Reflections from Seminary Students

No Really, Does Love Win?

June 1st, 2011 § 0 Comments

Ever since Rob Bell entered the realm of evangelical ideas with his best-selling book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith and Nooma, his influential series of short videos, his ideas have struck a nerve with the theologically conservative. Before his most recent work, Love Wins, hit the shelves, the conservative Christian blogo- and Twitter-sphere expressed vehement opinions of heresy. Others have come to Bell’s defense claiming that these views must be adopted by evangelicals.

Amidst this debate, the School of Theology sponsored a forum titled: Does Love Win? Heaven, Hell, and God’s Future. Featuring SOT faculty members Dr. Daniel Castelo, Dr. Nijay Gupta, and Dr. Mike Langford, the event applied some scholarly analysis to this raging debate.

A Little of Both

Straight away, the professors suggested that anyone in the well-attended crowd looking for some leverage in the debate would leave the debate empty handed. The presenters recognized that Bell’s book contains some excellent content as well as some mind-bending reasoning.

In his opening remarks, Dr. Langford proclaimed,

This book, like most books, says some really good things that make me nod and say ”right on!“ And I discover I have this strange urge to text or twitter or tweet or blog or whatever Rob Bell disciples do with their enthusiasm and spare time. And, in addition, the book also says some things that make me shake my head and say ‘ugh’ and want to vigorously cross sections out with my red Uniball marker, or at least draw huge question marks and say ”Where do you get that?”

The Kingdom of God on Earth

Despite their reservations at some of Bell’s curious statements, the speakers agreed that Bell brings a critical eschatological view to the table: the notion of God’s Kingdom on earth; here and now. Langford adds,

The best way to think about the Kingdom of God is to not think of it as a place, but rather think of it as a happening. The Kingdom of God happens. It happens here. It happens there. It happens whenever the Holy Spirit strikes. It happens whenever God’s will is done, whenever we love God with all that we are and love our neighbor as ourselves. And in those moments all creation is as it is meant to be— God is present, things match up to their Creator’s intention, we live up to the image in which we were created and become fully human. That is when the Kingdom of God happens, and Jesus said that he came to establish that Kingdom here and now.

An Individual or Collective Approach?

While praising Bell for portraying a missional God, Dr. Gupta found Love Wins suffering from a fatal flaw; it views the relationship between God and humanity in individualistic terms. He asserted,

From my reading of Bell’s book, the Church has no clear “proclamation” role in the future state of the world when this winning over is taking place. If God is going to win people over after death, it seems that Bell does not imagine the Church being the primary agent or instrument.

Whose Salvation?

At the core of the debate is the question of who possesses salvation. Is salvation something that Christians own and dispense? Or, does God continue to hold the keys to salvation? Dr. Castelo stated,

Salvation is not about us; it is about the God of Israel on display in the life and work of Jesus.

Put differently, Bell’s book reminds us that when we focus intently on who is “in” and who is “out,” we individualize and take ownership of an item reserved for God alone.

Even if the attendees hoping to watch a theological boxing match found a gracious atmosphere, Drs. Castelo, Gupta, and Langford engaged with Bell’s ideas, giving him an honest reading. Love Wins offers some interesting topics for dialogue in the evangelical world, but it, like many other theories, contains its flaws.

For more on the subject, read Dr. Nijay Gupta’s book review of Love Wins.

Check out SPU iTunes U to download audio from the event.

Book Review: Just Business

May 18th, 2011 § 0 Comments

Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace, 2nd ed., by Alexander Hill (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008. 276 pp)

Since 2001, Alexander Hill has been the president and chief executive officer of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Under his leadership, InterVarsity successfully operates a publishing company and the world-renowned Urbana Student Missions Conference. In his previous position, Hill served as the Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. Hill earned both his B.A. and his M.A. from Seattle Pacific University before attending the University of Washington School of Law, where he earned a J.D. In addition to his 2008 book, Just Business, Hill has published numerous articles. Hill and his wife, Mary, have two daughters and live in Madison, Wisconsin.

It’s Because We Can Ask, “Why?”

The exploration of meaning in the lives of individuals provides a fascinating difference between human beings and other living organisms. Instead of engaging in simple reactions to stimuli, human beings possess the capacity to ponder these actions at a deeper level.

