Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Eat this Book: The Answer to Moral Authority

I think Eugene Peterson in his book, “Eat this Book” (which our staff and board will all be reading – and discussing – very soon) articulates this crisis of moral authority (see previous post) very clearly when he writes: “What has become devastatingly clear in our day is that the core reality of the Christian community, the sovereignty of God revealing himself in three persons, is contested and undermined by virtually everything we learn in our schooling, everything presented to us in the media, every social, workplace, and political expectation directed our way as the experts assure us of the sovereignty of self. These voices seem so perfectly tuned to us, so authoritatively expressed and custom-designed to show u how to live out our sovereign selves, that we are hardly aware that we have traded in our Holy Bibles for this new test, the Holy Self. And don’t we still attend Bible studies and read our assigned verse or chapter each day? As we are relentlessly encouraged to consult our needs and dreams and preferences, we hardly notice the shift from what we have so long professed to believe."

The way out of this is neither a reduction of the Bible to some sort of legal code, from which we extract mere precepts for living, nor a post-modern skepticism that resists articulating meaning. Instead we need to recover the elements addressed in the book: exegesis and lectio-divina (among other elements) as the means of growing continually in our understanding and living.

Moral Authority? We who call ourselves ‘believers’ are saying (if we stand in the stream of history) that we believe this authority comes from the God whose story and heart is revealed in the Bible. So let’s learn together to read it, pray through it, be shaped by it. It’s a great need for out time.


At 22/7/06 14:04, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the vocabulary here is dated. Moral authority?-- i.e. Is there black and white or not? Are these really the true questions of our day? Or is following the spirit, choosing a path as you follow, an existential faith, the way that Christ calls us toward? The pharisees were certainly oriented toward moral codes - how did Christ respond to them?

I don't think your diagnosis of post-modernism as skeptical eschewing of meaning is all that accurate. Rather, I would say the movement to engage in a way of thinking that puts modernism in the past proclaims a more neo-orthodox view - but one of profound meaning. That is to say, there is indeed meaning and truth, which we can experience each day- but not ever with divine clarity.

It is beyond us to find truly meaningful content in a pinned down set of morals-- Can we ever define and espouse a particular code of living with true authority? To seek this seems to show basin human weariness and fear, a desire to find a comfortable spot to settle in and preserve the status quo.

However, it seems that ongoing meaning IS found in faith that there will always be more to understand, and in continuing to engage in the daily struggle to respond to revealed truth, to debate, to fight powers in Christ's strength rather than giving up and circling the wagons. This is an orthodoxy, but an organic, living, breathing, responsive practice.

I guess I don't know, if it is truly our God-given purpose to stake out ground make moral stands, what ground is so clearly right all the time that we should stake, claim, and defend it? Isn't it more the practice of seeking "right life" and encouraging others to seek the same that Christ proclaims - rather than ever believing you've defined and achieved "right life" yourself?

At 22/7/06 14:25, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

Yes but...

I agree that it's difficult to stake out an absolute right and wrong. But I do believe that the Bible is a source from which we need to draw our basis for decisions, wisdom, ethics. And if this is true, sound exegesis, and a consideration of the weight offered by a community's ethic come into play as well. A post-modern construct lacking these disciplines(and many do) results in nothing more than a very personal and private morality, a concept which is self-defeating since it is unattainable in a pure form (can I kill your cat and eat it for dinner? Why not - if my private, existential ethic allows it?)

At 22/7/06 16:07, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are indeed that hungry, please kill and eat my cat. I think this is sort of a ridiculously radical example... but okay, let's sharpen iron.

One would certainly go strongly against the "communal" norm in killing and eating the cat. But why is this so starkly "wrong"? Could the spirit of the life-giver not lead one to sustain that valuable life by killing and eating your precious cat? I guess the question is - are they hungry enough to validate it? Where is the line?

But could it be wrong to be searching for that line at all? Why should anyone be hungry at all,
given so much provision available to be shared? This, I think, is the problem with having a "spiritual" goal of defining morally authoritative doctrine - it is an exercise in self-reflection while missing the point.

I well know that your advice would be: we should not focus on sins that are not our own. But that is so much easier said than done. We can only realistically focus on those things that we see- and even with the bible as guide - given our own inability to truly be objective, we can only really see those things outside of our own norms.

Thus, we continue to derive dogma about our "stance" in regard to homosexual unions while the institution of marriage crumbles from the inside (For those who think homosexuality poses the biggest threat to traditional marriage - please start reading some of today's divinely inspired works, i.e. any piece of insightful literature about family life in the US, not just the bible).

And, we focus on our "approach" to missions, or our strategy for giving, or our need to become strong enough to create moral change, rather than just giving time and money to end poverty in the life of a person we see everyday.

