the mission of Christ, all this makes for, not a weak and vitiated faith, but a vital, passionate, fighting vision of the meaning of our lives and the glorious end to which God is bringing us in Christ.

Also, shortly after reading Sarna, I stumbled onto an excellent resource, which I highly recommend for those who wish to discuss and reflect on these matters, together with others who have been seeking to make sense of things. It is the Jesus Creed blog of Scot McKnight. Anybody interested in these issues can visit the site and search for posts by "RJS," who is a working scientist who I think has read Sarna and, together with readers who contribute responses to his posts, is processing the work of authors like Kenton Sparks, John Walton, and a number of others who get to the heart of these matters. Finding others who have come to nearly identical conclusions in light of the same sorts of evidence reassures me that it is not some rare form of insanity that has not gripped me to make me believe that evolution and biblical faith actually go quite well together! Finding this blog was like finding "home."

Peter Enns and his website is another valuable resource. I think it was via Internet searches prompted by book reviews on Enns' site that I came across the Jesus Creed blog, which also links back to Enns. I came to know of Enns by virtue of the fact that I graduated from a sister seminary to Westminster Theological Seminary, the institution that fired him. I am not surprised at the firing, but I do think Enns' thinking is in many ways a natural development of conversation that had long been in the making in such WTS scholars as the late Ray Dillard and the late Harvie Conn. Nor am I surprised that the OT professor Tremper Longman, formerly of WTS, recommends reading Enns' book Incarnation and Inspiration. Perhaps if these scholars were still at WTS, Enns would not have been fired. Not at all to suggest that these scholars' views are the same as Enns', but they all make for productive dialog in the community of faith. As I read Enns and interaction with other scholars, something gnaws at me making me wonder if he has really got discussion off onto quite the right foot on a number of things. But I think he is to be commended for prodding more explicit discussion of the issues he addresses among evangelical biblical scholars.

All these developments in the intellectual realm of faith have paved the way for clearer, more urgent yearnings in the realm of practical application. Years ago my exposure to the "biblical theology" movement of biblical scholars like M.G. Kline, G. Vos, Edmund P. Clowney, and Graeme Goldsworthy led me to see that the whole Bible points us to Jesus Christ. (See Goldsworthy's According to Plan for the most accessible eye-opener along these lines that I have read.) A more recent but complementary sea change in my understanding--to which the whole evolutionary question contributed in odd and unexpected ways but which does not depend on any particular stance in evolutionary debates, and to which reading N.T. Wright contributed very substantially--has led me to see that everything about Jesus is aimed at motivating and empowering us to seek justice and mercy and harmony and universal well-being in this world. Of course I've always really known that, and the theology of WTS circles (esp., e.g., Harvie Conn) certainly pointed toward it and affirmed it, but the tendency of elements of my religious background to cast the Christian religion in terms of getting people onto a ship that will someday take us to a place that is out of and unrelated to this world obscured that knowledge and sent it off into a corner. Some forms of evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity seem like those pyramid schemes where everybody is busy signing everybody up to sell the product but precious little time is spent actually selling the product. The only "product" moved was a bit of personal cleaning up in private morals without paying attention to the wider and pervasive social implications of the Bible. The result is that compassionate practical ministry among the poor and excluded took a perpetual back seat to this recruitment game--which suits the interests of religious empire-builders rather than the priorities of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus and his friends. The great need I see is to put justice, mercy, and practical love back in the very center of our lives.

The question of doing that, practically speaking, is claiming the bulk of my prayers and energies these days. I'm still wanting for face-to-face company on that path--it's anything but the kind of path one can walk alone. Some new acquaintances and I hope budding friendships seem promising in that regard.

On the Evolutionary "Chisel," the Divinely Intended "Sculpture," and the Glorious Meaning and Destiny of our Lives in Christ

In this post I'd like to expand upon some matters that were at least implicitly touched upon in my post of Dec. 20, 2008 (re-posted to this blog earlier today), in regard to the matter of justifying normative ethics in the light of evolutionary orgins. This is an area that has not received much close attention in the popular theistic evolutionary works that I have come across so far, yet I think it lies at the heart of much that troubles many non-Christians about Christianity, even on a theistic evolutionary understanding of it, and that troubles many Christians about evolution.

