Transgressing Emergence: AAR and the Church

Last year in Baltimore the Open and Relational Theologies session took a look at the Emerging Church. IMG_3152

This session involves three conversations, with three participants in each. These conversations pertain to papers written by participants, but there will be no formal reading of the papers. The conversations explore issues in the emergent church as they relate to open and relational theologies.

Presiding:

Thomas Oord, Northwest Nazarene University
Presenting:

Jeremy Fackenthal, Vincennes University
Process Theopoetics and the Emergent Church: Inviting Collaboration and Relationality [pdf]
Callid Keefe-Perry, Boston University
Theological Epistemology in The Emergent Church: A Form of Paul Ricoeur’s Relational Attestation
Responding: Diana Butler Bass

Presenting:

Sara Rosenau, Drew University
Becoming Emergent: Theorizing A Practicing Church
Timothy Murphy, Claremont Lincoln University
The Emergent Church in its Planetary Context [PDF]
Responding: Bo Sanders, Claremont School of Theology

Benjamin Cowan, Claremont Graduate University
John R. Franke, First Presbyterian Church
The Pluralist Reformation: Open Theology and the Practice of Emergent Christianity
Responding: Philip Clayton, Claremont School of Theology

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Theological Approaches: Constructive and Comparative

Preparing for qualifying exams is intense. Going back over every book and paper that might be relevent to your five topics is helpful for compiling the work you have done over the last four years.

I am constantly thinking and reading about theology. One of my fascinations is the various models or frameworks that others employ to outline the theological endeavor. Some use a ‘landscape’ motif, with this group over here and that group over there, while others utilize a ‘spectrum’ analogy often moving from one ‘direction’ to the other.

One can do this in a historic sense,  from classic on the left to contemporary on the right, or more of a conviction/conclusion breakdown with conservative at one end and liberal at the other.*

The first list I encountered was in my pre-doctoral prep when researching the discipline of Practical Theology I would often see the field contrasted with the ‘Big 4′ schools of theology:

  1. Systematic
  2. Historical
  3. Biblical
  4. Philosophic

Practical Theology is different in that, like Sociology, it utilizes qualitative methods like interviews, case studies and ethnography.

I also like Grenz and Olson’s approach in “Who Needs Theology: an invitation to the study of God“, where they move from:

  • Folk to
  • Lay to
  • Ministerial to
  • Professional to
  • Academic

They don’t seem to find much value in either the Folk or the Academic (who only write for or can be understood by other academics) but they make a good case for the middle 3 approaches.

Recently I have come up with a  different spectrum:

  • Creedal
  • Confessional
  • Constructive
  • Radical

Creedal asks “What has the church historically believed about this?”

Confessional asks “What do we as Christian say about this?”

Constructive asks “What can we as Christian say about this?” or “What do we want to say about this?”

Radical asks “If we weren’t bound by institutional constraints, what would we say about this?”

 

It wasn’t until I was updating my blog’s ‘Big Ideas’ page that I realized that my real passion is not a ‘constructive’ but a ‘comparative’  approach. I am fascinated by the diversity and complexity of faith communities and historically situated or contextual approaches. I love to survey the landscape first (comparative) and then figure out where I want to travel to or settle down (constructive).

This approach has been very helpful to me so I wanted to pass it along.

 

What about you? What spectrum or framework have you found helpful?  

 

 

* Those who have read me before will know that I contest this second spectrum because there are schools outside or past liberal schools of thought and they are not accounted for but simply lumped into the liberal camp for lack of nuance and specificity. 

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Plug in ‘the Church’ as an experiment

An interesting way to expose the difference between two things is to take out the subject of great quote and replace it with something else to see if it still works.church-300x199

If your replacement X cannot work in place of the initial Y then you are forced to ask ‘why is this the case?’

Let me give you an example:

(The Church) was there to remind the (society) of what it had flouted: art, pleasure, gender, power, sexuality, language, madness, desire, spirituality, the family, the body, the ecosystem, the unconscious, ethnicity, life-style, hegemony. This, on any estimate, was a sizable slice of human existence.

When I find a great quote or list, I try to plug-in ‘the church’ and see if could be true historically.

I would love to be able to say that the church has been about these things:

  • art
  • pleasure
  • gender
  • power
  • sexuality
  • language
  • madness
  • desire
  • spirituality
  • the family
  • the body
  • the ecosystem
  • the unconscious
  • ethnicity
  • life-style
  • hegemony

If that has not been the case, then, I have to ask “why not?” and it is often that search which is telling.

If the church has not, or is not, about promoting those things then what has it represented? It is that search which is illuminating.

What is keeping that sentence from being true of the church?

