Tag Archives: Ideology

Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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The Apophatic Rage and its Problems

It is all the rage among popular theological writers today to make the apophatic turn. Apophatic theology is basically being clear about what we do not know about God, and that our theology needs an “ unsaying” through a negating of the names we use for God. For example, we can say with confidence “God is my rock.” Apophatic theology reminds that we must also say “God is not a rock.”

In the wake of the Emergent Church movement these writers, exemplified in the work of Peter Rollins, have turned to Deconstruction in the mode of Jacques Derrida to raise up the importance of questioning often unquestioned dogma and culturally assumed ideas. Following Rollins’ book, there is a need to turn away from the idolatry of God.

What these followers of Derrida rarely acknowledge is that apophaticism, or negative theology, has historic roots in the Christian tradition itself. Basically, they say nothing new. Their method, however, barely echoes these historic roots. Instead, what Rollins and others present is a mental exercise of negating the terms within theological discourse. For the ancients, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, apophaticism was a formative process- an ascetic discipline.

For Pseudo-Dionysius, the early proponent of such a negative theology, there are two modes of talking about God- the naming of God or kataphatic theology, and the corresponding descent of un-naming God or apophatic theology. As Sarah Coakley argues in her recent book God, Sexuality, and the Self, the twin modes of theology were accompanied by the ascetic pursuit of contemplative prayer. In order to speak to God the theologian names God and then must negate those names in order to listen to God. This was far from a practice of theological discourse or thinking, rather it paralleled the reformation of self often called asceticism.

The work of Rollins and others falls into the modern trap of thinking the problem is with the way we think. Instead, I think the early apophatic writers were clear that we need to reform our practices and our thinking. The two are not to be separated. What is more, the apophatic turn- the negation of the names for God- was a means of clearing the ground of the mind in order to hear God in prayer. Simply put, apophaticism wasn’t a philosophical or rhetorical exercise. It was a way of life, based in waiting on God in prayer.

In our time, the seeds of the Enlightenment have taken full root. Coupled with the publishing market place for theology, we are often dealing more with the realm of ideas than we are with practices. Speak the word “theology” and we all assume we are talking about a way of thinking. Yet, as I have highlighted in other posts, these earlier writers were convinced that theology was comprised of practices and thinking. As Evagrius said, “the theologian is one who truly prays.” Theology in this frame is not about publishing books but praying to God. In fact, the very word “orthodoxy” was not about right dogma but about the right praising of God (doxa being the Greek word for praise).

Rollins and others are right in the impulse to reclaim the ancient practice of un-naming God. However, this practice is not a reclamation of Hegel’s full dialectic (thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; antithesis corresponding to the new apophaticism). Nor is it a philosophical approach to writing made popular in the works of Derrida. The ascetic and contemplative of the early proponents of negative theology reveal just how mind focused our theological discourse has become. The contemporary apophatic writers miss the need to silence the world of words that hinder our very prayers.

Of course, I am biased in this assessment. Having read Dionysius and many others it is easy to see the gaps in Rollins’ approach. That is not to dismiss the role his writing plays in popular theology, but rather to name my own hope that his work is an entrance into contemplative tradition of the church. In short, bringing apophatic theology back into common, Protestant theology is not about questioning authority, but recognizing that our prayers are both filled with words and silence in the presence of God.

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A Pacifist and A Good War Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The Word, words, and “the word” Pt 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Manual Transmission: A look at practices

In a recent discussion over at Carl Bowman’s blog, Brethren Cultural Landscape, I constructed a dissertation on practices and theology in just a meager few sentences.  It was a glorious effort at name dropping the greats in Practices thought; MacIntyre, Bourdieu, deCerteau, and even Hegel and Marx.  Unfortunately, it was just a comment on another blog and there were no means to creating the thousand footnotes such a thesis required.

After clicking post I explored metaphors which could capture the distinction I was making about the centrality of practices for Christian theology.  Fortunately, I was driving my truck, a 5 speed manual transmission.

Learning to drive is a process in and of itself.  Each driver must learn the mechanics of steering, acceleration, and breaking, not to mention the coordination required to manage all three at the same time.  So its no wonder that the automatic transmission was the innovation to bring automobiles to their ubiquitous presence today.  Once a driver is required to think about things like engine and road speed or even the balancing act of a clutch, the whole practice of driving changes.  No longer is the driver managing the car, in a way she is part of the machine, involved mentally and physically in the movements of the vehicle.

I can remember the first time I was encouraged to drive a manual car.  My mentor asked if I had been practicing for my driver’s examination.  Soon the conversation expanded to include the practices of a stick shift.  I declined the opportunity to try it out, but was granted the mechanical explanation of how such a transmission worked.  As he explained the process of acceleration, the movement of the gears, and the role of the clutch in keeping the engine connected to the wheels, my mentor used every hand gesture he could imagine.  It made perfect sense.  In my mind I could see the gears connecting and separating, the stick selecting the appropriate gear, and the seamless movement of the car.

The next time I had the occasion to drive such a machine came a few years later in the church parking lot.  I sat down in the driver’s seat recalling the clear mental image from my earlier conversation.  Unfortunately, the experience was not the smooth ride I had imagined.  In fact, there were several moments of restarting the car and equally as many spins of the tires before I was ready for the road. In the end, it was not the conceptual understanding which made me into the gear shifting man I am today, it was the experiences of feeling the clutch engage and listening to the sounds of the engine.

Somehow, theologians through the centuries have relegated their work to the conceptual mode.  Like explaining the gears and clutch with hand motions, our predecessors have used every school of thought and every diagram to explain the workings of God, salvation, the Church, and person of Christ.  A good theologian, then, is one who can further describe or conceptually navigate the required elements of Christian thought.

Instead, the nature of Christianity is not completely ideological.  In more philosophical terms the Christian faith is not so Hegelian in that it does not privilege the mental over the material.  It also is not the reciprocal, that is Marxist.  The Way, while emphasizing discipleship in the material world, also asks the follower to confess.  Simply stated, the Christian way of life expects the synthesis of the mental and the material, a joining of belief and practice.

So like learning to drive a manual transmission, the Christian disciple knows and believes the ideological frame yet also must intuit how such a frame works in the real world.  Our Christian life is not an either/or game, nor does it privilege one over the other.  Rather, through the practices of our faith (reading of scripture, breaking of bread, washing of feet) we learn to feel the balance of ideology and life, between the mental and the material.

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