Christianity Without A Cross?

On this week’s TNT I introduced an interesting thought experiment: take the cross out of the Jesus story and see what you can still do.cross-150x150

This this thought experiment appeals to me for two reasons:

  1. Modern Protestants have overdone it on the cross
  2. The incarnation and resurrection hold far more interest and power

 

I have started to get some great responses to my assertion that one could still come up with over 90% of Christianity without the cross.

I thought it would be good to give it more form here and open it up for conversation.

Keep in mind what I’m saying and what I am not saying:

  • Just because Jesus’ story went the way it did doesn’t mean that it had to go that way.
  • Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that they have to stay this way.
  • Jesus’ resurrection could have followed any death – not just the cross.
  • The incarnation is where the old formulation of divine/human or transcendent/imminent are breached or fused.
  • The Christianity that we have was formed in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection … that is not evidence of the cross’ necessity.
  • Had Jesus died some other way, he still would have died once for all.
  • The satisfaction, propitiation, expiation and reconciliation that so many focus on in atonement theories are still there without the cross.
  • The Christianity that would have emerged would have been slightly different but still largely the same.
  • Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.
  • The cross really doesn’t play that important of a role – not like the previous 4 – it’s main purpose is decoration on our buildings, necklaces and t-shirts.

Those are some of my thoughts about the variable of the cross.

My final point is not included in the same manner as those above, but to be honest: once the Roman Empire co-opted christianity (the Constantinian Compromise) the cross has mostly been a hood-ornament on the machine of empire. Except for a few places on the periphery and during a few periods of severe oppression and domination … the powerful church has been better, as Tripp says, at building crosses than bearing them.

This point does not prove the thought-experiment, so I don’t want it to distract the conversation, but in the end … I’m not sure how much the cross really does for us.

This is one of the many reasons that I promote being an Incarnational Christian. That is where the power is – incarnation and resurrection!

  • Jesus could have died of sudden-infant-death-syndrome or of old age and still died once for all.
  • Jesus could have been stabbed or beaten to death and it is still the resurrection where God vindicates the victim.

I would go as far as to say what the cross was meant to expose – the scapegoating and victimization mechanism – is still firmly in place and actually still employed by those who sing ‘The wonderful cross’ and ‘on a hill far away’ on Sundays.

 

There ya go! I have tried to make a case with this thought experiment – I would love your feedback, concerns, and questions!

Let’s have some fun with this.

I is for Infallible, Inerrant, Impassible and Immutable

Note: all relevant ‘I’ words will be placed in italics.I-Inerrant

It is an unfortunate quirk in the English language that leads negatives – or negations – to begin with the letter ‘I’.

The resulting effect is that some of the most problematic and even disturbing words in the theological tool-shed begin with ‘I’.

  • Infallible
  • Inerrant 
  • Impassible
  • Immutable 

These are just a sample, but are the 4 that we will focus on today.

These four ‘I’ words are just a sample of the kinds of words that lay-people can find both intimidating and infuriating about theology. Some have even lost their faith over these ‘I’ words.

Don’t even get me started on irresistible grace and infralapsarian – two concepts that hard-core Calvinists will bring up.

I say this in all seriousness. There is something about ‘I’ words which exhibit the most intense aspect of the difficulties when delving into theology. Many people point to words like these as an example of exactly why they are not interested in theology.

I have named 6 problematic ‘I’ words so far – but I will offer 2 more (inspiration and incarnation) as examples of ‘keeping it simple’ as an antidote to becoming disillusioned.

Let’s deal with the Bible first and then with God.

We live in a unique time of history where those who claim to believe the Bible the most attempt to place two words not found in scripture upon the Bible:

Inerrancy: The idea that Scripture is completely free from error. It is generally agreed by all theologians who use the term that inerrancy at least refers to the trustworthy and authoritative nature of Scripture as God’s Word, which informs humankind of the need for and the way to *salvation. Some theologians, however, affirm that the Bible is also completely accurate in whatever it teaches about other subjects, such as science and history.

This is admittedly a tough line to hold. The more that one learns about Biblical scholarship or historical criticism the tougher it gets. Inerrancy is an outside idea imposed upon the Bible that the Bible itself and thus has a tough time living up to its claim. It does not, however, mean that the Bible is not trustworthy!! This is my point! One can trust the Biblical narrative without having to elevate it to the level of inerrant.