 

Here is a second set of examples. All of these quotes are from the same chapter:

(The Church) refuses to identify freedom with any institutional arrangement or fixed system of thought. It questions the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice. It has little use for what is known as ‘perennial philosophy’. (The Church) insists that thought must respond to new problems and the new possibilities for liberation that arise from changing historical circumstances.

I want the above quote to be true! If it is not, then what is keeping it from being so?

 They investigated the ways in which thinking was being reduced to mechanical notions of what is operative and profitable, ethical reflection was tending to vanish and aesthetic enjoyment was becoming more standardized. (The Church) noted with alarm how interpreting modern society was becoming even more difficult. Alienation and reification [turning people into things] were thus analyzed in terms of how they … robbed the world of meaning and purpose, and turned the individual into a cog in the machine.

The above quote is challenging because it is almost possible.

The next one is just for fun.

(The Church) lost its ability to offer an integrated critique of society, conceptualize a meaningful politics, and project new ideas of liberation. Textual exegesis, cultural preoccupations, and metaphysical disputations increasingly turned (the church) into a victim of its own success. The result has been an enduring identity crisis.

Any guesses as to who this was actually referring ?

  • Textual exegesis
  • cultural preoccupations
  • and metaphysical disputations
  • victim of its own success
  • enduring identity crisis

These 3 quotes are from chapter 1 in Critical Theory a very short introduction. The first quote was from Terry Eagleton. After Theory (Kindle Locations 325-327) in reference to Cultural Theory and the traditional Left.

Why am I attracted to both Cultural and Critical Theory? Maybe it is because they are often about the things I desperately wish being a pastor was about …

I find this experiment helpful in attempting to crack assumptions about what the church is and has been.

I will never tire of reminding people that there is a gap between what many think the church is and what the church can be.

 

What do you think? Does the experiment work? Is it helpful? 
Any quotes that you love we could try it with? 

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Bo’s Bookshelf

I like Top 10 lists … and I love books.  These lists of books that have been going around FB lately have been an interesting snapshot to see what books have impacted folks. old-books

Here is my ‘Top 10 Books that have stuck with me’ list and I would love to see yours.

 

Books that Changed the World (earlier edition) by Robert Downs

The Argument Culture by Deborah Tannen

The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garraeu

Jihad vs. McWorld by Benjamin Barber

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson

Native and Christian by James Treat

- The Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? by John Caputo

- Process Theology by Cobb and Griffin

 

Best Books I have read this year: 

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class

 

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We are at war again?

The President just finished his news conference about the plan to combat ISIS (ISIL). 11obama_video11-master675

I am somewhere between confused and infuriated – baffled and livid.

The beheadings are horrific. The threat is undeniable. But … is this really the American response?

 

My concern is that the US has created a Frankenstein.
 America is combatting a hydra of its own creation!
You cut off one head and another pops up.

 

The revival of ‘jihad’ in the 80’s to combat the Russian threat … the subsequent ‘war on terror’ after the events of 9/11 2001 … have lead to this newest manifestation … how does it possibly resolve?

 

  • There are those who buy into the ‘Class of Civilizations’ myth.
  • There are those who point to the ‘End Times‘ idea.
  • There are those who hold to the ‘American Exceptionalism’ party line.

 

One thing I know is that our Homebrewed listeners are more intelligent and insightful than I am.

 

Does anyone have some insight on this? Some thoughts to point a way forward?

I would really love to hear some alternative perspectives. 

 

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Catholic, Quaker, Evolution, Apocalypse: final TNT for ABCs

We finish with a BANG! Callid and Bo conclude the ABC’s of Theology series with: W-WordofGod

Thank you for all of your feedback and encouragement.

A special thanks goes to Jesse Turri for the artwork for this series!!!!

You can find the Unfolded narrative podcast here.

 

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W is for the Word of God (and Wesleyan Quad)

There is no phrase that is more misused, or more contentious, than The Word of God. We might need to take a vacation from throwing the phrase around as a tight summary until we pull it apart and clarify its multiple uses. W-WordofGod

The Word of God, when used properly, carries three layers of meaning:

  1. Divine Communication. The prophets used the phrase in the Hebrew Testament to convey weight and authority. They had a message for the people of God that could be encouragement, directive, corrective, or illuminating.
  2. Logos – divine wisdom. New Testament believers are treated to a syncretistic twist when the Gospel of John prologue draws off the greek notion of logos and then shockingly says what no greek thinker could fathom saying: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”.
  3. Revelatory elements in the scriptures. When the Spirit who inspired the original works illuminates the message again for a contemporary audience, it is said to be ‘the word of God’. (Thanks be to God)

For clarity I will now refer to the first and third meanings as ‘the word of the Lord’ and the second as the ‘Logos made flesh’.

