Tag Archives: Critique

What just happened?

Votes have been cast. I am sure tears have been shed just as there have been shouts of victory. Yet, we all woke up today- the world did not end either in the coming of a savior or in the first days of the anti-christ. So we really have to ask- What just happened?

Unfortunately, the politi-tainment machines are still in gear. Now the media will move into the post-mortem of an electoral season that their viewers were first hand observers of for over 18 months. While a retrospective is outside the norm for our 24 hour news cycle, it is an important move. Although I would go about it completely differently. Instead of looking to polls to interpret the meaning of the outcome, I think we should be asking ourselves a different question- “What just happened to us?”

From my experience, I can only say that we have been object of a systematic effort to co-opt our imagination.

In the late weeks of October a number of bloggers, from Catholic to Anabaptist, explored the ideas of “not voting.” In reading both the posts and the comments, it was evident that to even ask the question was enough to draw anxiety and out right anger. It used to be that the question of voting was framed as  “civic responsibility.” Even those who would object to war were voting as a way of participating in the range of American democracy. In using the goods of the civic system, the responsible thing to do was vote. Now, the logic of the Religious Right of the 1980’s, has taken significant hold across the religious spectrum. If one has convictions about the public good, whether related to abortion, poverty, or war, there is a spiritual mandate to contribute one’s voice through a  vote. In many ways, the cast vote is now a prophetic witness. Unfortunately, those who chose not to vote cast their abstinence in the same light- to not vote is to offer a public witness to the debacle of American governance. Both groups then, take the moral high road, invoking a long tradition of prophetic witness while conflating it with the act of voting and its negation.

The reality is that this very divide is a direct product of the political system. We can’t seem to think in shades or in nuance. It is either black or white, red or blue, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican. The American experiment in democracy is precisely the outgrowth of the modern binary of either/or. To even think there is a range of reasons to not vote, or that one’s conscience to cast a ballot is based on a number of concerns or issues just passes by unnoticed. Either one votes, and is an upstanding Christian and true prophet or one is apostate and in danger of losing one’s soul for not. Never mind the equally judgmental rhetoric that is leveled at those who cast votes, albeit for a different party. Somehow we have arrived to the point where one’s faith and Christian walk is dependent not just on voting, but voting for one candidate or the other.

So what has happened to Christians in the midst of this polarized, binary culture? We fight amongst ourselves. We accuse one of not being for justice and another for not caring about the poor. We base our judgments of people’s faith based on their candidate signs in their yard. We look down the pew with disdain knowing our fellow worshiper has “that guy’s sticker”  on his or her car.” Meanwhile, we expend all our energy on the name calling and excommunicating as more people lose their homes, grow hungry and are killed by nation-state aggression.

What has happened to us in this electoral cycle? Easy. We have become more divided and easily conquered. The ways of the system have effectively neutralized any prophetic witness from the church for decades because we have conflated our faith, our vote, and our voice.

So now what? As I said recently- vote, don’t go vote. Discern your conscience. Then once the high holy day of American Democracy has passed, lets meet in the streets and sit with the poor, wash their feet, give them a meal. Let’s go to the VA and cry with the vets while we bandage their physical and emotional wounds. Let’s all take a single mother into our lives, helping to raise the child and let’s cry with the one who found no other option but to have an abortion. Then, once our whispered voices of votes and non-votes have faded we can embody a true prophetic shout together.

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Help, I am Being Repressed!

That classic line from Monty Python’s Holy Grail should be the new mantra for much of American Christianity. Progressives shout it at the screens of TVs and computers full of televangelists and pundits promoting another reading of the Gospel, while conservatives shout it at messages of tolerance from secular liberals.

No where has this been more evident than in the two recent debates regarding religious freedom and free speech. First, the US Catholic bishops played the repression trump card in the wake of the Health and Human Services decision to mandate insurance converge for birth control. Second, and most recently, conservative Christians flocked to a certain chicken vending establishment to stand up for the CEO whose statements about same-sex marriage ignited a media (and social media) firestorm.

Without comment on either of these specific instances, I have to wonder when American Christians became the most persecuted faith on the planet. Most recent studies of faith in the United States show that Christians are still the majority with just over 60% of the population. In addition, Christian leaders still exercise a great deal of influence in our cultural debates. In comparison to many countries around the world, where the practice of Christianity is often met with death either by militias or governments, we in the US have it easy. So when a company might lose a million in profits, or if I am offended at some media personality challenging Christian thought or practice, it is simply beyond reason to assume someone is being persecuted.

Aside from the social and cultural realities, Christians before the conversion of Constantine, or even later the coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope, assumed that confessing Jesus was equal to significant persecution. Each of the martyr stories exemplify a radical posture of acceptance of, even submission to, a culture other than the Church. Each one knew the possibilities and yet faith in Christ was more compelling than the gladiators and lions.

In Luke 14 Jesus speaks to his followers about the cost of discipleship. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost.” (Luke 14:28, RSV) In a context where faith is unfathomable or is outright rejected, our question should not be; “How can I change the culture, what kind of political stand can I make;” but “What will this cost me, and am I ready to pay whatever loss might come?”

The American experiment has created a context in which we have not had to weigh the cost of following Jesus. We have long been able to be both Christian and American without any threat or possibility of persecution. In the conservative and progressive camps of modern Christianity the knee jerk reaction is often the same. Take a stand, rally likeminded voters, or picket the latest monster to sway public and legal opinion in our favor. Both of these groups still assume a kind of Christendom mentality in which the state and the faith are similar enough to prevent any kind of challenge. All that is needed is a good publicity campaign and a solid reference to the First Amendment in order to avoid true persecution.

So which mantra will it be? “Help, I am being repressed!” or “Count well the cost.”

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The “Spiritual but Not Religious” Fallacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Socialized Risk: The Economics of Anonymity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I don’t believe in Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Word, words, and “the word” Pt 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today’s Embodied Gnosticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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