Posts tagged with: christianity

Metropolitan Jonah at AU 2011



We’ve posted the text of Metropolitan Jonah’s AU talk on “Asceticism and the Consumer Society” on the Acton site. His remarks, delivered on Thursday, June 16, at the plenary session looked at the “opposing movements in the human heart” between consumerism and worship. In the course of his talk, Jonah cited Orthodox Christian theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s definition of secularism as “in theological terms … a heresy … about man.”

Jonah:

Man was created with an intuitive awareness of God and thankfulness to Him for the creation. In return, the creation itself was made to be a means of communion and revelation of God to man. Man was thus created as a Eucharistic being, the priest of creation, to offer it in thanksgiving to God, and to use it as a means of living in communion, the knowledge and love of God. Man was created to worship. In our fallenness, turning from God to created things as ends in themselves, we lost the intuitive knowledge of God and our essential attitude of thankfulness to Him. Secularism is rooted in this loss of divine awareness, the darkening of our intuitive perception of the creation as the sacrament of God’s Presence. It is a denial of our essential reality as human beings, and our reduction to purely material animals. Thus the refusal to worship and give thanks, to offer the creation in thanksgiving back to God, is a denial of our very nature as humans.

What Schmemann is testifying to is that “worship is truly an essential act, and man an essentially worshipping being.” It is “only in worship” that I can find “knowledge of God and therefore knowledge of the world.” As the etymology of the word orthodoxy suggests, the true worship of God and the true knowledge of God converge and are together become the foundation of obedience to Him.

Jonah, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, said the “fruit” of secularism is despair. The cure for this despair is the Cross of Jesus Christ:

The Christian ascetical life, that is the life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, the works of mercy and obedience, is the application and the appropriation of the Cross to my life. It is the means by which I both enter into a life of communion with God and become myself a sacrament of that communion for others. This is possible because at its most basic level, asceticism “is the struggle of the person against rebellious nature, against the nature which seeks to achieve on its own what it could bring about only in personal unity and communion with God.” Our “restoration” to a life of personal communion with God and so our personal “resistance” to the powers of sin and death, “presuppose a struggle” within each human heart that is often lacking in contemporary society and even our churches.

Read Metropolitan Jonah’s “Asceticism and the Consumer Society” on the Acton site.

Special thanks to Koinonia, Monomakhos, Byzantine, TX, The Pulp.it, RealClearReligion, Preachers Institute and the American Orthodox Institute for linking to this post.

The green movement has had a dramatic, long lasting impact on public policy, individuals, and even religion. But many people of faith have criticized supporters of the green movement, equating  its strong followers with those who practice a pagan religion in support of Mother Nature.

As Christians we are called to be environmental stewards and to care for God’s creation. However, putting aside the perceptual paganism of a too dedicated support of the green movement, one must ask, is the green movement really accomplishing its mission and gaining support or is it actually turning people away from protecting the environment?

Reflecting upon my time spent at college I remember many of my Christian and conservative friends would throw a plastic water bottle in the trash when a recycling bin was right next to it, smirking and saying that’ll show all the environmental hippies. They admitted they were turned off by the aggressiveness and rhetoric of the green movement while also saying it fails to take into account that human beings also reside on the planet. Instead, they felt the green movement communicated that plants and animals were more important than people.

Many green movement policies seem counterintuitive to protecting the environment. From wind mills killing birds, which according to the Wall Street Journal, it is estimated  75,000 to 275,000 birds are killed by wind mills in the U.S. per year including the golden eagle in California which taxpayers spent a large sum of money on to protect. Now there are plans in the works for killing feral camels in Australia. Why? They damage vegetation and produce a methane equivalent to one ton of carbon dioxide a year.

Green movement policies have many unintended consequences. However we must decide whether the consequences are worth enacting the policy. Are killing feral camels going to save the planet, and is that even responsible? Are we to decide what part of God’s creation is a “productive” contributor to the earth, and if it isn’t do we really have the right to decide what part of God’s creation is to live and die?

Many Christians are now seeking a more positive expression of being an environmental steward and also a follower of the green movement. Marvin Olasky states in an article published by World Magazine that in the call to environmental stewardship, “The Bible teaches that human beings have an obligation to be stewards and gardeners in a way that benefits other men and women and also other creatures.”

