Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part III: “Authority and the Word of God”

This lecture was given at Holy Trinity Brompton Church on May 11, 1995, by bishop Lesslie Newbigin:

On the whole, we tend to regard authority as a bad thing. This is because our culture was born out of a revolt against freedom. This is sacred to us. We are children of “The Age of Reason,” or the Enlightenment, which declared freedom from external authority. True authority, as it goes, must be internal, not external — found through freedom of thought and of consciousness, and the responsibility that each of has to find out the truth for ourselves.

I. But of course, freedom of thought (internal) cannot be the last word. Authority has to be both external and internal. For Christians, the external side of authority is of course the Bible. For Catholics, it’s the Bible and Tradition. And for Anglicans, there’s a tradition that says it’s the Bible, the Tradition and reason. More on this later.

1. For Catholics: The Bible, or at least the New Testament, is subsequent to the church. There was no New Testament yet at the beginning of the Church.

  • This concept of tradition is closely related to idea of apostolic succession. But of course the apostles are not coming up with their own ideas. They are handing down what was given to them by word of mouth. The gospels were traditions treasured in the different churches in the earliest centuries by those who had actually heard and seen Jesus’ words and deeds!
  • But the relationship between the book and the community is a two-way relationship. Both of them create each other. They are reciprocally related.
    o The first apostles were always careful to say that what they were saying was the true interpretation of the Scriptures — namely, the Old Testament — and that the coming of Jesus has now made it possible for the first time to understand the true meaning of the Prophets and the Law.
    o The heart of the tradition is that, according to the Scriptures, these things which we’ve seen and heard and are telling you about, actually happened.
  • The final fixing of the canon of the New Testament was indeed decision of the Church. There were some books about which there was long debate and doubt. Some were included only with great hesitation. 2nd Peter barely made it in, for example, while the Gospel of Thomas was excluded.
    o In one sense, the fixing of the text is the work of the church, but on the other hand, by that very process, the church recognized that it was not free to choose whatever it wanted. There was a tradition and original message to which they were trying to be faithful.

II. What then does it mean for us to speak of the Bible as the Word of God?

The Word of God is used in three respects in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus Christ
  2. preaching
  3. the written Scriptures

1. The fundamental use is with reference to Jesus himself. The is the Word made flesh, presented as a human life. We cannot stress this point too much.

  • Thinking back to the previous lecture on “How do we Know,” this should be compared to the vision of truth which was given to us by Descartes. Descartes, remember, saw the human mind as a disembodied “I”, and therefore took as the model of truth, what was called an objective view of subjectivity — that that reality is outside of the mind, as if the “I” could be totally objective, and the subject can be uninvolved.

In absolute contrast to that, in Jesus we have a man in a particular time and place, is called truth — in his bodily reality, he is the Word of God. So the Word of God is not detached or mental. It is Jesus himself.

2. Secondly, there is the Word as preached, which is also active and alive.

3. And thirdly, the Word is written.

  • All the writings have been Scripture from the very beginning. It is not the case that they “became” Scripture after being canonized. They are the record of God’s actual involvement in the life of the World! There is no pre-scriptural phase. The record of the testimony of the prophets and apostles.

III. But Newbigin adds a fourth: The Bible inside, and now outside the church:

  • The Bible was heard, not read, for the first 1400 years. It was known through the liturgy of the Church. It was part of the testimony of the church about Jesus Christ.
  • The printing press changed everything, because someone could then read the Bible outside the context of a worshiping community. It was still in Christendom, true, but it was liberated from the control of the church — a control of which had become in many ways, obscuring.

With the great intellectual conversion of Europe, however — Enlightenment — the Bible begins to be read as one of the many books in the world, rather than as Scripture, and rather than within the tradition. It’s read within another tradition — the tradition of modern science.

