Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Macho Jesus and The Theology of The Cross

I think a lot about the theology of the cross. To sum up the theology of the cross, it is that the cross is the deepest and fullest expression of who God is. God is associated with the crucified, present as our companion in shame and death, and revealed there, most fully, as the God of promise and resurrection. It has become, for me, a lens into all other theological reflection. This expression of who God is conditions all other claims about God. If we understand God as a God of power, as an "almighty God," it can only be a "power" and "might" that corresponds to the weakness and passion of the crucified Christ. Of course, there are other nuances which color this lens. For example, the theology of the cross, as I understand it, has an essentially eschatological orientation. In other words, while it is a claim of God's presence in death, it is the presence of the God who has resurrection as God's future, a presence according to promise. Thus, in a way (perhaps more directly at some times than at others), eschatology is the lens for theological reflection. As Moltmann has suggested, the theology of the cross and the theology of resurrection (of promise) are two sides of the same coin.

The theology of the cross offers a contrast to the so-called "theology of glory." The theology of glory is something of a theological fallacy in which God is associated with glory, power, mightiness, etc. (often, more conspicuous terminology actually turns out to be a theology of glory--terminology such as "perfection," "holiness," or even "greatness"). The theology of the cross does not negate God's power, glory, and might but it does mean to define (or redefine) these terms. God is only as powerful, as mighty, as glorious as the weak, mangled, and wretched body of Jesus hanging on the cross. The suffering of Jesus on the cross redefines glory. This is the suffering of love--love poured out in solidarity with the weak, mangled, and wretched--and thus it is by this love that power is ironically redefined. The theology of glory, as such, misses all the irony, is ignorant to the new definitions given by the cross, and imposes definitions of God's glory which are indifferent to God's association with weakness. Historically, the theology of glory has coincidentally or intentionally been wielded politically to perpetuate the power of the state and to justify the use of violence and coercion by those who have the power. The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love. Even such a statement as "the power of love" sounds absurd and silly to those convinced by the theology of glory. But, then again, this is why Paul said, "the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing."

What might the theology of glory look like today in American culture? Unfortunately, we don't have to look very far. We can look back to George W. Bush's appeals to his faith during and in justification of his execution of "the war on terror." We can look to the apocalyptic rhetoric of dispensationalists who look forward to God's judgement of the world in fiery retribution. We can even look to patriarchal liturgies in many of our churches or at the crusader hymns in some of our hymnals. But I'd like to offer one more expression of the theology of glory that can help us understand what it is, one which we might have missed. More importantly I'd like to offer the theology of glory as an interpretive lens for understanding a particular phenomenon in American church culture... I call it the "macho Jesus" phenomenon.

"Macho Jesus" is a reactionary trend found particularly in conservative churches. In reaction to images of Jesus as a gentle soul, an introspective sage, and a pious pacifist, the macho Jesus contends that Jesus was tough. Emphasizing Jesus' anger, especially the passage in which Jesus drives out the money changers in the temple (again, they seem to have missed the irony) proponents of the macho Jesus argue that Jesus was manly, proactive, and even aggressive in his mission to save the world. Concerned that the traditional notion of masculinity is fading in our culture (perhaps threatened by contemporary feminist influences and alternative sexual orientations), they present a masculine Jesus who doesn't shy away from violence if it's necessary. If you've heard a few Mark Driscoll sermons or seen the trailer for the film "Fight Church," you may have an idea of what I'm getting at. In Fight Church, there's a telling line in which (presumably) a pastor says, "Jesus never quit, Jesus never tapped out, he finished what he came to do." In light of the theology of the cross, this statement would be problematic. First of all, it implies that Jesus came in order to die, that dying on the cross was like lifting weights--no pain, no gain. But as John Bowlin has explained, Jesus' first intention was not his death. Bowlin relates Jesus' sacrifice to the "sacrifice bunt" in baseball. The motive was not (directly) to "get out"--to die--but to "rescue the runner and move him toward home." Secondly, and more important to our discussion, this idea that Jesus didn't "tap out" misses out on the weakness of Jesus on the cross. Indeed, "tapping out" is essentially what Jesus was doing when he prayed "into your hands I commit my spirit." Jesus' association with those who cannot go on, with those who have lost the strength to muster a defense, who are utterly defeated under the authority of the powers that be is lost in he macho Jesus phenomenon. Therefore weakness is never redeemed in Christ for it is never assumed by Christ (I carry with me a presupposition from Gregory of Naziansus: "That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved.") And, like always, this agenda serves the power of the state, perpetuating American dominance and justifying American violence. It's Christian machoism, the assumption that Jesus' power is displayed in his violent opposition of his enemies, which justifies in many minds the expression American violent opposition of their enemies.

