Faith


To the best of my knowledge, I just made that second word up, and claim dibs on it. But it is on my mind these days as I progress through the dissertation, prepare for and teach my slate of classes, and becoming gradually – though inexorably – more involved in the church we have been attending since September.

In my academic work, I have discovered that I gravitate toward questions of identity and of community formation. Students are beginning to figure out that I can be sidetracked by an innocent question like “what motivated the early Christians to begin to congregate as individual communities?” or “why did the Qumran community feel it was necessary to remove themselves from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness?” But as a Baptist – cum – Anglican, I find myself increasingly suspicious of grand claims of macro-level, galvanizing forces that link big categories and big metanarratives to small communities. In other words, we need to take the Qumran communities as representative only of themselves; we need to look at the ancient church of Lyons or Laodicea or Jerusalem as representative only of their own community. We can’t just assume that they were part of the “big narrative of XYZism or XYZianity.” Whatever major trends were blowing in the wind in first and second century Judaisms and Christianities, what we can be sure of is that individual communities adopted or rejected certain trends on the grounds of whether they were consonant with what these communities believed to be true and that helped foster the particular mission of each.

“Ecclesiography” is my term describing the contemporary movement of “writing about the church,” or perhaps even better, “writing to create the (new) church.” It includes blogging, publishing important new books, distributing scandalous new tracts, and so on and so forth. There is a lot of this going on, particularly by people I count among my friends and acquaintances.  People are eating this stuff up, particularly the ’40 and under’ crowd, as well we should be, because this new “ecclesiographical” writing, intended to inspire a new conception of what it means to “do church” or what it means to “be church” or even “do/be Christian.”  I am all for this, because, as ecclesiographers such as Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, Pete Rollins, and countless other writers and bloggers (including this one) have said repeatedly, the way we are “doing church” is just not working the way it once did. We need something new.

But we may justifiably ask whether or not ecclesiography is really giving it to us. (For the record: God, I hope so. Lord knows we need it.) Church communities have, throughout their histories, been galvanized by revolutionary, prophetic writing. This obviously includes Scripture, but it also includes other writings as well. It may be too early to tell. But it seems to me that ecclesiography is having strong impact on the personal, individual level, but much less so at the institutional level, either in the local individual parish or at the big denominational or megachurch levels. At the beginning of this decade, evangelical megachurches in the Syracuse area were swarming with memberships and regular attenders. While they still do well relative to the “non-megachurch” contingent, over the last 10 years these big churches have ALL seen dramatic dropoffs in attendance and memberships, in spite of being on the cutting edge of evangelical thinking. Mainline churches have fared a bit better only in that many of them have simply held steady, but there is a high degree of turnover while maintaining more or less the same overall numbers. And fundamentalist churches are in serious decline. Catholic churches are closing their doors and selling off their properties. At all levels, including my own church, parishes are in jeopardy of losing their pastors because they can’t pay them.  Just at the local Syracuse-area level, the numbers are affecting all three of these “big categories,” even though many of them are receptive to the ideas of McLaren, Rollins, Miller, and even me about revolutionizing the way we conceive of being Christian and being the ekklesia of God. I’ve yet to encounter a church of any denomination that is resistant, for example, to the current trend of becoming “missional” or building a “missional” church, a word that entered into the vocabulary of the churches in the late 90s as a result of McLaren’s popularizing of it from Lesslie Newbigin’s use.

But that’s part of the problem. As a result of its popularizing by many of these new gifted ecclesiographers, “missional” has already been denuded. What does it mean? My suspicion is that churches are not using the term in the same way from church to church. My friend the ultrarev, for example, just the other day posted a piece on his blog on the missional church and his desire to plant one somewhere. But they’re already everywhere, and they’re losing members like crazy, because we don’t know what it means! I can imagine Socrates, today, engaging in a dialogue with McLaren over “missional.” As much as I like Brian, I can’t help but feeling that even he, like Meno, would ultimately (good-naturedly, of course) accuse Socrates of being a sting-ray who has numbed his mind and have to recognize that, at the moment, the best we can do with “missional” is identify and describe its attributes better than we can actually define the quality that makes all churches that claim the title as “missional.” My suspicion is that we tend to use “missional” to describe our “ideal church,” meaning quite literally a church that embodies all the qualities that we believe are essential, necessary, good, and “true.”

