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The Supernatural/Natural Divide: Reflections on Urbana – Part 2

While noting in my previous blog post a seeming increased disinterest in global missions, I also named some of the positives of Urbana: ethnic, gender, and even ecumenical diversity; broad envisioning of mission activities and expressions; and gathering, challenging, and discipling students. It really is, in my view, an overwhelmingly positive movement for the church and particularly for university students. Still, there are two negatives that I would like to name: the assumption of a two-tiered supernature/nature cosmos and the framing of disciples as “world-changers.” I’ll start with the first in this blog post.

Considering the diversity of speakers and participants at Urbana, I wouldn’t want to make sweeping generalizations. However, one phrase that I heard repeatedly was “supernatural.” Although I heard it from different people in different occasions at the conference, I can reference various sermons from the evening plenary by Bishop Claude Alexander. He uses it in reference to Pentecost and the disciples’ ability to speak in tongues and of God’s empowerment so as to fulfill God’s purpose (see evening plenary 1 minute 10). Alexander explains that the disciples were given a “supernatural ability,” that “God super-met our natural.”

There certainly is an important aspect in distinguishing the Creator (though I wouldn’t call it “supernatural”) from creation (the natural), of receiving from God power to transcend inhibitions, fears, and opposition, and to accomplish what we in ourselves are unable to. That said, the characterization of cosmos in terms of supernatural/natural realms that are disconnected may cohere with the western worldview, but it is at odds with the Christian view.

This view of the supernatural/natural divide is not particular to Intervarsity or Urbana. It is normative in much of western Christianity. It is actually promoted by certain Thomist schools and part of much of Protestant of theology, which holds strongly to a division between (supernatural) grace and nature. Some Protestant missiologists (like Paul Hiebert) have responded to this dichotomy by identifying the “excluded middle” in the western worldview, that sees God and spirits above and humans, creatures, and the earth below, but miss the middle, which most cultures see as the sphere of shamans, priests, and spirits. However, missiologists tend to look at this anthropologically, asking how humans understand the cosmos. For the early church and its theology, it was not just a matter of how a particular culture understands the cosmos but about what is true about the cosmos, reality, and metaphysics. While the discussion can quickly become philosophical and abstract, let me try and describe the dualism and then state as simply as I can what is at stake and why we should resist this supernatural/natural dichotomy.

Eminent theologians like John Milbank, David Bentley Hart, and John Behr have long criticized the supernatural/natural dualism, but Hans Boersma clarified the issues for me. In his book Heavenly Participation, he shows how the early church held a participatory ontology in which all of creation is distinguished from the divine Trinity but exists in, through, and toward the Triune God. The church moved from this metaphysic of ontological participation to one of nominalism and voluntarism in the late Middle Ages. While some discern the seeds for a supernatural/natural dichotomy in Augustine’s thought on predestination (Hart) or in Aquinas, Boersma focuses on Duns Scotus and William of Ockham who moved from the equivocity of being (humans correlate to God by analogy) to univocity (God is one being among beings), from realism (the earthly realities correspond to their heavenly Source and Sustainer) to nominalism (each individual being exists in and of itself) and to voluntarism (in which God’s action is a decision of the will rather than an expression of the Good). While discussions about metaphysics are abstract, they have concrete repercussions. Let me just list some of the consequences of the supernatural/natural dichotomy:

