Sunday, September 09, 2007
Speaking of Faith & Justice
The lastest Speaking of Faith radio interview I've listened to was with Dr. David Hilfiker about the history of poverty in America. I was especially struck by this portion of their conversation:

Ms. Tippett: Dr. David Hilfiker. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, "Seeing Poverty After Katrina."

Though David Hilfiker helped found two religiously based programs for homeless men in inner-city Washington, D.C., he reveals in his book Not All of Us Are Saints that he has never held a deep intuitive faith in God. I asked him how two decades of work with the poor have helped him think about the nature of God. Does he still struggle with his faith?

Dr. Hilfiker:
Every day. I can't even answer the question. I don't experience God in ways that I recognize from what other people say about their experiences of God. So while I'm a member of our faith community, I struggle with even the definition of being a Christian. What I know is that struggling with the realities of injustice, living in a community of people — I'm talking about our faith community now — living in a community of people who are also struggling with those issues and are unwilling to settle for pat answers, those two things plus others, but those two things make a far richer, deeper life than any I could imagine anyplace else. And it's that depth of life that I sense that is as close as I can get to defining God. I actually just read a passage from Walter Brueggemann's book on Jeremiah, who quotes this passage from…

Ms. Tippett: The prophet Jeremiah, the Hebrew prophet.

Dr. Hilfiker: The prophet. Jeremiah 22:16 says, "He cared for the poor and the needy; is not that what it means to know me?" And Brueggemann comments, 'It's not just that caring for the needy acquaints you with God, but caring for the needy is God.' And I don't know exactly what he means by that, but I experience something like that. It's something about living this way that is the deepest way that I can imagine to live.

Ms. Tippett: Yet you talk about the limits of charity, and I sense that you are critical, in a way, of a move in our culture to locate justice strictly within faith communities, or to put a lot of the responsibility for this kind of practical justice on faith communities. Is that right?

Dr. Hilfiker: Yes. Yeah. I don't count the work at Christ House or Joseph's House largely as justice work, I count it largely as charity work. My understanding of the difference is that within the Christian tradition there is a mandate that we give charity and that we work for justice. And basically we give charity for ourselves. We give charity because it's the right thing to do for our own spiritual health. We are in control of charity, we decide where it goes, who gets it. Often we decide what people have to do with our charity. We're the ones on top, they're the ones on the bottom. I mean, there is a whole host of problems associated with charity. I don't criticize charity. It's mandated, it's something that we should do, and it's what I've spent most of my career doing. But it's different from justice.

Justice is working to change the structures so that the charity becomes less necessary. And that's what is so essential and that doesn't get touched by this turn in our country towards saying that faith communities will take care of the poor. I mean, there are practical reasons why that won't work, but I think there's a deep spiritual reason that charity is not enough, that we have to change these structures that benefit us and hurt them.

I think his honest expression of his personal doubts and questions about God and faith combined with his statement that he experiences God in community with the poor is a beautiful illustration of what faith looks like within the emerging church as well. We have our questions and doubts and struggle sometimes to even hold onto our faith, and yet at the same time we've found a richness of life and an experience of God that comes as we love each other and serve those in need around us.

In fact, this experience also seems resonant with the recent revelations about Mother Teresa and her life-long struggle with doubt in spite of her ongoing faithfulness to her work with the poor and her community of nuns. Perhaps she too experienced God more truly in her service to the poor and less in the spiritually prescribed practices & creeds of her church.

At any rate, I also appreciated the distinction Dr. Hilfiker drew between charity and justice and how he explained that both are necessary, while at the same time admitting that simply giving charity is fraught with all kinds of problems. Even those of us who desire to be missional and serve those in need can often get mired down merely in doing charity, forgetting that unless we work for justice as well, nothing will ever really change. And how easy it is for Christians to ignore justice altogether, thinking that merely giving charity is enough, especially when doing justice might mean making sacrifices to our own lifestyles of consumption or privilege.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 4:58 PM | Permalink |


14 Comments:


At 9/09/2007 07:06:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

We have our questions and doubts and struggle sometimes to even hold onto our faith ... Perhaps she too experienced God more truly in her service to the poor and less in the spiritually prescribed practices & creeds of her church.

