Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Challenge of the Disciplined Life

Richard J. Foster.  The Challenge of the Disciplined Life: Christian Reflections on Money, Sex & Power.  HarperSanFrancisco, 1985.

If you are looking for a book that provides clear-cut rules about how a Christian should handle money, sex, and power, then this may not be the book for you.  What the book does do is offer things to think about.

Can a Christian man have sexual fantasies, or does that violate what Jesus said in Matthew 5:28 about lusting after women being adultery?  Richard J. Foster says that sexual fantasies can be a legitimate outlet, but that one should take heed not to think that reality is like one’s fantasy, and that sex should be about mutual love rather than dehumanizing other people.

Is homosexuality a sin in the eyes of God?  Foster believes that it is, even as he acknowledges that people do not always choose their sexual attractions (and how advanced of an understanding that was in the 1980’s, I do not know for sure).  Still, Foster on page 112 likens homosexuals pursuing a relationship to a less-than-ideal war: sure, it is less than ideal, but there can still be moral constraints and limitations placed on it if that is what one chooses.  Foster also does not think that Christians should abandon homosexuals who choose to have a relationship but should stay around to help pick up the pieces if things fall apart.  That is pretty presumptuous—-it’s like Foster is saying that we should expect homosexual relationships to lead to disaster because they go against God’s will, when Foster is very much aware that there are heterosexual relationships that fall apart.  Yet, Foster’s discussion was different from the absolutist stance that many conservative Christians take.

Should Christians get a divorce?  Foster believes that Jesus criticized divorce because there were Hillelite Pharisees who dumped their wives for any reason, leaving them vulnerable.  Foster thinks that we should keep that in mind rather than applying Jesus’ teaching legalistically.  Foster argues that Paul himself was rather flexible in applying Jesus’ teaching in I Corinthians 7, where Paul allows couples to separate if one is a Christian while the other is not, something that goes beyond Jesus’ teaching that one should not divorce unless there is sexual immorality.  Foster also contends that marriage should be about mutual love and the benefit of others, and, if a marriage is not manifesting that, it may be best to end it.

How much money should a Christian give?  Foster does not say, but he does give us things to consider.  Jesus was very critical of money, probably because Jesus recognized its power in gaining people’s devotion and motivating them to do almost anything for it.  But there are also passages about wisdom, good stewardship, and enjoying God’s creation, which differs from asceticism.  Foster makes the point that, technically, our money belongs to God, so we should be asking ourselves how much of it we can use for ourselves rather than how much we should give to God.  Foster also stresses giving to others.

In one interesting case, Foster shows how rules can get in the way of love.  He tells of an African Christian man who inherited his father’s wives.  The man could have put the wives away to obey a rule, but that could have left them alone, vulnerable, and unsupported in the world.  Consequently, he chose to stay married to them, while refraining from sex with them and allowing them to pursue their own romantic interests.

Foster transcends the liberal-conservative divide, for he largely affirms conservative sexual morality, while also criticizing war.  In one part of the book, he asks if a Christian scientist can legitimately work for the military-industrial complex.

Foster also provides interesting historical information, such as the Puritans’ permissive attitude towards divorce.

I have two criticisms, though.  First of all, I think that there are times when Foster ignores historical or cultural explanations for certain biblical commands.  While I am open to accepting that biblical commands about sexual restraint were about love, they were also about keeping property in the family, fathers being able to know for sure that their children were really their children, and the negotiations that families made with each other regarding marriage.  Foster largely ignored those considerations.

Second, I am a bit ambivalent about Foster’s biblical arguments about divorce.  Was Jesus critical of divorce because it left women vulnerable, or simply because he opposed divorce?  Jesus does not say anything about divorce leaving women vulnerable, so maybe he just opposed divorce.  Early Christian writings, including patristic writings, were practically absolutist in opposing divorce.  Could that stance go back to Jesus?  And was Paul really unfaithful to Jesus’ teaching, or (to put it more charitably) trying to modify it?  Not necessarily.  My impression is that Paul in I Corinthians 7 does not allow the Christian spouse to initiate the divorce, which would be consistent with Jesus’ anti-divorce stance, but permits the divorce only if the non-believing spouse wants it.

At the same time, there are other considerations.  Whereas Jesus in Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 is anti-divorce, Matthew 19:9 has an exception clause: divorce can take place if there is sexual immorality.  That tells me that not everyone in the early church interpreted Jesus’ sayings absolutely but were willing to allow some flexibility, as Foster argues.  There is also Exodus 21:7-11, which says that a man can put away his female maidservant if he has absolutely no intention of supporting her.  Some point to this text to argue that God would permit divorce if a husband does not provide for his wife or is abusive to her.

I would now like to quote my favorite passage from Foster’s book, which is in his section about power.  On page 207, Foster tells the following story:

“I once experienced this power that frees in an especially vivid way.  I had just returned from a conference where I had made some rather significant decisions, and I was telling a friend who was a spiritual mentor about the experience.  At one point I exclaimed, ‘Oh, by the way, I made one decision that I know you have been wanting me to make for a long time…’  My friend interrupted, ‘Wait just a minute!  Let’s be clear about one thing.  My business, my only business, is to bring the truth of God as I see it, and then to simply love you regardless of what you do or don’t do.  It is not my business to straighten you out or to get you to do the right thing.’  After our visit I thought about the significance of this simple statement.  His care and compassion had always been evident, but in those words I discovered a new dimension of freedom—-a freedom that allowed intimate friendship without a slavish need to please on either side.”

“…intimate freedom without a slavish need to please on either side.”  Imagine that!  Wouldn’t we all like that kind of relationship!

1 comment:

  1. I like Richard Foster's humane and "moderate" conservative take on human sexuality. Too bad the rest of evangelicals don't take note of his views. It could save a lot of congregants a lot of heartache and save them from losing their sanity. Foster's approach is a hell of a lot better than Mark Driscoll's approach, dare I say.

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