While a bird eats for sustenance, humans can not only ask why the consumption of food is vital but also reason to an answer. In the case of living in a community, humanity enjoys the ability to question the way we interact and to create structures that help society function on a level playing field.

Although, arguably, questions of ethical action remain unanswerable in a conclusive form, many find ethical structures helpful in governing difficult quandaries.

In Just Business, Alexander Hill spends the first portion of the book outlining a Scripturally based ethical structure of holiness, justice, and love for business practices. During the second section, Hill relates his Christian ethic to the dominant forms of ethical practice in the business world. And, finally, Hill utilizes the third section of Just Business as an extended analysis of case studies in light of his proposed Christian ethic.

Holiness

Hill begins his pursuit of an ethical framework by proposing the concept of holiness as a critical component of an ethical lifestyle. He argues that the definition of holiness comprises four parts: zeal for God, purity, accountability, and humility. Hill writes,

The crucial point is that holiness is fundamentally about priorities. So long as a business is a means of honoring God rather than an end in itself, the concept of holiness is not violated. (25)

In other words, business means more than a competition around the highest profits. When a business person prioritizes holiness, that business is reoriented around its usefulness for others, not merely around its money-making potential.

However, the principle of holiness can be misapplied. When holiness becomes a set of rules, it becomes a harsh form of legalism; if holiness is used as a means to point out the flaws of others, it is merely judgmentalism; and, finally, when holiness becomes an excuse for roping off oneself from society, it functions as a false asceticism.

Justice

For the second foundational principle, Hill suggests the biblical notion of justice. In the business world, sadly, any action within the opaque legal framework is morally permissible no matter the injurious outcome on other people.

Justice provides order to human relationships by laying out reciprocal sets of duties and rights for those living in the context of community – business partners, employees, neighbors and family members. (37)

In other words, justice functions as a communal code that allows a society to function.

Similarly to holiness, the excessive application of justice leads to possible mishandling. More specifically, when justice is applied as the letter of the law, it can be exceedingly harsh and condemning. Hill asserts,

Justice tends to be cold and dispassionate, lacking the emotional heat and relational passion of holy love. (48)

Love

Thus, it is important to buttress holiness and justice with the spiritual virtue of love. Acting as the glue between holiness and justice, love anchors these virtues in relationship. Hill argues that the definition of love includes empathy, mercy, and sacrifice.

As with holiness and justice, the biblical virtue of love carries potential difficulties. Hill notes that clergyman Joseph Foster proposed love as the only Christian ethic. Taken to extremes, love alone allows people to act in immoral ways for the sake of loving relationships.

Additionally, such positions offer ambiguity. When love is the only moral beacon, what should an individual do when a difficult choice means loving one person and “unloving” another?

Lastly, when others in society understand your single-minded loving ethic, they find opportunities to take advantage of your loving-kindness.

Therefore, it is important for holiness, justice, and love to act in unity because each virtue acts as a check and balance against the potential abuses of the other virtues.

The Space Between Duty-bound Ethics and Virtue Ethics

While the rest of the book discusses both the comparison between holiness, justice, and love and the application of these in specific case studies, the root of Hill’s argument resides in these Christian virtues. As Hill compares and applies this framework, his ethic meanders between a deontological, or duty-bound, ethic and a virtue ethic position.

On one hand, Hill argues that the holiness-justice-love ethic provides absolute answers in particular scenarios. On the other hand, Hill wants his position to maintain the fluidity of virtue ethics as difficult scenarios require nuanced decisions.

Where’s Grace?

Additionally, Hill spends one paragraph at the end of the book discussing the role of the fallen world in the holiness-justice-love rubric. Although the themes of holiness, justice, and love ought to inform our decision making, do they apply equally to decisions after a mistake has been made?

In his one paragraph on the matter, Hill argues that no one is able to fully apply the holiness-justice-love ethic; we thus must all accept God’s gift of grace.

I question, however, the way the notion of grace is applied practically. In the business world, is grace a possibility when the Fall influences someone to make a decision with drastic consequences for the company? Is grace unconditional within a company? Lastly, how do holiness, justice, love, and grace apply to theories of termination? Does the Christian ethic argue against terminating jobs? It seems to me that Just Business remains silent on these issues.

