Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

Our Sunday school class just wrapped up a great series. We have asked several persons to share how their mind has or has not changed in the course of their life. When you think about it for a second, it is a huge question! We often think of certainty and belief as something we hold onto. Any change of perspective or understanding is somehow a sign of weakness, or even worse “flip=flopping.” Thanks to the American political culture the idea that we can change or come to a different understanding is now anathema. 

After our first set of conversations I started to wonder how I would answer the question. There are a couple of things that came to mind— how I turned to look at the early church in my studies; how I came to see universalism as a problem and not an opportunity. Those topics, of course, would be enough to comprise a blog post or more (and likely light few fires along the way). 

There has been, however, a general trend in my thinking that encompasses those particular topics. In the fancy fashion of catchy titles, I’ll simply say that “how I changed my mind” can be summed up this way- Confessions of a Recovering Progressive.

Growing up I wouldn’t say I lived in either a conservative or progressive part of the country. However, the general influence of American Evangelicalism was quite pronounced. I was an early participant in after school Bible studies, and even went to See You at the Pole events. At the same time I agued for Christian non-violence and pacifism in the days of the first Gulf War. By high school I came to define myself as socially liberal and biblically conservative- not really knowing the baggage of either term. 

In my senior year I chose to attend a generally progressive college. My friends who knew of Manchester, and heartedly disagreed with what they knew about the school, wished me well by saying: “Don’t let them change you.” Knowing these persons well, I understood this as a fond farewell. But I am sure there are others who hear it as a bit derogatory. In fact, my declaration of a major— Peace Studies— probably did create some concern.

At college, my sense of not fitting the mold continued. I eventually dropped my pursuit of Peace Studies for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which was that I felt my emphasis on religion as the basis for peace making was on the fringe of my fellow students. That isn’t to say that the Manchester Peace Studies lacked a religious foundation, but rather my peers held a typically modern perspective that religious conviction is at the root of most violence. 

Nonetheless, over time I found myself self-identifying as a progressive Christian. I even bought a book or two by John Spong. I was simply running in the crowds that valued a clear sense of being progressive and I had cut my theological chops among them. By the time I entered PhD work, I had even made my position clear as so many did in the early 2000’s— on Facebook. I listed my “Political Views” as progressive. 

Along the way though, I have never really felt too at home in that circle of liberalism. I have often felt at odds with the general assumptions about Modern Liberalism. Here I should say that Liberalism is the dominant perspective of America. The assumptions and ideologies of Liberalism frame our cultural and religious debates from religion and science, politics and faith, to economics and social good. It is the genus for the two political species we call “progressive” and “conservative.” In essence these two camps are arguing with each other as to the best understanding of the liberal perspectives ushered in by the politics and philosophy of modernity (Kant and Descartes, just to name two). Basically, progressives and conservatives are arguing about how to be the best Liberals.

At one point this finally came to a head as I argued with a fellow Brethren theologian about the ways the liberal dichotomy of progressive and conservative impact the debates of the day. He quickly commented that even as I say these things my Facebook profile labeled me within that liberal construct. The chipping away of my progressive credentials had begun, and I deleted my own label. 

Certainly, as many of my blog posts attest, I am not all that liberal. I have found Post-Liberalism to reflect more of where I stand, especially in my critiques of modern assumptions and the false dichotomy of progressive and conservative. In 2012 I posted a piece on the surge of interest in Neo-Anabaptism. There I tried to say that those of us within historic Anbapatist circles that find the emerging camps of Neo’s helpful and interesting are drawn to the Post-Liberal perspectives of thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. In a way, I was making my position much more clear, stating plainly that my constant fringe feeling within liberal circles, even before I knew the word Post-Liberal, was indicative of not having the right category. 

So thanks to my friend and fellow NuDunker Andy, I picked up Nancey Murphy’s book on liberalism and fundamentalism. There I found the exact sentiment I had been experiencing all my life, and had tried to encapsulate by saying I was socially progressive and biblically conservative. In her opening argument Murphy sums it up this way (in paraphrase): To the liberal we sound like fideists, and to the conservatives we sound like relativists. And there it was! I finally saw in print the exact feeling I had in high school and college. Progressivism simply did not have space for the deep sense of faith and tradition I often argue for in my theology. At the same time, conservatism simply did not have room for the pastoral and contextual perspective I often bring to ideological debates. 