The pitfall that some fall into is that they take this last sense (revelatory elements within scripture) and attempt to make it concrete (or foundational). Doing so is to erroneously confuse the messenger and message, the vessel with the element, the sign for the object.

Calling the Bible the Word of God is as inaccurate as it is accurate. It is not exactly true … but it is true enough that it is tempting. The problem is that it confused the ‘curves ahead’ road sign on the mountain road for the road up the mountain. It is not that they are unrelated – it is that they are not equivalent. The map may be accurate, and trustworthy for the journey, but it is not the landscape itself.

Knowing the map well is not the same as going on the journey.

This is the important difference between a sign and symbol.

  • A sign points to a greater reality … even if it does so imperfectly. The yellow and black ‘curves ahead’ sign on the mountain road is not telling you the exact sequence of twists and turns ahead. It is not map. It is alerting you to something bigger than itself.
  • A symbol, when used theologically, is a sign that participate in the reality that it points to. In this sense, the Bible contains the potential for the word of the Lord, it records instances of the word of the Lord, and it tells us about the Logos made flesh. The Bible is thus not unrelated to the Word of God but is not exactly equivalent either. It records and points to a greater reality (like a sign) and under the influence of Holy Spirit inspiration participates in that reality to which it points (symbol).

One can see the problem in legal court and in Sunday school. It is ironic to place one’s hand on a Bible and swear ‘to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God’. The irony, for those who have actually read the Bible, is that it says in two New Testament passages not to do such things. We are not to swear by things but to simply let our yes be ‘yes’ and our no, ‘no’. That should be enough. We don’t need to swear by heaven or earth or anything like God. It is an odd practice.
Similarly we see things like this in the songs we learn as children:

The B-I-B-L-E,
that’s the books for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God

The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of 66 books by different authors in different centuries representing different histories, perspectives and opinions utilizing diverse genres of writing. This is part of why you can not say ‘the Bible says’.
When we say that ‘the word of God is living and active’ or that ‘all scripture is God breathed and useful’ we are right … but we must avoid the temptation of too quickly boiling those three into down into one interchangeable phrase lest we miss the awesome power and invitation provided by the interplay between them.

Now, if we mean that because of what we learn in the Bible, we hear the word of the Lord and believe in the Logos made flesh … that would be fantastic. ?If, however, we mean that the Bible is equivalent to the Word of God, then we have set our children up to be confounded, frustrated and spiritually impotent.
We have given them a road sign and told them it was the adventure. ?The word of the Lord propels us on a journey! To walk the way of the Logos made flesh, to know the truth of that which was in the beginning – with God and was God – and to live the life of the ages (eternal life).
To paraphrase a famous line – we are like children making mud-pies out of dirt in the back alley while there are real pies waiting in the kitchen.

Part of the problem is that we have try to cram too much into the phrase ‘the word of God’ and asked more from it than can be expected from any sign or symbol.
The most helpful thing I have found to address this problem is called the Wesleyan Quad. The quadrilateral is composed of 4 elements:

  1. Scripture
  2. Tradition
  3. Experience
  4. Reason

Those 4 elements also work best in that sequence.
– We go to scripture first for it records examples of the word of the Lord and points us to the Logos made flesh.
-We next consult the tradition, for religion has a given-ness to it. We inherent a living tradition and participate in its practices, rituals, ceremonies, train of the thought and teaching.
– We also recognize that importance of our community-experiences. No one is spiritual or religious on their own like no one uses language alone. We learn a language from others and use a language to communicate with others. It is not enough to know of a religion – one participates and thus experiences. We learn from and incorporate our community-experiences.
– Finally comes reason. We are made in the image of God and that divine Logos (reason) was given to us to exercise responsibly. We are not called to be robots who mechanically parrot the inherited sentences in rote repetition. There is a deep need to think about things so that our tradition does not become a dead artifact, or worse, a false idol.

The danger of what has been called ‘Bibliolotry’ is not simply that it makes the Bible ‘a paper pope’ or ‘the 4th member of the trinity’ (as bad as those seem). The danger is in missing the way, the truth, and the life that is available to us by instead settling for a road-sign instead of an adventure.

 

I would love to hear your thoughts about my distinction between the Word of God as the word of the Lord, the Logos made flesh and the Bible. 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

For more read my earlier posts about Inspiration and about Revelation.

