Category Archives: Discipleship

Whose conscience, Which community

There is a little catch phrase within the vocabulary of the Church of the Brethren. In any theological or ethical conversation it is only a matter of minutes before someone in the conversation invokes the Brethren tradition of “respect for conscience.” It is the ultimate trump card, protecting positions on anything from ordination of women to human sexuality, and most of all congregational autonomy.

Unfortunately for our current state of the church, this was not the origination of the concept. A quick read of the writings of Alexander Mack reveals that the concept was framed as a posture to the governments of the world, not to matters of church practice and faith. This is especially clear in Mack’s letter to a German Count in which he defends the practice of Believers’ Baptism. Here, the scripture texts are arranged so as to make clear that there is no injunction of the government which can prevent the conscious practice of Christian ordinances.

However, over time the ideas of “no force in religion” and non-creedalism have infused our understanding of conscience. It has come to imply that the church cannot infringe upon the individual’s conscience- even when that conscience contradicts the essential values and ethics of the community. As I argued in a discussion of the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, contemporary Brethren have assumed that the individual and the community are constantly in tension. That is to say we assume the community slips into a kind of tyranny over the individual and that each one must guard their conscience against giving over too much to the community. Respect for individual conscience, then, is a kind of buffer to the power of a collective.

As I have argued regarding the cliche of being “spiritual but not religious,” this antagonistic view of the communal and individual dynamic is simply naive. It is not as if the individual person is closed system. Each one participates in a number of communities whose practices give shape to the ideas and desires of each person involved. This means that the so called autonomous individual is never free from the influences of some community. Following the title of one of Alistair MacIntrye’s works, it is more a matter of whose rationality and which community is shaping our thoughts.

In his work on Social Imaginaries, social theorist Charles Taylor has helpfully shown how this buffered image of the individual is a product of Enlightenment thinking. In rebuking the mystical world-view of the Middle Ages, the modern thinkers began to draw an ever thickening line of protection around the individual. At first, this line refuted the magical incursion of spirits infecting persons but gradually included a rejection of communal authority. The individual in this way became what Taylor calls a “buffered self.” As such, we now have a building block understanding of community which assumes, following the political philosophers, that community is formed by the assent of individual. That is to say that individuals endow a community with authority thus leaving communities to ultimately become affinity groups. When the group exercises too much sway on the individual, that person removes their assent to participate in other communities more like their own current perspective.

For contemporary Brethren, regardless of partisan color, the unfortunate reality is that we are more shaped by the American political landscape. Even the ways we read the scripture together are more defined by the political party of those reading. In essence, when individual conscience is invoked it is a sign that stereotypically conservative or progressive views are perceived to be under attack. In that moment we as the church are thrust into partisan politics rather than engaging in true discernment.

Brethren, in a true synthetic and not antagonistic understanding of our Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, have argued that no one individual holds the whole truth. First, our pietistic understanding of the Priesthood of All speaks of each individual’s access to the Holy Spirit. There is no elite spiritual class that solely encounters the speaking of the spirit. Yet, this access to the Spirit is not for the sole benefit of the individual, but a gift for the whole church. Thus, Brethren treated the gathered church community as the most appropriate place to discern truth- not the conventions of Democrats or Republicans or even affinity groups. Here, individuals speak into the community from their experiences of God and the scripture, but each one’s perspective is tested against the other voices of the church. This gathered wisdom, then, is the teaching of the church. Each individual then, must discern their conscience to decide if this is their community of faith.

Much damage has been done in the name of Church unity throughout time. Yet, a more church oriented vision of individual conscience to me values deeply the voices of those who have covenanted to the community. When the community’s discernment runs against our conscience we must discern if this is a disagreement about the essentials of our beliefs. Respecting one’s conscience in this light, then, is about blessing an individual who discerns that the contradictions are so great that a new community of faith must be sought. If, however, the individual continues to covenant with the church community, the church does not ban them but continues to seek their understanding of the Spirit in the processes of shared discernment. In traditional terms, this means that that the act of excommunication is not something for the church to impose on another, but for the individual to discern for themselves. Respecting their conscience is to be an act of blessing to find the community in which the individual and corporate voice are more in harmony with each other.

There must be then, a kind of submission to the community, freely offered on the part of the individual in the covenant to participate within this particular body. While we modern Americans do not like the idea of submission, there is an integrity in this act not often articulated today. In essence, the covenant makes explicit that this community is the one that I want to shape my desires, beliefs, and actions. As we currently practice “respect for individual conscience” there is no proclamation of which community it is that we have staked our claim in. So, we assume that persons are submitting and contributing to the discernment of the church when in fact it is some other tradition that is influencing their ideas and values. In our case today, the poles of our tradition are more in line with American conservatism or liberalism than they are with any theology and practice of the church. So we continue to fight one another, bringing the partisanship of the democratic system into our discernment- in effect making them debates about the alternate communities in which we participate.