So despite my strong critiques of capitalism, the death penalty, and the American warring culture, I am just not a progressive. At the same time, I am not do not think that returning to anything actually is possible or helpful (there are things like patriarchy that I simply do not want to recover). 

Of course, there is a lot more to say about changing my mind. There are a lot of tapes that run in our heads, especially in our political climate where liberalism in both forms defines so much of our language and perspectives. Pressing pause on those tapes, or even playing them backwards, takes time and energy. To do so, is often the source of some personal frustration and draws side glances or outright conflict from others. Yet, I have to say I am a recovering progressive in search of better words, more options, and less antagonism in the ways we understand our world and our discipleship. For now, it is enough to just say I am more at home among those for whom faithfulness is our social capital and not progress, where the politics of the world are but shadow games in light of the Politics of Jesus, and where economic presuppositions are based in mutuality and sharing rather than accumulation of wealth as a sign of success and blessing. 

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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Looking Ahead

The number of year in review blogs has been a little overwhelming. So I was thankful for fellow NuDunker Matt McKimmy’s recent post. Though he summarized 2013, he included what he was hoping for in the year to come. So I started thinking about what is ahead for the Brockway family in 2014.

Our events begin just a few days from now. On January 15 I will undergo a corneal transplant. The surgery is outpatient, but I will be under general anesthetic for about an hour to ninety minutes. Add to that the thought of a donor cornea, and the idea of someone cutting on my eye, and I am a little anxious. But in the long run, this is an important step for the year. I have a condition called Keratoconus, a thinning of the cornea that basically makes my left eye useless. I have been writing a dissertation with one eye and a constant headache. To make this next year what we hope it will be, the surgery is the best step forward. To make it more fun, I found a skull and bones eye patch for the recovery!

In May, we will welcome our fourth child. The news came around the celebration of our youngest’s first birthday. Though we were a bit surprised, we are looking forward to welcoming another member to our Brockway Brood! Of all the things to look forward to in the coming year, a new child certainly tops the list! Now, we just have to start the process of choosing a name.

The rest of year will be pretty active. In terms of work, I will travel to Columbus Ohio for our Annual Conference where three years of work on Congregational Ethics will be presented to the church for a vote. I will also travel to the beauty of the Idaho mountains to lead bible studies and campfires for a great group of Church of the Brethren folks. (Yes, this is my job!) And later in the summer I will join thousands of CoB youth at our National Youth Conference. We prepare for four years for this conference, and I am confident this year’s conference will be great!

Among all of these great events, I plan to complete my dissertation by the end of the year. Not only have I been talking about a PhD since graduating from undergrad, I have been talking about 2014 as the final year. But there is something to be said for having three chapters on the computer that makes that end goal so much more real. When we made the move to Elgin, I was still looking at a language exam and comprehensive exams, so to say that I plan to defend sometime in the next 12 months is a bit surreal. Though I still have one chapter’s worth of writing, and the tedious editing and revisions ahead, I am looking forward to seeing this project come together. And hey, this is why it is a PhD. It is just better to think of the months’ long journey and overlook the hours at my desk that lay ahead!

2014 certainly has a lot in store for us! I am looking forward finding out what else it has in store. It will be a year to remember!

A Prayer for the Year to Come

Gracious God, you have brought us safe to this new day. With the grace of the year behind us, we give thanks for the beauty of the year to come.May we not squander the gifts of this new day and may we always give thanks for the many blessings that come our way. Grant us the perseverance to strive for the goals ahead and the peace to rest our bodies along this way of following Jesus. May this year to come bring peace and may we, as your disciples, witness to that same peace each day. In the name of the one who came to grant us new life, Jesus our Lord, Amen.

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Change without a Change

It was a question I was wondering myself, but one that I had set aside as “theologically inappropriate.” Gathered around the dinner table the other day following my ordination in the Church of the Brethren, a friend asked quite plain;y: “What’s changed?”

As I said, theologically for the Brethren nothing changes at the moment of ordination- at least not anything that hadn’t already changed at baptism (and strictly speaking, nothing changes there either). We are a priesthood of all believers tradition. So technically, one enters ministry when he or she exits the waters of baptism. So, really, on the theological side, nothing changed.

