Category Archives: NuDunkers

A Beautiful Chaos

Despite some technical juggling the NuDunkers just wrapped up a hangout. We had a great time thinking together about the Holy Spirit. If you caught the first introductory hangout, you might know that pneumatology (theology of the Holy Spirit) was the impetus behind getting Dana, Brian, Andy, and myself talking and eventually starting NuDunkers.

In my travels over the last year I have been struck by just how many communities within the Church of the Brethren were gathering together around the theme of the Holy Spirit. In each of these settings, I noticed that Spirit language was common, but there was clearly a range of understandings about just what the Spirit does within out midst. As Dana said in our hangout, there is a clear drive to systematize just about everything in theology, and I want to avoid too rigid of a box. But still, it is interesting that a group of Non-Creedal Christians like the Brethren still maintain a Trinitarian frame to understanding God.

So just what is it that we are talking about with all this Holy Spirit language?

From our conversation I noticed two themes– the organizing and connecting nature of the Holy Spirit on one hand, and its unpredictable or beautiful chaos on the other.

Order-

Just as the Spirit of God blew across the water in the first days of creation, the Spirit works among us today bringing order out of the chaos of our own making. We often think that it is our institutional structures that keep us together. Yet it doesn’t take long in church life to see just how little boards and by-laws actually do. There is much in our shared life that is defined by and impacted by our relationship, conflicts, desires, and previous commitments. Or as some have said, their isn’t good rule that isn’t made to be broken.

So what keeps these people coming back together week after week despite differences? Anthropologists would tell us it is the impulse to community or the familiar, but I think theologians point to ways the Holy Spirit keeps us connected. In our shared baptism, the minister lays hands on us after immersion in the water to pray for the Spirit’s gracious presence to confirm the confession of faith. It is that shared access to God that links us together. Thus, by praying together, offering our supplications to God through the intercessions of the Spirit (Romans 8) we are brought together in ways that legislation simply cannot.

Chaos-

At the same time, though, the Holy Spirit “troubles the waters,” as the old spiritual reminds us. With all of our planning and organizing, working to sustain our faith through institutions the Spirit leads us beyond our plans. Supporting and connecting then, are not produced by our efforts, but by the Spirit. And that same Spirit has ways of going and coming that challenge our own attempts to nail it down. To us, that aspect of the Spirit’s movement appears as pure chaos compared to our attempts to order our shared life.

That is where the hangout conversation most struck me. In the conversation that took place on the event page, the term came up that best describes the Holy Spirit’s work- Beautiful Chaos. Beauty has a logic all its own and in many ways, what is deemed beautiful defies linear explanation. Chaos, even the grotesque, can have a kind of beauty to the eye. In those cases, logic and systematization cannot prevail. Rather, it is the sense of awe in the midst of lines, colors, shapes, textures, and perspective.

In the midst of the Spirit’s chaos we cannot help but stand in awe. It confounds even the wisest of persons. It reaches beyond our minds’ attempt to understand and to order. And yet, it comforts and convicts still the same. It is our link to God, by as individuals and a community or faith. It sustains. It empowers. And it guides us into the ways of God- here and now. That is beautiful chaos.

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A Spiritual Corrective to Anabaptism

This post is a part of the next NuDunker  conversation. This round we will be looking at Pneumatology, or theologies of the Holy Spirit. The NuDunker Hangout will be Friday February 8th at 11 AM Eastern. You can join the Hangout here https://plus.google.com/events/clb732ip7fr679sg1c682akciq4

If you miss the live discussion, no worries. We will share the link to the recorded conversation. 

Catch the pre-hangout posts from some fellow NuDunkers DanaBrian, and Andy.

In the recent flurry of strategic planning around the Church of the Brethren a phrase has risen to the surface; We speak from our Anabaptist and Radical Pietist roots. Each time this phrase occurs, it is usually in reference to the unique contribution of Brethren theology to the wider Church.

