Category Archives: theology

Interlude

Being a travel writer sounds like good fun. Go to exciting places and meet interesting people. Find out all sorts of new customs and try out flavors of foods you’ve never even heard of before.  Write about the exotic experiences to others, highlighting the good, maybe mentioning only a sliver of the negative.

It’s interesting that when we want to watch shows or read books about exciting destinations we tend to turn to expert travelers. It’s the residents who know more about a place. They’ve dwelled in its history, know the neighborhoods to visit and the neighborhoods to avoid.  But, they know it so well, that it is easy for them to get bogged down in description.  We want a quick overview, after all. What can we see in a day and where’s a good place for dinner.

Writing about theology has the same problem.  There are a lot of tour guides out there.  Offering a quick trip through various doctrines or topics. And there are a number of residents, who have lived a long time in the world of theology, providing an in-depth study of the history of a particular corner, but not really speaking a language most people can understand.

That’s the tension I’m feeling.  Give too quick of an overview of the various models–the “cities”–of theological education and I risk oversimplification. Say too much and I get bogged down without ever getting to my main goal in these musings.  It’s like being on a road trip and getting distracting by the sights along the way rather than getting to the destination.

But, to get somewhere you have to go through other places.  My hope in not just describing the models but sharing a bit about my own story with them was intended to give some brief depth. I’ve spent time in most of these “cities” (except Geneva) and so I’ve gone beyond the superficial and know what each place is like in different seasons.

On a personal note, I’m using this blog as a way of sketching out ideas and exploring themes.  Some have bemoaned blogs for their tendency to encourage unedited publishing.  That’s certainly a danger. My writing can certainly use editing. Yet, blogs have an immediacy that makes them useful, hopefully even a conversational encouragement.  Blogs aren’t a fully formed systematic theology. They’re much more like Table Talk, where the table can be as wide as the whole world.

I’m also trying to practice writing.  One of my goals is to get back into a more fluid, even conversational, style.  And that takes practice.  For instance, one of my problems in writing, speaking, and teaching is that I spend too much time on prefaces before getting to my main point. This post originally was intended to be my discussion of the “cities” of Azusa and Skete. But then I wrote a preface that’s too long.  Now the preface is its own post and doesn’t nearly as crowded.

I like places with less crowds.  My writing should have less crowds too.

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Live Your Creed

I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.
I’d rather one walk with me than just to show the way.
The eye is a better pupil and more willing than the ear.
Advice may be misleading but examples are always clear.
And the very best of teachers are the ones who live their creed,
For to see good put into action is what everybody needs.
I can soon learn to do it if you let me see it done.
I can watch your hand in motion but your tongue too fast may run
And the lectures you deliver may be very fine and true
But I’d rather get my lesson by observing what you do.
For I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.

by Langston Hughes

Posted in teaching, theology | 2 Comments

Jerusalem and Geneva

My formal theological education in theology began in Athens and carried on in Berlin. Not the actual cities, the framework cities of theological pedagogy. Wheaton, with its highly intentional integration of faith and learning in a liberal arts setting, sought to form the whole person. In looking back, the model of the ideal Christian was itself of a certain sort. If you fit into this mold, Wheaton was a place to thrive. If you didn’t, well, Wheaton was a place of shaping and sharpening, if not thriving. I never felt at home at Wheaton the place, even if I took as advantage of the intellectual offerings as much as possible. I found important mentors, though in my books not in person. I felt spiritual deepened and spiritual emptied in successive waves. Then instead of law school I went to Fuller, where the Berlin model was emphasized. But southern California was home, and I had my family, friends, my home church to provide a measure of grounding and community. But when church dysfunction started slashing and burning my ecclesial life, and continued life issues tugged at me from almost every direction, I didn’t have the resources to navigate my frustrations or my successes. Neither Athens nor Berlin were particularly contextualized for me, shaping and forming, but in general ways that didn’t give me a continued map in my calling.

These aren’t the only cities in a theology of theological education. Scholars have added a few more stops on this journey.

