Category Archives: theology

What does it mean to be a transformative church?

What does it mean to be a transformative church?The Transformative Church

Two elements orient my overall purpose.

  1. A church is transformative when it engages in the development of people to better reflect the life of Christ in their lives

  2. and when this transformation then extends itself beyond the boundaries of a church community, as such people live their lives in new ways wherever they are.

We become in the church who we are to be in the
world.

Read more…

Posted in church, emerging church, missional, theology, Transformative Church, writing | 6 Comments

the broken state of public discourse

Anyone who is online and involved in segments of the opinionated classes–religion, politics, academia, etc.–quickly realizes the minefield that is public conversation.  The goal isn’t necessarily to contribute to the gathered understanding, but rather to establish yourself on a side, or show that you are one of the good people.

For instance, it’s pretty common for me to read something like, “If you don’t say _________  about _______, then you don’t understand or believe the Gospel.”  There’s always an interest in tying Jesus not only to a particular goal but to a particular stance.

I think I’ve been reacting to this for a long while.  And honestly, at my core I’m a fair bit rebellious. I’m resistant to being told what I must say or write.

I’m a rather opinionated person, to be honest, so it’s not that I don’t have a response to issues that are happening in this world. More, my recent silence to events or issues has more to do with really what is a postmodern critique. I’m suspicious with how public discourse is being used to perpetuate cycles of dysfunction.

There are sources of power that depend on such dysfunction in order to maintain their own authority.  Politics and Media are chief among them, as they must fuel disorder to maximize the psychological and social distress which they then can exploit. Religious leaders often have the same goal.

These systems establish authority and meaning for a class of people who then seek advantage within those systems or find themselves alienated or demonized. A fair amount of people who say things aren’t actually grounded in substantive understanding or belief.  They say what they say to establish themselves as faithful players in the system.  The winds change, they do too.

This is why much (most) public discourse is not really as much as a conversation as a antagonizing pattern of establishing the good people and the evil people. People rush to vocalize their stances so as to maintain or build their status in the particular system they aspire to find meaning in.

Religion, politics, academics, etc. it’s all the same as with pop culture: people tend to be less concerned about truth, beauty, or real consideration of the moral or aesthetic issues and more concerned with aligning themselves with those who can provide favor and advantage.

Tenure is supposed to secure freedom of thought in academia, but it misses the social pressures in seeking intellectual validation and approval by peers. Salvation by grace is supposed to secure freedom of thought in theology, but grace has long been coupled with proofs of one’s status as graced–toe the line of theological and ecclesial conformity or you will be rejected as having never received grace.

I’m working on a new book project this year, on the topic of liberation, and I’m currently reading through some books by Jean Marc-Ela, an African theologian.

When people must be on the lookout, like tracked animals, the development of a literature of paean and laud to the established regime translates into a form of prostitution  to which intellectuals are condemned for the sake of their families–in order to spare their elderly parents or their sisters and brothers the unpleasantness sure to ensue if a writer or speaker does not toe the party line.

Silence is as suspect as speaking or writing–paradox of paradoxes–since it can be interpreted as a form of disapproval of the prevailing regime.

Voluntary marginalization is a dangerous and precarious option where the multitudes are made to kneel before the idols of the day, ready to convulse in a hail of knee-jerk reactions at a moment’s notice.

It is not difficult to imagine the conscience drama in certain intellectual circles where writers and speakers are constrained on every occasion to utter the oracle pronounced to be the thinking of all citizens. Here, to speak in public means to repeat a discourse already heard.

The obligation to submit to official conformism fosters a parrot mentality, in which any critical reflection is a threat of dissidence and schism. The mind is locked up in a repetitious liturgy of the world of myth.

Without free thought there can be no progress in any area, and the triumph of unanimity that checks that free thought demands a whole ritual, currently manifested in the bowing and scraping to established regimes… The unity established through a one-party system is galvanized by the banishment of any form of dissidence labeled as threatening to public security.

Does this mean avoiding any public discourse? No.  For me, however, my sensitivity to the structures of power and how discourse is co-opted by the powerful for their own gain has led me to step back as I deal with my own temptations and, honestly, dependency.

