The Need for Another Alternative

(This is a devotion I offered to the SPU Board of Trustees meeting on 17 November 2016)

It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning, and I want to express on behalf of the faculty a heartfelt thank you for the work you do on behalf of this institution. Much of that work is behind the scenes, no doubt, but that does not take away from its importance. So thank you so much for your time and energy in helping make this place thrive and grow.

As it so happens I have been studying the term “evangelical” for a book project that I just finished. It is a controversial term on the American scene, and there are many layers to the term. Of course, the term “evangelical” comes from the same root as “evangel,” which itself suggests in Greek “good news” or “gospel.”  One could say that Protestantism on the whole is evangelical, as some do, but really this is a broadly Christian term: All Christians are called to be “evangelical,” that is, about the business of embodying and promoting the “good news,” “the gospel,” that Jesus has shown and made possible through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

But as you and I know, this term means something particular as well in our context. Having gone through this election season, we have heard time and time again the term “evangelical” used, in particular for some supporters of Donald Trump. The term is often thought of in this country as a Republican term, thanks in part because of the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s and other events. But also, this term is functionally racialized, for I have often heard during this election cycle the term “evangelical” tied to so-called “whiteness.” Surveys have shown that a high number of self-proclaimed evangelicals in this country, 80 to 90 percent at times, are identified as “white.” And so, the story goes in this aftermath, that the vast majority of white evangelicals voted for Trump, a remarkable outcome given the many things Trump has said, promoted, and represented throughout the campaign. I know there are plenty of complex reasons for all of this, but the numbers and the differentials are simply astounding.

As you know, the term “evangelical” is used as one of our institutional markers here at SPU. It is possible that the term meant something different when it was first adopted than it does now in the public square. I perhaps owe it to inform you that there have been some vibrant discussions among the faculty about the usefulness of this word, again, because of the current situation and the term’s ties to politics and race.  As one of the theologians on our faculty, I hold out hope that we do not abandon words simply because of their misappropriation; but at the same time, I want to be a realist and not an idealist, especially in this case given the sensitive nature of the matters involved.

I would like to leave us this morning with a particular charge in relation to our current situation and our institutional identity. Rather than attempting to claim or modify a specific term, I believe what this country and the Church in this country need is a renewed sense of just how expansive, challenging, and radical Christian identity can be. It is true that our country is deeply polarized. And so is the Church. Part of this polarization is due to the inability of people generally and Christians in particular to imagine something beyond “red” and “blue” constructions of public life. But I cannot help but think that the only way forward in such a divisive situation is for a bold agenda to take root in which the identity of “Christian” is recalibrated from the bottom up —  not so much with attention to “blue” or “red” constructions but really with something altogether different. We need another color, if you will. We need another construction or conceptuality. We need a different way of being Christian in the public square than the impoverished alternatives we have now before us. Christian Identity has to be dislodged from the way that it has been coopted, manipulated, and put to service for political and hegemonic purposes in this country.

Our institution has within its very DNA an activist and mission-oriented identity that can address this challenge. It is rooted very much in our Free Methodist heritage and our institutional origins. Our context desperately needs to hear and see that heritage embodied anew. We do that work now in many ways. But we cannot relent. In our day, the urgency is overwhelming for an account of Christianity that is truth-telling, compassionate, justice-oriented, critical in its thinking, and very much engaged in its activism.

For years, I have grown weary of people saying that a Christian liberal arts education is not useful, that its utility is hard to make a case for.  Well, I have an example now that I will announce repeatedly when I’m presented with this. The presidential election of 2016 is “exhibit A” for why we need the Christian liberal arts, for I believe that in such an intellectual and formative apprenticeship people can come to see the complexity of the world and the possibilities for Christian witness within it. The call to be a Christian is to be discerning, that is, to be a Spirit-led critical thinker. The call of a Christian is to be engaged, to know how to account for the complexities of this world so that a political party does not represent the borders of God’s kingdom. The call of a Christian involves showing compassion and solidarity, so that others are genuinely treated as divine image bearers, as beloved in God’s eyes. On all these scores, I cannot imagine a better place than a Christian liberal arts institution like SPU for the cultivation of women and men capable to step into such a call.

