1984 Theology

I am admittedly a child of the 80’s. I grew up in Cold-War paranoia and still find it difficult to understand how it has been 30 years since the Chicago Bears shuffled to a Super Bowl win under Coach Ditka.SBS

I love reading books from the 80’s once in a while. There is something fascinating to me about how much the world has changed even in my lifetime! I used to love listening to my grandparents talk about all of the things they had seen since they were little. I soaked up stories about installing indoor plumbing, the purchase of a first TV, and life from the great depression to WWII.

Growing up in Chicago impacted me religiously. We still had the influence of the Jesus People evident, it was in the bookstore at Trinity Evangelical School of Divinity that found the Late Great Planet Earth is a used-book section, and we lived just down the road from Willow Creek – the home of the Seeker-Sensitive Church movement. It is little wonder I turned out to be a counter-cultural, semi-apocalyptic evangelist/apologist.

 I sorta miss being able to think that the book of Revelation was a road-map to the end – instead of understanding it to be an imaginative political critique of the first two centuries CE.

 

I have a soft spot for the mid-80s and 1984 specifically. Part of it stems from the instant connection to George Orwell’s terrifying predictive dystopia from the famous book (written in 1949). It is fun to pair that picture with the realization that the movie Back To The Future came out in 1985.

Two of my favorite books were written in the mid-80s. To the first I find myself saying “ … and this was before the internet and cell phones!” – to the second I mumble “sadly, not much has changed … and it may be too late.”

The first book is The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon. I love this book! The only glaring gaps from its 1983 release is when he talks about both education and work/workplace management. It feels really dated at those moments and one begins to wonder what the author would say now with the internet and cell phones dominating so much of our day.

The second book is Theology For A Nuclear Age by Gordon Kaufman that I was using to prep for our Summer School High Gravity class. Here is the passage that stood out to me (formatted for blog):

 New ways of thinking are desperately needed in our time. We can see this at many different points in the complex of cultural crises that confront us. We now realize, for example, as earlier generations apparently did not, that the earth has quite limited resources and if we do not move quickly toward conservation of energy, water, minerals, arable land and so forth, human life as we know it can no longer be sustained.

  • We are poisoning ourselves in many ways:
  • The atmosphere – especially surrounding our cities
  • Fish can no longer live in many of our rivers and lakes
  • The food we eat apparently contains cancer causing agents
  • ‘Acid rain’ falls on our forests and kills the trees

It is clear that we dare no longer think in terms simple of meeting out immediate short-range needs, whether as individuals or as societies; if we do not tak account of the long range consequences of our activities, the ecological crisis in which we now live will deepen beyond repair.

 

He goes on to address the futility of:

  • nation-states and capitalism
  • western imperialism and colonialism
  • slavery
  • unrestricted exploitation of natural resources
  • racism and sexism
  • persecution of heretics and infidels
  • even attempts at genocide

 

One of the reasons that I am excited to focus on Sheila Greeve Davaney’s Theology At The End Of Modernity through the course is because she has assembled a diverse group of thinkers writing in response to the questions that Kaufman raised. The opening chapter is by Sally McFaugue and provides an immediate lightning strike!

We have an interview coming out Monday with Bonnie Miller-McLemore and she echoes what I have heard from so many authors and thinkers – something changed in the 80’s. Elizabeth Johnson has said the same as did Grace Ji-Sun Kim recently.

 

The past 30 years have seen some pretty major shifts – in the culture, in the church and in the academy.

While I still have a fondness for my memories of the 80’s, I am excited to spend this Summer constructing a theology for the 21st century together.

What decade or era do you have a soft spot for? 

The Function Of Good Friday

Ahead of the Great Debacle this Saturday, I find myself in an interesting place.

On the surface, it is fairly obvious that I would agree more with Jones on what he believes about the events of Good Friday. Much of what Jones says about the crucifixion and its implication (atonement) are solidly where I am.

However, Rollins concerns in the realm of identity/belief/spirituality are closer to the heart of my major interest in the performative nature of religion.

My overwhelming fascination is the way in which beliefs are practiced and more specifically how they function in our religious communities.

I was on another podcast last week trying to explain my preference for adding ‘al’ to the end of important elements of the Christian faith – rather than get bogged down in arguing for their historic validity or scientific veracity.

My assertion is that Christianity is Incarnational, Resurrectional and Pentecostal. 

I want to look at how ideas like the resurrection function in Christian communities – how those beliefs and convictions are enacted. I want to know the performative function of believing in the resurrection, not argue for its verification or about its provability.

 

Do I believe what Jones does about the events of Good Friday and Easter? Almost certainly.