I need approval and acceptance, not for a social sense of self, but because as of summer I need employment and income.  I see what I am told I need to say and think in order to gain status, who I must reject and who I must align with in order to get books sold, contracts, employment. I realize this and can’t get away from a verse that has afflicted me since seminary.

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the Lord. (Isaiah 31:1)

I say afflicted because as this passage stands out to me, I’ve stepped away from doing the things I should be doing in order to find the status I want or need.

I see this need, this interest in looking for those who may satisfy my very real concerns, and then seek to hold onto my integrity by not playing the game as it is being played.

Where is real freedom to be found?  It is very freeing to be on the outside, where dependency on approval for status and livelihood is not an issue.  But it is also a place of isolation and need.  The outside doesn’t pay that well, nor feed or house my family.

My security is bought at a price.  So, find a system to cling to–Right, Left, Populist, Academia–and commit to it, overlooking the faults of one’s “own” while demonizing those others.  That’s the temptation.

Real issues are used by people in power to secure their own power, they not only do not seek to alleviate the core problem such resolution is against their self-interest. They utilize the true believers and idealists to further establish their own gain.

Politics (on both sides), social causes, religious zeal; full of abusers and the abused, the latter often taking on a Stockholm Syndrome pattern of devotion to those whose self-interest drives the dysfunction. Public discourse is often more a game of social maneuvering than a pursuit of the fullness of truth.

I am silent because I don’t want to play into that system, even as I am absolutely obligated to speak up about issues that occur in my immediate context.  We are called to be good neighbors not loyal partisans.

I am often silent now because I’m trying to navigate how to speak outside the system within the systems, holding onto the fullness of hope and identity in Christ rather than clinging to a meaning derived from ultimately false patterns of meaning. I want to be a prophet not parrot the false-prophets that abound on every direction.

“We must conclude,” Ela writes, “that an acceptance of conflicts of opinion and a divergence of options, without the reduction of the opposition to silence, is not really incompatible with the pursuit of national unity and the progress of the masses.” Nor is is incompatible with the pursuit of good theology, unity of the church, or progress in social questions.

And so I wait on the Lord to give me wisdom and words. The pressure of not waiting is backed by the threat of judgment and dismissal and rejection: say “this” or you are rejected. Silence is indeed suspect.

That makes the goal of waiting on the Lord a difficult, brutally difficult, task.  Because those who are not waiting insist others join them in their chorus.

Posted in academia, personal, professional, religion, theology | 20 Comments

Theology as prophetic orientation

In Christian traditions, God is the primary prophet. He tells us about himself, then has others convey this knowledge. The prophets in the Bible rarely, if ever, are saying something new about God. They remind the people what they already have learned. After the Torah, the rest of the Bible is mostly commentary, and warnings, and revitalizing.

So, then, what does God tell us about his own self? What does God tell us about creation? What does God tell us about salvation, judgment, promise, redemptions? What does God tell us about the Spirit? Who is God? A simple one? A multifaceted unity? A complex unity of three persons? How does that work? What does God want us to do? Be? How are we to gather together? Who is included? What is the human condition, the human struggle, human failings? God tells Moses that he is the God of their forefathers and the I am for all generations? So, that’s history, what can we know about God’s work in history?

The challenge in these questions is to take the insight of many different narratives and teachings and speak of God in a way that is coherent with God’s revelation and has meaning for us in this present experience so that we are oriented with integrity to God’s continued work that reaches to us from the future.

It behooves us to get this right. It’s a challenge and a task to speak of God that relates the I am to who we are.

The sermon notes (now from a couple weeks ago) continue to help me orient the discussion:
The Profaning of God’s Name

  • When the delivered Israelites go to Mount Sinai to receive the law, the third commandment is that they “shall not make wrongful use of the name of YHWH your God, for YHWH will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
  • Ezekiel describes what the Israelites have done as a kind of corrupting or defiling of the nature and character of God. Because the people failed to enact justice and mercy but instead followed after power and the worship of idols, then the name of God was defiled. The people around Israel did not know YHWH as a God who hears the cries of the oppressed; instead they associated YHWH with the life of all the other gods.