That is well and good, but unless you have a degree in church history or theology it matters very little. Those of our faithful members might have encountered the idea in their early membership classes, but to the wider public shaped by terms such as Mainline, Evangelical, or non-denominational, it says very little.

So we resort to a kind of short hand. “We are one of the historic Peace Churches.” To those who have made a life of witnessing to non-violence this might strike up some memories, but still it is a term for insiders. So we shorten it even more- “We are kinda like the Mennonites.” And with that answer we short circuit any attempt to speak of our unique qualities.

For we are anything but “like the Mennonites.” That is not to dismiss our brothers and sisters of the faith, but to say that the heritage of the Brethren, and the ways we have understood being the church differs. In short, we are back to the two pillars of our past- Anabaptism and Pietism. So what on earth does that mean?

The short, non-academic, answer is that Brethren have done church in between corporate and individual discernment. Two pieces then emerge as central to Brethren thinking- the community on one hand and the individual’s access to the Holy Spirit on the other.

For the 16th century Anabaptists, the radical move was to assume all christians had access to and could understand the scriptures. The simple idea was that, when gathered together, the community of believers discerned together what the text meant. It was a kind of radical democratization of theology based on the shared reading of scripture.

The 18th century Pietists, however, applied the democratization principle not to scripture but the Holy Spirit. In other words, the community was not the arbiter of the presence of God’s Spirit. Rather, each person by nature of his or her confession of faith and baptism, was gifted with the Holy Spirit. This has traditionally been articulated in the phrase “respect for conscience”. Here, the community is to recognize the wisdom of collective discernment but refrain from forcing it on others whose conscious attention to the Holy Spirit says otherwise.

Through time, this emphasis on access to the Spirit has propelled Brethren into places our more sectarian Anabaptist sisters and brothers were want to explore. The most notable piece has been the Brethren involvement in the ecumenical movement. While we have not jumped in with both feet, we have been in the room from the beginning. More strict Anabaptists, even among the Brethren, have balked at the sense of compromise involved in the ecumenical process. More Piestist Brethren, however, have been quick to reply that the Spirit is often alive in places beyond our own understanding. The effect has been a kind of Mainline-ization of the Brethren. By the 1960’s the Brethren soon began to look more and more like their Methodist cousins.

My sense is that Pietism is the appropriate corrective to our more sectarian impulses. Attention to the workings of the Spirit is a constant practice among the Brethren. We don’t just assume that when the community of believers gather the direct output is the complete and established understanding of God’s will. Rather, we gather frequently, asking one another questions raised in the context of living out our faith. It is a constant means of testing what we have come to understand out on our own. Often this means that what the community has said in one place or one time is represented to the church for further discernment.

That is the root of our rejection of the creedalism (not creeds, but the settling of one question for all time). Attention to God’s workings, in scripture, among the church, and out in the world forces us to regularly ask; “Is this how we understand God to act?” This frequent discernment propels us back into the world- living out our faith, experiencing God’s ever present actions, and seeking out what God is doing beyond our sectarian confines.

Most often the correctives inherent in holding Anabaptism and Pietism together in one tradition has more recently been about choosing sides. There are those who grab onto a strong sense of community bounds articulated in Anabaptism while others reach far into the ways of Spiritualism implicit in Pietism. Yet, I think the two are best held together. Our theology of the Holy Spirit reminds us that, while the community is the context for discernment of the Spirit’s work, it is not the arbiter of God. Rather, the Spirit works around, through, and in spite of our churchiness. To be sure though, Anabaptism reigns in our Spiritualism with the reminder that we are to test what we have come to understand in daily living with the understanding of the community. It is not just I who know God, but we. And a rich Anabaptist and Pietist synthesis says that what we each experience is made complete in the project of shared discernment of the actions of the Holy Spirit.