The Verdict

By nature, any attempt at the deeper meanings behind human interaction will always fall short. As such, the holiness-justice-love rubric is useful but incomplete. Nevertheless, humanity is capable of pursuing these deeper questions, and significant meaning can result from such inquiries.

Hill’s Just Business is an admirable effort at applying biblical principles to business practices. High readability makes this book an excellent read for Christians in the fast paced business world. Hill carefully and accessibly categorizes his argument. Additionally, he inserts case studies and business stories to keep the reader’s attention throughout the discourse.

While I have my reservations about the conclusivity of his arguments, this book is a must read for anyone considering a Christian ethic for the marketplace.

Book Review: Work in the Spirit

May 2nd, 2011 § 0 Comments

Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work by Miroslav Volf (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001. 268 pp)

Born in Osijek, Croatia, Miroslav Volf performed his undergraduate studies at Evangelical-Theological Faculty, Zagreb. For his master’s work, he studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and he earned his doctorate at the University of Tübingen, where he studied under Jürgen Moltmann. Volf teaches at Yale Divinity School as the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology and is the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. His books include Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, which won the 2002 Grawemeyer Award; and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, which won the Christianity Today book award. Volf is a member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Evangelical Church in Croatia.

Why Do We Hate Work?

Do you like your job? For most, the answer to that question is an unequivocal, “no.” What does it mean to work? Is it merely a means to an end — the exchange of labor for money? In Work in the Spirit, Miroslav Volf seeks to answer these questions.

In quest of a theological case for work, Volf splits his tome into two sections. In the first section, Volf discusses current conceptions of work — mainly highlighting the difficulties of the modern employee — and continues by exploring the philosophical undertones of contemporary work through the thought of Adam Smith and Karl Marx.

In the second section, Volf posits a theological significance for work. Theologians throughout history have considered work instrumentally important, since it not only provides resources that allow humans to pursue leisurely goods but also offers support for those pursuing vocational work, such as pastoral ministry and care for the poor.

Pneumatology: The Study of the Spirit

Volf, however, argues that work possesses more than an instrumental purpose; it carries a pneumatological function. As such, work offers a vocational and intrinsic purpose as an end in itself. Under this rubric, the Spirit of God gifts humans in different ways, and, through these means, humans find specific callings in the workforce.

Sadly, work for the majority of the human population is classified as toilsome. Structurally, work tends to alienate and exploit. Under these premises, it is easy to see why so many view work as a means rather than an end — who wants to endure toil for its own sake?

The Classic Christian View of Work

Thinkers throughout Christian tradition, however, agree that work possesses useful qualities.

Volf writes,

The early church fathers affirmed not only the nobility of work but also the obligation to work diligently and not be idle (72).

Under these conditions, work maintained only instrumental value; it provided opportunities to increase ascetic discipline, and it presented Christians with money to sustain the household and assist those in need.

Work Through the Lens of the New Creation

Suppose, however, that the eschatological future is not a world annihilated and rebuilt, but a restoration of existing creation.

Volf posits,

If [creation’s] destiny is eschatological transformation, then, in spite of the lack of explicit exegetical support, we must ascribe to human work inherent value, independent of its relation to the proclamation of the gospel (93).

If consummation arrives not in destruction but in restoration, the value of human work becomes critical for Christians. The faithful ought not to remain in expectant leisure awaiting God’s return; they are entrusted with the care of creation.

Work, then, is a gift of God that is inherently good; it existed before the Fall when God entrusted the garden to Adam and Eve, work was maintained after the Fall, and will be glorified in the transformation of new creation.

Work in the Spirit

For Volf, a pneumatological view of work is the way in which humans find purposeful work in the transformative new creation. Concerning vocation and the work of the Spirit, he writes:

We can determine the relationship between calling and charisma in the following way: the general calling to enter the kingdom of God and to live in accordance with this kingdom that comes to a person through the preaching of the gospel becomes for the believer a call to bear the fruit of the Spirit, which should characterize all Christians, and, as they are placed in various situations, the calling to live in accordance with the kingdom branches out in the multiple gifts of the Spirit to each individual (113).

In other words, the gifts granted by the Spirit orient Christians toward specific vocational work. Under this conception, work, while remaining under the Fall, encounters meaning through the Spirit as human beings labor in cooperation with God. By reflecting on the gifts God has given, Christians find more meaning in work and in the community.

