Tag Archives: Discernment

Sect or Community

Bounded vs CenteredSet_ChristIn recent discussions (see here and the discussion here) of Neo-Anabaptism, historical Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, and even Missional theology, one refrain continues to surface: These groups or categories are just still to “old school.” In an age such as ours where pluralism is the norm and distaste for the all things religious, we theologians need to open the doors and sell off the old baggage of “Church.” In a way, such a thesis is a response to the charges of sectarianism leveled at the Radical Reformation traditions. By dumping the baggage in what can easily be identified as one of Phyllis Tickle’s 500 year rummage sale, the hope is that faith will find that the Spirit of God is out and about within wider world. Babylon may turn out to be much different from the heathen culture we have deemed it to be in our holier-than-thou sectarian confines.

This is true- in part. Our sectarian ideologies were simply too naive. To withdraw from the world as if to create the heavenly equivalent in the confines of a pure community simply created communities of control. Defining the stark boundary that should not be crossed by clothing, transportation, worship styles, and even purity codes and creeds missed the scriptural reminder that God is restoring the cosmos to its original intents- reconciling all things, as Paul says in Romans, to God’s self.

Jesus’ retreat to the desert was limited. It was not his whole life and ministry. Rather, such a reorienting withdraw sent him back into the culture of Roman occupied Palestine to answer the questions of faithful living.

Paul, with a foot in both Roman and Hebrew worlds, spoke in two languages, able to see the redemptive work of Christ for both the Jew and the Gentile.

Yet, each of these examples reveals that the redemptive work was done within these cultures and despite these cultures. Jesus didn’t accept all the ways of Rome and Paul did not adopt all the ways of his own Hebrew tradition. There is a sorting that goes on as we live faithfully within the world around us. In spiritual terms, we do some discerning to know if what is before us is of God or something else altogether.

That means we as followers of Christ don’t just sell off all the churchy stuff and jump into the ways of the world. In fact, it is too easy to see around us that things are not as they should be. Scarcity defines our economics to the extent that few have much and the many have very little. Wars dominate the societal visions for control as one country or group finds more and more efficient ways to terrorize and defeat their enemies. And politics, once the quest for the common good, has come to mean nothing other than brinksmanship so that a few may prosper.

Looking at these facets of the “world” should temper any vision that all is good in the land of Babylon.

However, there are places where God is clearly at work. There are times when life is nurtured, people are loved, resources are shared, and peace defines a time. We, as followers of Christ, have the occasion to see these moments for what they are- thin places between heaven and earth; horizons of the world as it is and the coming reign of God.

So we can’t just flee the world, nor can we just say that all is spirit and light. We must “discern the spirits” around us. And where else do we learn to see beneath the veneer but in the formative context of Christian practice. As James K.A. Smith reveals in his book Desiring the Kingdom, we must come to terms with the reality that the practices of the Church and the liturgies of the world are in competition. This is not to draw the stark boundaries of sectarian withdraw, sorting out the Church from the world. Rather, it simply names that we come to recognize God at work in the world through the embodied narratives (liturgies) of the Christian community. For it is there that we hear the shared stories of scripture that witness to the ways of God; share the testimonies of how God has been at work here and now; share a sparse spread of bread and wine as a foretaste of a grand feast; and take part in the needs and joys of each other in the recognition of our interconnected lives. These very practices confront the dominant societal narratives of self-interest, immediate gratification, isolation from and yet power over others. By seeing the contrast between the ways of God in the formative life of the Christian community, we come to look for these signs in our life in the world.

It is in Christian community, not sectarian life, that we come to discern just what God is doing  in, around, and hopefully through us as followers of Christ.

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The Prodigal God and Our Language

Some NuDunkers gathered in a Hangout last week to discuss Prodigal Christianity with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. You can catch the recording (with a few technical difficulties caught for your amusement!).

After some hours from the NuDunker hangout I’ll admit I came around. In the midst of it, however, I was not so convinced. Having entered three different graduate schools and taught just a few classes I’ve had to sit through the language games. In some cases there was an official orientation session regarding the expectations for language and in others it was a trial by fire. In each of these cases there was a desire to be both accurate and inclusive with our language for writing and doing theology. In many cases, however, the desire for inclusivity was overpowered by the easier policy choice of outright limiting the use of certain words. So as we began to talk about the role of language and words in Prodigal Christianity, I must admit I was a bit dismayed. There was so much to discuss about the book and I was afraid we were going to turn critical about the words other authors chose without getting the larger contributions of their writing.

So I’ve mused about this on a long car ride to Ohio.

