Category Archives: Theology

Domesticated Ritual

Any one who talks theology with me, or just skims this blog, probably already knows this: I like ritual and liturgy. Whether it is the rich practice of the Brethren Love Feast or a simple celebration of the Eucharist, I like me some ritual.

Yet, despite the beauty and significance of Love Feast for the Brethren, it seems we are about as anti-ritual as we are anti-intellectual. That is, we don’t like too much formability or structure. Never mind the fact that a collection of bulletins from any congregation will show just how much we are set in our ways.

Such antipathy to ritual comes in many forms— It is too formal, not enough room for the Spirit; Ritual reinforces a hierarchy foreign to our priesthood of all theology; Too much pomp for our commitment to simplicity; Too much like what Catholics do, and we don’t do sacramentalism.

Brethren come from a long line of radical traditions that, among other things, rejected clericalism and sacramentalism. It is this latter rejection that quickly surfaces in any conversation about the rites and ordinances of the church. We steer clear of any theology or practice that implies something is actually happening when we break and share bread, or when we stoop to wash feet. In good Kantian terms, we simply do our duty in obeying what Christ told us to do. So we often feel most at home in theologies of communion that lean heavy on the memorial aspects of the practice. We follow Zwingli who emphasized not the presence of Christ in the Eucharist but the “remembering” of the event.

With such an emphasis on memorialism we do two things. First, we argue for a thin understanding of a symbol. It is all “just symbolic”— it only points to an idea we hold in our head. Second, because it is symbolic, it must have a limited range of meaning and so we dare not do it too often for fear of the rite losing its meaningfulness. There is a limited range of what can be thought of, so repetition somehow erodes the significance.

To be blunt, I think this is all hogwash. First of all, while the rites of communion or feet washing are symbols, they are thick symbols. They involve our whole body in ways that typical symbols do not. We literally sense the meaning of what we are doing, way below the conscious level of remembering. We feel the implications of what we do on our tongues and with our feet. And when we put these feelings along side the scriptures, our prayers, and songs a whole range of meaning opens up before us. This is what liturgical theologian Gordon Lathrop calls juxtaposition. When texts, materiel things, musical notes, and body movements come together meaning erupts.

Second, we tame this eruption of meaning with heavy-handed explanations of what we are doing. We tell the congregation that the bread and juice are “just symbols” of Christ’s sacrifice and love. We over determine the act of washing feet by saying it is symbol of service. To be fair, all liturgies and rites have moments in which we describe or interpret what is being done. However, when we have an anemic theology of symbols, we domesticate the action by limiting their meaning.

I remember a class on the Eucharist in seminary in which we were required to read several sermons by Augustine. I was amazed at the meanings he could elicit without sounding like he was determining exactly what the Eucharist meant. It hit home for me when in one sermon he could say Christ is present in the bread and wine and in the very next sermon he could sound very Brethren and say that Christ is present in the congregation of believers who call on his name. Both are true, and yet one statement does not contradict the other.

To be honest, our fear of all things ritual leads us to a place where we domesticate the rites of the church. When we over-determine the meaning of course we would shy away from regular and repeated practice. The meaning is exhausted as soon as we confine what is possible. And the only resort of such a thin conception of meaning is to rely on “meaningfulness,” that inner emotional response to the moment. And when the newness of that emotion wares off, we are left with an over-determined symbol and a nostalgia for the past. However, when we let the texts, songs, and postures play in the field of juxtaposition, highlighting the range of possibilities, the rite comes alive. It reorients our vision of the world and ourselves. It brings new perspective to the things happening around us at this very minute and draws us paradoxically from remembering to the present.

It was Annie Dillard who said that if we had any idea of the power we invoke when we gather for worship we would bring hard hats to church. Unfortunately, it seems we don’t actually believe in that same power, or at least we are afraid of it. We determine and confine the meanings of our rituals, and spread them far a part in time so that we might remain comfortably stagnant in the past, and domesticate the very wild idea that God will meet us in the present and set us on new paths, opening new possibilities with these ancient practices.

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Why more books?