The Body Does Not Consist Entirely of Hands

On the whole, I find Volf’s theological reframing of work’s purpose to be convincing. As Paul discusses in Corinthians, the Spirit gifts Christians in specific ways, allowing the communal body of Christ to function well. As such, not every Christian is a hand. If each person tried to fulfill the work of the hand, the community would suffer. Therefore, it is ideal to place people in work scenarios that suite their specific vocational gifts.

Are We Capable of Working in the Spirit?

Photo by Bill Hinsee

Nevertheless, trouble arises with Volf’s theological framing of work. Jobs, as they currently stand, are a scarce resource. Afraid of not working, many people accept a job poorly suited for them because it is better than unemployment.

Additionally, job scarcity denies many people the opportunity to work in the fields that best apply to an individual’s specific Spirit-given gifts. For example, a talented musician, more than likely, will never become a professional musician. The demand for the position far exceeds the supply of jobs.

As such, the awarding of these jobs often result in factors outside of giving the job to the most gifted applicant — for example, politics, nepotism, and the almighty dollar are highly influential externalities in the job market.

Additionally, many people are denied jobs through lack of experience or education. Oftentimes, employers look, first and foremost, at job experience. If an applicant who possesses perfectly suited talent for the position but has little-to-no experience, he or she will likely not get the job.

Or a brilliant person who lacked the economic resources to obtain an education will lose to a less-gifted-but-educated person.

While a pneumatological theology of work clearly is the ideal understanding of work, in current practice, work suffers from an imperfect application in a broken world. Ideally, people ought to search for the perfect job that fits with the Spirit-given gifts they possess. In reality, people must often settle for a less-than-ideal job because they have the relevant experience and it is better than no job at all.

Despite this problematic question, Work in the Spirit critically discusses the value of work. While many think of it as a means to a leisurely end, Volf argues that a pneumatological understanding of work allows humanity to be liberated to choose jobs that fit specific gifts. I recommend this book.

 

Grace and Money

April 18th, 2011 § 0 Comments

Kathryn Tanner splits Economy of Grace into three sections. In the first, she questions whether Christianity provides specific influence on economic discussions. Answering in the affirmative, Tanner continues in the second section to outline a theological foundation for economics. Finally, she concludes with a section promoting potential applications of a theological economy in a practical manner.

At first glance, theological and economic discussions contain little similarity. On one side resides the language of justice, faith, and health; on the other resides the language of capital, profit, and competition. In the first chapter of her tome, Tanner explores the relationship between Christianity and economics. While most typically view theology in the realm of the individual and economy in the realm of community, Tanner suggests that the link between the two in the simplest form is grace and money.

Without further explanation, of course, such an assertion raises the eyebrows of many theologians as the threat of prosperity theology presents itself. Tanner battles these assumptions by suggesting the link between grace and money lies in the conception of distribution.

Just as theology is concerned with the distribution of grace in our society, so too is economics concerned with the distribution of money. Yet the two starkly contrast, since the distribution of grace operates under noncompetitive assumptions.

Tanner writes,

By setting Christian ideas of the production and circulation of goods into a comparative economy, by making that comparative framing an economic one, my intent is just to suggest that a Christian economy has everything to do with the material dimensions of life – with the economic more narrowly construed. It is clear that, set within a comparative economy, grace has everything to do with money (29).

Unconditional Giving

Having presented the connection between theology and economics, Tanner utilizes the space in chapter two to discuss alternative forms of the economic system based on a theological lens. While efforts have been made to promote a theological economy through the concepts of inalienable property rights and gift exchange, both systems fall short of truly uniting with the notion of noncompetitive grace.

A theologically based economy must act similarly to the way God acts in relation to humanity.

Tanner adds,

The whole point of God’s dealings with us as creator, covenant partner, and redeemer in Christ is to bring the good of God’s very life into our own. Our lives participate in that divine mission and thereby realize the shape of God’s own economy by giving that follows the same principle: self-sharing for the good of others (85).

Scripture presents God as an unconditional giver. Everything we have is a result of God’s generosity, and humanity is incapable of repaying such a gift to God. Therefore, our best approximation is to unconditionally give to others as God gives to us.