The question is this: If we have been evolved by processes concerned with increasing the chances of survival and reproduction, does human life have anything like the significance that the Bible, and indeed our own hearts as we perceive them, tell us it has? Do our actions have ultimate moral significance? Do the feelings and concerns and aspirations we experience in our lives have "meaning" whose content is not defined by, and whose validity does not depend on, the nature of the evolutionary means that contributed to bringing these about?

I think that one of the most important things that needs to be said in addressing that question is to insist that we must refrain from reading "meaning" into behavior and evolutionary processes that apparently occurred in pre-humans based on conceptions of meaning that are derived from our existential experience in the present, and from assuming that the evolutionary means which brought about the circumstances of our present experience necessarily determine the "meaning" or "purpose," or lack thereof, of that present experience. The use of a chisel and the size and shape of the orginal block out of which a sculpture is made does not determine the "meaning" of the sculpture. Likewise, there is compelling evolutionary logic that seems to account for HOW such things as the temptation to adultery, the phenomenon of jealousy, and many other things arose in the first place, but which has no ultimate bearing on the moral significance we should ascribe to those behaviors today.

For example, in species of birds that until recently were considered more "monogamous" than they really are, scientists have observed females engaging in remarkably sly rendezvous with other males, even as males have developed mate-guarding instincts. Both tendencies appear to have co-evolved in a kind of arms race. Selection pressures have favored developments in females that make them adept at seeking covert inseminations by more sexually attractive and fit males (which helps ensure that her progeny will have heightened chances of surviving and reproducing), while still availing themselves of the resources provided by the cuckolded male. Selection pressures favor changes in the males that make them more adept at guarding their mates. Whether such understandings in exactly their current form will survive ongoing investigation I cannot say, but they certainly seem coherent and highly plausible, and I see no warrant for rejecting them on any biblical or theological grounds. But what does this say about the morality of human behavior?

One might be tempted, for example, to conclude from such observations that adultery in humans is a matter of no moral significance. Or that jealousy and mate-guarding tendencies are pointless in any ultimate sense, because these all evolved as part of a pointless game with no meaningful direction. But all of this would be a huge philosophical leap that is not at all warranted by the facts. The scientific observations in themselves cannot speak one way or the other concerning the current moral significance, or lack thereof, or of the "meaning," of human behaviors. What I think can be said, with which I think most evolutionary biologists could agree, is that the vast bulk of human genes and traits have been spreading and co-evolving in the human species for so long that a degree of equilibrium has been reached. This is not to say that there is not ongoing variation in these traits. Some are more tempted to adultery than others. Some are more jealous than others. And insofar as there are genetic factors contributing to that, there is indeed a measure of variation on that level. But this variation is not so great as to rule out universal or near universal statements about what makes current human beings happy and well, and concerning the range of behaviors of which most people are capable. Women want their progeny to be provided for. They want their husbands to value their fidelity because a complete abandonment of "mate guarding" would in fact make them very unhappy and unloved. And they do not want their husbands to take their loyalty so for granted that they slack off on the job of providing for the family.

Likewise, the spread and co-evolution of genes and traits and culture is such that no human being HAS to behave, as did Genghis Khan, killing and conquering and mating as many women as possible, because a) multiple strategies of sufficient "evolutionary advantage," generally speaking, are available to virtually every human being, and b) we are capable of consciously choosing behaviors even when they conform to the goal of human happiness over against the dictates of the maximization of genetic legacy. Genghis Khan, in other words, COULD have been a saint, given other influences and choices, because there is that degree of flexibility and range of possibility in humans. And if God guided the development of our ancestors into this current configuration (and science cannot really speak to that question) and purposes that we experience harmony and fellowship with one another, then there is a basis for morality to which the facts of the current configuration are more relevant than the evolutionary processes that led to it.

