Lent & Learning the Language of Virtue

On Tuesdays at Christ Church during Lent we have been considering “The Virtuous Life: Learning to Love like Jesus,” a series rooted in I Corinthians 13.

In what the speakers have talked about I would venture that much more has been said about “love” than about “virtue.” I would suggest that there are several reasons for this, but one reason is that we think we know a thing or two about love, but when it comes to virtue (that ancient and medieval teaching about character formation) we are (to some extent, anyway) at a loss.

We live in a culture which has totally lost sight of this ancient tradition of virtue. Even in most quarters of the Church today we have basically no clue as to how someone like Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas (or, indeed, someone like St. Paul) would answer the question “How is Christian character actually formed in a person?”

Indeed, even in my senior ethics class at the evangelical seminary I attended to become a minister, the word “virtue” went unmentioned. Instead, the focus was on “What do the Scriptures teach about morality?” Now, that is a good question, but even when one figures that out, one is still left with the question, “OK, but how?”

How can I put God’s Ways into practice? Because sometimes I know the right thing to do, but I don’t do it. And it’s funny how I’ve noticed the same tendency in my children! We are well intentioned, but actually doing the right thing is something totally different.

To take matters a level deeper, the goal of Christian virtue is actually not even about “doing the right thing.” Much more important is the goal and the practice of becoming the right kind of person. The kind of person who can live well in this world and (therefore) in the world to come.

For these reasons and more I am grateful for our Neighborhood Groups at Christ Church where we are intentionally forming communities where virtue can be learned. So much of the work here (to allude to Dallas Willard and his disciple James Bryan Smith, whose book The Good & Beautiful God we are reading in our groups) has to do not only with “switching out our narratives” but also with adopting a new set of practices and disciplines.

Because without new disciplines, there can be no new habits. And without new habits, there can be no new virtue.

NT Wright gives a powerful illustration of virtue in his book After You Believe. On January 15, 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 flew into a large flock of geese, some of which were sucked into the jet engines of the plane, causing it to lose all power and hence to plunge downward toward the densely populated Bronx, New York. Captain Chesley Sullenburger III had less than two minutes to take action which would save the lives of hundreds of people. The problem is that with less than 120 seconds, there is not enough time to consult a pilot manual, to ask advice from your copilot, or even to formulate a plan. Good thing Capt. Sullenburger had formed unbreakable habits during his decades of flying. In less than two minutes he had to flip dozens of switches, disengage the auto pilot feature, get the nose of the plane down for maximum gliding, and perform dozens of other moves which eventually enabled the plane to land safely along the Hudson River, thus saving hundreds of lives.

Not everyone will be put in such a situation, but we are all faced, eventually, with tests of our character. When that time comes, virtuous habits are what God graciously uses to save us, and to save the day.

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Gender & Sex: Femininism

First, a couple of notes.

1. One can hear the audio recording of the beginning of this class (most of which is actually a review of the previous class on Ancient Near Eastern Sex Practices & Regulations), here.

2. The reason I chose to talk about feminism in a Christian Formation class: it can serve as a precedent for talking about same sex marriage type issues. That is, feminism is basically a discussion we have already had in our culture. I think that the Church in the main “dropped the ball” in that discussion (mainly simply by not engaging). Not only is it useful to review previous public debates about sex & gender as a precedent, but (particularly when it comes to the “third wave” of feminism) the issues in both “debates” are very similar.

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class

“Feminism”

Sun, March 18, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

I. First Wave.

  • A. Representative Figure: Dorothy Sayers (Are Women Human?).
  • B. Main cause / agenda: basic recognition that women are not property.
  • C. Example: suffrage.

II. Second Wave.

  • A. Representative Figure: Gloria Steinem.
  • B. Main cause / agenda: Political Organization into a Movement-based “Special Interest Group.” (Note: this might have much to do with the rise of electronic media in the 20th century.)
  • C. Example: the Equal Rights Amendment.

III. Third Wave: Pushing the View that Gender is Constructed.

  • Representative Figure: Judith Butler (Gender Trouble).
  • Main cause / agenda: to promote the view that gender (identity) is constructed socially and linguistically.
  • Example: the rise of widespread acceptance of trans-gender as a viable and healthy “lifestyle choice.”

Q: what is right about this view?

Q: Construction vs. Abstraction and the role of language in culture making.

“Assymetrical Reciprocity?” Discussion.

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Gender & Sex: Ancient Near Eastern Sex

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class

“Patriarchy & Ancient Near Eastern Sex Regulations”

Sun, March 11, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

 I. How Israelite sex practices & regulations were like its neighbors.

  • A. In both cultures (Israelite & non-Israelite) women were left out of the levirate system of inheritance. (Ie, daughters did not inherit anything from the father
  • B. In both cultures (Israelite and non-Israelite) it appears that women were thought of as the property of the man, the head of the household.

Note, however, that there are certainly tensions here. For instance, we have the examples of Miriam (Exod 15:20,21), Deborah (Judges 4 & 5), Esther, and others.

II. How Israelite sex practices & regulations were different from its neighbors.

  • A.  “Lex Talionis” (an “eye for an eye”) in the case of “ravaging a virgin.”[1]
  • B. Prohibition of Prostitution. Dt 23:17-18. Because the marital relation is seen as analogous to the love between Yahweh and his covenant people.[2] Ezek 16, Ezek 23, Prov 7, Jer 5:7, Isa 23:16, I Kings 3.

