Category Archives: theology

I don’t believe in men in ministry

There’s a curious little story in the book of Acts about a man who wanted to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit.  Simon was his name.  Later, he was given the title of Simon the magician: Simon Magus.

A lot of stories and traditions have built up around him, with the early church seeing him as the earliest, and greatest of heretics, distorting the Apostolic faith and presenting a Gospel that was not of Jesus.  simon_magus

Read the passage for yourself: Acts 8:9-24

Three wise men, Magi, visit Jesus giving gifts. This unwise man in Acts, Magus, doesn’t reject Jesus but wanted to co-opt him.  He wants to take the gift and use it for his own fame. He was powerful, he was popular, he filled stadiums and people bought his books.  Jesus was a method for him to keep this up.  That there was power, a Spirit, was even better.  Let’s buy this power, he thought, get the authority through a transaction, and get even more popular.

Peter, filled with the Spirit, replied to Simon: “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.”

“This” ministry, is the ministry of God, the ministry of the Kingdom: Father, Son, Holy Spirit in the unified work of redemption and re-creation.  Simon had a ministry, but not “this” ministry.

Having a ministry is still very common.  A lot of debates develop over who can and who cannot be part of such a ministryMen with power and authority make and enforce rules who can be in or who is out.  Born of the right status, right gender, with the right privilege, with the right education, with the right culture or custom or… name your limitation.

The pattern of ministry, often in the name of Jesus, restricts as much as it has empowered.  This is your role.  This is your place. This is your identity in Jesus.  The this of such limitations is not the expression of the ministry Peter was talking about.  The ministry Peter was talking about was the ministry of the Spirit.

That’s why I don’t believe in men in ministry.  Men have all sorts of reasons to get into or stay in ministry.  Did you know that clergy is #8 on the most popular jobs for a narcissist? That means for better or worse, the role of a minister offers the bounty a narcissist seeks.

That’s not to say all men, or ministers, are in ministry because they are narcissists or for other misplaced reasons. Not at all!  But there’s a difference between those who are in it for the right reasons and those who are in it for the wrong reasons.

That difference is the Holy Spirit.

It’s what Peter had, and it’s what Peter wouldn’t give to Simon, because Simon wanted to make Jesus a tool.

It’s what made Peter different in Acts as compared with the Gospels.  The Peter who betrayed Jesus in the face of shame became the Peter who confessed Jesus in the face of death.

The Paul who persecuted Christians became among the greatest teachers of Christians.

The man who was an outsider, Cornelius, became the insider. This man who the leaders otherwise rejected–a Gentile!–was invited in the church by the Spirit because the Spirit gave a gift to him that the leaders could not deny.

I don’t believe in men in ministry because men are untrustworthy, given to insecurities or grandiose self-praise, they make rules and patterns, enforcing their own voice while dismissing others.  They categorize and use the systems of society to determine the shape of the body of Christ.

I do believe in the Spirit in ministry.  Which makes it important to determine how the Spirit works, where the Spirit works, in whom the Spirit works.  If someone is aligned with the Spirit, they may or may not be in public or vocational ministry, that is not for me to determine. They will be involved in the ministry of Christ in some way, as that is the way the Spirit works.

If the Spirit gives gifts, it is not our part to deny or reject or diminish such gifts. It is our part, as the body, to celebrate these gifts, to whoever they are given.

Priscilla_martyr_of_RomeWhich is why, in Acts 18, we find Priscilla correcting Apollos, a gifted man taught by a woman who had the gift of the Spirit. She corrected him and set him on a course of his own Spirit led ministry.

We have Mary, the first in the NT to be filled with the Spirit, the first in the NT to communicate Christ to the world, giving birth literally, a move of the Spirit in the ministry of a woman.

Jesus talked about the Spirit, the living water, with the Samaritan woman at the well. She  had at least 3 religious strikes against her: Samaritan, divorced multiple times, woman.