While they are full of good intentions, green policies may alienate the centerpiece of  God’s creation: the human person. Failing to take into account the person, green policies put a burden on people in order to protect the environment and the creatures of this planet; the green movement needs to recognize that people are just as much a part of this planet as the trees, flowers, bugs, polar beers, and every other creature and planet we are blessed with. Environmentalist Peter Harris explains in Christianity Today that the green movement often fails to take into account the human relationship with creation:

There is a radical environmentalism that wishes people were not on the planet. That’s not the biblical view at all. A Rocha in the United Kingdom actually works in the most polluted, urban borough of the country, because creation isn’t absent just because people are there. The Challenge is how to restore a right way of life, rather than escaping to some wilderness paradise. Fifty percent of the planet now lives in cities. That is where we live out our relationship with creation.

Yes we need to care for creation. The environment is a gift and we are responsible to care for and preserve God’s creation. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that we ourselves are a part of God’s creation and we are called to more than just environmental stewardship. We are called to be financial stewards and many forms of alternative energy are not cost efficient or financially responsible. We are also called to care of the poor, understanding that stringent environmental standards may make it harder for the poor to rise out of poverty. And finally, we are called to live as images in the likeness of God.

Marvin Olasky states that, “The Bible teaches that human beings have an obligation to be stewards and gardeners in a way that benefits other men and women and also other creatures.” Such an obligation to environmental stewardship can be as simple as being responsible, from not littering to recycling old cell phone batteries. We know the negative consequences that littering and cell phone batteries have on the environment, even though they may strike some as small things. When we are knowledgeable of such negative consequences we are responsible to act in the correct manner to preserve the environment. Not only are we taking care of God’s creation, but we are also showing our love for our neighbors by taking care of the same planet that they too call home.

Essential reading on Jim Wallis by long-time observer Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion & Democracy:

How does Wallis—the old Students for a Democratic Society agitator who touted the Vietcong in the 1970s and the Sandinistas in the 1980s, who denounced welfare reform in the 1990s as a betrayal of the poor, and whose funding by George Soros was exposed last year—enlist Catholic bishops and mainstream evangelicals in his endless political campaigns? “We’re frankly challenging leadership on both sides of the aisle on this one,” he recently told reporters. “If you’re going to come after the poor, you have to go through us first.” Famously a name dropper, Wallis mentioned his impending White House visit. He’d urged evangelicals to support Obama in 2008 and has carefully not burned bridges, despite passage of the ultimately bipartisan 2011 budget cuts against which he fasted.

Read Mark Tooley’s “Our Savior, the Democrats” on WeeklyStandard.com.

I recently had a unique opportunity to speak about unity in Christ’s mission. I was asked to present an address to The Barnabas Group (TBG) in San Diego (May 9) and Costa Mesa (May 10). The Costa Mesa site is in Orange County for those who do not know Southern California. My title for both meetings was: “The Unity Factor: One Lord, One Church, One Mission.”

The Barnabas Group is one of the more unique missions and ministries I’ve encountered. It combines a high view of business as divine vocation with a big vision of Christ’s kingdom and personal responsibility to his mission. The members of the Barnabas Group are thoughtful, serious and successful people. (I am using the word success here in a business sense thus I do not mean by it that success equals Christian faithfulness per se.)

The Barnabas Group (TBG) has existed since 2000. Their purpose is to make a powerful impact on ministries around the corner and around the globe. In contrast to many great individuals and organizations who support ministries primarily with the checkbook, TBG believes ministry-minded people can provide so much more if given an opportunity to use their network, time, unique abilities, spiritual gifts and resources to help ministries that reflect their own God-given passions. The result is a truly dynamic organization that stays fresh, exciting, and highly relevant to its members, ministries and the communities where it serves.

img-port-Shank TBG was founded by Bob Shank (photo) and Jim West. Their purpose was to help men and women who had completed a three-year coaching program (The Master’s Program) to engage their personal calling in service for God’s Kingdom. Today, The Barnabas Group is made up of men and women who are enrolled in, or are graduates of, The Master's Program as well as other service-oriented Christian men and women who are willing to search out and participate in the exciting opportunities TBG provides. You can read more about the passion and vision of both men at the Web sites I’ve linked to in this post.

TBG meets as a whole four times annually. Members invest money and time in the group which allows them to learn about ministries and get involved at a personal level. Each time TBG meets six ministries are allowed/asked to present their mission and its need in 15 minutes. Two speakers are also asked to give plenary addresses that are considered relevant to the mission of TBG. I was one of those two presenters on May 9 and 10.

Presently there are ten groups, five of which are in California and the five in Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte, Phoenix and Houston.