It was rather surreal to see the book in print. In case you missed the tweets and Facebook posts, we rolled out the first book of a new constructive theology series from a Brethren perspective. Kate Eisenbise-Crell pulled together a fantastic volume on atonement (how we are made one again with God). The book is called Cooperative Salvation, and is a helpful study of various theories of atonement. Kate summarizes the history of salvation thinking, including a look at Anabaptist thought, and names significant critiques from a range of feminist thinkers. Her final chapter is an interesting discussion of the human problem, the role of Jesus, and the call of the church in effecting social salvation by putting Anabaptist/Pietist writers along side feminist and Process perspectives. To see how this comes together, you just have to get the book here. While some may not agree with Kate, or might question some of the sources she uses, the goal has been to put a voice into the conversation. Through her excellent summaries of the various theories, Kate walks us through the questions and gives us a point of conversation. (Please take a moment to support Kate’s work here.)

Kate’s book is the first fruit of several years work. Noting a lack in Brethren voices in contemporary theological debates, a small group formed an editorial board to open space for Brethren theologians to contribute to these wider theological discussions. The group, comprised of Kate, Denise Kettering-Lane, Andy Hamilton, and myself presented a series proposal to Wipf and Stock publishers and received the green light. Though the list of books is open ended and still a work in progress, Kate jumped right in. Over the course of a year and a half she prepared the manuscript, the series editors all had a first read with comments and suggestions, and the book went to print. As we say in the series introduction:

This series seeks to add Brethren voices to the contemporary discussions of faithfulness in Post-Christendom. Scholarship among the Brethren in the last century was decidedly historical in method. Constructive theological contributions have been few, and this series seeks to fill that gap. This series then hopes to reach two audiences. First, it aims to provide a Brethren perspective on Anabaptism to the conversations among Neo-Anabaptists. Second, it seeks to contribute a constructive theological resource for the Brethren themselves.

So, then, why publish more books, especially for a tradition that has had a healthy skepticism of theological discourse? Therein lies the intent. As more and more pastors and theologians turn to the Anabaptist traditions to understand another way in the new day of Post-Christendom, we need to put our voices out there. What do Brethren have to say? How do we understand our own stream of Christianity? What does our tradition have to offer in response to the questions of our time? While I still believe our first mode of action is to live our faith in the Gospel as individuals and communities, publishing offers a voice beyond the confines of our tradition.

I remember when I started my studies at another seminary. As we read John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas I remember vividly how interesting it was to hear people talking about my stream of Christianity. All of these Methodists and Baptists echoed what I had learned in the course of worshiping and studying in living communities of Anabaptists. They were talking my language, and all without actually walking with us! And all of this was because some guys published a few books. At the same time, I found myself correcting, or at least tempering, some of what was being repeated. If only, I thought, we had a few books from Brethren to point to in the conversation. Where was our voice of an Anabaptism/Pietism in the conversation?

So here it is! While it is just one book, I am excited by the opportunities. As more and more people look to the Anabaptists as models of new faithfulness, I am convinced the Brethren have a unique contribution to share. Some may worry that these books might set down some kind of official doctrine, or speak too much of one kind of “Brethren.” Yet, that is far from our intention. We have worked to have a range of perspectives, even within our small editorial group. And we are committed to finding many voices, following what Stuart Murray Williams has called “a multi-voiced” model. Rather than turn to just one or two people, like Yoder or Hauerwas, we aim to seek out thoughtful and articulate voices that can engage both our tradition and our culture. What an exciting time! I am so thankful for the work of the editors, and especially for Kate’s hard work and tenacity to jump right in. I am also thankful to Wipf and Stock for picking up such a venture. All I can say is this— May there be more to come!

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Why Study the Past?

To be fair, not a lot of Anabaptists study the history of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. As one professor of mine comically noted, “that’s when everything went wrong!”

So the question remains, why study the past? (I have directly lifted this question from the title of a magnificent little book by Rowan Williams. I have no desire, nor the ability to compare my thoughts here with Williams skill and insight.) As a member of a tradition that evaluates the shifts of the church marked by the conversion of Constantine and the acceptance of Christianity as an imperial religion this question is much more specific. Why spend so much time on a age when we already think that so much went wrong?

