Today’s Embodied Gnosticism

Again, another two part series.  In this case we look at Incarnation and distinguish it from embodiment.  This first post looks at the reciprocal nature of today’s interest in the body and the Gnostics of the first century.  The second post will discuss the Incarnational critique of this embodied Gnosticism.

Few can deny that the theological foundation of Christianity is the Incarnation; that is that God came in the flesh. The conflict with the so-called Gnostics, one of the earliest theological controversies around the Mediterranean rim, made this abundantly clear. Differences of opinion soon emerged in the Christian community as early Jesus followers tried to make sense of what had happened during the third decade in Jerusalem, To oversimplify, one wing began to describe the Christ event as an escape from the world. These Gnostics, as they have come to be known, so rigidly divided the cosmos into things physical and things spiritual that there was no link between the two. Those in the know, the ones enlightened by the coming of Christ, guarded the truth about the world, namely that the most real and thus the most holy was the spiritual. In other words, once one encountered Christ the materiality, including the human body, took a back seat. The spiritual was holy, and the material evil. Today we call this an ontological dualism.

What came to be known as orthodox Christian belief rejected this dualism flat out for at least two reasons. First, the very scriptures of the tradition contradicted such a dualistic worldview. The narrative of Genesis make abundantly clear both God’s interaction with the material world as well as God’s blessing of matter. The Gnostic praise of the spiritual and parallel rejection of the material was contradicted by the scriptural testimony to the goodness of creation. Yet, the heresy of the Gnostics was not just revealed by the Hebrew scriptures, it was made clear by the events of Jesus himself. From all the stories about Jesus the clear thread was not that God had come to earth in some spiritual form, but in flesh and blood.

What emerged is often called the doctrine of the Incarnation. In various forms, all equally as debated as the confrontation with Gnostics, this doctrine basically states that God interacted with humanity in material ways. In that interaction through Jesus the Christ, all of humanity and all of creation was redeemed. In a way, the Incarnation revealed the truth of the Genesis narrative; Matter matters.

Today, Incarnation is all the rage.  Even the least sacramental traditions of Christianity celebrate the doctrine of the Incarnation. More liberal minded communities value the reminder that God continues to act in the world, but often through the hands and feet of Christians. The charismatic wing trumpets the various manifestations of the Holy Spirit in material ways. Even the most contextual methods of theology, such as Liberation, Feminist and Womanist thought, strive to recover the incarnational implications of Christianity for the socially dismissed or physically abused. For all of these, the Incarnation is clearly Good News.

Unfortunately, the Incarnation also speaks to today’s culture in negative ways. Some hear the word incarnation and attach the connotation of today’s sensual and even sexual emphasis on the body. In these circles, incarnation is simply synonymous with embodiment. In other words, incarnation has little to do with the interaction of the the spiritual and the material, but is a celebration of the flesh. In a way this narcissistic incarnation is the reciprocal of the early Gnostics. Rather than overvaluing the spiritual, this new Embodied Gnosticism so integrates the spiritual in the material that there is no separation. What is good for the body, in this way of thinking, must be good for the spirit. In a way, the tradition of Incarnation has been co-opted to anoint a kind of Christian hedonism.


Filed under Theology

26 responses to “Today’s Embodied Gnosticism

  1. Chris Jones

    Insightful words my friend. Can you show us some examples of what you are saying? I don’t see this happening in my circles. I still see the ontological dualism you mention.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Of course I pushing the description to the extreme to highlight its problems. But I would say I see it in two forms.

      First, in some progressive circles Incarnational is becoming a term for embodied. This is especially the case when we throw around the word “incarnational”. For those of us in the Moral Atonement spectrum of the Radical Reformation, this is easily done through the “We are God’s hands and feet”. Yes, we are incarnating Christ, but the Incarnation tells us something about how the body and spirit are ordered (that’s the second post 🙂 ) I think if we were very careful, we would be more accurate in saying things we do are “sacramental”.

