Tag Archives: Embodiment

Bye Bye Christendom

I have tried to avoid much commentary on the presidential election. Quite frankly a lot is being said, and some of it quite good. There is, however, one thing hanging on the tip of my tongue after a week.

I hope this is the last nail in the coffin for American Christendom.

I believe that religious leaders who openly supported a candidate finally drove that nail home. Neither candidate presented a campaign that aligned with any tradition I know of. Trump’s obvious disdain for immigrants, women, the disabled, and blacks, let alone his serial philandering should have been enough. But Clinton had her own problems. I didn’t once hear my progressive peace church friends call out her hawkish approach to international affairs nor her neo-liberal economic policies that created much of the income disparity we see today. (To be fair, I have rarely heard those critiques of Obama who has deported more immigrants than any other president and has turned drone warfare into the newest tool in American Imperialism.) Instead, our religious leaders stepped up behind the nominee of both parties ignoring such glaring inconsistencies. In a way, American Christianity has finally become more identified with the Democratic and Republican parties than it has with the teachings of Jesus. And in so doing, the church has fallen lock step in line with the vision of the American Experiment. It has given up its social vision for humanity to the political mechanisms set in place over two hundred years ago.

After the great wars in Europe, sparked by the fissures of the Reformation, the Founding Fathers sought a path for the new nation that would shift the church from its once significant place in social unity. Having witnessed horrific violence in the name of religion, the early American leadership turned to the new theories of social contract, put forth by Enlightenment philosophers, to design a government that would mediate between the differences naturally a part of every human community. Before the Constitution, religion was literally the binding practices for any society. And in Christendom Europe this was even more the case, such that as new forms of Christianity began to slip the singular bond of the Roman church, violence erupted. Princes and clergy aligned, later in what was called the Peace of Westphalia, to secure local sovereignty. So when the Founding Fathers set to form a new experiment, they did so intentionally breaking the link between Church and governance.

Fast forward two hundred years and the mediating role of the Church in society was nearly replaced by the government. Instead of presenting a holistic social vision based on the teachings of Jesus, the church gave over much of the binding work of a mediating institution to the government. However, in the late twentieth century, particularly with the Eisenhower presidency, politicians began to court religious leaders to legitimize the usurping
role of the government. By the start of the twenty-first century blocks of Christianity were solidly within the camps of one political party or another. Pollsters and politicians alike began categorizing voting blocks, like the evangelical parts of the church, as solely beholden to one party.

Now, in this election these voting blocks followed through with their quest to find their views legitimized by the only mediating institution left in the country. And they did so proclaiming the betrayal of their values by their deafening silence about the inconsistencies in their own candidate.

It is my hope and prayer that in the postmortem review of the 2016 election that Christian leaders will finally see their own duplicity in the quest to keep their party in power. And in so doing, we all will see that the politicians who count on us to vote in particular blocks do so only feigning moral clarity, and are just as interested in political power over others.

When we finally see that, we will come to terms with the glaring contradiction to the example of Christ himself, who sought not power over others but a kind of power that willingly took the servants towel.

It is my prayer, then, that the American Church will finally stop seeking legitimacy from the political process, cease trying to enforce a moral vision for the country through political power, and return to being the church. We will reach out to the marginalized, refusing the racist and classist hierarchy of American culture. We will care for the immigrants as scripture commands regarding the stranger in the land, rejecting the fear mongering of politicians and pundits. We will care for our neighbors, even those most different from us, contrary to the elitism of our capitalist economy that teaches us to see them as people to be out done or threats to our economic security. We will open our homes, share our wealth, and protect the most vulnerbale in the compassionate spirit of Christ, contrary to the divisive nature of our political structures. And we will do all of this, not because we want to enforce a kind of moral vision on the country, but because it is simply our civic duty not as Americans, but as citizens of heaven.

So if you are relieved by outcome of the election, or if you are disheartened, take a moment to consider how your own values were compromised in the casting of your vote. Consider how politicians have co-opted the church for their own gain. And consider how the church has increasingly become irrelevant to an entire generation of young people who see right through the power games and recognize that the church has become just as obsessed with power over others as the worst of politicians. And then, consider how we might all return to the valuable mission of God in the world, where all peoples are made one again in the only true mediating presence of Jesus. And finally, may we let go of Christendom and return to being the church.

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Filed under Ecclesiology, Politics and the Church

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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Discipling Imagination

“We have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination.” James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

I recently attended a large conference that focused on the theme of Discipleship. Having worked on the topic in academic circles (through studying asceticism) and now as denominational staff for three years I tried to go with an open mind. At times it was fun watching Church Growth leaders trying to wrestle with the idea- and often getting much right, but equally as often importing their previous understanding into new vocabulary.