As I see it, “missional” has become one of those “big categories” that is being coopted and, perhaps, inappropriately applied at a macro-level of Christianity that is itself largely a myth. This happened with “emergent” just recently, and I’m seeing it again here with “missional:” It’s turned into a Movement. This happens when readers of any new work or argument, like that of the Ecclesiographers, take their work and their arguments seriously and see themselves as becoming part of what they represent and attempt, with however limited success, to impart the wisdom of “missional Christianity” to their church community. But what has happened with “missional” is that it is, so far, showing itself to not be radical enough, which means that it can be adopted and coopted by those churches who really have no business employing it. It is becoming a more user-friendly and less-freighted term for “gospel-centered”, which is – or ought to be – synonymous with “evangelical.”  Which is to say that the use of “missional” is to cast into new terms what we have been doing all along…which isn’t working. The consequence of this lack of precise definition and “exacting control of context,” as Wendell Berry puts it in his masterful article “In Distrust of Movements,” is that the term can be preempted even by its enemies. Prepackaged, uncritical, consumerist versions of Christianity are now suddenly “The Biblical Church of our Missional Lord,” offering us what they have always offered, and the Movement fails. (Mr. Berry’s full article can be found in his collection of essays entitled Citizenship Papers.)

I hope that the Missional, Ecclesiographical writers that are now doing so much important work keep doing it and do not get discouraged. But in the meantime, what does this mean for the rest of us, who attend declining, failing churches that are both broken and broke? Simply labeling ourselves as “missional” or “emergent” or “postmodern” or anything else is not going to fix us as long as we identify our primary problems as a single-issue problem that can be addressed by a single-issue solution. What is needed – and what the eccesiographers are giving us! – is a full diagnosis, and enough people with knowledge, skills, motives and attitudes that are unique to the specific needs of each local church. The problem: Where is everyone?

We can read our ecclesiographers until we’re run out of material, and agree with every word they write, but until we actually start doing something and defining as precisely as we can what “missional” means in the context where it is needed or used we are going to continue to slide towards irrelevancy.

The harvest is long, but the laborers few.

The Divine Name YHWH Jehovah“Theos” is a crappy translation for yhwh or elohim. Thanks a lot, Septuagint.

Comment.

Stan, Reg, Francis, and Judith discuss Stan's right to have babies.

Stan, Reg, Francis, and Judith discuss Stan's right to have babies.

“I’m not oppressing you, Stan, you haven’t got a womb!”

So says Reg, the apparent leader of the PFJ in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, to Stan, who wants to be a woman so that he can have babies.  Confronted with the reality of biological reproduction, Stan feels that anyone who disagrees with his “right as a man to want to have babies” is oppressing him; Reg, of course (played by John Cleese) thinks that this is just as ridiculous as the idea of Stan (Eric Idle) wanting babies in the first place.

I recently had some conversations with a few of the evangelical student leaders on campus over the weekend that reminded me of this scene. One guy was commenting on how he expects the College “is counting the days until [the evangelical campus chaplain] retires,” seeing as how when he does the Chapel won’t have any “real Christians” to minister to the students.  Another, one of the leaders of InterVarsity here, told me that he would never counsel “his students” to take any courses in religion here, and especially not any in Bible or Christianity, and he was shocked when I told him that, actually, our main Bible scholar is in fact a very active Presbyterian who has an M.Div from Southern in Louisville, and that I have taught this course for the School a few times as well.  “Still, it’s just really dangerous.” A third individual, a friend of mine in fact, gave a talk to the InterVarsity group that revolved around various “dangers and pitfalls” for “Christian students” to be on their guard against in their classes, especially classes on the Bible and the History of Christianity.

In all these conversations, I got the sense that these Evangelicals think of themselves as being oppressed, and that they like it that way. And the students (who I don’t think believe that they are under any form of oppression) are being taught and encouraged to think that they are.

As Reg says to Stan later on in that same scene: “What’s the point?”

It would seem that on college and university campuses evangelical students are being told by their mentors that everyone outside of “our” way of thinking about Christians and Christianity and, in fact religion in general are oppressing “us.” Come on. There’s no oppression here. When Professor X discusses the Documentary Hypothesis, students raised on the conservative (both Jewish and Evangelical Christian) belief of single, Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch are not being oppressed, persecuted, or anything of the sort. Why cultivate this?