  • In the modern period, this classical Greek philosophical idea became popular again: Eternal truths are transcendent of history, beyond, beyond time. In other words, accidental happenings of history cannot prove eternal truths. Newton’s cosmology, if you like, is one of the eternal truths of reason. It’s timeless and not based on any historical happening.
    o But the Bible is a story of happenings in history, and therefore the Bible may illustrate some eternal truths. But the Bible cannot be the source of our knowledge of truth, because, once again, remember Descartes — truth is something known as the objective reality of the mind, which contemplates the world from outside.

IV. How was the Church to respond to that situation?

Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives: Liberal and Fundamentalist.

  • Newbigin doesn’t like the labels, because they become ways of justifying not listening to the other person’s view, but they are still helpful and necessary.

The liberal response (a very evangelical one, in fact): The question was, “How do we get the modern world to listen to the Bible?” How can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?

  • The Father of the whole Liberal Protestant movement was Friedrich Schleiermacher, who said that deeper than all the findings of science and metaphysics, there is something fundamental in human nature, which tells that we are all ultimately dependent on God. We are not our own sovereigns. There is a sense of absolute dependence on a greater reality. This was the standing ground from which he thought he could convince the rationalists of his time that the Bible has something to say. This brought into our world the word “experience” as an equation with all religion — not just Christianity. So the Bible is valued as a marvelous treasury of religious experience.
    o But if you begin to ask the question of the truth of the Bible from the point of view of the Enlightened modern world, then you begin to ask questions from what is called the “historical-critical view” of the Bible. This view used a method based upon a whole set of assumptions of what is possible. And on the basis of these assumptions, drawn from another source — not the Bible — you decide how much and what can be accepted.
  • But also, and this is a very positive fruit, there is a very serious effort to disentangle the sources that have brought together to make the Bible as we have it now, to examine the various oral and written traditions.

Perhaps it is only now that we can see though, that the question, “how can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?” was the wrong question. The question that we have to put to the world instead is, “how can the world make any sense at all without the gospel?”

Fundamentalist: Also shaped by the Enlightenment (it’s impossible not to be!)

  • If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must have that kind of objective certainty that Descartes has taught us to regard as the criteria of truth. And it must therefore be affirmed that the Bible is verbally inerrant in every statement, and it must have that kind of objective certainty, which Descartes regarded as the only real knowledge.
    o But this means that we are imposing on the Scriptures a concept of truth which is foreign to the Scriptures. This does violence to the Scriptures. If we want to know what the Word of God is, we must not begin by deciding what we think it is or must be, and then imposing that on the Scriptures; we have to find out from the Scriptures themselves what the Word of God is and how God speaks to us.

The fundamental mistake here is that it forgot the great insight of the Reformation — that our knowledge of God is by grace through faith. This is not what Descartes was advocating.

V. Now we can come back and look at the Anglican Triad: Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

But reason is not an independent source of information about what is the case. Reason is the faculty by which we make sense of the data that are given, of the material that we have, and all reasoning/rational discourse has two characters:

1) it has to take something for granted, something given

  • The Christian use of reason is that exercise which takes as the given the fact of the Gospel, which takes the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the starting point, dogma.

2) it is always operative within a tradition/language

  • within the tradition of Christian believing which has developed from that beginning.
  • But if reason is invoked in the tradition of the Enlightenment, and takes the facts that are available for empirical observation by modern science, it just means that two different traditions are being brought into play. One is used to critique another. It is the independent exercise of reason (e.g., Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason).

VI. So we have two models of Authority:

1. Islam: where the Bible is understood to be the actual verbatum dictation by God in the Arabic language to be accepted, whether you understand it or not, simply as God’s revelation of the truth.

  • And since all translation means interpretation, and since human understanding is always fallible, it is therefore an article of faith in Islam that the Quran cannot be translated. In order to hear God’s Word, therefore, you must learn Arabic. It is a purely external authority.

2. By contrast, we look at Jesus: The parallel is not Quran and Bible but Quran and Jesus — because it is Jesus who is the Word of God, in the primary and fundamental sense.