She then tells her whole village about Jesus. As John puts it, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”

We have the first witnesses of the resurrection, women, speaking of the life of Jesus to those who did not yet see or believe or understand.

God chooses women to be in ministry whether this is allowed by our systems or not.  God sometimes chooses men to be in ministry as well.

The real issue isn’t men in ministry or women in ministry. If a man or a woman pursues ministry for their own selves, they are not part of the ministry of Christ.  If the Holy Spirit is working, in a man or in a woman, then that is the ministry of Christ.

It is the ministry of the Holy Spirit I believe in.

It’s not the woman or the man who makes a ministry this ministry that Peter was talking about.  It’s the Holy Spirit, and where the Spirit works, there is Christ, and where Christ works, there is the Kingdom, and where the Kingdom is, there is the new life in and with God.

To be aligned with this Kingdom, one must be aligned with this ministry, the ministry of the Spirit who gives gifts to women and men to participate together in a shared community of Christ, participating with Christ in this messianic mission of transformation.

Not all churches, not all ministries, are aligned with this mission.  We must, like Priscilla did with Apollos, explain to them “the way of God more adequately.

 

Posted in ministry, speaking, spirituality, teaching, theology | 28 Comments

Theology as a gift of the Spirit

Late last year I started a brief discussion on theology as a prophetic task.

After a very busy and distracting last couple months, I realized I had one last part. One that hits close to home for me, maybe how I got my own start in theology.

I don’t go to a Pentecostal church nowadays, but I consider myself Pentecostal still, in that I went to Foursquare and Assemblies of God churches growing up and in high school.  I still hold to their embrace of the broader expressions of the work of the Spirit and value the inclusive participation.

I think my time in a Pentecostal high school group radically shaped my own sense of purpose and renewal in God’s work. The pastors, John and Denise Fehlen , encouraged students to take part and treated us like real people, not targets or objects to be pushed through the system. He took our words seriously and led in teaching and opened for discovery as we sought to find our own way in prayer and response.

After high school, I went off to Wheaton and something changed in me. I tried going to a Vineyard church for a while, but that didn’t stick.  Even as I had some very clear epiphanic moments, times in which the world seemed so utterly more real than other times and I felt a profound sense of God’s presence, I also had moments of feeling God’s absence, silence, with this a lot of emptiness and depression.

My emotional and spiritual life was a roller coaster. I couldn’t find words to understand or express what was going on.  Deep depression, mixed with a deeply discouraged hope that God truly was, just not for me.  Not for me.

How do I pray in light of that? How do I worship who I didn’t feel love, where I didn’t feel comfort, how I didn’t experience life?

God was shaping, molding, excising me.  I was truly taxed beyond my measure, a measure of mine but not of God who sought to provide more, with more.  First, I needed to be depersonalized, unselfed because my self was oriented in myself even as I sought God to use and fill me.  To live is Christ, I prayed to understand. This is what God taught, but I did not know how to respond or how to explain it to others or myself.

That’s what tongues is supposed to express, to be sure, the unutterable groanings, praise or lament, bypassing the intellectual and verbal parts of the brain and tapping into the differently rational, emotions and responses and groanings of life’s mysteries.

I tried to keep up the display, the speaking words I didn’t know, the ecstatic responses, but there was a wall developing between me and those.  Not in my faith, in my expressions.

I felt a clear and present impression not to speak in tongues anymore.

Not because I thought that it’s a wrong practice or I lost my faith or moved on to the next stage of ecclesial sophistication.  Something different.

It was wrong for me.  Tongues is meant to express that which we can’t find words to express.  I was being told to find the words.

What words? The words I didn’t have words for? Yes. Find them.  Learn them. Use them.

Emotions? Find the words for what you are feeling. Spirituality? Find the words for what you are experiencing.  Scripture? Find the words for what you’re finding. Maturing in God? Find the words that pull it all together and use language to say that which may not have been said before.  Summarize. Clarify.