I would have supposed that this would make faith easier to hold on to rather than more difficult, since it sounds like you're putting it into something much more concrete.

 

At 9/09/2007 08:20:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Well, maybe easier... unless you're immersed in a religious setting that tells you God must be experienced in a certain way. Part of what I see in Mother Teresa's struggles (and to a lesser degree in Dr. Hilfiker's) is this expectation that experiencing God must look or happen a certain way. And then, when God doesn't manifest himself in those ways, one is left wondering if God is real. It seems to me that Hilfiker is somewhat better off in that he is in a faith community that allows for diversity and questioning. Teresa seems to have had a harder time of it because of the strictures of the Catholic Church and the expectations that she ought to be experiencing God's presence in the same ways recorded by past Saints.

 

At 9/11/2007 02:08:00 PM, Blogger Derek Berner

I kind of see a lot of myself in these people.

Certitude of faith is how I was raised... we were taught that we could be certain of (1) God's existence and (2) the orthodoxy of Evangelical doctrine because God would reveal himself to us. Now, I've had deeply moving emotional experiences that you could call "spiritual" or "transcendent" but nothing I could unambiguously attribute to God. Oh, they left room for "honest doubt" as long as you didn't outright reject Christianity; in fact the "honest doubters" like myself were put up on pedestals and considered among the most devout. Nevertheless, we were constantly taught that when you were "baptized in the Holy Spirit" there would be no mistaking it.

But being that I've never had an unambiguous revelation like that, I'm wary of claims of such revelations even existing, even though I've talked to people like my brother who are convinced they've had them. And indeed, I've spoken to people in recent years who have insisted that being certain is the indicator of true faith.

My ideal church body would be one where I would feel welcome saying, "Look, I'm not sure I believe any of this" without having to make sure I sound ashamed enough, or having to endure gasps of horror and immediate frantic efforts to fix me. Even have a few listeners nod and tell me there's not a thing wrong with that. That's what comes to mind when I think of community.

In fact, even if I decided to re-declare myself a Christian, I don't think that would stop me from continuing to be agnostic as well. For me there's a huge difference between trusting, believing, and knowing. Not all faith communities can understand that.

 

At 9/11/2007 09:17:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Oh, they left room for "honest doubt" as long as you didn't outright reject Christianity"

This is what my friend Helen would call "The range of acceptable answers". Most evangelicals will affirm the value of doubting and asking questions, just so long as you settle on their basic set of answers in the end.

"My ideal church body would be one where I would feel welcome saying, "Look, I'm not sure I believe any of this" without having to make sure I sound ashamed enough, or having to endure gasps of horror and immediate frantic efforts to fix me. Even have a few listeners nod and tell me there's not a thing wrong with that. That's what comes to mind when I think of community."

For what it's worth Derek, that's the attitude we try to cultivate here at our church... and even tried to cultivate with SHINE back in the day. We would often say "the Christian story defines us as a community, and yet you don't even have to accept this story yourself to come and be welcomed as a part of us". You can ask your sister whether or not we were successful in actually helping students like yourself (and her too) to really feel welcomed in spite of their doubts. Sometimes it's easier said than done, but I hope we succeeded a little bit.

"In fact, even if I decided to re-declare myself a Christian, I don't think that would stop me from continuing to be agnostic as well. For me there's a huge difference between trusting, believing, and knowing."

I totally agree. I don't see how a Christian could legitimately claim to be anything but an agnostic.

(Consider that the alternative would be to call oneself a "gnostic", which as I recall was an early heresy in the church.)

 

At 9/12/2007 09:48:00 AM, Blogger Derek Berner

Leslie and I are probably going to start checking out the nearby Episcopal church when we get a free Sunday (I'm booked solid until mid-October!). I feel like there's a lot more wiggle room and acceptance in mainline church bodies, but at the same time I feel like mainline churches have a tendency to supplant service with charity and spirituality with liturgy and in so doing miss out on the conversation as much as conservatives. Still, I feel like it's a step in the right direction.