So to conclude: However you may be dealing with this election and its aftermath, I hope you will join me in admitting that there is much work to do.  And we at SPU have a role to play in addressing the polarization of our society and our Church. I am not trying to be grandiose, but I am calling for us to claim our agency in a Wesleyan kind of way. We have a role to play. Let’s play it. Let’s show another alternative, and this for the sake of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.

Thank you.

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The Discipleship Gauge: A Presidential Election

I am slowly recovering from all that has happened over the last few weeks regarding the American Presidential election. But one thing that continues to bother me, and it is something that should not be simply swept under the rug, is how we saw the worst part of ourselves throughout this process. The “we” refers here to self-proclaimed Christians, myself included. Somehow, given the stakes of all that was involved, Christians devolved time and time again in the manner in which we conducted ourselves and the way we characterized others and tolerated various kinds of hate-speech. Our manner of expression often became crude, and our generosity often fell by the wayside. In short, we got caught up in a process, and we are worse for it since we did not check ourselves. We repeatedly lost “the mind of Christ.”

Where do we go from here?

At some point, we need to confess to one another, to ourselves, and to the God we worship that we lost sight of the humanity of others in this process. Somehow, we allowed a two-party system to make it an “us vs. them,” and so we failed to cultivate a kingdom-imagination in which Christians can promote various Christian causes from both sides of the aisle.

Frankly, as I have seen time and time again on the American scene, Christian identity was politicized in this election, and as such, it became one factor in a larger ideological battle. And when a battle becomes ideological, the humanity of those engaged is lost.When this happens, the gospel is lost, too. We quenched the Spirit time and time again during this season when we failed to listen to one another, to give each other respect and dignity, to stand up for vulnerable populations, and to disagree with one other while still extending the peace of Christ.

I hope that one of the takeaways from this election is that we realize just how we continue to fall short of the peaceable kingdom, that polis whose “constitution” is the Beatitudes. If we can truly be honest with what we learned about ourselves during this process, maybe we can see where grace has to touch us. And maybe we can conduct ourselves in a more Christ-like fashion, not just four years from now but on a daily basis, especially with those who don’t think, talk, or look like us.

A presidential election, with the stakes being so high, is a spiritual barometer for how faithfully we heed the call of Christ. How did we do? What have we learned about our character? And what do we do now?




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El “¿Por qué?”

Cuando estuve en El Salvador enseñando ministros sobre el tema de teodicea durante este Diciembre pasado, les pregunte, “¿Cómo responden al “por qué” de teodicea con sus laicos?” El “por qué” representa todas las preguntas que tenemos cuando sufrimos. Ejemplos incluyen, “¿Por qué me paso esto?” y “¿Por qué permitió Dios estos acontecimientos en mi vida?” La respuesta de ellos fue: “Les mentimos.” Ahora, estuve feliz con mis alumnos por su honestidad. Pero tanto ellos como lectores de este blog saben que mentir no es adecuado o propio en estas situaciones. A la mejor es lo más simple que hacer, pero también puede ser la cosa más dañosa que podemos hacer como ministros a nuestras ovejas.

Hay que reconocer que cuando gente nos preguntan “¿por qué?”, no están normalmente pidiéndonos una respuesta, mucho menos una solución. En ambos casos, nosotros como ministros no podemos ofrecerles estos recursos. Y, de una manera u otro, los laicos saben esto. No, el “¿por qué?” es una expresión de dolor que debe ser oído y atendido en lugar de una pregunta que requiere una respuesta y solución.

Varias implicaciones surgen de este reconocimiento; menciono dos:

1) Ministros deben tener un entendimiento saludable de sus límites. Ser ministro implica algo de liderazgo, servidumbre, autoridad, y amor para el pueblo. Al mismo tiempo, ministros tanto como los laicos tienen sus límites. Un pastor no puede solucionar todo lo que enfrenta a su iglesia. Hay límites, y los límites son buenos en el sentido que nos recuerda que no somos Dios y que todos necesitamos de Dios.