That telling about God involves both a relationship and a study. A delving deeply into the revelation and considerations of God from those who have wrestled with his reality, living it out and filling out themes along the way. It is a spiritual task that involves the heart, mind, soul. There is no anti-intellectualism in Scripture, there’s no rejection of learning or study, indeed these are celebrated again and again, with the warnings coming in regards to false study or, often worse, ignoring God’s being or nature. Ignorance of God is no excuse, and intentional ignorance is worthy of judgment.

When we name God, we do not control God. When we call on the name of God, we are orienting ourselves in a situation of dangerous possibilities. God works, but God is who God is, not who we want God to be. God responds, but is not all things to all people. If we name God, then speak falsely of his character, values, goals, we are liable to judgment. It’s not mere strong language that’s being condemned in Exodus 20. “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” Misusing God’s name is about making God seem to others something he is not. It is abusing the relationship for our own power or benefit or pleasure. When we teach about God things that God does not see as true, we are misusing the name of God. The Jewish scholars sought to bypass the danger by no longer using the name of God, using ways to get around saying the name, lest they say it vainly. Jesus was not convinced by this workaround.

We are given the Name and we are given the name so as to encounter this God who is, walking rightly, with justice and mercy, in truth. Who is this God? What has this God done? What is this God doing? What will this God do? That is the prophetic task, and it is the task of those who claim to be theologians to find coherent ways to speak of these realities, teaching who God is to each generation, ever deeper so that the people may go ever farther in the calling this God gives.

So we need theologians as prophets. But that doesn’t let theologians off the hook. False prophets, after all, do abound.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

So opens 2 Peter 2. Jeremiah 14 has this to say:

Then the Lord said to me, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds. Therefore this is what the Lord says about the prophets who are prophesying in my name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine. And the people they are prophesying to will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and sword. There will be no one to bury them, their wives, their sons and their daughters. I will pour out on them the calamity they deserve.

If I’m commending the role of theologian as a prophet, then I can’t ignore the warnings that comes with such a task and such a title. To be a theologian is not a casual affair, though many have treated it as yet another among many academic specialties. Maybe for some it is. For those who take this God seriously, it is a serious task and calling.

Many in the past tried to get around the warning about wrongly using God’s name by no longer using the name God gave Moses. Instead of the Name, they used the title Lord or God. In most of our translations, the name of God is translated as LORD in all caps. Jesus wasn’t convinced by this false show of piety. It’s not the name that’s the issue, it’s what we’re representing as relates to this name. If we do oppression as Christians, the name of Christ is brought into the service of the oppression, and we are making wrongful use of the name. If we condemn or alienate in ways that aren’t aligned with God, we are misusing the name. We are appropriating God’s authority for our own purposes. That’s vain. And that’s dangerous.

Academic theologians are quite a bit in this danger. I’m not only talking of the ones that are more freely indulging in heresy or don’t believe in God at all. They’re liable to judgment, sure, but not really more than everyone else. There an obvious target. In the model of Romans 1, however, I’m more interested in looking closer to home. What about the theologians who speak the words of God but are primarily oriented in systems that have, to say the least, other concerns. The academic system, for instance, in which theologians are obligated to God somewhere five or six steps down the list. The academic system leads theologians to seek academic honors and gratification, to frame the discussions so as to please academic colleagues, to be respectable in their institutions and respectable in their guilds and respectable in pursuing the theoretical fads of the moment. Being an academic is a very privileged perch, after all, where one relies on the money of those going into debt to pay for a protected status.

Again, the danger in response is an anti-intellectualism. So, we have the intellectuals on one side who serve idols of status and power and vanity. On the other side, we have those who serve the idols of ignorance and whatever whims of religious culture they might be part of. Who are the ones who seek God first, who speak deeply with learned discernment about who God is and what God is doing?

If a theologian truly is in the role of a prophet, then it’s not really feasible to find theology entrapped in the power structures of either academia or the church, where the systems dis-orient the message so as to co-opt the name.

That’s not to say that theology can’t be truly prophetic in academic or ecclesial circles. It’s just it’s a dangerous and difficult task. To be worked out with fear and trembling rather than arrogance. We don’t have idols of gold or silver or wood. We do have idols of conferences, tenure, publishing, and collegiality. Or for those of us who are on the underside of academia, we have idols of jobs, of networking, of benefits. What does it take to get those things? Sometimes it seems like we need to co-opt the name of God, use the language and message of God, living our calling vainly, in order to gain a place at the table.