      The other place is with sexuality. I think the shift toward embodiment tempts us to so emphasize the body that we get the ordering wrong. The soul is not enlightened or lifted through sexual pleasure or fulfillment. We wouldn’t say that about food, so why would we link sexuality (regardless of orientation) to Christian identity.

      Just some quick thoughts.

  2. Scott Holland

    Interesting conversation, Josh. I think we do say the soul is lifted in eating together: we call it Love Feast, which is not a scrap of bread and drop of wine but a simple meal. Further, in the affirmation of eros in spiritual life many of us would confess that sex does indeed lift and satisfy the soul for a theology beyond ontological dualism would gladly affirm that “the body knows as much as the soul.”

    • Joshua Brockway

      In my thesis work on asceticism I quickly got the question that went something like this: Isn’t asceticism just old fashion repression of the body? In some forms, yes. However, as Mary Margaret Funk and Roberta Bondi (to name a few) argue the practice is based on a right ordering of the embodied soul and its desires. So vows of chastity aren’t about repressing sex for hightened state, but one form of ordering sexual desire to orient the embodied soul in a certain direction. So, given your closing quote, the body does now. But at the same time the body can and does limit and orient the soul in particular direction. Thus, there can be virtuous sex and virtuous eating. The soul learns through the body- through sight (natural and revealed symbols), through touch, and through hearing. Hence, the ultimate communication in the Incarnation. Check out some Athanasius for that. He’s very clear that in order to best teach and guide humanity, God comes in sensible form.


  3. Scott Holland


    I like your choice of words, “one form of ordering…” This might indeed be the path for Funk, Bondi and Athanasius but there are other spiritual ways of ordering body and soul, the linguistic split of which already betrays in signification that we are now speaking of the human person more like Greeks than like Jews. Much of this body philosophy necessarily becomes contextual. In college, some of my sexual libertine friends finally experimented with asceticism as a way to re-order their psyches, souls and bodies in face of carnal excess. Me, I took off to find America. One night while accepting a a free meal and guest bed at a Hare Krishna community in Dallas, the spiritual elders approached me with an ascetic question, “Would you like us to bind your testicles in twine?” My answer? “That won’t be necessary. I have cultural-linguistic roots in the Church of the Brethren.” It’s context, context, context! — Scott

    • Joshua Brockway


      So I have been thinking about this thread during the day, especially during a presentation here at the Calvin Worship Symposium. I sat in on James K.A. Smith’s presentation on “Liturgical Formation of Desire.” I know he’s connect to the Radical Orthodoxy crew to some degree, but he works out much of what I am talking about….without the overt Neo-Platonism I use. He’s makes great use of Social Imaginaries (Taylor), MacIntrye (Goods/Virtues), and Hauerwas (Community Practices) to say that the Liturgical Formation of the human person is a pedagogy of desire.

      All this is to say simply that though there many forms of ordering, there are still Christian and Non-Christian forms. What I am saying in these two pieces on Incarnation is that there is a particularly Christian approach to embodiment. So to talk about binding (in your example) is to deny some fundamental Christian convictions about the Imago Dei and the human person. Yet, at the same time contemporary emphases on sexuality as defining personal identity do the same. So, in sum, it is possible to talk about Christian sex and not just virtuous sex. There are expectations that Christian faith/practice define how we eat, have sex, purchase, and make peace.

      In Smith’s terms, we choose which practices/liturgies orient our desires.


    • “Would you like us to bind your testicles in twine?” My answer? “That won’t be necessary. I have cultural-linguistic roots in the Church of the Brethren.”

      That’s going into my archives. Priceless.

  4. Scott Holland

    Josh, I really like Smith’s work. He is too ‘Radical Orthodox’ for my theological tastes but I find his interdisciplinary approach to theology, ritual and culture, with desire in view, very fine indeed. Some have noted that his book on this topic (which will be a trilogy, I believe) intersects well with what I tried to do in my book on narrative and performance [both ritual theory and lived faith]: “How Do Stories Save Us?” (Eerdmans in the USA and Peeters in Europe). Smith does affirm that we choose practices that orient our desires. This becomes a religion of a muscular ego in submission to the super-ego. I suggest that it might be well to risk allowing Desire to orient our practices for the Divine lurks in the regions of the Id. After all, as Zornberg reminds us, “Genesis is not the beginning of morality and religion, Genesis is the begining of desire.”