And yet, a lot did change. As a church bureaucrat I can list all the things I now must do in order to maintain my ordination. And, for that matter, i now don’t need to fill out yearly paper work as I did as a licensed minister.

At the same time, the work I was already doing continues. The to-do list on my desk is the same as it was on Friday when I finally went home. There are no new events on my calendar. And the dissertation was not some how completed when I came in to the office.

I am just sacramental enough though to say that everything has changed. In the public recognition, both on my part and on the part of my faith community, I am not just Josh but am now a set-apart minister. In that public statement of vows, of reaffirming my baptismal covenant, and hearing the confirming assent of my congregation a lot does change. Even as I knelt among friends, family, colleagues, and sisters and brothers in faith, as they laid their hands on my head and shoulders, and as I held my youngest son in the midst of them, there was a change.

Certainly it was a change long in coming. It was not as though a switch was thrown the moment I stood up. Rather, in the 14 years of my discernment, ministry, and training I have lived into a different sense of myself. I am sure there are some who knew me at various points in my life who would be a little perplexed by the way my life has shaped up. Yet, over these years I have consciously put myself in places so that I could grow into a minister, and a particular kind of minister at that.

Ironically, there is a sense in which the change marked by the our ordination vows and prayers was not completed. I may not have annual reviews but I do sense that my vocation will have a different look and feel in a few years. As so many have said, this is a journey. Ordination may have been a high point along way, but it is nonetheless “on the way.”

So what changed? Everything and nothing, all at the same time. Thinking about that answer, I was drawn back into our NuDunker conversation about church planting. Ryan, a plater in Pennsylvania, said something to the effect “I love church planting and I hate.” In other words, no matter what changes, how the work goes, I cannot see my self doing anything else.

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NuChurches- Exponential Vitality

This post is part of the next NuDunkers conversation. This time we will discuss church planting. Several NuDunkers are in the early stages of planting churches so we thought exploring the practical and theological questions about the practice would be a great conversation. We will be joined in the video hangout this Friday at 10AM Eastern by Jonathan Shively, Executive Director for Congregational Life Ministries of the Church of the Brethren (and my boss!). To join the discussion, click over to the Google Event page, check out the blogs posted there, and comment to your heart’s content!

I am not a church planter. So I write more as an observer of and companion to those whose calling is to create communities of disciples.

I remember when the idea of church planting first came to my attention. My first reaction was similar to many I hear today in denominational circles. “Why plant new churches when we have so many dwindling communities already?” Now, many years later the answer to that question is a whole lot clearer. Church planting is not a zero sum game. Like one network of church planters says in their name, the growth is exponential.

Now as a parent, I understand just how this works. I am an only child. So when my wife and I talked of kids I could barely fathom being the father of one, let alone four kids. (In case you know me, yes you heard me right- four. We are expecting another member of the Brockway Brood in May!)  In our economic mindset we tend to think of love as a limited resource. So it really takes a stretch of the imagination to realize that as each kid is born the love of a parent grows to make enough room for them all. There is always enough love for one, or four, kids.

Growing the church is much like love’s growth. The energy, vitality of our congregations grows as more join us. That is, as long as we see ourselves as expanding the work of God in the world and not as creating more family groups of like minded people.

When we think of our congregations as safe places, where batteries are recharded to make it through a horrendous work week, comprised of friends and not fellow disciples we barely attend to the fact that what God has done for us should not be held tightly, but shared. In other words, we tend to lack the conviction that our faith is so convincing that we cannot do other than share it. Yes, I am talking about the E-word. We lack the conviction that our beliefs should be shared and that others should join us in following Jesus Christ.

When we have that conviction an energy fills and attracts. First, the mission of supporting and taking part in growing ministries enlivens existing communities. It reminds us that what we first experienced in God’s love continues, and makes room for us and many others. Second, the energy and conviction of a people embraced by God’s love draws others in. In more negative terms, why would people want to be a part of a community of people who solemnly conduct the business of maintenance. In short, people are drawn to life.

At some point, we must turn from zero sum thinking- that the energy and resources invested in planting churches is taken away from our existing congregations. Rather, we would do well to think systemically- that our ability to remain vital as communities of faith is a lot like love. It grows to sustain and enliven all our communities.