I experienced several opportunities by speaking to TBG. First, I met some of the finest Christian businessmen I’ve come across in my entire life. It was so great to see what happens when the member ministers (laity) of churches become highly trained and deeply committed to their work as divine calling. Second, the ministries that presented themselves to the two groups I spoke to were all interesting, dynamic and exciting. I got to know each of these presenters personally. I felt that my primary role was to encourage these other missions. I see myself as an encourager of leaders so this opportunity fit me perfectly. I was not directly seeking financial help (though ACT 3 can use help) so I was perfectly free to give myself to the group and the other ministries who were there to present. I was given peace to trust God for what he wanted to do through my investment and let the results flow as they would. This is part and parcel of my ACT 3 vision, which is “to equip leaders for unity in Christ’s mission.” Third, I was deeply encouraged personally. My nephew had a lot to do with my getting to know Bob Shank and Jim West. When each person at out table was asked to share what person had encouraged them recently we each shared. My nephew said, “My uncle John!” That was enough to make my day.

I also had a wonderful opportunity to introduce a number of Barnabas Group leaders to Acton Institute, which gave me a special opportunity to partner again with my new Acton connection.

If you are a man or woman in business, and want to get better trained for effective kingdom ministry and involved in one of the most unique groups I’ve met, then check out The Master’s Program and TBG.

Abraham KuyperRecently, the Acton Institute announced a partnership with Kuyper College to translate Abraham Kuyper’s Common Grace. Understanding the importance of reaching out to the evangelical community, Kuyper’s work is essential in developing evangelical principles and social thought. The Common Grace translation project is summarized by the Acton Institute:

There is a trend among evangelicals to engage in social reform without first developing a coherent social philosophy to guide the agenda. To bridge this gap, Acton Institute and Kuyper College are partnering together to translate Abraham Kuyper’s seminal three-volume work on common grace (De gemeene gratie). Common Grace was chosen because it holds great potential to build intellectual capacity within evangelicalism and because a sound grasp of this doctrine is what is missing in evangelical cultural engagement. Common Grace is the capstone of Kuyper’s constructive public theology and the best available platform to draw evangelicals back to first principles and to orient their social thought.

The Grand Rapids Press interviewed Stephen Grabill, director of programs at the Acton Institute who is also serving as the general editor of the translation project. Grabill explained the current relevancy of Kuyper’s work:

“In terms of the way Christians have brought their faith into the public sphere in the last 30 years, Kuyper represents a much more thoughtful and reflective way of building a constructive public theology,” Grabill said.

“He wasn’t a policy wonk but an idea guy who sought to synthesize a lot of movement and point to various economic political trends that integrated the Christian faith and did it in a way that didn’t politicize the faith, which is a breath of fresh air to people today.”

[…]

Grabill said he hopes the translation will provide evangelicals with a coherent social philosophy to guide their agendas in a way he believes is lacking today.

“I think Kuyper would say both the left and the right have polarized the gospel in ways that may have been unintentional in the beginning of the process,” Grabill said.

“They need a better understanding of culture, and what Kuyper does is he provides the foundational theological and philosophical thought to understand culture in a way that’s constructive and not ideological, and merely an attempt to change it to a different end.”

Volume one of Common Grace is scheduled to appear in the fall of 2012.

Readers can sign up for project updates by clicking here and can become fans of Common Grace on Facebook by clicking here.

Click here to read the full article appearing in the Grand Rapids Press.

I’ve written a fair bit over recent months about trends in charitable giving and Christian tithing. One the latter point, I touched on the importance of tithing in my latest “On the Square” feature at the First Things site. I’m looking forward to getting a look at Douglas LeBlanc’s book, Tithing: Test Me in This. We are seeing right now just how critical faithful charity can be in the midst of disaster.

The Barna Group recently released a major new research study focusing on many of these trends, “Donors Proceed with Caution, Tithing Declines.” This data is worth looking at more closely and there’s a lot to digest. But here’s how Barna initially frames the study:

“The economic downturn influenced donations later than it affected other aspects of our spending,” explained David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “Once it kicked in, though, donors have cut back significantly in their giving to churches and nonprofits. Now, even as the economy shows some signs of improvement, donors are still reluctant to return to their previous levels of generosity. They may be less shell-shocked than 15 months ago, but they are still cautious.

Has the economic downturn impacted your giving? If so, how?

I wrote several blogs last week about the value and importance of the Church Fathers. One of the early Greek Fathers was Clement of Alexandria, born in Athens around A.D. 150. His parents were pagans. He was converted to faith in Christ and began to travel widely searching for faithful Christian teachers. He attended the famous School of Theology in Alexandria, founded by Pantaenus in A.D. 180. After he settled there he became the director of the school, thus Clement of Alexandria. A few years after he became the director he was forced to quickly flee during the persecution of Septimius Severus. He took refuge in Cappadocia, where he died in A.D. 215, thus he is called a Cappadocian Father.