2) Ministerio en tiempos de crisis  involucra acompañamiento y vulnerabilidad. No es fácil sufrir con otros. Tampoco es fácil decirle a la gente, “No sé.” Pero el ministerio Cristiano implica estas dos posturas. Un pastor en tiempos de crisis debe acompañar a la gente para que ellos no se sienten solos en la soledad del sufrimiento. También, un ministro que reconoce públicamente que duele, sufre, y tiene límites es un ministro sincero, honesto, y por eso, lleno de integridad. Si la gente quiere otra cosa de sus ministros, las expectativas no son realistas. Al contrario, quieren “Dios en la carne,” pero solamente hay uno quien fue así. Los demás somos creaturas quienes sobreviven en la fe y por esperanza, tanto los ministros como los laicos. Todos dependemos sobre el Espíritu para poder ayudar uno al otro en este peregrinaje espiritual.

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Introducción a la Teodicea

Recientemente escribí sobre el tema de teodicea, y pienso considerarlo en el futuro con otras obras. Para aclarar, “teodicea” es un esfuerzo intelectual para reconciliar fe en Dios con el sufrimiento y maldad que experimentamos en la vida cotidiana. Sus raíces etimológicas vienen de “Dios” (teo/theos) y “justicia” (dike). ¿Cómo puede ser Dios justo en base de todo lo que vemos en el mundo, incluyendo la muerte de bebes, el sufrimiento de los fieles e inocentes, y mucho más?

Muchas veces, se maneja este tema por medio de un silogismo:

1) Dios es bueno y/o todopoderoso

2) Hay maldad y sufrimiento en el mundo

Entonces . . . ¿?

La lógica de un silogismo es uno que se presenta en matemáticas, pero uno no puede aplicar esta lógica a este tema porque el tema es moral. Cuando gente sufren en frente de nosotros, la tendencia humana es ayudarlos, no enseñarlos. Un silogismo, en su forma, no es saludable en tiempos de crisis, y por esto tampoco es saludable en tiempos de paz cuando iniciamos la reflexión teológica. Debemos resistir el poder del silogismo porque es una manera de intelectualizar algo mucho más profundo de lo que pueda nuestras mentes acomodar.

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Creación y Santificación

Actualmente, estoy trabajando en un artículo dedicado al tema de santificación. Quiero enfatizar dos aspectos de este artículo.

 Primero, muchas veces teólogos tienen varias posturas sobre la santificación pero no es claro de donde surgen estas diferencias. Una posibilidad es la manera de entender la creación. ¿Es la creación definitivamente influida en su constitución por el pecado, o es el pecado algo accidental pero no esencial (al nivel ontológico) a la creación? Mi manera de pensar es de manejar a la creación en base de los motivos originales de Dios. En este sentido, no fuimos creados para ser pecadores; fuimos creados para ser santos. Por esto, uno no puede hablar de la nueva creación sin hablar de la “vieja creación” (algo que aprendí de mi amigo, Edgardo Colón-Emeric). Santificación no es algo planeado de parte de Dios después que somos pecadores; fue parte del plan desde el principio.

 Segundo, santificación, como otros temas en teología, sufre de la promoción de dualismos. Dualismos son narraciones de la realidad en base de dos alternativas: “Es esto o es aquello.” Hay varios ejemplos: “gracia u obras,” “instante o proceso,” “3 o 1,” “humano o divino,” etc. En cada dualismo hay la posibilidad de los siguientes riesgos:

1) La realidad es mucho más complicado que simplemente un dualismo; dualismos no invitan a pensar pero sí lo obstaculizan o cuando menos limitan el proceso a dos alternativas; por esto, dualismos son difíciles de curar y también no son efectivos para comunicar cosas en una manera profunda y adecuada (por ejemplo, temas que requieren un énfasis sobre el misterio, como los sacramentos, la salvación, etc.).

2) Cada dualismo implica relaciones de poder (algo que aprendí de otro amigo, Gregorio Cuéllar); es decir, uno gana, otro pierde con dualismos. Casi siempre alguien promueve un dualismo para enfatizar un tema y menospreciar a otro. La falta de acuerdo entre las iglesias cristianas es a veces el resultado de la promoción de dualismos.

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Response: Letchford’s Review of TT

Michael Letchford of the University of Bristol recently reviewed Theological Theodicy in the journal Theology [116.4 (July/August 2013): 283-284]. His review is of the kind that merits a response because it could leave a false impression of both my self-understanding and aims in this book.