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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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A Pacifist and A Good War Story

In full disclosure, I wrote this a few weeks ago now. It just happens that it feel to the top of the pile as the next in line to go from my notebook to the light of day on my blog. It just so happens that today is Veterans Day. So far I have found my sisters and brothers rather quiet in the interwebs about this day. It is hard to say anything meaningful about peace making on Veterans Day that does not sound trite, simplistic, or even demeaning of soldiers and veterans.

I don’t come from a long line of pacifists. In fact, three of my grandfathers have served- stateside, Korea, and Bastogne in WWII. I love these men. As one of them ages, and memory loss becomes more pronounced, talking to him of his battle experience at the Battle of Bulge is the one thing that is still vivid for him. I will sit for hours asking him questions, allowing him to touch some memory that isn’t vanishing. And I love him all the more when we are done.

So today, a day originally set aside to commemorate an armistice , I write as a pacifist who values war stories.

Not long ago a portion of my sermon on peacemaking was shared in a newsletter for the Church of the Brethren called eBrethren. I was pretty clear that non-violence is central to my theology– based in both Christology and Ecclesiology (my understanding of Jesus as the Christ and the nature of the Church).

At 18 I was forced to make my decision whether or not to sign up for selective service,  just as every guy is at that age. Actually it wasn’t much of a choice. If I wanted any chance to go to college I needed to register. And since there is no way to sign up as a Conscientious Objector, I found a little corner of my card to write it as plainly as possible.

Nevertheless, just a few months after my birthday I got the famed call from an Air Force recruiter. It was a fun conversation, mostly because I was waiting for him to “pop the question.” Actually, it never came. We were on the phone for 30 minutes talking about school and decisions. He did ask where I was planning on attending and I told him Manchester College- since I had just sent my deposit. Of course, he had no idea what he was about to step into. “Never heard of it,” he said, “what’s with choosing them.” So I told him about the Manchester’s affiliation with the Church of the Brethren. “Oh, who are they?” This was just getting better and better! “A small denomination known as one of the Historic Peace Churches.” A new silence came over the phone. “So what are you going to study.” There it was, the moment of truth: “Peace Studies.” More silence, this time colored with a bit more discomfort. “So…. I guess that means you are CO then.” “Yes it does.” And with that, and a short good-luck, the call was over. I don’t think I got another recruiter call the rest of that spring.

The odd thing is, I watch a lot of war movies. I’ve read Tim O’Brien’s excellent book “The Things they Carried” about his experiences in Vietnam and was entranced by every page. Just the other night I watched Mel Gibson’s violent, graphic, and yet poignant movie “We were Soldiers” for at least the third time. I even read the book it was based on in order to get the story as the soldiers told it. I wouldn’t say I love war stories. In fact, when the movie ends or the stories concludes, my gut turns and I sit in silence for a long while, eventually finding a simple question coming to mind- Why do we do this? When the book is closed or the screen goes black, I am even more committed to my convictions about peace.

But it is an odd combination. Not many of my peacemaker friends would say the same thing. In fact, the horrors of war are a major reason they find non-violence so appealing. I don’t think you would ever catch most of them flipping through the “Military Dramas” on Netflix.

Yet, for me, there is something about understanding that drive to combat, the unknowable sense that what binds soldiers in battle is not their ideals but the very need to survive and care for the guy beside them. As O’Brien says, there is an unspeakable beauty and attraction to the lights, sounds, and valor of the fight. I don’t find any of that to be a glorification of violence. In fact, for me, it is a reminder that war is hell- literally, a deep separation from God.

I would say my commitment to non-violence, my continued affirmation of CO on my selective service card, is not an ideological one. All the same, my understanding is clear- All war is sin. Others may say that is the exact definition of ideological pacifism.

But really, I get it. I get the drive to defend, to fight, the hope that we can change something in violent conflict. I know all too well my own ability to hate and do harm. Even as I watch my kids grow I know the greatest temptation to violence would come if anything were to happen to my kids. I know, deep down, that there is a thin red line between my commitment to non-violence and my ability to harm another if something were to happen to any of them.