We associate YHWH with the life of all the other gods of our time. And people then realize the theologians have little or nothing to say about God himself.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Posted in academia, spirituality, teaching, theology | 1 Comment

mission accomplished

From a student paper:

Contemporary Christian Theology seems like such an academic topic, I was a sophomore, and my faith was incredibly new. I walked in, looked at the class, and saw I was way in over my head. But, as this class ended up teaching me, as well as the blog, I was completely in the right place allowing the spirit to work through me. Words like eschatology, Christology, and pneumatology were words that I never thought I’d grasp, but what I came to learn was that these concepts were ideas already stemmed within in me and were things that I had views on . It was amazing to hear different denominations’ viewpoints as well as speak on Catholicism as I haven’t really have not had the opportunity to share it in biblical studies and Christian theology classes before. Perhaps what I most understood through this class was the idea that theology isn’t about knowing everything, it is about using your life, understanding each other’s views, and knowing that at the end of the day, like everything, it is about Christ.

The class is Contemporary Christian Theology, a gen ed I teach at APU. I’m not sure I would have phrased it like this, but this does come close to my goal. And that I’m teaching students who are not going into further theology studies or ministries is even better. I translated academic theology in a way that helped. That’s something. Maybe not everything, but it’s something.

We’ll see where God leads in my pursuit of communicating all of this. My contract with APU was only for a year, and they are looking for someone with different background for next year (and the permanent position). So after this next semester? Do you need a theologian? Maybe it’s not only academia that needs more theologians… Maybe that’s part of the problem in a lot of respects.

For now, and for this season of life, I’m learning a lot in this present foray of academia (the positives and the negatives) and it is encouraging to know I’m helping others learn as well. What will the next season hold during this time of continued wilderness?

I await the Promised Land, keep walking forward, find strength and hope in the face of discouraging news, find renewal and encouragement in hearing very positive affirmation from others. I’m tired, to be honest, but the cloud hasn’t rested yet, so I, we as a family, seek what God has in store, further up and further in.

To live is Christ.

Posted in ministry, personal, speaking, teaching, theology | Leave a comment

“Name it, claim it”: Theology as prophetic insight

What is prophecy? A popular understanding sees it as telling about the future, doom or glory, with a prophet more like fortune teller. Indeed, that’s what a lot of “prophecy” that’s out there in popular Christian circles is really modeled after, it’s a way of giving people a cue to the, or their, future so as to 1) make money 2) give the speaker some level of power 3) tickle the fancy of wayward hearts. Which isn’t to say that everyone who is interested in prophetic movements are bad, more often than not they’re desperate. And desperate people eager to hear a word from God in their difficulties fall prey to those who leech off desperation.
Holy-Prophet-Moses
I’m also not rejecting prophetic movements or people in general. I have Pentecostal influences and still see myself in that tradition in many ways. I’ve had people give me helpful counsel, reminders of God’s call, insight into how God is working, and I’ve appreciated that in deep ways. I think there are people out there who really are sensitive to the work of the Spirit and speak words of truth in contexts where the words are important. Such words aren’t just limited to future-telling. Prophecy is a speaking of God, words concerning God, utterances of God’s interests and values. In this way, in Christian tradition, we say that the primary prophet about God is God himself, who reveals himself to people, initiating the conversation.

As I continue my musings from the message notes of last week’s sermon, here’s what comes next:

God’s Unique Name (Exodus 3)

  • God is the “I AM” who is present with his people in their suffering. Thus it is the “I AM” God how has sent Moses to Pharaoh. And now Moses will go as YHWH’s representative and he will be “like God to Pharaoh” (Ex 7:1)

So, we can see the task of prophecy and the task of theology here in God’s introduction. God describes himself. He describes himself as one who is paying attention. He describes himself as attentive to the current issues. He describes himself as being willing to engage the situation. Have hope.

He also tells Moses his name. God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”
jk_prophet
Names are important. In naming something we identify its purpose, meaning, and situate a form of control. Calling someone by name is both endearing and influential, when we hear our name we turn and respond. The ability to use a name, then becomes a source of subsequent power. Bothering me? I know a guy I can call. We use names to create contexts of interaction and, often, bartering. Names imply domains, both in the internet and more broadly. So many gods, all have their names, all have their areas of specialty. Want thunder? Thor. Wisdom? Athena. Flavor for your food? Huixtocihuatl. Trouble with water? Suijin. Need to write? Seshat. Name him, claim him. Name her, claim her.