Any answer to such a question should make a simple, though nuanced distinction. There is a difference between telling the story of what happened and making a judgement about the appropriateness of what happened. When John Howard Yoder, and other Anabaptist writers, summarize the events of what we often call the Constantinian shift they are making an assessment of those events. Basically, they are asking not what happened but whether what happened was good. The historian, on the other hand, tells the more fundamental story of what occurred, without (as much as possible) judgement. Ironically, the former work is dependent on the latter. 

As an Anabaptist historian of the Constiantian age I frequently struggle with the stories told by likes of Yoder. I am clearly sympathetic with the judgement, but do see how such stories are more rhetorical than they are true. Basically, the judgment clouds how the historical narratives are understood. The problem is, of course, that the wider theological claim is too easily dismissed by others as poor history, or barely supported by the historical record. 

This is not to say that judgement is not warranted, but those with a historical awareness have developed the skill of assessing what is in the record and what is a matter of current concern. In other words, I can narrate the changes of the 4th and 5th centuries, but I also realize that my judgement is constructed on the later implications of those changes— the investiture controversy of the Middle Ages, the Peace of Westphalia in the wake of the Thirty Years War at the dawn of the Reformation, and the cultural Christendom of the United States. My problem with the changes has less to do with the changes themselves, but with the ways they played out over the following centuries. 

More specifically, I think the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries have much to teach us as we experience our own cultural shifts. Not only were these centuries formative of much of Christian belief and practice, but the shift towards power seems to offer much to ponder as the Church slips from the privilege it gained. 

First, Constantine does not become Christian out of nothing. Certainly his mother’s engagement with Christianity has much to do with his acceptance of the faith. Yet, for a woman of such power and status to even play with the faith so persecuted means that the church was already rising in its own status long before 313. Even while the persecutions were under way under various efforts, the apologists tasks of legitimizing Christianity in the early centuries and the attractiveness of the Christian ethic spread the faith far beyond the poor or marginalized. Basically, good Romans were coming to the faith before Constantine made Christianity an official religion. 

This is not to say that toleration and acceptance were the only results of Constantine’s conversion. In the following years theologians, and even Constantine himself, began a process of synthesizing the Christian and Roman narratives. Piety, a key virtue for both cultures though defined in different terms, soon linked good Christians with good Romans. Even the council of Nicea, and Constantine’s later support of Arians, was a matter of imperial concern. The church could not be divided since the empire must be united. This was not just a political calculation by the Roman emperor, it was a theological claim based in both Christian self-understanding and Roman imperial religion. Division and conflict was a sign of the gods’ dissatisfaction with the empire. Writers like Eusebius of Ceasarea worked hard to pull the two traditions together in order show not just continuity but also a kind of Divine favor. Basically, what was promised in Christ’s return was coming to pass in the “Christianization” of Rome. 

In short, the logic of a people sojourning within a dominant culture shifted. Now the Empire was a fulfillment of God’s plan. It is not all that hard to imagine Christians of the time celebrating, even welcoming such changes. The threat of persecution was vanishing, and the there was no more need to fear reprisal by neighbor or govenor. Whether or not they agreed with the theological shifts exemplified in Eusebius, the peace of Constantine was a pleasant new reality. Why not welcome the culmination of cultural privilege?

That same logic of Imperial Christianity is still with us, even as the vestiges of cultural Christendom crumble. There are those who would claw their way back to the culture articulated by Constantine and Eusebius. There are those colonialists who would link evangelization, the sharing of the good news, with the spreading of political ideology. There are those who would see the nation-state remain a religiously legitimized institution, even if that religion is a kind of generic Christianity without the trappings of particular denominations. Though I’ll refrain from judging the intent of writers like Peter Leithart, who recently published a book with the glowing title of “Defending Constantine,” I do think his version of the story reflects this impulse. Even Leithart notes he is writing to confront the rhetorical historicism of the likes of Yoder and Hauerwas. Yet, it is striking that his portrait of Constantine is painted in decidedly democratic terms. In Leithart’s story Constantine comes across as the model of democratic virtue, tolerant and peaceful, concerned with the virtue of his realm, and working toward a balanced application of Christian values in the culture. Never mind the dramatic shifts in logic and practice, or the fact that culturally he remained the Augustus of the Empire and presider over the imperial cult. In short, the clear contradictions are glossed over in a kind of prefiguration of a Jeffersonian politician. 