In a 2005 article titled “The Theology of Theological Education,” Brian Edgar adds Geneva as a model. In “Geneva,” theological training takes place in a confessional setting. Confessional means a context where a specific ecclesial tradition, liturgy, interpretation helps orient the seminary student in the life of this tradition. 50537Teaching involves including the student in a developed narrative, one filled with heroes, and conflicts, and priorities. As Edgar puts it, “Formation occurs through in-formation about the tradition and en-culturation within it.” The city of Geneva was the setting for Calvin’s great work and became a center for Reformed thought and practice. Life was not segmented into isolated fragments, rather every part of life was thought to be included in a new vision of ecclesial transformation. Edgar notes that theological education in Geneva is understood through contrasts. The context of theological education is a confessional seminary rather than a broader academic institution, where the training takes on the priorities and methods of this university. The goal in Geneva is for students to know God through the context of the confessional tradition. It is not about training the mind or the transformation of one’s own self. It may include these, but these are not the core values.

I can’t say that I’ve ever visited Geneva, either the real city or the theological model. My theological tradition is fairly diverse, rather than established in a set tradition. I consider myself a Wesleyan Pentecostal or a Pentecostal Wesleyan, as these form the bulk of my own ecclesial influences. My parents come from a Conservative Baptist background, Fundamentalist and Evangelical. It might even be said that my family religious tradition is emerging movements, as discontent with establishment leads towards embracing new patterns of devotion and community. We’re pioneers who made our way westward in geography and Christianity. I’m a Californian Theologian more than anything else, really.

In an American context, we can see the Geneva model expressed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. My family tradition has tended to play the part of Roger Williams in that story, valued participants who are either kicked out or happily leave for better soil. This family tendency really does resonate in my own life and thought, but I can’t imagine shaping a seminary after it. Of course, the fact that I’m very interested in exploring new models of theological education is likely driven by this in-formation and en-culturation.

A fourth city to consider is Jerusalem. Proposed by Robert Banks in his book Revisioning Theological Education, Jerusalem emphasizes a missional priority, where education takes place in the midst of outreach and praxis, seeing the reflection and expression going hand in hand in developed informed practitioners. While we had significant ministry opportunities at Wheaton, most were not embedded in a context, rather Wheaton was certainly more of a bubble (or rather a “citadel” as I’ll discuss in a later post). Fuller was much the same way for me. peter-preaching2Ministry was a secondary act, rather than a coordinating experience. That said, part of the tension I had with both Wheaton and Fuller was my own missional instincts. I am certainly not an evangelist, but I do have a drive to have an integration of my faith and life within the context of a community. My home church after high school had a very strong missional impetus, and I was radically shaped by the emerging/missional conversations that happened in the late nineties and then onward. Indeed, my dissertation, later book, argues for a transformative church that draws personal, communal, and contextual formation. That said, or maybe because of these experiences, I am not sure this is the best model for foundational theological and ministry training.

These settings are often very demanding and immediately pragmatic, about getting things done rather than developing as a whole person who can then contribute with discernment in a context. I know Banks doesn’t see this as necessarily the case, but in my experiences the busyness of missional life leaves integrated formation a distant goal. That is why so many missional communities tend to shine bright and burn out quickly, or have a high turnover rate, as people embrace but then wander elsewhere. Indeed, I’m not sure missional models are intended as theological formation. Paul the Apostle, for instance, was sent out as a missionary after spending many years in learning and reflection. Being grounded in an understanding of the faith and of one’s own self is key to persistence and deep transformation. We have to be grounded in order to not get co-opted by the many narratives of the context or established pragmatic patterns.

I have a couple more “cities” in my next post: The city of “Azusa,” as proposed by Jackie David Johns, and “Skete,” which is a city I’m adding to the list.

Posted in education, seminary, teaching, theology | 6 Comments

On Being a Theologian

It’s always a little uncomfortable when people I don’t know well ask me what I do for a living.

“I teach for Fuller Seminary,” I say.

“Oh? What do you teach,” they invariably respond.

“Theology and Church history,” I reply, not wanting to add the various other topics I teach to the list. Those sum up my specialties.

“…,” they generally respond, at least for an extended moment.

I’ve learned to expect this uncomfortable moment and that gives me pause in my responses. Which isn’t right, I know. I should be bold and confident in responding about what is both my vocation and my calling.