The Jewish God gives not so much a name as a statement. What is his domain? “I am”. What is his speciality? “I am”. Who is responsible. He is. For everything in essence, but not in a generalized way, in a distinct, purposeful, willful way. Who is this God that gives such a name? Not a god you want to cross. Not a god who is going to put up with distortions or being subverted. That’s what the prophets are about in many ways, God feels slighted and God feels like his people have taken advantage of him, dismissed him, played around with others, while the ones in charge use the name of God to institute perversion or oppression or corruption. The Name claims it all, and judgment is the result. When we name God, God claims us. God calls us to live in light of his claim.

Prophecy then is a telling about God in light of the fact God is particular about his name, his ways, his priorities, his values. He reveals himself and it is not up to us to distort the revelation. However, what the prophets do is relate God’s revelation to contexts, addressing situations, addressing ideas and concerns. Moses asks what he is to say. God tells him. Moses tells Pharaoh and all the people. Prophecy is not an easy task, and it is not a task to be treated lightly.

It is the task of theology. We speak of God. Deeply and thoroughly as we can.

Posted in holiness, musings, spirituality, theology | Leave a comment

Theologian as Prophet

As my PhD in theology is still somewhat fresh, and my career is in what might be best called a nebulous phase, I think a lot about what it means now to be a “theologian.” I’m a professional at that, after all, so I should really know what that profession is about. I’m still wary, honestly, about using that term as it seems so, well, grandiose. But, what else would I say?

That’s what my professional education and training is in. Evagrios of Pontus would suggest that a theologian is someone who prays truly and someone who prays truly is a theologian. I’d like to think that I fit that, or at least I fit that better as I go along in this life. Is that it then?

Jeremiah

I like Evagrios’s comment but I mig ht make a suggestion, one that incorporates that and extends it into a profession. Dare I say calling? Is there a charism fittingly labeled as “theologian” in our era?

I tentatively think so. I’ve been considering this for a while and my musings got a spark in the sermon notes printed in the church bulletin this past Sunday. (For the sermon, here’s a video)

There’s four sections in the notes, and so I’m going to do a post per section, adding my musings to the comments by Scott Daniels. I think the role of theologian can (though certainly not must) fill the role of prophet, and as such this gives theologians both a calling and an orientation in the church, something both theologians and the church have often ignored.

From the notes:
The Work of the Prophet: Deconstruction and Reconstruction

  • The prophets fulfilled a very important–if dangerous–role in the nation of Israel. Generally speaking, there are three key leadership roles in the OT: prophet, priest, and king. The problem with kingship (and the prosperity it represents) is that it seems inevitably to erode the radical uniqueness of God’s people in the world.

Who serves the role of “king” in a Christian sense? Jesus, of course. As savior and lord, Jesus is the head of the church, he is king of kings and lord of lords. There can’t be two heads and while we may certainly have power structures in churches and society, there’s only one in charge of the mission. It’s a messianic mission empowered by the Holy Spirit. Messiah and Spirit and Father. The king in the OT was a cultural accommodation, meant to provide a visible headship, an immanent analogy. Of course, a king hates being limited to analogy so often took on airs of absolute power. Nowadays, there’s none that can or should serve that role.

We have immediate access to God through the Son in the Spirit, and any hierarchy is more parliamentary than royal in function. That being said, kings represent the temporal order of things, the political and legal systems in this world. We do have those systems and wherever else our allegiance might be, we participate in these systems. Who is our king? Who defines our status and participation, who is included and excluded. That’s a big question, but moving away from the present one. Let’s move on…

  • Priests take care of the day-to-day spiritual needs of the people and administer the worship taking place in the temple. Priests, however, tend to be status-quo kinds of leaders. They are no less prone to corruption than are kings. Too often the priesthood becomes a religious prop for the reigning monarch–whether they are good or bad.