Infallibility: The characteristic of being incapable of failing to accomplish a predetermined purpose. In Protestant theology infallibility is usually associated with Scripture. The Bible will not fail in its ultimate purpose of revealing God and the way of *salvation to humans. In Roman Catholic theology infallibility is also extended to the teaching of the church (“*magisterium” or “*dogma”) under the authority of the pope as the chief teacher and earthly head of the body of Christ.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 726-731). Kindle Edition.

Infallibility is better than inerrancy. Infallible can simply mean that the Bible will accomplish that which it is meant to accomplish. That seems fair enough on the surface.

Here is my contention: Why do we need to assert that it is guaranteed to accomplish the task? Where does that need for certainty come from?
Why isn’t it enough to say that the Bible is ‘inspired’ and leave it at that?

Inspiration: A term used by many theologians to designate the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the human authors of the Bible to record what God desired to have written in the Scriptures. Theories explaining how God “superintended” the process of Scripture formation vary from dictation (the human authors wrote as secretaries, recording word for word what God said) to ecstatic writing (the human authors wrote at the peak of their human creativity). Most *evangelical theories of inspiration maintain that the Holy Spirit divinely guided the writing of Scripture, while at the same time allowing elements of the authors’ culture and historical context to come through, at least in matters of style, grammar and choice of words.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 731-736). Kindle Edition.

2 Timothy 3:16 talks about scripture being ‘god breathed’ . I think that should suffice and that attempts to impose external expectations upon the scriptures are futile (impotent?).  Whenever someone wants to talk about the ‘original’ texts, one only has to ask about them to see this folly.

It’s like calling the Bible ‘the Word of God’. The problem is that the New Testament refers to Jesus as the Word of God. Christians rightly refer to the testimony about Jesus as the scriptures. In this sense, they are words about the Word.
The problem starts when we want to upgrade the concept beyond its capability to sustain that we which we are attempting to assert upon it.
I would love if Christians would simply be satisfied with believing that the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit and not attempt to make a claim on it that it can not sustain.

Now let’s talk about God.

The God that is revealed in Christ is, for the Christian, both informative and formative. It both sets a precedent and provides an interpretive lens.
As with the Bible (above) it is disastrous when we import foreign concepts of God (in this instance from Greek ideals) and impose them upon the revealed nature of Christ seen in the incarnation.

Immutability: The characteristic of not experiencing change or development. Certain understandings of God posit the divine reality as incapable of experiencing change in any way. Some theologians, however, assert that this concept owes more to Greek philosophical influence than to explicit biblical teaching. Many contemporary theologians distinguish between God’s eternally unchanging, faithful character and God’s ability to respond in different ways to changing human beings in their temporal, earthly situation.

Impassibility: The characteristic, usually associated with God, of being unaffected by earthly, temporal circumstances, particularly the experience of suffering and its effects. Many contemporary theologians reject the idea of divine impassibility, suggesting that it reflects Greek philosophical, rather than biblical, concerns. However, the Bible clearly teaches that God cannot be swayed in any way to be unfaithful to what God has promised. Still, it is seemingly impossible to associate pure impassibility with God in light of the fact that Jesus Christ, as the fullest manifestation of God, experienced suffering on the cross.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 704-709). Kindle Edition.

You can see why these concepts are contentious. They are imported from somewhere else and then imposed upon the narrative of Scripture. In my opinion they are incompatible and thus unsustainable.

Our great hope is found in the in-carnate god. We will return to this concept in two days with the letter ‘K’ for kenosis.

I would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, questions and comments.

 

BIG thanks to Jesse Turri for providing the artwork for each letter!

If you are interested you can see the early post about reading the Bible according to Genre or check out the art of Hermeneutics (interoperation).   You may also want to look into the temptation of Fideism.

Jesus Isn’t Superman

As you may be aware, with the release of the Man of Steel movie earlier this year there was a major push by evangelical marketing types to get preachers to focus on the messianic imagery that had been intentionally spliced into the movie. Comic-Con- Superman A_Cala

This is not my concern (although insights about that whole phenomenon would not be discouraged).

My concern is with the real and inherited christologies that show up around both Christmas and Easter. I am content most of the year to naively pretend that we all are basically talking about the same thing when we use the name of Jesus. That fiction is often shattered in Advent and Lent as we build up to the high holidays holy days.

I have often been given opportunities in recent years to introduce lay people to the concepts of ‘christology from below’ (instead of the dreaded  ‘low christology’)  and to illuminate the dangers of starting – not with a cosmic christ – but with a pre-incarnate Jesus. [selah]

Most people have never thought about the difference and the importance that it might make in how they both believe and worship … let alone live their christianity.