    On your take on Christian sex, I would say there is a variety of “Christian approaches” to sexuality. Centering on sexual identity and personhood is an important Christian hermeneutic for those who have been marginalized, exiled or punished because of their queer identity. In the same way, Black Theology is another necessary contextual Christian corrective to racist politics and religion. Since Christian theology began when “Greek questions were first asked about a Hebrew narrative,” new intercultural questions and therefore new Christian theologies will be composed within emerging and evolvong contexts. Because “the Greeks” (neo-Platonists & Gnostics) composed some body-denying theologies, some Queer Theorists must now proclaim, “We are not Greeks but Jews!” This declaration will lead to new acts of Christian theology as imaginative construction, seeking new models of incarnation.

  5. Joshua Brockway


    One of the struggles I have with all of this is the assumption that Freud got it right. In a paper I am developing (and taking too long to get together), is that some of this too quickly baptizes the Freudian Id. In other words, it takes as fact that human beings are, as I say in the paper, homo eroticus. I agree that there need to be theological imaginaries which correct oppressive sexual ethics, yet I still think there is a part of the Christian story that says sexual desire is but a small part of the human identity.

    So the question I want to work at more is this: How can we work out a theological anthropology which attends to the appetitve aspects of humanity (the Id aspects) that begin not with Sexual Identity, but Divine Identity- that is that we are creatures in the image of God? This is what I am getting at by saying the Incarnation doesn’t just bless the body but shapes anthropology. This is what I like about how Smith works with Desire and the pre-cognitive- basically it’s not all about sex. Its about how we see, taste, touch, move, breathe, eat…..and how those practices give shape and direction to our direction-less desires.

  6. Scott Holland

    Josh, The later Freud and neo-Freudians don’t say it is all about sex, if we are reducing eros to mere genital stimulation in our understanding of “sex.” In the realm of the Id of desire there are two primordial drives: Eros & Thanatos, the life-drive and the death-drive. Eros, while pulsing with sensuality and sexuality, is also “the builder of cities.” For many neo-Freudians, the same eros which makes babies also grows basil, composes music and writes books. Karen Roberts, an M.A. student at Bethany, just defended a thesis very much devoted to the recovery of Eros for Christian spirituality. She argues correctly that it was really Anders Nygren who got it wrong in his modern classic by pulling apart Eros and Agape like a cherrystone clam and exiling Eros from Christian theology.

    Your concern about linking sexuality to identity, exclusively, has merit. There can be ideological dangers in any identity politics, whether one confesses, “I’m queer!” or “I’m Brethren!” But in each confession, there is a surplus of meaning: being queer is more than how one takes one’s sex and being Brethren is more than how one takes one’s communion.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Right, the later Freud and Neo-Freudians may not, but our culture has gleaned a particular perspective. I am struck how often “hook ups” or comments about needing to “get laid” are referenced today. What is more, I have been in conversations a number of times wherein someone has stated that to be fully in love requires sexual expression. The dominant anthropology today seems to say that the human fully alive is the human engaged in the sex act. So we get guys like Dan Brown others who cannot fathom that Jesus and the Magdalene would have not had sex.

      You are right that the Nygren hypothesis has had drastic effects on the way we conceive of love. If I recall right, I’ve heard that even Nygren himself rejected the paradigm later….but that isn’t a researched statement. However, if we really are to pair Agape and Eros again in Christian theology and ethics, wouldn’t that mean that the human fully in love and alive is the human being in relationships of self giving? (Again, of which coitus is but a fraction of the self-giving.) Pamela Dickey Young says as much in her book Communities of Eros….and does so without making it about making it sexual at all.