So let us imagine, with the New Testament, that Jesus is essentially the crucified Jesus, the weak and despicable Jesus... and only as such is he the God of glory and power. Let us imagine, with the New Testament, that death is swallowed up in victory, not through the expression of violence but through the experience of it assumed by the God of life who has resurrection as God's future. And thus, let us look with hope not only in our moments of strength but even (especially!) in our moments of weakness.
" power is made perfect in weakness..." (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Can We Still Learn From Rob Bell?

I feel like Rob Bell just doesn't get the love he deserves anymore. Many conservative evangelicals have rejected him (in my opinion, mostly for illegitimate reasons). Liberals don't know much about him. And many of the folks in between, the ones who should really like him have decided it's just not hip to like him anymore. Many young theology students who likely fit it the latter camp, many of the seminarians in my context included, seem to think Bell is below them. And, to be fair, they have a point... since Rob Bell probably isn't writing to them anyway. It seems that at every turn, Bell's audience has been a more common crowd--not the theologian, per se, but the lay person, the "seeker," asking questions about spirituality and Christianity. For this crowd, I think, Bell has been a particularly effective teacher. If we're honest, I think many of us young wanna-be theologians owe a lot to Rob Bell for serving as a window into deeper theological questions. I know this is the case for me. Why can't we just admit that Rob Bell's still got good things to say? Why can't we still learn from him?

I like to think that my sources are now a bit more... well... "academic" than Rob Bell--a bit more theologically sophisticated and precise (not necessarily to say that Rob Bell wouldn't be capable of writing at that level if he tried. He just doesn't). But while I may have moved on to deeper waters and while I can certainly critique much of Rob Bell's work on theological grounds, I can still gratefully admit that Bell was my first theological influence. He was my door to N.T. Wright... who was indirectly my door to J├╝rgen Moltmann... who has become my go-to theologian and my window into many other theologies and theologians. And I still like Rob Bell. I still learn from him--from his perspective, from the questions he asks and the insight he offers--every time I read his stuff. Yes, I think we can still learn from Rob Bell... if from nothing else, then from his ability to keep his finger on the pulse of culture and to acknowledge our questions. The academic theologian may have to engage in some translation (perhaps speculatively at times) into more precise theological language--ironically, perhaps, a reversal of how most lay people have to translate academic theology into more common language. But once we think through Bell's stuff and the questions he asks, I think the humble theologian--at almost any level--will find be able to learn something from Rob Bell's perspective as a pastor. For those who think themselves to be too theologically educated to learn anything from Rob Bell, perhaps a bit more humility is in order, and I would suggest that even if we want to be deeper and more precise than Rob Bell's books, he's still asking many of the right questions and he can teach us much about which questions we should be asking.

I look forward to learning from Rob Bell again... and this time from his wife Kristen too. Today I pre-ordered my copy of The Zimzum of Love: A New Way to Understand Marriage by Rob and Kristen Bell. In the midst of so much social controversy and questioning concerning marriage in our country, I look forward to reading Bell's perspective... and I anticipate that it will be a welcome nuance to the Christian theological perspectives on marriage and relationships.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Importance of the Present Moment

