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The past 12 months or so have seen the most drastic changes in my journey within Christianity, and I find myself engaging with it through two different images. The first way in which I see my relationship with the Christianity of my heritage is me standing along the coast and hurling it at the sea. In a sense, the Christianity I knew and have been shaped by is no longer something tenable in my life. The second image that comes to mind is the dramatic, edge of the cliff rescue scene. Every great action movie has a scene in which the hero is gripping onto the hand of someone dangling off of the edge of a building, a cliff, or something else from which one dangles from in fear. In this scenario, though, I’m not the one pulling anyone or anything up. I dangle. And sometimes the people dangling and holding onto the saving hand decide that it is better for them to let go and yield to the certainty of gravity. In this scenario, I’m not sure whether I get pulled up or let go. Suffice to say, my relationship to the faith that nurtured me is tenuous at best. And for any one reading this who is where I am, or has been there, it can be a weird and uncomfortable, confusing place.

Somewhere in the midst of my seminary education faith became really complicated. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews claims that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is that something by which we participate in the story of God. But this statement from the epistle is an oxymoron. Faith is the assurance? Anything which is assuredly so cannot be faith. By this definition of assurance, I have lost faith. But in its wake I announce hope. I have a hope that aligning myself in the story of Jesus is a life-giving and others-focused way in which I can make sense of life, even change lives, circumstances, moments; a way that challenges and questions the powers, inequality, exclusion, and lives differently. I have a hope that this both reveals God and experiences God.

But all of this crumbles when other people––those whom I claim to live for––need my faith more than I do. When my sister––suffering the side-effects of chemotherapy––asks me for prayer through the painful sores on her tongue, she needs my faith. She needs a faith I’m not sure is in me. When a friend comes face to face with the darkness and comes to me for light, he needs my faith more than I do. When I face that darkness myself…

I’m left to sit in this chair and face the darkness with resilience. I’m left to listen, to grieve, to hurt, to enter into your pain with you, to curse that which steals life from us. And to dance when life comes back, when light comes through. This is how I pray for you. This is what my faith looks like for you.

Though I want to lower you all through the roof and bring you to the feet of Jesus, I don’t have the arms to dig through it.

Last week I tried to reveal some tension between hope and pessimism–or, as some may call it, realism–and how that relates to our reading of the biblical text. If you haven’t read it, check it out here. It was Matthew 6 (though I’ve since come to see this hope surfacing again and again throughout the Bible) that originally sparked my attention to pessimism and hope and directed my hermeneutic of suspicion toward Jesus.

Reading Jesus’ exhortation to be free from worry and anxiety simply seems disjointed in our world today (but was it any less fractured and broken in Jesus’ world?). Being free from worry and anxiety (am I confusing the roots of compassion?) in the First World implies an isolated individualism that fails to embrace the others-minded ethic that is woven throughout the Second Testament. Swiss scholar Ulrich Luz questions the broad value of the optimistic ideology of Matthew 6 along with positive interpretations of these teachings on anxiety:

It is said that every “starving sparrow” contradicts Jesus, not to mention every famine and every war; that the text gives the appearance of being extremely simpleminded; that it acts as if there were no economic problems, only ethical ones, and that it is a good symbol of the economic naiveté that has 
characterized Christianity in the course of its history. . . The admonition not to be anxious about tomorrow appears to be naive. . . in the age of global nuclear threats and global unemployment.[1]

Luz highlights the problem of this text with stark realism: industrialization vis-a-vis global capitalism has negatively transformed ecosystems and economies in the Two-Thirds World, water does not fall on the people, plants, land, and animals who depend on it, and devastating hunger and poverty still hover over millions of people across the globe. Is it honest and faithful to be free from worry? Is that what Jesus had in mind for his hearers and followers? Is that what living into the story of God means for us?

While Jesus tells us not to worry or be anxious, what is to be done while others are hungering, while others have no water, while others need clothing for work or for school? What is to be done when the lilies do not grow, or where cold cement and pavement outnumbers green space? The friction caused by the text and our current realities force us to question not just striving and anxiety, but deep needs that extend beyond our body to the body of the earth, or as some theologians put it, the very body of God.

“Don’t worry. God is in control.”