Leithart asks the wrong question- was Constantine a Christian? Whether he remained fully Roman or tried to emulate and establish the faith of the early martyrs, the shifts in theology and practice matter more. Even with Leithart’s defense, we moderns must ask if these shifts were “good for the church.” Can they even be harmonized with the scriptural witness to Christ and the first Christians? Is it possible to see the faith as an Imperial Religion and still call Jesus Lord?

As Christian power and privilege wane, I think these shifts of the early centuries have much to teach us. From where did the assumption that Christianity and political power were best held together come? How might we untangle some of these assumptions that continue to be rolled out in the rhetoric of the Christian nation? How did we get here? And what do we do now that those assumptions are no longer culturally valid?

I have my own arguments to answer these questions, but it is first important to say that we, who are comfortable and welcome this next cultural shift, need to know the past. It is not enough to point to Constantine and proclaim “therein lies the problem.” Rather, we need the better story of how the theology, logic, and practice shifted, and how others of the time forged different ways even as Christianity took the throne. We need to understand Imperial Christianity in order to better tell the story of a Christianity as an alternative politic in our current time. By studying the past, even the outcomes of those happenings with which we so strongly disagree we better understand the logic and theology that we confront day to day, here and now. 

It isn’t so much about what Lord Acton famously said, that we might be doomed to repeat our past, but rather that we comprehend the thick portrait of who we are now by tracing the lines through the centuries. In other words, good theology is built on good history. 

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Twitter Killed the Theology Star

We all know that video killed the radio star, but what about social media? Has Twitter killed the theology star?

Theology has rarely been “in style” but social media has opened a door onto the once insular conversations. There was a line between popular and academic theology. Now, with Twitter and blogs, emerging academics write for an audience outside of the “guild.” At the same time, writers of varying degrees jump into blogging and tweeting as a part of their promotional strategy. In the publishing economy, this is becoming more and more essential. One’s followers in social media is seen as market potential.

The clear benefit is that an “ivory tower” discipline can begin to step out of the tower and speak so others may hear. Theologians can begin to hear their work in conversation with so many more people beyond their fellow specialists. Too many books are published for the dozen our so colleagues in the field. Just look at the footnotes and you can see a conversation between a few people. Engaging a wider population helps to stretch our vocabulary and style while at the same time inform our thinking in ways that the traditional format of guild journals and academic publishing has not yet done.

Yet, social media is also creating a bit of a different culture that brings with it a number of problems. First, it creates an air of conversation that is really non-existent without intentional cultivation. Few writers have been able to actually engage an audience and keep the conversation constructive in the process. Instead of conversation, trolls and ideological one-upmanship tend to dominate the threads. As we have seen, a number of news outlets and journals have shut down the comment sections of their webpages for that very reason.

For those emerging into the field by the nature of their formal education or in a desire to cultivate a following to support future projects, the conversations often feel like nothing more than self-referential. In academic forums this is fairly typical. It is not uncommon to sit in a conference presentation and listen to question after question from graduate students that are more about their own interests than about the paper just presented. It is kind of like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character calls out a first year grad student for his pompous recitation of the basic syllabus. “So you must be in this class, wait until next year when you read these books and you will change your mind.” Yet, in social media, such dismissiveness is akin to heresy. The democratizing assumptions in Twitter and Facebook are such that any attempt to “pull rank” is quickly labeled as mean or patronizing.

The effect is a kind of conversational throat clearing. The theologian has to defer to the readers and commentators in a way that often dismisses his or her own research and expertise. There is no room in social media for a true expert or trained practitioner. Instead, in the chaos of comments, he or she must constantly acknowledge the critiques of readers who often have only read the basic introductions to any one theological topic.

In other instances, when the commenter does have some expertise in a field, the conversation quickly focuses on that person’s understanding. In face-to-face conversations, the expectation of collegiality pushes towards connections and development. Yet, in social media the conversation often sounds like someone trying to make everyone else’s project look like their own. Of course there are ways to show the interrelationships between different theological arguments, often through questions. But the tactics and rhetoric are such that there are sentences of preface in order to not sound like a troll or a random critic.

