Local and Second Naïveté (Day 20)

In chapter 20 of his book Neighbors and Wisemen, Tony Kriz talks about the virtues, and limitations, of the move toward local. Neighbors & Wisemen

A couple of months ago, Tony took my on a walk about his neighborhood as we were on the phone for our interview for the Hombrewed Podcast.

Tony loves his neighbors and also thinks that it is important to love your neighborhood. Those are not always the same thing

“In addition to loving my individual neighbors, I also want to love my neighborhood as a place, the place where God has planted me. Every one of my neighbors is an expert in our shared locality. Each one lives, studies, watches, interprets, listens, and contributes to the DNA of our particular precious place in the world. If I am going to know how to love my place well, I need to harvest the intelligence of everyone: rich and poor, young and old, conservative and liberal, every culture and every background. They are the textbooks and we are the activists.

Finally, and most important, my neighbors transform me. So much so that I no longer believe I can be spiritually whole with- out them.”

The move toward local is important. In an era of trucked in vegetables and national franchises, global economies and multi-national corporations, it is important to think about this stuff in ways that show integrity and conviction.

 

In many ways the conversation about local reminds me of the concern regarding Second Naïveté ( you can read a quick summary of Paul Ricoeur’s idea here).

Second Naiveté (SN) is way to read the bible or engage religion that is not like first naiveté in a surface reading or literal approach.  SN has also gone past the desert of disbelief (simple deconstruction) to a place of informed engagement.

Take the story of Jonah. There is a 1st way we are taught to read it children’s church and there is a desert of disbelief where we come to say “it is impossible that story is real” – not just the 3 days in the belly of a big fish but the repenting cows of chapter 8 – and more toward a Second Naïveté.

This is where we read the story with fresh eyes again and allow it to have it’s intended effect on us. We don’t get caught up in the physics of the story or the literalness of the history but we hear the word of the Lord for us in the story.

 

Since I have the local conversation as well as the Second Naïveté one frequently – I have noticed a similarity is the arguments or resistance against both.

Let’s take the move toward local.

The first objection comes in the form of

“I live in a small town and we have been doing local the whole time. We never stopped doing it. We have been going to the same local breakfast diner for 30 years. It is owned by Mom & Pop and so there is no problem.”

The second objection says

“Sure I shop at Walmart and eat at Applebee’s but I know both the cashier and the waitress by name – so that is local.”

While both are valid points, they are not engaging the issue. Those are valuable conversations but they are not the same as addressing the larger systemic issues that the local conversation is attempting to examine.

  • Where does the produce come from? How far is it trucked in and what it the fuel cost for the ingredients?
  • What percentage of the profits stay in the community? How much flexibility is there to respond to local challenges and needs? Where are the decisions made? 

In just these 6 questions, both shopping at Walmart and eating at Applebee’s fail to meet the local expectations – even if you happen to go to church with the person who checks you out or serves your table respectively.

We are part of a system, a larger chain of supply, that local it attempting to address. We do ourselves and our community a disservice when resort to easy dismissals and prefer to stick with our first naiveté.

There is a great need to pass through an intelligent examination and arrive at a second place of informed engagement.

 

The christian has no excuse to hide behind elementary dismissal. The christian message is one of incarnation and local engagement. The word became flesh and moved into a neighborhood.

  • Jesus didn’t speak every language. He spoke his local languages.
  • Jesus didn’t live everywhere. He ministered in a 20 mile radius.
  • Jesus didn’t address every issue. He changed the world by addressing his local concerns and touching the people he crossed paths with in a day.

The christian message is first and foremost a local and contextual one. We are called to love our neighbors – by name – and our neighborhoods as well.

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Weaving History, Context, and Innovation into Christianity: a rockin’ theology

I was away on a youth service trip last week and upon my return had the opportunity to listen to the Barry Taylor podcast from last week’s live show. It sounded great and I was sorry to have missed it.

About 23 minutes in to The Theology of Rock, Barry Taylor talks about the play between the universal nature of music and the highly contextual nature of styles and genres. He points out that while music is said to be universal, actual songs and individual expression are very particular and specifically located. They come from a place and in a time and that lyrics – while they may get the lion’s share of attention – are nearly inconsequential in some respects to understanding what is going on in the music.

Lyrics are often an afterthought and may even be antagonistic to what is going on in the music itself. This was a fascinating point and it sent my brain on wild series of connections and contrasts in theology.