“Why I teach theology and church history!” I should say with expectant respect.

Yet, I know that when I give my answer about what I do most people don’t know what to say in response. I have a bit of an alienating job title when it comes to small talk.  Which is problematic because I have a fair bit of trouble with small talk to begin with.

I really could use a job title with a conversational hook, like my teacher friends whose jobs involve relatable subjects and relatable experiences with kids and learning.  Or my friend who works for the Grammys.  “Who have you worked with?” “What are they like in person?” Or a friend who leads art classes at wineries. Now that’s a job that can go all sorts of different conversational directions.  So many more come to mind.  Jobs that bring conversation with them.

theologianI teach theology. People don’t seem to know what to say about that.

I am, to be even more bold, a theologian.

I confess being insecure about using that title.  But what else should I call my job? I do, in fact, read about, write about, and teach theology.  Even still, I’m uncomfortable about that being my job title.

In contrast, most people are comfortable with their job titles (even if they don’t always like their jobs). Titles are usefully descriptive.

Job titles give an indication about how a person spends their time. How they make their money.

I doubt scientists trouble themselves too much with assuming the appellation of one who  studies and teaches science. That is a badge of honor.

Painters paint.  Bankers bank.  Plumbers plumb. Electricians electrify. Politicians politicize. Teachers teach.

Theologians theologize. They speak about God.

That is quite a weighty subject. A noble subject.  It is the driving subject of most of my life, taking center stage during the last twenty years.  I am, I might say, God-obsessed.

Though at times I might rather say I am God-haunted.  I can’t let go, not that doing such is a theoretical impossibility, rather that I am not necessarily the one who has been doing the holding.  I’ve been shaped, pulled, turned, bumped, cajoled, empowered, envigorated at various points to keep at this topic of theology. It is my profession, both vocational and confessional.

I am not insecure about the topic, that it is important and worthwhile. In thinking about the title “theologian” I am confronted with insecurity about myself.

I know myself, for the most part.  Dare I use the title “theologian” to describe who I am and how I live?  Do I genuinely theologize?

I remember what I’ve done. What I’ve said. My mistakes, my frustrations, my doubts, my sins. I think about others who have known me over the years, during seasons of confusion, instability, hypocrisy.  Not that I’m the worst of sinners or have some deep horrible secrets.  But enough to cause me to consider my current role with echoes of embarrassment and shame about who I’ve been at times, and who I sometimes still am.

Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to theologies of hope, which do not discount the past but invite the past into a renewed reflection in light of God’s work in Christ.  I am not a theologian because I deserve the title, but because I seek to be someone who moves past the past into celebrating revitalization and experiencing new patterns and perspectives that are more fully oriented in God’s work and identity.

I speak, teach, write words about God as part of the continuing process of seeking what is more, better, possible in my life and in the lives of those around me. Like Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

A theologian is one who prays truly, the early Christian leader Evagrios wrote, adding, that one who prays truly is a theologian.  In and through my life I seek to pray and pray truly. Theology is not a destination, it’s a way, and being a theologian is about walking on the path, understanding how to use the map and compass, recognizing the flora and the fauna, sharing this with others who are interested.

Even if I am who I know I am–most unlearned and least among the faithful–God has invited me to be who I fully can be in light of the fullness of who he is.  It is a task I humbly embrace, a calling that compels me to live and learn and act and teach, daily entering into again my humility and my hope.

Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me.  In that prayer I find my confidence.

 

Posted in personal, teaching, theology | 19 Comments

The Confrontation of the Cross

An excerpt from my forthcoming book:

It is the narrative about the path to the crucifixion that we find the starkest confrontation between the way of God and the ways of this world. The cross is an expression of obedience and trust, both of Jesus and then by those who trust in this obedience for their own salvation. Whole trust in God that resists being co-opted by the systems of this world despite their claims for absolute authority and meaning. As this is a pattern established by both the writings and the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures as well as in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, the Gospels are not simply passion narratives with extended introductions.