I felt that was where God was leading me, so I’ve rarely used tongues since then in my own prayer or worship.  God wanted, wants, me to find words that connect the utterable with the unutterable.  An impossibility, I thought.

Then I realized who initiated this calling. The work of the Spirit of the Word of God.  God speaks the unexisting into being, and so the tools we have been given in our language can point towards the same reality, finding the words rather than succumbing to the groanings.

Translating and putting into words the unutterable groanings, translated tongues, this is what I now see as a task of theology, my hope and goal that I’m still working out. Theology is both a task of discovery and discernment, digging deeply into the sources of those who likewise sought to express God.  And with this, discerning how the Spirit is shaping me and thus becoming the kind of person who contributes coherent words.

In the previous posts, I referred to the church bulletin notes from a sermon long ago. Here’s the last section of those:

God Acts to Restore His Own Name

  • Therefore, God acts to redeem Israel again, but not for their sake but for the sake of his name which he must redeem. He is going to sanctify–or make holy–his name in the world by sanctifying his people.

  • But when he restores his name by returning his people back to their land, what will keep them from defiling his name all over again?

  • God is going to do three things:

    1. “I will sprinkle clean water upon you…”

    2. “I will give you a new heart…”

    3. “I will give you my spirit…”

1.  In light of this, part of the task of theology is the diligence about God’s name. This requires words because there are people who are doing things and speaking words that distort God’s name.

People who are racist, people who are sexist, people who speak words of salvation in public and words of oppression in private, people who lead others into corruption, people who use the name of God for their own gain, committing violence against others in the process.  Theology is in the business of cleaning the church and cleaning the rhetoric, a task of discernment and clarification and, sometimes, confrontation.

Cleaning isn’t just about making sure people have the right beliefs, so too theology isn’t just about orthodoxy.

What are the right inner reality, the emotions and heart, of a person? An angry, bitter, aggressive, dismissive, person is not walking in the fruit of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, longsuffering. So, there must be orthopathy. Calling out vanity, narcissism, arrogance, hate, frenzy, impatience. Otherwise, theology is a noisy gong and a clanging symbol, causing headaches to many.

With it there is also a cleaning of orthopraxy, pointing out wrong actions such as violence, corruption, lawfare, abuse, etc.

Theology must say, “This is wrong!” to people to who are using the name of Christ to build their own authority  or hide their evil actions towards others.

We have to say this about our own selves too, the words of God pushing us to abandon our own misbehavior or misconceptions. We are to clean and be cleaned.

2. Theology can’t just be about saying what is wrong.  We’re not in the business of nagging or complaining. Theology speaks about God and God rejects the insufficient for the sake of the wholly sufficient, the evil is called out because it is hiding the good and it is the good that we are called to pursue.

What are the right thoughts, the right feelings, the right actions we are to take hold of in our present realities? Who are we to be in light of conflict and terror and frustration and injustice?

How do we respond in a way different from the world, neither accepting the actions or the passivity of the systems as options, but finding the way of Christ in redeeming the past in light of the future in our present?

3. Theology isn’t just about words, it’s about power, and so while there is a task to call out what has gone wrong and point to the Kingdom way forward, there is also a task of empowerment, encouragement, a cheerleading task, a space-making task

We call with and through the name of God in, with, and for others so we together tap into the many-giftings of the Spirit in living out the pattern of the Messianic mission in our contexts.

All this requires words, words that find the way forward, words that clarify missteps and wrong speakers, words that empower others and disempower some.

Theology is, I think, a prophetic gift in searching deeply and persistently for the words that “edifies the church.” Finding the words that may not yet be formed in words, putting into language that which may not have found coherence in expression, speaking to others that which they may know is true but do not know how to say or think or feel or act.

In this, theology goes from an academic enterprise to expression of the Word through the Spirit as a gift, a responsibility and a task to be pursued in the power of the Spirit, only through the power of the Spirit if it is to be truly Christian theology.

Posted in spirituality, theology | 2 Comments

liberation for all

My current book project is looking at liberation theology for those who are in a context of domination and control, finding meaning through negating or oppressing others.

