Lenten Graces–Second Sunday in Lent

“If Abraham, by what he did for God, got Got to approve him, he could have certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is ‘Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.”  ~Eugene H. Peterson, The Message, (NavPress: Colorado Springs, 1993) Romans 4:1-5

It seems exceedingly difficult, this text. There is the message that there is some inherent goodness in our being who we are over and above all of our anxious human doing. (It must an important lesson, we read it over and over throughout the Bible, starting with Genesis.)

It seems nearly impossible to those of us living in a consumer-driven commercial world. This notion that you can not do anything to earn all of what God has to offer. It’s an affront to American culture and a reversal of the American Dream.

We can do nothing for God’s approval, nothing to gain merit or entrance into the Kindom* of God. Paul is commenting on that old struggle between works and grace.

It is a difficult text, but an important one as we move through the Lenten season reflecting on how we long for a deeper connection with God. As we give up the barriers to our spiritual life, give up our creature comforts, or as we take up practices we hope will enable us to walk closer to God’s will, we are very much consumed with the  doing aspect of living out this text.

There is something about grace which the post-modern world seems intent on annihilating. We are told if we work hard we will have all we need; that has not been true since 2009 and possibly before. The idea that we get the material goods we deserve based on our hard work in the world is roughly equivalent to the 1980’s notion that neon colors were fashionable. 

The NRSV words verses 2 and 4 as  “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. … Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.”**  Here, Paul seems to come down squarely on the side of grace.

Paul’s teaching in this text brings memory to my mind many of persons I interacted with as a hospice chaplain. At some point in life we all reach the stage where the most we can do is simply exist. [This is particularly true for persons with dementia and the other brain disorders associated with aging.] At some point in our adult lives we may need others to feed, bathe, and clothe us just as we did at life’s beginning. Being is a form of Grace. Being as Paul reminds us is all God asks of us is to do. Some religious and mystical traditions insist that there are spiritual lessons which can only be learned in the later stages of life. I know that as I spent time with persons who had become too ill to care for themselves towards life’s end, I learned that how they continued to interact and how they continued to teach others was through a subtle way of being who they were as they were in the world. It is a way of being that trusts and relies on God.

This way of being ourselves and being in the world as we find it is a type of trust and type of remembering that in the end it’s not about us. There is certainly our part, but in the end it is God’s story. Perhaps being us enough to discern God’s story from our own is the ultimate Lenten practice. Learning to accept grace~practice that.

*”Kindom” is a well-known feminist respelling of Kingdom designed to highlight the mutual relationships in the Kingdom of God rather than the hierarchical relationships of the patriarchal system; see the work of A. Isasi-Diaz and Rosemary Reuther.

**from http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+4 [on-line] accessed, March 15, 2014.

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A Feminist Eschatology

The following article was prepared for a seminary class in 2007.

Eschatology is the study of human thoughts concerning what is “last”; translated from the Greek, eschatology means study of the last (1). The question this raises for me is: the last what? Theologically speaking, eschatology is commonly thought to refer to culmination of history or the end of time. In Christianity, eschatology is often associated with the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, and the return of Christ. For religions that place emphasis on the historical patterns of time, such as the Abrahamic religions, eschatology can serve as a “hope [that] locates the ultimate achievement of the ideal in a final era of human history” (2). Ultimately, eschatology leads us to reflect upon what it is that we consider to be ideal, and perhaps essential to the human experience in relation to both the world in which we reside, and the divinity in which we live and have our being. The exploration I will seek to engage in this brief essay is how some feminist theologians approach this notion of eschatology. What are the last things that feminist theologians hope for? What, ultimately, do feminist theologies hope for?

Traditionally, eschatology has brought to mind the Battle of Armageddon, and the notion of some who are cosmically crowned by a heavenly king, while others are sentenced to eternal torture. These images themselves smack of patriarchy with all its war, hierarchy, and threats to non-conformers. Feminist theologians, starting from the ground of their own experience and carrying with them a commitment to non-hierarchical structures, have tended to view eschatology in a different light, and use a different vocabulary in reference to it. Justice is one word that seems common in feminist discussions and visions of the eschaton.