  • Jesus did not write a book. He gathered a company of disciples, and he called them friends, making the things of God known to him. Jesus in the Gospels shows us an apprenticeship to a tradition.
    o Apprenticeship means much more than reading a book. This is why we have different accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds in the four Gospels. We don’t know exactly what Jesus said or did. From Descartes’ point of view, we have no reliable certainty. And that is a charge that is brought against us by Muslims. That we have four gospels is used by them to prove that we have last the original Gospel.

But this is not something to regret. It is fundamental to our faith — that this is the way that God has made his revelation to us.

And now, finally we come to “The Work of the Holy Spirit”: It is only if we understand the Christian teaching about the Holy Spirit that we have can overcome this dichotomy between objective and subjective which has so paralyzed the thinking of our modern world.

  1. The work of the Spirit in communicating the Word of God through the mouth of the Prophets
  2. The Great Event of Pentecost, enabling the Apostles to communicate the Word of God in Jesus to their contemporaries.
  3. The great passage in St. John: Jesus’ words – the Spirit of Truth, when it comes, will guide you into the truth as a whole, taking what is mine — all that is the Father’s — and showing it to you.

o We see the disciples beginning to learning and go beyond what Jesus told them, guided by the Holy Spirit. The test of the Holy Spirit leads to the confession that Jesus is Lord. The Spirit illuminates the world in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

  • Does this make us sectarian? No, the Spirit’s work is much wider than this talk about Jesus. “All that the Father has is mine.” Everything that exists belongs to Jesus, and it is the work of the Spirit through the church down the ages in new continents and cultures, to illuminate the world in the light of Jesus Christ — so that all the truth, in its fullness, is seen to be present in Jesus Christ.

This object/subjective divide is healed because:

  1. Objective/Particular: There is the objective given of Jesus Christ who belongs to a particular moment in history and a particular culture.
  2. Subjective/Universal: And there is at the same time this working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts which enables Jesus to illuminate the whole of our experience as we move on through the history of the world and across all nations and cultures.

The Easter Orthodox Church puts it this way: the Word and the Spirit are the two hands of the father. This is one place where the doctrine of the Trinity is not a puzzle but the solution to the puzzle: the divide between subjective and objective.

VII. Finally, how then in practice do we read the Bible?

  1. that we recognize, as we read the Scriptures, we are apprentices in a tradition with much to learn. It is not that we should take it as the Muslims do the Quran. We open our hearts and minds to what is given here and seek in our total daily life to grasp more fully what it means. It is both an external and internal authority. And we must allow it to shape our practice.
  2. We must do this in the context of actual discipleship, that is, worship and obedience. There is no apprenticeship by just reading. The Bible has been taken out of the Church and lodged in the University. The Universities may help us, but the real understanding of the Bible can only be in Church in the context of the tradition, worship and obedience.
  3. We have to use our reason in reading of the Bible, but a reason based on the tradition of the Bible itself — not some other tradition.

Discrepancies in Scripture: Obviously, when we read the Bible, the are some great tensions.

  • Put the book of Joshua, for example, alongside the sermon on the Mount, and you have a mind-blowing contradiction.
  • Many places, like St. Paul vs. James, on justification by faith, or Romans 13 vs. Revelation 13: in Romans, the state is the power ordained by God, and in Revelation it is the beast out of the abyss.

How do we deal with these?

  1. First of all, the ultimate clue is in Jesus himself. More on this below.
  2. Secondly, we recognize in the Bible we have the story of God leading a people to a deeper understanding of his nature, so we have to read the former(the people) in the light of the later (God’s nature). When Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you,” there is not an absolute discontinuity, but Jesus is bringing an old commandment to its full strength and deeper understanding in his own teaching.
  3. Thirdly, that means we have to read every text in the context of the Gospel itself! The Gospel is the clue for our understanding of Scripture. This also means that we read every text in its cultural context.