"The poor and their unjustly inflicted poverty, the social, economic, and political structures on which their reality is based, and their complex ramifications of hunger, imprisonment, torture, assassinations, etc....are all a negation of the Reign of God, and one cannot think about the sincere proclamation of the Reign of God while turning one's back to these realities, or while throwing a cloak over them to cover their shame." -Ignacio Ellacuria
This quote from Ellacuria has reminded me just how important the present moment really is. When we talk about the hope of the reign of God or the "kingdom of God," our minds sometimes gravitate to some future moment. We think about how nice it will be when the reign of God really comes to fruition, but in doing so we release ourselves from having to deal with the issue in the present. And in doing so, we actually deny ourselves the participation in God's reign here and now. We look the future and throw "a cloak" over the shame of the brokenness which surrounds us. The hope for the future which is authentic to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a hope which looks longingly beyond the present into some distant future, into some prophesied future millennium, but a hope which springs forth action in the present as a participation in that world for which we hope, the world heralded by resurrection, the future which insists on making itself present among us.

To think about "the sincere proclamation of the Reign of God" is to act creatively and hopefully in the present without forfeiting one's imagination for the present to those things which do not correspond to Christ's future. While we are assured that it is indeed Christ's reign, Christ's future, and thus Christ's work--not ours--there is no authentic way to respond to Christ's work without working in participation with Christ to end poverty, marginalization, and injustice within history... not because we are the world's great hope, but precisely because Christ is the world's hope... and nothing less than the reign of God will do. The present moment is important because it is soaked in Christ's future. The present world and its situations are important precisely because, because of the incarnation, it is there that God's reign truly lives. The future of God lives in the present and the present takes its cues from Christ's future.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Reflection on Matthew 25

Matthew 25, the story of the separating of the sheep from the goats, is perhaps my favorite and least favorite passage in Scripture. If you don't recall, it's essentially a story about a king who awards and punishes his people based on their treatment of hungry, thirsty, sick, strange, marginalized, and imprisoned neighbors. It's quite a startling story to consider when you consider what service to a king might have meant in the minds to many of Jesus' contemporaries. Rather than an association with power and a service to the powerful, this king judges people according to their treatment of the very "least of these," calling them his brothers and sisters, and sharing in their identity as one (all!) of the poorest and lowliest people. And when interpreted in context, one might conclude that it is especially those from whom the religious impulse would normally be to run. This king goes as far as to say, "how you serve them is how you serve me." Of course, this flips the idea of religious authority and righteousness on its head. It is, in the end, according to Jesus, not in avoiding risky relationships or people who are on the outside or underside of society that one might protect their righteousness, but in engaging those relationships, serving, visiting, welcoming those people.

This is why this passage is both my favorite and least favorite passage in scripture.

It is my favorite because of what it reveals about God's action. The story ends up being a story about Jesus himself. And, since Jesus is the "image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), that makes it a story about God. The story therefore reveals not only a God who loves (even has a preferential option for) the poorest of the poor, but a God who is the poorest of the poor. This God, the God revealed in Jesus, the God of whom Jesus tells such stories holds nothing back in God's solidarity with humanity. In this way Matthew 25 points forward to the cross. There's no greater least-ness than crucifixion and hell. It is my favorite passage because it means that "neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39). It means that "if I make my bed in the depths," God is there (Psalm 139:8). That is the hope disclosed in the theology of the cross--God's love embraces humanity from the bottom up. There is no one so poor, such a sinner, so outside convention that God will not only love but with them share God's very identity. The only ones who are "out," as it were, are those who would exclude and marginalize others.

And that is why it is my least favorite passage. It is troublesome to me because it has been my impulse, indeed my religious impulse, to find fault in others and to exclude them according to those faults. It has been my habit to avoid certain people, to flee from risky relationships. It is my least favorite passage because it tells me that I deserve God's judgement as much as anyone, because I have rejected God by rejecting others. It is my least favorite passage because it tells me that whoever I refuse to serve, include, welcome, or visit is, in some mysterious way, God. It gives me that much more incentive to pray that there is no hell... because if there is one, I must be first in line. According to my action, I am a goat.

