Saturday Night Theologian
4 January 2008

Sirach 24:1-12

The term religion is notoriously hard to define, but most people would probably agree that every religion has the following components: adherents, beliefs, practices, and some concept of a reality or realities beyond ordinary human experience. It is this last component that distinguishes a religion from a philosophy, an ethical movement, or a baseball team. It also allows adherents of religions to claim that not only the universe as a whole but also every individual life has meaning. Today's reading from the wisdom book Sirach, a book often called deuterocanonical but which has much to offer even the most Protestant of readers, personifies Wisdom and assigns it a place at the center of God's creation. It is Wisdom, the author says, that gives meaning and direction to the world. That Wisdom permeates the created order is another way of saying that the world is ordered according to God's will. Such a claim is audacious, and some would say that it is contradicted by the reality of existence as we experience it. Indeed, the suffering of the innocent and the failure of justice to flourish throughout the world suggests that the order many theologians optimistically believe characterizes creation must be understood in a nuanced fashion. We certainly do not live in a moral cause and effect universe, as many unobservant people and shallow thinkers throughout history have imagined. The good do not always prosper, and the wicked are not always punished. However, I think there is evidence aplenty in the created order of meaning and purpose, even in the midst of tragedy and suffering. Do we always understand what God is up to in the world? No, but if we are observant, we can find God at work, comforting the sorrowful, meeting the needs of the marginalized, and encouraging the down and out. The real question is not whether God is at work in the world but whether or not we are willing to work alongside others in God's name to bring order, establish justice, and demonstrate the existence of true Wisdom in our corner of the globe.

Wisdom 10:15-21

As in the previous passage, Wisdom is personified as a woman in today's reading from the Wisdom of Solomon. The passage describes Wisdom as entering the soul of Moses, God's servant, so that God could use him to deliver his people from their oppressors. We may think of wisdom today as acquired through both study and life experience, and there is an undeniable value to this way of understanding wisdom. Both study and life experience are necessary. Study without experience results in a mind filled with facts but that is probably incapable of acting wisely in many given situations. Experience without study results in a mind that is sure of itself without justification. Study is not sufficient without experience, but of the two, I think study is the more important, for the simple reason that a person who has studied has enormous potential for wisdom, provided that experience is forthcoming, whereas a person with many life experiences is often unaware that other people have had different experiences and interpret the world differently. Excessive reliance on experience can result in the type of anti-intellectualism that we often see in fundamentalist circles today. Imagining that their way of viewing the world is the only possible correct way, they condemn their neighbors for failing to see things the way they do. On the other hand, people who have focused their lives almost exclusively on study may find themselves unable to make wise choices when confronted with problems, because they have not availed themselves of the opportunity to put their knowledge into practice often enough. As progressive Christians, we can never succumb to the temptation to shortchange academic study in our own or our children's lives, but at the same time we must be diligent to take advantage of the opportunities we have to put our knowledge into practice whenever we can. To paraphrase a line from Spiderman, with great knowledge comes great responsibility.

Ephesians 1:3-14 (first published 2 January 2005)

One of my cousins joined our family through adoption. His parents--my aunt and uncle--had made arrangements to adopt a baby through an adoption agency, and they were overjoyed when they were able to bring him home. As an older cousin, I always knew he was adopted, but I never really thought anything about it. We played together when we were younger, and now our families get together from time to time, even though we live in different states. When we do see each other, the adults talk, our children play together, and we are a family. That one of the people in the family was adopted makes no difference whatsoever to our relationship. Several New Testament passages speak of Jesus as the adopted son of God, but such passages are usually de-emphasized today, because they reflect a "lower Christology" that harkens back to the Adoptionist controversies of the third and fourth centuries. Paul of Samosata, a leading adoptionist, taught that Jesus was adopted by God at his baptism, so before that point he was only the human Jesus, not the Christ. The leaders of the church who held the position that came to be defined as orthodox rejected Paul's interpretation of the scripture, despite the prevalence of adoptionist language, and stressed Jesus' position as Son of God from birth. Today's reading from Ephesians, chosen as a traditional Epiphany reading because January 6 commemorates Jesus' baptism (as well as the visit of the wise men), stresses not Jesus' adoption but the adoption of believers: "He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ." Although Paul of Samosata's view of Jesus' adoption into the Godhead is rejected by orthodox theologians, there is something about adoption as a symbol that speaks to me. We are all born to biological parents, who may or may not have wanted us, but everyone who is adopted was chosen by people who were not his or her biological parents. Adoptive parents choose their adoptive children; they choose to love them, take care of them, and receive them into their family. In a sense, adoptive children are the recipients of more love than biological children. Society expects parents to love their biological children, but why would someone love a child that is not one's own? Adopting a child is an act of love, an act free of coercion or societal pressure. In the same way we are God's adopted children. God had no particular reason to love us, and we certainly had done nothing to merit God's love, but out of the immeasurable well of compassion, God chose to love us, despite our sins, despite our shortcomings. As adopted children, we have full access to our inheritance from God, and as a pledge of that inheritance, we have received the Holy Spirit. Adoption is a beautiful picture of how much God loves us.

John 1:(1-9), 10-18 (first published 2 January 2005)

If the adoptionist language present in parts of the New Testament, especially in the baptism stories, represents lower Christology, the prolog to the Gospel of John represents the highest Christology of the New Testament. Borrowing from the language and thought of the Stoics, John presents Jesus as the eternal Logos, the Word or Reason behind the universe and God's tool in creation. The Incarnation of the divine in the human Jesus is also presented strikingly in verse 14: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father (or, the Father's unique Son), full of grace and truth." As remarkable as the doctrine of the Incarnation is in and of itself, with reference to Christ, the prolog goes on to describe the effect that the Incarnation has on believers. "And of his fullness we all have received, and grace upon grace." One of the most interesting verses in this section is verse 18, which begins, "No one has seen God at any time." What follows is a matter of debate. The majority of manuscripts read, "The only-begotten (i.e., unique) Son has revealed him." A few manuscripts read, "The only-begotten/unique God has revealed him" (NRSV's "God the only Son" is a reasonable translation, but it masks the textual and theological problem by appearing to combine the two readings). Although the NRSV, NASB, and many other modern translations choose the second reading, I agree with Bart Ehrman that that reading is an orthodox corruption of scripture, created to promote a high Christology in the face of Arianism, adoptionism, and other controversies. Of course, the Johannine prolog's Christology is still plenty "high" without this reading. To me, the passage that begins "No one has seen God at any time" makes no sense to conclude with "The only-begotten God has revealed him." In Johannine theology, it is the Son who reveals the Father, through the mystery of the Incarnation. Many Christians want to take statements like those in the prolog literally, but it is better to see statements regarding the eternal, indwelling Logos as symbolic or--better--mystical rather than literal. A literal reading can only lead to a coarse misunderstanding of the divine truth that is present in this passage. The prolog speaks in the language of philosophy, the language of transcendence, the language of mystery. The Christian religion is a mystery religion in the best sense of the word: a religion full of truth that can only be expressed in multivalent, ambiguous language. The mystery of the Incarnation cannot be expressed in human words. It took God's divine Word to communicate the truth to those who would listen.