      I know we can tease out these dynamics and tensions for some time, and I am loving the conversation. Yet, I want to return to the core of these two posts and simply say that contextual theology has run a long course and taught us much about how experience shapes a theological perspective and theological ethic. Yet, in so doing it has created pockets of theology nearly isolated from other contextual experiences. It seems to me that we are in danger of building walls around our camps which keep out “the other”….such that we don’t just have Neo-Orthodox, Reformed, Anabaptist thought but now have Queer, Black, Womanist, Feminist, Latin LIberation. In the later the ability to dismiss the non-queer, white, or male is dramatically increased. For example in some recent conversations with some students about the Sacred Feminine, I was painfully aware (and said as much) of the gendered tone of our conversation. Though the exchange was very balanced and real, I constantly beat back the imagined response- “Of course you would say that, you are man.”

      So, if we take the Incarnation of the Word and the blessing of humanity as Good, how do we attend to culture, experience and gender without rejection of the other? How can we hold together the queer contribution with the traditionalist conservative (which as we have seen is a significant portion of the Brethren)? Both camps are drawing lines in the sand, and declaring the other outsiders. What i am trying to work at with this paper I mentioned is that there is a way to construct a sexual ethic that challenges the spectrum of believers to take sex seriously as a covenantal, relational, and sacred grace- at the same time blessed and limited by God?

      • Scott Holland

        Josh, One more quick note related to your question as to whether a robust, embodied love must necessarily seek sexual expression. If we are indeed Jews, not Greeks or Gnostics, the answer is likely yes. To scandalize the Greeks and an emerging Neo-Platonic or Gnostic theological imagination, our Jewish friends remind us that after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, a pressing question was put to the rabbis: “Where now does the Spirit of God dwell?” One enduring rabbinical answer, “Two places now: the Spirit of God’s glory abides in the rabbinical houses of study and prayer and in the bed where the man and woman sleep together.” Even as study and prayer seek ritual and ethical embodiment so human love and longing seek erotic connection.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Scott, I have problems with this on so many levels. First, as I say in my history course, the Church has never been Jewish nor Greek. From even day one we are talking about a synthesis of Hebrew and Hellenistic culture- Hebrew shepherds, Post-Macabean and Roman established ethnarchs, and most of all the Septuagint. Even the later, so-called Greek Philosophical debates about Christology are grand narratives of attention to that synthesis. For as much as Neo-Anabaptists and others want to return to a Jewish Christianity, the effort is futile. As soon as we read the Second Testament we are thrust into a synthesis….that is the Christian narrative.

        Second, by 70 as you know both the Church and the Hebrews were forced to ask that question and of course came down on different ground. Again, we are the Church not Jews, a testament supported by the council pericopes in Acts. For the Church, I would argue that the presence of God became domestic- God was present in the house Churches, where in familial covenants were translated into a Christological Families.

        Third, a return to Hebrew convictions about sex will not support the kind of LGBTQ liberation you are seeking. For example. Paul’s critique of sexuality in Romans 1 is not based on Greek categories but Hebrew. Even for the Rabbis you intone, there are still cultural expectations and norms for how that man and wife have sex. In other words, it’s not enough to say that longing finds an erotic connection since there is still a norm which guides how that connection is expressed. I’m arguing that a reconnectiong of eros/desire with agape/selflessness is to put a frame around Christian sex. I sense you are still assuming a split between eros and agape, and then rejecting the later for the former.

  7. Scott Holland

    Josh, I agree that the various identity theologies can become sectarian or tribal. Yet I do wonder if religious communities and confessions so radically different from one another can ever hope to do more than finally agree to live in peaceful civil space as neighbors but not unite in the same cultural-linguistic house of worship? I’m thinking of a Brethren site called, “Brethren for Biblical Authority.” The site’s host has recently written that the split in the COB is really not about gay sex but instead about more foundational disagreements about God, world, self and others as one looks to scripture and as one does theology. If he is correct, our endless debates about queer sex, straight sex or no sex really avoid the more difficult possibility and question: are the conservatives and the progressives in the COB really practicing two different religions?