My real interest, though, is more in line with Rollins’ project about the ways that holding these beliefs impact us and frame the way in which we engage the large structures of society.

What difference does believing in something like the resurrection impact they way we live?

How does our view of the atonement frame our participation in issues of violence?

Does our Christology have any function in how we perceive our own humanity?

In what way do we as Christian communities perform on Monday what we proclaim on Easter Sunday?

 

I have been reading some intense books, such as Eliane Graham’s Transforming Practice. I will be taking a break from studying this Saturday morning to attend the Great Debacle – I just hope that Rollins and Jones take a breath at some point and I get to ask a question about this aspect of belief.

What questions would you like to ask? I’ll see if I can get them in. 

The Problem With The Future Is Its Past (part 1)

The Future Of Christian Theology was purchased with great anticipation. I had read David Ford before and appreciated his innovative and insightful perspective.

Gordon Kaufman’s Theology For A Nuclear Age has probably been the most influential book I have read outside my reading for school. Most of my reading for school is in Practical Theology, Post-Colonial Studies and Critical Race Theory. I am a big fan of going forward so The Future of Christian Theology was an exciting proposition.

Ford does an amazing job. In raising up the 20th century as the most prolific and creative era of Christian Theology he is masterful at articulating the diversity and accounting for the plurality in communities represented. I love his emphasis on Pentecostal, Liberation, Feminist, and Post-Modern approaches. He does a wonderful job addressing global-regional diversity as well as the full denominational spectrum.

Yet when it comes time to highlight the legends of the 20th century, in order to avoid perpetually reinventing the wheel, he picks the following six legendary theologians to lift up:

  • Karl Barth
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Paul Tillich
  • Karl Rahner
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar
  • Henri de Lubac

 

Lists can be fun – they can also be telling.

Around here we might want to supplement the list with John Cobb, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jurgen Moltmann or the Niebuhr brothers. Students at my former seminary might want to add Stanley Grenz. All of these have written prolifically and systematically.

Those who wanted to branch out from Systematic Theology might add voices like James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez. Somewhere else you might get Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Even in my master thesis on ‘contextual theology’ I utilized Robert Schreiter and Stephen Bevans.[1]

 

The trend is clear and problematic. That men do theology is not the problem – if only men are seen as doing theology, it is a problem. This stems from the habit of calling some theologies ‘particular’ or classifying them as “theology +” (race, gender, sexuality, etc.). We have inherited a long history that loves to compartmentalize, categorize and then control who is qualified (and who is not). MP9004065481-196x300

This situation results in classifying Feminist theologians in exactly that way: with a modifier. The result is that you have plain theology and particular theology, generic theology and specific theology, regular theology and something-other-than- regular theology.

The works of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Johnson, Sallie McFague, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Bonnie Miller-McLemore get qualified within a sub-discipline.

The future of theology has got to be better than its past in this way.

I have 3 suggestions for moving past theology’s past.

 1 – Get rid of the category – and very notion of – ‘particular theology’. It is all particular theology. There is no universal or timeless theology. All theology is contextual theology. It all comes from a time and place and utilizes the constructs of its era. The fact that we have not recognized this truth in the past is part of the problem.

2 – Or add modifiers to every theology. Pannenberg wasn’t just doing theology – he was doing German, 20th century, white male theology. You can see, however, that this might become a cumbersome and laborious way to proceed … which brings me to my third point.

3- Christian theology is not Identity Politics – it comes from and represents a community. Every time we adopt and adapt another way of doing things we compromise the central Christian reality that there is no ‘us/them’ – there is no ‘they’, it is all ‘we’. Christian theology is born out of and can only be done in community. Inherited notions of the ‘individual’ or the ‘autonomous self’ are both false and hurtful and need to be left behind as we move forward.

Yes, every author and thinker must be socially located, but while any specific author can be classified by their race/gender/class or geography … the future of theology is not about the social location of any particular voice but the community that formed them and in-forms their contribution to the greater whole.

 

When listening to podcast with Grace Ji-Sun Kim (coming out Thursday), it is not enough to say that she is doing Korean-American, Feminist, Liberationist Theology … she is doing Theology. She is a part of the Christian community and her work is the future of theology – as is mine – because she and I are part of the same global Christian community. Her work and my work are related in Christ.

I might employ methods from my field of Practical Theology but that doesn’t mean that Grace’s work is not practical.

This is how language both helps and hinders us. Her work and mine might come from different perspectives and be in-formed by different experiences – and it is all theology.

The future of theology is not to be found in individual voices but in collaborations and connections that form community.