Constructing an Economy of Grace

But does this theological view of economy contain practical application, or does it merely reflect a utopian state? In the third chapter, Tanner attempts to apply her framework on a practical level.

Tanner admits that her economy of grace carries utopian themes. Given the current state of the global economy, it is probably impossible for noncompetitive grace to achieve an economic stronghold.

Nevertheless, noncompetitive grace possesses applicable principles.

Photo by Annette Young

For example, capitalists typically seek the highest  profits by pursuing the most efficient production. The cheaper the cost of manufacturing with a maintained quality, the higher the profits. Yet such practices usually result in capitalists paying employees less and less. Taking this thought process to the extreme, if a company pays employees so little that they are unable to purchase the products, profits will plummet as consumption dies.

An economy of grace, however, suggests that a principle of noncompetitiveness solves this inherent flaw in capitalism.

Tanner notes,

One should, whenever possible, promote growth strategies in which the economy grows and poverty is reduced at the same time (96).

While capitalists can earn significant profits in the short term through diminishing wages, such practices are detrimental in the long term. An economy of grace, on the other hand, suggests that gradually raising wages and lifting the poor out of poverty benefits all of society.

A Slight Critique

While Tanner presents an intriguing vision for a theologically based economy, I find her conclusions to be inconsistent. Although she readily admits that a pure economy of grace is utopian, considering the current state of global affairs, her application of theological tenets to the current form of capitalism changes underlying assumptions minutely.

More specifically, if an economy of grace is based on noncompetitive giving, a gift given in order to expect a return on investment violates the economy of grace. Tanner’s third chapter provides many examples where supposedly altruist behavior helps all stakeholders. But in my mind such assertions betray the root purpose of noncompetitive giving: the notion of self-sacrifice for the good of another.

In this way, Tanner’s attempt to reconcile a theologically based economy with the current capitalist system equates to an argument of good ethics equals good business. What if good ethics equal bad business? Surely at some point a manager must face a decision between ethical behavior and bottom-line profits. Does Tanner’s economy of grace answer this manager’s dilemma? I am doubtful that it can escape its utopian nature.

Charity vs. Microfinance

April 11th, 2011 § 1 Comment

This weekend I attended the Bottom Billions | Bottom Line Conference hosted by SPU’s Center for Integrity in Business. The event served as a convergence zone between business, nonprofit organizations, and the academy seeking to better understand ways that business can help alleviate world poverty.

Of the many interesting subjects discussed at the conference, the topic of microfinance seemed to continuously echo through my head. For those unfamiliar with the term, microfinance occurs when banks or nonprofit organizations loan small amounts to the poor, helping them to use these miniscule amounts of capital to begin income-generating endeavors.

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, observed that the only thing the poor lacked was opportunity. Without capital, the poor would take a loan from a moneylender at exorbitant rates in order to partake in the economy. At the end of the day, these people took home pennies to support a family. Yunus figured that if he could loan these slight sums at low interest rates, the poor could enjoy selling the products of their labor on the open market, thus creating economic capital and a trail out of poverty.

Photo by lecercle

Charity, on the other hand, gives freely without expectation of return. Many, though, have suggested that pure charity does not eradicate poverty, because the poor become dependent on receiving aid. Blogger Filip Spagnoli aggregates international development aid on his website. The evidence he has compiled suggests that the amount of aid contributed to these developing nations is staggering, and yet economic growth is not a result.

Would development function differently if aid came in the form of a loan instead of charity? Yunus believes that loans to the poor provide the best investment.  Many stuck in the cycle of poverty are smart and hard working; they just need the money to start. While big banks typically consider micro-loans to be both risky and inconsequential, Yunus’ experience argues that the poor possess the highest incentive to repay their loans.

Of course, when unforeseen problems such as natural disasters and economic meltdowns place the poor in positions where they are unable to repay the loan, Yunus extends grace and loans more money to help the poor back on their feet. In this way, microlending encourages entrepreneurial spirit. Where charity gives the widow a fish, microfinance engages in teaching the widow to fish.

Although charitable giving in and of itself is never a bad thing, I do wonder if it is the best thing. Of course, a free gift without expectation of repayment carries the highest blessing for the receiver, yet long term, I wonder if microloans create a better society.

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