Tag Archives: Theology

Saying the Creeds

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

So what does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part 2, The Christological Critique

The Christian emphasis on the Incarnation challenges any simplistic Gnostic or Embodied dualism. To be more specific, the Incarnation of Christ redefines how we are to understand our bodies. In the light of Christ, we can neither reject our bodies in favor of the spiritual world nor can we out right elevate our bodies to the levels of the gods.

There is a popular understanding of Christianity today that often defines the religion in terms of repression. This is, in part, due to the Incarnational critique of worldly embodiment. Once we can see the fallen and redeemed anthropologies side by side, we understand why the world might say we are prudes and puritans. Yet, as in the days of the Gnostic debates, we are trying to describe and live into a right ordering of the spiritual and the material.

It doesn’t take too long to realize that American culture loves bodies; hard bodies, lingerie covered bodies, or naked bodies. However we take our bodies, whether through sexual or ocular conquest, the root of our obsession is pleasure. Our eyes feast on the delicacies of curves and abs for our own gratification. All the while we spend hours and fortunes trying to discipline our own bodies into a shape admired by others. Through it all, it is my pleasure that matters. In the end, it’s a new kind of solipsism. It is my pleasure and satisfaction that matters.

When “incarnation” is used in this context, it is simply a theological justification of solipsistic hedonism. Two things could not be further from the heart of the Christian doctrine. This is often because we want to ignore the two corollary elements of the tradition: The Fall and the redeemed quest for virtue. When we set incarnation within the matrix of Christology we are reminded immediately that the Incarnation was for one purpose- the transformation of a fallen world. For it is in Christ that we see the intent for humanity. It is in Christ we learn that our proper mode of being is in right relationship with God. In other words, our spiritual self defines and guides our embodied self, not the other way around.

Two things emerge from this Christological critique. First, the coming of God into the world is a necessarily social action. In other words the redemption of humanity comes at the initiative of another. Right away, the solipsistic view of the self is dismissed. It is not I who am saved, but We. My happiness, my full life is inextricably linked to that of other persons. Secondly, just as Christ is in relationship with God, so are our souls and our bodies. What is more, just as Christ is sent by God, so are our bodies activated by our souls. There is, then a particular relationship which is revealed in the relationship of Christ to God. (NB: I am working with a more Eastern Christian trinitarian theology. Through the ages, the Latin speaking Church has some to see both God and the Son in similar roles of sending. This is made evident in the use of filoque in the Nicene creed. There it states that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. Here, rather, I am assuming that the Son and the Spirit are the divinity sent.) This analogy helps reveal that in the human person the soul is the animating element of the human person.

If we do not balance this anthropology of the soul guiding the body with the rejection of Gnostic dualism, the danger is clear. The soul can punish or diminish the body. But, as I noted in the first section, the affirmation and fundamentally the redemption of material existence quarantines such a theological anthropology. As many of the Christian Neo-platonists of the early Church noted, it is the soul which can elevate the flesh to resurrection and it is the body which informs and teaches the soul.  We learn to know God through signs, the signs of scripture, world and Christ.  Even more so, the body can guide or distract the soul’s natural affinity for God. Take for example the emphasis on the posture of the body within prayer, whether kneeling, laying down, or standing.. John Cassian chides his monks not to lay prostrate too long at times of prayer for fear of falling asleep. For him, the preferred posture is to stand or kneel, thus keeping the soul attentive to God.

When we draw the Christological parallels to anthropology we see that today’s embodied Gnosticism is as equally problematic as the Gnostics of the past.  Here we see that the Incarnation reveals the proper ordering of the soul within the human body, namely that the soul guides the flesh towards virtue while the flesh can reveal God at work in the world.  There is thus no individual, or solipsistic element to the human person.  It must relate to both God and the world through the elements of the body: The soul towards God and the body towards the world.  In the Incarnation we understand the proper ordering of these elements so as not to mistake the material for the spiritual.  Indeed then, we arrive at the importance of PanENtheism, the notion that God is active in the world but still beyond creation.

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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.

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Time for Tactics, Part 2

In the previous post I argued that the Church is distinctive from other institutions in that it need not develop its own strategy. Rather, as an eschatological community, the Church lives toward the strategic vision of the Kingdom of God. This is best exemplified in the gospel parables wherein Jesus describes this Kingdom vision; the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a lost coin, a widow’s offering or a bit of yeast mixed into flour. With this strategic plan set before us, the Church then must live into that vision. This requires that we live by what I identified as tactics. Though some of us wince at the militaristic connotations of tactics, the root of the term simply means an opportunistic, time limited action. Within that definition is also a subversive element. A tactic is an action which takes what is and uses it for another purpose all together. For instance, Michele de Certeau illustrates how an employee tactically uses work supplies for personal gain such as writing a grocery list on a post-it note. It’s innocuous, but the employee takes the opportunity to use work materials for his own gain. That is a tactical action.

The Church, as a resident alien, lives within this tactical context. Systems and institutions act in their own strategic interests. That is why our surrounding culture encourages the Church to set it own strategy. The world runs by the strategic, long range self-interest of persons and systems. That is, in essence, what we might call sin– the willful decision to act in the interest of the self rather than out of a relationship with God. The state of the world is such that sin defines all the world’s actions; it is fallen. Hence, the sin-riddled world must work strategically. In order to sustain perishing institutions, to feel some sort of control, the emphasis falls on strategies. As a tactical community, the Church takes what is, and uses it for a redeemed purpose. We as the Church subvert the strategies of the fallen cosmos to bring in glimpses of God’s strategic vision.

