Powers and Principalities

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    It has been a hard few weeks for our country. We have heard the sobering warning of Robert Mueller, supported by both sides of the aisle, that the Russians continue to attempt to corrupt our political system.  Connected to this, and in the light of  Facebook’s handling of private data, discussion of regulating such companies increases.  An angry and  troubled young man from Allen, reinforced in his prejudices by 8Chan, murders shoppers in El Paso. Meanwhile in a prominent magazine of opinion, writers worry about the long-term effect of  social media on anxiety and depression, and of automation on the very future of human work.

   The insidious factor behind all these is of  course technology, about which we need to think theologically.  Does our faith have anything to say about this reality, which will determine what becomes of human culture in the coming generations? First of all, we suppose that it is something apart from us which impels, mesmerizes, or oppresses us. But it is at the same time something in the power of our choosing. In this way it resembles what the New Testament calls the ‘powers and principalities,’ the structures of this fallen world which are within us and beyond us.  Secondly it drives toward integrated and central control. The prophetic Christian writer of the mid-20thcentury, Jacques Ellul, called this ‘le technique.’  It represents rational system devoid of empathy or relation.  In our time this has been paired with the simulacra of relationship in interconnectivity of the Web.  In short, it is a reflection of human being in its fallenness. (At the same time the stunning accomplishments of technology do show something of our being ‘in God’s image’). The incisiveness of Genesis 1-3 for our predicament could not be clearer.

      We need, in other words, to gain wisdom, which is to say, to understand ourselves as created by God and fallen. This means realizing that, technology notwithstanding, we are made for real communication, relation, and embodied presence. (Of these there is no better example in our culture than the life of Christian congregations). We need to realize that we are not in fact compelled to follow where the next voracious advance of technology would take us. Automation and artificiality are not a god. We are made by the true God as communal creatures capable of empathy, and these qualities are not incidental but central to our nature. We need to reclaim the argument, also rooted in a realistic doctrine of the human person, that we are good enough to make democratic life with disagreement, pluralism, and civility possible, and evil enough to make it necessary (so the moral theologian Reinhold Niebuhr).  We are in fact creatures susceptible to manipulation, and are at the same time capable of restoration- humans are malleable, in both bad and good senses.  It is in accord with this doctrine of the human person that we will find by God’s grace the humility, contrition, and sympathy which our fraught moment requires.

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Reflections on Canadian General Synod 2019: Yes... But (ll) Jews and Christians

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In our first installment, we reflected on our Canadian siblings’ acceptance of ‘A Common Word,’ an Islamic call to dialogue which is admirable in its irenicism and worrisome in its theological detail.  This, second installment brings this same attitude of worried admiration to the Synod’s action on Jewish-Christian dialogue.

One of the best treatments of the latter question recently is an article in ‘First Things’ by my friend David Novak of the University of Toronto called ‘Supersessionism Hard and Soft.’  He brings the requisite knowledge and subtlety to the question. He builds his argument in the following way. First he affirms that each religion believes it has the fullest account of truth, and so its adherents hope that others will come to this conclusion as well. This must always be non-coercive and respectful. But Judaism and Christianity are a special case, growing from the same root of the Old Testament.  So, secondly, professing one’s own truth does not necessarily mean denying that God has a providential role for the other. So, as Novak points out, medieval Jews could claim that Christianity was a scaled down Torah for Gentiles; one might compare this on the Christian side with Aquinas, who thought that a Jew could be a Christian without knowing it by ‘implicit faith.’  Thirdly, Novak makes the interesting point that rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are two religions beginning in the first Century out of ancient Judaism.  (I found myself wondering where he would put the Petrine mission of the New Testament). Fourthly, Novak understands that Jews and Christians have things to talk about in this complex, inter-related and yet distinct relationship. This is especially true since they readily share an opposition to militant secularism.  Fifthly, Novak emphasizes that both Jews and Christians think about their relationship against an eschatological horizon. For us, Romans11 is the classic passage on the subject; it affirms that we must the promises hold, that Gentiles should be humble, that Jesus will reign supreme on the last day, and that somehow ‘Israel will be saved.’ How all those fit together we will see when the circle is unbroken. 

Novak recognizes that if  you think Messiah Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth, you are bound to be a supersessionist of some sort, since you think He is the last word. But there can be a ‘soft’ variety of this which is open to dialogue, a continuing providential role for God’s people Israel, and surprises on the great day.

I review this approach because the General Synod last week voted to remove the collect ‘For the Conversion of the Jews’ and substituted this:

O GOD, who didst choose Israel to be thine inheritance: Have mercy upon us and forgive us for violence and wickedness against our brother Jacob; the arrogance of our hearts and minds hath deceived us, and shame hath covered our face. Take away all pride and prejudice in us, and grant that we, together with the people whom thou didst first make thine own, may attain to the fulness of redemption which thou hast promised; to the honour and glory of thy most holy Name.
—Proposed prayer “For Reconciliation with the Jews”

As I read this prayer, I can agree with every sentence.  It was written in the spirit of friendship and dialogue which I commend, as does a Jewish theologian like Novak.   But his nuanced view of the relationship of Christians and Jews supports certain questions we can ask of the prayer. Does its hoping that we might ‘together…attain the fullness of redemption’ intend to exclude the hope that another might come to see Jesus as the Messiah? Novak’s ‘soft supersessionism’ says it needn’t.  And is the use of ‘thy most holy Name’ deliberately suppressing the name of Jesus, at which every knee shall bow (Philippians 2:10 as an interpretation of Isaiah 45:23)? No other goal, however worthy, ought to do this. The worry is that unclarity on this point, concerning the unique relation of Christians and Jews, might come to support such a conclusion in relations with other religious traditions.

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