July 31

Litmus Faith

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 12:13–21

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Have you ever used a litmus test? A litmus test is a test using a special colorized paper. You dip the paper into a liquid and the color of the paper will change to blue or red, depending on whether the liquid is an acid or a base. The blue part of the paper will turn red if placed in something acidic and red paper will turn blue if placed in something basic. Many schools use the litmus test as a hands-on science experiment for students. It’s a relatively easy science experiment for kids that is still fun.

The term litmus test is used more broadly as a way of determining whether something will pass or not. It is widely used in politics, especially concerning court justices and presidential candidates. Hot button issues can be polarizing litmus tests which supposedly determine party affiliation or other meaningful political information. A lot of times certain issues become a sort of litmus test for things like dating, friend groups, or voting. Litmus tests are also used in churches. What is a sacrament, how often should communion be celebrated, and do you baptize or dedicate an infant? Calvinism or Free Will? Depending on the results of a litmus test during a sermon, we might tune in more closely or think harder about what we should have for lunch. The simplicity of a litmus test is helpful for making quick decisions. It recognizes that our pre-judgements often shape how we experience what is going on around us.

As a science project, a litmus test is straightforward. The results are either acid, base, or neutral. The paper shows the results of what is present. It is a fairly objective process; however, when the idea of a litmus test gets applied to other realms, like politics and theology, the process becomes much more subjective. That means that our experiences, identity, and other elements factor into the process. The results are rarely as straightforward as acid, base, or neutral and almost always some element of choice is involved. The subjective element allows for nuance and situational aspects to be accounted for, but too often the limitations of subjectivity are taken as objective fact. What I mean by that is something grounded in the perspective and experience of a person is taken as truthful constants; rather than, as something interpreted from a particular point of view. Interpretation always extends from who we are. It extends from our points of view, even as it comes back to shape our point of view. What we see in a text or in life, is partly influenced by our experiences of life.

To give this a concrete context, think about the national debates over what is currently written about in history books, especially with regard to race and racism. States and school systems around the country are banning and altering curriculum in dire dystopian fashion. On the one hand, this is wrong, untrue, and harmful. And on the other hand, it is actively shaping the point of view of younger generations so that their experiences of the world are marked by a certain understanding of the world and events. When I was in high school, a history teacher made it a strong point that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. We were told multiple times that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. We lost points on essays and exams if we claimed otherwise. We were told the Civil War was fought “to preserve the Union” and over “States Rights.” To use this litmus test from history is to lose all nuance and complexity over past events while allowing a present system of injustice to persist.

The stakes are high when it comes to history books, which is why the conflict is so important and strong. The danger is not only misinformation but a complete inability to engage truthfully with the past so that present oppression can continue. Prior point of view largely impacts present understandings and experiences of the monuments. And this is where the metaphor litmus test breaks down a bit. Because of elements like choice and experience, a litmus test outside of science it is not simply a means of determining acid, neutral, or base. It is often a choice to interpret the information or experience filtered through prior beliefs. The metaphor litmus test is popularly used as a way of testing beliefs or views on a matter. In practice, the litmus paper interacts with a solution to show you what type of solution is present, but in everyday practice, the litmus test actually reinforces preconceived beliefs to avoid honest and difficult engagement. While there are necessary reasons for this detachment, especially the survival of people constantly threatened by policies and views of others, there are consequences. Rather than deny point of view, experience, and subjectivity, we can account for the ways they influence us as we engage in discourse, especially the ways we approach differences.

Colossians 3:11 says, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” While some of the particular markers of identity may not be readily recognizable to modern readers, the summary solidifies the point. “Christ is all and in all.” Some have taken to interpret this text as a denial of earthy identity. The only identity that matters is that which we have in Christ. Others have cited this text as a defense of color-blind approaches to race and racism which deny the significance of race or the presence of modern racism. For these approaches, difference is an obstacle that gets in the way of unity. In a vacuum, these approaches might have more merit than detriments but in our actual context, they have more detriment than merit. They become a litmus test, a tool which denies difference an opportunity to flourish. They also deny subjectivity to marginalized people and creates maladaptive identities in those with power. Our unity in Christ does not come at the cost of diversity and uniqueness. In fact, it is our differences and uniqueness which lead us even further into the divine mystery. At the same time, our unity and diversity in Christ also does not claim that all experiences of the world are equal. Some, lead toward justice and equity, while others lead toward hate and oppression. Perhaps, a better litmus test for politics and theology would be one that determines whether the course is loving or not. If only it were that simple…

The prophet Hosea lived in a contentious time in Israel’s history. He was a contemporary of the prophet Amos, whose words against the rampant social injustices are so strong. Amos denounced those who hoarded wealth unjustly and those who participated in harmful economic policies which kept the poor in poverty. Amos was especially critical of those who did so with a veneer of theological legitimacy. Those who built large barns off the backs of the poor, all the while, referring to their wealth as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus’s parable, and Hosea’s message to these people are similar. That which is given, can be taken away and God desires justice not sacrifice. God desires faithful obedience not gifts that are lessened by how they were acquired. Hosea warned that the Assyrians would be a means of God’s justice for the injustice he witnessed. Where Amos rallied for social well-being and justice, Hosea emphasized faithfulness and knowledge of God. Two prophets, each revealing a part of God’s heart. Each complementing the other and trying to guide a people to live justly.

