Tag Archives: History

An Issue or a Demon

In the history of Christian monasticism the story goes that the first monk, Antony, entered the desert to battle the demons. Whole works of art have depicted a bearded man in simple dress surrounded by disfigured and grotesque beings; some pulling on his beard, others seeming to yell, while still others threatening him with spears and swords.

To our modern eyes and ears this spiritual battle with demons seems mere fantasy, the work of cinema or Harry Potter novels. Yet, for the cosmology of the late Roman world these engagements were a profoundly insightful means of describing human struggles. Simply reading a few chapters of practiced monks reveals that the battle imagery is a robust description of human psychology.

Evagrios of Pontus gives these demons a system that is strikingly ahead of its time. Each demon, he says, is an opportunity for the growing perfection of each monk. What we know today as the reductionistic Seven Deadly Sins find their roots in this catalog. By naming them “sins” the west has taken away the opportunity for transformation and has told us that things like greed, pride, and gluttony are objects to be avoided at all costs. Evagrios is clear, however, that even as these demons are trying to pull us from the glorious vision of and rest in God, They are occasions to work deeply on our selves.

In the end, the demons reveal to us our true sins, that is, the very things that inhibit our union with God. They are not the sins themselves, but mirrors which show to us the passions and sins within us.

These demons, then, are both threats and opportunities. If they are dispelled too quickly the sin remains. If they are welcomed without prayer and observant discipline they drag us further from our Christian goal. In the middle, however, lies the occasion to work out our sins and strive toward what Jesus in the Beatitudes says is the ability to see God (Matthew 5:8)

It seems that in the Church today our “Issues,” or the current ideological conflicts which consume our attention and energies, offer that same threat and opportunity. Our “Issues” are like the “Demons” Take for instance the common debate about sexuality. What if we as the Church approached the Issue as a Demon which is engaged prayerfully rather than welcomed uncritically or exorcised immediately?

Richard Valantasis of the Institute for Contemplative Living has summarized the movements of dealing with Demon Issues through the classic lens of Evagrios. He says that “we give the demons their do, not expelling them, but analyzing and engaging thoroughly with them. So Evagrios lays out three steps: analyze the thought that thwarts your union with God, break it up into its component parts and reflect on those, then ask, in which of these parts is the true sin, the true element that thwarts your union with God. It is both intentionally and deliberately engaging of the sin, or the demon, or the thwarting patterns, so that by giving them their due attention, according to Evagrios, we destroy their psychological and spiritual hold on us and their power to thwart our union with God.” (Valantasis, Unpublished Paper presented at 2011 Church of the Brethren Spiritual Directors Retreat)

What does this look like for our current Demon Issue in the Church of the Brethren and our wider communities of the Church?

The often heard knee-jerk reaction is that both sides have something to teach us: the progressive wing witnessing to the welcome and acceptance of all, and the conservative element the vision for moral piety. What if, rather than lessons to be learned, these factions presented the Church with the very sins we are to overcome in our union with God? In this frame our conservative and progressive brothers and sisters present us with the common sin of idolatry, that of raising something above the very God we invoke and seek.

First, those of more progressive inclinations are setting up the idol of unrestrained personal desire.  Here sexuality of any stripe is dismissed as an occasion for breaking relationships and is valued as the human person fully alive. This unfettered desire and personal choice is set up as something to be celebrated and nearly worshiped. Even worse, Love is not a relational movement but a sexual one and becomes but a whim of the moment and not to be judged. Note here, I have not made a qualification about sexual identity or expression. Rather, the sin lies in an untamed and shapeless desire. Assessment of that sin then, applies to each person regardless of orientation and practice. By not naming the sin of idolatrous sexual expression, a hurdle is created to divine union.  For it is not sex in and of itself that is the problem, it is that modern culture has turned a vice into a virtue. Sex is now a god.