“What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?!”

So the question is put to me, what’s so wrong with a denomination establishing criteria of doctrinal consent that are required for official ordained ministry within the denomination? It came up during a documentary that included discussion of the 5 fundamentals of early 20th century Presbyterianism and the resulting division in the church (and which paved the way for mid-twentieth century evangelical-liberal fear of each other in general).

My answer is that there’s basically nothing wrong with doing this, so long as it is recognized that this is not a universal absolute that has to be adhered to by everyone. In other words, if the denomination recognizes that this is essentially the “membership standard” in order to be part of the club of Denomination X and not membership requirements for determining who is “Christian” and who isn’t, fine.

More specifically, some denominations (such as the PCUSA) have historically been at the forefront of “updating” the Christian mission to reflect the needs of the age it finds itself in. 100 years ago, it was science and modernity, and the 5 fundamentals reflect the issues the church was faced with in how to do Christian work. In particular, colonialism, Darwinism, historical criticism, “progress,” scientific and psychoanalytic analysis, and so on, all hallmarks of modernity, were the major issues confronting the churches, and the Fundamentals themselves were completely modernist answers to a very modernist slate of issues. Absolute certainty in religion was the mirror image of absolute certainty in science and historical factuality.

As seminaries now are very clear that their mission is no longer “conversion” to Christianity, many conservatives and fundamentalists, I think, misunderstand what is going on with current Christian training. If it is truly Christian, as I’ve written on this blog in the past, there is but one essential, and that is the confession of Christ as Lord and Master. If a church’s work and mission stems from this, it is doing Christian work, Kingdom work, as I call it. Conversion may or may not be a part of this. What is happening with Seminaries and Churches and other institutions that are in the field of Christian vocations is they are cognizant of the fact that “conversion” is virtually synonymous with Colonialism, and specifically western colonialism. It recognizes that doing Kingdom work does not mean “making everyone a Christian.” But many conservatives and fundamentalists think this is exactly what it means to save the world: convert every last person to Christianity.

God save us, no!

The Church should have standards for its own governance, and it needs ways and means and an ethic of not being of the world even while it is in it. And those should be determined through much critical thought and excruciating prayer. But our mission is not to make everyone in the world “like us.” Confessing Christ’s lordship means not turning the world into a planet of Christians, let alone Presbyterians or Baptists or Methodists or Adventists or what-have-yous. Our mission is simply to bring the Kingdom of God to places where it is needed most. And these days, I daresay that the places it is most needed is in the institutional churches themselves. Getting all caught up in absolutes and certainties and doctrines and issues of “who’s in and who’s out” distracts us from our real work: to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love God with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; and to preach Christ crucified, using words only when necessary.

While on my friend Pete’s blog, I stumbled across another blog that really is something else. Good stuff; here’s a sample.

emoticonsLooks like he’s got a new one every day, so now I have something new to check out every morning along with my Daily Dilbert.

Yes, that is a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5, so you can skip looking it up. No thanks necessary.

Received this email from a student, re: my Religions of the World course.

It is very difficult for me to take
these religions seriously. I honestly feel that most people in this
course are pretty much BS-ing when they talk about how amazed and
fascinated they are about these things. It’s writing what the
professor wants to hear instead of how they really feel. I have
actually talked to some students who have agreed this is the case. I
thought that by being honest and giving my genuine point of view was
better than sugar coating it, but that is often not the case in
school, as I have learned over the years. I will put my own feelings
aside in the future and only state facts. Hopefully that will help. I
honestly do not appreciate these other religions because I am a strong
Christian and God is a jealous God and does not find these other
“religions” to be at all appreciative. That’s just how I feel. I
cannot praise a religion that worships any God but the one I believe
is the ONLY one who exists. That is my struggle. I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

J. Doe, who really wants to get an A in the course without compromising her beliefs.

And, for what it’s worth, my response:

Well, I do understand. I myself am a licensed minister in the American Baptist Church of Vermont/New Hampshire. I don’t want or expect anyone to necessarily “like” any of these religions; there is much in them that doesn’t jive with Christianity. I want people to engage them, but we cannot engage them unless we know about them and look at what there is in common, as well as what the differences are. Like it or not, this is a world that is far more complicated than we Christians typically like to admit. Practitioners of religion – any religion – have got to learn to be sensitive to people of other faiths, even if they totally disagree on points of theology. This course is NOT a theology course. There is a difference between studying theology and studying religions; studying religions is studying how humans express in their own cultures their relationship to whatever is sacred to them. Studying theology is studying what humans say about God. We haven’t been doing that, although it has come up in discussion posts, which is fine, but I am not encouraging this. I do not believe we can have productive conversations about what humans think about God unless we know something about what they say and think about their world.