Priests are the key players in the religious system, a system that involves making connections between the transcendent and immanent, between the ethereal and earthly. It also involves navigating perceived paradoxes in life, giving meaning to our role in the universe. The trouble is that in this system, there is the expectations of the system. People expect the system to function in a predictable way. Priests (or pastors) are conditioned to performing their duties in a predictable way. The establishment of a rhythm is itself part of the system. But in times of corruption or issues of life or faith that are outside the orientation of the system, a person can find emptiness, desolation, exclusion.Prophet-Elias-Grk-ikon

I encountered this in junior high and early high school, during a season of extreme financial stress in our family, coupled with major health issues, there was no resonance in the churches or youth groups. They were oriented towards middle and upper middle class religious system.

Meanwhile, my family was struggling to eat and pay rent and struggled with knowing where God was in the midst of a crisis in which almost all our family and friends were Christians but we were left to struggle alone. For the most part–I had very close friends during this time that were sustaining influences, true community, even though I didn’t know then how to express my hurt or need. It was just life as it was and it had nothing to do with church.

The religion system just didn’t reach into our lives, and the religious system is also susceptible to corruption. Arbiters of heaven and hell, transcendence and coherence, can use this power for their own benefits, financially, socially, psychologically.

This is a big reason why I struggle with the emphasis of church as the kingdom of God. It leaves no room for critique. It also prioritizes the religious system as the whole experience of life. If you’re finding value or success in that system (as does, for instance, people Stanley Hauerwas) it makes sense to commend it. If you’re on the outside, then you’re told to get on the inside, because that’s where you’ll be filled. jesus_scrollThis isn’t to reject the religious system, but rather to suggest there needs to be a critical voice, one that calls the church (and its leaders) towards deepening, towards refocusing, away from tendencies that are not values of Christ’s mission or the Spirit’s work.

The Church, after all, may always be pointing towards a kingdom, but it’s not always the kingdom of God. Sermons, for instance, can be very powerful messages of God’s word. They also, however, can embed distortions and symbolize unfortunate power structures and disoriented theology (by prioritizing one person and one medium as the expression of the Spirit in a church setting). The pastor, for better or worse, is part of the religious system that is the church so reflects the values and priorities of this system, sometimes more than the people who are present, who are the people Christ values and the Spirit is working through.

The sermon notes continue:

The prophets, on the other hand, come from outside the political system (they are usually weird and antisocial in some way) and speak the word of the LORD to the king and to the priests. This is why they often are persecuted because they speak from outside the system, to the system. The word of the LORD from the prophet is therefore often hard for the people to hear. When the people finally are able to hear the deconstructing word of discipline from the prophet they are then able to hear the reconstructing words of hope from that also flow through the prophets.

To the system, but not of the system. That seems a great description of the role theologians can play. The idea that the prophetic must somehow be anti-intellectual or unlearned is a great mistake. Often it is the people who spend the most time with the texts who are able to discern the trends, the “signs of the times,” the message of God for a moment or generation. The Holy Spirit works in spontaneous ways but also in deeper gifts, charisms of learning and teaching and discernment.

The trouble, of course, is that theologians may give their allegiance to other systems. The education industrial complex system, for instance, which creates structures of power, meaning, identity, success that often orients a person’s passion into patterns that buttress the system rather than lead to truth or transformation. So, the idea of a theologian as prophet might be both a call and a challenge, for both the church and those who have made it their life to study and teach the ways of God.

There are more notes to muse on, so there’s more to come.

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hope in faithful insecurity

“When a community lets itself be guided in its growth by the cry of the poor and their needs, it will walk in the desert and it will be insecure. But it is assured of the promised land–not the one of security, but the one of peace and love.  And it will be a community which is always alive.”

~Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 142ff.

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experiencing the Kingdom of God

A transformative experience led the earliest Christians to become transformed in the power of the Spirit of resurrection and respond to the world as transformative people.[1]

This orients life within a “horizon of expectation.”[2] God’s people become oriented within the process of his eschatological work, while continuing to experience the contradictions of determinative history in their contexts—yet the hope in the transformative work of God allows them to live within the word of promise, which gives meaning to their participation and contexts.

The expectation, then, is not in vain but in keeping with God’s creative interaction and commitment, a commitment that seeks complete correspondence with heaven and earth.[3] The resurrection is, then, a “historical hope for the future” that is concerned with “the future in the lives lived by those who belong to the past.”[4]

The resurrection is not, however, a spiritualized hope, a vague embrace of otherness that imbues people with a sense of security in the midst of transitory, and often unfortunate, reality. Christ lives. This is a bodily resurrection that orients toward a physicalized salvation. The experience of the Risen Christ points toward a process of transition, one oriented eschatologically and experienced within its processes.