After the summary section of the review, Letchford points to two flaws he sees in the work. One is that I am “overly dogmatic” in the book since mine is “not a broad overview of the subject in which rival outlooks are properly examined” but simply reflective of my own perspective. A sweeping remark following the noted flaw is that, “Irritatingly, he persistently generalizes all Christian belief as assenting to this viewpoint.” And two, “the book fails to signpost the nonspecialist reader.” In other words, the reader is left unaware of rival accounts. Both of these perceived flaws are related. Let me make two passing comments.

By the way Letchford introduces his review, I take it that he approached TT with an expectation that drives the “Cascade Companions” Series, one that serves to introduce readers to a field of inquiry, and in this regard, the expectation is understandable. Truth be told, that is what I originally intended with the volume, but as I began to work through it, I came to realize that I could not do justice to “theodicy” as a topic in under 30k words (the length typically asked of a Cascade Companion). So, I decided to approach the subject in two alternative ways: First, I would offer a survey of sorts but of one particular approach to theodicy. This is a practical, apophatic, and history of ideas approach, and it is embodied in the works of David Bentley Hart, John Swinton, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas, Ken Surin, and Terrence Tilley. In doing this, I aimed toward a second goal: to offer a dogmatic sketch of the subject, taking as my cue John Webster’s approach to such topics as Scripture and holiness. Therefore, the volume is precisely meant to be “dogmatic” in the technical sense of the word, i.e., in terms of Christian dogmatics or speech. I discussed this change of approach with Wipf and Stock, and they were willing to keep the volume in the CC series.

As for the passing remark that I irritatingly generalize all of Christian belief to my own viewpoint, I will simply point to several quotes to expose the uncharitable nature of such a claim. I set the tone on p. 19: “What follows is an account that is self-understood as a theological reconstruction and counterproposal to what is often considered to be a philosophical concern” (emphasis added). I also say on p. 40: “Several remarks are in order so as to set this exercise on a specific course” (emphasis added). And finally on p. 42, I state, “As an act of transparency, it should be noted that what follows are alternatives the author finds most compelling in light of theodical concerns . . . they constitute one set among many other possibilities”. Simply put, Theological Theodicy does not pretend to be otherwise than a single, constructive proposal in the field of Christian dogmatics. It is lamentable that Letchford could not take it for what it explicitly aimed to be.

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Response: Green’s Review of RPE

(Note: As part of this research blog, I will take time every now and then to respond to reviews of my work as a way of interacting with reviewers and clarifying arguments.)

Chris Green of the Pentecostal Theological Seminary was kind enough recently to review RPE for Pneuma (see 35.1 [2013]: 108-109).  I was very happy to hear Green would be reviewing my work, not only because we share some theological affinities but also Green is one of the most exciting young theologians on the Pentecostal scene today in that his constructive creativity coincides with his expansive awareness and interactivity with past and present voices. Such talent no doubt is one of the reasons why at such an early stage of his career he was asked to be one of the associate editors of the Journal of Pentecostal Theology.

I think Green captured much of my argument and was able to articulate it in fresh ways that made sense to me. I suppose I was aiming “to critique and alter the Pentecostal ethos,” at least as it currently is sustained within North American contexts, but doing so, at least for me, required moving to the ethical domain of inquiry (hence the title). And yes, my concerns largely were aimed at offering an account of Pentecostal existence that can be sustained within “ordinary time” and that calls for “a dramatic ecclesiological shift in Pentecostal imagination and praxis.” I am not sure I was able to express these aims so directly, but those were largely my concerns, and I am happy to note that Green could see and articulate them.

Finally, Green raises the issue of my focus on North American Pentecostalism and suggests that readers may be bothered by this. I appreciate Green taking time to show that my focus was not meant to reify or romanticize this context, but let me take the opportunity to make some additional claims. In this work, I didn’t want to be survey-esque, speaking of Pentecostalism expansively from the global perspective (which is an important part of Pentecostal/charismatic research today) since I believe a number of Pentecostalisms do exist and their categorization under a single heading is at the end of the day tenuous (and I realize that the title of this book may contribute to this state of affairs). But to make the kind of normative critiques and offerings that drove my argument in the first place, I needed to establish from the beginning a very particular location, and that one, obviously, had to be my own. If one of my aims was to show the inconsistencies and breakdowns of a tradition, then delimitation of the tradition in question had to be narrow. Ultimately, that is my justification of the scope.

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