Much of the what was said was still pretty heady, literally. The discipling relationship was often cast is terms of teaching and sharing ideas in the midst of regular life. As Smith says, discipling was often the process by which the intellect learns Christian ideas. In one workshop the presenters went out of their way to say that their model was “about the process.” Yet, many of the questions were asking the content question: “What resources can I use to communicate the content?” In the end, the general sense I got was that discipleship was the new educational model- transferring Christian content by means of relationships.

To me, there is a huge gap in this conception of discipleship, which Smith gets right. Discipleship isn’t process and content delivery in the midst of relationships- rather it is about getting below the intellect, to the heart.

Becoming more like Christ is, as Smith says, about affect- the instinctual observing of the world through the eyes of Christ and being primed by that very affect to act like Jesus.

Thus it isn’t a process, but a practice. We rehearse and rehearse the story within our bodies. That is why I find the act of washing feet to tbe the central image for discipleship. Having to stoop, touch someone, and even embrace when the foot is dry gets below our intellectual understanding of service. We learn something within our core about what it means for Christ to empty himself. We learn that service isn’t a place of pride, but a way of care. All of those responses aren’t ideas we learn, but gut reactions. We get it- not with our mind- but our hearts and bodies.

So for all my church growth friends, I hope this turn toward discipleship does not follow the same “flaw” of intellectualizing the Christian way of life. I hope that we can make the turn to recover the ways we follow Jesus with our whole person- heart, mind, and body.

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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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Prodigal Christianity: The God Who Kneels

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The NuDunkers are discussing the new book Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Join us for our Hangout discussion on Friday at 11 AM eastern here . If you can’t make the live discussion, don’t worry. We will share the link to the recording on YouTube.

As the church lived into its new status both legally and socially in the fourth and fifth century, the artistic presentation of Jesus began to reflect the its ascension to imperial power. This is no place more clear than in the majestic mosaics of Hagia Sophia. The basilica was built to match the grandeur of the imperial city of Constantinople. The mosaic in the large dome, called Christ the Pantocrator (Christ the Ruler of All) drew the attention of worshipers to the elevated ruler, Jesus Christ. Gilded in the richness of gold and hovering above even the mosaic images of emperors and rules, they set the Christ to be worshiped within the imperial context. Now, as the official of the empire, Jesus Christ must also be shown as the emperor, only ruling over all of creation.

In many ways, the images we present of Jesus reflect the social position of the church. By the Middle Ages the images of Jesus shifted from the grand imperial mosaics to crucifixion images- often mirroring the death so common in the ages of the Black Plague. Even prior to the Christendom shift of the fourth century, the sketches in the catacombs presented Jesus as the rising savior, standing at the mouth of a whale (echoing the imagery of the book of Jonah) or on the bow of a boat (as in the gospel narratives of calming the sea). These images reflected the ultimate triumph of resurrection, unlike the imperial ruler or the crucifix. We not only depict Jesus in the ways we understand the church in our day, but we depict him in the place that most reflects our imagination of the salvation event itself.

In their new book, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier, Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch, follow this pattern of presenting Jesus and our soteriological imagination within the context of the North American church. It is no surprise that American Christianity is losing its footing as the defining religion of the culture. Survey after survey, performed by the likes of the Pew Forum and even the Barna group, are showing just how far Christianity has moved from the center of American society to the edges. More and more people are self-reporting that they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves “Spiritual but not Religious.”

There are often two ways of responding to this cultural shift. First, the church can work to exercise its cultural privileged and claw its way back into influence. The other, is to celebrate this shift and view it as an opportunity to explore faithfulness in new terms. Fitch and Holsclaw follow the trajectory of the latter.

While it is true that this new Post-Christendom culture has yet to reach the whole of American culture (see my conversation with Isaac Villegas), it is clear that the new day offers us much to consider as followers of Christ. Rather than try to reclaim the place of Christ as emperor (or even president) Fitch and Holsclaw present God as the one who bows, reaches out, even kneels into world, and enters as the prodigal one who ventures into the far country.

There are those in the publishing world who have tried to rethink christianity and define what a “New Kind of Christianity” is to look like today. Often, in this mode, these writers venture to deconstruct doctrines of the tradition and present new emerging ideas. Still others, venture to reclaim more radical teachings of the church, in effect elevating the Evangelical roots to dogma. Thankfully, Fitch and Holsclaw take the more Anabaptist rode. It is not the reconsidering of doctrine or the entrenchment of dogma that is required today, but the exploring of how the church itself needs to more closely reflect the nature of God. Like the early Anabaptists, rethinking the Trinity or Grace does nothing. Rather, reassessing the role of the church in world that offers us new ground to cover as disciples.

In reflecting Jesus- the God who kneels- the church is more like itself when we take root in nitty gritty of the day to day. Instead of trying to leverage our influence (by numbers or by wealth) the question presented in Prodigal Christianity is simple- How can we more fully embody the Christ who lived, ate, breathed, died, and rose again in the world. Real people, real needs, and actual neighborhoods are then the context in which the church can more fully live into its name- the Body of Christ.