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The “Spiritual but Not Religious” Fallacy

Two books have recently been published that have made much of the moniker “Spiritual but Not Religious.” The idea, often highlighted in studies of religiosity in North America, is that persons find themselves to have spiritual components of their lives but have little desire to participate in so-called institutional religion. These two books, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” by Diana Butler-Bass and “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” by Ross Douthat, seek to understand the recent and steep decline of American religious life. Of course, as the titles suggest, the two offer two very different takes on the statistical data. Butler-Bass seeks to embrace the rise of “Spiritual but Not Religious” by noting the critiques of Church as we have come to understand it. In a way, she indicts the churches of America saying that we have not fully lived into our current realities as a society. Douthat, on the other hand, indicts American culture, saying that these moves away from Church are more akin to heresies.

Both writers, in their own ways, are trying to understand and speak into the emerging realities of religion in America. In fact, these two work with similar sets of data which show that the Institution of the Church in its various forms is now a hurdle to faith rather than a road into a deepening an maturing spirituality. It has been no secret that Mainline Protestantism has declined steadily for decades. Yet, now into the second decade of the 21st century, even so-called the mega-churches of evangelicalism are seeing a drop in attendance and affinity. At the same time, the statistical category of “Nones”- those who do not identify with any institutional category- has doubled in just 10 years.

I must admit that I find myself drawn to the work of both Butler-Bass and Douthat. At the same time I am critical of both. First, I appreciate the exhortation to pay attention to the religious landscape data. I also find Douthat’s description of communal testing of inward revelation significant and right on. Yet, I have one thing to say in response to both writers and to American “Nones”- There is no such thing as “Spiritual but Not Religious.”

It may sound overly critical and limiting to some, but I am not a fan of the idea at all. In fact, the idea that one’s spiritual life and one’s religious practices can be distinguished and even dichotomized is a product of Modernity. To take Douthat’s language, it is the prime heresy of the American church. Rather, much of christian history has made pretty clear that what we DO is intrinsic to who we ARE and what we BELIEVE.

Behavioral psychologists have told us for some time that we most often live ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than think ourselves into new ways of behaving. The modern way of thinking has so privileged the mind that we have completely overlooked how we are shaped by the things we say and do. It simply seems too coercive or authoritarian to say that our actions can somehow trump the heights of our reasoning capacities. It is just too much hocus-pocus to think that our sub or pre-conscious minds can be shaped and modeled without our conscious awareness.

Of course, I am saying this as  a white male church bureaucrat, and many readers will say that I am rejecting “Spiritual not Religious” from a position of power or influence. To be sure, I am not saying that the institutional church has the market on spirituality. The last think I am interested in is propping up another institution for its own sake. There is obviously enough to be changed or excised from the ways we have created “Church.” Rather, I am critiquing a naive characterization of religion in modern times.

Two myths of religion are prevalent in our time- one from the perspective of those within a religious tradition already and the second from those who are running away from the institution. The first is exemplified by the evangelical mantra “I am not religious, I just love Jesus.” The recent viral video, Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus, struck this chord and resonated with many church goers. The second perspective takes up a different perspective. From this point of view religion is not so much antiquated or irrelevant rituals but is an institutional hurdle to true spiritual connection. Here, the modern skepticism of powers and structures defines the ways we view any institution, including organized religion.

These two perspectives have similar problems. First, they privilege the individual to the point of a naive solipsism. That is to say that both forms of Spiritual but Not Religious collapse what is spiritual into the lowest common denominator- the individual. Thus, the individual becomes the sole arbiter of what it means to have a spiritual experience. “I have heard God and I know it, and I do not need another to tell me anything about it.” Or, more creatively, “I pick and choose the religious ideas from a variety of traditions so that they match my own preconceived ideas of what the world is and who I am within it.” Again, both of these positions assume that spirituality or faith is about ideas or concepts. What is more, they reject any claim other persons or communities might place on us by taking part fully in a traditioned community. It is easier to cherry pick what already makes sense without embodying the fullness of anyone religion. The common element in either case is that the individual is a kind of blank slate, untouched by religious ideas and practices and can thus better navigate the mystical side of life alone.

From this assessment we can see one other modern fallacy emerge- namely that what is spiritual is interior to the individual and what is religious is external. Again, we have the ideas/institutional and individual/communal dichotomies at work. But on top of this binaries the modern imaginary has assumed that what is “spiritual” is more emotional in nature and thus can only be a part of the individual person. This clearly overlooks the group emotivism, or effervescence that happens in corporate settings or in shared experiences. The result is an isolated sense of what it means to have a connection to some transcendent world, one that is ultimately lonely and without companionship to help understand and give language to what has been experienced.