I get the paradoxical beauty of fireballs and tracers, and the extraordinary heroism of soldiers doing what they can to save one another. Unlike some of my peacemaker friends, I don’t look at a soldier as a bad person, or some kind of evil in human form. I see a someone in even greater need of God’s grace, love, and healing. In fact, I see a person who needs the healing act of confession- not as a trite “thank you for your service,” or an attempt to re-live someone else’s war story, but as an act of hearing the hurt and offering the vocal affirmation of God’s already present grace.

I am a Contentious Objector. And, yes, I watch war movies. I am a realist when it comes to the violence we are capable of inflicting and I am committed to non-violence regardless of the cost. I am a pacifist that values the grim stories of war.

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Will the Real Yoder Please Stand Up

In Anabaptist land the debates around the legacy of John Howard Yoder are heating up. It seems that every Menno or Neo-Anabaptist blogger is wrestling with what to do with Yoder. Even contemporary writers working with Yoder’s theology have to now offer a kind of apologetic for doing so- (See the appendix to Peter C. Blum’s newest book “For a Church to Come”.) Even Mennonite Church USA has called a committee to assess Yoder’s legacy. Funny, since he died sixteen years ago, and the disciplinary process of his conference had concluded the previous year. Is this a new day of Anabaptist Inquisition?

Up front, I have to say I have no skin in this game. I am not a Yoder scholar, nor have I read much more than a couple of his books. I do find him useful in many regards simply because of his publishing. Other theologians know what I am talking about because Yoder jumped into the wider theological discussions of his time.

Second, there is no excuse for his conduct. Neither his social awkwardness or any theological justification that remains in his unpublished papers can convince me of that. Plainly, and flatly, he clearly abused his power and prestige. Even if a case can be made that some of the encounters were consensual, I still believe them to be in error, not just because of my theology of marriage and sexuality, but because any consent is still clouded by his position of power over others- as a teacher and as a noted scholar in the field. Basically, he held the careers of women in the balance based on his assessment. In ethics lingo, he was in a position of undue influence and he abused that position for his own gain.

Lastly, I mourn with the women still traumatized by Yoder and the continued engagement with his work. I stand with them, both in the call to openly discuss the failings of leadership and the unmasking of continued abuse of women by men in power.

At the same time, I hope that Yoder’s most vocal critics can distinguish their theological disagreements from their distaste for his conduct. As I said in a recent comment on Young Anabaptist Radicals, to mask disagreement with Yoder’s thought and influence with a pious ad hominem is to re-use the women he traumatized for other gains. Though this is not sexual abuse, it is abuse by proxy.

So I am hoping for some honesty to enter the conversation. I wish that all of Yoder’s work were available to assess just how his understanding of sex connects to his other published works. I also wish that people who are critical of his work were honest about the nature of their disagreement. If the frustration is with the ubiquity of his scholarship, then say so. If there are disagreements with the theology he outlined, then name the differences. But please, name the differences rather than resorting to the ad hominem of “and his work should be negated by his conduct.”

As I said in my comment on YAR, Hauerwas and McClendon clearly understood the implications of Yoder’s conduct for his writing. Thus, they coached him to submit to the disciplinary process as a living out of his stated convictions about the church and discipleship. That is not to say that his submission to the conference was a calculated political move, but that only in Anabaptist circles is such harmony between ideas and practice so important.

Other theologians are well known for their behavior. Barth had a long time sexual relationship with his assistant. Tillich is also known for his sexual conduct. Others are known for a clear lack of compassion in general. Yet, to say that “thus their work is questionable” matters very little. I certainly have problems with Barth’s theology and the way it is now an industry in itself. Yet, it is disingenuous and lazy to say his extra-marital relationship negates anything he says.

For Anabaptists in general, such an ad hominem has dramatic effects. It is inscribed in us from the first days of discipleship that our life and theology are to match. So to resort to the fallacy has tremendous rhetorical implications. Yet, it seems to me that the equally important value for discernment in community should remind us that we are also to discern our personal motivations.

Just as the women who were traumatized find the continued praise and publication of Yoder’s work to open old wounds, I have to assume that the invocation of their trauma for gains other than healing is equally as painful. So, then, just as many are asking for the real Yoder to stand up, and be known, I hope that the real criticisms of his work will be made known. Standing on the back of these women for political, theological, or other gain seems to put them back into the power play that first began at the hands of Yoder.