  8. Scott Holland

    Josh, A brief response to your response above. I of course agree with your point about synthesis; I have often written that Christian theology began when Greek questions were asked about a Hebrew narrative. This was in fact the early theological synthesis. But can there be other cultural-linguistic syntheses? To state that, “we are Jews, not Greeks,” is a rhetorical reminder that theology was and is imaginative construction. Perhaps we are now composing a new synthesis, or several new syntheses, beyond the old Greek-Jew or Jew-Greek formulations? I also agree that there were norms or regulative principles in both Greek and Jewish theological expressions and experiments that might not lend themselves well to a GLBTQ theology or anthropology. However, where these contingent, contextual cultural norms or were they universal principles? It seems to me if we concede that early Christian theology was indeed acts of synthesis in face of divergent texts, traditions and experiences then we in a new intercultural, globalized world need not be eternally or universally bound to the philosophical formulations of the Greco-Roman world. A postmodern, post-metaphysical theology would suggest as much. We are not bound to history but called by the future. As Emerson preached, “The coming only is sacred!”

    • Joshua Brockway

      And this is where Brethren for Biblical Authority has it right: We aren’t just talking about who sleeps with whom, but how or if we read the Scriptures. Though the Greek and Hebrew elements were indeed cultural/linguistic/practical communities, those two cultures are enshrined in the Bible.

      Given that in our form of Protestantism there are no shared canons of liturgy/law/tradition outside of the Biblical texts we are indeed stuck asking your previous question: Are we talking about two different religions? The short answer is yes, indeed we are…and for that matter it is paramount that these “wings” of the CoB need to discern for themselves if they are indeed a new religion. And that is OK. Unfortunately, the most progressive among us will most likely do the walking since this “post-modern, post-metaphysical” tradition is also the one most comfortable setting aside sola scriptura. That is the dynamic of our Post-Radical Reformation context since there are no more agreed upon traditions and practices beyond the scriptures. In effect there is nothing that binds us.

      • Scott Holland

        This is indeed a sobering point that there may now be no traditions or theologies that bind us together. The Brethren movement never was a merely sola scriptura community. One could also say much the same about the evolution of Luther’s church. During the 300th anniversary year, I gave many lectures, talks and sermons around three themes that have united many of us in the Brethren movement: Noncreedalism, No Force in Religion & Service for Peace and Justice. Summaries of this address in article form can be read in both Brethren Life and Thought and Conrad Grebel Review. This address was warmly embraced and affirmed in many venues from churches to peer reviewed academic conferences, such as the Believers Church Conference in Winnipeg. However, after publication, I heard from several well placed persons in the COB, including historians and sociologists, arguing that I was presenting a late 19th century and 20th century version of Brethrenism. Yes, I was, because theology moves, emerges constructively and finds expression in incarnational ways in new contexts. Some found this quite unacceptable and were eager to quarrel for some other expressions of the essence of Brethrenism found in the 1700’s and 1800’s, offering a more sectarian model of church and society. This leaves me soberly agreeing with your conclusion that nothing remains to bind us (and religion is a binding together), not sola scriptura, not non-creedalism, not no force in religion, not service for peace and justice, not even the Elgin tag line. In light of this one must ask, has the Brethren dream been dreamt out?

      • Joshua Brockway


        This is where I have had the biggest problem with the Brethren. By now, in the wake of MacIntyre, Bourdieu, and deCerteau we should FINALLY understand that it is not about theology or beliefs. Every time we spin wheels on Core Convictions of the Brethren we waste time and energy. Bluntly stated, I am done trying to figure out if we are Peace Church or a Tradition of Non-resistance, of Service or Mutual AId. It matters very little since the question should start with what practices we share. It’s high time we exorcise the specter of Hegel and the Enlightenment hierarchy of Belief. This is especially made clear by Carl’s data which shows that Love Feast is equally practiced among the progressives and conservatives of the Brethren.

        Not long ago is was asked around here why our beloved denomination is so divided. My response- Easy, it’s because we no longer have shared practices. In fact, the Political Discourse and practices of votes and lobbying are more influential among us than anything else. Liberal or Conservative Brethren are more shaped by being Republican or Democrat. This is why i ended my Messenger Article with the call to Read scripture together. It’s the practice of reading together that matters, more so than what we believe about it.