While this passage tells of God's boundless love for us, it also condemns us, even the church... especially the church. It tells us that those who are excluded by the church are accepted by God. It tells us that God is a woman, God is black, God is a child, God is gay, God is trans, God is disabled, God is anyone for whom there is no place in the church, from whom the welcome of the church is withheld... all this because "God is love" (1 John 4:8). This means that the church must be in the business of opening every closed door, then opening the closed doors on the other side of those doors. It is the best news in scripture and it is the most challenging news in scripture. I guess that's what makes it the Gospel.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Worship is Political

In my last post I talked about worship--about how worship serves as a normative relationship. Worship of God is a 'falling in love' with God in such a way that all other loves are ordered accordingly. Our relationship with God determines all our other relationships and identities and, as such, orients all relationships toward the selfless love demonstrated and manifest on the cross of Christ--a love of solidarity and shared identity.

Here, on this American holiday on which concepts like independence and liberty take center stage, I just want to talk about the way in which worship can become the most important prophetic corrective for Christians in America. I believe I heard that something like 70% of all Americans identify, at least in some nominal fashion, as Christians. Christianity is still America's dominant religion (even if Fox News thinks it's being persecuted). But when it comes to worship, I doubt that Christ is actually America's most central object of worship. It seems obvious, at least in most political debates on Facebook, that many people who do consider themselves Christians are content to allow their relationship to American national identity to determine and order their other relationships, even their relationship with God. In other words, even Christians by name in America often worship American nationalism before they worship God. As I said in my previous post, It's easy to get our idea of worship stuck in the mud of archaist rituals and religion. Even emotional worship songs can fall into this category. Just because someone sings contemporary worship songs on Sunday morning, it does not mean that their relationship with God is normative in their lives, no matter how emotional their singing may be. The truth is, worship is such an holistic orientation to God that it cannot be reduced to emotion or sanctioned from political activity. So even if we pray to God and wish to follow God in our everyday activities and in our relationships with the people we know, worship should extend beyond those things, it should determine even our corporate activity and our relation to people we do not know, people who may even be of a different nationality. In other words, worship is political. 

If in a conversation about immigration, for example, we are more prone to ask how an American should attend to the situation than we are to ask how a Christian, a follower of the crucified Christ, should attend to it, then I think we can assume that our worship is directed not to Christ but to American nationalism. If we ask how a Christian should attend to immigration, it's much less likely that we'd reach the same conclusions as when we asked how an American should handle it. Deportation, as such, would not likely fall into the equation if our worship is directed toward the Christ who was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem by the political forces of dominant society. We would not be able to justify acting from American self-interest, but we'd be compelled to see as brothers and sisters those whom America might be inclined to see as threats, aliens, or "illegals." Our relationship with God, through worship, we have to correct and determine our identity as Americans. In other words, we'd be Christians first, Americans second (to put it perhaps too crassly) and our kinship would not be to Americans, per se, but to humankind for whom Christ died. 

So on this American Independence Day, do not forget that Christian allegiance is not to a flag--not even to the flag of the United States of America or to the republic for which it stands--but to the God who is revealed in Jesus, the God who shares his body and his blood, his very identity, with the outcast, the marginalized, the illegal, and the unAmerican. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

What is Worship?

I've been thinking about worship a lot lately. What is worship anyway? Is it the thing we do on Sunday mornings at churches? Is it a kind of activism? Is it a ritual or declaration of obedience? A friend posed the question to me not too long ago, somewhat indirectly. It's easy to get our idea of worship stuck in the mud of archaist rituals and religion, to lose worship to the disconnect of concern for propriety and obedience. And, from the perspective of someone like me, someone concerned with academic definitions, it's easy to over-complicate the subject. My first response to the question was to describe it as an orientation, a directing of oneself to another and a directing of ones actions to that other. And I'm quite sure that's part of it. Indeed, that is what worship is. But if we cannot answer more simply that worship means loving God, then we've over-complicated the thing. The description cannot be limited to orientation, not when we're talking about the worship of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Orientation can never be arbitrary or imposed. Because God is love, love must be the very basis of worship. At the root of worship, then, is not only the orientation of one to another, when it is the worship of God we're talking about, the orientation must also imply the giving of one's heart to the God who had given God's own heart to God's creation. Worship implies falling in love. God is not to be worshiped merely as the object of fear. It must not be the impulse of an anxiety to evade condemnation... In other words, no worship done for the sake of avoiding hell can be considered the worship of God. For if God is revealed in Jesus Christ, revealed through the incarnate love which pursues humankind even to its darkest fringes and takes on their burden, offering hope and resurrection, then love is the only appropriate mode of worship. Worship, then, is to give oneself to God wholly, passionately, not merely obediently.