I used to say stuff like that. It was a coping mechanism. It kept me numb. The residual effects of this has left me in a constant struggle to resist numbness. What does this passive and determinist theology passing as faithfulness do to us? Reading this text in particular from the First World is a dangerous endeavor. As Luz points out, the rose-colored lenses of the text fail to face the reality of creation not living up to its claimed fecundity; it fails to face the reality of those in power not using their power to generate greater equality and sustainability.

In contrast to Jesus’ attempt at comfort, this friction ought to lead us to a place of holy worry and anxiety that inspires us toward justice and care that creates a world where others need not worry or be anxious. Our current context demands that those of us who are privileged read these teachings about anxiety and worry as ironic commentary on the orderliness of creation assumed by Jesus. Resisting a First World reading of Matthew 6:25-34 is necessary in an age where our technological addictions and consumptive habits affect the livelihood of people around the world and the lives of future generations. What do those of us in an addicted society have to worry about when we have far more than we need? Jesus is undoubtedly attempting to teach a radical dependence upon God that transcends the driving force of the status quo and cultural addiction and envisions an alternative reality within the commonwealth of God marked by trust and peace.

I think Stanley Hauerwas points us in the right direction. He claims that the sermon on the mount is “not addressed to individuals but to the community that Jesus begins and portends through the calling of the disciples.”[2] This invitation to community becomes “the constitution of a people” who “cannot live by the demands of the sermon” on their own,[3] which is precisely the point; the demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another. But what does it mean to depend on God?

I have not completely turned my back on hope, but I’m not quite sure what it means to have hope. I have, however, turned my back on a naively hopeful and deterministic reading of the Bible. But what is an appropriate hope? As I attempt to find that out may I become the kind of person-in-community who alleviates the worry and anxiety of others. Must I become hope in order to have hope?

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1. Ulrich Luz. Matthew 1-7: a Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 341. 

2. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 81.

3. Ibid.

I’m one of those hopeful dreamer types. I like to see the good in people and situations and feel that dwelling on the negative requires far more energy than the alternative, and can also be destructive. However, as I’ve become more perceptive of my optimism and how others live out their optimism, I have recognized how optimism left unchecked can stain one’s view of reality and the ways in which one engages the very real suffering and injustice present in our world. Over the past few years I have begun to grow into a space where I am gaining the ability to lean into the dark realities of life without white-washing them. This is a difficult process and I attribute a lot of it to the privilege of not ever experiencing suffering or great crisis. My comfortable life has not led me down the roads that far too many walk daily. May comfort never lead me into complacency or apathy.

I used to feel compelled to view every event of human history through a hopeful lens that sought to reconcile all pain, grief, suffering, and injustice as somehow being used for God’s glory. I was convinced that all things happened by way of God’s will. Though I may or may not have ever seen how an event may be used by God for a greater good, I trusted that all the pains of life would somehow be redeemed and flipped on their heads. All of this was because I believed that God was good, and that God was intimately involved in the inner workings of the world within history. I still believe God is good, but I no longer believe that God works in the same ways that I once did. I have since come to reject those understandings of God, history, and suffering.

I share this because I strongly agree with Douglas John Hall’s critique of North American Christianity as a faith that embraces an official optimism. It is not hard to see where Christianity gets this optimism from. The Bible is an incredibly optimistic text. Hope is woven throughout the Hebrew Bible by the threads of covenant, promise, and faith. Even in the midst of exile a strand of hope hung over the edge of despair as God’s people told stories of deliverance from Egypt, of divine intervention, of being chosen by God to reveal love and goodness to others. Even though they attributed their sufferings to YHWH, it was also YHWH who restored them and showed them mercy. Read Lamentations 3, for crying out loud.

That strand of hope continues through the Second Testament as well. A concordance search for the word “hope” churns out dozens of results. Hope is a good thing, and I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not been shaped by hope. But there is a problem with hope that has been becoming increasingly clear to me. Hope can immobilize. When hope holds out for payment in the near or distant future, one is more likely to go bankrupt, so to speak, in the present. There is a tension between hope on one side, and fear and worry on the other side. My predilection toward hope tends to push out worry and fear or anxiety from my realities and this has caused me to fail to take appropriate and timely actions to various situations. I think it is essential that we hold these two paradigms–hope and worry/anxiety–in tension, and approach with caution and suspicion when we are confronted with too great a hope or too great a fear.