This is the Way. “Just as Moses led the people of Israel out of Pharaoh’s slavery into the liberty of the promised land, so Christ leads humanity out of the slavery of death into the liberty of the new creation.”[5] Those who participate with Christ participate in this way, entering into the process of God’s renewal of all life and becoming a liberating presence of Christ.

The praxis of Christ leads to the praxis of the Spirit in the praxis of the people. This is the experience of resurrection hope. This praxis is the expression of love realized in the flesh, the “transcendent perfecting of love.”[6] This love is itself the orientation of the resurrection, leading life to be expressed in love and it is this life of love “that will rise and be transfigured.”[7]

Such love is oriented by the Spirit, opening up, steering, even limiting the way toward the fullness of life that is expressed, making what is not present or even seemingly possible come into being.[8] The energies of the Spirit is the power of the resurrection among us, and the new way of living initiated by Christ is “the anticipated rebirth of the whole cosmos.” A life lived without expression of this resurrection is a life that is devoid of the horizon of expectation that includes the resurrection of Christ.

[1] See Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 236–45.

[2] Ibid., 238.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 239 and 240.

[5] Ibid., 257.

[6] Ibid., 262.

[7] Ibid., 263.

[8] Ibid. Molmann writes, “The horizon of expectation make the sphere of experience accessible.”

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Summarizing contemporary politics and “ethics”

Just finished reading Niklas Luhmann’s Introduction to Systems Theory.  First, I’ll say this might be the most difficult book I’ve read.  Partly because I don’t have a background in sociology, mostly because Luhmann is a very dense and meandering writer.  But, I think there’s something in what he writes that is worth considering, and that really describes the state of society as well as any other.  The trouble is that the state of society should not itself be a model for Christians or the church. Yet, far too often Christians attach religious justification for acting just like the people around them are acting.  Both sides do it, and that embeds conflict within what should be a unified voice in Christ.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a system within the world, but too often the language of the Kingdom is used in ways to perpetuate the systems of the world. Neither is the Kingdom of Heaven a later, supernatural reality. It is the expression of the Lordship of God in and through our whole lives, God’s will be done on earth as in heaven put into practice in daily and particular situations.

This has been part of my frustration with a lot of Christian ethics over the last many years and always pops up again when there is some kind of national news that highlights the conflict.  Those in the Church do not offer a unique voice (like Jesus did) but far too often position themselves among the established sides.  Jesus never dodged questions but he did reinterpret the underlying reality that should be addressed. Far too often, we (and I’ll include myself) take the contemporary systems at face value, adopting their forms of truth and priorities and values, then become more aligned to others within that system than with those who share the same supposed confession in Christ.

Anyway, this came to mind because of something Luhmann wrote near the end of his text:

The key statement for this purpose is my claim that conflicts themselves are systems. Conflicts are systems because one creates a situation that limits the bandwidth of variation concerning the other, if one treats him as an opponent and acts in a correspondingly aggressive, defensive, or protective way in his presence. He can no longer proceed at will. Of course he can (if he really can) walk away, shrug his shoulders, and say that all this is of no interest to him.

In typical social situations, however, when one does not have the option of leaving, the notion that there is in fact a conflict, or even a mere insistent “no’ as an answer to repeated interpretive offers, is a motive that produces a system, which is to say, a motive that organizes connectivity.

For instance, it may lead to the creation of coalitions, to the search for resources, and to the idea that everything that is to the other’s disadvantage is to my advantage. A friend/enemy relation is formed, which is an extreme simplification of the real situation…

Here, the organizing power of conflicts can be seen in social coalitions as well as in their themes. If someone contradicts a partiuclar point I have made, I generalize his opposition and suspect that he will also contradict me on other issues. From this viewpoint, moral perspsectivs serve to generalize conflicts. After all, if someone has shown himself to be ignominious, he is so in every respect and not just hte one that I happned to notice.