Or take another example of an evolutionary observation that might tempt us into unwarranted moral conclusions. Men on average are bigger and stronger than women. And there is little doubt that this is because males among our biological ancestors fought over mates. But this does not mean that it is OK for males today to fight and kill each other over mates. There is a tendency for all evolved features to take on different functions, or even a multiplicity of possible functions, once they are brought into being. And in the current configuration that evolution has produced in humans, the passions and muscles of men are susceptible of different applications and "meanings." We are now CAPABLE of opting for cooperative rather than competitive behaviors. We are capable of channeling our passions and strengths and abilities in ways that love God and others, just as we are capable of employing these in ways that may in many cases more closely resemble the behavior of our very distant ancestors who did not share the "meaning" complex in which we live. Nor does this fact of sexual dimorphism and its origins mean that the feelings a woman may have when she thinks of her husband have no meaning apart from the evolutionary processes that shaped these features as well as feelings. For example, if a woman feels that her husband, who is taller and stronger than she is, is her "knight in shining armor," we cannot debunk the "validity" of these feelings on account of evolutionary origins. A very complex series of interactions between genetics and culture and individual circumstances can lead to such feelings, and they take on a "life of meaning" of their own the validity of which is not at all affected by the fact that the fighting of distant male ancestors was part of the series of events that led to their development. Nor, of course, can we force-fit all women's feelings into a stereotype, though sometimes our cultures want to do that, because there is diversity within that which is shared by all humans.

It is this "life of meaning" that is the end of creation, the purpose with which we are concerned, at any rate; the long business of selection pressures which tend toward survival and reproduction belong to the mere mechanics and means of creation.

To take another example, scientist of cognition Justin Barrett, in his book Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, has much to say about how the tendency of most humans in most environments to "naturally" believe in a god or gods may have come about. But Barrett, a Christian, goes on to argue that if we deny the validity of belief in God based on the evolutionary nature of the processes that developed our capacity to believe in God, then on the same grounds we might as well also reject our perception of the passage of time, our belief in the existence of other minds, and other things we take for granted. None of this is really warranted if there really is a God who has guided the development of the universe with purpose. And, again, science, in itself, can only be silent on that question, while the resurrection and the testimony of the Spirit in our hearts speak very clearly and gloriously on the matter.

And what of the common human perception that death is "unnatural"? I would contend that, just as selection pressures concerned with survival and reproduction led to cognitive faculties that are now capable of being employed in perceiving the God who truly exists, similar processes may have produced an entirely valid perception that death is not our intended or ultimate destiny. Once again, the question hinges entirely on whether there is divine intent underlying the creation, a question science cannot answer, but which other evidence abundantly speaks to.

It is necessary, then, to distinguish between the chisel of evolutionary processes, and the sculpture of humans created in the image of God and having the capacity to live a rich life of fellowship with God and with one another. Somewhere in the development of our highly advanced brains and of our capacity for culture, there arose the capacity for choice (a highly debated topic, but I don't think science can ever conclusively rule against the existence of all meaningful choice, even if it encourages a healthy awareness, which I think the Bible also acknowledges, of the relative and limited nature of this capacity), for love, for fellowship with God, and for all sorts of things that have taken on a "life of meaning" of their own. Again, the meaning is determined by the purpose of God and not by the evolutionary processes and selection pressures that were used to bring about the current complex and glorious configuration.

It is also a mistake to read the "meaningful time" derived from the complex of meaning that belongs to our experience in this sliver of evolutionary time that we inhabit--this sliver which is in fact the end and purpose of creation, at least the end and purpose of creation with which we need be concerned--back into the long stretches of evolutionary time, and thus conclude that our lives are insignificant. That is a category mistake. Because in the context of our lives, we attribute significance to "long time" as having been the context in which wisdom has been shaped, hard but important lessons have been learned, relationships have been deepened, enmities have become entrenched, etc. And in the context of the roll of centuries, we attribute significance to the "long time" over which civilizations have developed, and cultural wisdom has been shared, and the leaven of the gospel has transformed the world and clarified the possibilities open to us, etc. These meanings of "long time" that derive from our life experience and from a shared cultural conversation over a number of centuries cannot justly be transferred and applied to the long stretches of evolutionary eons that preceded us. To do so is to make the same kind of error as to conclude that we are insignificant, that God cannot be interested in us or in the choices we make, because we occupy an infinitesimal part of the universe in terms of space. The sliver of space we inhabit is meaningful to us, and is made so by virtue of the fact that the very Creator of all things has honored us with the privilege of relating to him in that time and space.