This hermeneutical approach finds friction when we get to Matthew 6 within Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

When I read these words, I cannot help but fumble over how Jesus can speak these words of hope to a marginalized and oppressed community. Beyond that, how can we read and speak these words today in the face of suffering, pain and injustice all around us? How do we read this text from the First World? Does this trouble you at all? I have my own thoughts about this, which I will share, but I’m curious if anyone else has wrestled with this and come to any conclusions about the practicality of hope and Jesus’ words here. If so, please share your thoughts and stories.

For a couple decades now, Sallie McFague has been an important and insightful voice in the conversation regarding Christianity and ecological deterioration. Our theologies are far from innocent when it comes to the issues of environmental ethics, caring for creation, and seeking justice for those on the receiving end of environmental and systemic oppression. Christian theologies regarding the material and spiritual, humanity and creation, nature and history, systems of power and authority, and both creation and the eschaton all deeply influence the praxis around human and non-human life. Within the ongoing conversation of ecological theology, McFague takes Christology to task. How do the ways in which we approach Jesus’ life, death and resurrection influence the way that we approach all of creation?

“The task now,” writes McFague, “is to embody in praxis the ecological Christologies that have been developing over the last several decades. Further refining Christology is less critical than putting Christology into practice. The problem is not that we need to know more Christology; rather, we need to know more about nature and how to live out these Christologies in relation to nature.” [1]

She implies that our theology–if not coupled with thoughtful, ecologically influenced praxis–is disconnected and ineffectual to embody God and enact justice in our earth-context. I feel like it is appropriate to play with Aquinas’ words to summarize: a mistake about Christ will lead to a mistake about Creation.

Of course, remembering what we say about the Christ is essential to moving beyond simply knowing “more Christology.” To begin, the creedal confession at Nicea affirmed Jesus’ co-equality and metaphysical oneness with God, “by whom all things were made.” It affirms that there is a uniqueness and salvific purpose in the incarnation. The later Chalcedonian commentary on Nicea cemented the dual nature of Jesus’ being, characterized as “fully God and fully human.” Chalcedon preserves tension, paradox, and mystery in describing God’s blending of the spiritual and material in the incarnation event rather than dualistically subjecting one to the other. This is critical for contemporary ecological theologies in their fervent resistance to dualist tendencies in Christian thought that elevate the spiritual over the physical.

The Situation

McFague takes to defining our situation as such:

The climate change case calls Christology into immediate practice. For affluent Christians, it demands a different view of the abundant life, one that includes cruciform living, the practice of restraint, diminishment, the death of unlimited desire, and control of ecological selfishness. Ecological Christology defines sin as the refusal to share the necessities of life with others, both other humans and other life forms. Sin is insatiable greed, wanting to have it all. Acting justly toward nature and other human beings demands sacrifices from Christian elites. Sustainable living involves acceptance of finite limits, such as how we drive our cars, emissions controls, and carbon taxes on industry. it includes “free trade,” the policies of the world Bank, and stock market investments, as they affect the natural world and poor people. When we see where Christology, economics, and ecology intersect on an issue such as climate change, the need for different practices at personal, professional, national, and global levels becomes apparent. [2]

Sacramental Christology

So, how does the incarnation influence us communally and individually to enact care and love and justice for the entirety of life? This is a huge question that I don’t pretend to possess an answer to. However, I think that a sacramental Christology is a door to a helpful and appropriate ecological theology for our present time. Its focus is a divine immanentalism and the affirmation of God’s presence in all of creation. Inherent in this approach is a challenge to the transcendence of classical theism, something McFague has written about extensively. Nodding to the humanity of Jesus, this approach is deeply incarnational and affirms the vibrant presence of God in both nature and Jesus, a shift that embraces bodies and the physical world around us. These ideas stream through Eastern Orthodoxy and indeed reveal ecological concerns to be of deep importance to theology and the Christian tradition. For example, Dumitru Staniloae writes, “The economy of God consists in the deification of the created world, something which, as a consequence of sin, implies also its salvation.”[3] He continues, “Salvation and deification have an ontologically unified humanity and nature as its aim.”[4]  John Chryssavgis states that “we are a part of the cosmos and are less than human without creation.”[5] Yet, McFague wonders, “while sacramental Christologies find God in nature, do they respect nature itself? Do they pay attention to the other or do they use it, however subtly, as a way to God?”[6]  It is up to us to live the answers to these questions. The following are some of my reflections on a sacramental Christology and questions that point towards praxis, a lived Christology.