        Now, regarding my assertion that we are talking about two different religions- I wasn’t saying two forms of Brethrenism, I was stating that there are some who identify as Brethren but who do not live inside the frame of Christianity. Those among us who would rather lose the Greek concepts of the tradition, or the Hebraic legalisms are really confronted with the one thing that continues to keep us Christian- scripture. Since we cannot rely on Canonical law or Liturgical commonality….we really have nothing left of the so-called quadrilateral. We are talking about two Religions- a humanist, embodied, Enlightenment religion and Brethren Christianity. This is why I wrote above regarding creeds.

        (edited- “exercised” to correctly read “exorcised”. Thanks Brian!)

  9. Thanks, y’all, for this conversation. I’ve had several in-person conversations spin off from the recent Brethren blogosphere resurgence in the last few months, so I’m grateful for both the conversation in this space and those that it encourages in others.

    I’ll admit that I’m a guilty party in the postmodern, liberal conflation of “embodied” and “incarnate”, too often encouraging “embodiment” without acknowledging the ineffable and unfathomable divine element that our Christian heritage points to when we talk about incarnation. I do think context is important – that some of us need to be reminded of the sovereignty and otherness of God while others of us need to be reminded how much close Christ’s incarnation can actually bring us to participating in the very body of God. Probably, any one person might need both reminders over the course of a lifetime of Christian practice.

    What I do wonder about is the last bit of this conversation – the question of whether or not our differences in language and theology constitute an actual separation of religion. Scott, you say you “do wonder if religious communities and confessions so radically different from one another can ever hope to do more than finally agree to live in peaceful civil space as neighbors but not unite in the same cultural-linguistic house of worship?”

    If I’m honest, I don’t really know what a “cultural-linguistic house of worship” is, so my response might be off the mark from what you intended. But the hope and promise of unity in Christ has been and remains central to my Christian faith. I don’t know what it is that holds us together – and maybe you’re right that we’re so far removed from one another that nothing does – but I do trust that in Christ, we discover a sacred unity of the people of God. Ephesians 4 and Romans 12 not only give us instruction for living together – even in disagreement – but paint a pretty incredible picture of what’s possible. They’re also both passages about simple, elemental practices and not belief.

    My favorite Brethren foremother is Anna Mow, and one of my favorite lines of hers is this, from a 1968 Messenger article: “We can’t make unity. We join it, for our unity is in Christ only.” In Ephesians, in Romans, and in Anna’s words I hear a call to turn – now, or before, or when nothing else seems to work – to Christ, the incarnation of God, to find our common ground.

    He definitely wasn’t a detail-oriented kind of guy, and he didn’t really give us all that much instruction about who to have sex with or what to eat and what not to eat, but I do believe and hope that trusting Christ, following Jesus’ lead, leaning into the ways of worship and community together will lead me – us – toward both an ordered way of being in our bodies and an ordered way of being Christ’s body, together.

  10. Daniel Ogle

    Honorary Brethrenite here, at least according to Sister Cassell, as fine a source as there is I might add.

    It seems to me, coming from pastorland, that we need the separation between incarnation and embodiment, and we need communities that live both sides. For most of the people in the churches I have served, there is little doubt that God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, but where we, and I would imagine many other struggles, is connecting that faith claim to actually and actively living as the hands and feet of Jesus.

    Of course, on the flip side, I would argue that the fundamental reason that we do live as the hands and feet of Jesus is that we do believe there is a God, who came to earth and became incarnate, who healed people, who taught people, who liberated people, etc. I would like to think that I wouldn’t do the things I do, sacrificial service, tithing, etc., unless I believed in God as revealed in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and because I have come to realize that my faith in Christ demands I do these things.

    I would also agree with Sister Cassell that depending on the theological and political leanings of the faith community where you live, some might need more of a focus on Embodiment while others need more help on Incarnation.