My background is in contextual theology and as I stated two weeks ago in my post about the Creeds as contextual documents (or time/place snapshots) they are neither universal nor timeless. Christian expressions – even the early Creeds – are both radically located and time-bound. Now, the objection is always that ‘they were not intended to be so – the authors surely believed them to be universal and for all times’.  While it may be true that writers of the creeds, or the Reformers or systematic theologians in general may be under that impression, we see the historical flaw in that line of thinking.

 We see now that all theology and thus theological expression are contextual expression that are uniquely located and particularly time specific. It’s not just the language (Greek or Latin or German) that needs to be translated but the ideas, concepts and content itself needs to be translated and renovated.

I would like to put forward a proposition to help us unravel the tangled web of theological history and frame – in a positive way – a path forward. I am suggesting that we acknowledge that we are alway braiding or weaving a fabric from at least 3 strands:

  •  History and Tradition: Theology and other Christian expressions don’t happen in a vacuum. We never start with a blank slate. We never get back to zero – and we are not supposed to! We are part of long history with much tradition and we are to honor that even while continuing out along the trajectory provided.
  •  Context and Location: All truth is both received and expressed in cultural containers that come with inherent lenses through which we interpret what we see, experience and receive. Our job is to acknowledge and incorporate this understand as we engage our culture, place, and time in a meaningful way that is faithful to the tradition, based on the historic precedent, and aware of our modern realities.
  •  Innovation and Expression: Nothing stays the same. We are fooling ourselves if we pretend otherwise. Language – even about God, technology, and society are fluid realities that call for us to adjust, revisit, and renovate our understandings and activities. Christianity is uniquely designed to adapt and evolve. We are not only called to it but are empowered with a unique set of tools embedded within the Gospels and Acts of the early Church.

The trick is to stop reducing down things down to simply one element in our thinking. That reductive move is death to both understanding and applying the very message that we are talking about!  [read Lamin Sanneh’s Whose Religion is Christianity?: the Gospel beyond the West  for more]

 It is not simply history or tradition. People who extract content without accounting for historical context or timely innovation are in grave danger of importing and imposing collateral damage every time and in every place they do so. If we do not acknowledge the particular time and unique context from which any expression emerged, then we are willfully blind to the cultural constraints and societal containers that framed the content.

 It is not merely context. We are not free to disregard the precedent of the past. The entire project of theological reflection and Christian expression is in dialogue with the historic tradition. If one wants to do something else, that is fine – I get that – but to do theology is to submit to some level of constraint within the forms and disciplines employed.

 It is not only innovation. We do need to, in fact we must, engage our time and world as it is. We can no longer afford to  retreat into a romanticized imagined past (like the radical orthodox). But neither can we simply disregard the tradition and act as if we ourselves are not cultural creatures and products of socialization and cultural-religious conditioning. We are not free to do whatever we want. The entire enterprise is to be in dialogue with the tradition, to acknowledge the contextual nature of all truth and to engage our time and place appropriately based on that.

Theology is not simply history or tradition. It is not merely context. It is not only innovation. Christian theology is a dynamic interplay between these three elements (not to mention issues of power that effected formation of things like the early Creeds). We are foolish to ignore them historically and our work is impotent if we don’t acknowledge them and joyfully incorporate them in our work today.

We do well when we incorporate the long tradition into our context and allow for an appropriate level of innovation that honors the trajectory of the tradition and provides a continuity with the precedent of the past.

-Bo Sanders 

 

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Of Creeds and Lean-tos: thoughts on temporary shelters

I am a big fan of the early churches’ creeds. I appreciate them for their historical significance, for the trajectory that they provide, and for their value as snapshots in the formation of the tradition.

In fact, as a contextual theologian, I adore them as amazing time-capsules of expressions from a very particular time and a definite location. They tell us so much about what was going on, what was a stake, what was being combated and what was already established and settled.

I actually have no problem with the creeds. My problem comes from what certain folks want to do with ‘the Creeds’ and what they try to make them into. Let’s be clear about what they are not:

  • They are not timeless and universal expressions. They are very timely and remarkably located.
  • They are not litmus tests for modern orthodoxy. There is no sense in retreating into ecclesiastic silos, playing pre-modern word games, or burying our head in the historical sand. Too much has happened, too much has changed and there is too much on the line.
  • They are not houses to live in. They are lean-tos (temporary shelters) that were erected along the way. We are still to continue our journey and travel on in our day – in the world that is – and not set up camp in the imagined past.

