Friday, February 25, 2011

Theology: Ruth and the Law that Kills

One of the things I love most about the Anglican tradition is the liturgy of the word. It's the part of the service where, every service, scripture is read. If there was one thing in my tradition that I think every church should have, this would be it. An interesting feature of this practice is that, as different pieces of scripture are read together, connections between verses get made that might not otherwise have been.

Last night, I attended evening Eucharist, and just such a connection was made. I'm going to quote the text whole here, in the spirit of the liturgy.

Now Boaz said to her at mealtime, “Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed parched grain to her; and she ate and was satisfied, and kept some back. And when she rose up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. Also let grain from the bundles fall purposely for her; leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her.” 
 So she gleaned in the field until evening, and beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. Then she took it up and went into the city, and her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. So she brought out and gave to her what she had kept back after she had been satisfied. And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where have you gleaned today? And where did you work? Blessed be the one who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked, and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.” Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “Blessed be he of the LORD, who has not forsaken His kindness to the living and the dead!” And Naomi said to her, “This man is a relation of ours, one of our close relatives.” Ruth the Moabitess said, “He also said to me, ‘You shall stay close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.’” And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, and that people do not meet you in any other field.” So she stayed close by the young women of Boaz, to glean until the end of barley harvest and wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. (Ruth 2:14-23)
To give some context, Ruth was the daughter-in-law of Naomi, and a foreigner. Naomi had been living among Ruth's people when her husband, and then her sons, had died. Thus, they returned to Israel as widows, and one of them a foreigner - just about the worst situation they could be in. Now, the Old Testament law required that the edges of the fields be left so that foreigners, widows and orphans could glean from them. It also required that if members of the community were forced to sell property and thereby become impoverished, their property should be "redeemed," that is, bought back, by a close relative. This verse was read, and then the following New Testament Epistle reading.

Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or do we need, as some others, epistles of commendation to you or letters of commendation from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. 
And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious.
Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech— unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 3:1-18)
Typical of Paul, these are some packed, one might even say frantic, verses. There's a lot of good stuff in there. I want to draw attention to a particular thing said in this section. Paul says " the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." This is a common theme in Paul - the Spirit is life giving, but the letter (or the law) brings death. I've always found this puzzling. It seems intuitive to me that the law tells us what is good, and how is doing what is good destructive? Especially when the spirit also tells us to do good, oftentimes good over and above what is demanded by "law"?

Then I read these two verses together, and suddenly it clicked. See, there's another detail to the Ruth story. Boaz wasn't Ruth's closest relative - there was another. The closest relative should have been the one to redeem Ruth, but he didn't, instead Boaz had to. Boaz did the right thing, according to the law, and by the very nature of the law, the one who didn't do his duty was brought under condemnation. The law separates, divides, creates a divide, becomes a veil. In contrast, the Spirit opens up. When we act according to the Spirit, we do what is good, but that goodness flows out of ourselves and into Others. Our right acting does not harm, it edifies.

I don't pretend that this totally encompasses what Paul meant. I doubt such a thing could rightly be encompassed, but I think it is an interesting angle with which to approach it. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Philosophy: Objectifying "the" Environment

Of all of the debates that fall prey to absurd polemicism, protection of the environment is one of the worst. On either side of the debate, you seem to have people entirely incapable of discussing a concern that by all rights they should both share. The liberal side seems willing, at times, to die for the environment, and to treat as callous an evil anyone who will not. On the other side, concern for the environment is seen as a kind of pagan madness.