  • God and the world are separated (leading to Deism and a distant God). God must come down from heaven. God must intervene in the world. This is in contrast to a participatory ontology in which the world exists in and through God. Whereas the participatory ontology asserts that God’s engagement with creation (i.e., through the incarnation) is a revelation and affirmation of God’s intention, presence, and purpose rather than a supernatural/miraculous intervention.
  • God is a being among beings rather than the source of all being. The difference between God and other beings is God’s power (to create, to will as God wills). Rather than holding an analogy of being (analogia entis) in which power is the ability for God to exercise love, truth, and goodness, power is the dominant attribute of God and is exercised arbitrarily and capriciously.
  • The salvific value of humans, creatures, and non-creaturely creation is based on God’s will and not on their existential participation in God (in whom we live, move, and have our being). This means that creation holds extrinsic value but not intrinsic value.
  • Individual humans no longer exist or participate ontologically in the universal species of humanity but only in their particularity. Thus, we understand salvation as individual rather than corporate and common to all of humanity. This means that there is no ontological investment of one in the salvation of another.
  • Because there is no common humanity but only individual humans, there is no ontological sharing of humanity and the ontological connection between, say, the rich and the poor or the Jew and gentile, is broken, leaving only genetic or relational connections.
  • The detachment of humanity from ontological participation in God leads to the possibility of seeing them as deprived and then maltreating them.
  • If grace is not foundational for being, there has to be a secondary cause (like works, merit, predestination, etc.), which leads to a view of human existence based on merit or God’s arbitrary judgement.
  • By conceiving of humans as separate from God rather than existing through God and becoming partakers in the nature of God, access to God can be controlled by the powerful rather than given to all, especially the most vulnerable.
  • We lose the metaphysical basis for affirming the Church Creeds (which assume the participatory ontological ideas about being, substance, sharing), and we recite them only in an act of tradition or fideism.
  • God and matter are viewed as separate. The created world is “naturalized” and made distinct from God. Creation loses the notion of being a sacrament and is disenchanted (Weber). Matter is no longer enchanted or imbibed with God’s spirit. If nature is just matter and needs the supernatural, then caring for creation is based on human choice and done in relation to human consequence rather than God’s purpose. Thus, the treatment or stewardship of matter belongs to the realm of human action and ethics rather than responsibility to God and God’s authority. (Much too could be said about time, which Charles Taylor responds to in The Secular Age.)
  • Viewing matter as “natural” limits our ability to name and engage powers and principalities (are they natural or supernatural?) or interpret the works of the Spirit (are healings, speaking in tongues, fruit of the Spirit natural or supernatural?)
  • Human beings are individualized, and the will (and power) becomes a determinative feature of the individual. In terms of mission, this means that a Christian understands this call individualistically and needs to willingly (voluntarily) respond. This can be contrasted to a Christian community’s discernment, sending, supporting, and receiving of those given to God’s mission.
  • The response to mission and to those in poverty is through the act of a person’s will and their power, rather than it being a responsibility due to the reality that we share in a common humanity.

When the metaphysics of the early church are recovered and the natural/supernatural dichotomy rejected, we can affirm:

  • The interaction between supernatural and natural (divine-human, heaven-earth) is natural.
  • “The sole sufficient natural end of all spiritual creatures is the supernatural, and grace is nothing but the necessary liberation of all creatures for their natural ends” (Hart).
  • God, in the Son, becomes human (the supernatural for the natural).
  • Humans are created for participation in divinity (the natural for the supernatural).
  • Mission is participation in what God is doing in the world (“natural”, created, matter) through the Body of Christ by the Spirit.

Reflections on the 2022 Urbana Student Missions Conference – part 1

In between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2022, I was glad to participate in the Urbana Student Missions Conference for the first time. I had heard the legends about Urbana and had friends participate, and we have had many WMF staff connected through Urbana. My hope was that WMF would make many new contacts with prospective students, to network with other organizations and especially the New Friar organizations, and to learn how university students are thinking about mission.

The conference was a success in many ways. Intervarsity deserves kudos for cultivating diversity. The speakers and worship leaders were of different ethnicities and genders. The participants were also extremely diverse. This manifest diversity has the potential to create a positive ethos for the imagination of the global church and of global mission.

I confess that I personally have a hard time worshiping in spaces that have smoke machines and laser shows. But if it fits anywhere, it fits for young students at Urbana. I participated in the opening evening plenary, which was more emotive than substantive, which led me to skipe the other evening plenaries. I did attend the morning plenaries, which had more substance with speakers from World Vision (Alexia Salvatierra) and IJM, among others. They also began with teaching on prayer practices (silence, breath prayer, etc.), which I enjoyed while perhaps it may have been challenging for the students.

There were many other positives. We were able to discuss study abroad options with the folks from InterVarsity. We were able to spend time with staff from New Friar organizations who share much in common with WMF. We stayed in a community house, hosted by the Englewood church who do inner city work, intentional community, and publish book reviews. And we created connections with other organizations.

A declining interest in global mission?