A lot (certainly not all!) of church work is oriented in a pattern of oppressing, oddly enough.  There is a hiearchy of not only function but also value, where leaders become, essentially, the Spirit for their community, telling people what to think, how to act, where they fit, where they don’t fit.  A few speak, many are silent.  A few are active, many are passive.  Even as this passivity becomes a topic itself of speaking, the passivity is enforced by the models. Rhetoric can only go so far in the face of practices.  Idealized roles become infused with theological priority of ordination, the Word goes forth from a single message or speaker.

Meanwhile, the Spirit always works from below, rising up from the gathered people, many tongues, many voices, the Word most fully an expression of all, the Body infused by the Spirit.  The body of Christ is not many-headed.  There is one head, all the parts together expressing together the movement of God in the midst of a context.  Experiencing this is the experience of liberation. Here’s how I end my first chapter:

We are liberated when we participate with each other in becoming fully who we each are made to be. We liberate when we help others become, we are liberated when we let others participate in our becoming. Thus, liberation happens for the oppressed and the oppressors together, the one taking up as the other lets go, each creating space for the other, resisting the depersonalizing tendencies of social systems as they engage in the truly personalizing movement of the Holy Spirit in their midst.

Posted in theology, Transformative Church, writing | 10 Comments

considering liberation of the oppressor

To be liberated, the oppressors need to be themselves understood in their oppressing, and to prevent oppression from returning in another guise, a more holistic construction of human reality should be utilized, lest the formerly oppressed institute new patterns of oppressing once or where they may find advantage.

The European example is noteworthy here, in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, where immigrants often escaped from patterns of oppression or alienation or punishment, only to impose new patterns of violence and abuse in their new setting.

One stark example may be the involvement of Irish immigrants in expressions of “manifest destiny” (or later in African colonialism).

The English subjugation of Ireland led to attempts to end the native language and culture, pushing such farther West into a restricted zone and resulted in mass starvation as workers were required to grow, and export, cash crops rather than diversify their own food sources.

The mass exodus from Ireland to the United States offered new possibilities, among them a “dream” that saw the West as land to be conquered, with the natives inhabiting them killed, isolated, and forced to adopt the culture of their conquerors in order to live.

This is not, to be sure, a pattern to be solely attributed to the Irish, blaming them (or other such immigrants) for its development. However, their participation in such a repeated pattern shows how limited liberation really seeks to be.

We tend to want freedom for ourselves, not for those who oppress us nor for those who have what we want, often framing an unending cycle of both in the guise of justice.

The immigrants who lost their land in Europe wanted land, and getting land satisfied their assumption of loss, even if the land they got was itself stolen from another.

Such is the history of human civilization and is certainly not limited to the European example, but it is story told in most every culture, and every scale of human interaction. The oppressed need to be freed from their oppression but the danger is that an insufficient form of liberation leads to the oppressed becoming part of new patterns of oppressing.   The man who was once beaten, beats.  The woman who was silenced, silences.  The abused, abuse. The once poor, despise the still poor.  The privileged find it hard to let go the mantle of their former oppression, and lay claim to being victims even as they may be new victimizers.  They are not, then, truly liberated.

Liberation must address both sides, the place of loss and the place of power, because both serve to dehumanize people, and often the same person in different ways.

Posted in emerging liberation, theology | Leave a comment

Being Freed to Liberate Others

If we compare the two ways of knowing, it is easy to see that modern men and women need at least a balance between the vita activa and the vita contemplative, the active and the contemplative life, if they are not to atrophy spiritually.

The pragmatic way of grasping things has very obvious limits, and beyond these limits the destruction of life begins. This does not apply only to our dealings with other people. It is true of our dealings with the natural environment too.

But the meditative way of understanding seems to be even more important when it is applied to our dealings with our own selves. People take flight into relationships, into social action and into political praxis, because they cannot endure what they themselves are.