The way that we have talked about theology and particular theologies in the past is going to be a problem in the future.

 

If Randy Woodley wants to locate himself and his work as Native American Contextual Theology because it brings some corrective to the past oversight and omission – that is wonderful. It becomes an important and illuminating distinction. It is not, however, merely a particular theology : it is theology.

Bring out the modifiers! Biblical, Historic, Systematic, Philosophical, and Practical are the Big 5 historically. Fine! Just as long as we are clear that no one is doing ‘plain old regular theology’.

In fact, Randy’s work is the future of theology. We are all socially located and contextually particular, which is why there is no ‘plain’ theology and ‘particular’ theology.

It is all particular theology in the same way that it is all theology.

The mistake of the past was thinking that there was ‘regular’ and ‘specific’. In reality, it is all specific. Which means that we are all ‘us’ and we are all contributing to the future of theology – together.

The trick is not to say ‘we have one of these theologies and one of these types of theologians represented’ – the change is to say that ‘in all of these we have theology’. Without ‘these’ we have something less than theology.

_______________

 

[1] One sees the problem even in the critics of theology when theologian Paul Ricouer talks about the ‘masters of suspicion’ in Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – a list that I would expand to include Feuerbach, Wittgenstein and Foucault.

Liberal Christians Are Not Going To Hell

Liberal Christianity has a problem. I am not a liberal myself, but I do get to hang out with many liberal Christians and I can say with some confidence that I see where the problem is seated. [1]

Liberal Christians ‘get it’. They are more mature or wise than their fundamentalist cousins from the back-country. They see the harm of backward tribalism and hear the hurtful rhetoric of the mean-spirited and judgmental brand of Christianity and don’t want to participate in it.

 

Don’t get me wrong, they can be very condescending and pretentious … but they are not going to get caught up in the name-calling and mud-slinging … it just goes against their green-meme nature.

The most aggressive thing they are comfortable participating in is a pronounce rolling of the eyes. This gives them the reputation for being spineless, or not standing up for anything, or being unwilling to dignify the argument by responding.

You saw this last week when one of the Duggar daughters (who I admit to having no point of reference for) wrote some stuff on FB that was detailed in a provocative post entitled ‘Liberal Christians are going to hell.

“I don’t even believe in hell” was the most vicious response I saw from my liberal brethren. [2]

See? It is so passé and beneath them that they can’t even be bothered to muster a response. Hell is so medieval and remedial … as we say: Rob Bell wins.

So I thought I would have some fun and do my friends a favor by lobbing a response over the battle-line. This sort of accusation isn’t going anywhere and is bound to come up again – so here is a ready-made response for the next time it comes.

 

If I were a liberal Christian, here is how I would want someone on our team to respond:

Liberal Christians are not going to hell! To even say something like that shows that you have not understood the very nature of being a Christian.

You are like the man at the bar who approaches a group of women having cocktails and asks if they are alone. You don’t even understand the words that you are using! You think you know what you mean by them … but a group of women can not be alone.

No Christians are going to hell! To be a Christian is to have received the work of Christ on our behalf . It is to be swept up in the gracious act of God for creation’s salvation and thus to participate in God’s covenant faithfulness.

Christ reconciled us to God – something that we could not have done on our own – and so to be a Christian, of any type, means inherently that you are not going to hell. You belong to God in Christ.

What you are saying show that you have yet to understand either the teaching of Paul, as in Romans 5, or the promises of scripture, like the end of Revelation.

In Romans 5 Paul says that the work of Christ – the second Adam – has a far greater effect and further reach (impact) than the sin of the first Adam.

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20 The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In your mislead scheme the first Adam affected all but Jesus only gets to some. You have got it completely backwards.

 

And look at Revelation chapter 20. The only ones who end in the lake of fire (which I assume you think is the same as hell) are those whose names were not written in the book of life. If your name is in the book of life then you are not judged according to your deeds (which can not save you) but are exempted from that fate by virtue of your name being in the book!

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

To be a Christian, is to have ones name written in the book of God’s life! So while you make not like my brand of Christianity or think that I am not a good or the right kind of Christian, the very nature of being a Christian means that I am not going to hell.

 

Now we can get into all sorts of things about if Jesus’ Gehenna is the same as Revelation’s lake of fire … and I am willing to do that, but for Christ’s sake stop saying that any kind of Christian is going to hell. That is like saying that married people can be single or that fathers can be virgins – the very use of that category precludes your sentence having the ability to be true.