The Christian tradition has often challenged such thin and individualistic conceptions of spirituality. The very incarnation of Jesus flies in the face of any kind of gnostic sensibility that our spiritual selves can be divorced from our bodies. In all the gospel narratives, healing and transformation comes through material actions- spit and mud applied to blind eyes, jugs of water transformed into good wine, and decades of infirmity over come with a touch. What is more, the Church has always tested individual experiences within the corporate understanding- Peter’s visions on the rooftop and experiences of the Spirit at Cornelius’ house, and Saul’s ecstatic vision of Christ on the road given meaning through the ministry of Ananias. In effect, there are very few times, if any, when someone has stepped up and said emphatically “God told me…”. In fact, for much of our history, such a statement of hubris and individualism was a sure way to be rebuked or denounced all together.

All of this is to say that faith and spirituality, at least from the Christian perspective, has been embodied, communal, and practiced. There is no distinction between outer and inner, and in fact the Christian logic seems to say that the interior work we do has dramatic material implications. What is more, faith is not something that happens in isolation. Hence no one person is an island, for it is in community that I learn the language to understand my experiences and have the occasion to test the inner movements of the Spirit. Lastly, the Christian logic has often revealed that the things we do matter. Whether it is in the sacraments, wherein actions and words effect transformation in the bread and wine or the waters of baptism, or that our way of living reflects our convictions and beliefs, the Christian tradition has equally balanced ethics and faith, doing and believing.

To be sure, the “Spiritual but Not Relgious” nomenclature is a cultural phenomenon. Douthat is right, however, when he uses the vocabulary of heresy, for this cultural phenomenon is making inroads into the Christian tradition. When Christians incorporate the idea into the ways of discipleship, the end result is an the incorporation of distinctly non-Christian concepts of individuality and interiority that are foreign to the faith. At the same time, Butler-Bass is right that religious “Nones” have something to teach us as members of the Body of Christ. These statistical categories reveal to us that we have failed. The cultural around us is increasingly saying that our ways of infighting, our power plays within the wider culture, and our hypocritical morality are enough to drive even the most sympathetic seeker away. We have much to learn from the data, yet we also have much to say to culture that encourages the fallacy of the “Spiritual but not Religious” logic.

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Socialized Risk: The Economics of Anonymity

It is no secret that the debates about health care have been heated and acrimonious. Even the fact that the Affordable Health Care Act received a six hour series of hearings before the Supreme Court should tell us that there is much to discuss. I am not so much concerned about the discussion of legislation or policy. Yet, I think the realities of our insurance system present the Church with an interesting look into the ways we are defined by economic practices. In short, we have come to accept the practices of the insurance industry as definitive of our relational practices. That is to say, in more simple terms, that we prefer the anonymity of insurance over the deep relational work of being the Church. Mutuality asks too much of us, both in giving and in receiving.

Insurance works on the principle of socialized risk. In essence, the idea is to gather money from a pool of customers in diverse categories of age and health conditions. It is this range that helps distribute the risk across the the pool. For example, if my dad and I were in the pool together we would pay the same premium, yet I would not be expected to use the full amount of my contributions because of my age. The assumption, based on huge algorithms and statistics, is that my dad would use more cash than he contributed. The payouts would, in a perfect pool, not exceed the money collected from each customer. Yet, some would pay more than they use while others would withdraw more than they contribute. The risk, then, is said to be distributed or socialized.

It should be disturbing that the whole process is based on anonymity. We never fully know who is in the pool and we never know who is withdrawing funds for any number of reasons. What is more, we barely know the full extent of need. A person’s health and thus crises are hidden in a system of socialized risk which seeks to privatize any benefit. Each person and their need is concealed in a series of identification numbers and balance sheets. The system is based on the best of social networks without any of the responsibility demanded in true social support. Basically, I need you, but I don’t need to know you. Just give me the money.

Such a practice should sting our Christian sensibilities. When we read of Jesus’ compassionate ministry it is clear that healing and faith are relational categories. The hemorrhaging woman touched the hem of his robe (Luke 4:43-48). The blind man was healed with spit, dirt, and a touch of Jesus’ hand (John 9:6-7). The multitude was fead by the giving of real food and the public giving of thanks (Mark 6:41-44). Even the centurion whose son lay ill sent someone to encounter Jesus and tell the family’s story (John 4:46-54). These acts are not done in isolation. Healing is not privatized gain, nor is it the product of anonymous socialized risk. Hence sharing is the root of word compassion- a co-passion, a sharing of suffering and want.