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Parking Lot Mystogogy

Last week the NuDunkers hit the ground running with our first Hangout of the fall. I have been in school so long, that I expect to start something new each fall. So in a way, getting back into the rhythm of blogging and having robust theological discussions seemed only right.

Sister Dana got us started off well with a question about how we Brethren do our God-Talk. And true to form all the blogs that led up to the conversation carried our individual styles, tones, and perspectives (which is what I really enjoy about this style of conversation across many blogs). At the same time, it was clear that we shared a desire to put our theology on the ground- give it legs so to speak. We also acknowledged that Brethren are in dire need of good thinking and language. I agree with Laura that we need more contributions from Brethren in the wider theological discourse and good reflection in our own tribe. In a way, we Brethren theologians need to be bi-lingual- making sense in our congregations and in the academy.

Thus, I think Laura also nailed it when she referenced Mystogogy. Having followed up the discussion on Twitter, that was a new term for some NuDunkers. Good thing we defined it quickly!   For those who missed the Hangout (you  can still catch the recording here) Mystagogy is the teaching that followed the rite of baptism. Just as many famed early preachers had catechetical sermons (those sermons they shared with those about to be baptized) they had collections of sermons that outlined the sacraments after the newbies were still dripping from baptism and had tasted their first communion.

The early baptismal process could extend for years in some cases. In the catechism they would hear the scriptues read in church, and then would be excussed before the Eucharist for further, moral instructions. They would not have experienced the last half of the liturgy, what some have called the Liturgy of the Table. (Imagine excusing new comers from your congregation today before communion!)

On the night of baptism (often the night before Easter) they would be baptized, confirmed by the anointing with oil, and then receive their first communion. They then entered a time of Mystagogy. Like the time of catechesis, they would hear teaching on this other half of the liturgy. Basically, the preacher would stand up and say “You just did this” and outline the meaning of the rites of baptism and Euchasist. Hence, the word connects Pedagogy, or teaching, and Mysteries, or the Sacraments. It is almost the prime example of Practical Theology- Here is what you did and this is what it means.

Church leaders are more familiar with the meeting after the meeting. Some times they are privy to these ad hoc gatherings, and more often they find out about them after the fact. These gatherings have a kind of pejorative name- The Parking Lot Meeting. Its the time when the board or even just a select few leaders continue the conversations of the meeting long after everyone has left- often times in the parking lot. Some might say that is where the real decisions are made. (Although, since I work in the area of Congregational Ethics, I hope that none of the decsions are made in these Meetings after the Meeting.)

I wonder if what we are talking about as Brethren Theology is a kind of Parking Lot Mystagogy. The friendly, after the fact conversations about God-Talk that begins to fill in the vocabulary and understanding of the whole church. Some pastors already do this with Coffee House or Pub Theology sessions where all the guards are down and people are just talking. Sunday School often seems too formal a place to actually talk about what we think and mean when we talk about God. It has connotations of being correct, or offering the right theological response when the questions come. Yet, after the fact- around kitchen tables, sharing a cup of coffee, or even (GASP) a pint- the “rightness” of Sunday School disappears and people are more free to ask questions and learn new things.

I wonder if we what we need more of is less Sunday School Theology and more Parking Lot Mystagogy. This seems to me, to be the place where the organic intellectual is in her prime- able to speak from experience and learning in a normal conversation away from the trappings of doing “church.”

I know some, like Matt, do this already with dinner and conversations or Theology on Tap gatherings. In a day when pundits like Bill O’Reilley can write a book about the Historical Jesus, it seems like we need to drop the false humility and actually get out and do some theology. When people can turn to any book store, and grab mediocore tomes and half-witted spiritual autobiographies we need to get out of the ivory tower and do some mystagogy. “This is what we just said in prayer and worship, why would we believe anything different.”

I am not talking about an elitist theological vocabulary and conversastion with a few friends in pub. I am talking about hearing the theological reflection of our fellow worshipers and asking how their ideaologies and practice line up. Asking how their self-sufficiency or American exceptionalism relate to the Jesus we read about in scripture. Or even naming things that have been out right heresies for millenia that now seem common place in generic American=ist theology- such as escapist spiritualism that disregards the body and the clear confession of faith that it is precisely this body that will be raised again. At some point, we need to put all this book learnin: on the ground. At some point, we need some good Ol’ Time Mystagogy.