Part of being a Christian is being able to recognize the good. No less than Paul tells us to “Question everything, but hold on to the Good” (see 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5 I think). We can’t do that unless we learn where goodness and beauty lies, and I am of the persuasion that it does not only lie in Christianity; far from it. Genesis tells us that God the creator created our world as very good. I am trying to train students to recognize the good wherever it appears, and in this course in particular, being able to see the good and the beautiful in other religious traditions. Of course there is much that is not good; the dark side of religion is present in all of them, and this includes Christianity. I don’t know about you, but I have seen enough Christian-bashing to last me a lifetime, and I believe that throughout our history, we have deserved much of it. It is not a perfect faith. It is not “just fine the way it is.” God himself may be perfect and completely good. But Christianity is not, and I would prefer not to turn the faith into an idol that replaces God himself. It’s bad enough that this happens to the Bible.

In being critical of other religious traditions, we don’t have to resort to sarcasm and vitriol. That’s what automatically happens when we don’t understand something, usually due to our own unwillingness to be challenged or shook up a little, whether it’s in the voting booth or in conversations about religion. I hope to be giving students the tools to be critical of what they disagree with without coming across as bigoted know-it-alls who think anyone who thinks otherwise can go to hell, because they aren’t going anyplace else anyway.

So I do want you, and others in the class, to be honest. If you honestly can’t see anything the reflects the good and the beautiful in Shinto or Islam or whatever, I want you to tell me that. But you must be very specific. Condemning a Shinto garden simply because it’s not a Christian one isn’t going to cut it. Condemning the Qur’an without reading any of it simply because it’s not  New Testament isn’t going to work.

[some specific comments about student's essays]
Peace, Benedict

Focus on the Family recently published a sixteen page hypothetical letter from “A Christian in 2012″ that “looks back” on the first four years of the Obama presidency. The whole thing reminds me of how ancient apocalyptic works, like the Book of Revelation; paint up a vision of the future that induces mass-panic with the express aim of persuading readers to resist to the end now, before it’s too late.

Like Revelation, the letter is written from the perspective that the author and those who stand with him are the only ones who knew/know the truth, and criticizes those Christians who voted for Obama as being blind or too young to seriously look at why Obama was going to be a dangerous president who would destroy America. How? Here are some examples about what the author of the letter (who apparently doesn’t want his true identity to be known, but here’s guessing it’s Dobson himself):

  • Terrorist attacks in 4 US cities;
  • Christian professionals fired or quitting en masse;
  • Iran nukes Tel Aviv
  • Porn freely displayed
  • violent crime out of control because to too-strict gun control
  • Russia occupies 4 more nations
  • Energy blackouts all over the US
  • Gas prices are over 7 bucks a gallon
  • Christian ministries and organizations, including schools close up
  • Bush officials imprisoned
  • Taliban overrun not only Afghanistan, but Iraq as well (!)
  • Home school families emigrate en masse to Australia and New Zealand (!)
  • And all of this is because Obama’s Supreme Court appointments create a 6-3 majority of liberal justices, thus ceding the “ultimate prize” of the Court to the “far left.”
  • And these justices then promptly ruled that homosexual marriage was now legal in all 50 states, creating a chain reaction of decisions that the letter describes as curtailments of American freedom. In other words, all problems can be traced back to American tolerance of homosexuality.

Unbelievable.

Focus on the Family’s anonymous piece trades on fear and preys on those who are afraid of change. This is, IMO, the worst piece of fear-mongering I’ve run across. It shows that the politics of fear run by the Bush administration has had its desired affect. Focus claims to represent Christians. It does no such thing. It doesn’t even represent all evangelical Christians; the letter even admits as much by blaming the “younger evangelicals” for the result of the 2008 election. All it represents is a “boomer” value system that held sway in the 50s-70s in the US, which is now just an element of cultural memory to a very specific (and increasingly diminishing) segment of the population.