Conclusions.

  1. Old Covenant Israel was a cultural product of its time, although we can see the “inbreaking” of justice and grace in ways which a) forshadow the New Covenant, and b) improve the quality of life for women, in comparison to Israel’s neighbors.
  2. We should distinguish between Israel’s torah and Israel’s behavior. For example, polygamy is never sanctioned by the torah, and yet it was obviously rampant in ancient Israel.
  3. In the case of Israel’s neighbors, sexual activity is regulated on the basis merely of economic and social stability, but in the case of Israel, there is clearly a theological component in view.


[1] Hurley notes, 4.

[2] In Assyria and Babylonia there is a legally sanctioned way for a man to engage in extramarital sex without damaging another man’s property. What is prohibited is the damaging of another man’s goods. But in Israel this is not the case. There is no “sexual escape” for men. Hence, it is about more than property.

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Gender & Sexuality Christian Formation Class Outline

This semester I’m teaching a class on “gender & sexuality” at Christ Church. Here’s the outline:

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class

Spring Semester, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

 I. Sex & Gender Issues in the Bible.

  • A. Tainted Property? Patriarchalism in the OT (Feminism)
  • B. Tainted Property? Patriarchalism in the OT (Feminism), cont’d.
  • C. “Hardness of Heart.” Jesus on Divorce (Matthew 19).
  • D. Word World. The Invention of “Homosexuality.”
  • E.Not as Clear as I Thought. The Bible on “Homosexuality” (Gospels, Paul’s “sin lists,” Romans 1).

II. Sex & Gender Issues in the World.

  • A. Culture Wars & the 3 “waves” of feminism.  How the church has dropped the ball.
  • B. June & Ward Cleaver & the Biblical Picture of Marriage.
  • C. Culture Wars? The Battle of Marriage in our Culture Today.

III. Sex & Gender Issues in the Church.

  • A. Rites for Same Sex Blessings?
  • B. Full steam ahead on the Ordination of Noncelibate Gay Men & Lesbians?
  • C. Ecclesiology: Church as Family.
  • D.Ecclesiology: Church as Dialoging Community (within a Tradition).

 

 

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Spirit-Infused Dirt (Lenten Reflection)

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It was only my third Ash Wednesday service ever (I was confirmed three short years ago), but the words have been ringing in my ears for almost two weeks now.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Why dust?

The other thing I can’t seem to expunge from my mind, along with these “words of imposition,” is Genesis 2:7, very near the beginning of our story (the Old Testament, or what the earliest Christians referred to as our family archive,).

The rabbis would have told the story something like this:

God comes, and God begins to roll up his sleeves and takes off his watch, placing it to the side so that it won’t get dirty. God takes his hands (strong, gentle hands which have just finished the work of creation in Genesis one) and he plunges them down into the fresh soil. (I wonder if he got dirt under his fingernails?) He drives his hands down into the dirt and scoops up a hunk of earth, dust, ashes. He elevates that hunk of dirt up to his face, and he breathes into that clod of earth his ruach elohim, the Spirit of God. And that hunk of earth begins to pulse with new life. It becomes a nephesh hayim, a living creature, alive with an energy the world had never known….

This is the basic pattern of spiritual formation. When God forms a creature spiritually, he elevates it. Just as he elevates or lifts up that hunk of dirt up to his face (in Hebrew and in Greek “face” implies personal presence) so also he elevates earthly things to the realm of heavenly things (see Colossians 3:1-17). Just as God elevates that hunk of dirt to become a living creature, so also he elevates “fleshy things” to become “spiritual things” (see Galatians 5).  This is the pattern: nature is elevated (not left behind) to become grace.

Because, you see, dirt is good, but a pulsing, living creature is far better. The things of the earth are good, but the things of heaven are far better. Bodies are good (after all, God made them!) but a spiritual man or woman (fully embodied for all eternity) is far better.

Now, one might want to move directly from the hunk of dirt to the Christian individual, thinking, “Oh, I get it … just as God elevated the hunk of dirt and perfects it, so also he does that with me!”

This is where a closer look at our narrative helps us. Because when you study the story, what you begin to realize is that the hunk of dirt does not foreshadow you and me as individuals. Rather, it points to Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 we are told (paraphrasing slightly) that “the first man Adam became a living creature, but the second man Christ became a life-giving Spirit.”

Jesus is the ultimate creature (Colossians 1:15 calls him “the first born of all creation”) who was elevated. He is the ultimate spiritual formee. This is why Hebrews 5:8 says that Jesus “learned obedience through the things that he suffered.” He did not “pop” out of the womb totally obedient. He had to learn obedience through suffering, rejection, and death.

He was elevated beyond all imagination. Like Neo at the end of the first Matrix he has “busted into a new world.” He is the “Pioneer of our Faith” (Heb 12:2). He has broken through the veil, the barrier with holds you and me down (fear, sin, death).  He was elevated beyond all imagination, going where no man or woman had gone before.

But not until after he was “de-elevated,” demoted. Not until he went down, like a seed falling into the earth, the dirt, the ashes to die.

Why “dust?” This is why.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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