Second, our conservative brothers and sisters are setting up another kind of idol- the scriptures themselves. But here it is not just the scriptures,  it is their own interpretive conclusions that stand even one more step removed from the Bible. In place of an encounter with God through the inspired texts, conservatives have constructed an idol of certainty, unaware that their readings are themselves interpretive conclusions. In a way, these interpretations are set up like the curtain in the Hebrew temple which divided the Holy of Holies from the people just to make sure that God would not be defiled. For our modern conservatives, the interpretive curtain stands at the gate to make sure the Holy Scriptures are not profaned. Unfortunately, this sin of doctrinal idolatry protects us from the very role and function of scripture as a point of meeting between The Author and us as readers. Stating with certainty what God has said in the scriptures prevents the divine union of Creator and created.

In a way, the sides of the issue do teach us something, just not in the way we have imagined. By treating our issues like the early monastic demon we see that both factions unintentionally seek to prevent us from truly coming into union with God. Both factions of the debate reveal our sins which prevent us from divine contemplation. To be sure, the threat and opportunity of these Demon Issues are not limited to our current debates of sexuality. Rather, the need to engage with personal and corporate demons is part of our human condition and is shared regardless of idealogical camp. As is said in the Gospel of Matthew, the need to judge is always based on first encountering our own sins and “logs in our eyes” before assessing the demons of others (Matthew 7).

 

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Discipleship, Theology

The Word, words and “the word”, Part 2

Many of the early church theologians recognized that God is the supreme object of the scriptures as they worked intimately with the scriptural texts. Though they did not ask the historic or scientific questions as we contemporary readers would present them, these early interpreters recognized that the texts even contradicted each other. The result was a hermeneutic, or interpretive posture to the texts, that looked for the revelatory meaning of the texts.  This was most often described as the Spiritual Meaning of the texts.  Most famously, Origen of Alexandria named several layers of meaning contained within the scriptures. He said in his book On First Principles, that not every text had a historical, or literal meaning, but EVERY text has a spiritual one. The reminder is clear, the texts always point to the Creator Revealer God. That is their prime purpose.

Later, Augustine of Hippo made clear his initial misgivings regarding these “barbaric” texts in his book The Confessions. After his final conversion in Milan, however, this spiritual meaning of the scriptures came to life. He later penned a book, On Christian Doctrine, which also outlined another hermeneutical approach to the Bible. Within that short treatise Augustine outlines a profound theological description of the texts. In a short summary he basically asserts that the scriptures are an incarnation is the same way Christ is The Incarnation. The analogy is simple: Christ is the full sign making clear the nature and power of God. The scriptures are themselves signs that point beyond the physical letters and words to Christ. So the scriptures are to Christ as Christ is to God.

Our modern debates about the authority of scripture have missed both the hierarchical system that I outlined in the earlier post  and the spiritual and incarnational approaches of Origen and Augustine. Theologies of inerrancy and infallibility try to superimpose modern scientific categories onto a text that is not trying to be neither scientific nor historical. They are texts that are revealing God. To assert infallibility and inerrancy is to apply Divine attributes to a physical and created medium. In other words, these categories try to make the Bible into God, rather than treating the scriptures as a witness to God.

Thus, to speak of “Reading the Bible”  as the cure for our social and personal ills is to substitute a book for the God that actually does the changing. Getting more people ot “just read the Bible more” will not change culture nor lives.  Rather, it is the encounter with the God behind the texts we are to seek.  The naming of the Bible as “The Word of God” makes this idolizing all too easy. When Matthew tells of Jesus’ temptation in the desert an interesting statement of Jesus is used to rebuke the Devils test to turn stones into bread.  “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Those who most frequently fall into the Bible as Idol category want this text to justify the words of scripture as Word of God. In fact, the Greek is clear. Here Jesus uses the word rhema- word, as in speech. The Word of God as we know it from the Gospel of John is Logos- the organizing reason of God, that is Christ. The distinction is clear- Christ is the Word of God, not the scriptures. God still speaks to humanity, that is God is still self-revealing. Those are the words that sustain us. The Bible, however, is God’s revealing that sustains, but is not on the same plain as Christ, the Word. These words of the Bible are sustain because they POINT us to Christ the Word.