 

If you want to talk about being a different kind of Christian or believing the right things, we can do that. Just get the initial premise right: to be a Christian of any type is to have received that gracious work of Christ on our behalf. It is a gift of God and not something that we can earn on our own.

Then we can talk.

__________

[1] I am a progressive hyperTheist. I subscribe to a social constructivist worldview and politically would probably be a communitarian if anything.

[2] It is impossible for a Christian to not believe in hell. As I have argued before: you have to believe something about it.

Sex Is Not Simple

Sexuality and spirituality have been on my mind as we prepare for tonight’s Level Ground Film Festival.

I am very aware of the cultural conversation that continues to circle around marriage equality and issues related to legal matters. As a pastor and theologian, my concern is more specifically focused on people’s understanding and engagement of sexuality and spirituality. [1]

If someone were to ask me what was the single biggest thing that would make a difference in how we approach matters of sexuality and spirituality … I would have to say that the reductive impulse to simplify sexuality is the main problem.

Sex and sexuality are not simple. [2]

When we attempt to reduce sex and sexuality down to single thing or try to squeeze it into a simplified category we make a massive error.

Sex, sexuality and spirituality are all inherently complicated and complex. [3]

 

How one is embodied in one’s own skin, how one conceptualizes of that in-carnation, who one is attracted to, and how one participates in that attraction are at least 4 separate issues. It gets more complicated from there.

Sexuality and spirituality are two areas where complexity and diversity are actually a good thing!

It is a fallacy of misplaced concreteness when we attempt a reductive move to simplify sex/uality down to one thing – especially if that one thing is the biological.

 

The unfortunate thing is that those attempting the reductive move too often attempt to reduce the purpose of sex down to procreation.

Sex is about so much more than procreation. [4]

Sex is about intimacy, expression, sensation, exploration, and experience/experimentation.

Sometimes it results in pro-creation … but, more times than not, it doesn’t.

 

Sexuality has an aspect that is emotional.complexity

And one that is physical.

Then there is the aspect that is psychological.

There is one that is social.

And one that is spiritual.

Sexuality is personal … and private … and (to a certain degree) public.

Not to mention the part of it that is political.

 

Our sexuality involves all of who we are and em-bodies so much of our identity.

It even entails part of our capacity to engage the world around us and the social constructs that we are caught up in and by which we are acted upon daily. [5]

In one sense everything is sexual, even how much money we make … in the same sense that is it political. This is why our inherited enlightenment categories do not work anymore. The reductive impulse is failing us. Things need to be recognized as complicated and part of the emergent reality.

Sex/uality is never about one thing.

We do a great disservice to all that Creator god intended for us when we reduce sexuality down to pro-creation.

We ignore all that the evolutionary process has encoded us with (and for) when we boil our sexuality down to a single act with a single purpose.

 

The more I have studied and listened and considered the challenge for the church in the matter of sex and sexuality in the 21st century, the more I am convinced that it is the reductive move that hampers and limits our capacity to explore and engage the issue in a way that would lead to life and health.

 

I would want to confess 3 things:

  • Sexuality is a gift of God and is a good thing.
  • Any view of sex that begins with secrecy or shame should be viewed with suspicion and interrogated accordingly.
  • Reducing sex and sexuality down to a single aspect is both misguided and dangerous.

 

Sex/uality is complex combination and collaboration of elements including (but not limited to) the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, social, private, personal, communal, and political.

One way that the church could bless the culture in the decades to come is to resist the temptation of the reductive explanation and to instead provide an understanding that is complex (even complicated). The more diverse the areas being engaged (and examined) the better!

 

We need sex/uality to be more – not less. The temptation to reduce and simplify is a false construct. The reality is that human identity is inherently complex – and that is a good thing.

Sex, sexuality and spirituality are but 3 aspects of that rich complexity.

We need more spiritually minded exploration and even theological examination of our humanity … not less.[5]

Sex and sexuality are not simple – any spirituality that attempts to make it so is both limited and, in the end, false.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s conversation and the followup when we release the podcast audio tomorrow.

 

________________

[1] We have wonderful snapshots of different historical takes on the role and purpose of sex in Biblical passages like Genesis, the Song of Solomon and some of the New Testament epistles.

[2] I am saying that things are complicated as a straight, middle-class, white, cis-gendered male in a Western culture. It doesn’t take much listening to figure out that if even one of those elements was different, let alone two, things becomes increasingly layered.

[3] In full disclosure, for those who prefer letters, I am a big fan of the Q in LGBTQ. Just FYI.

[4] As someone who has been married for 21 years and is childless, I have an admittedly different angle on that whole line of ‘reasoning’.