A simple illustration of this would be, for instance, St. Paul’s acceptance of slavery:

  • Can we therefore not trust Paul? But of course, slavery was an integral part of that society, and you cannot jump out of your society. Similarly, usury is an integral part of our society, and very few Christians are going around condemning it, even though it is condemned all throughout the Bible. We still practice it, because we cannot jump out of our society. So when, in Philemon, Paul has an encounter with a slave, he sends him back to his master rather than encouraging him to flee as a runaway — but with a new identity, as a representative of the Apostles, so that he has introduced into the institution of slavery something which must eventually completely transform it.

By reading Scripture in light of its cultural context, then, we can see where Scripture is pointing in contrast to its culture, rather than by simply trying to place is straight into our context.

But the ultimate tension in the Bible is the tension between the holy wrath of God and the holy love of God — a tension which lies at the very heart of the being of God. And that is a tension which in this life we will never fully overcome. We have to take both with the greatest seriousness. As human beings, we cannot hold this tension.

But it is in the atoning work of Jesus Christ, and in the cross, which is both the judgment of the world and the salvation of the world, that the clue lies, by which we can hold this tremendous tension within the Scriptures.

Jean Vanier, “From Brokenness to Community”

The following is adapted from a talk that Jean Vanier gave at Harvard for the Herold M. Witt lectures. The transcript was published in 1992 by Paulist Press.

jean vanierIt is my belief that in our mad world, where there is so much pain, rivalry, hatred, violence, inequality and depression, that it is people who are weak, rejected, marginalized, and counted as useless, who can become a source of life and of salvation for us as individuals, as well as for our world…

Community is a wonderful place, it is life-giving; but it is also a place of pain, because it is a place of truth and of growth — the revelation of our pride, our fear and our brokenness.

Jesus says to his followers: “Now go! Go out to the world and bring the good news the others; do not keep it for yourselves. Heal, liberate and bring life and hope to others, especially to the poor, the weak, the blind and the lame…

When we talk of the poor or of announcing the good news to the poor, we should never idealize the poor. Poor people are hurt; they are in pain; they can be very angry, in revolt or in depression…

When such pain becomes too much, people tend to slip into a world of dream.  Reality is just too painful. The world of dream or of psychosis can in someway be easier to bear. The greatest pain is rejection, the feeling that nobody really wants you “like that.” The feeling that you are seen as ugly, dirty, a burden, of no value…

Many people in our world today are living in deep inner pain and anguish because as children they were not valued, welcomed, and loved.  My experience has shown that when we welcome people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted, and loved as they are, and that they have a place, then we witnessed a real transformation — I would even say resurrection.  Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful, and trusting.  As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a family, the will to live begins to emerge. I do not believe it is of any value to push people into doing things unless this desire to live and to grow has begun to emerge…

To love someone is not first of all to do things for them but to reveal to them their beauty and value. To be in communion with someone also means to walk with them… For many people in pain there is no solution…

It is a liberating experience for them to realize they do not have to conform to any preconceived idea about how they should be.  Communion in fact gives freedom to grow. It is not possessiveness. It entails a deep listening to others, helping them to become more fully themselves.

People have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish; the fear of being devalued are pushed aside; the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable or a feeling helpless in front of others and pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart.  I discovered something which I had never confronted before — that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart.

Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team… The important thing is to become conscious of those from brokenness...forces and us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts, not outside.

I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, receive the good news in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor — the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love.

The love and support of community gives you the certitude that you are loved just as you are, with all your wounds, and that you can grow through all that. And not only are we loved, but we too are called to heal and to liberate. This healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace and compassion and love through our wounds.

When someone has lived most of his or her life in the last place and then discovers that Jesus is there in the last place as well, it is truly good news. However, when someone has always been looking for the first place and learns that Jesus is in the last place, it is confusing!

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community

What is Communion?

“The Church does not perform the Eucharist. The Eucharist performs the Church.” – William Cavanaugh

What is the Purpose of the Lord’s Supper/Communion/The Eucharist?