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And we’re off…

Don’t worry if you missed it, but the NuDunkers had their first hangout. Five theologian practitioners connected on a live Google Hangout to talk about this emerging collective. You can find a great summary on Dana’s blog here- http://www.well-yah.blogspot.com/2012/11/hanging-with-nudunkers.html

I will be honest, I had a whole other post in response crafted last night. I was planning to come back, write a conclusion and do some editing before posting. All that intention, however, vanished after a train wreck of a morning in other theological discussions around the web- both in the comments and in my own horrible culpability in furthering of the vitriolic and acerbic “conversation.”

These events, and the presenting questions of gender in theology and academia, forced me to ponder just why NuDunkers is so energizing for me.

Though our initial conversation hovered high above the ground, a necessity for the purpose of introduction, we are working at the intersection of thinking and doing, theology and ministry. Having a foot in both the academic and church worlds, I often find myself torn in two directions. Or, more concretely, criticized for being too heady in the church and too practical in school. Such a binary, or false distinction, is draining and combative in a way I am simply too tired to engage any further.

Second, as Matt noted, the relationally of the whole project is central. Seeing faces, and talking together across the distance is the central way of doing good theology and good ministry. In todays media landscape it is too easy to write, and accuse, and berate others without ever having to see into their eyes. Even more to the point, it is all too common to talk across others without ever having to see them as real persons- replete with real desires, real fears and passions, and doing good work. For me NuDunkers begins to break that down through this process of slowing down the conversation and bringing the ideas and the people together. I have literally been cussed out by both friend and foe in the last six weeks, and I for one am done with ideological reflection that justifies such behavior.

And last, this is an open forum. Our writing is out there, and the conversations we are having are live as well as recorded. There is no hiding behind ivory towers or back rooms. Some have raised concerns that NuDunkers was a closed group of people deciding the trajectory and questions. That is why the video conference is so important to the project. As you can hear us say over and over again, anyone can raise the questions, lead the conversation, and join in (although the limits of Google Hangouts right now is a functional, and not intentional, limitation). In the early conversations between Dana, Brian, Andy and I, we constantly repeated that we wanted more people in on this. We were benefiting from the dialog and want to learn and hear from others as well. With new media options that is possible. So why not do it! All the four of us have done is outline a process for how that can happen.

All of this is to say that I find more excitement in this collective project than I do in many other theology and ministry forums.

You can find other reflections on the first NuDunker hangout

Hermes Table (Andy Hamilton)- http://hermestable.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/where-the-wind-blows/#comments

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A Materialistic Church: The Missional Corrective to Anabaptism

The standard critique of Anabaptism in its traditional form, and thus extended to its recent recovery, is that it is sectarian. Anabaptist visions of living in an alternative community, with different stories and rituals, is about withdraw from the current world. In fairness to the critique, there are some forms of the tradition that are about withdraw and creating a strong separatist culture with a dominant society. It is said, then, that Anabaptists are disconnected from reality and overly idealistic in thought and practice.

Yet, this need not be the case. In fact, I think that the intersection of Missional thinking and Anabaptism is a right balance of peculiarity and cultural participation. In this video, Michael Frost at the Sentralized conference demonstrates just how fruitful the interaction between the two schools of thought can be. Rather than arguing for a purist community withdrawn from society, Frost talks of the church as a community in exile. Dress in the clothes, enjoy the food and games, develop relationships with others, and yet tell the radical stories, sing the dangerous songs and embody different ways within the dominant culture.

Put another way, the Missional posture takes the Anabaptist community out of the realm of ideal forms and puts it on the ground. The congregation, as the central story telling and ritual place, does not exist in the sweet by and by. Rather, it is local- it is made up of people right where we are, comprised of hopes, fears, questions and needs. It is not isolated from the injustices of the society, nor is it immune to the questions the surrounding culture is asking.

Thus we aren’t talking about ethereal practices, but specific actions. We aren’t just talking about radical songs, but the very things a congregation actually sings. And when we talk of washing feet, we aren’t talking about a sentimental woodcut image but real feet on real people. And when we say we are being the church, it is clearly not the ideal. We are real people, who have goals and yet stumble along the way. We laugh with each other one moment and gossip the next. We serve meals with each other and then work at power grabs in the business meeting. The Missional corrective to Anabaptism reminds us that we are real people with faults and are situated in a wider context from which there is no escape.