 

At 9/12/2007 09:53:00 AM, Blogger Derek Berner

Can you maybe elaborate on why you feel that agnosticism is essential to Christianity, beyond your quick half-pun on Gnostic Christianity? I find that statement very interesting, and I think you've made it before.

Personally, I feel like agnosticism and orthodoxy are polar opposites, rather than agnosticism and Gnostic Christianity.

 

At 9/12/2007 10:23:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"Can you maybe elaborate on why you feel that agnosticism is essential to Christianity, beyond your quick half-pun on Gnostic Christianity?"

Well, it's basically because I agree with exactly what you said earlier: "there's a huge difference between trusting, believing, and knowing."

Philosophically speaking I don't think any of us can claim to have absolute knowledge (meaning certainty) about anything. Not just in religion but in any area there is always an element of belief in what we claim to know.

But this should be even more obvious to Christians. After all, our own orthodox theology admits that God is beyond our full comprehension. We can never know God in an absolute way, and thus if God is the ground of all reality (and therefore all knowledge) then we really can't have anything like absolute knowledge either. There is always a sense then in which we must say (both about religion and about everything else) "I can't know for sure but I choose to believe based on what I've seen so far." Hence, agnosticism.

Bottom line, it's about the limits of human knowledge. Christians, I think, even more so than rationalist Modernists, ought to be willing to admit that we are fallen and finite creatures and therefore our understanding is limited.

BTW, if you want scriptural backing for Christian agnosticism, it's found in 1 Corinthians 13:12 "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror... now I know only in part..."

 

At 9/12/2007 01:28:00 PM, Blogger Derek Berner

Ah, but foundationalism is pervasive--some would say essential--in modern Christianity, though I think both of us on the same wavelength in rejecting foundationalism.

That's an interesting recasting of 1Cor 13:12, because for the most part I had read it as "we get to see God/Jesus physically face to face when we all go to heaven after we die". Of course that's not a terribly meaningful interpretation to people like me who don't really think there's some parallel plane of existence devoted to a huge freaking city where all the good believers go after they die.

But I would posit the following open ended question -- could someone legitimately be considered a Christian while neither openly affirming nor denying certain aspects of Christian doctrine, like say, Christ's divinity and resurrection? If all they said was, look, I can grant that some power I don't quite understand, which may or may not come from a person I can't really say I believe or don't believe in, could possibly, somehow, be responsible for transforming me in ways I'm not clear about? It's one I've started to explore a bit but I don't have any real answers to yet. That'd be a pretty generous orthodoxy indeed.

 

At 9/12/2007 04:41:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Good question Derek. I guess I'd wonder why labels like "Christian" are all that important anyway. If you're intrigued by Jesus and are interested in exploring his way of life, then call yourself a Christ follower or something like that. If you want to call yourself a Christian, feel free to do that too. Every group has their different definition of what it means to be a Christian, and by many definitions I'm not one either, so I'd say figure out what it means to you.

For me it means to live in the way of love, generosity, compassion, peacemaking, self-sacrifice and celebration that Jesus taught and demonstrated - and to thereby join in what I believe is God's mission to not just transform me but also the whole world with love. It's to be part of God's redemptive plan to put right everything that has gone wrong in the world through "sin" (by which I mean both personal and societal acts and systems of greed, violence, injustice, broken relationships, etc.) Note that speaking of this redemptive plan is rather different than saying that the whole point is to get forgiven so that we can go to that big heavenly city when we die.

 

At 9/12/2007 09:42:00 PM, Blogger Derek Berner

I guess I'd wonder why labels like "Christian" are all that important anyway.

That right there is what I keep coming back to. Honestly, what I said in the previous post isn't exactly what I believe, and what I believe isn't quite exactly what I've posted before that. As a matter of fact what I believe (at least about spiritual matters) at any given moment seems to change about as frequently as the weather.