This is my word picture. The Creeds are lean-tos. They are not museums designed to preserve nor are the cathedrals to be maintained. They are temporary shelters – built with the best materials that were available at the time and in that place. They aren’t blueprints of how every shelter needs to be constructed nor are they houses to be reinforced and guarded. They fulfilled their purpose and provided shelter on the journey.

Christian who get protective of or defensive about the creeds are like people who are hiking with their family, build lean-to out of love for the family and then get mad at the family when it is time to leave the lean-to and continue hiking.

Or like people who love watching birds so they knock out a wall in their house to install a whole side of windows and sky-lights for bird watching. But then they become so fixated on cleaning the glass then they stopped watching the birds and actually get annoyed at the birds for dropping what birds are prone to drop.

The creeds are great. I am so thankful them as historic documents, as developmental snapshots and as contextual expressions.
What I am not so thrilled about is people who get nasty about them, defensive or aggressive. I think it is so odd that they are about things like God’s love and divine relationship… but that they can make someone behave so unloving and take them out of relationship!

I like the creeds. I just don’t like what they do to people who take them too seriously. Like lean-tos, they served their purpose. They were great. Time to move on. We are still on a journey.

Is it just me?
___________
p.s.  I meant to include this in the post but forgot. I have since said it 3 comments – so I decided to add it.

“Like the book of Revelation and the Creeds –  we should attempt to do for our culture and day what they were attempting to do for their culture and day.”

 

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21st Century Theology: four locations for the endeavor

I come from a Methodist tradition that looks to John Wesley as its founder. Wesley utilized a famous quadrilateral to talk about how we do theology. The four elements were Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

I love the quad! I am a proud descendant of Wesley and I still find it quite helpful to utilize the same quad.  Here is why I find each element so valuable.

Scripture: No matter how fancy we want to get with our theology (I am looking at you Tillich) or whatever else we want to do (Griffin), it must account for the scriptural witness . I am not saying that we must always begin with scripture (like neo-Orthodox or Open folks) nor am I saying that we must only do scripture – but any 21st century theology must account for it. The Gutenberg and Missionary eras have reinforced a global importance and influence that must be acknowledged for any theology to carry weight. There is just no sense in having a theology that is not thoroughly scriptural if you want it to count widely. 

Tradition: I grew up evangelical and developed a disdain for tradition. It was a bad word to me – like religion. It meant thoughtless, empty ritual done on autopilot in rote repetition. I see things a little differently now. Back then, I actually thought that we were free to do whatever we wanted as long as it was meaningful and effective for accomplishing the goal – which was to bring people into a deeper relationship with the living God. Now, I understand that we are all socially conditioned into elaborate human constructions. These constructs (like language or religion) are part and parcel of both the communal/social order and the religious tradition. Tradition and community must be recognized and honored since all theology is contextual theology.

Reason: I loved quoting Colossians 2:8 when I was an evangelist and someone would ask me a better question than I had an answer to

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces[a] of this world rather than on Christ.

It was the deceptive word play that depended on human thinking that was so dangerous to my Josh McDowell faith. I had evidence that demanded a verdict and you had tricky mental gymnastics and endless questions. I had never heard of Neoplatonism and why did I need to? I had Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews! … Which is to say that I had never encountered the philosophical underpinnings of the New Testament writers nor of my Protestant declarations of faith. 

Experience: I know that part of my fascination comes my charistmatic-evangelical roots. I know that part of it is my American protestant upbringing and that it is reinforced by my personality. But I find it on the pages of the New Testament, and I am simply uninterested a religion that is all in the head and not in the heart. I want a full body religious experience. Nice words are fine (and OH how I love nice words) but we have to walk the walk (as they say) and not just talk the talk. Theology must be validated by the community’s experience.  

 

I always attempt to frame things in the positive. In this case, I will also attempt to reinforce the need for all four by allowing myself to state them in the negative as well.

 Scripture: I am not interested in a Christianity that does not engage scripture or does not seek to be faithful to those initial witnesses.  We can update, renovate, adapt, evolve and reinterpret … but we must always interact with scripture. It is  scripture that we update and reinterpret.

Tradition: Let me say first that I  loath tradition for tradition’s sake. It makes be somewhere between vomitous and irate – which is not pretty. But in our global context you can’t just ‘do theology’ as if it were in a vacuum or you were starting from scratch. We are not starting with a blank slate!  I did not write the Bible, I am not the first to read the Bible – it was handed to me, was given to me and it is that ‘givenness’ that must be absorbed.