What I am hoping to do here is to offer you a gift exchange:  you get something from Homebrewed and in exchange you help me out with something!

The offering: The current ‘Barrel Aged’ Homebrewed Podcast is a chat with John Cobb about Advent and Incarnation.  It is in my top 10 favorite episodes that we have ever done and I got Tripp to post it specifically for this conversation. It is a delicious audiological delight. 

The request: What I am asking in exchange is for ya’all to help me come up with and clarify a list I am working on for the conversation this week at my church.  We are starting a new series called ‘Jesus Isn’t Superman’ and I am coming up with tweets to get people thinking.

Here is what I have so far:

Jesus didn’t crash on earth sent from a distant planet – Jesus was born of a women. #JesusIsntSuperman

Jesus doesn’t get powers from the yellow sun – Jesus’ power is in his relatedness & availability to God’s spirit. #JesusIsntSuperman

Jesus isn’t Christ’s Clark Kent secret identity that can be taken off when its time to walk on water. #JesusIsntSuperman

Jesus wasn’t an alien pretending to be human & secretly had a fortress of solitude to retreat to. Jesus was fully human #JesusIsntSuperman

 

So you can either post your thoughts or tweets here – or if you tweet them I will try to move them over here later.

Thanks in advance, I look forward to hearing your contributions! 

Reclamation, Religion and Consumerism’s Bricolage: in conversation with Philip Clayton

A couple of weeks ago I had a very interesting conversation with Philip Clayton. Several of us went out for lunch after the High Gravity session on Religion & Science. We were at a restaurant where the walls were decorated with a busy collection of reclaimed signs, old pictures and repurposed trinkets.

Dr. Clayton was across the table from me and at one point I look up to notice that above his head was a sign that read ‘Holy’ on one side and ‘Holy’ at the other end. The words ‘Holy – Holy’ were framing either side of his head. IMG_2884

I tried to come up with something clever to say, scouring my memory for some passage from the Hebrew Bible or the book of Revelation to tweak. The window of opportunity closed because the conversation was quite intense. That morning the topic had been ‘Science & Religion’ and now we had expanded it to ‘Religion & Society’ – or more specifically to ‘Church & Culture’.

The conversation intensified and it became clear that neither Dr. Clayton nor Tripp was too happy with my cynical take on consumer mentalities when it comes to consuming religious experiences within a capitalist framework.

At one point I said “it is like that sign behind you: it’s not like the holy is absent from the space and all the activity that happening here – it’s just that it blends in and goes unnoticed in the midst of all the bricolage that it melts into.”

Somebody had reclaimed that wooden sign. There is a story behind it – there might have even been more to it (I wondered if it used to have a 3rd ‘Holy’ further down the line that had been lost).

But that is my point! In any gathering there are going to be those (like us at that table) who think that what is happening is legitimate, sincere, authentic, important and worth organizing your life around. The congregation is also going to be largely made up of those who are consuming a religious experience – and it is financially worth about the same amount as a movie, a meal, a game or a show.*

I will go even further: this is my great hesitation with those who want to ‘go back’ or ‘conserve’ with their religious participation. This impulse was never more evident to me than when I began interacting with those were into Radical Orthodoxy or with evangelicals who had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism. The ‘zeal of the convert’ can be a telling element when it comes to the anti-modern or counter-modern impulse.

An incongruity is exposed in the counter-modern impulse of these conserving movements. Never mind for a moment that often what is being conserved is born out of a patriarchal model – set that aside for a second.

I will attempt to make this in 4 succinct points:

  1. You do not live in the 14th or 16th century.
  2. You do not think like someone in a previous century.
  3. You do not engage in the rest of your week as someone in a previous century.
  4. You chose, as a consumer within a capitalist framework, to participate.

Those four things signal to me that even the most sincere, authentic, devout, and thorough engagement – whether a Pentecostal, Evangelical, Orthodox, Anglican, RO, Catholic, Mainline or Congregational expression – must account for the ubiquitous consumerism within which we all are saturated.

Dr. Clayton rightly said that I while I had a good point I was proceeding in far too cynical a manner with it. He is correct of course.

