Tag Archives: Incarnation

Praying to be like the Samaritan: A white guy on Zimmerman

I am a white guy. I like trucks. rock and roll, and I even shoot a gun from time to time. I go to tractor pulls and county fairs. In certain parts of town I double check that the car door is locked. And though I do my best and repent, I know there are times my first judgements get the best of me.

I am a white guy. And I have no problem saying that Zimmerman was wrong. I am Christian, and I say that what he did was a sin– from the moment he started following Martin, to the beginning of the fight, and ultimately in the final act of killing another man. Killing is a sin. We can justify it all we want, but there is no getting around that simple fact.

And, racism in every form and from every perspective is also a sin. And protecting racism and killing by any justification is the ultimate sin of pride. In protecting our racist tendencies we think we know just who a person is and what they are up to by the car they drive, by the color of their skin, and by the clothes they wear. Last time I read the scriptures, only one knows the heart, and for us to decide that we know a person’s intentions is to put ourselves in the place of God. By saying that “self defense is a right” we also think somehow we are above even Jesus who rejected that premise, refusing to protect himself all the way to the cross. How is it that we think we know more than God? How is that we think we are somehow more capable than Jesus?

Racism hit home for me early in college. We were down town Chicago for a day trip to the art museum. My friend, an African American from the south side of Fort Wayne, and I went to a record store down the block to check out the CDs. We talked together, showing each other the jazz albums we wished we had the money to buy. He picked up a CD and we walked to the top floor together. Somewhere up there he decided he shouldn’t get it. And like we all do, he put it up on the rack a floor above where he found it. And we left.

Not 20 feet from the door, someone came running out to stop my friend. We were clearly walking together, but I could have easily kept walking. The guy was an undercover cop and the store clerk had told him that my friend had probably stolen the CD. They went back into the store, and my friend took him to the rack where he had left it.  I don’t think I could have remembered where I left the silly thing if it were me. But my friend did– probably a familiar habit for him for just this reason. It struck me that neither the clerk nor the cop thought to implicate me in the questions. We could have just as easily passed the disc upstairs and I could have walked away unchallenged. There was one difference– the color of my skin. To be clear, I am not saying that either the cop or the clerk were bad, evil people. They simply acted from their prejudices.

Though I knew racism was real, especially in the north, I never really understood how it worked. There, on the streets of Chicago outside a record store, I realized just how much privilege I had simply because I am white. I learned, in just a few seconds, how people make snap judgements– thinking they know what is happening with just a glance at someone. And I came to know there were clearly two sets of standards, two different stories people constructed about the two of us just because I am white and he is black.

Those that try to narrow the Martin and Zimmerman conflict to just the few seconds when the fight broke out do not acknowledge the judgements both men made– Zimmerman assuming a black guy in the neighborhood is up to no good and Martin that a white guy following him was just as menacing. Just a little bit of empathy can put us into each man’s shoes– the frustration of another white guy assuming I am trouble at night; another unknown black man, looking suspicious in a gated community. Both reacted to their prejudice. Both fought from their fear. Neither was justified. Neither stopped long enough to ask questions. One man died. One man committed a mortal sin. No one won.

Just the other day I stopped to help a guy standing by his car waving his hands frantically. To be honest, for a few seconds my thoughts were to keep going. Can I trust him? What if he does something once I am out of the truck? He’s black, I am white. I stopped, about a 100 yards away and had to back all the way up. Do I think I am somehow heroic for pushing his car to the gas station? Not in a million years. But in thinking back, I realized just how much I had to fight against the stories in my head. I had to consciously put aside fear and prejudice for the greater good of helping someone I couldn’t know what would happen, and had no reason to trust him. I was vulnerable. And that is just how it should be.

Jesus once told a lawyer a similar story. A man lay beaten and bloody on the side of a mountain road. Those who were supposed to know right from wrong, from compassion and judgement, walked on by. The outsider, the one no self-respecting Hebrew of the day would even talk to, was the one that stopped to care for the man. Those that passed probably had every justification in the world for ignoring the man– some cultural, maybe even some based in fact, and some religious. But only one, the Samaritan, stepped outside the tapes playing in his mind to do the right thing.

I have no illusions that our society will some how become more just by the laws we pass. I am not naive enough to think that racism is a disease that can be cured. I do think, however, that we as followers of Jesus are constantly asked to act in spite of our prejudices, in spite of the stories we tell ourselves when we walk the streets alone. To stand up on these events to champion a political cause- whether it be systemic racism or gun laws- is simply to capitalize on hurting people. Yet, if we as disciples do not take this occasion to ask how we act from our prejudices rather than grace, we have missed the opportunity live into our salvation.

I am white. I am racist- sometimes. I make snap judgements about whites and blacks. And I repent. I am trying to live like the Kingdom of God has come. I fail at times and receive grace at others. But as Thomas Merton prayed- I believe that the desire to please God does in fact please God, and I pray- daily- that I have that desire in all that I do. I pray that I may be more like the Samaritan.

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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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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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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).

 

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Where have all the prophets gone?

Text Luke 6:6-12

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes  and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered  hand, ‘Come  and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. 

I’ve often wondered what it was like to be in the crowd in one of these Jesus/Leaders show down. In my mind, it’s kind of like watching the British Parliament- not like watching CSPAN and the boring American politicians.