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TNT: S T U for the ABC’s of Theology

Micky and Callid join Bo to discuss Salvation, Theopoetics and Universalism for the ABC’s of Theology. S-Salvation

You can read the original posts here:

S is for Salvation (Micky)

T is for Theopoetics (Callid)

U is for Universalism (Bo)

 

You can follow the rest of series here [link] 

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

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U is for Universalism (and Ultimate Concern)

I used to joke with people that you had to be careful attending churches that had a ‘U’ in them. United, Universal, Unitarian, Unity, etc. They seemed either to believe in almost everything or in not much of anything. U-Universalism

It was much funnier back then… but there is something to it.
Theological words are much the same. ‘U’ words tend to be big and sweeping in their scope. Much like the ‘I’ words seem to embody a certain period and concern, the ‘U’ words are large and consequential.

We will tackle Universalism first and then look at Ultimate Concern.

Grenz defines it this way – but pay attention to how he does so:

Universalism. Known historically as apokatastasis, the belief that all persons will be saved. Hence universalism involves the affirmation of universal *salvation and the denial of eternal punishment. Universalists believe that ultimately all humans are somehow in union with Christ and that in the fullness of time they will gain release from the penalty of sin and be restored to God. Twentieth-century universalism often rejects the deity of Jesus and explores the “universal” bases of all religions.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1325-1327). Kindle Edition.

Did you see it? By presenting the concept as a historical concept with some biblical precedent, there is put forward some credibility. Then modern versions are handled in one sentence and in a way that rejects the deity of Jesus.
This is not a mistake, nor is it an accident.

Universalism is an old idea. The version that emerged in the 20th century is a different animal. In a globalized context where religions, traditions and world-views bump up against each other everyday,  the conversation changes immensely.

There are really 2 distinct universalisms:

  • Classic christian universalism relates to the belief that salvation is for everyone. A couple of years ago Rob Bell’s Love Wins was accused of being universalist. Karl Rahner’s notion of ‘anonymous christians’ is another expression of this impulse.

If you think that the christian God loves everyone and that ultimately (another U word) God’s work is for everyone and that basically everyone will end up with God, that would be a type of universalism.

  • Contemporary universalism is more about world religions. It is a type of pluralism. Contemporary universalism is concerned with the validity of any – or all – approaches to religion. Many look to figures like John Hick or use the ‘many paths up the same mountain’ analogy.

Contemporary universalism is as different from classic universalism as lighting is from a lighting bug.

Classic universalism is concerned with with work of Christ for every-one [thus Grenz’s concern for Jesus’ divinity]. Contemporary universalism is not about Christ’s effectiveness so much as the inherent validity of traditions and religions.
Both of these notions are beautiful attempts at something grand but are warped deeply by the legacy of colonialism.

I could write (and have written) massive papers on contemporary approaches to universalism – specifically within the context of inter-religious dialogue and postmodern approaches to pluralism.

The globalized world of the 21st century means that religious conversations and convictions are perhaps the most important conversation happening in our lifetime. Unless Jesus’ return is soon, we are going to have to learn to live on this planet together.

Which leads us to another important U word.

Ultimate Concern: The idea arising from Paul Tillich that everyone has something that is of highest importance to him or her. Tillich suggested that persons’ ultimate concern, or “what concerns ultimately,” is their God. In this sense, everyone is inherently religious.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1318-1320). Kindle Edition.

Tillich presented several innovative concepts* that reframe the whole theological enterprise. This notion of Ultimate Concern is the perfect addition to the Classic/Contemporary address of Universalism and Pluralism.

 

Thoughts? Concerns? Questions?

 

Below is a short bibliography of resources I find helpful.
*If I were not in the field of Practical Theology, I would write on Tillich. His notion of correlation and his approach to ‘the ground of being’ fascinate me. If it were not for the linguist turn that happened in continental philosophy after his time, I think that he would have been the most significant theologian of the 20th century. Alas, the world changed.

McLaren’s christian take

Prothero’s innovative non-academic take

famous John Hick

Knitter’s Theologies of Religion

a christian take on multiple versions of ‘salvations’

Catherine Cornille on the impossibility of this whole thing

the best new work on the subject

classic work on Pluralism

the invention of world religions (a must read)

 

 

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O is for Open & Relational

One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.O-OpenRelational

These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:

  • Open addresses the nature of the future.
  • Relational addresses the nature of power.

The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.

Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.

There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:

  1. Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to come all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
  2. Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated our outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
  3. Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’

I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller  elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.

Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.

Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.

Here is a bullet point list of themes from a previous post by Tripp Fuller:

  • God’s primary characteristic is love.
  • Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
  • Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  • God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  • Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  • God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  • God created all nondivine things.
  • God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  • Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  • The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  • God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
  • Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

You can listen to HBC episode 107 with Thomas J. Oord for more.

Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri 

 

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