Why is it acceptable to walk by even one homeless person without offering up our sofa?

In essence, it is my sin of ommission which I will never clearly comprehend, that could lead someone to be hungry enough to kill my cat and eat my cat.

If we cannot even know ourselves well enough to address all of our sin, why should I turn my judging eye on another?

At 22/7/06 20:38, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

You wrote that we should perhaps consider: just giving time and money to end poverty in the life of a person we see everyday.

Fair enough. Are you pleading for a community ethic towards that end, or is it OK for millions to ignore the plight of the poor while the few amass vast wealth?

And by the way, I agree w/ you regarding misplaced energies regarding the real threats to marraige. But unless I misunderstand - your reasoning seems to indicate that what you and I perceive to be a misplaced focus is, in fact, just another option.

At 23/7/06 15:16, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not invoking relativism, if that's what you're driving at. While I do embrace a nice healthy ongoing deconstruction, I also understand the failings of broader nihilism. We are human after all, and aligning ourselves with institutions (such as a common moral authority, or maybe a golf country club) is our inalienably primal/combative way of functioning in a brutal world that will, eventually, likely kill us.

Trying to deny the reality of basic human function, w/ the inversions of thought that occur, the inability of open-minded precepts to stand up themselves-- will lead to one madness... a la Nietzsche, and maybe Jesus as well. Not sure any of us would call Christ sane if he were walking the world today, proclaiming as radically different a reality as he did in his day.

Anyway, one does not have to embrace the establishment of powers and institutions in order to realize they are at work. For example, I am willing to debate my ideas with you, therefore I must be seeking to institute some shared principle. But I can do that with the knowledge that we are engaged in the work of forming a principle, which will then be debated and formed into another... ad infinitum. When I debate or coalesce ideas with others, with the view that our instituted principles are an end point, I have broken from reality at the opposite end of the spectrum from relativism.

So, it seems, rather than seek to establish moral authority, we should more simply seek responsive morality. I believe God is most experienced in standing firmly in the paradoxes of a finite life within an infinite universe and not pushing the panic button. Actively strive for morality personally, passionately debate morality communally, actively seek to establish morality globally... but don't drive a community to become a bastion of moral authority. Bastions are not responsive.

So, ultimately, yes- the war waged to save marriage by fighting homosexuality - it IS just another option. It is an option derived from the pure hearts of those who have completely stopped listening. I know both you and I believe that we should keep listening, keep responding. I just shudder to think of the license to stop and judge that you connote when you deputize a whole congregation full of moral authorities.

At 24/7/06 13:58, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I just shudder to think of the license to stop and judge that you connote when you deputize a whole congregation full of moral authorities." -- I shudder at this picture, too, and it isn't a pretty one, and it's not a picture of what's intended by the phrase "moral authority". Foremost, this process must be a communal one (and carried out in forums like blog comments for example!) to work. We're clearly not individual deputies here, running around yelling "citizen's arrest!" when something offends, and Richard's not a general ordering his minions to do his bidding. Rather, we put in our part and slog it through, ultimately making decisions as a group (with some leaders in defined roles). This process is one we undertake as a church body with many parts and perspectives. Authority is a dangerous thing and should be handled with care(then again, so is "everyone doing what's right in his own eyes"), but it's foundational that the church look to Christ for authority ("All authority has been given to me"). It's a messy process that should only be approached with humility, dare I say fear & trembling?, but we have this Old Testament, we have this New Testament, we have this God who walked on earth and did stuff and this Spirit who is doing stuff today ... we can't just throw up our hands at these essential beliefs, they must impact how we do things politically and personally. I personally think Just War theory (a product of the church's centuries of reflection, a messy one, incomplete, and possibly ineffectual, but nonetheless an authority developed in the light of Christ) precludes pre-emptive war, and also that Christ's own authority says a lot about how the OT passages about war are to be taken (e.g., not as theological support for the "Bush Doctrine"). I'm just one voice among many at this church and I'm willing to accept others who don't agree and think the evil of terrorism requires (ahem) modifying Just War Theory. I maintain that the OT should be read filtered through God's revelation in Christ -- it's Christ's authority and example that we must appeal to.

I just wanted to put in another two cents about two of the three big issues that have come up -- and to say that "moral authority" as a phrase has been used as a bludgeon in the past, but it does not have to be at Bethany in 2006 -- and also that the authority comes from Jesus, as revealed through Scripture. The job doesn't end with these statements -- I think it begins with them. In my view, the authority of Christ is the beginning of questions, not the end of them. Now we've got to figure out what the narrative of Jesus' story has to do with our stories in the light of these big abstract "issues." We've got to do it together, listening more than we talk, if we'll get anything done at all.



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