Luke tells us in the book of Acts of a couple in the Church who tried to socialize the risk and privatize gain. Ananias and Sapphira, forever known for their deceit and death in shame, tried to have all the benefits of the Christian community without assuming any of the risks (Acts 5:1-11). By keeping back some of the capital from the sale of their land, Ananias prefigured much of the individualism of our current economic system. Instead of risking the hard work of true community he hedged his bets by only giving some of the proceeds to the common treasury. His effort to privatize the gain subverted the sharing described earlier in the idyllic portrait of the first Church: for they would “distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:15).

The practices of modern insurance have shaped us into a people who value the maxim of anonymous social risk. Today we assume that our needs are private matters yet we expect the help of others. We want assistance, primarily in the form of money, without having to ask or without having anyone know we are struggling. The prospect of naming our needs in the presence of others, even those closest to us, is simply too humbling. We would rather submit to anonymous systems of exchange than submit to the requirements of true community.

Our discomfort with the rite of feet washing reveals the problem. When we speak of the practice as service, it is rather easy to wash another’s feet. By tying the towel around our waist, we say to the other “here let me help you.” Yet, when we are seated and waiting for someone to wash our own feet, the discomfort rises. We’d rather not reveal how dirty we are. We don’t want someone else to stoop before us. To say we need help runs counter to every social value we pick up in our wider lives. Our unease with washing feet is not about serving others, but in the mutuality of receiving service from a sister or brother.

This is often the case of playing Church. It is too easy to dismiss the portrait of the first Christians in Acts as fanciful or unrealistic. So, we expect the standards of socialized risk and privatized gain as the modus operandi of being the Church. Here, the values of individualism trump any vision or practice of mutuality. What is more, we prefer that the community not place and expectations or demands on our way of life. So we practice Stewardship Drives concealing our finances so that others might not question how we live outside of our Sunday gatherings.

Our lives are just business as usual, in all meanings of the word business. It is as if the Easter event had never happened. What is more, it is like our baptism has had little effect on the ways we live, move, and have our being. Instead, we assume that the markets are just the way things are, and live without questioning our economics and social interaction.

But as we see in the book of Acts, the Resurrection changed everything. Language and cultural barriers were overcome. Economic stratification was eliminated and needs were met. We often forget that Resurrection changes how we live and how we interact with one another. When we continue the practices of cultures that have yet to know the Resurrected Christ we continue to shape our actions, hearts and minds in ways contrary to the very Resurrection we proclaim on Sunday.

Insurance, and the anonymity of socialized risked, continually subverts the Easter vision we celebrate in this season. While Americans have debated the policy of health care based on inequality or theories of individual freedom, we as the Church have set aside the Post-Easter vision of community. We have forgotten that the practices and values of Christ’s body counter the very principles of anonymity and socialized risk. Inequality exists as people isolate themselves one from another, expecting support without compassion. When the so-called boundaries of individual freedom are overcome through mutuality, the community cannot help but take care of one another in body and in spirit.

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An Issue or a Demon

In the history of Christian monasticism the story goes that the first monk, Antony, entered the desert to battle the demons. Whole works of art have depicted a bearded man in simple dress surrounded by disfigured and grotesque beings; some pulling on his beard, others seeming to yell, while still others threatening him with spears and swords.

To our modern eyes and ears this spiritual battle with demons seems mere fantasy, the work of cinema or Harry Potter novels. Yet, for the cosmology of the late Roman world these engagements were a profoundly insightful means of describing human struggles. Simply reading a few chapters of practiced monks reveals that the battle imagery is a robust description of human psychology.

Evagrios of Pontus gives these demons a system that is strikingly ahead of its time. Each demon, he says, is an opportunity for the growing perfection of each monk. What we know today as the reductionistic Seven Deadly Sins find their roots in this catalog. By naming them “sins” the west has taken away the opportunity for transformation and has told us that things like greed, pride, and gluttony are objects to be avoided at all costs. Evagrios is clear, however, that even as these demons are trying to pull us from the glorious vision of and rest in God, They are occasions to work deeply on our selves.

In the end, the demons reveal to us our true sins, that is, the very things that inhibit our union with God. They are not the sins themselves, but mirrors which show to us the passions and sins within us.

These demons, then, are both threats and opportunities. If they are dispelled too quickly the sin remains. If they are welcomed without prayer and observant discipline they drag us further from our Christian goal. In the middle, however, lies the occasion to work out our sins and strive toward what Jesus in the Beatitudes says is the ability to see God (Matthew 5:8)

It seems that in the Church today our “Issues,” or the current ideological conflicts which consume our attention and energies, offer that same threat and opportunity. Our “Issues” are like the “Demons” Take for instance the common debate about sexuality. What if we as the Church approached the Issue as a Demon which is engaged prayerfully rather than welcomed uncritically or exorcised immediately?