We didn’t do the typical progressive move and ban words in the name of inclusivity. In fact we started to unearth some of the cultural and theological issues of signs, referents, games, and redemption. In the end, I am with Matt who pressed the conversation initially- the issue is not about the words themselves, but a missing range of images, metaphors, and words. The pastoral task- as named by Geoff during the hangout- is indeed the expanding of our bank of images and words to understand the great and often ineffable work of God around us.

Here are some of the (tentative) conclusions that surfaced for me in the course of my drive.

1) The issue is the USE of words, not the words themselves. Part of the use of these words, then, is the context within which it emerges. That was the thesis of my original post on Prodigal Christianity. In the cases of systematic theology, the starting point is the most crucial. So for Geoff and David to start with the Post-Christendom is a significant theological move. It is not tangential, but rather the core to the project itself. That is to say that the descending of the church from its position of cultural power is more faithful to the kenotic, kneeling nature of Christ. Thus, the entire matrix of the Prodigal God redefines the kingdom language itself. It puts such terms to use in favor of self-denial rather than denial or over powering of others.

It strikes me as interesting that for those most informed by the Deconstructionist play with language the impulse is to limit the meanings of words. Rather than press for more clarity or explanations, it seems that the reaction is often that words have a fixed meaning- ie they have baggage that places them in the problematic or banned outright categories. No where is it more clear that words do not mean what we often assume they mean than in the pages of Derrida. There, context and juxtaposition break open new or peripheral connotations- even at times the baggage is what is deconstructed.

2) Our word choice- whether by conscious choice or by range of vocabulary- draws lines. That is inevitable within theological discourse. The liberal move (both conservative and progressive) to set certain terms outside of the theological lexicon is to draw a line in the sand. It should then strike with some irony when those who favor inclusivity in practice champion the “unredeemable” nature of certain words.  It says to those who find meaning and liberation in certain words that they are patriarchal or colonial in their outlook simply because of their vocabulary (and not their practice). This is most problematic for me as I think back to experiences within African American churches where the words we were hung up on are still part of a clear “liberation theology” within which they are frequently used.

3) Thus, as I said in the hangout, the need for greater intercultural capacity is central to theological conversations. At the recent gathering of the Missio Alliance I found myself doing a lot of “translating”. While I can easily say that some of the vocabulary and even some of the questions were not my own, I was keen on discerning the context for the shared discussion. There were times I disagreed with some of the theological assertions (especially the assertion that our root problems were with the “Hellenization of the Hebrew narrative). However, I heard within the multiple cultures gathered there a desire to reclaim mission as the primary nature of the church.  There is clearly a negative approach to this- they are not speaking my language, not using my words so they must “not get it”. I really appreciated Dana pressing into the conversation by asking, not if the words were the wrong ones, but if there were other theological categories and assumptions at work. That question, to me, gets past the cultural questions and digs into the true distinctions. Also. Laura’s question about ritual and language needs further discussion and I think is a fruitful place for further conversation about the juxtaposition of words and signs.

The final pay off, for me, in the extended discussion of language and vocabulary was to identify the implications for the Incarnation of Christ for the way we understand our words.  To put it in the terms of Prodigal Christianity,  the Prodigality of God of the coming in the flesh, into a particular time and culture forces us to wrestle with the contingencies of language and embodiment. So, in the end, I am with Matt and Geoff, that the pastoral task is key. Our words are malleable and yet, it is always central to the theological (and intercultural) nature of our conversations to expand our vocabulary. Using one set of words to the exclusion of others is to limit our understanding and practice- whether the terms are masculine or feminine, kingdom or explicitly egalitarian.

In the end, this particular Hangout and discussion for the NuDunkers was a fruitful discussion of theological language. While I didn’t foresee that as the aim of the book, this is a good example of how the conversation matters, and that the contributions of those gathered enriches the conversation greatly.

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A Beautiful Chaos

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

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

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

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

Order-

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

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

Chaos-

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

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

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

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A Spiritual Corrective to Anabaptism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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A Place for Women, or Women in Their Place?

Two events took place in the last several weeks. First, an important blog post by Scott McKnight, with the provocative title “Don’t Ordain Women? Stop Baptizing Them!” circulated the blogosphere. By sharing this post recently a great conversation with a good theologian friend emerged regarding the role of the Holy Spirit and anointing. 

A week later I received a letter asking about a recent article of mine in our denominational magazine. The crux of the question revolved around a short sentence about men and women being raised up into leadership within the church. As you may guess, the writer wanted to make sure I was following the proper New Testament setting for women in the church. 

Having just had a helpful discussion on the topic I sat down to pen a response. As I finished I thought it would be a helpful summary to share with a wider audience. 

That said, let me be clear. I did not write this, nor do I wish, to “excommunicate” those parts of the Christian church which have defined ministry or priesthood as a vocation for men only. To be sure, I disagree with them. But I also have not “excommunicated” myself by sitting under women preachers in my life of faith. What is more, I believe that ordaining women is equally valid on Biblical grounds. 