What we see in the whole of the Gospels is a coherent expression of not only the solution to the crisis but also a living example of what it means to live this out in real contexts among real stories. It is the culmination of the whole narrative of Scripture thus far. The cross, then, is the end point, the fully exposed confrontation that exists throughout the ministry of Jesus, insisting on the ultimacy of God’s lordship across personal, social, and societal systems. This lordship is expressed in terms of love and commitment, but defining such in an absolute way that rejects syncretic attempts to see God as being another system among the systems, a god among the other gods. God brings the people out of slavery, they are to have no other gods. In contemporary terms, we are to have no other systems before him. God co-opts the systems, the systems respond, the result is the cross.

Thus the confrontation of Jesus in the trials that lead, ultimately, to his seemingly untimely and certainly violent death are themselves imbued with theological and sociological meaning. The contrasts begin at the beginning of the chapter, and are important in how the narrative develops. This is not a minor disagreement about methodology or even a religious dispute, this is a wholesale cosmic confrontation. Judas is filled with Satan. The priests are servants of the darkness. The disciples are all at risk. Jesus thus asserts the priority of his narrative as the true expression of God’s work. This is a narrative that will be brutally assaulted, leading to the vulnerability of all those who align themselves with Jesus.

The cross is a definitive call to reject the patterns of identity formation offered by the various systems in an environment. This is rightly understood as a way of death, rejecting the systems entails a rejection by the systems who seek to preserve and replicate their fundamental place in a society. The resurrection is the promise that rejecting such patterns will result in an even fuller life. Liberation of the oppressor comes through the way of the cross but promises a new story in light of the resurrection. Which brings us back to Moltmann’s admonition not to dwell on what people lose but what people gain. We let go of patterns and systems of death and dissolution because we do not need their promises of identity or security. We are freed from such anonymizing demands. Radical trust in God leads to radical realignment with the systems, embedded in them with a cohesive narrative of the Spirit’s transformative power.
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As a confrontation to the systems, the cross absolutizes the kingdom in contrast to the ways of society. These occupy the same environment—the world—but are expressing a substantively different narrative, a different way. It is absolute in that one cannot find a middle ground between the religious leaders and Jesus, the Romans and Jesus, the zealots and Jesus. Both sides reject such a synthesis. The systems want nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus rejects the systems. This does not, however, suggest that Jesus is a separatist, with the church called to isolation. Jesus does not abandon the world to itself; he enters the world in love. Separation may be a calling for particular Christians, but the church as a whole is embedded in the context no less than the systems are. By being defined according to a different narrative, a holistic and unifying narrative, the early Christians were committed to the world, in the world, through the Spirit of Christ.

But, because of the mutual exclusivity established by and through the cross, Christians could not be identified with both the systems and the kingdom. Either Jesus was right in saying he was speaking for God, or the Jewish leaders were right. Either Rome is the way of peace, or Jesus gives us a more expansive way. Either the methodology of the zealots is the way to social reform, or the way of Jesus. The curious nature of the cross, however, also mitigates putting these two patterns in conflict. The way of Rome or any of the systems is self-protection and self-perpetuation, as is the goal of the human ego. The way of the kingdom, however, is a fractal transformation from within. The story erupts from a manger and consumes the Empire from below.

As this is an issue of a new way and a new identity, a re-birth into a new story that transforms one’s past, present, and future, it is not feasible to seek meaning in both approaches. One is either with Jesus on the cross. living in the narrative of God, or with those who put Jesus on the cross, living in the narrative of the systems of this world.

Posted in Jesus, liberation, theology | 3 Comments

“In the Gospels, sickness is part of the understanding of what it is like to be a real person. For wherever the Savior appears, the sick come to light… They come out of the dark corners of cities and villages to which they have been banished, out of the wildernesses to which they have been relegated, and into the spotlight where they reveal themselves to Jesus. Thus Jesus sees the internal and external disabilities of the people. Jesus comprehends us, not from our sunny sides where we are strong and capable, but from our shadow sides, where our weaknesses lie.” ~Jürgen Moltmann

Posted in Moltmann, quotes, theology | 5 Comments

theologian?

I think the goal of theological writing is to be transformed.

If I’m not being confronted and shaped by what I’m reading and writing about, then I’m not doing it right.