When we correct the above kind of error, when we make the proper distinctions, and keep the "meaning" of time back in the realm of "human-scale" time where it belongs, we are in a better position to understand the resurrection and the life of the eternal kingdom to come. The continuity that bears with our present existence pertains to the purposed end result of meaning that God intended, even it is radically discontinuous, in ways we cannot imagine or comprehend, with the mechanics of how the world and our bodies as we know them came to be what they presently are. The future kingdom will indeed be "here" in "this world" from the point of view of our existential experience; the question of future "mechanics" is irrelevant. God and his purposes are what is ultimate in all of this. Perhaps our having providentially discovered the evolutionary mechanics of our origins will only serve to heighten the glory of it all when the resurrection of the saints and renewal of the world (that is, the world as we experience it) prove that the meaning which God declares indeed was the real point of it all.

It is also a mistake, I would contend, to read the meaning of human pain and injustice into what we observe in other creatures, and then conclude that human pain and injustice are of no moral significance, or that there is therefore no such thing as moral significance. We may be disturbed when we observe certain behaviors of other creatures, such as the male of a primate species killing the small offspring of a female that was sired by a rival male, the evolutionary logic of which may be to prepare the female to be fertile to mate with him, and to ensure greater resources for his own rather than his rival male's offspring. But such creatures are acting within the limited range of possibilities open to their species, whose capacities and options are untold times more restricted than our own. Disturbing as these things may be, we do not ascribe moral significance to these behaviors or call them "evil." But the fact that seeing these things in other species tends to jar us is evidence of the very different behavior of which we are capable. Hence the Hebrew prophet speaks of a time when "the lion will lie down with the lamb," which in the context I think is best read as not speaking literally of animals, but of a day when ruthless empires like Assyria and Babylon will give way to a peaceful and cooperative human social order. We are capable of a cooperative approach that can bring happiness and prosperity to all. And not only are we capable of it, something deep within us tells us, however much we may at times try to deny it, that this is really what we are meant for, that this is the way of true peace and happiness. Because of this, the way we live becomes a genuinely moral issue.

Now let me briefly turn to a related question that a number of Christians have concerning Romans 5, which constitutes the greatest hindrance that many Christians to accepting our evolutionary origins. (I hope to address these concerns in light of a more detailed examination of the text in a separate post, or in a revised and expanded version of this post. What follows can be considered prolegomena to that discussion.) It has been contended that Adam must be literal and a single individual for what Paul says in Romans 5 to make sense. In a previous essay I mentioned the views of Henri Blocher, who believes a pre-human evolutionary history is possible, but who shares this belief that Adam, who acted as our covenant representative, plunging the human race into sin and ruin, must be literally one single individual, the first male of our species. Yet apparently the best current scientific thinking is that the human race is not descended from a single human pair. Is the Bible irreconcilably opposed to that conclusion? I don't think so. The important thing on which Paul's argument hinges is that we are in a predicament that we have inherited and that we perpetuate. And while Paul may have had no reason to imagine that Adam was anything other than a single individual, he is not concerned to address that issue--indeed, the issue would not have occurred to him. It is not the point he is making, and the point he IS making does not hinge on that.

In light of ancient Near Eastern parallels, I think there is strong reason to believe that Genesis is something other than what people today define as "literal history." A detailed and I think convincing account of this matter is found in Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis. Sarna makes a strong case that Genesis is using a shared literary idiom of the ancient Near East to deliver a pointed polemic against debased views of God and human beings and human societies that were held to by the Babylonian imperial ideology and other cultures of the region. Further, with Henri Blocher, I believe that the narratives of Genesis tell our story truly and effectively, albeit nonliterally, for the purpose of schooling the people of Israel in their divine call to reverse the corruption into which the world had fallen. The very name "Adam" means "humanity," so I think it is entirely possible that Adam and other figures in the early chapters of Genesis tell us the origins of the human predicament in a condensed and archetypical, rather than a literal manner.