What is unique, then, about worship is not its relational quality. I can offer myself, my heart, to my wife as well, and it would not be inappropriate, but it would not necessarily be worship. What's unique about worship, though relationship is essential and fundamental to it, is the way in which it subsequently determines all other relationships. I've written elsewhere of my essential agreement with Martin Buber, Moltmann, Andrew Root, and others, that relationships make us who we are on an ontological level--as Moltmann has suggested, they are "primal" to us. Root has said, "we are the relationships that make us; we have our being in and through relationships that place us into reality, and therefore we are open ontologically to the possibility of encounter." Encounter, the offering of self to others and the receiving of others into the self, is an essential human activity. The worship of God, uniquely, is the crown of that human activity, it is normative and climactic. Worship is the offering of self which is normative of all other activity of self-offering. In other words, our worship orients and determines all the relationships which make us who we are. Therefore, worship itself becomes fundamentally an ontological category. If in our worship to God is to offer our hearts to God in love (the only appropriate mode of worship), then love will itself have the role of determination for all other relationships.

Indeed, all worship (even that which is not concerned with love as such) has this normative relational quality. For whatever relationship we allow to be most fundamental to us will determine all the other relationships. That is why idolatry is so often paired with injustice as objects of God's judgement in scripture. If our relationship with power, for example, is most important to us... if we worship it... then all our other relationships will serve power... we'll probably turn out like Frank Underwood (if you don't watch House of Cards, start watching it). We will not be able to find in ourselves the capacity or justification for selfless activity. No relationship that does not somehow serve power will be intuitive. In this way, the Bible itself can become an idol too. Our relationship with the Bible can become the relationship which determines all our other relationships and arbitrary obedience to the Bible is quite different from loving relationship with the God revealed in scripture. Our relationship with God should determine even our relationship to the Bible.

All this is to say that worship is loving God, offering self to God and receiving God in such a way that no relationship goes unaffected, undetermined even, by the loving relationship with the God who tolerates no barriers between Godself and the world which God has determined to love. If this is the God we worship, and if we worship in this way, then we will be truly and ontologically human--created in the image of God.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

A Reflection on Pain and Learning

I remember one of my professors at Azusa Pacific University, just short of ten years ago, saying, "learning is always painful." He wasn't talking about pain of labor, of tests and papers. He was talking about something deeper, more existential, about the process of gaining new understanding. Essentially, learning is a process of changing one's mind. With any significant change in perspective, there is a dynamic and multi-layered transformation. A humility is required--to learn anything new, you have to be ready to believe that what you thought you "knew" wasn't so. A death is involved--when a new understanding is birthed, its alternative must, on some level, be put to death. And learning doesn't occur in a vacuum. Learning takes place in the midst of a complex matrix of relationships, and with any real change of mind occurs a change in relationships as well (and thus a deeper, more ontological change is is implied). Of course, not all learning is significant enough for this pain to have lasting effects. Sometimes more than one perspective can be held simultaneously, sometimes humility comes more intuitively, sometimes thew change will strengthen relationships and not damage them. But the pain is always there. And when dramatic learning occurs over years and decades, the pain can be just as sharp, especially in relationships--relationships not only with individuals but with groups and ideologies. One might find themself alienated from a perspective with which they once identified and in which they found comfort and resolution. Learning can create not only understanding, but perhaps even more fundamentally, a great uncertainty. 