And if this is what Christianity wants to become, then I’m checking out. Focus’ version of Christian ethics has become so one-dimensional, fundamentalist, dogmatic, and hatefully intolerant of dissension on what it considers non-negotiable that it misrepresents everything Christ stood for and in fact represents more of what he stood against. It completely misunderstands the First Amendment, and in fact has a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution,” to use Dobson’s own words from another context. Once upon a time Focus on the Family focused on …. families. Now, the focus is on fear, hate, intolerance, and sectarian politics. Is there anything more un-Christian and un-American?

The letter gets one assumption right. Obama’s America is not Focus on the Family’s America. And neither would McCain’s America. I’ve got half a mind to write a “Letter from 2012 from McCain’s America” in response.

If you’re reading this, and you’ve read the “Letter from 2012,” and you are as bothered by this as I am, write to Focus through their email at citizenlink@family.org and tell it to them straight.

Well, the time has come. I haven’t done a seriously political piece since my inaugural post. I was asked today why I support the Democratic Party and not the Republican one, and the question was basically qualified with the suggestion that “when you don’t like either candidate, vote for the Republican one” because that’s the more Christian and trustworthy party.

No. No no no no no no no no no no! I understand the sentiment; I was myself seduced by the 2000 Bush campaign’s “compassioniate conservatism” and voted for a regime that year that has proven to be anything but. I see very little that is Christian coming from the Republican party. Taken collectively as a whole, I don’t really see much of it coming from the Democratic side either.

But I do see it from individual candidates, and when the candidate in question is running for president, I am willing to take him or her as representative of their particular party. And of the two candidates remaining, I am convinced that Senator Obama exemplifies a far more biblical position on ethics, religion, and public policy than any candidate in the 2008 campaign. For me, that is why I support the Democratic party. I believe the overarching rule that guides Obama’s position on policies and issues (to the extent we’ve seen from previous writing, speeches he’s given over the last four years, and current campagining so far) is more biblical than any Republican campaign in recent memory, perhaps since Abraham Lincoln.

I do not say “more Christian.” That is deliberate. It is my studied opinion that, at least in politics, this label is more divisive than unifying. (See yesterday’s post for an example.) “Biblical” may not be any better, but this is at least something I’m willing to take a chance on.

Recently I watched the film Amazing Grace, which is the story of William Wilberforce’s career in the English parliament and in particular his crusade to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Gifted with oratory and strength of will, we see Wilberforce at the beginning of the film struggling with the decision to enter a career in politics or the ministry. Wilberforce’s erstwhile friend and future prime minister of England, William Pitt, convinces him that he can serve both God and the state by using his gifts to challenge the ethics of the empire with the ethics of the kingdom of God.

I see the Republican party as being rich in moralistic ideology, but ethically bankrupt. There is no William Wilberforce in the Republican party, or if there is, he or she has yet to reveal him or herself. Yet I do see a lot of Wilberforce in Senator Obama. While I have no idea if Obama has ever held any dreams of ordained ministry. his faith clearly informs both is private life and his public politics. I believe Senator Obama to be a model for how prophetic faith can speak to political influence, and in how political attentiveness to the Biblical tradition, shared to varying degrees by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, can help the state do a better job of aligning itself with the Kingdom of God, even though it cannot – and will never be – the Kingdom.

I contend that Obama knows this. Read his 2004 speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston. Read his 2006 Call to Renewal Speech. To accuse Obama of having a distorted view of the Bible, as James Dobson does, or to outright accuse him of not being a “real” Christian, as Alan Keyes did in 2004, is to reveal how shallow the conservative understanding of Christian faith is on the one hand and knowledge of the Bible is on the other. There is more to Christian faith than simply being “born again” (which Obama is, in the authentic experience of a life-changing conversion), and there is far more than abortion or gay marriage in the Bible (in fact, the Bible is completely silent on both issues).

So, using Obama’s own 2006 speech as a basis for how his faith and how his deep understanding of biblical ethics informs and influences his life and career, what do we see? (I’m not going to single out issues; I trust you to do your own homework…) IHow about these:

  • “The majority of great reformers in American history were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
  • “And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope” (A Call to Renewal).

    “But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt that I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth.”

  • “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”
  • “If we scrub language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.”