I am beginning to wonder if Twitter and Facebook can ever really support the kind of conversation they seem to capitalize on. All we need to do is look at the number of headlines that basically say “Look at what this person said on the internet, how stupid can they be!” Or, skim the Twitter feed and see how many “gotcha” tweets have been posted in the last 30 minutes. The nature of short, pithy, and decontextualized statements the likes of Tweets and Facebook posts is based in the soundbite culture of our media. While substantive discourse can emerge, such conversation has to be filtered through the noise of trolls, snark, and flat out error. In short, the energy expended in filtering our the static quickly outweighs the benefits of the media itself. The end result is a social media “persona” that is just as one-directional (“Here is what I think on this subject”) as traditional publishing has been for centuries. Either respond to all the comments, or don’t. To filter out the dregs of trolls and off-handed remarks runs the risk of looking too self-concerned.

For those in Anabaptists circles, social media gives the feel of community when all that really exists is a connection. We often insert our expectations for high church community where relationships are a significant part of our theology, and assume that these connections give us place to confront or converse. However, community in social media is a rarity, and takes effort to cultivate. Just because you are friends on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter does not give one the capacity to “call out” or for that matter to question. In the end, such questions or comments are just more noise to filter. And when the comment or critique that we think is substantial is filleted with the dregs, it becomes personal or the silence becomes a statement made about the character of the other.

In the first centuries of Christianity, Tertullian famously asked (with a bit of rhetorical irony) “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem.” Maybe it is time to ask a similar question. What does Twitter have to do with Theology? Maybe it hasn’t killed the theology star, but it is importing expectations into the conversation that may not have been there in other media. Maybe social media in general is creating a false sense of community, giving connections the weight of true relationships. This veneer, however, is quickly shattered when someone does not respond as we think they ought. This is not to say that community cannot be encouraged, or even cultivated on-line, but rather such communities are the outliers, and thus the exception that proves the rule. Building relationships through social media takes just as much effort, if not more given the lack of context and non-verbals, as building them in face-to-face conversation.

So then, the irony should be clear. Here I am writing about the pitfalls of social media on a blog that will be shared through Twitter and Facebook. The question, then, is to you: What of theology in the social media landscape?

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To Kenosis or Not to Kenosis

In a previous post I asked if Neo-Anabaptism is a ‘White Dude’ movement. The issue is that as Christendom crumbles, we who self-identify as either Missional or Neo-Anabaptist trumpet the need for a letting go of power, a kind of kenosis of the church. The hymnic imagery of Philippians 2 often stands as the central scripture for such a perspective. For, just as Jesus ’emptied himself,’ we too ought to let go of power and privilege.

In the best light, this approach is a critique aimed at the American church as is slips from the center of society to its margins. In a way, we are offering a bit of solace as Christians lose the influence we once had politically and culturally. Such a ‘self-emptying’ is an opportunity for more faithful discipleship.

In more problematic ways, however, such an invitation can be heard as a proscription telling others that they are to let go of too much. As I said in that earlier post, it should give us pause to think that just as persons on the margins of society are gaining influence and power the white guys are saying that power and influence are not that important any more. In a weird kind of role reversal, those who were in positions of power and privilege are once again telling women and marginalized men to become more like white men. We have come so far, yet have not changed at all.

This shouldn’t suprise us too much. Theologians have been warning us for some time that a theology of Kenosis– or self-emptying– can often be used oppresively. Or, as theologian David Jensen of Austin Presbyterian Seminary noted in his book ‘In the Company of Others, “the theme of self-emptying has been used in our patriarchal context as fodder for the obliteration of the selfhood of women and marginalized men.’ (19) He went on to say that ‘unless images of suffering, self-sacrifice, and emptying are accompanied by the denunciation of injustice, the image of emptying becomes simply a coping mechanism in contexts of oppression and not a prophetic critique of existing oppressions.’ (20) Instead, Jensen offered, a just use of Kenosis involves relationality and otherness, and a ‘wider, social understanding of the human being, the world, and God.’ (20)

My goal isn’t to restate Jensen’s argument. Instead, I want to build on my earlier observation that Neo-Anabaptists must explore more intently issues and theologies of power. In our current use of Kenosis, we must be aware of both its implications and its critiques. Certainly, in Paul’s language in Philippians the idea of self-emptying is a descriptor of God’s own movement. It is then in light of God’s own action that we are to respond with the same movement to others. In a way, God’s self-emptying in Christ is a movement that empowers humanity to live abundantly. It is a giving that empowers. Our own kenosis is to mirror that same empowerment.