What follows is my own brief outline to the question:

As I re-read your letter, it appears as though the deeper concern is about women in prophetic or leadership roles. While there is a stream in our tradition that has limited the roles of women on biblical grounds, there is also an equally demanding tradition in the scriptures themselves that points to women as significant leaders in the early church. First and foremost it is clear in Acts 2:17 as Peter invokes the book of Joel, that women will also prophesy along side men.

What is more, even Paul himself frequently recognizes women in closing greetings of his letters- most notably Phoebe, who is a deacon sent to the Roman church (Romans 16:1-2). She does not appear to have been a “table server” as the name of deacon implies from the early chapters of Acts, but was clearly one with the authority to make requests of the church. Even then in Romans 16, men do not show up in this greeting until the later verses, and only after several more women leaders have been named.

Something happens, then, between the pages of Acts and Romans and the First Letter to Timothy (I Timothy 2:9-12). To claim that there is one ethic, or norm, regarding women in ministry is incorrect. Rather, the scriptures witness to a great many women who have had significant roles in the sharing of the gospel.

Our spiritual ancestors in 18th century Pietism took this to heart. Access to the Holy Spirit was not limited by gender. In fact, Pietist women were some of the greatest preachers and writers of the time. As the story of our own Sarah Righter Major points out, even an elder, who was sent to reprimand her for preaching in the company of men, returned saying that he could not do such a thing since her gift of preaching exceeded his own.

Even more to the point sister Anna Mouw once wrote that “The question is really not women with men in the ministry, or men only in the ministry; the question is, ‘Is the message from the Lord?’  and ‘Is the Lord represented?'” (Anna Mow, Brethren Life and Thought Spring 1967)

Brother, I do hope that this is part of a larger conversation Yet, I stand by my statement you quoted in the letter- the leaders and prophets of our tradition, men and women, are being raised up among us right now. And I do not think that such a conviction betrays the New Testament.

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“Culturally Brethren”: A Response to Carl Bowman

Recently, Carl Bowman at Brethren Cultural Landscape created a thread based on a statement I made with some overstated rhetorical flourish.  Though we could quibble over context and rhetoric, I think the question as he posed starts to get at some deep aspects of being Church today.  Rather than post a lengthy reply and overwhelm the discussion, I posted my argument here. Enjoy!
 

It’s not news that one of our tag-lines in the Church of the Brethren has been “Another Way of Living.” I can remember some time ago at Annual Conference there were some webbed wristbands going around trumpeting the acronym AWOL as a kind of retort to the What Would Jesus Do? craze of the mid-90’s.

There was much truth to that tagline, despite it’s other militaristic connotations. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren has been a tradition which has championed the living of faith as an alternative to both the Christendom traditions and the wider secular cultures.

In that regard, being Brethren is about being a part of another cultural system. Or in the phrase of Wittgenstein, a different language game. Ultimately, that is what comprises a culture- words, symbols, practices, art, music and even clothing. Much of the debate about dress, the ban, and military service in Brethren history is connected to the desire to be of another culture.

Yet, within the tradition of the Church of the Brethren there is another element to this alternative culture, this other way of living. When Alexander Mack and the others entered the water for baptism, they were not just setting out to be sectarian, or counter-cultural. They were dunking one another in an act of faith. They were bring to life their beliefs. They were giving flesh to their Christian beliefs.

Often I wonder if Mack or the early Brethren would be excited to see how Brethrenism has come to be a way of living without necessarily proclaiming a Christian confession of faith. I wonder if they could have imagined a people claiming the name Brethren as a kind of heritage, a kind of family name, without claiming the faith the 8 sought to embody.

Now the reality of any faith tradition is that it is a culture. It includes practices, symbols, and language just as do local and national cultures. As part of this reality persons within a particular culture may not hold, explicitly or implicitly, the beliefs of that particular context. In fact, with faster travel and increasing communication it is easier to embody a particular context while importing the ideas or practices of a rather different realm.

For many traditional faith communities this is often the case. Entire cities today are comprised of people on the move who come from a particular religious tradition, Jew, Muslim and Christian. Yet, their way of life looks more like the society in which they live. Many fundamentalist or sectarian wings of these traditions view this merging as a kind of apostasy while many others celebrate this bricholage of cultures. It is quite common to meet some one who claims a religious culture as a personal identifier while hedging that the beliefs of that tradition are not part of who they are. So we find persons who are American first and Christian second, or who are Jewish by birth but atheist by choice, or just marginally Catholic.

