Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Tangential Sermon thoughts: Hermeneutics, Faith and Politics

An acquaintance and colleague of mine sent out a reflection on the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, specifically Genesis 17 and Romans 4:13-25. These passages are about Abraham and the promise of God, and faith. My colleague in this e-mail says that given the entire story of Abraham he must disagree with Paul, claiming that Paul's account of Abraham's faith as hoping against hope and not wavering in faith contradicts the story of Abraham found in Genesis. I assume in interpreting Paul that he knew the Scriptures, and I agree that in this knowing well the Scriptures he also takes what some may consider questionable hermeneutical moves. However, I do not think that Paul is ignoring all the failings of Abraham nor ignoring the way the story seems to indicate he doubted or attempted to make good on God's promise on his own terms. I think Paul challenges our notion of faith, and the righteousness that comes from faith. Clearly faith did not make Abraham perfect in all he did. In fact I think Abraham's failings are part of what lead Paul to make the grandiose statements about Abraham here. The perfection of the Law isn't in these story's. It seems tome that if we see Paul's statements as contradicting the story of Genesis is to have faith become a work that perfects us and makes us righteous. However, if we take Paul's account of Abraham and the Genesis stories with all Abraham's foibles and false starts, what we see is someone who is consistently open to God, and to submitting to the will of God. Abraham in the midst of all the mistakes is still the object of God's faithfulness. God is faithful through Abraham in these stories. Faith is not something without doubts or failings but something one has in the midst of human messiness, which is another way of saying that faith is not a work. The faith of Abraham that is accounted righteousness then is not perfection but an attitude of the person, a disposition towards God that is open to God's faithfulness, regardless of the mistakes one makes or the doubts one has. If Paul's account of Abraham means that Abraham was perfect or never doubted then it seems to me that faith is a work and would then be under the Law. This contradicts Paul's very point that faith is not under the law, this is freedom and the good news of faith in Jesus Christ. Rather what is being lifted up by Paul is the persistent and enduring faith of Abraham which bears out in the whole of his life even if at any one point we may judge Abraham lacking in faith and/or righteousness or perfection, but that's the point isn't it?

We also seem unable to see the persistence and the continuity of enduring faith of the Church when confronted with the failings of Christians and the hierarchy of the the church or of historical Christian societies and cultures. I am currently reading a collection of essays by archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos), Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essay on Global Concerns. The first two essays deal with issues of justice one from the perspective of the Global Community and the other in terms of human rights. Anastasios in these essays is defending the resources in Orthodox Christian theology and faith for helping bring about a just Global human community and for the defense of human rights. In mounting this defense he admits the ways in which Christians, the hierarchy of the church, and Christian states and politicians have failed to fully live up to the ideals he presents as being the faith of the catholic and orthodox church. This is a very different attitude than I hear from many Christians who also see the the Gospel as a source for working for justice and human rights. Many Christians whether emergent, or mainline or liberal, or progressive I hear speak this way usually look at the failures as a means to show that we need to be suspicious of how the faith has been handed down to us. There are reasons for this certainly in the US, given that Fundamentalists have long claimed to be those who represent the true Christian faith and in recent memory (this was not always the case) conservative evangelicals and Fundamentalists have either allied themselves with forces that perpetuate injustice and work against human rights or even themselves, in certain cases, actively seek to undermine certain goals of human rights. It seems to me that we have simply accepted that these voices represent true Christianity and the faith as it is passed down. Rather than being suspicious of the Faith passed down to us we should be suspicious of the sectarian claims of representing the true whole. For Anastasios, while it is regrettable that Christians do not always live up to the goal, the witness of the Saints and other faithful Christians should be the place of our emphasis not on the place of the failures to live out the Gospel. On the other Hand, Anastasios also is pessimistic of the ability of humanity to achieve a just global community and a consistent defense of human rights on our own efforts of law and international declarations. He has a (I believe healthy and true) skepticism about human ability in terms of resolving the worlds issues politically and of the State being able to live out these things consistently. In this sense he has the reverse attitude of many people I know who are deeply skeptical about the church and Christians (with good reason I will admit) but who are much less skeptical about human ability through politics and the State. Anastasios witnesses to a faith in God who, through Jesus Christ and his followers who remain faithful to Christ, can transform the world (but whose hope ultimately lies not in the achievement of Christians but the work of God in Christ). While many Christians I know seem to have more faith in human beings and politics to make things right. And so we have to go out and do, do, do, and become righteous by working for Justice and human rights in part because the Church has failed. I don't find this latter position to be one of much faith, but of a certain desperation and a result of a failure of faith. Anastasios in faith says yes there were Christian emperors and they did not follow the ideals of the Gospel, but at the same time there were faithful Christians who like St. Chrysostom (and there were many others throughout history, known and unknown) who criticized and continually lifted up the truth of the Gospel and its respect of the dignity and freedom of all persons and its call for justice, but also in the evaluation that humanity is sinful and incapable on its own of doing justice and living out its life within the true an holy divine community. I find Anastasios' position one full of faith and lacking entirely in self-righteousness.