Richard Valantasis of the Institute for Contemplative Living has summarized the movements of dealing with Demon Issues through the classic lens of Evagrios. He says that “we give the demons their do, not expelling them, but analyzing and engaging thoroughly with them. So Evagrios lays out three steps: analyze the thought that thwarts your union with God, break it up into its component parts and reflect on those, then ask, in which of these parts is the true sin, the true element that thwarts your union with God. It is both intentionally and deliberately engaging of the sin, or the demon, or the thwarting patterns, so that by giving them their due attention, according to Evagrios, we destroy their psychological and spiritual hold on us and their power to thwart our union with God.” (Valantasis, Unpublished Paper presented at 2011 Church of the Brethren Spiritual Directors Retreat)

What does this look like for our current Demon Issue in the Church of the Brethren and our wider communities of the Church?

The often heard knee-jerk reaction is that both sides have something to teach us: the progressive wing witnessing to the welcome and acceptance of all, and the conservative element the vision for moral piety. What if, rather than lessons to be learned, these factions presented the Church with the very sins we are to overcome in our union with God? In this frame our conservative and progressive brothers and sisters present us with the common sin of idolatry, that of raising something above the very God we invoke and seek.

First, those of more progressive inclinations are setting up the idol of unrestrained personal desire.  Here sexuality of any stripe is dismissed as an occasion for breaking relationships and is valued as the human person fully alive. This unfettered desire and personal choice is set up as something to be celebrated and nearly worshiped. Even worse, Love is not a relational movement but a sexual one and becomes but a whim of the moment and not to be judged. Note here, I have not made a qualification about sexual identity or expression. Rather, the sin lies in an untamed and shapeless desire. Assessment of that sin then, applies to each person regardless of orientation and practice. By not naming the sin of idolatrous sexual expression, a hurdle is created to divine union.  For it is not sex in and of itself that is the problem, it is that modern culture has turned a vice into a virtue. Sex is now a god.

Second, our conservative brothers and sisters are setting up another kind of idol- the scriptures themselves. But here it is not just the scriptures,  it is their own interpretive conclusions that stand even one more step removed from the Bible. In place of an encounter with God through the inspired texts, conservatives have constructed an idol of certainty, unaware that their readings are themselves interpretive conclusions. In a way, these interpretations are set up like the curtain in the Hebrew temple which divided the Holy of Holies from the people just to make sure that God would not be defiled. For our modern conservatives, the interpretive curtain stands at the gate to make sure the Holy Scriptures are not profaned. Unfortunately, this sin of doctrinal idolatry protects us from the very role and function of scripture as a point of meeting between The Author and us as readers. Stating with certainty what God has said in the scriptures prevents the divine union of Creator and created.

In a way, the sides of the issue do teach us something, just not in the way we have imagined. By treating our issues like the early monastic demon we see that both factions unintentionally seek to prevent us from truly coming into union with God. Both factions of the debate reveal our sins which prevent us from divine contemplation. To be sure, the threat and opportunity of these Demon Issues are not limited to our current debates of sexuality. Rather, the need to engage with personal and corporate demons is part of our human condition and is shared regardless of idealogical camp. As is said in the Gospel of Matthew, the need to judge is always based on first encountering our own sins and “logs in our eyes” before assessing the demons of others (Matthew 7).

 

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I don’t believe in Peace

Such a statement is bound to raise eyebrows. But it must be said- I don’t believe in Peace.

That might sound funny coming from someone whose religious tradition is known as one of the “Historic Peace Churches.” It sounds even more peculiar given that I entered college as a Peace Studies major. The more and more I travel among the denomination, and the more I hear people speak of Peace, the more uncomfortable I become with the idea. More specifically, I have grown weary and skeptical with the way Peace has become an ideology.

All it takes is sharp ear. Listen to the way people invoke the word Peace. Often there is not much detail given, but the word is spoken in such a way as to draw nods of affirmation from those in the room. There is rarely any effort to define the word, nor any articulation of what such a Peace would look like. Even more striking, there are rarely any practices outlined that bring about and support Peace.

When Peace is mentioned, it is invoked in ways that prevent any questions about such details. The rhetorical force of the word prevents any critical assessment of what Peace is and how we get there. It carries such weight that those in the discussion can only agree. Even more so, the word is presented so that any questions, even the most affirming, can only be seen as dissent.

David Fitch, author of the insightful book The End of Evangelicalism?, similarly critiques the way certain concepts have come to serve similar ideological roles within the Evangelical tradition. Using the work of social philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Fitch demonstrates how elements of a tradition- in his case ideas such as “The Inerrant Bible” and “The Christian Nation”- function as master signifiers. A master signifier is a term that represents a whole collection of other ideas, practices and perspectives  in such a way as to enable people to “believe without believing.” The master signifier stands in place of all these other things, nearly eclipsing any of the particulars. A master signifier without these pieces, however, is an empty term. It only has power is so far as it rhetorically closes off the possibility of questions, the searching out of the specifics.