StClementOfAlexandriaSt. Clement is considered one of the forerunners of what we now call systematic theology. He was the first Christian writer to recognize secular philosophy (Neoplatonism) and incorporate some of its major ideas in service of the Christian faith. Most of his literary output has been lost but one work, on riches and wealth, is still considered valuable to the church. Commenting on Mark 10:17-22 Clement addressed some of the common interpretations of this text by saying:

1. Our Lord was not telling Christians to get rid of their wealth. He was telling them to banish from their souls the primacy of riches. “Unfettered greed can suffocate the seed of true life.”

2. It is not something new to renounce riches and distribute them to the poor. This, said Clement, was done long before Jesus came. Some did this to devote themselves to the arts and in search of vain knowledge while others sought fame and glory by this means.

3. What our Lord does command here is something new, something proper to God who alone gives life. Clement writes:

He does not command what the letter says and what others have already done. He is asking for something greater, more divine, more perfect than that which is stated –that we denude the soul itself of its disordered passions, that we pull out the roots and fling away what is foreign to the spirit. Here, then, is the teaching proper to a believer, and the doctrine worthy of the Savior. Those, who before Christ’s coming despised material goods, certainly gave up their riches and lost them, but the passions of the soul increased even more. For having believed that they had done something superhuman, they came to indulge in pride, petulance, vainglory, despising others.

Clement wrote that a person could give everything away only to doubly regret his decision. To teach that Jesus intends for every disciple to give up everything contradicts statements like those of Luke 16:9, which urges us to make friends by the use of wealth. “Riches then should not be rejected if they can be of use to our neighbor. They are accurately called possessions because they are possessed by people, and goods or utilities because with them one can do good and because they have been ordained by God for the use of men.”

What Clement is saying is that goods and possessions can be instruments in the hands of skilled servants who use them to bless others and advance great good. “Riches, then, are also an instrument.” If rightly used they can bring about justice and service. He added, “In themselves riches are blameless.”

So what is the problem with riches? Riches present an opportunity to do great good or serious evil. “The one to be accused is the person who has the ability, through the choice he makes, to put it to good use or to misuse it. And this is up to the mind and judgment of man, who is free and able to manage what is given him for his use.” Simply put, we are required to be good stewards of all goods and possessions we have been given by whatever means.

So the problem riches present to us, concludes Clement, is in how they are used by our disordered passions. “The rich – who are going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom – will have to understand these words intelligently, and not in a dull and superficial way.”

My experience with people who possess great means is that this is an accurate understanding of the true problem. The real problem is not in riches themselves but in human passions and desires. Wealthy people can bring immense blessing to people and mission. Make no mistake about this, prosperity is always to be preferred to poverty. But those who prosper must understand that they bear greater responsibility to deal with their passions and desires and to use their possessions and goods for the kingdom of God.

My commentary is about the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck the South in late April. The focus of this piece is primarily what is going on in Alabama, but it is true for the entire region that was affected. I’d like to thank Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa for lending his time to talk with me about his experiences. There were so many inspirational anecdotes and stories he offered. I only wish there was room to include them all. I will follow up with more of his story in a separate piece for Religion & Liberty. This is the link to the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. The commentary is printed below.

Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity

by Ray Nothstine

Traffic was “reminiscent of a fall football weekend,” declared an AP report last week from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Volunteer armies, faith-based charities, and other service organizations descended upon affected areas in the wake of tornadoes that killed 238 people in Alabama alone. Now, following the whirlwind, we are seeing the compassion and strength of a faith-filled region.

As federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency work to repair their reputation following intense criticism after Hurricane Katrina, the experienced workers from faith-based charities are leading on several fronts. Many church groups now have state of the art kitchen trailers that can easily feed 25,000 a day. University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts “extremely decentralized” and added, “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”

One grassroots organization is proving to be effective at meeting immediate needs through social networking. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, which has partnered with the Christian Service Mission, is a group of Auburn University sports fans who have united on Facebook to reach out to their rivals. Fans post a need and somebody responds nearly instantaneously to address the situation or share updates. Toomer’s Facebook network has exploded and they are now assisting flood victims and the tornado-ravaged community of Smithville, Miss. In a letter thanking the governor of Alabama for his leadership during the crisis, Toomer’s declared:

In one way or another, none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith-based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.

In an interview, Tuscaloosa resident Jeff Bell described the tornado as “destruction like I have never seen in my life.” Bell, who took shelter during the storm in the basement of a Baptist church, said he prayed what he thought was his final prayer. Bell said of the recovery, “What I am seeing is spiritually amazing. Black and white churches are forming a bond as well as all different denominations.”