A disappointment was what I perceived to be a lack of students’ interest in global mission. Previous Urbana conferences had 20,000 participants. This one had 5,500. They also reduced the conference time by a day. I have some theories about this decline. Was the conference so diverse because white students have dropped out? Is the decline representative of the exodus of this generation from evangelical churches? Are other institutions (i.e., Passion, Justice, Southern Baptists, New Room, etc.) organizing their own conferences and drawing students to those instead? Or is there less interest in global mission due to its perceived connection to colonization, to possibly missteps (i.e., When Helping Hurts), to the changing demographics of where the church is in the world (i.e., The Next Christendom), or to students having lower horizons (i.e., focusing on the missional needs of their local community, increased student loan debts, etc.). Most likely, all of these factors, along with wintery weather and a Covid spike, contribute to the diminished interest in mission at this Urbana Conference.

According to Urbana’s accounting, 684 students committed to go on short term mission (less than 1 year); 308 committed to go on midterm mission; and 329 committed to serving more than two years. Interestingly, I would consider anything less than 3 years as being short or perhaps midterm mission as it is only after 3-5 years that one learns language and culture, is established in the location, and begins to make a strong contribution. By calling long-term missions anything more than two years, I think Urbana does a disservice to long-term missions as well as to the students and the expectations they create.

I was curious to learn what the students were thinking. I was able to go to two seminars and tried to listen to the questions students are asking. In my discussion groups, the students were thinking about short-term mission trips or about missions to their university campus or church neighborhoods. The seminar content was on base communities and on wealth and mission. Perhaps those interested in global missions chose to participate in other seminars.

Still, I think a lack of interest in global mission was felt throughout the conference. A sign of the lack of interest was that it seemed to me that few participants spent time in the Connections Hall where we set up our exhibit and tables. I expected that students who self-select and pay for a missions conference would be leaning toward careers in missions. I did speak with students interested in serving in “unreached” locations, in church-planting, and in internships in inner city work. So, there was some interest. However, I spoke with other universities and organizations, and many said that they got few contacts and much fewer than previous Urbana conferences. It seemed to me that there was little foot traffic to the tables. While the position of our table in our shared space with the New Friars may also be a reason for fewer contacts, the overall numbers of contacts of the New Friars was low.

As I departed from the conference, I hypothesized that the students still are interested in engaging in global mission. However, this engagement looks very different. My observation may be specifically about students in the US, but they seem interested in doing mission from where they are at (i.e., being “globally minded”), rather than by going somewhere else. This certainly is a missional posture – albeit different than one that goes, is immersed in a different culture, builds relationships with those of other cultures, and becomes a bridge for the global church. What are the potential gains and possible losses from such a posture?

Fight Like Jesus with Jason Porterfield

We are in the season of Lent, a time in which we rehearse Jesus’ walk to Jerusalem, his suffering, and his death on the cross. Often, we participate in Lent by giving up certain pleasures (i.e., meat, alcohol, chocolate, social media, etc.). Sometimes, believers celebrate by adding something to their daily practices (like silence, generous giving, meditation, etc.) Our Lenten practices help us remember our baptismal vows, lead us to grieve the cost of our sin, and move us to change patterns of behavior. Yet, rarely, does Lent cause us to consider our relationship to violence. Jason Porterfield, in his book Fight Like Jesus, invites us to reflect on peacemaking, especially during Holy Week.

Interestingly, I got to know Jason through his acts of violence. We were at the Urbana conference in December, sharing an exhibition space where we invited university students to consider urban mission among impoverished communities. As I sat at the table, I was frequently bombarded by pieces of candy. After a little investigation, I discovered that I was being pegged by Jason. Was he trying to teach me to fight like Jesus?

In his book, Jason Porterfield walks us through Holy Week, providing insightful biblical commentary, demonstrating Jesus’ intention to bring peace, and raising provocative questions about how we as Christ-followers emulate Jesus’ peace-making way. Jesus reveals practices of peace in the middle of a most violent week.

Palm Sunday: In the midst of waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, we fail to notice Jesus’ tears. He weeps over Jerusalem for failing to know what would bring it peace. Porterfield discerns Jesus’ lament, amid the crowd’s joy, as an interpretive key for Holy Week. The struggle for peace is understood as the central struggle of Jesus’ march to the cross. Rather than riding the gleeful expectations for a messianic liberator to bring a righteous revolt, Jesus weeps for peace.