How, then, might we conceive how this inherited predicament came about, if we do not take Genesis as literal history? I would submit that at some point in the development of our species, even though the "chisel" was made up of selection pressures driven by the logic of survival and reproduction, we developed as the "end" (divinely purposed) result the capacity to sense the reality of the God who had made us and all things, and to relate to him, and to sense our calling into cooperative and harmonious ways of living which, when lived out by enough of us, creates a bigger pie for all to share, and in which we find the truest sense of meaning to our existence. There was developed in us, in other words, the capacity to consciously choose the way of "win-win," in contrast to the way of "I win, you lose," which dominates in many other species who lack the capacity to choose any other way, and that fights over the slivers of a very small pie while making nobody truly happy. But at some point, deep in our pre-history, this genuine capacity to opt for "win-win" strategies was not acted upon; intead, people suppressed their innate sense that we are special creatures under God, meant to relate harmoniously and cooperatively with one another, and opted instead to seize immediate privilege and advantage at the expense of the long-term good of all. We do not necessarily have to conceive of this as having occurred in a decisive once-for-all fashion, much less in a one-time decision by a single person.

Indeed, the "genuine capacity" to choose the way of cooperation surely did not arrive in us suddenly, so it is conceivable that the actions of pre-humans, with pre-fully-developed versions of our capacities which may mark out both these pre-human species and us from all other living primates, may have contributed tributaries to the stream of our inherited corruption. Jesus affirmed the principle of varying degrees of culpability for human actions. (Luke 12:47-48 is so important to thinking about these issues of ethics and moral responsibility, let's review it in full: "That servant who knows his master's will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.") Who is to say, then, that there cannot have been varying degrees or qualities of moral responsibility among pre-human species? God knows.

In any case it may be supposed that over a period of unknown length the net effect of the bulk of choices by our ancestors created a kind of watershed in human culture and history. Though the sense of God and our truest calling as human beings was still somewhere deep within us, the organization of societies and dominant expressions of human behavior came to reflect the contrary approach to living which emphasized immediate perceived advantage over against trust in God who calls us to work harmoniously with one another for the common good. And indeed the weight of precedents and the pressures of societies built upon corrupt principles militated fiercely against any given individual breaking out and living according to the call that was sensed deeper within. Is such a construction of affairs as I have outlined contrived? I don't believe it is. In fact, I think that even the most skeptical atheist knows deep down that somehow or another we have arrived at a point where we are capable of realizing a destiny that is contrary to the "way of the world" around us but that fulfills our deepest aspirations.

Certainly by the time Genesis was written this state of corruption had dominated human societies for longer than the collective human memory could know. The story of Adam and Eve tells the story of this watershed, and the fact that it is told in condensed, mythological idiom does not make the story any less true or effective for preparing a people that is called to reverse this state of affairs in the world. Nor does its non-literal form make it any less suited to prepare us for Christ, who delivers us from the obvious mess we have inherited.

To reverse the corrupt state of the world requires sacrifice. The first honest cop will be subject to the constant threats of death at the hands of those who are on the take. The first to refrain from littering will be going to trouble while seeing no visible difference in the landscape. The first to take steps toward just human cooperation does so at great immediate cost. It is like walking into a meatgrinder. But Christ walked into that meatgrinder for us, and before us, and came out the other end unscathed. United with him by faith in his resurrection, our hearts are thus freed from the false lures and threats of the prevailing corrupt system to reconnect with the fundamental truth of our existence that in varying degrees we have been suppressing, namely, that we are meant to live lives of love toward God and toward others. And so with truly joyful hearts, powerless in ourselves yet invincible in the Spirit (who, in ancient Near Eastern idiom, is hovering over the waters to bring order out of chaos), we follow Jesus, and share in his sufferings, that we may share in his glory. As the Hebrew prophet foretold, "he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth" (Isaiah 42:4).

To fully treat the perceived problems of reconciling this understanding of "Adam" and the origin of the human predicament with the text and mindset of the apostle Paul in Romans 5 will require further attention. In my opinion this matter is not nearly as difficult as we imagine, but to arrive at that conclusion requires backing up and retracing our interpretive steps in a detailed fashion. I believe we will find, as we have in the case of Genesis, that the biblical text is apt in making a point of profound significance, which we best understand as we understand the context of the original author and his readers. My thoughts on that are in draft text that I hope to finish and publish soon (that is to say, sometime within the next 10 years--a mere blip on the screen of worldview-shaping time :-).