Finally, in my conversation earlier, it came up that the Democrats place no value in the family, and that Obama hasn’t done anything to change that perception. This is simply not true; Obama has two young children himself and supports a traditional one-parent-staying-at-home environment, as well as families having the final right to determine what is best for their children. But more than that, Obama is on record in his support of the family as the fundamental social unit that will ever be the strength of the nation, and it is one that is similarly grounded in the biblical family ethic.

“Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation… But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing – missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it” — Father’s Day Speech, Apostolic Church.

I confess that I have been a fan of Obama since his Boston speech in July of 2004. I distinctly remember saying to myself “if this is what the Democratic party is about now, I’m in.” Not to say that I agree with all of Obama’s policies or even that i think he interprets individual details of the Bible the same way I do. But I do believe that his vision, like that of William Wilberforce 180 years ago, is more consistent with Biblical ethics and the Kingdom of God than the competition’s. Should the Republican party be able to trot out a Wilberforce or an Obama or another Abraham Lincoln, I will be more than willing to give the party a fair hearing. Until then, for this blogger faith and understanding lead me to break ranks with my evangelical brethren and cast my vote for the Democratic candidate for President. Barack Obama in 08.

I’m supposed to be working on the dissertation, but I’ve gotten bogged down in some nasty German linguistics. Last night I was doing some reading designed to kind of “wind me down” and came across what I see as a prophetic comment from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison. So much for winding down. I’d love to hear some thoughts on the implications of this for the church today. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

“And we cannot be honest unless we recognise that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [even if there were no God]. And this is just what we do recognise – before God! God himself compels us to recognise it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering”.

PS – Thanks Jack.

Icon of St. IrenaeusKen raised a question in his comment to the last post about being uncertain over how Christianity should be defined. This has actually been in the back of my mind for some weeks.

As an historian of religion as well as someone who identifies himself as “Christian,” I’ve been trying to make some sense out of this. Ancient Christianity, for example, as as diverse as it is today, and the arguments over defining what it is are not new. I think there are two different ways to approach this: 1) asking “what is Christianity” as an institution, and 2) “what (or who) is a Christian?”. I think that breaking it down this way yields different answers.

Institutional “Christianity” seems to have been defined according to subscription to specific doctrines, beliefs and ideas at least since the second century. Right doctrine was the point of departure. We have texts that describe that the only way you could tell a “heretic” in may places was by talking to one of them privately and casually outside of church meetings, because in their practice they appeared to be the same as everyone else. Irenaeus, for example, notes that it is this very thing that makes “those guys,” according to him, anyway, so dangerous to “us.” They sneak up on you, because if you don’t really know them, you have no idea what kind of system of doctrine they subscribe to (if they subscribe to any at all) and therefore have no grounds for figuring out if they are “Christian” or not. Christians who followed a different set of doctrines and mythology than the ones Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and a host of other early proto-orthodox writers, saw the proto-orthodox set of doctrines and ideas as ridiculous, and thought of themselves as nothing other than Christians following Christianity.

So the question I have is this: is subscription to a certain set of doctrines, platitudes, propositions, and so on a realistic mark of Christian identity? Can Christianity be reduced exclusively to this? If so, how many, and which one? And can one subscribe to doctrines, yet not really believe it? I think that for many in the churches today, this latter question is perhaps the most pertinent, yet one that hardly anyone will touch.

Now what about ritual and liturgy? Even if we grant that doctrine is at least one defining element, there’s the ancient question of whether or not someone who participates and observes the liturgical and ritual structure, defined by some authoritative figure and yet doesn’t “do it right,” is a “christian.” It’s easy enough to look for examples in antiquity; one might be the observation and celebration of the feast of Easter Day. There were those (many, in fact) who believed that the Lord’s resurrection should always be on the 14th of the month of Nisan, regardless of what day of the week that happened to fall on. Others (the winning party, at least in western christendom) believed that Easter should always be on the Sunday on or after the first full moon of the spring equinox. Both said they were Christians; both denied full “Christian” identity to the other. The same situation pops up in issues over Baptism (in antiquity as well as now), Eucharist (then as now), and so on. In other words, it’s the same problem as doctrines. And of course, could you observe Jewish rites, holy days, practices, and so on, and be Christian? The authoritative answer from many powerful figures, such as John Chrysostom, was “no way,” and that if you do participate in, say, a Seder or a Purim carnival, you were Jewish, not Christian.