  11. Scott Holland

    Very fine questions and responses, Dana and Daniel. I’m on the road today so I will write more later. I like the Anna Mow quote and I would say that this unity in Christ is more profound and more far-reaching than what I have called the desire for uniformity in our “cultural-linguistic houses of worship.” This is really a sociological way of suggesting that there is a standard expectation for members of the group to share the same doctrine (linguistic) and life-practices (culture), which all might indeed be more contingent than Paul’s, and Anna’s, mystical (dare I say sacramental?) sense of the vision of being “in Christ.”

  12. Scott Holland

    One final thought, Josh, on the end of the Brethren dream as it has been dreamt. Your new dreams and proposals are smart and spiritual. We need them. However, I’m left wondering about two pragmatic things.

    One: What you call us to around practices over belief or doctrine seems consistent with both cutting-edge theory and the Brethren heritage. However, both the new theory and the church tradition remind us that “practice gives rise to thought.” It seems to me that thinking even around common practices differs greatly in the COB.

    Second: Your invitation to read Scripture together is attractive but if one group in the church is reading the Bible informed by historical-critical or literary-critical methods and another group is interpreting texts informed by a more Fundamentalist hermeneutic, how is this a unifying practice? Even if we seek to place our hermeneutic within the structure of the creeds of Christendom, alert readers will remind us that the formulations of the creeds were in fact informed and inspired by extra-biblical philosophies present within their cultural contexts.

    While your call to practice is indeed very good theory, I’m left wondering how this might all really work? These are honest questions from one who is sadly and soberly concluding that the Brethren dream has been dreamt out.

    • Thanks, all, for a stimulating conversation that’s remained refreshingly civil and intelligent. I find myself a cheerleader to what Josh is arguing (including who he’s drawing from, conceptually) but also resonating with Scott’s practical concerns. I share that same…is despair the right word?…

      In re: to the “how can we read Scripture together?” question, for some reason I thought of the Scriptural Reasoning process pioneered by Peter Ochs at UVA ( While this process was given birth to bring the three Abrahamic faiths together to read the scriptures of each other’s traditions, perhaps it could be tweaked for ideological divides within a single tradition. Just a wild, random thought…

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks for the great conversation Scott. And thank you for pressing the questions, especially in terms of practices. These are not new by any means, and are always at the front of my mind as I work around the denomination. In some ways, I am pushing the pendulum away from our highly noetic form of Christianity. One step at a time….

      I’ve known for sometime of your sense that the Brethren dream is fading…and I will simply say that one form of the Brethren dream is fading. Just as the 19th century Brethren vision morphed into the 20th century version you highlight, so now we are shifting again. My argument is roughly this: Just as Mutual AId was faithfully expressed as service in the new century, so are these yet forming expressions. However, these changes are not discontinuous as many post-modern theorists suggest of the wider culture. In fact, they cannot not be discontinuous to remain faithful.

      Rather than the Brethren dream, it is the Enlightenment and the horrors of certainty over faith. Again, Kant, Hegel and Descartes need to be exorcised before we can find these new forms of expression. The two camps of scripture reading you mentioned are the prime example of how Modernity and the Enlightenment have corrupted the Church. Heaven forbid that the Historical Critical method-reader should actually learn or be shaped by a more fundamentalist reader.

      Great Fun Brother- Thanks for the witty, intelligent, and critical discussion!

  13. Scott Holland

    Josh & all: Thanks for these critical and constructive exchanges. They do give rise to new thought. It seems that many old dreams have indeed been dreamed out: not only the older dreams of historical and biblical positivism as some progressives have charged, but also the rather institutional progressive dreams that served at least some of us rather well for the first three quarters of the 20th century. So, as I think you are suggesting, it is time for new dreams, new visions and new proposals for a new century and for the church of the future, always formed and informed by the church of the past. All the best, Scott

    • Joshua Brockway

      Scott and all,

      Today, I was reading a kind of eulogy to the confessor of Thomas Merton who recently passed away. In 1994 he published a book, in which he came out. In those pages he penned the following words which stopped me….dead in my tracks. In part, it made me think of our conversation here.

      Where there is no love you can expect sex to emerge. All men want love, celibates too. Sex can be one way of loving, but it is absurd to say: no sex is no love, as absurd as saying sex is love.

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