[5] I have found great help in those reflecting on the work of [linkMarcella Althaus-Reid’s ‘indecent theology’.

Born Of A Virgin? It happened a lot back then

I posted this 2 years ago today and thought it might be fun to revisit. 

As Christians we confess that Jesus was born to a virgin.  Some people doubt the accuracy of that – but they may not realize that it was not that uncommon back then.

Here are just 10 people born of a virgin in the ancient world: 

  • Buddha
  • Krishna – born without a sexual union, by “mental transmission” from the mind of Vasudeva into the womb of Devaki, his mother.
  • Odysseus
  • Romulus
  • Dionysus*
  • Heracles – Son of a god (Zeus)
  • Glycon – son of the God Apollo
  • Zoroaster/Zarathustra
  • Attis of Phrygia
  • Horus

One theory is that when somebody who led a deeply impactful life died, those who wrote about them later would attempt to say something special about them. One of the ways that they could do that was to say something extraordinary about their birth. It was a way of that there was something significant, even about they way that they were conceived.

Sometimes it was that they were born to people that were really old (past the age of child-bearing age).

Think of Issac born to Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament or John the Baptist born to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the New (Advent).

Now, If somebody wanted to take the origin of their hero up a notch, they could say that there was no human dad … it was a god!  (like Zeus)

This is why some think that Jesus’ autobiographers took it up even one more notch! Not only did a God not have sex with women … there was NO sex at all!

 Now some say “yeah, lots of people were said to be born of a virgin … but Jesus actually was.”

This is where the problem starts. As best as I can discern, there basically three ways to approach the problem: physics, meta-physics or linguistics. 

Physics:

Some people take an approach that is so certain that even science itself would be proved wrong. This usually comes up around issue like the Shroud of Turin (the cloth Jesus was buried in). I once heard a very confident person say that if we did DNA test on the blood on the shroud it would show that Jesus was fully human with 46 pairs of chromosomes – only instead of 23 from the female mother and 23 from the male father – Jesus would have 46 human ones from Mary.

I find this problematic for the same reason that I do not believe in the super-natural. It concedes the rules of the games to science (reductive naturalism) then tries to fill in the gaps with God.  That is a losing game-plan if ever I heard one.

Meta-Physics: 

Other people try to get around the whole reductive scientific debate by saying “Look, if God could make the world in 6 days out of nothing, then what is to make a virgin pregnant?  God does whatever God wants to do and who are we to question that?”

I am not a big fan of this approach either. It seems to say that revelation doesn’t have to report to reason and that God can not be evaluated on any reasonable standard conceived of by humans.

It seems just a short leap to say that God can elect who God wants for salvation God can pick favorites if that is what ‘He‘ wants to do.

It seems to retreat into the silo of ecclesiastic isolation and unaccountability. I think we have to look a little deeper ask some bigger questions.

 Linguistics:

This is an interesting approach that some in the post-liberal camp or comparable schools of thoughts might take.

The basic line is that it’s not the physics or meta-physics of the virgin birth that matters, its the way that it impacts us as people and forms us as a community. The importance of the language found in the gospels has to do with how it functions for us as a community and tradition.

Some folks don’t like this linguistic approach because it seems like theologically ‘thin soup’ to them. They look at the formulations that are quantified in the early creeds and they make definite and literal assumptions about what is behind them.

I am however nervous that all of this controversy is simply because we don’t know how to read a gospel. It’s like when we get sucked into debates about talking snakes in the garden of Eden or trying to prove scientifically how a man like Jonah could stay alive in the belly of a whale for 3 days and not be eaten by the stomach acid (or something).

It would be the equivalent of people 1,000 years from now arguing that we actually thought there was a place called Mudville and that a man named Casey was literally up to to bat.  It is because we don’t know how to read the genre of literature.

Jesus was born of a virgin – we confess that by faith, it is affirmed in our ancient creeds and it functions in our community to form us as people.    

 

 

* I even found one internet source that claims Dionysus was born of a virgin on December 25 and, as the Holy Child, was placed in a manger. He was a traveling teacher who performed miracles. He “rode in a triumphal procession on an ass.” He was a sacred king killed and eaten in an eucharistic ritual for fecundity and purification. Dionysus rose from the dead on March 25. He was the God of the Vine, and turned water into wine. He was called “King of Kings” and “God of Gods.” He was considered the “Only Begotten Son,” Savior,” “Redeemer,” “Sin Bearer,” Anointed One,” and the “Alpha and Omega.” He was identified with the Ram or Lamb. His sacrificial title of “Dendrites” or “Young Man of the Tree” intimates he was hung on a tree or crucified.