Bell, who lost his job because of the tornado, praised the business community. “Small business owners who have lost everything are finding ways to help their employees,” he said. Big business has contributed, too. Hyundai Motor Company alone pledged $1.5 million for recovery efforts.

One of the strengths of faith-based charities is they do not have to make income tests before they help people in need. Unfortunately, sometimes when FEMA does help an individual its bureaucratic tentacles can cause more harm than good. This was the case in Iowa after flooding in 2008, where individuals and families applied for money after their homes were destroyed. After months and months of waiting, they finally received funds. But this year 179 recipients were later told they were never eligible and had to pay it back in 30 days. Some had to return as much as $30,000. A recent report said that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

For many in the South, church life is the center of community. Members do not just spend Sunday in the pews but attend myriad weekly activities at their centers of worship. To say the church is the pulse of a community is no exaggeration.

Christianity proclaims a future regeneration of a disordered world. The Church is that earthly reminder and Sunday worship is a powerful symbol of a gathering of the redeemed for the day of restoration. It remains a comforting place for questions of “Why?” during disasters and trial. Alabama is second to only Mississippi as the most religious state, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The gospel, as embodied by Christ, is the story of giving and sacrificing for those we do not know. It is little wonder that government assistance efforts are playing catch-up across the South. “Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis,” says Charles Wilson Reagan professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Alabama, affectionately nicknamed “The Heart of Dixie,” is no longer just a powerful symbol for the region or the Old South. It has become a universal symbol for what a faith-filled community can do when its people are unleashed as a force for good.

In Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg has a new article that looks at how Catholics reflect on a wide range of financial questions ranging from the federal government’s fiscal woes to consumer debt to a fragile banking system.

Today one looks in vain for Catholic thinkers studying our debt and deficit problems from standpoints equally well-informed by economics and sound Catholic moral reflection. We don’t, for instance, hear many Catholic voices speaking publically about the moral virtues essential for the management of finances such as prudent risk-taking, thrift, promise-keeping, and assuming responsibility for our debts — private or public.

Instead, one finds broad admonitions such as “put the interests of the poor first” in an age of budget-cutting. The desire to watch out for the poor’s well being in an environment of fiscal restraint is laudable. But that’s not a reason to remain silent about the often morally-questionable choices and policies that helped create our personal and public debt dilemmas in the first place.

One Catholic who has proved willing to engage these issues is none other than Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2010 interview book Light of the World, Benedict pointed to a deeper moral disorder associated with the running-up of high levels of private and public debt. The willingness on the part of many people and governments to do so means, Benedict wrote, “we are living at the expense of future generations.”

In other words, someone has to pay for all this debt. And clearly many Western Europeans and Americans seem quite happy for their children to pick up the bill. That’s a rather flagrant violation of intergenerational solidarity.

Read “Debt, Finance, and Catholics” on the Crisis Magazine website.

John Boehner

On National Review Online, Acton’s Rev. Robert A. Sirico has a new commentary on the letter sent by a group of Catholic academics to Speaker of the House John Boehner. The occasion for the letter is Boehner’s commencement address at Catholic University of America in Washington this weekend. The letter accuses the Ohio Republican of having “among the worst” record in Congress for supporting legislation that addresses the “desperate needs of the poor.”

Rev. Sirico:

It appears then that these Catholic academicians who have written to Speaker Boehner do not understand the distinctions the Church herself makes between fundamental, non-negotiable dogmas and doctrines, and the prudential and debatable give and take when it comes to applying the principles of Catholic social teaching. Here Speaker Boehner need only consult the text of the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, which the authors of the letter say they have delivered to him, wherein he will read: “The Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions.” (no. 571)

The specifics of the 2012 Budget proposed by the Speaker and his colleagues are, the letter’s authors contend, the result of either ignorance or “dissent.” I think they are neither; they simply reflect a different, and in many people’s estimation, more accurate and economically-informed way, of proposing how we achieve worthy goals. Indeed, it could be said that what these Catholic academicians are proposing is not a “preferential option for the poor,” but rather a preferential option for the State. They make the unfortunately common error of assuming that concern for the economically weak and marginalized must somehow translate into (yet another) government program.

That assumption is wrong, and flies in the face of another principle of Catholic social teaching — the principle of subsidarity. With good reason, this is something the Catholic Left — or whatever remains of it these days — rarely mentions or grapples with, because they know that it would raise many questions about the prudence of any number of welfare programs they support.

Indeed, what strikes me about this letter to Speaker Boehner is how reactionary it is.

Read “Boehner’s Catholic Critics Rush to Protect Welfare State” on NRO.