Kenotic theologies more justly argued in the way Jensen illustrated also push us to acknowlede ‘otherness’ more fully. In that way, I wonder if a more contemporary rendering of ‘Kenosis’ might not de-emphasize the dynamics of power and powerlessness. Rather, Kenosis more aptly points us to a vulnerable crossing of boundaries. In that frame, kenosis is a matter of setting aside our ego in such a way that we can more fully engage the humanity of ourselves and others. In traditional language, we often assume that power means ‘power over others.’ When viewed in this way, power is a wedge between one person and another. Yet, when we look to the example of Jesus, the aim was not letting go so much as it was a way of reaching out. God crossed the boundary between Creator and created so that all of creation might flourish.

The typical move among Post-liberal thinkers and some Neo-Anabaptists is to redefine the terms that cause the most trouble. As I stated in the earlier post, we need to expand our definition of power. Yet, at the same time, we need to reorient our other terms so that they no longer carry the oppressive weight of keeping things as they were. Kenosis is just one such term. When we view it as a bridge building act that sets aside ego, things like stepping aside so that others might speak become not only possible but normative. In other words, creating a multi-voiced church, or a rich hermeneutical community, is made possible by actual acts of letting go. At the same time, the cultural power and privilege that persons do have by nature of their class, gender, and race can be seen not so much as hurdles but as opportunities to open spaces for others who have been culturally marginalized.

In other words, Kenosis as “acts of vulnerable boundary crossing” is a way of reclaiming the humanity of all in the midst of a culture and way of life that diminishes some for the benefit of others. It becomes a practice that raises all rather than an coping ideology that maintains systems of oppression.

For me, the greatest kenotic practice is that of washing feet. On the first Maundy Thursday of Pope Francis’ pontificate the media was astonished that he entered a prison in order to wash the feet of 12 inmates. For those used to seeing the pope guarded by cardinals, and elevated above the crowd in so many ways, it was a profound reclamation of Jesus’ own washing of the disciples feet. For those of us in traditions where feet washing is a regular practice, it was not all that shocking. Time and again we have had our feet washed, and have stooped to wash the feet of another. In that mutual act of vulnerable boundary crossing, we have found profound aspects of ourselves and our sisters and brothers. It is that mutuality of serving and being served that the greatest meaning of kenosis is lived out. No one is left washing the feet of all as a servant of the house would have done in Jesus’ day. And at the same time, we each receive the grace of the priestly act of another.  What is more, there is no coercion in the act. In both washing and being washed, we each act freely. No one is forced to kneel, forced to perform the ordinance by an oppressor. And at the same time, the one being washed offers bare feet in a act of intimate vulnerability. In that moment, the boundaries are crossed. And in that shared kenosis, both are raised up. Both grant each other grace in their shared humanity.

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The Apophatic Rage and its Problems

It is all the rage among popular theological writers today to make the apophatic turn. Apophatic theology is basically being clear about what we do not know about God, and that our theology needs an “ unsaying” through a negating of the names we use for God. For example, we can say with confidence “God is my rock.” Apophatic theology reminds that we must also say “God is not a rock.”

In the wake of the Emergent Church movement these writers, exemplified in the work of Peter Rollins, have turned to Deconstruction in the mode of Jacques Derrida to raise up the importance of questioning often unquestioned dogma and culturally assumed ideas. Following Rollins’ book, there is a need to turn away from the idolatry of God.

What these followers of Derrida rarely acknowledge is that apophaticism, or negative theology, has historic roots in the Christian tradition itself. Basically, they say nothing new. Their method, however, barely echoes these historic roots. Instead, what Rollins and others present is a mental exercise of negating the terms within theological discourse. For the ancients, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, apophaticism was a formative process- an ascetic discipline.