So, how might we as the Church live into this tactical reality? We need not look far since the Liturgy is the one practice which is truly the Church’s own. The Liturgy presents the practice of tactical action within a strategic frame.

There are so many ways to define the Liturgy, most of which raise significant questions about idealism and denominationalism, but here I am using Liturgy simply to mean the form of using repeated actions in daily settings, or what liturgists call Ordinaries and Propers. No matter the Christian tradition the phenomenon appears by looking at a month’s worth of bulletins. From these orders of service it is easy to see that there are some elements which repeat week after week; these are the strategic elements, or Ordinaries. Even the least liturgical tradition has repeating practices like a welcome, prayers, and the offertory. Within this ordinal frame, there are pieces which occur only once such as the specific scripture readings or prayers for the day; these are the tactical elements, or Propers. In more liturgical traditions these are exemplified in the Collect which is a short prayer which reflects the themes of the lectionary texts.

The structural aspect of our Sunday gatherings reveals just how tactical action function within the established strategy of the Kingdom of God. The strategic ordinaries remain constant, yet the tactical propers are contextual and responsive to the time and place. In essence they are the pieces we choose, we enact, and we contribute to the liturgical proclamation and celebration of the Kingdom of God. As an example, consider the prayers of the congregation. In some traditions this would be called the Prayers of the People or in others the Pastoral Prayer. During this segment of worship the world, its events, and its people are lifted in petition to God. As a tactic, these petitions respond to events around us with uniquely Christian response.

To be sure, the tactic is still shaped by the overall strategy, but we as the Church do not define the strategy. Our action is to tactically bring the world to God’s strategy. Outside of the liturgical assembly we do the same, except in reverse. Once we exit the building, we have the opportunity to tactically bring the Kingdom of God to the world, be means of our witness, service, and proclamations.  We are the tactical icons of God’s Kingdom strategy.

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Priesthood of All….

I have been amazed lately how thin our understanding of “The Priesthood of All Believers” has become.  At the Consultation on Ministerial Leadership several years ago the phrase barely surfaced in the discussions.  Instead, in its place, people most often spoke of the Church of the Brethren as “Egalitarian.”  Such a vocabulary takes the robust Reformation conviction, which speaks of the ability of each believer to intercede and guide one another on the journey of faith, and completely flattens the concept to a thinly veiled form of democracy.

Some have said it more clearly: The priesthood of all and the leadership of none.

If it is not clear by now, I think this democratic and flattened egalitarianism is nearly heretical.  At the very least, it is not scriptural.  In fact, Paul is very clear that as a community the Church is comprised of multiple gifts and roles.  Through the metaphor of a body, he helps reveal how the gifts of one person serve the whole.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (I Corinthians 13:7-12, NRSV)

For leaders, there are few things as frustrating as a misunderstanding of this scripture and the beautiful confession the Priesthood of All.  If God had flattened the Church to the point of egalitarian democracy there would be no need for Spiritual Gifts.  To say that the community (congregation or organization) is flat with no uniqueness is to dismiss the created plurality of the human race.  It simply is a means to erase difference, erase responsibility, and erase purpose.  We’re all just the same and have everything and yet nothing to offer one another.  That cannot be the right view of the Priesthood of All.

As leaders, it is necessary to counter the flattening urge of our current culture within the Church of the Brethren. Here are a couple of ways to think about the multiplicity of gifts within a confession of the Priesthood of All.

First, we must reclaim the gift language of Paul.  Here we have to spend time looking inward to ourselves and claim our own gifts.  The flip side of such introspection is to assess the gifts of those around us.  For, as Paul says, all are gifted for the common good.  By naming, valuing, and celebrating the gifts each member brings to the congregation we recognize the pallet with which God paints the Church.

Second, the Church must reclaim the language of roles and ministries.  That is to say, that from the gifted community emerge those who are set apart for the various needs of the congregation.  Here again we turn to Paul:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13, NRSV)

Today we may add several vocations to the list, but the idea is clear.  For the Church gifts are spread so that various functions are covered by members of the priesthood.  It should be said that there is no hierarchy here, rather the jobs of the Church are defined by tasks “for the building up of the body of Christ.”  Some are sent out, some gather in, some care for the members, some exhort, and some inform.  To draw this out even further is to say that the pastor nurtures the apostle and the prophet, while the teacher forms the evangelist and the preacher.  In more negative terms, if the pastor were to try on prophecy as a vocation within the community, the Church would be very comforted but never make strides towards the kingdom of God.

We cannot assume that everyone can easily fill the role outside their giftedness.  For the common good we must recognize both that all are gifted and that each one ministers uniquely.  To follow Paul’s image of the body, a flattened view of the Priesthood of All would leave us a body of all ears which never moves, or of all feet which never sees.

The fear among us is that such a diverse approach means that lines must be drawn, differences must be noticed, and expertise must be sought. The challenge is that such a flattened view of community is central to American culture.  The hope is that such difference can be celebrated and nurtured without resulting in clericalism.  However we approach the dangers and opportunities, it is necessary for the vitality and vibrancy of our Church that we reject the “egalitarian” perspective and live into the New Testament image of the diversely gifted and vocationally unique body.

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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?

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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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