Fitch and Holsclaw offer us a breath of fresh air in this new day of Post-Christendom. While we spin our wheels in trying to prop up the church as we have received it in the heights of American cultural Christendom, they offer us a new vision of faithfulness- of being willing to follow the prodigal God into the far country, of letting go of our desires for privilege and power, and seeking to embody more fully the redemption we proclaim.

Maybe it is time to paint some new pictures of Jesus. Maybe it is time for the church to take the mosaics off the wall and be like Christ,  “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.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

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Deconstructing Violence, Embodying the Kingdom

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“Non-Violence” image courtesy of Flickr.com

In a recent workshop on faith and politics the standard trope about Anabaptism quickly emerged. “We have a moral responsibility within society, and to vote would be to abdicate that responsibility.” The implication was clear- the Anabaptist impulse to withdraw (itself a narrowly defined understanding of the tradition) is a dismissal of that social moral imperative. This presenter then followed it up with the typical casuistry exemplar. With the rise of gun violence in Chicago, a well documented trend, what is the Christian to do? Wouldn’t lobbying for gun reform be the wisest, expedient, and most moral action to take?

Now in the most recent issue of The Christian Century Scott Paeth, associate professor of religion at DePaul University asks in a brief editorial: “What culture of violence?” The subtitle of the article makes his case clear- “Why we shouldn’t blame video games and movies.” If that was not enough to reveal his partisan stripes, his opening summary of the National Rifle Association and concluding remarks about the need for limiting firearms placed him within the political debate. “A more effective approach, I suspect, would be to contain the potential damage done by the confluences of violent media and violent intentions by depriving the fire of its power to burn. This would entail imposing tighter restrictions on the availability of certain kinds of firearms and ammunition” (pg, 12).

The argument leading to this conclusion follows typical modern assumptions about society and progress. As he states plainly, “the data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence.” Even more starkly, he says that the evidence “points in the opposite direction” (pg. 11). In support he states rather plainly, “overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years” (pg. 11).

To be fair, Paeth’s overall caution is worth keeping in mind. The causes of violence are intricate and complicated. Addressing violent games and movies is not sufficient. Issues such as poverty, drugs, and access to weapons play a role in societal violence. What is more, the brief theological observation later in the editorial is equally a part of the conversation for the church: “At the heart of Christian teaching is the realization that we are in some sense fundamentally broken creatures, sinners in need of redemption from a transcendent source” (pg. 12).

However, the leap to advocate for public policy does not necessarily follow. As was evidenced by the presenter who asked what an Anabaptist was to do in the face of rising gun violence in Chicago, the modern imagination is hostage to the politics of the society. Meaningful, and “efficient” engagement with society- the redemption from a transcendent source- is to be found in the legislative debates of partisan politics. Underlying this limited thinking is a kind of exceptionalism, of the progressive kind. Despite mass killings in the 20th and 21st century, and the stunning efficiency (even dehumanizing of) killing, progressives continue to champion the progress of modern society. Not only have the last five years seen drop in violent crime, but the very political system itself is  presented as a sign of humanity’s rising, its capacity to effect societal change. In a moment of Pelagian optimism, Paeth demonstrates this plainly when he says that “as a society, we seem to be getting less violent even as the depiction of violence in media becomes more graphic and realistic” (pgs 11-12).

Indeed, as Paeth says, the causes of such horrific violence- whether in mass shootings or on the part of nations- the causes of violence are legion. To name one facet, whether violent video games or access to firearms or poverty induced crime, is to over simplify. Unfortunately, by taking the legislative position he does, Paeth engages in the same fallacy as the NRA.

In truth, the lobbying option is too easy. Asking a senator to vote one way on a particular piece of legislation requires nothing of us. In terms of discipleship to Christ, such advocacy does nothing for the incarnational witness in the places that need the change the most. In other words, the lobbyist can live in the comfort of affluent K St northwest in Washington DC but never have to confront the actual violence just a few miles away in the northeast quadrant of the city. To legislate weapons of any kind does nothing to address the statistically confirmed indicators of violence- poverty, isolation, and drugs.

To the presenter in the faith and politics workshop- the answer is clear, but not easy. Changing the culture of violence asks us to embody Christ in the places where the violence is happening. Move into the neighborhood. Build relationships. Mentor young people. Invest in local businesses. In other words, live the same self-emptying posture of Jesus himself (Philippians 2). Step down from our affluent isolation, beholden to societal expectations of upward mobility, and live with the people in most need of love and grace. It isn’t new laws that stop the violence. It is real people, in real relationships, that work in Christ-like ways, telling new stories of non-violent redemption and resurrection, sharing food around real tables, and caring for one another that bring to life a new way of Christ-centered peace into our world.

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A Materialistic Church: The Missional Corrective to Anabaptism

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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