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Discipleship Not Dogma

This post is part of a larger NuDunker conversation, “Dunker theologizing: How we do our God talk” including a series of blog posts and a live Google+ hangout Thursday, 10/3 at 10 AM eastern. We would love for you to add your voice to the discussion! Check out the list of blog posts on our Google+ page here.

The Brethren often are accused of being anti-intellectual, both from those within the tradition and those outside. In fairness, that moniker is often applied to evangelicals as well (see Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind). For Brethren, though, it does seem to be in our DNA. Culturally, we have been a rural denomination. Though education is clearly important, there is often a mistrust between plain folk and those of the ivory tower. I have written elsewhere that this might be better construed as anti-elitism. The family vision of being church often plays out as a kind of radical egalitarianism that has little room for specialists or academicians. The second reality is that our roots in Pietism included a skepticism of the scholasticism that emerged in the second and third generations of Lutheran and Reformed theologians. Though these thinkers did not debate the number of angels on the head of the pin, a derision often applied to medieval scholastics, they did work towards dogmatic precision.

These Pietists, as well as their Anabaptist predecessors, did not have much good to say of such dogmatism. The theological precision, birthed in academic ivory towers, often elevated belief above discipleship. We might say that dogma, a kind of rigid and precise theology, is a lifting of ideas out of lived experience. For the Radical Reformers, such an approach to God-talk was one of the many problems with the state of the church. Theology, for them, appears to have been first and foremost a part of discipleship- understanding what it means to follow Jesus.

None of this is said in order to imply that the Brethren are or have been atheological. Since theology is first and foremost “talk about God,” then everything we do and pray is a kind of theology.

I have found that the liturgical theologians exemplified in writers such as Alexander Schmemman, Aidan Kavanaugh, Gordon Lathrop, and Don Saliers help to understand the way Brethren do theology. Though their talk of Liturgy is more high-church terms they do distinguish between two kinds of theology. Primary Theology, they argue, is the theology expressed in our worship. In that sense, all prayer is theology- talk not only about God, but to God. As Don Saliers puts it, Primary Theology is a theology of address. Secondary Theology, then, is the reflection on and interpretation of the theology in our doing. That is what most people think theologians do in writing books and teaching classes.

The difference is born out in two great maxims of the early church. First, Evagrius of Pontus, a monk of the fourth century, wrote this of prayer and theology: “A theologian is one who truly prays, and one who truly prays is a theologian.” The idea is clear- our prayers are theology, and anyone who prays is to be understood as a theologian. The second comes from a writer in what is now France called Prosper of Aquitaine. In one treatise he summed up what was expressed in a great number of writers before him. “The law of supplication is the standard of belief.” That long phrase, often cited in Latin has come to be known in a shorter phrase- Lex orandi, lex credendi” or “The rule of prayer is the rule of belief.”

For Brethren, it seems to me that the phrase might be altered a bit- Our way of life is the rule of belief. This gets to the deeply embodied sense of what it means to do theology. This includes our worship, our commitment to mutual aid, and the way we envision a witness for peace. All this is to say our discipleship is our theology.

That is not to say that we are not “secondary theologians.” By that I mean we do have a need to reflect on both our categories for God and God’s mission through the church, and especially our experiences in the living out of our confession of faith. It is just that our commitment isn’t to dogmatic theology. Rather, our theology and reflection are subjective, integrated within our particular lives. Dogma, as the lifting up of a theology beyond what we know and experience, is counter to this integrated mode of theological reflection and discipleship.

In a recent meeting sister Dana reminded me of what our teacher Don Saliers often said as he taught this liturgical approach to theology- “You all already know this.” By this he was trying to remind us that many of the theological categories often relegated to the realms of systematic theology are already a part of our worship and prayer. I often offer this as a reminder to members of the Church of the Brethren. Though I may have several theological degrees, my commitment to the Priesthood of All guides me to hear the thoughts and perspectives of my sisters and brothers. Even more so, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher of theology to remind us that we each are theologians. For, as Evagrius said, when one truly prays, one is a theologian.

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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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