Holy Monday:  Contrary to popular notions of the cleaning of the temple being violent or spontaneous, Porterfield shows how this was a methodical act, which took time and preparation (i.e., trips to the temple for reconnaissance, making a whip, etc.). The act was not designed or used to harm people, but to purify space meant for the “gentiles” and being used instead for money-changers and the selling of animals for temple sacrifice (in contrast to the Maccabean violent reaction to abuse of the temple). When discussing the temple cleansing, we often overlook the fact that after the money changers and animal sellers went out, the blind and lame came in and were healed (Matthew 21:14). For these marginalized people, their admittance into the temple was just as miraculous as the physical healing they received. Matthew goes on to write that children also entered the temple courts and praised Jesus (21:15). Their presence in the temple is equally astonishing, for, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes, “children had always been excluded from the temple” (p. 24).

Holy Tuesday: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The listeners realized that Jesus was alluding to the central Jewish tenet that all of humanity is created in God’s image. The implication is this: since the coin has Caesar’s image imprinted on it, give it back to him. Although the coin made claims for pax romana, Jesus intimates that he did not look to the face of Caesar for protection and peace. If everything belongs to God, what’s left for Caesar? What do we owe the Caesars of this world? The logical answer seems to be nothing.

Tuesday also includes the “seven woes to the Pharisees” (woe being a term of grief) and the “little apocalypse” in which Christ-followers are told to flee the immanent war with the Romans rather than defend Palestine. Christlike peacemakers follow Jesus in nonviolent love, speak truth to power and listen with humility when such truth is spoken to them, break the cycle of violence by routinely engaging in small acts of radical love.

Holy Wednesday: This day includes the anointing of Jesus’ feet (as a preparation for burial) by an unnamed women, the prophecy that one man should die for the sake of the nation, and Judas’ actions to betray Jesus. The anonymous women from the margins of society and vulnerable to violence of society, acts in ways that those around her find suspect or of disrepute, but Jesus defends her.  Jesus contends for peace on the margins of society. He refuses the mythology that violence is redemptive (that believes that violent means can bring peaceful ends). His efforts to make peace would result in his death, not the death of his enemies.

Maundy Thursday: This is the occasion of the Last Supper or the Passover meal – the breaking and giving of the Messiah’s body, not the enemy’s body; this is where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet; Jesus commands them to love one another as he has loved love. This new mandate is new as it commands us to become a newly formed community, loving like Jesus love and making Jesus known by this love. As violence encroaches and prompts the violent cutting off of an ear, Jesus heals the servant who intends to capture him.

Good Friday: Jesus is before Pilate, representing a kingly challenge to Caesar; proclaiming a kingdom that is not of this world’s violent kingdoms; prompting a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, the violent insurrectionist; and experiencing torture and death on a cross – suffering for the sake of sinners and enemies that breaks the cycle of violence.

Holy Saturday: Jesus is lain in the sealed tomb; later epistles tell us that Jesus descends into Hades, trampling on death with death and setting the captives free.

Easter Sunday: the women visit the tomb and find it empty; the first encounters with the resurrected Jesus, who commissions the disciples to make peace.

We do live in a violent world. Conflicts in central Africa, Myanmar, and Haiti disturb our deepest notions humanity and survival. The communities of Word Made Flesh are intentionally present in places where people are vulnerable to violence, whether that is in poor neighborhoods, helping abused women, or responding to Ukrainian refugees. At times, violence may be a last resort to the threat of violence – and then always regrettable. However, most often, our choice is not between abuse or abuser, victim or victimizer, fight or flight. There are creative choices in the space between. Jason’s book invites us to practice peacemaking, to image loving and helping those who threaten us rather than harming them, to cultivate communities of security rather than sharpening our aim with guns, and to envision a future shared by us and those considered threats and enemies.

While violence is often negative and almost always to be regretted, one thing I do not regret is suffering the attacks of flying candies from the hand of Jason (and perhaps retaliating), getting to know him, and being led by his book to becoming Christians that better resemble the way of our Messiah.

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