I often feel this pain of learning, this pain of alienation from a former perspective and its adherents. Much of my spiritual formation has been influenced by Evangelical sources. It was from very conservative people in a very conservative Evangelical context that I learned to appreciate the Bible, to read it and study it, and to worship God. My love for scripture and my commitment to the fundamental importance of the worship of God are products of this perspective. But I have learned... changed a lot over the years. In many ways, I am miles away from where I used to be. I sometimes have to remind myself that not only did I vote for George W. Bush in 2004 (which wasn't too terribly long ago) but that one of my main reasons for doing so was because I thought he'd keep gay marriage illegal for good (much of my angst concerning this issue, and the sense of urgency with which I approach it, comes from an embarrassment and anger toward how I used to think). There was a time when I thought that you had to believe in Evolution, vote Republican, and read the Bible like a rule book to be a Christian. Yes, I have changed dramatically over the years. My learning--which has come from nothing less than a commitment to the study of scripture and to a fundamental responsibility toward the authentic worship of the God revealed through scripture--has lead me toward what I would've once called a "liberal" perspective (I don't think I'm really a liberal). I believe that scripture reveals to us a God whose love determines God's justice, a God who chooses people over rules (who's only real motivation to make rules in the first place is love for people), a God who constantly opens God's circle... who indeed demolishes the walls of every circle which might exclude people from acceptance. In short, scripture and worship have lead me to a place where I am now alienated in significant ways from the very people who taught me to value them. 

I can handle a debate... I have to if I want to have any place in scholarship... but the most painful accusation that gets thrown at me by conservatives with whom I would have once agreed is that I disregard or don't care about scripture. That accusation represents to me perhaps the greatest pain of my learning. The ideas I have put to death in order to learn from scripture are the very ideas that some people herald as the ideas of scripture. To be so misunderstood as to be accused of insincerity or infidelity by the very people from whom I came is still painful, no matter how sure I am of their ignorance. My learning has caused me, in fact and ironically, to lose credibility with some of the people who are most important to me, the people with whom I thought I might have gained credibility through studying scripture. 

So I guess this can simply serve as a warning: real learning is not easy. It is painful. But I believe it is worth the pain. The greatest shifts in history--think, for example, of the civil rights and women's suffrage--were birthed with great pain in learning. I do not regret that I can now look at my gay and lesbian brothers and sister as... well, brothers and sisters, and not as a problem for society or objects for biblical correction. I do not regret that I can now find not only support and authority but also illumination from scripture. And I don't claim to be the most faithful Christian or the most competent reader of scripture, but let no one doubt my sincerity in worship or my commitment to scripture. My faith has not lost its simplicity--the simplicity of loving Jesus--and the scripture is more alive to me than ever before--alive and untamable, not literal and tyrannical. As painful as learning may be, it can indeed give life to faith, even if that faith is no longer the faith of conservative Evangelicalism. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Clarifying Dave Brat and Princeton Seminary

I haven't posted anything overtly political in a while... and that's on purpose. But ever since Dave Brat upset Eric Cantor in their Republican primary race, I have thought about saying something. Not because I'm impressed by an upset or have any particular feelings about either candidate, but specifically because Brat has put Princeton Theological Seminary on the political map. That's right, a distinctly conservative Tea Party candidate is an alumnus of the seminary I am currently attending. And in case you're confused... in case you're wondering if Princeton Seminary is a lot more conservative than you thought... don't. I think it's safe to say that pretty much all of us here at PTS are pretty embarrassed by this guy. I could say all sorts of things to clarify the differences between Brat and the theological ethos of PTS, but I think Kate Blanchard says it much better...

In her Huffington Post article, "What Did Dave Brat Learn in Seminary?", Blanchard makes it pretty clear that the platform on which Brat is running is hardly reflective of a typical/expected education from this seminary. I encourage you to read her article... click here.

Thoughts on Youth Ministry and Theology

I was recently asked what I think is the best way to help kids (teenagers, in particular) get started on theology. Since the question was posed via Twitter, I felt the pressure to put the answer into a sentence. Truth is, I had to think about the question a bit. I've never approached my ministry with young people as a ministry to get them started on theology, that's never been the telos for my ministry. At least that's not explicitly the intention with which I enter into ministry with kids. But, of course, theology is pretty important. If when we say 'theology' we mean something like "a continuous process of disciplined and prayerful thought through which a community of faith seeks to understand what it believes and thus to be guided in its living out of that belief..."(Douglas John Hall, Cross in Our Context, 3), then the very shape of ministry is theological and the very shape of theology is ministry. So, yeah, I do want kids to get started on theology... but not primarily as a dogmatic discipline. Dogmatics will help along the way, no doubt, but theology is fundamentally an act of participation in ministry.