Whenever I argue morally, I have the tendency to generalize conflicts! The formula is that conflicts are an excellent principle of system formation…

The question is whether such a formed system can be justified in light of Christ’s work.  Even when pacifism finds empowerment in this system of conflict, there is a self-contradiction at work that suggests a less than thoroughly Kingdom oriented ethic.  Or, when supposed Christians insist on establishing the inerrancy of the Bible through the embrace of this conflict established system, they too are self-contradicting the supposed example we see in the New Testament Gospels and letters.

When we embrace the system of conflict in the cause of Christ, we are taking the name of the Lord in vain, taking up God’s cause but rejecting his method, his model, his Kingdom that is not the peace of Rome but the peace of Christ.

Posted in musings, politics, religion, society, theology, writing | Leave a comment

Obedience is better than Sacrifice

Spoke on the atonement this morning. Flew up to Nampa, Idaho to join in with the Wesleyan Theological Society. Good time. Good people.

I’ve never really been all that interested in doctrines of the atonement. I was raised in a Christian family and so never had a dramatic conversion. And the other popular interest in atonement theories almost always are about drawing divisions in Christianity, using the cross as a bludgeon to attack people who don’t measure up to a perceived, generally parochial, orthodoxy. The conference theme was on atonement so I started thinking about it last Summer, and once that started, I got very interested in where my studies were taking me. So, over the last 2.5 weeks I wrote a 25 page paper as a beginning exploration of what I think is a somewhat novel approach. Well, novel in theology, it’s entirely throughout Scripture. That’s my argument and evidence at least. Got it down to 10.5 pages to present this morning. Seemed to go well.

Anyhow, here’s my intro:

Over the last half-century, there has been a shift in how we think about God’s eternal nature and work in this world. This relational turn in theology emphasizes a social model of the Trinity and with this a sociality of God’s kingdom rather than a political or hierarchical model. This is not, to be sure, a new conception.

The terminology of perichoresis—God’s eternal dance—has, for instance, been a key model especially in the Christian East for many centuries, dating back to the early church. In what follows, I will propose a model of the atonement that derives from this emphasis on God’s relationality. This is a preliminary exploration for what is a much larger project certainly in need of further refining and development. For the moment, I will propose themes and lay the groundwork for this approach that can be honed in future works.

A theology of the atonement involves two extremely important underlying questions. The first asks what is sin? Is it a violation of God’s honor as Lord? Is it corruption that leads to death? The tendency to establish a scapegoat? The devil’s capture of us in enslavement?

These questions point to the second key question. What is God’s primary pattern of interaction with this world? In the late twentieth century there was a shift of understanding of the human condition away from a strict legal construction and towards understanding sin as more of a disoriented identity that results in relational violations.

Such a view on the human situation is key in the theology of many contemporary theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. They both assert that attempts to establish our identity in a person, cause, activity, or goal other than God results in dis-integration—with God and with others—as nothing other than God can sustain identities into eternity. Such dis-integration requires re-integration.

However, models of the atonement have not derived, for the most part, from the starting point that Pannenberg and Moltmann, and others, suggest. This gap highlights the need for a new model, one that better incorporates contemporary understanding of the Trinity and anthropology.

This may also become a model that can include other models within its scope as it suggests the underlying priority, expressed through different themes, of God’s work throughout the Biblical narrative.

My initial conception is this: The relational trust between God and humanity that allowed for relational intimacy was broken through sin. God’s initiating movements then created contexts of obedience or disobedience as particular people chose where they would put their trust.

The expressions of obedience were insufficient both as a sustaining and as a fulfilling expression. The judgment of God expresses a relational displeasure, a response to betrayal and falsehood in attempts to instantiate ourselves through alternative means.

The cross becomes the ultimate expression of obedience and thus trust, denying false forms of identity and embracing the fullness of God’s promise. This act of obedience becomes the avenue of trust for humanity and the avenue of trust for God, who trusts those who trust the Son.

Such trust is first an ontological restoration as it orients a person within God’s field of force, his perichoretic substantiation that we call justification. This then re-initiates those who trust in the cross into a new transformative path of obedience, a new birth that re-constitutes the human identity and leads it to a path of identity reformation, which we call sanctification.

I’m not posting the whole thing because I’m considering what I want to do with it. It’s at least a book project, maybe my summer project now, but I may work on submitting the initial version as an article.

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