What about ethics and morality? Day-to-day life? Now here is where things really start getting interesting. Because we have evidence from early christian texts that suggest that the ONLY difference between some groups was in ordinary life practices, and this starts with Paul in the letters to the Corinthians and continues until the present day. So this doesn’t appear to be very helpful. Usually these were issues over sexuality, food, and social roles. Again, what was true in the first century was true in the 4th and true in the 21st. Nothing’s changed. Denominations that ordain women are rejected by some as not really christian. Churches that take a disparaging attitude to the joy of sex and to celebrating the beauty of the body’s sexuality cannot understand why others who seem to delight in physical beauty can think of themselves as Christians. Can one be an environmentalist and “green” and be a real Christian? This is not a flippant question (sadly!).

Enough. Let me propose something of a tentative “description” for discussion.

I think the “doctrinists,” those who argue that you have to truly, authentically, and unquestioningly believe and subscribe to certain doctrines and to “the Bible” (another complicated topic for another day), have one thing right. I think there IS but a single doctrine that, without which, I can’t see identifying with Christian faith, and that’s the doctrine of the lordship of Jesus the Christ. That is to say, a confession that Jesus is my/our Lord should be the doctrinal base for the Christian religion. After that, there are a million variations on the theme, and propositional theology becomes mere details. But for someone who professes Christianity and who yet denies Jesus’ lordship, either in word or (more often) in deed, I can’t see how this can be the case. In other words, I think it is entirely possible for people to believe all the right stuff and not be a Christian. Now, what “lordship” means is the sticking point, but that’s to be expected. Everything else after Jesus’ lordship is conditioned by memory, history, psychology, experience, geography, and so on.

Ethically and morally, my years of studying the Abrahamic religions suggest to me that there are far more similarities than differences, not to mention local variations within each tradition. And so I don’t feel that ethics and morals are much good for defining one from the other, and I’m grateful for this. I do believe that when apply the lordship criteria, however, we see how each tradition nuances the ethical and moral common ground (or, perhaps, holy ground). A truly Christian ethics and morality, I think, stems from where we put the role of Christ. For me, an understanding of Christ’s lordship means viewing – and following, as best as I am able and as far as I can understand – Christ as the quintessential representative of ethical justice as was revealed in Hebrew Scripture and the Gospels of the New Testament. It is a conscious decision to model our ethics after those of Jesus, who was our prototype for applied ethics in a life in imitation of the ethics and morality expected by God as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. Removing Jesus from this equation obviously denies lordship to Him. One may still follow an ethics of the Scriptures, but there is little that will distinguish Christian ethics from Islamic or Jewish without the confession of Jesus’ lordship and accepting his role as an ethical and moral prototype. Another way to put this is that I recognize that one can lead a life of “christian” ethics without being a Christian.

Finally, rite, ritual, worship, liturgy, and so on. I have been to so many churches that call themselves Christian, who confess his lordship, and who strive and struggle to live a life based on ethics they feel derive from Jesus’ lordship. And yet for some of them, they can be so different, even to the point that visitors may wonder if they are, indeed, in a Christian church or setting. Wine or Grape Juice? Bread or wafer? Dunked or sprinkled? Children or Adults? “Classical” or “contemporary?” King James or Today’s English? Consubstantiation or transubstantiation? Organ or Band? And so on. All of this makes about as much difference, as Frederick Buechner says, as whether we pray sitting down or standing up. I find my present house of worship to have one of the most consistently creative, beautiful, and meaningful worship services that I have ever been a part of. It glorifies God and emphasizes his justice and recognizes the role Christ plays in Christian narrative and action. I love it, and it is the primary form of spiritual nourishment I receive from the place. Some argue that it doesn’t pay enough attention to Christ’s lordship and defeat of “sin.” Perhaps. Others recognize that the worship is thoroughly Christian, but that it seems to be through appearances. Maybe so. In other words, simply having “Christian” worship and rites and liturgy doesn’t necessarily mean the church or house of worship is a “Christian church.” Worship alone does not demonstrate a church’s “Christian-ness.” Worship, I think, is the expression of loving God and enjoying him.

Procrastination needs to stop here. Back to the dissertation.

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