I wouldn't be surprised if some of the people I've worked with in ministry, because of my passion for theology, may have questioned, at times, my capacity as a practitioner of youth ministry. I'm quite sure I've given them other reasons to do so, but theology isn't one of them. If anyone thinks I just want to teach theology to kids--to get every kid reading Barth and Tillich--they've got me wrong. And if anyone thinks that disciplined attention to and passion for more dogmatic forms of theological reflection somehow obviate one's ability to effectively minister to people, even kids, then I think they've got theology wrong.

There is perhaps a form of theological reflection that isn't so helpful. There's a version of theology which is somewhat ambivalent to the complexities and multiplicities of human experience. Some practical theology--which actually isn't so practical--could be described as "applied theology." Gordon Mikoski uses archery to illustrate this--what he sees as an older form of practical theological reflection...
A single archer aims a single arrow at a single stationary target... this sort of practical theology entailed three main tasks: getting the doctrine as clear and sharp as possible, aiming correctly, and using the right kind of force and method to hit the target. There was a certain mechanical precision, not to mention monotony, to the older forms of Protestant practical theology. (Opening the Field of Practical Theology, 170-171).
Mikoski sees practical theology as something much more organic and dynamic, grounded in normativity but keenly sensitive to human experience and the actual contextual work of ministry. Ministry is theology, but it can't just be "applied theology." Getting people to be theologians is not the goal, something deeper and fuller is the goal. Mikoski suggests that while archery would be a bad metaphor for this kind of theology, maybe a better one would be that of "a medical health-care team." He says, "In this metaphor, full functioning or flourishing of life is the aim." Not just one arrow is pointed at just one target, but all different sources and experiences are taken seriously. "While trained medical doctors continue to have a central role, nurses, ethicists, social workers, administrators, and patient advocates all contribute something important to health care. The work is collaborative" (174).

Theology is important, fundamental, insofar as it is not an end in itself. This is true for me, even as a theologian, but especially as a youth worker. I want to get kids started on theology, but only because of where it might lead them--perhaps even to "full functioning or flourishing of life..."And I don't go into ministry to get kids started on theology, I go into ministry as a work of participation in God's affirmation of the life and dignity of God's people... theology is on the path, but it's certainly not the purpose. Relationship, to put it in a word, is the purpose. And the complexities of relationship demand attention to more than just dogmatic theology. All different sources and experiences must be taken seriously.

So how did I answer the question on Twitter? What is the best way to help kids get started on theology. I said, quite simply, "the bible... and someone who cares enough to read it with them." Of course scripture is given a certain normative force, but it cannot stand alone. There must be a "collaboration." There has to be relationship. It's in relationships, the very fabric of human life and experience, that divinity and humanity encounter one another. And in all our theological musings we must attend to this fabric if our theological work is going to indeed be the work of ministry.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Christian Is As Christian Does?

It's true, at least to some degree, that Christianity is as Christianity does. If we want say what Christianity is all about, one way is to simply say what Christianity is up to, what things are done in the world of human experience in the name of the Christian religion. We can try to distinguish, as I have before, a true Christianity, an essential and ideal form of Christianity, from the Christianity of human experience. We might even call this a distinction between true and real. But if we're to judge a tree by its fruit, as a wise man once suggested, then such an exercise is not simple or obviously beneficial. If Christianity is the dominant rationale in the United States for the oppression of women and the marginalization of the LGBTQ community (and I am afraid we can't deny this), then on some level we are faced with the reality that Christianity is itself oppressive and subjugating. We can talk all day about what Christianity should be, what true Christianity actually is, but we're always faced with the facts of what Christianity actually does. If Christianity is as Christianity does, to any degree, then we are faced with the question: is it worthwhile to describe true Christianity at all? Is it at all a helpful exercise to say what Christianity actually teaches about women and LGBTQ people, for example, when despite the theory, Christianity still oppresses them and excludes them in practice? No matter how attractive our description of true Christianity is, is it not trumped at every turn my real Christianity... at least concerning some issues?