Brethren have not been immune to such combinations. For some children of Brethren families these cultural hybrids sound pretty familiar. It is not uncommon to find Brethren young people who champion their Brethren roots or preferences while at the same time outright rejecting the faith which the culture seeks to proclaim.

This is extremely problematic for a tradition which emphasizes personal decision as part of its faith tradition. Whatever it is called, no-force in religion, a rejection of pedobaptism, non-creedalism, or waiting for the age of accountability, the Brethren have expected a personal adoption of the faith and life from young and old alike.

Now there is always the question of which comes first- the chicken or the egg, the belief or the way of life. I am not one to say there is a hierarchy involved here at all. There simply need not be a single door, but the expectation that anyone can believe and slowly learn the way of life or adopt the way of life and grow in belief. It is just expected that the member of the culture come to adopt and grow in BOTH life and belief. One of our denominational agencies has used a slogan that sums this up well: Come as you are, Go not as you came.

Now some will be quick to say that this is too limiting, too authoritarian. Who gets to decide what the belief is? Who defines the way of life? How can everyone do it all? No one is “good enough” in this way of thinking.

Actually, this is indeed why I am Brethren. For 300 years the Brethren have, in various ways, assumed that this is a journey taken on both as individuals and as a community. There is no elite, no caste of “Better Brethren” who establish the rules of the language game. Rather it is the community of disciples as it is in that time and place which discerns the doctrine and practices for that time. Yet, even within that discerning there is an expectation, nearly a single requirement, that persons of the community grow as disciples of Christ.

The core around which these beliefs and practices evolve is, from my perspective, that which is said in the baptismal covenant. For we live this way and believe the way we do as an acceptance of Christ as the Messiah and a living out of the deep desire to follow Jesus in all that we do. To divorce the Christian element of this culture is to try and remove one side of a coin.

If such a perspective is deemed accusatory, all I can say is that the finger points both ways. Those who assume they can believe without living it out are in the same position as those who say they live the life without holding the beliefs. The culture of the Brethren is explicitly form and content. So to say that there is “No room for cultural Brethren” is to say that Brethren in name only, absent belief or practice, is not really Brethren at all.

The common project then is the growing. No matter where one is in the acculturation process, we all are moving, changing, and developing. We are growing as did Jesus, in stature and wisdom.

James K.A. Smith has been helpful in giving this argument shape. As Carl says in his blog post questioning my statement that there is no room for cultural Brethren, everything is culture. Yet, all of these cultures differ in form as well as in content, in practice and in belief. In his book, “Desiring the Kingdom”, Smith discusses the wider cultural realities of our lives, even going so far as to say that these cultures are religious. Such a perspective flies in the face of Enlightenment assumptions that there is a sacred culture and a secular culture, clear and distinct in content and practice. All cultures, in Smith’s way of seeing them, seek to instill beliefs and define our practices. In essence they all try to define our ultimate concerns and desires.

This is most helpful when it comes to the way Smith uses a typology of practices, rituals, and liturgies. Imagine the three as concentric circles working their way out from liturgies to practices. This diagram helpfully shows that all liturgies are rituals and all rituals are practices. However, working from the outside in, not all practices are rituals and not all rituals are liturgies. Smith, contrary to common definitions, expands liturgies beyond smells, bells and church buildings. In fact, the opening of his book describes how a trip to the mall is a liturgy with movements, ritual, and symbols in a kind of choreography. This trip also includes beliefs about human life and sets out a vision of what a good life looks like. By opening liturgy in this way Smith reveals the foundational beliefs and formational practices within all cultures. So to reply to Carl’s “Everything is Culture”, I would add “Every Culture is Religious.”

So when we talk about a strain of Christianity as a culture, it seems to me that its liturgical elements revolve precisely around this practical and doctrinal core. That is to say the liturgy is an enacted invocation of God. It contains movements, language, and symbols and is thus a typical culture. As a religious culture, it includes the proclamation of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Since every culture is religious, the question then is which culture are we adopting as our own. Can one truly be culturally Brethren in the typical sense, that is with taking the language, ideals, or some random practice, without assenting to the Christian element? Sure, but the deeper question is what is the true or dominant culture? What practices and beliefs are we truly living into while trying to remain comfortable in a community that isn’t asking much of us?

I appreciate how Pete Rollins recently described this while preaching at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids: Christianity is a materialistic religion- it defines what what we do with the things of our lives everyday.

So to rely on our gene pool, last name, vision of peace or a familiar community of people to give us some identifiable category without growing in belief or practice is to invoke the name in vain. In essence it is to tell a lie. It is to not name our true home or our true culture. That is why I say that, in a religious culture which assumes a personal conviction and assent to a way of life and belief, being a Cultural Brethren is a non-sequitur.

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Diagnosis: Modernity

“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saying the Creeds

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

So what does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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