If I’m writing to applaud and celebrate my understanding, I’m not doing it right.

If I’m closing myself off to others in the midst of writing rather than showing grace in my writing and the rest of my life, I’m not doing it right.

If I’m writing in a way that is dismissive or attempts to dominate through my language or arguments, then I’m not doing it right.

If there are times I’m filled with excitement about what I’m learning, I might be doing it right. If there are times I have to step back and assess my heart and make changes in my responses, then I might be doing it right. If at the end of the day, I am celebrating Christ’s goodness rather than my own intelligence, I might be doing it right.

Having a good vocabulary, a lot of intellectual training, decent writing skills, and lots of study is good, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good theology.

It is in the pursuit of prayer, humility to admit and learn from mistakes, to seek transformation of one’s whole life in the context of Christ’s calling that one begins to be a good theologian.

May I learn from what I read and may I learn from what I write, not just typing out words but seeking to live out the words of life in every moment and space.

Then, and only then, will I be on my way to being a theologian.

Posted in professional, theology | 7 Comments

The task of theology and theologians

Theological truth is the truth of God’s relationship with people and it is the fruit not of learning but of experience. In this sense all theology, properly so called, is written in blood. It is an attempt to communicate what has been discovered at great cost in the deepest places of the heart–by sorrow and joy, frustration and fulfilment, defeat and victory, agony and ecstasy, tragedy and triumph.

Theology, properly so called, is a record of a person’s wrestling with God. Wounded in some way or other by the struggle the person will certianly be, but in the end that person will obtain the blessing promised to those who endure.

The theologian in this respect is no different from the poet or dramatist. All of them must write in blood. Yet, what the theologian is called upon to do with his experience is different from what the poet or dramatist does. Obviously it is different in form — the theologian qua theologian does not write poems or plays. Their idiom is more abstract.

They have to translate their experiences into ideas and then arrange those ideas in as logically coherent a form as they can, so that reading their work is much more obviously a sustained intellectual effort than reading poetry appears to be or seeing a play.

It is not, however, only in form or idiom that the theologians’s work differs from that of a poet or dramatist. Its centre of interest is always different and in two ways.

First, the theologians’s primary concern must always be God’s relationship with humanity, and any relationship a person may have with other people or the world they live in must always be subsumed under that primary relationship with God.

Secondly, the theologian has been nurtured by a tradition of belief and practice and all the time they must relate their insights to the tradition which has nurtured them. However first hand, and in that sense original, those insights may be, they cannot be entirely out of the blue. They have to connect in some way with insights already achieved.

H.A. Williams, from the foreword of The Risk of Love by W.H. Vanstone

Posted in quotes, theology | 2 Comments

Rivers and Love

After having said, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!” Jesus says, “From the breast of the one who believes in me, as Scripture says, rivers of living waters will flow.” Rivers of living water will flow from the heart of the one who has trust in Jesus and believes in him!

jean-vanierThis, of course, reminds us of what Jesus had said to the Samaritan woman: “The water that I will give will become in the person who drinks it a spring of water welling up to eternal life!” So, the water that Jesus gives us will become in us a wellspring or a fountain that gives life to others.

Through the Spirit we have received, we can transmit the Spirit. Waters will flow forth from each of us to give life, if we trust Jesus and thirst for the living waters that only he can give us.

The mission of Jesus is to announce the Good News to the poor, to help the poor discover their value, stand up, find their dignity, and grow in love.Jesus has chosen us to live his mission. He wants our hearts to be wellsprings of living water, loving people nad helping them achieve their goals.

Thus, when we announce the Good News to the poor, it is not to tell them, “Jesus loves you,” but rather to say, “I love you. I commit myself to you in the name of Jesus.”

~Jean Vanier, The Gospel of John, The Gospel of Relationship, pg 50-51.

Posted in quotes, spirituality, theology, Vanier, writing | 3 Comments

Different Jims (in which I argue against myself)

In an earlier post, I made a big deal about how Wheaton was wrong about putting Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave.  I still think they were wrong. But, it’s not a simple issue.

“It is!” you might be saying to yourself.  “You’re just an academic who makes a simple issue not simple.”  Which might be true, but not in this case.  I started studying theology because people told me simple issues were simple and a lot of issues weren’t simple at all.