They have ‘fallen out’ with themselves. So they cannot stand being alone. To be alone is torture. Silence is unendurable. Solitude is felt to be ‘social death’. Every disappointment becomes a torment which has to be avoided at all costs.

But the people who throw themselves into practical life because they cannot come to terms with themselves simply become a burden for other people. Social praxis and political involvement are not a remedy for the weakness of our own personalities.

Men and women who want to act on behalf of other people without having deepened their own understanding of themselves, without having built up their own capacity for sensitive loving, and without having found freedom towards themselves, will find nothing in themselves that they can give to anyone else.

Even presupposing good will and the lack of evil intentions, all they will be able to pass on is the infection of their own egoism, the aggression generated by their own anxieties, and the prejudices of their own ideology.

Anyone who wants to fill up his own hollowness by helping other people will simply spread the same hollowness. Why? Because people are far less influenced by what another person says and does than the activist would like to believe. They are much more influenced by what the other is, and his way of speaking and behaving.

Only the person who has found his own self can give himself. What else can he give? It is only the person who knows that he is accepted who can accept others without dominating them. The person who has become free in himself can liberate others and share their suffering.

~Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life

Posted in holiness, Moltmann, theology, Transformative Church | 2 Comments

kingdom and holiness

The expression of the kingdom that is holiness is a witness to the power of God and a
witness to the presence of the kingdom that is already among us, a transfopeople-193359_640rmative reality in which the incarnation of Christ continues through his people.

In letting go of other forms of identity, participants in this mission take on their own cross so as to discover the resurrection of Christ in their lives and contexts.

The invitation,  healing, and restoration of the kingdom are “both the pathway to the cross and the pathway Christians walk throughout their lives with the cross as those who have died to self with Christ in order that they might live in his grace and power.”

The “kingdom is present wherever Jesus is present,” and Jesus is present wherever his people are present, resonating the work of the Spirit in the pursuit of the kingdom of God.

Posted in spirituality, theology, Transformative Church | Leave a comment

towards liberation

At a certain point the means toward an end lead to very different conceptions of what the end should be and it is thus vital for Christian theology not to merely add Christian terminology to non-Christian or even anti-Christian goals.

Liberation, in other words, is not all the same, and there can be forms of liberation that perpetuate rather than alleviate systemic patterns of violence and oppression.

The goal, in a Christian sense, is not just victory or justice over the enemy, but justice for the oppressed that lead to new patterns of living for all in a shared community.

Love must replace hate, hope must replace despair, joy for anger, life for death.

A true pattern of liberation, in a Christian sense, offers this invitation to all: sinners and tax collectors and Democrats and Republicans, men and women, Greek and American and Palestinian and Jew, Black and Asian and Hispanic and White.

This does not dismiss or erase contexts, rather it encounters the stories, listens to the experiences, acknowledges the hurts, frustrations and shame.  Hope is not through dismissing but acknowledging the depth of hurt is so much that the only way to find peace is through the one who has gone to the depths of death itself and brought resurrection to it.  Our liberation is out of always different situations, and those situations are part of our testimony and our despair. Holding onto death, however, leads us back into oppression.

When Jesus meets us in the place of our death, we can hold onto the story of death or we can grasp onto the future that Christ brings to death.  Liberation never negates; it does offer a way forward, that involves sharing together a path towards life.

Liberation is resurrection, a hope, a dream, a life offered in resolution of shame and guilt and blame and frustration.

This is the eschatological invitation of the Kingdom, not a natural progression. It’s not always even what we want, that’s why Jesus was crucified, after all. But it is the invitation even still, a persistent invitation that defies defiance, confronts violence, resists rage and points to the way that is life.

Precisely because it is not a natural progression is what makes it a particularly Christian proposal. Such liberation is not a vestige of human idealism, over-realized anthropology, or personal ambition framed in the guise of working for gain of others so as to maximize one’s own gain.

Posted in spirituality, theology, Transformative Church | 1 Comment

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.

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