For Pseudo-Dionysius, the early proponent of such a negative theology, there are two modes of talking about God- the naming of God or kataphatic theology, and the corresponding descent of un-naming God or apophatic theology. As Sarah Coakley argues in her recent book God, Sexuality, and the Self, the twin modes of theology were accompanied by the ascetic pursuit of contemplative prayer. In order to speak to God the theologian names God and then must negate those names in order to listen to God. This was far from a practice of theological discourse or thinking, rather it paralleled the reformation of self often called asceticism.

The work of Rollins and others falls into the modern trap of thinking the problem is with the way we think. Instead, I think the early apophatic writers were clear that we need to reform our practices and our thinking. The two are not to be separated. What is more, the apophatic turn- the negation of the names for God- was a means of clearing the ground of the mind in order to hear God in prayer. Simply put, apophaticism wasn’t a philosophical or rhetorical exercise. It was a way of life, based in waiting on God in prayer.

In our time, the seeds of the Enlightenment have taken full root. Coupled with the publishing market place for theology, we are often dealing more with the realm of ideas than we are with practices. Speak the word “theology” and we all assume we are talking about a way of thinking. Yet, as I have highlighted in other posts, these earlier writers were convinced that theology was comprised of practices and thinking. As Evagrius said, “the theologian is one who truly prays.” Theology in this frame is not about publishing books but praying to God. In fact, the very word “orthodoxy” was not about right dogma but about the right praising of God (doxa being the Greek word for praise).

Rollins and others are right in the impulse to reclaim the ancient practice of un-naming God. However, this practice is not a reclamation of Hegel’s full dialectic (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; antithesis corresponding to the new apophaticism). Nor is it a philosophical approach to writing made popular in the works of Derrida. The ascetic and contemplative of the early proponents of negative theology reveal just how mind focused our theological discourse has become. The contemporary apophatic writers miss the need to silence the world of words that hinder our very prayers.

Of course, I am biased in this assessment. Having read Dionysius and many others it is easy to see the gaps in Rollins’ approach. That is not to dismiss the role his writing plays in popular theology, but rather to name my own hope that his work is an entrance into contemplative tradition of the church. In short, bringing apophatic theology back into common, Protestant theology is not about questioning authority, but recognizing that our prayers are both filled with words and silence in the presence of God.

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We Need a Better Story!

A small group in my congregation is working through Rob Bell’s newest book “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.” Bell is a great speaker. He has a gift for communication and teaching. The book itself is an attempt to open theology to the mysteries of talking about God. A noble task that Bell does in his own way and voice. You can’t miss that you are reading a Rob Bell book when you open the cover.

As I read the opening chapters, especially around his engagement with science and language, I found myself nodding and writing down a list of ancient christian writers who had said just as much. I realized rather quickly that the story we have told ourselves about being Christian today is woefully thin. Those of us in traditions shaped in the reformation- especially radical traditions that fall under the umbrella of evangelical- need a better story.

We just finished Bell’s discussion of the mystery opened within the studies of quantum physics. I could not help but think of the genre of literature in antiquity that explored the 6 days of creation (here is a link to one noted example from Basil of Caesarea). Called Hexaemeron, these sermons or treatises on the first chapters of Genesis, made significant use of the current science of the day. These theologians were unafraid to weave together theology and science, metaphysics and physics.

Only we modern Protestants have an allergy to such exegesis. Thanks to the modernist debates between liberals and fundamentalists we are continually circling around the debates between evolution and creation. So we have dogmatic atheists jumping up and down that Christians are luddites and neanderthal-like in our thinking while Christian fundamentalist are waging a culture war to reclaim a rigid theology, seeking to make it part of secular education.

We are also the recipients of the theology of Karl Barth whose allergy to “Natural Theology” has transferred to generations of theologians. Rejecting the classical depiction of the world as one book of theology and the scriptures as another, these theologians ignore the lived experience in the world- along with the sciences that shapes our way of understanding it.

By the end of the discussion, I came back to something Stanley Hauerwas said at our recent Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren. True to his style, Hauerwas spun a poignant phrase- it is a story we tell ourselves when we have no story. We Protestants are stuck in the modernist loop- the conflict between liberals and fundamentalists. So we tell ourselves that story, over and over again, because we have no better story to tell. We simply cannot narrate ourselves out of a very thin depiction of theology and faithfulness.