American political discourse gives us a prime example of the master signifier at work. All politicians invoke the Constitution in their  speeches. Just the idea of “The Constitution” is enough to rally an audience. Yet, the speaker doesn’t need to reference how he or she reads the founding document, nor does there need to be any specifics mentioned. Those who support the politician are faithful to the Constitution, while those who are against him or her are undermining its authority.

We in the Peace Churches have begun to use Peace as a master signifier. Rhetorically, we speak of Peace without describing the details or inviting people on the journey. I mean, really, who is not for Peace! We fail at working for the Peace of Christ when we do not invite others onto the journey or make clear that Christ’s peace is foolishness to the world. It asks much of how we live and more often than not leads to social ostracization.

All it takes is a conversation with any soldier. I can’t count how many times I have heard the phrase “no one wants peace moe than those who bleed.” It is clear that Peace is valued by everyone, it is a matter of how we get there that is the biggest difference. What is more, we in the Historic Peace Churches partner with those who speak of Peace without giving the background of the kind of peace we seek. Those most conservative in our traditions point this out- You can be for Peace and never come into contact with the Prince of Peace, or even understand Christ as a central component of the peace we envision.

Some have begun work on the topic of a Just Peace. While the attempt to define the ideology in terms of the things that make for peace in place of violence is laudable, “A Just Peace” is too easily elevated as a master signifier. Who isn’t for Justice and for Peace?

More appropriate to our way of living Christ’s peace is the language of nonresistance and non-participation. Far from the “still in the land” caricature of early Mennonites and Brethren, this mode of living makes personal action the foundation for making peace. There is no expectation that the government will finally come around to the logic of peacemaking. Nor is there an implicit assumption that peace is cheap. Rather it follows closely to the logic of “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s” and the infamous thorn in the pacifists’ side- Romans 13.

Through these two passages we encounter the realities of living the Heavenly Peace on earth. When accounting for our citizenship requirements as Christians, our first priority is to the laws and practices of God’s reign. When those commitments conflict with the laws of the state, ours is to live into God’s law. Being subject to the governments of this world, however, means that the punishment of the state for disobeying is accepted at full price. Being subject to the state is not the same as obeying the state. Rather, it says that our guiding principles will define all that we do- and if the Empire disagrees, we are ready to take on the result.

This is not the Peace of modern times, neither is it the practice of the current Peace traditions. We have been so infected by the modern democratic rhetoric that we assume Peace is the logical language of all people. Not so in Jesus’ time, and not true today. The ways of Jesus Christ exact a huge toll- up to and including our very lives. So when true peace is sought, the world cannot help but push it down. So we talk of Peace in cheap, empty ways so as to not offend the rulers that be and not to require a thing from those who seek Peace.

When and where nonresistance and non-participation costs a lot, and a true accounting for what it is that we seek is given, that is where true peace can be found. That is the kind of peace I believe in, not some empty, master signifier.

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The Word, words and “the word”, Part 2

Many of the early church theologians recognized that God is the supreme object of the scriptures as they worked intimately with the scriptural texts. Though they did not ask the historic or scientific questions as we contemporary readers would present them, these early interpreters recognized that the texts even contradicted each other. The result was a hermeneutic, or interpretive posture to the texts, that looked for the revelatory meaning of the texts.  This was most often described as the Spiritual Meaning of the texts.  Most famously, Origen of Alexandria named several layers of meaning contained within the scriptures. He said in his book On First Principles, that not every text had a historical, or literal meaning, but EVERY text has a spiritual one. The reminder is clear, the texts always point to the Creator Revealer God. That is their prime purpose.

Later, Augustine of Hippo made clear his initial misgivings regarding these “barbaric” texts in his book The Confessions. After his final conversion in Milan, however, this spiritual meaning of the scriptures came to life. He later penned a book, On Christian Doctrine, which also outlined another hermeneutical approach to the Bible. Within that short treatise Augustine outlines a profound theological description of the texts. In a short summary he basically asserts that the scriptures are an incarnation is the same way Christ is The Incarnation. The analogy is simple: Christ is the full sign making clear the nature and power of God. The scriptures are themselves signs that point beyond the physical letters and words to Christ. So the scriptures are to Christ as Christ is to God.

Our modern debates about the authority of scripture have missed both the hierarchical system that I outlined in the earlier post  and the spiritual and incarnational approaches of Origen and Augustine. Theologies of inerrancy and infallibility try to superimpose modern scientific categories onto a text that is not trying to be neither scientific nor historical. They are texts that are revealing God. To assert infallibility and inerrancy is to apply Divine attributes to a physical and created medium. In other words, these categories try to make the Bible into God, rather than treating the scriptures as a witness to God.