Really the Christian label is problematic, for me at least, because of both stigmas and personal baggage that come with it. I guess it's similar to the fact that I am fascinated by the teachings of Siddartha Gautama and feel like they are very good advice for personal improvement and the improvement of those around you (if vague sometimes), but I don't really feel like carrying around the Buddhist label. When people ask me what I am, I don't want to be obligated to say "I'm an Agnostic" or "I'm a Christian" or "I'm a Buddhist", etc. but instead that I'm a person. (If you've been paying attention you'll notice I seldom use the article "an" before "agnostic" to describe myself).

I don't think what I'm asking for is permission to take on any particular label without going through the standard prerequisites... it's more along the lines of figuring out a way to present myself in the Christian community honestly and have people come away with a sense that there's something there without having to invoke "Christ" and "Christian".

And on some level, I sense I'm asking the wrong questions, because even though I think questions of in/out are irrelevant, I still want to feel like I can be "in" somewhere. Does that make sense?

 

At 9/15/2007 07:16:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

I guess it's similar to the fact that I am fascinated by the teachings of Siddartha Gautama and feel like they are very good advice for personal improvement and the improvement of those around you (if vague sometimes), but I don't really feel like carrying around the Buddhist label.

That's a quintessentially Buddhist thing to say: disassociation of name and form is one of the deeper ideas in the philosophy. ;-) And of course, Buddhism is the great agnostic tradition. I don't have the quotation at hand, but there's a Buddhist fable about a man being shot by an arrow and refusing to let a doctor remove it until he was told the complete history of the person who shot him, thus dying in the process. (The moral is that there are some questions which are either unanswerable or not really worth answering from the standpoint of the philosophy/religion.)

it's more along the lines of figuring out a way to present myself in the Christian community honestly and have people come away with a sense that there's something there without having to invoke "Christ" and "Christian".

Labels in general aren't such a bad thing: they let us assimilate new information much more quickly (for example, by assuming that any four-legged thing with a seat and a back is a chair). The problem comes with knee-jerk prejudicing it, which I suppose is the flip side of the coin.

I wonder sometimes how different it is to look at a Bible story and take away a moral message versus taking a moral message from Arthurian stories, Star Trek, or the Little Engine that Could. Personally, I don't see much of a difference, which is why I don't care so much for the religious labels. (But if you are looking for some sort of label, "Unitarian" doesn't seem too far off the mark from what you've said you're looking for.)

 

At 9/15/2007 07:21:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

unless you're immersed in a religious setting that tells you God must be experienced in a certain way.

It seems to me that much of the evolution of Christianity has been about getting away from this very idea.

Teresa seems to have had a harder time of it because of the strictures of the Catholic Church and the expectations that she ought to be experiencing God's presence in the same ways recorded by past Saints.

Yeah, that could do it. Although I've gotten the impression that they weren't overly consistent as a group either (as explored in Abelard's Sic et Non, etc.)

 

At 9/15/2007 09:06:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"It seems to me that much of the evolution of Christianity has been about getting away from this very idea."

I hope so. That's certainly a major theme in the emerging church.

 

At 9/15/2007 09:15:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"And on some level, I sense I'm asking the wrong questions, because even though I think questions of in/out are irrelevant, I still want to feel like I can be "in" somewhere. Does that make sense?"

I think so. It sounds like you want to remain open to truth and wisdom wherever you find it, whether in Buddha or Jesus or wherever, and choosing a label might box you in too much, force you to exclude some truths.

(Though personally I don't think it has to. As I understand it, part of proper Christian belief is the idea that "all truth is God's truth" and thus we can affirm truth wherever we find it, irregardless of whether it is found in a "Christian" context or not. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:21 "All things are yours.")

At the same time, it sounds like you recognize the reality that spiritual journeys are not things that should be done in isolation. That, I think, is one of the great Modern heresies - this idea that religion is a "private" and "personal" matter. Faith is something to be pursued in community, in relationship with other seekers. Part of the reason for this is that spirituality is more than just abstract beliefs, or acts of personal piety, it is a way of life - a lifestyle of justice and compassion and love. And frankly, practicing true justice, compassion, and love is so damned hard that we need the help of a community to help us actually do it.

 

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