The Sugarlump Theology Salon

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I'm a big believer that since theology is primarily about relationship that the act theology should also be something that is done in community. So I've been making an effort over the last few months to find ways to get more connected both locally and globally to the theological world. I've been talking with all sorts of cool people and have made lots of connections. Its been a great experience so far. One of those connections was to try to get involved with a local theological peer group. I figured that theologians must get together in the same way as writers or scientists do and share their work with their peers for enrichment and feedback. To make a long story short: since I didn't find a group like that, I decided to get together with a couple church builder types and make one. In addition to yours truly, our founders are Linda Bergquist, adjunct professor at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and church planter extraordinaire, and Mark Scandrette, head of Re-Imagine and groovy Emergent bohemian dude. We're calling it the Sugarlump Theological Salon, and you're invited.

Wikipedia defines salon as
a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings”.

The Sugarlump Theological Salon is a gathering of Christian theologians and thinkers in the San Francisco Bay Area who meet in order to share and discuss their ideas and get peer feedback from one another. In the tradition of "The Inkling" (the literary group of C.S. Lewis's and J.R.R. Tolkien that met in a pub for readings and criticism of their own work) we meet in a coffee house (the San Francisco equivalent of a pub) called the “Sugarlump Coffee Lounge”.

I've made a webpage where you can find out more about upcoming Sugarlump talks and even share your own theological work with us. Just click over to the salon page


Violence in the Old Testament

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

There are a lot of really disturbing things in the Old Testament. Genocide, infanticide, slavery, polygamy, objectification of women... all not only occurred but often appear to be sanctioned by God, even commanded. Consider this example:

This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. (1st Sam 15:2-3)
Most likely you have heard sermons where the pastor would attempt to explain why God would command the slaughter of every "man and women, child and infant". One explanation often given is that God is holy and so could tolerate no "tainting" of Israel. But this begs the question: how is that any different from what the Nazi's said? The website rational Christianity says that the demonstrations of God's faithfulness and justice to Israel "gave them reason to trust God even when he commanded them to do something they might otherwise refuse to do". Again, this statement strikes me as extremely dangerous. Does that mean that when I sense that something goes against my conscience that I should do it anyway of I feel God telling me to? The potential for abuse here is staggering. But on the other hand, if we simply deny this part of the Bible are we not either saying that either God is unjust or that the Bible is unreliable?

In the historical novel "Silence", Shusaku Endo tells the story of a Jesuit missionary in seventeenth-century Japan who is faced with the dilemma of being forced between watching as his peasant flock was tortured and killed before his eyes, or to trample upon an image of Christ placed at his feet as a sign that he had denied Christ. The priest is torn in two between the love for his flock, and faithfulness to his Lord. His foot aches, when he hears Jesus speak to him,
"Trample, trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here."
When we are confronted with difficult passages in the Bible like to one above we are placed in a similar situation. On the one hand we are compelled to condemn the horrific idea of genocide. On the other we want to defend God's justice as well as the infallibility of the Bible. If we do not defend God here, are we not admitting that our God is unjust? We need to remember here the scandalous message of the cross: God came into the world and was falsely declared guilty and condemned on a cross for the sake of the ungodly. He did not seek to defend himself, but was condemned for the sake of the unrighteous. Jesus gave his life for his enemies, God died for the Amalekites just as much as he did for sinners like you and me. Would not that same God call us to care not for his reputation but for the lives of those (not innocent but beloved) lives? When we seek to protect an image (as the priest did) or a book, but in the process need to condone the slaughter of human life we forget that Christ is not found in a book or an icon, but in the least. When we defend the foreigner, the poor, the outcast, the enemy we are defending God, as Jesus says "as you have done it unto have done it unto me".

It is a good thing for us to seek to understand the difficult parts of Scripture and to struggle with them. But when we find ourselves justifying atrocities in our attempt to defend God, then something has gone terribly wrong. God does not need us to defend his honor and reputation, he calls us to follow Jesus in his way of loving so radically that he was accused of blasphemy and unjustly condemned. God came into the world not to defend his honor, but to be trampled for the sake of the lost and sinners. If we wish to follow him up to Golgotha, we must trample. So I will say, with my foot trembling over the image of Christ, that these accounts of genocide, of the slaughter of "children and infants", were not commanded by God and that this account in the Bible when it claims it is wrong. God have mercy, here I stand, trampling.

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Stem Cell Ethics Breakthrough

A study published in the Jan. 7 online edition on the journal Nature Biotechnology says that stem cells derived from human amniotic fluid (the fluid that surrounds the developing fetus) appear to offer many of the benefits of embryonic stem cells -- including the ability to grow into brain, muscle, bone and other tissues. The difference is that these stem cells are derived from the amniotic fluid in the womb, and unlike with embryonic stem cells, the embryo is unharmed. This means that we can potentially have the full benefits of stem cells without the ethical problem of taking a potential life to potentially save a life. Amniotic stem cells can be easily obtained though amniocentesis which is a safe procedure regularly done in older pregnant women to screen for birth defects by inserting a needle into the womb and drawing out the fluid.