Thus, to speak of “Reading the Bible”  as the cure for our social and personal ills is to substitute a book for the God that actually does the changing. Getting more people ot “just read the Bible more” will not change culture nor lives.  Rather, it is the encounter with the God behind the texts we are to seek.  The naming of the Bible as “The Word of God” makes this idolizing all too easy. When Matthew tells of Jesus’ temptation in the desert an interesting statement of Jesus is used to rebuke the Devils test to turn stones into bread.  “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Those who most frequently fall into the Bible as Idol category want this text to justify the words of scripture as Word of God. In fact, the Greek is clear. Here Jesus uses the word rhema- word, as in speech. The Word of God as we know it from the Gospel of John is Logos- the organizing reason of God, that is Christ. The distinction is clear- Christ is the Word of God, not the scriptures. God still speaks to humanity, that is God is still self-revealing. Those are the words that sustain us. The Bible, however, is God’s revealing that sustains, but is not on the same plain as Christ, the Word. These words of the Bible are sustain because they POINT us to Christ the Word.

This might seem like a semantic, or academic distinction. But when we see that infallibility and inerrancy seek to Divinize the Bible, and when we set the scriptures in the proper order of revelation we can see that it is more than a language game. It is a safe guard from the earliest of heresies- making gods of the things of creation in place of God himself.

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The Word, words, and “the word” Pt 1

Last week my Twitter feed exploded with a number of tweets related to the Bible. In full disclosure, I was attending The Uncover Summit. This event, organized by the Forum of Bible Agencies, focused on the need for greater engagement with scripture- A concept I am fully supportive of, but not quite on board with the same theological and cultural baggage that was paraded before those gathered in Orlando.

As with any gathering of church leaders and parachurch organizations, some of he content was good and some of it was simply awful.

So in an a self indulgent effort to debrief, I want to work constructively at my own theology of scripture. This, I hope, will expand what I am looking for related to a robust centrality of scripture while deconstructing the rigid approaches of infallibility and inerrancy, and idolatrous approaches of some. I will work in a traditionally systematic approach, that is working through categories in order to set the Bible in a valuable location within Christian belief and practice. A later post will follow up with some historical references and make more clear the object to which the Bible points and the theological problems of inerrancy and infallibility.

1) The creating God- The prime object of all creation, worship, and the scriptures is God. This God is the creator of all, including Human Beings. This, by definition, makes clear one thing- God is God and humanity is not, a creator and a created. We, by our very nature fall on the created side of the line.

Yet, this same God reaches over he creator/created boundary to interact with the creation. In this way, God’s very nature is to reveal God’s self to humanity. So along with Creator, God is Revealer. That just has to be. Since God is so other to us, God has to give us some clues along the way. Ironically, we experience God in the opposite order. We first come to know God as Revealer since that is the first gracious action we experience. After becoming aware of God and coming to know God as revealed, then we come to know God as Creator, because that as well is an understanding given by God. As we see in the modern scientific age, it is possible to encounter and understand the world without God’s actions, or even God himself. To speak of God as creator is already to invoke Revelation as source of understanding, and thus to speak a position of faith.

2) Christ, the full revelation- Fall, atonement, and soteriiology aside, the person of Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God to humanity. In other, more classical and scriptural terms, he is God with us. In the familiar opening to the Gospel of John, this Christ is called the Word. It’s a great theological and poetic narrative which plays on speech as a revealing act.  God creates and reveals with words, but the fullest representation is The Word above all words.

3) The People of God- Since the nature of God is to interact with and be self revelatory, there are people who are engaged by God. These people at various times have been called Israel and later the Church. Both of these names make explicit the Divine and human interaction. First, Israel is the people that wrestles with God. Second, the Church is the people called together by God.

4) Scripture, the testimony of the peoples of God– These interactions with God, necessarily, must take place in time and throughout time. Since the nature of humanity is to communicate, both with God and with one another, there is a need to gather these divine encounters to shared through time, at first through stories shared by word of mouth and then in the technology of writing. Soon, because the technology allowed it, this communication about God and the experiences of God took the form of direct written communication. Thus, we have human attempts to narrate the Divine encounter both in stories and letters.

Since its too easy to fake an encounter with God, over time these people of God gathered the normative stories and texts together. These scriptures are the texts by which all new encounters are assessed and measured. This means one thing: the writers did not set out to write the definitive account of God but narrated their encounters. Over time, the people’s of God, along with the revealing work of God’s Spirit, have said these are The Stories above all stories, and are to be trusted as tests for each generation. They are set aside for God’s people throughout time. They are Scriptural Canon for the people of God.