This might seem like a semantic, or academic distinction. But when we see that infallibility and inerrancy seek to Divinize the Bible, and when we set the scriptures in the proper order of revelation we can see that it is more than a language game. It is a safe guard from the earliest of heresies- making gods of the things of creation in place of God himself.

1 Comment

Filed under Discipleship, Theology

“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.

4 Comments

Filed under Brethren History, Theology

Easter Proclamation- Old School

This is one of those years when religious calendars line up. Easter celebrations of the Roman and Orthodox are in the process of being celebrated around the world. Proclamations of Christ is Risen will be said in nearly every language through the night into the rising sun on the 8th day- the day of re-creation.

Thinking about this amazing proclamation I decided to read the Pascal Homily of John Chrysostom- who should probably be taken up as the patron saint of Post-Christendom movements, for he “was fearless when denouncing offences in high places.”  His short, but rhetorically beautiful and complex homily should be required reading of any preacher or prophet.

Here is a taste of its excellence:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

I can nearly hear the cheers in response to this spectacular conclusion echoing throughout Hagia Sophia then and around the world tonight.

Christos Anesti, Christ is Risen!!

Leave a comment

Filed under Discipleship, Sermon

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Discipleship, Theology

Print and Power

History is clear that who ever can communicate defines the ideas and outcomes of a each age. The Reformation is the perfect example of the impact of a communication medium on the social landscape. As ideas could more easily be shared through pamphlets printed on movable type presses rather than hand copied tomes, the people began to take control of their own spiritual lives. In fact, it is no coincidence that translations of the scriptures flourished as they could be accessed in homes and not just the local cathedral.

The dark side of this historical maxim is that those who control the means of production, control the ideas and their dissemination. In simple terms, the printers took the power to speak from the abbots and bishops. It is no wonder that, in the age of the internet, there is a sea change in who speaks for the culture. In essence, there is a cacophony of voices all competing for attention and supremacy.

The television editorialists like Olbermann, Beck, and Maddow are clear examples of this speech battle, but it goes much beyond our flickering screens.  News writers vie with politicians for appropriate language for new events, trying to define the public consciousness through print and spoken word.  Underneath this struggle for listening ears is a market place where words are judged based on the power gained or the dollars accumulated.

Lest we think this is a 21st century development, the same was the case for the Reformation.  In that age, not only was the Church at war with itself over theological ideas and practice, secular leaders and bishops competed for the monetary allegiance of the people.  The most convincing speaker won the economic clout of the people.  For example, Luther’s critique of indulgences was not just a theological one but an economic challenge.  The buying and selling of grace was a form of economic oppression of the laity.  The princes of the day often sided with the reformer aware that money once dedicated to the Church would now be freed for local expansion of powers.  This was indeed possible now that publication was possible for everyone, not just the literate clerics in their scriptoriums.

Little has changed in the 16th century.  The Church continues this war of words and ideas through the printed medium.  Our congregations are often the front lines of this power struggle.  There, the words and ideas deemed orthodox by leaders are disseminated through official publications.  At the same time, market driven publications, both secular and religious, compete for the allegiance of the members.

The early modern view of information, then, is still pervasive within our religious structures.  Even for as democratizing as the Radical Reformation was, it has continued to assume an official voice can define the ideas and practices of a diverse church.  The rise of social networking and internet communication is radically challenging this assumption.  Now, even most hierarchical traditions, are faced with the expansive diversity of the once unified Church.  All it takes is a few minutes with Google to read of communities and individuals who have tenuous connections to the traditions which they claim.

The knee jerk reaction is to increase the forms of official speech by translating previous ideas into multiple media.  In a way its the same practice with added layers of production. Yet, the fundamental sense that words trickle down and form people without relationship or attention to their context is still present.  Unfortunately, this just adds to the flood of words, the battle for attention and allegiance.  In a way, the Church becomes just one more voice among the pundits.  The unfortunate result is that people will not weigh the ideas, but gravitate to the ideas that are the most familiar, or the one who speaks “just like me.”


