Keep your mind on earth — not in heaven!

I mentioned earlier that Luther and Melanchthon have this disconcerting tendency of flipping much of the ancient order on its head.

You can find another particularly stunning example at the very beginning of Melanchthon’s Loci Communes (1521; for more on this work, see here).

Melanchthon begins the Loci — which is meant to be a new systematic theology — by pretty much dismissing all the standard preliminary topics for this type a work: the nature of God, unity, trinity, the incarnation, and creation. He notes, famously, that “…this is to know Christ, to wit, to know his benefits, and not as they [the scholastics] teach, to perceive his nature and the mode of his incarnation.”1

In other words: forget contemplating the Trinity and pondering Christology and the like. Attend instead to sin, grace, redemption — broadly the whole story of what Christ has done, and not who he is.

This is itself quite significant, and we’ll return to it in later posts.

But what really caught my eye is this little nugget, slipped in as part of his explanation for why we shouldn’t spend time with these traditional subjects:

…the most High God clothed his son with flesh, in order to incite us from the contemplation of his majesty to the contemplation of the flesh and indeed our own frailty.”2 [Emphasis mine.]

Wow.

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  1. Philipp Melanchthon, The Loci Communes, trans. Charles L. Hill (Meador 1944), p. 68. []
  2. ibid. p. 67. []

“My Father was a Perishing Aramean . . .”

President Obama’s recent declaration that he will be taking executive action on immigration comes on the heels of a summer that featured images of desperate children attempting to escape violence in Central America by streaming to the United States, and a fall that featured worries (mostly on the far-right) that ISIS might send Ebola-infected terrorists across the southern border to spread plague among an unsuspecting population. It is not yet fully clear what the President’s plan will look like (although here is a helpful chart of the likely scenario), and his proposed action on this issue does raise certain issues about the proper scope of executive authority (although those strike me as somewhat overblown, for reasons nicely laid out by Jacob Weisberg here). But the longstanding, ongoing scandal of the eleven million people in the United States who must perpetually live in the shadow of our society, while our governing system makes no effort whatsoever to develop creative policy solutions for their plight, demands some consideration of a Christian response to immigration in light of the imperatives of the gospel.

Christians must come to immigration with two sets of eyes. First, there’s the public policy problem: our immigration court system is severely underfunded and completely overwhelmed with cases, and existing legislation has inadvertently created a legal loophole that has led tens of thousands of desperate parents to send their unaccompanied children to strange lands far from their homes. Fueling this crisis are the failing domestic police systems of several Central American countries and a violent criminal class that forcibly recruits children who lack private or state protection into their rings. Second, there’s our response to these things as Christians, who as a community are pledged to offer succor to the poor and the persecuted. Since immigration is inherently a corporate issue – we have to decide as a whole society whether to admit outsiders into our nation – the public policy determination and Christian imperatives are more closely related for this issue than they might be with others.Read More…

ISIS and Christian Response

As readers know from my opening post, I’m skeptical about the use of force by Christians, even when they are operating in their capacity as government officials. The continuing escalation of America’s new war against ISIS (actually not new at all, but more of a resumption of the previous military excursion in Iraq), means that I’ve been thinking again about the Christian relationship to state violence, and how to respond to our latest foray into international power projection.

I could (and do) take issue with America’s ISIS war on pure policy grounds. As noxious as ISIS surely is, it seems rather obvious to me (and others) that America is being baited into another massive investment of resources and prestige in a region that is chaotic, mostly dislikes us, and that we flat-out do no not understand. We’re inserting ourselves into this war despite the fact that our “allies” in the region clearly want no part of it, or are using us in this situation to advance their own agendas, and are really hoping that America will just take care of the dirty, impossible work of dealing with the threat to them from ISIS without simultaneously upsetting their own stakes in the conflict.

But that doesn’t seem to matter much, because it seems that Washington’s power brokers just can’t hold themselves back when it comes to fighting new wars. As Andrew Sullivan recently noted on his blog, it appears nearly impossible for our governing establishment to restrain themselves “when they have a big shiny military and see something they don’t like happening in the world.” The human temptation to wield power is enormous, and never more so than when one has an extraordinary amount of it. Even Barack Obama, a man who is by all accounts deeply conscious of the ways that his Christian faith might interact with his policies (especially when it comes to using military power), has been inexorably traveling down the path of greater military engagement with ISIS.

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Some Common Objections

Maria and I have received several comments on our first few posts (and a few have begun to trickle in on my “A New Catechism“).

We’ve received a few particularly articulate reflections on our theological “drift”. A few common themes have begun to emerge. These include concern about the potential exclusivity of “grace alone”, worries about love’s rather secondary place, concern about the absolute prioritizing of “grace alone” vs. approaches that emphasize the polyvalence and complexity of the tradition (and, more profoundly, an understanding of reality that places a premium on rational balance and moderation), and, perhaps above all, concern about whether “good news” can really be all that good when it seems so down on human capabilities and human participation in salvation.

All of these are critical – and complex – issues that we’re going to address bit by bit, directly and indirectly, in the coming months.

We thought, however, that it might be useful to at least briefly delineate a our position a little further on several of these topics.

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The Church and Its Benefits. (Really, This Post Is About Benefits. Like Health, Vision, and Dental.)

The dramatic rise in same-sex marriage in the United States (where it is now a legal option for over half of this country’s population) has unleashed a cascade of caterwauling and teeth-gnashing over its perceived implications for religious freedom and its undermining of the moral foundations of Christianity. But medical, educational and other institutions that are run by the church face the prospect of providing benefits to employees who are in same-sex marriages. Since these marriages are now legally sanctioned under civil law, some socially conservative clergy have begun to fulminate about the potential violations of religious conscience they say are implied by granting employer-subsidized health insurance and other benefits

This is the world’s biggest tempest in a teapot. First, on a practical level, the benefit extensions are small, because even with the advent of widespread same-sex marriage, there just aren’t that many potential employees who fall in this category (the percentage of the population that is gay or lesbian really is not terribly large). More importantly, an employer who offers benefits to spouses is required to offer them to any spouse who is legally married to an employee under civil law (the only law that really matters when determining who is eligible for employer-provided benefits). Until recently, this has not seemed to present much of a problem for church-affiliated organizations. The numerous institutions operated by the Catholic Church, for instance, have hired and given benefits to legions of employees and their families who are not only non-Catholic, but make no effort to live according to Catholic social teaching regarding marriage (divorced and remarried spouses, for example, haven’t seem to have stirred up much of a fuss).Read More…