This hierarchy makes several things clear. First and foremost, God is behind the scriptures every step of the way. God is present in the first revelation, with the persons who did the recording, and with the peoples as they set apart the text as the measurement of all later understandings. Second, as scripture, these texts witness to this chain of Divine self revelation. They are thus not historical or scientific in the way we conceive them today, but texts revealing God and God’s self revelation.

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Easter Proclamation- Old School

This is one of those years when religious calendars line up. Easter celebrations of the Roman and Orthodox are in the process of being celebrated around the world. Proclamations of Christ is Risen will be said in nearly every language through the night into the rising sun on the 8th day- the day of re-creation.

Thinking about this amazing proclamation I decided to read the Pascal Homily of John Chrysostom- who should probably be taken up as the patron saint of Post-Christendom movements, for he “was fearless when denouncing offences in high places.”  His short, but rhetorically beautiful and complex homily should be required reading of any preacher or prophet.

Here is a taste of its excellence:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

I can nearly hear the cheers in response to this spectacular conclusion echoing throughout Hagia Sophia then and around the world tonight.

Christos Anesti, Christ is Risen!!

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Diagnosis: Modernity

“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman

It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty.  A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block.  Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.

The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors.  Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government.  Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision.  For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.

This assumption is rooted within the modern project.  Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system.  The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief.  The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community.  In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)

The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption.  It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off.  But really, it’s not much of a surprise.  In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values.  We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.”  Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.

Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills.  Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike.  For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying.  Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.

The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.

It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided.  The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church.  We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church.  We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill.  We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy.  The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.

Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.

Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.

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Saying the Creeds

I call the Church of the Brethren home.  The tradition is really part of the second generation of Anabaptists (1708).  That is to say that ours is a mode of Christianity birthed both in the dawning of the Enlightenment and following the violence of political/religious struggles for power.

So what does this mean?

Primarily, it means the Brethren have a healthy skepticism of the creeds.  In the wake of the Reformation battles, the one litmus test for many regions in Europe was the recitation of the creeds.  This became increasingly important as traditions divided over which creed was acceptable and which confession of faith had legal status within a territory.  The Enlightenment responded through projects of legal and philosophical separation of faith and practice, or the privatization of belief.  Religious communities followed suit by rejecting confessions and creeds out right based on their violent and limiting use at the hands of princes and bishops.

For the early Brethren, this translated into an act of civil disobedience- they would not cite the creeds in their gatherings or in the presence of authority.  Over time we have come to understand this practice in very Anabaptist terms:  “We have no creed but the New Testament, as read in community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  Some have taken this as a way to expand the historic creeds in order to include the full life of Jesus.  Others have taken this as an opening of the definition of what it means to be Christian.

In my own spiritual life, I have journeyed this open pasture and find myself resting in the frames of the creeds.  As Richard Rohr noted in his book Everything Belongs, some times the question must be explored from every angle, only to arrive back at the original answer….albeit with a whole new understanding.

So how is that this Radical Pietist, Anabaptist, and staunch critic of the Constantinian form of the Church can stand in worship and find the creeds spiritually sustaining?

First, the Nicene formula makes tw0 things clear.  God is God. And Christ is God.  In the ancient language, begotten not made, light from light, true God from true God.  So why is that important?  Early in the debates the ancient theologians wanted to maintain the distinction between creator and created.  To place the Word (Logos) on the created side of that line would be place the saving Christ on the side of those needing saved.  In essence giving sand to parched.  This made even more clear that the very salvation offered by God was a result of God’s coming to us, making even more poignant the beauty of the Christ hymn in Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (2:5-8)

Or as Athansius of Alexandria said: God became human so that we could become divine.

Second, I deeply value the Chalcedonian definition (451).  For most, this means nothing.  Yet, most of our ideas about Jesus as the Christ emerge from this statement of faith and not the Nicene creed.  Each time a pastor or Sunday school teacher says Jesus Christ is both human and divine they intone the Chalcedonian definition.  More specifically they unknowingly reference its central claim that Jesus is;

one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.

Behind all the fancy language and technical terms of substance and nature is a fundamental conviction, stated clearly by Gregory of Nanzianzus but here paraphrased: That which God did not take on of the human person is not redeemed.  Here we have the Incarnation of Christ spelled out in full.  Not only does God come down, but God puts on everything of our bodied existence…and in so doing restores material living.

So what is all this to say?  Simple.  Despite the horrific uses of the ancient creeds and definitions, the theology of these texts is amazingly liberating.  God is God, yet God also so values created and embodied existence to take on flash and bone, life and death … and life.  No getting around it, the Incarnation redeems and restores bodied life, empowering us to be human beings fully alive.

In essence, this Brethren boy longs for the times of reciting the creed, times of true profession of faith.

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