Faced with these question, some have been so persuaded by this empirical approach and so dissuaded from the helpfulness of any ideal description that they've concluded (as one probably should if Christianity is only what Christianity does) that Christianity itself isn't helpful, even being fully aware of certain idea descriptions of what Christianity actually is (I am thinking, for example, of one blogger friend of mine at Hackman's Musings who seems to have gone this route at least to some degree). We should take this option seriously, as this is not a decision of ignorance but is, indeed, an informed decision. However, we should be clear that it is a decision to give normative preference to the empirical over the "ideal" and is, at that, a decision or persuasion to conflate the ontological with the epistemological. I am of the persuasion that ontology (what is) is bigger than epistemology (what I can know and experience). In other words, I think that there is reality and significance to things with which my capacity as a human agent is incapable of keeping up, even in the case of Christianity (here, I am trying to think along the lines of Andrew Root's "critical realism" as described in his Christopraxis). In other words, while it cannot be denied that, to some degree, Christianity is as Christianity does on a empirical level, I don't think that negates the necessity or productivity of describing what Christianity actually is or should be. Indeed, I believe that distinguishing between true and real can actually help us transform the real, the lived, toward the trajectory of the true. Therefore, while there is much for Christianity to be embarrassed about, that which is given normative preference is not what we have been or what we are but what we are becoming.

Douglas John Hall begins his theology of the cross (The Cross in Our Context) by taking up a concern for this quandary between being and doing. It will not be a waste to quote him at length here.
A Christian theologian recollecting the words of the one who said "by their fruits ye shall know them" will not dismiss Krauthammer's empirical approach [which essentially submits that religion is as religion does]. Neither will he or she find it satisfactory, for it assumes, in effect, that the content of belief as such is peripheral if not irrelevant--"the essence of an abstraction"--that what matters is not the theological and ethical substance of a religion but the actions of its avowed adherents. That airy abstraction, rationalization, and hypocrisy exist--about, even!--among the religious; that gross discrepancies can be found in every faith between thought and act, what is desired and what is done: these can be readily admitted. But such an admission does not obviate the fact that there are definite consequences of belief, as of disbelief. Nor does it rule out the necessity, in every religious faith, of distinguishing between authentic and inauthentic expressions of that faith.... it is of course pretentious in the extreme when the doctrinal guardians of a religion claim to define for good and all the "real" Christianity/Judaism/Islam/etc., but a religious community must always be busy with sifting its essence from historical accidents and extraneous associations... (The Cross in Our Context, 2-3)
Hall's argument continues on to support the need for a prophetic theological voice within religious faith (as well as with any system of thought which threatens to become totalizing or "triumphalistic") without such a need negating the importance of said religious faith. Theology, as such, remains important--fundamental, even!--for, as Hall puts it, "for both durability and profundity, change must be undertaken at the level of the faith that informs and sustains the act--that is to say, at the level of theology" (5). So while empirically it may seem easier, if not necessary, to simply reject Christianity as a religion that does and causes bad things, I believe that at the level of theology, Christianity cuts more deeply into ontological significance than any perspective driven epistemologically by normative preference for the empirical, and as such, Christianity has the normative force to call human action into authentic participation with that which reality is becoming. True Christianity will conform and convert the real.

Therefore, it's important for us to continue insisting, despite the violence of Christian religion, that Christianity is an invitation to peace. It's important for us to continue insisting, from biblical grounds, on the full and just inclusion of the LGBTQ community into ecclesial and social life, despite the fact that the bible has been exploited to provide the most dominant rational for their oppression in the U.S. Though we should never ignore the realities of the actions of Christianity, and at some level admit that they are what Christianity is, we do not need to retreat from naming what is authentic and fraudulent in regards to what corresponds to God's action. Because, in the end and according to the theology which constitutes the distinct character of Christian theology (i.e. the theologia crucis and its corresponding eschatological hope), it is God's action which has definitive quality and authority over reality, not ours.