Building on a tradition that emphasizes history in its concept of world completion, Rosemary Radford Ruether draws an eschatological vision based on the jubilee notion found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. She writes that “[i]n the Jubilee tradition this is thought of not as one ‘great cycle’ defining history from a beginning to an end but as a series of revolutionary transformations that continually return to certain starting points” (3). The idea of jubilee is that each family has possession of the land they need to provide for their means, and that individuals are free to benefit from the land. It is an idea that all have what they need to survive; this is the starting point to which justice returns in the world. An eschatological vision based on this would have to assume an ongoing process of justice in which injustices are righted and the necessary means of life restored to all persons on a regular basis. Ruether sees this “concept of social change as a conversion to the center, conversion to the earth and each other, rather than flight into an unrealizable future.” (4). It is ultimately justice among persons in community, and all the responsibility that entails, that Ruether advocates as an eschatological hope. It is a hope in which the ultimate meaning of humanity comes in the form of personal responsibility and a communal justice that encompasses all the earth. This is justice.

Justice—and the struggle for it—is also a primary (if not ultimate) goal for other feminist theologians. Judith Plaskow, as a Jewish feminist theologian, is even bolder in this pursuit writing of “the relationship between spirituality and politics as a theological issue” (5). The politics of which Plaskow speaks is social justice. The connection of politics and spirituality is paramount to Plaskow because drawing upon her Jewish tradition she reminds us “the prophets affirm that the forms of worship are meaningless in the absence of social justice” (6). Thus the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition that stands upon it, demands the not just the uplifting of but the reality of social justice as a prerequisite for worship. It is only through social justice that humanity can reach toward “new understandings of divinity” (7). Eschatology for Plaskow seems to be a reaching out for and bringing in those persons society marginalizes and considers to be “last.” This requires a political understanding and interaction with the world, because, “[w]hen spirituality is understood from a feminist perspective—not in otherworld terms, but as the fullness of our relationships with ourselves, others and God—it can not possibly be detached from the conditions of our existence.” (8).

Experience as the basis for the formation of theological and spiritual reflection is at the heart of Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s Mujerista Theology. Isasi-Diaz’s eschatology is one in which, like Plaskow’s, there is an expectation that the establishment of justice will also bring with it the establishment of the kin-dom (sic). She writes that “[t]he main obstacle to the unfolding of the kin-dom is the alienation from each other experienced by all in and through the oppressive societal categories and structures that cause and sustain oppression.” (9). Thus, the kin-dom exists when oppression is banished and liberation established. The eschatology here is, again, a function of human interactions. As a Latina, Iassi-Diaz not only writes her theology from a feminist perspective, but also from a perspective that seeks liberation, culturally from within and racially from without. In this effort to organize for the liberation of the poor, of women, and of Latinas/os, Isasi-Diaz’s theology puts emphasis on the practical steps of how to build a community that will bring about the kin-dom. Such practicality is based on her emphasis that change will only begin when the oppressed achieve “conscientization” (10) of their situation and the oppressors are able to find their way to being in dialogical solidarity (11) and mutuality in which the oppressors come to understand the oppressed (12). From the perspective of Isasi-Diaz’s theology, it is justice between the people, with power and those without, that becomes the determining factor of when the ultimate hopes of humanity are achieved . Yet, this justice is “ever changing” based on the lived realities of people’s real experiences (13).

There are many ways in which eschatology has been and can be viewed. Often when we look to eschatology there seems to be little agreement about what the last things or times are. However, when we look at the question of what eschatology is from the feminist perspective there seems to be agreement, even across interfaith lines. Feminist theologies seem to agree that the eschaton, the ultimate hope for humanity, will be found only in the seeking and establishing of justice (Plaskow and Isasi-Diaz), or in the establishment of new ways of living in which seeks right relationships and justice among all inhabitants of the earth, human or not (Ruether). In terms of feminist theology, the eschaton is the realization of justice for and inclusion of those persons, and beings, whom are thought of last in the traditional hierarchies of power and control. There is also the implicit expectation of feminist theologians that this feminist eschatology includes roles and respect for women in the ecclesiastical / religious power structures.

***Endnotes

  1. Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology&oldid=175010037 (accessed December 4, 2007).
  2. Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 243.
  3. Ibid, 254.
  4. Ibid, 255-256.
  5. Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, (San Francsico: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 212.
  6. Ibid, 214.
  7. Ibid, 238.
  8. Ibid, 213.
  9. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology, (New York: Orbis, 1996) 90.
  10. Ibid, 94.
  11. Ibid, 97.
  12. Ibid, 89.
  13. Ibid, 116

Bibliography

  • Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria. Mujerista Theology. New York: Orbis, 1996.
  • Plaskow, Judith. Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.
  • Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
  • Wikipedia contributors, “Eschatology,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, [on-line] available from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eschatology&oldid=175010037, accessed December 4, 2007.