Researchers from the Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Children's Hospital Boston found that amniotic cells in the laboratory can grow into all of the major types of cells, dividing at the rate of once every 36 hours. Researchers coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to develop into brain cells and injected them into the skulls of mice with diseased brains. The stem cells replaced the diseased areas and appeared to create new connections with surrounding healthy neurons. Researchers also coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to become bone cells and implanted them in a mouse. The study found the stem cells calcified and turned into dense, healthy bone. The researchers also coaxed amniotic fluid stem cells to develop into muscle, fat, blood vessel and liver cells. (source: Kaiser Network Daily Reports Jan 7)

In the past, adult stems cells, were put forward as a way to generate stem cells without harming life, but they had limitations: adult stem cells can only grow into the part that they were derived from while embryonic stem cells can grow into any part. Because amniotic stems cells are "somewhere between" embryonic stems cells and adult stem cells, it appears they have the advantages of both: Like embryonic stem cells they are versatile and can grow into all major groups, and like adult stem cells they are stable and easier to maintain in laboratory dishes and can be kept for years without developing tumors. (source: Newsweek)

Because the cells are a genetic match to the developing fetus, tissues grown from them in the laboratory will not be rejected if they are used to treat birth defects in that newborn, which is of course not possible with embryonic stem cells which would mean the destruction of that embryo. Dario Fauza, a pediatric surgeon at Children's Hospital in Boston is seeking permission from the FDA to try the method in children diagnosed with birth defects while in the womb. He hopes to grow replacement tissues from their own amniotic cells and use those tissues to repair their defects after birth. Additionally, because amniotic stem cells remain stable for years, the cells could be frozen, providing a personalized tissue bank for use later in life. (source: The Washington Post)

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an angry God?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Craig on Infinite Spaces said something that made me think
"I am repulsed by a God that will not judge the world, that looks at terrible sin but cannot say "That is evil". I would find such a God deeply revolting."
This statement gives a lot of insight into why some people are attracted to the idea of a God of wrath. They are attracted because they see that "angry" God as a God who is angry at evil just like they are, a God who will fight for them in an evil world.

Back when I was a painting major in college I did a painting I entitled "I don't like dogs". It was a picture of a combination rottweiler-German Sheppard, its fangs menacingly barred and blood spraying off its mouth. What was interesting was people's reactions to the painting. Lots of people reacted like I did, they found the painting intimidating and threatening. But several people saw it and said they thought it looked "sweet". Turns out that these people all had big dogs and saw in that painting of bloody fangs a picture of a dog who would protect them. (To interpret this analogy just take the word "dog" and reverse the letters).

I can relate to Craig's desire to have a God who fights evil. Indeed this is the central theme of Christus Victor. The problem I see in it is that from a Christian perspective we all are subject to God's wrath. That wrath is not just going to be unleashed on the "bad guys" over there but on us too because as Paul says in Romans says "we have all sinned". So we should not desire God's wrath or judgment because that same wrath will come back upon us. Instead we need to realize that we all are in need of mercy, and need to treat others with the same mercy we so desperately need ourselves.

This is all really basic "Christianity 101" stuff. So why is it that so many conservative Christians are advocates of judgment instead of mercy? I think again the answer can be found in something Craig says in the same blog entry:

"You are very concerned about God acting justly, but I wonder if your God is just. Say I see a teenage boy beat up a little girl and I do nothing to protect her. Is my inaction "just"? Is it righteous?

In your scheme, God cannot be judge. How do you have justice without judgment? I cannot understand that. Your God is deeply saddened by the world, but never angered by it. Your God looks at Auschwitz and the most He can say is "That is very sad." He cannot say "Those people did something wrong. They deserve to be punished."
Here we can see that mercy is being associated with inaction. a merciful God is sad and inactive, doing nothing in the face of evil. This comes from viewing both justice and mercy in the terms of the western legal system. In that paradigm, justice (punishing) is active while mercy is inactive. Mercy here means to be "lenient" and not act to punish. So in this scenario we have only two responses to evil and sin: either we demonstrate "justice" by punishing, or we show mercy by doing nothing. This however is not at all a biblical picture of mercy. Mercy in Scripture is active. Grace is an active transforming force. It is through grace that we are brought to repentance. Anyone who has experienced God's grace in their lives knows how experiencing the forgiveness of God, being loved when you don't deserve it, turns your whole world upsidedown.

As Christians who have been saved by grace, we are also called to grace. We need to trust in God that His way of grace is an active powerful force that will bring about justice and overcome evil. If you look around the internet you will see lots of anger. I think that anger is to a large degree a reaction to the evil we see in the world around us in our post 9/11 world and is understandable. Understandable yes, but self-defeating. As James says "Man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires" (James 1:20). Anger leads to more anger. Hatred breeds hatred. When we feel dehumanized by the awful things people do we in turn dehumanize them, making them into monsters and justifying our retaliating with more awful things. The way out is grace. Grace is how we can really fight evil in our world, how we can really transform situations and hearts.

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