Some issues are simple.  Did Jesus rise from the dead? 

It’s a yes or no question that some theologians have made more difficult because they want their no to still be a yes.  If you say no to that question, you’re not a Christian, not in any meaningful, historical sense of the word. Paul sets this out in 1 Corinthians 15.

Some issues are complex, and we reject attempts to make them simple. Why is there suffering in this world? Why does a 8 year old get leukemia? Why did that city get destroyed by a hurricane. Why did this man get Parkinsons?

Because of their sin? Because God is vindictive?

Some issues are not very simple, but are made to sound simple and then just cause arguments.

When should we baptize someone who is born into a Christian family?

The Bible gives us examples of people baptized when they are adults.

Clearly adult baptism is right!  The Bible also gives us examples of whole households being baptized when the patriarch becomes a Christian. Clearly babies were baptized!

jim_carreyThen bring in the issue of original sin, and what happens at baptism, and there’s a few more considerations.

Making a complex issues simple led to major divisions in the church about what God wanted.  If it’s simple, then the person who disagrees is not “one of us.”

So the problem at Wheaton.  Which goes beyond Wheaton in highlighting how theology and faith are dealt with in our society. 

For the next little while, I’m going to add some more thoughts and maybe conversations on this topic, because it’s not as easy as some think and I think it’s a key moment in learning how to listen to each other. 

Especially when the anger and disagreement comes out of how a word is being used.

Same.

That’s the trouble word.  Same is one of those words that means something and nothing. Same is same, but not always exactly the same.  How much difference can same absorb?

Back in September, this issue came up in a blog I occasionally follow.  I responded with a few posts arguing Islam and Christianity are talking about different gods.  Which makes my recent response even more curious given that I’ve yet to change my mind and still affirm what I said in both places.  Same opinion, different arguments.  Lest I fall into more confusion, here’s that earlier exchange:

A commenter wrote: “Like Christianity, Islam is based on Judaism, and it is all the same God; just different names in different languages…. How on earth do you share the same story elements, but not have the same God?”

Here’s what I wrote in response (compiling a few different comment posts): jimhenson

“How on earth do you share the same story elements…”

Jim was born in a small town in Iowa. Parents were Ed and Mabel, has two sisters. His best friend was Jimmy. Jim likes Golden Retrievers, ever since his childhood dog saved him from drowning. Family lost their farm due to some unsavory but not quite illegal actions by the local bank. He worked his way through college, then law school, worked as a law clerk, then became a judge, rising to the Supreme Court.

or

Jim was born in a small town in Iowa. Parents were Ed and Mabel, has two sisters. His best friend was Jimmy. Likes Golden Retrievers ever since his childhood dog saved him from drowning. Family lost their farm due to some unsavory but not quite illegal actions by the local bank. He worked his way through college, then law school, decided he hated the legal system and organized a militia which sought the overthrow of the government.

Same initial story elements, different Jims.

jimGaffigan_It’s an understandable argument, that Islam and Christianity have the same God, but at what point do similar starting points and general claims diverge into different subjects?

Christians say Jesus is God. There’s no room for that in either Judaism or Islam.

So, there’s a fundamental identity issue. Did this God choose Isaac or Ishmael? That’s a huge distinction in action and subsequent history that reflects in a very different pattern of salvation, life, worship. At a certain point, it seems there’s different content behind the title “God.”

I don’t think we should say Tash is Aslan and Aslan is Tash.

“What is so difficult to understand about that Mohammed said the Jew’s God was his God?”

What’s so difficult to understand that the Jews disagreed with this? And to see Mohammed co-opted and changed the narrative. I get that people say there’s a similar title going on, but the key is that the title is being attached to very different sorts of characters.

If I started saying that Jim is a neighbor of mine and has promised me $5000 a month for the rest of my life, but the Jim you know doesn’t have that much money and doesn’t really know me, you’d say I must be talking about a different Jim, or that I’m simply wrong about who Jim is.

Clearly I should ask Jim.  Do you have his phone number? I could use the money.

Posted in God, society, theology, Wheaton | 3 Comments