1 Comment

Filed under Discipleship, Theology

Today’s Embodied Gnosticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 Comments

Filed under Theology

Drawing Lines: A look at history as rhetoric

Recently, Brethren sociologist Carl Bowman opened a blog which provides a forum for further assessing the cultural landscape of the Church of the Brethren. As a historian, Bowman rightly champions both the documents of our past and the changes which come with time. As a social historian however, Bowman is equally clear that the narrative be based upon a preponderance of evidence. Thus, his work is not a story of great individuals nor the development of ideas. Rather, his narrative is one which attempts to describe the beliefs and practices of a people.

Before venturing much further, its necessary to say that Bowman is in good company. His style of research and narrative aspirations are shared by many a scholar who have appropriated anthropological methods for the study of the past. Any critique, then, must take his methodological assumptions as appropriate and necessary tools for historiography. Yet, all historians are subject to the same criticism when change is the operative assumption. Every student of the past must acknowledge change; practices shift, ideas evolve, and people inherit and adapt both. The past, then, is always somewhat alien to every observer whether they live in the archives or in cultural artifacts. The daunting task, then, is to take the unknown and make it known, making the alien recognizable. This requires equal attention to what has also remained the same. Such an awareness is essential in the sub-field of Church History when continuity is equally as important as change.

Attending to continuity and change is a delicate balance, and as such requires that the researcher draw lines. Some of these are lines of connection and some of these are lines in the sand. No matter the type, these lines mark out an understandable starting point. For Bowman’s monograph, Brethren Society, this foundation is Brethren of the 19th century. His unabashed starting point is evident in a recent series of exchanges on his blog.

While discussing church statements an inevitable reference to the Brethren dictum “no force in religion” surfaced in the comments. The historian of the 19th century soon reminded all the readers that such a doctrine was the work of modern thinkers and “was not the tradition of 18th and 19th century Brethren.” As a good historian, Bowman marked out the line in the sand which defined the changes which naturally occur over time.

The conversation soon focused on further demarcations. Can we consider lines of continuity between the ideas of early Radical Pietists who had influenced the first Brethren, the likes of which include Gottfried Arnold and Hochman von Hochenau? Or, is Brethren tradition necessarily limited to those who have claimed a spiritual home among the Schwarzenau Neu Taufer? How one answers such questions is dependent on those lines of separation and connection, that is in how the student of the past accounts for continuities and change.

Here again, Bowman drew the line of distinction clearly between historiography and theologizing: “Let’s just keep the difference between theology and history, and between Hochmann and what the Brethren embraced, clear.” Scott Holland, one of the conversation partners, quickly queried: “So, are you still, in the 21st century, identifying authentic Brethrenism as something either Old Order or something necessarily locked into an 18th century historical moment?”

Here is where I could no longer observe, and joined the conversation. Though my reply may appear as a critique of Bowman the historian, the scope of my response should be understood to include the theologian Holland. In sum, I responded to say that “both History and Theology are narrative arts in that they are constructed for the present.” In other words, theology makes claims about history and tradition just as history makes claims about the present. Holland’s responses championed an understanding of the past which drew lines of connection to the present while Bowman asserted lines in the sand defining the difference between then and now.

However, both claims are theological. More precisely they are both ethical in that they make claims about what ought to be. Here in lies the methodological shadow which most modern scholars avoid at all costs: the appearance of subjectivity. It also is the ground on which most of the humanities are based. Each student, knowingly or unknowingly, brings a vision for what ought to be. For Bowman, and for many historians including myself, there is a time which ought to be restored. For Holland, there are thinkers within the corpus of historical sources which ought to reshape our thinking now.

Whether by drawing lines in the sand showing in and out, then and now, or lines of connection showing influence and continuity, the contemporary thinker makes theological and ethical claims about what ought to be. When we deal with the practical matters of life as the Church, it is best to identify those assumptions about what ought to be. Otherwise, scholarly speech is but rhetoric designed to shape the outcome for a desired end. Ought we not then lay our cards on the table and name our desired outcome before we employ and invoke days long past?

2 Comments

Filed under Brethren History