My aggressiveness is born out of a deep concern. What we say the church is about – what we believe the very gospel to be – is so vital and so needed in the world today, that we can not afford to ‘play pretend’ about previous centuries and blindly participate in consumerism all the while trumpeting the virtue of our chosen ecclesiastic community.**

The danger, in my opinion, is that religious communities will become nothing more than decorations on the corner of a neighborhood or one more option at the mall food-court. 

For christian believers, the holy is all round us. We can not afford for it to disappear among the bricolage nature of our hyper-advertised media-saturated existence.

The gospel, at its core, is incarnational. Our central story as Christians is flesh and blood in a neighborhood. The whole project is contextual – it only happens in a time and a place. We can never escape that. That is why romantic notions of past centuries or early manifestations can be dangerous distractions and fantastical facades.

We can’t afford to fade into the bricolage. IMG_2886

 

* plus it usually comes with free babysitting. 

** Some might object that they have not chosen but rather have ‘stayed’. I would argue that they did within the consumer’s capacity to do so. 

Beauty, Bodies and Blunders

President Obama got in some hot water for a compliment he paid California Attorney General Kamala Harris. He said:

You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It’s true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years. [via The Los Angeles Times]

A remark like that is never going to go over well. It was just one sentence but we could talk for days about it!

I know that I am an odd bird in that I often see the silver lining in things that other people think are really bad – like taking the Lord’s name in vain. I like that people do it. It means that the name of God still carries some gravity. No one is cursing Thor when they smash their thumb with a hammer. No one is blaspheming Zeus when they get cut off in traffic. Anyway …

I was happy to see the outrage and level of outcry over the President’s remarks. I love when stuff like this happens outside the walls of the church and I think to myself “Ok, it’s not just us that are sensitive, reactive and protest-ant. Good, I was starting to worry”.

You have to forgive me. I come from a very muscular – testosterone – ‘Wild at Heart’ brand of Christianity. In the last decade I have migrated to a progressive – critical theory – ‘She Who Is’ brand of faith.

The thing that has been most difficult for me is to figure out what to do with the body. 

As a contextual theologian and an Ancient-Future practitioner, I am deeply concerned with issues of incarnation and embodiment of the gospel. Our faith can not be merely intellectual, super-natural or institutional. Our faith must embodied, or in-bodied and lived-out. 

I have figured out, through 6 years of blogging, how to talk with conservative, evangelical, and charismatic Christians about almost everything  related to faith and practice in ways that they can hear. The issues of sexuality remain the most illusive.

The problem seems to relate to a giant pot-hole in the road to understanding that is so treacherous it almost doesn’t leave enough room to move without careening into the pit of ‘natural design’.

What complicates matter all the more is that there is a serious ditch on the other side of the road – one that was dug by Augustine’s legacy  (I hate Augustine’s influence on church history) regarding the badness of the body, a specifically sexuality.

Here then is the issue: If I am talking about somebody and I’m listing all of that they bring to the table in areas of smarts, relationship, experience, and capacity … am I to act like they don’t have a flesh container? It asks me to act like they have no body.

Yes. That is what we want you to do.  Jonathan Chait at New York explains:

For those who don’t see the problem here, the degree to which women are judged by their appearance remains an important hurdle to gender equality in the workforce. Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse. It’s not a compliment. And for a president who has become a cultural model for many of his supporters in so many other ways, the example he’s setting here is disgraceful. [New York]

Even while I write this I can hear my more conservative Christian brothers saying “That is ridiculous! This is the sissy-fication of our culture.”  To which I can only reply,”Yes. It is the leveling of a historically unequal playing field.” obamakamala1_1365167806

I get why culturally, we don’t want the President even acknowledging her flesh container at all. We don’t want pastors commenting on congregant’s looks. I get it.

But as thinking christians, is anyone else worried about the implications for this kind of willful charade? Do we think that President Obama doesn’t see her? Are we under the impression that he doesn’t notice her beauty? Do we think that she, in her private moments, doesn’t want to be found attractive? Do we think that she doesn’t invest time and energy in her looks?

“It doesn’t matter! Just don’t say it. Not ever ever ever.”  And I get that. What I am asking about is the ramifications for the embodied practices of the life of faith. What we have learned from church history  (and reality TV)- from fundamentalist pastor’s daughters to celibate priests – is that repression of desires in one place (public) is bound to cause pressure which bubbles up some place else (private).

We have to break the ‘old boys network’ mentality. I get that. I am worried about the secondary effect of perpetuating a deadly dualism between body and mind/soul.

I clearly need help thinking this through. Anyone want to chime in on this? 

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.