 Reason: who wants a faith the un-reasonable? Not me.  Plenty of other people do. In fact, this is really in vogue right now. Lots of conservative folks are retreating into their orthodoxy silo and playing their own isolated word games. That is a theological dead-end for the faith. It is a desperate remnant of Christendom monopoly and wholly counter to the very impetuous of the gospel they so proudly claim to defend.

 Experience: I am as uninterested in a theology that is not experienced as I am in a faith that is unreasonable.

 

I have been reading a lot of theology lately in preparation for the 2012 Theological Conversation. Much of it has been philosophical 20th century theology, some of it has been early century and reformation era. At the end of the day, I keep coming back to the Wesleyan quadrilateral as a framework that works for the inter-active, cross-cultural, multi-voiced engagement of the 21st century.

 

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Jesus & Occupy Bethlehem

I was in staff meeting this week and we were planning the Christmas week services. We got to the Christmas Eve service and the outline was for a “Lessons and Carols” format with 7 ‘lessons’ from Scripture and 7 carols in between each one.

It turns out that the service had gone a lit long last year and we needed to cut one of the lessons. Someone suggested one of the two passages from Isaiah. Someone else suggested the John 1 passage.  I chimed in (facetiously – but with a straight face) that we should chop the 4th reading from Luke 2:1-7.

They all looked down at the program to find which reading it was.  The title next to the passage was “Against a backdrop of emperors and taxes, Jesus is born.

My fellow planners looked up with a little confusion as to my suggestion – I pointed out (dryly) that it was just “a little too Occupy Wall Street” for my taste.

Slowly smiles emerged from the corners of lips and soon it was full-on belly laughter.

It was a funny little moment in a pretty serious meeting … but I have to admit… now I am really thinking about going all John Dominic Crossan (ala “First Christmas”) for real.

I’m on my way to listen to that Advent podcast again to see if there is anything I could salvage for a children’s service.

I’m looking for help! Anyone got anything to point me to if I was going to try and illustrate an Occupy Bethlehem kids lesson about Jesus’ birth context?

This should be fun!

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a big difference between Christianity and Islam

I continue to be very excited about the Claremont Lincoln University Project to bring together Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars and practitioners. It is essential for the future that each tradition initiate its young leaders and thinkers in at atmosphere of mutual exchange and understanding.

The reason this is so important is that these three religions are not the same. They are not simply three expressions of a common understanding. They are vastly and distinctly different from each other. Of course there is commonality and overlap – for instance all three are a covenantal people and point to a covenant they have with God. I am interested to hear how each of the three groups reflects on and lives into their particular understanding.

Many Christians seem to think that the big difference between Christianity and both Islam and Judaism is what they believe about Christ. I do not think that views on Jesus is the biggest difference between the three. In fact, I am suspicious that any Christian willingness to revisit a wooden-literal reading of passages like John 14:6 or reexamine the language and meta-physics of the creedal formulations would easily result in an understanding that did not violate the Quranic understanding that God has no children. Vocabularies of ‘how God was present in Christ’ are already being worked out by followers of the prophet Isa (Jesus) in Muslim countries. [Link: an article on c-6 contextualization]

In my mind, there is a much bigger difference between the three religions than an understanding of Jesus’ identity. It has to do with the earth.

Christianity is primarily time based. While the Christian gospel is one of incarnation, ironically, Christianity has become something that is not place-based and especially not land-based. This is easily illustrated by looking at some Muslim practices and noticing their absence or contrast in Christianity.

  • Prayer Direction: When Muslim pray, they face Mecca. This is a directional earth-relative orientation. Christianity lacks this orientation.
  • Pilgrimage: Once in their lives Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. This is an intentional journey to a specific location on the surface of the earth that holds special meaning. Christianity has no such thing.
  • Sunset: Certain holy days are marked as beginning at “sundown” or when a specific phase of the moon first appears as observed in a set location. This shows an awareness of the seasons, the sun, and the moon. Christian holy days and holidays are based on a calendar and clock.
  • Language: If you want to read the Quran you need to learn Arabic. The Christian gospel is not only translatable into any language – Christians believe that it should be translated into every language. The Gospel is equally valid in any and every language.

In his book Whose Religion is Christianity?: the Gospel beyond the West, Lamin Sanneh puts it this way:

Being that the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are translated versions of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scriptures well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark … Christianity  seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder (p. 97-98)

I have several more examples of difference (including names of God and views of “holy” land) but I simply wanted to illustrate that these are three covenantal religions that all point to Abraham, they are significantly different from each other in practice and understanding. That is why I am excited to hear what they each bring to the table and what we might be able to learn from each other… because we bring such unique, distinct, and particular expressions to the conversation.

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