The problem in the debate about the environment is... well... just that - "the" environment. That we talk this way indicates a mistaken psychology. Speaking of "the" environment says that we have objectified it, made it into a thing other. It is that objectification which radicalizes the debate. Do we or do we not sacrifice to care for this thing. But the environment is not a thing, not in the way a shoe or a rock is a thing. It is not, properly speaking, the environment, but our environment. Our environment emerges out of a vast network of trees, and rocks, and people, our environment extends beyond us, it supports us, and, in shaping us, it is even a part of us. This is not the "our" of possession, but the "our" of inclusion, the our we use to speak of our own bodies - it is in us and we are in it. If we recognize this, the radicalism on both sides should disappear. We could not pretend it was a thing disconnected from us to which we owe no fealty, but we could likewise not see it as some static other to be nobly sacrificed to.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Theology: We Bewail our Manifold Sins and Wickedness

In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the confession of sins says "We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us." Harsh words. I've heard it complained that they make it sound like we commit murder every week. And yes, they do, because we do. 

My roommate Josh recently wrote a post over on his blog about hypocrisy. In that post, he talks about a distinction between the cynic and the hypocrite. The cynic is one who sees the flaws of the system he is a part of, withdraws from them, and claims for himself superiority. The hypocrite, on the other hand, is one who sees the flaws of his system, bewails them, strives to get out of them, all the time realizing that he is a part of them inescapably, and that because of this he will always be part of the system.

We live in a world of horrendous injustice, our entire economic system is tied in with the exploitation of the weak, the destruction of animals, the rape of our world. What is more, this side of the Resurrection, we live as fallen bodies oftentimes overwhelmed with desire that leads us to sin. We cannot withdraw, not until Christ returns and we are transformed. We must fight it, but we must, always, realize that we cannot escape it. We sin each day, even in ways we don't realize. I sin when I look at another person and put her into a box (vain Hollywood girl), I sin when I eat chocolate harvested by slaves, I sin when I sit in a car whose fumes are destroying the planet. There are even situations, as I have talked about before, where any action I can possibly take is wrong (kill the one, or let the many die?) 

This isn't to say that I am some wicked or worthless person. I have been made in the image of God, and remade in the Resurrection of Christ. I have been sanctified and my sins are no longer held against me. I am beloved of God. When I bewail my wickedness, what I bewail is that I am not yet whole. I have been made clean, the seeds of the Resurrection have been planted in me, but they have not yet blossomed. 

This is why we cannot judge. But for the irresistible Grace of God, what would we be? 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Theology: The God Who Intervenes?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.  And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Colossians 1:15-17, New King James Version)

I take a kind of perverse pleasure in taking various sorts of personality quizzes on the internet. Some time ago, I took the "whats your spiritual-type" quiz over at Beliefnet. Leaving aside the nonsense "spiritual vs. religious" distinction the quiz rests on, it also starts with one of those terrible questions that has no correct answer, but it's useful because it serves to bring up a problem in much modern discussion of God. The question goes as follows:
Q1. I believe that God:
1. Exists and intervenes in daily events
2. Exists but does not intervene in daily events
3. Is a spiritual ideal, not an actual being
4. Does not exist

All of these answers are wrong, but the first is the one that's important for the purposes of this post, because it's the one I, as a believing Christian, am supposed to pick, but it's terribly wrong. 
You see, the god who intervenes is a fundamentally deist god. At first, this seems like an absurd statement. Afterall, the very definition of the deist god is one who does not intervene in creation. What is crucial, though, is that the deist's god is a thing like all the other things in creation, he just happens to have been first, and be more powerful than what he has made, but in roughly the same way. If you took some natural thing, and cranked it's power up to 11, it could match the deist god. It is because of this that the deist god can create the world and then leave it to run. 

The god who intervenes is merely a modification of that god, a being who made other beings which run on their own, and from time to time sticks his hand in to shuffle things around. But that isn't the Christian God. The Christian God is not merely the creator of the world, nor is He merely another agent intervening in that world - He is the creator and sustainer of all things. All things subsist in Him, He is the ground of being. This isn't to be a pantheist, God is separate from His creation, but His interaction with it is not like our interaction with it. To talk of God intervening implies that God could not intervene, or that anything which is could in some sense be without Him. 

Truly, in Him we live, and move, and have our being.