Those who tend toward the idealized portrait of the church, those of the Anabaptist persuasion would do well to take seriously the contextual and cultural awareness that Missional theology brings. As part of that move, it is important for us Neo-Anabaptists and NuDunkers to wrestle significantly with the Incarnation as the defining theological frame for the tradition. By remembering that Christ did not come outside of a time and a place, we can begin to articulate how the vision for the church so central to our thought is not divorced from either. Our faith is, as Peter Rollins and many others say, a materialistic faith. And thus our ecclesiology or theology of the church, must be equally materialistic and embodied.

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Meet the NuDunkers

In the past week a series of blog posts have introduced a collective called the NuDunkers. This group has taken shape through the conversations between Dana Cassell, Andy Hamilton, Brian Gumm, and myself. Each of us is posting a take on the project. 

In the early 18th century a group of German Radical Pietists gathered together to study scripture together. Though it is often assumed that Pietism was rooted in Enlightenment individualism, these folks gathered together to explore the inner workings of the Holy Spirit and the outer words of the scriptures together. Eight of them decided that their discipleship to Jesus Christ called for them to baptize one another. Soon, they became known as the Neu Tauffers, or New Baptists. Those of the imperial churches, however, categorized them with disdain as Anabaptists, or Re-Baptizers.

In our day, many theologians and church leaders are returning to these Anabaptists thanks in part to the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. These Neo-Anabaptists seek to articulate a kind of Christianity not beholden to the magisterial thought and practice of Christendom traditions. Yet, Yoder’s vision of Mennonite theology and Hauerwas’ idealized community only speak of one segment of the Radical Reformation traditions. The denominations that emerged from the Dunkers of the 18th century, The Church of the Brethren and The Brethren Church among them, present a form of Anabaptism that differs noticeably from that presented by readers of Yoder and Hauerwas.

It is this synthesis of Radical Pietism and Anabaptism that we as NuDunkers are seeking to articulate. The NuDunkers are a collective of practitioners who are seeking to understand our context and faith together. Our method of theological reflection is first dialogical across the miles using digital media as a vehicle for conversation. As partitioner theologians we speak from our experiences in ministry by working systematically through traditional categories and specific questions. In our desire to understand our faith lived out in these days, we are necessarily interpreters of scripture, experience, and heritage, all the while remaining missional in posture.

Four things are important to fill out here:

Theology is a Conversation– Whether we are continuing the dialog through the ages or are working out our faith today, we engage in a conversation. Just as the original Brethren gathered around the scriptures to discern their faith, the NuDunkers seek to make the conversational nature of theology explicit. By gathering a few “organic intellectuals” to reflect publicly about a question or topic, and then extending the conversation through blogs, we hope to encourage the conversation. With digital media we have an opportunity to model a vision of the church as a “multi-voiced” tradition.

Theology is Contextual– The greatest danger to theology or doctrine is the temptation to elevate it beyond the experiences of life. While truth is not relative, our understanding is. Just as the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem to recount the acts of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles, it is important for the partners in the conversation speak from their experiences of ministry. As we gather across the miles we seek to follow the pattern of testing our experiences against the outer words of scripture and the gathered community.

Theology is Seeking Understanding- The conversation then, is hermeneutical in method. By bringing together our contextual experiences we seek to understand what God is doing in the world. Following the maxim of Anselm, our faith is seeking understanding.

Theology is Missional– The Anabaptist witness through the ages has been to question the Christendom model of being the church. Though some elements of the Anabaptist traditions have adopted an Enlightenment vision of Christendom, the NuDunkers seek to be explicit about the Missional nature of the church in whatever context it resides. The church’s acts- both of peacemaking and evangelism- emerge out of the Missio Dei. Rather than assuming cultural hegemony is the means of change, the NuDunkers take seriously formation of persons in the Upside Down Kingdom of the church.

These are the NuDunkers. Join us in the conversation.

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