Metaphysical Fusion

The mystery of the Incarnation itself, as Jesus embodies the God/Man and possesses the full nature of God and the full nature of humanity, highlights the fusion between the spiritual and the material. This is in stark contrast to Platonic thinking that has deeply influenced Christian thought and swayed us into certainty that the soul is in competition with the body. The Incarnation teaches us that matter and spirit, or body and soul, are not separate, but as Fr. Richard Rohr says, “two sides of the same coin.” This mystery reveals to us that it is inappropriate to elevate the spiritual as superior to the physical––that our souls are more important than our bodies, or that non-human life is ultimately not important to redemption and reconciliation because it lacks a soul that can be saved. Jesus forces us to reconcile that tension and be present in holistic ways.

Location

As the biblical story unfolds the theme of place is absolutely central to the story. The Incarnation continues this pattern of revealing God to be uniquely interested in place. Jesus encounters the full range of his geographical setting by engaging socio-political and religious life. While Jesus certainly was not stationary, he was very much rooted in the community life of a particular region. Though anachronistic, it may be appropriate to understand Jesus as committed to his bioregion. Jesus found himself among both the elite and poor subsistence farmers and revealed the interconnections between religion, economics and production, community and justice. How does the natural world interact with religion, economics and production, community and justice in our own contexts?

Healing

On a broad level I’ve been critical of stories depicting Jesus healing, but the importance that Jesus and the gospel writers placed on physical healing is not lost on me. Through these stories of healing the gospel writers are challenging socio-cultural boundaries regarding clean and unclean which more often than not tend to fall along class distinctions. The healing stories also foreshadow the resurrection, the ultimate transition from broken to whole.  The re-incorporation into community life seen through healing stories is a critical component to any ecological Christology. What are the broken pieces of our natural world that have been splintered from community and reduced to objects or means? How can we attempt to make them whole and re-introduce them to community? Or more likely, what are the broken pieces of our natural world that we need to see with new eyes and allow ourselves to recognize as a part of our vitality and abundant life? What is our responsibility to nature?

Salvation

If we submit to McFague’s definition of sin within an ecological theology stated above, salvation is “neither solely human nor spiritual. It must be for the entire creation. and it must address what makes different creatures and ecosystems flourish.”[7]  These may be abrasive words to many, but traditional concepts of salvation reflect Platonism more than the redemption spoken of in the Hebrew Bible or of the Cosmic Christ that reconciles all things to himself (Colossians 1). Salvation entails repentance to God and to the entire earth community.

Prophetic Criticism

Because of his embeddedness within a particular context, Jesus not only witnessed abused power but was also affected by it. His own experience and his solidarity with the oppressed led him to be outspoken when persons in power used religion or status or law to dehumanize others and/or esteem themselves. Such dehumanization toward the unclean, the sinners and various Others by persons in power failed to recognize and respect the imago Dei within them. This creates a culture of blindness to the image and presence of God all around us. Similarly, when those in power mistreat forests, fisheries, rivers, the atmosphere, and the people that surround them and depend on them, they are failing to respect the imago Dei pulsing through creation. Do we see God present in creation? What do we do when power is used for exploitation rather than blessing? How do we reveal God through creation for justice?

Resurrection

Lastly, the resurrection is crucial to an ecological Christology because it promises hope. “The resurrection will not solve our ecological crisis;” writes McFague, “it will not tell us what to do with regard to either small or large problems.”[8]  However, what the resurrection does accomplish is the symbolization of the “triumph of life over death.”[9] That death has the final word is not something that Christianity affirms. We live into and participate in a story that affirms and hopes against hope that there can be new life, different life, and better life in the midst of brokenness and even death. This must propel us beyond despair and helplessness.

So…

Discerning the proper response to the environment, as well as defining the role of nature in redemption is still a hotly debated issue within Evangelicalism. How can these categories be better elaborated on and better pointed toward community praxis and toward moving this conversation forward in Evangelicalism? What would you add or edit? Are these concepts true to orthodoxy vis-a-vis early creedal statements? Do you agree with the definitions of sin and salvation, or rather, do they cohere with the biblical categories of sin and salvation?

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1. Sallie McFague, “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have it?” in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, eds. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 39.

2. Ibid., 41-42.

3. Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, The World: Creation and Deification (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000), 1.

4. Ibid.

5. John Chryssavgis, ed., Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eeardmans), 24.

6. McFague, “An Ecological Christology”, 32.

7. Ibid., 38.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.