As you know, Old Testament prophets were not people who possessed crystal balls that could predict the future. They were God’s messengers, often in words and deeds. They discerned the word of the Lord and passed it along to the people. But this was an interpretive enterprise. The life of the prophet, the experiences of the prophet became a part of the interpretive process. The prophets were not passive people who recorded a voice they heard from beyond but active interpreters of their historical and social situations in light of their understanding and encounters with the Divine. The Word of the Lord came to them, but they were intimately involved in discerning and interpreting the Word. More often than not, the prophets of the Old Testament responded to their social and historical situations rather than making predictions about the far-off future. This means that prophets were far more human than popular imagination can make them out to be but also that we are invited to the same interpretive activity of the prophets. We interpret and discern the time we are in, in connection with others and the faith of ages past.

By nature of their inclusions in our Scripture, it can be easy to miss that the prophets were not always accepted by the people. They did not always champion popular views and they frequently engaged in polarizing prophetic ministry. What Hosea claimed of God was not readily accepted in his day, partly because there were other prophets who made opposing claims to Hosea. It is not surprising that a study of the prophets shows that often the most popular prophets, those who do not have books named after them in the canon, were the ones who predicted good things for the people and required very little change.

Some of these other prophets made their claims by virtue of other deities, like Baal as the Hosea reading says, but some prophesied differently from the canonical prophets and still in the name of YHWH. When we peer beneath the surface of our prophetic literature, we see communities in tension over how to interpret the times and God’s involvement in the world. We see different voices, sometimes even competing voices vying for legitimacy. Just as those who put the biblical cannon together had to ask, which prophets authentically spoke for God, we too have to discern between the myriad of voices in the present who claim to speak about God in our time. This is no easy task.

Hosea’s prophetic ministry began around 745 B.C.E. The book which bears his name utilizes many metaphors to discuss the relationship between God and God’s people. Metaphors are helpful in that task because we need something which helps us describe in human speech something that is greater than human speech. While still limited, metaphors help us grasp the mystery of the divine. Hosea uses the parent-child metaphor for God and Israel throughout the book and in the passage we read today. “11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The passage continues to note the ways God nurtured the people of Israel. Mention of Egypt and the Exodus, teaching Ephraim to walk, holding the people in arms, and providing healing.

We see that Hosea claims God is not only a parent to Israel but a good parent. A parent who loves and cares, a parent who helps develop the child into adulthood. God is faithful in steadfast love for the people. Hosea draws from the covenant tradition here. His imagery is either a reminder or a further development of God’s covenant with Israel in the wilderness after Egypt. “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” This is the level of care that many would desire from their God. Love, care, and nourishment. If you have taken care of a parent, child, or pet perhaps you can relate to the connection between love and care.

But, Hosea also claims that the people were not steadfast in their faithfulness to God. “11:2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” Because of their unfaithfulness, Hosea warns the people that they will return to Egypt and that Assyria will rule over them. Hosea speaks of God’s love and God’s steadfastness but also of impending wrath and destruction. Hosea sees the historical rises of Egypt and Assyria as a real threat to Israel but interprets it in light of his understandings of God’s desired faithfulness. In other words, Hosea interprets the international scene from theocentric and Israel-centric standpoints. He engages the past and the history of the people to interpret the present.

When I teach this passage to Old Testament students, we take a long pause here to discuss the connection between history and the present with God’s action. Many students are quick to embrace Hosea’ theological methodology, connecting events around him with beliefs, and engaging the times with God. Sometimes these events are specific and other times they are more general. Such efforts, I think are commendable. Because I believe God is active in Creation, I too want to make sure my beliefs and theology reflect the possibilities opened by that posture.

However, after some time, I like to play the devil’s advocate with them. I bring up examples of pastors who have made claims of God in the aftermath of events like Katrina or Supreme Court cases which I assume are in opposition to the student’s beliefs about God and Creation. They usually see the difficulty. When Christians claim God is not bound by the pages in a book but active in the world, much can be claimed of God that is not noble, true, and right. When Christians claim the totality of Euro-American centric theologies, even ones grounded in the genuine experiences of those peoples, harms take place. But then the question rises, how do we discern the word of the Lord among the cacophony of those claiming to be prophets?

There is no litmus test to determine definitely just as the people of Israel had no litmus test to determine a true or false prophet. It is one reason; we speak of being cautious while making universal claims about God and all the unknowns. With the biblical witness, we have the advantage of time and those who have discerned for us in the past. We look back as modern interpreters who can discern and interpret God’s activity over the course of hundreds and thousands of years. Scripture guides us through the past and offers direction for the present. I do not think we should not be tempted by approaches to Scripture that claim to speak absolutely about absolute matters. Scripture does not speak in one voice but in many. It is among its many voices that we are called to witness the work of the Holy One. This invites us to discern, the multiple voices and traditions present within our tradition, even as we recognize that not all voices are good. Just as ancient Israel had to discern which prophets to listen to, we too are invited to this process of holy discernment among the myriad of voices claiming to speak for God today.

Perhaps, a key to a healthy Gospel is not so much the absolute surety of a litmus test but an openness to keep dipping beliefs and experiences into the living water as a means of being transformed into God’s likeness. It might mean we need to change pre-conceived notions and deeply held convictions, but it might just start us on a journey to a more equitable and just world. Led by the hope of the Gospel and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

-The Rev. Scott Donahues-Martens, PhD Candidate, BU STH

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