I can almost hear the “Ooo” of challenges, and the murmurs of displeasure after each sentence. I know, for us good Brethren steeped in non-violence and lovers of decorum and order that we are, it’s troublesome to witness Jesus in a raucous crowd, confronting the powers of the day. Jesus, Meek and Mild, is more up our alley.

To be sure, this is not a civil debate setting. There is no time keeper and no parliamentarian. Jesus and these leaders had been down this road before. In fact, the opening verses of chapter 6 recount another conflict about the Sabbath and the disciples gleaning grain on the Sabbath. Now in the synagogue, Jesus is ready for the “trap”. Not only does he see the eyes of the leaders watchfully glaring at him, he knows they are ready to pounce on any action that would clearly break Sabbath law.

But as we have come to know Jesus in the gospel accounts, he’s savvy. He knows the need and knows the trap. Like many of the other occasions he puts the conflicting values before the crowd. “Which is better, to do harm or good on the sabbath?” And the crowd goes crazy!

There he stands, calling out the very injustice implicit in the legalism. There he is, as Jesus often is, speaking truth to power.  It should be said, though, that the Sabbath laws were meant to be restorative. They were constructed to shape the people into the image of God- as ones taking rest. It is too easy to paint this as a conflict between love and legalism- but really, the conflict is over two Goods- following the practices of God’s people and incarnating God to those very same people. The problem that Jesus raises to awareness is the very fact that the good practice of the sabbath is being used for another purpose- power, control, prestige, influence.

He stands there, in the midst of lay and clergy alike, naming the problem like any prophet of old. In fact, he is standing there in the long line of tradition, reminding everyone that there is indeed a hierarchy of obligation in the religious life. When practices such as sabbath come into conflict with loving your neighbor, Love wins. That is the prophet Jesus calling the people back into a right order of the values of the tradition.

We have come a significant way from the prophetic posture of Jesus. Good modernists that we are, we have come to love the prophetic style of Jesus “speaking truth to power.” Yet, is this really what it means to be  prophetic? Though the conflict might make us squirm a bit in our seats, truth is we are part of the crowd- usually cheering (internally maybe) at the great zing of the religious leaders.

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Not long ago, Sprint ran a fantastic commercial. They were advertising their phone plans with a stereotypical CEO- white, balding gray head, navy suit and power tie, sitting at his desk in the corner office. He is talking to his young, nervous assistant about his new Sprint contract and how much he is saving. Then comes the classic line- “I’m sticking it to the man.” The assistant looks a bit puzzled and replies- Sir, you are the man. Yes I am, replies the boss. So you’re sticking it to yourself.

It’s really a hard pill to swallow, but honestly we are not prophetic. We really are those with cultural power, capital, and prestige. What is more, we sit, as Heuertz says, smack dab in the middle of comfort and our finger pointing “Prophetic.” It’s kind of like the commercial- We’re really sticking it to ourselves. Prophets aren’t really church bureaucrats and really aren’t invited into the halls power. Writing statements and bible studies, and putting on programs are not Prophetic actions

Being a prophet is radically,…well, Incarnational. As Heuertz says, It’s picking a fight by doing something. Just like Jesus, the prophetic moment is NOT the speaking of truth to power, it is the healing of the hand. In that little action, Jesus both challenged the problem AND made the change….not to make the statement, but to really bear fruit. The prophetic action is both Critical and Hope-filled.

From inside these walls it’s nearly impossible to be truly and fully prophetic. As this place was being built, the modern assumption was that institutions were the way to steward a trust and legacy of any tradition. By the end of that era however, we all began to equate these same institutions with the center of the tradition.  That is to say The Church of the Brethren is most itself at it’s most institutional- either at 1451 or at Annual Conference. This soon translated to our care of the prophetic witness of the tradition. When Elgin speaks, the CoB is prophetic. The incarnational principle, the idea that the prophetic includes an on the ground baring of fruit, was lost. This incarnational principle challenges that modern assumption.

This is hard for all of us. We are here because it is work we believe in. We are here because we want to be prophetic and yet we circle around maintenance work thinking we are keeping our prophetic tradition alive

The image of the healed hand reminds us that transformation does not happen at the centers of the circle, at the hub of influence or power, but on the ground, in the streets, in our congregations. When we expect our work in here at 1451 to change the practices of Brethren congregations around the country without actually being with them, we are sorely mistaken. When we enter centers of cultural power and assume our statements make a difference we have swallowed the pill of the Institutional church. Real change, real prophetic healing and transformation is embodied, it is incarnate.

Our work here is only prophetic insofar as it supports, encourages, and enables prophetic action by our members and our congregations.  I can write a thousand pages of prayers, studies, or resources….yet those are prophetic only in so far as they help a member of our tradition BE prophetic where they are.

That is the lesson of Christmas and Epiphany. When God comes to show the way, the truth, and the life, God comes in the flesh. God does no longer makes pronouncements from the clouds, far off from the needs and pain of our world, but gets down to work here. Of course it challenges our cultural assumptions, it confronts the powers that be, and stands in the long line of prophets….but the Incarnation, GOD REALLY WITH US, makes the changes and brings hope. That is the beauty of our faith. That is the beauty of Epiphany. God transforming all that is, into all that can be. Our work, our toil here in this place is to impact and companion over 900 Brethren communities as they EMBODY, as they Incarnate Jesus the healing prophet where they live.

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