Honestly, I am weary of the ‘story we tell ourselves because we have no other story.’ I am tired of the accusations of apostasy thrown about by both liberals and fundamentalists.

Our heritage- that of the early church through Late Antiquity (the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries)- offers a richer, more robust way of thinking about faith and science, culture and discipleship. We need to recover the literature of Hexaemeron- of exploring the creation narratives in conversation with what we understand of the cosmos today.

We need a better story.

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All about Desire

In a recent blog post over at “There is Power in the Blog” I argued that ascetic Christianity offers a helpful corrective to liberal forms of the faith, both progressive and conservative. In the comments Scott Holland, professor of theology and peace studies at Bethany Theological Seminary, asked a helpful question that some how slipped my awareness until recently.

I’m interested in your familiar refrain about “the re-ordering of desire.” Must desire always be re-ordered? Doesn’t this refrain imply that the desire of earthly delights is debased? There are spiritual traditions that insist the relationship with the divine is not a gnosis but rather an eros, a desire.

The question is intriguing and worth some extended reflections.

I often turn to Mary Margaret Funk when talking about asceticism. The general knowledge base regarding askesis is often formed by a medieval form of practice something akin to the penitential monks that frequently appear in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. As these monks enter each scene they intone in flat Latin chant “Pie Jesu…” and bang their head with a board. This penitential, self abusing parody speaks volumes. Asceticism in this popular view is a process of self denial and even abuse that seeks to purge desire from the human person. Funk, on the other hand, in her book “Thoughts Matter” states very plainly that the monastic project was not the eradication of desire, but the “right ordering of desire.”

So the simple answer to the question is that no, earthly desires are not debased. Rather they are to be understood in their place and for their effects. John Cassian, my dissertation companion for the next two years, often speaks of desires wrongly engaged. Rather than reject them outright, Cassian often speaks of our desires for “earthly things” as a diagnostic for what is out of place within the heart. This is especially clear as he talks of sex and food. These two things are not categorized as evil but rather as desires that must be monitored. In fact, our hunger and lust are often signals within Cassian’s system that the heart is focused on other matters, mostly self gratifying in nature.

All this is to say that desire is not evil, rather the impact and telos of our desires must be discerned. Desire, un-ordered or grounded in self seeking, is to be shunned. Yet, desire for things as a windows into Divine wisdom is to be embraced. Thus, desire as a general category is neutral but the effects are not. To turn toward desire of “earthly pleasures” for the sake of our own self-centered consumption are evil. Yet, these desires and enjoyment for the sake of God and neighbor are to be celebrated and cultivated.

Of course this makes sense especially within the Neo-Platonic ontological system. That is to say, desire and its ordering is best understood in what is often called the hierarchy of being. All things that exist participate in God to varying degrees. The more material things around us fall at the lower end of the ladder while the more spiritual things towards the higher, God-end of the hierarchy. Augustine famously uses this frame work as he defines evil as the absence of the good- so far at the bottom of the hierarchy that it moves into death.

In this frame, sin is to look down the ladder towards death and away from God. Repentance, or metanoia, as a turning makes the most sense in that it is a literal turning of one’s gaze from down to up. Reordering of desire then, is what James K. A. Smith speaks of as aiming our desires toward God.

Two things emerge from this system and understanding. First, repentance and turning from evil is not a rejection of earthly things, but a re-understanding of them in light of their participation in God. To color our desires with evil is to see them as objects for our consumption and self-gratification. When we reorient our desires and pleasures they are all seen as joyous windows into God’s goodness and sustaining of life, not just our own self-centered life but for the whole of creation.

Second, desire in this frame is teleological. There is an end or object of desire. Put in plain english, we desire something or someone. When desire is disordered it seeks these objects as things to be consumed by us. Food or people get sucked into our obsession with self-gratification. When it is re-oriented by Christian practice our desire is set like an arrows toward God- increasing our understanding, our resolve, and the common good of all God’s creation. Thus, the objects of our desire in this way are partners in our shared ascent to God- not stepping stones or consumables- but companions on a journey.

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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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