That we might feed on Christ, be reconciled to God and to each other, and be strengthened for the living of the Christian life.

Some key Scripture: Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 10:14-17, Matt. 26:27

o In our worship service, while preaching and the pastor plays a key part, it is not at the center of what we do. Rather, communion is, and this is what the whole service is built around. The Bible has a very similar, progressive and narrative structure, building up to and culminating in the Gospels. The Eucharist represents this same center of the redemption history and story of the people of God.

o Secondly, through communion — literally, “common union” — we understand ourselves as a people who are called into a new society, a new brotherhood and sisterhood, which is called to have a starring role in the drama of God’s communication of God’s redeeming love to the world. Our society is a society in which there is a great loneliness and in which it is difficult for people to have experiences of community and solidarity. Communion subverts and offers an alternative to this.

The Roots of Communion

Passover: was called the “Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Leaven or yeast was always a symbol of corruption to the Jews, and this very special Passover bread was to have no leaven in it. It symbolized the purity of Israel, redeemed by God’s grace. Then there was wine — a symbol of life and blessing.

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23-25).

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

That is why the “passing of the peace” was introduced just prior to receiving Communion!

What is a Sacrament?

  • “Visible sign of an invisible reality,” or “outward sign of inward grace” — a reality that doesn’t depend on us, but that includes us nevertheless! Ordinary things, everyday things, are being transformed by God into the means of God’s self-communication. Sacraments are about God being present in and among and through the ordinary, transforming and fulfilling, not destroying it.

Table or Altar? (Transubstantiation, real/spiritual presence, or Memorial?)

  • It is significant that the doctrine of transubstantiation did arise until 800 years after Christ!
  • This is not a transaction (transubstantiation), but nor is it merely a ritual (memorial).  Here we gather, acknowledge the real presence of Christ in a powerful metaphor (consubstantiation), receive what is always available in plenitude, and are sent out.

Five Big Communion Themes:

I. The Incarnation: why Communion is a celebration of our embodied-ness/physical life (all five senses)!

  • solidarity/relatedness, suffering, non-dualism, sacred and profane joined

II. Dependence on God: how Communion is a celebration of our life-source

  • God is our food! (John 6:48, 53, 54) to participate in abundant life, first here and now, but also hereafter

III. Christ’s self-emptying example: Communion expresses how we are to live in the world as servants

  • goes back to the incarnation, but this particularly stresses modeling the way Jesus lived

IV. Journey of Thanksgiving and Response

  • with humble, repentant and grateful hearts for what God has done and is invites us into

V. Shalom! Communion celebrates being restored to right relationship w/ God through Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

  • We know that our relationship with God, our fellow human beings, and the rest of God’s Creation, is not as it ought to be
  • Shalom means not only the absence of violence and oppression but also the satisfaction of every spiritual and physical need. The time of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God is one of healing, of sight to the blind, of the lame walking, of the poor being fed.

We are called (gathered) and empowered (sent) to witness to the Kingdom of God (God’s will done “on earth as it is in heaven”). The Eucharist is the hinge upon which this going and sending turns. So the life of the church, especially its worship and Eucharist, is a foretaste of the Kingdom that is to come.

Leander S. Harding, In the Breaking of the Bread:

“The existence of humanity in the Garden was a priestly existence, an existence of grateful offering to God. We fell from that vocation. We forgot who we were and what we were made for. We began to crave the world as a thing in itself. The Creation became an idol instead of a means of feasting on God’s love. Jesus has come to restore us to our original vocation. In and through him we now bring the world again to God, and the Creation, beginning with the bread and wine, again becomes the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. ” (p. 48).

“God wants all of life to be Eucharist for us. God wants all relationships, all human transactions, all our work, all our interaction with the rest of Creation to be Eucharist, a partaking of the life of God that causes thanksgiving to well up in us and draw our hearts to God and t a new unity with each other.” (p. 34)

“In this peace, the natural divisions of race, class, age, and social status that keep people apart are overcome. Even the categories of righteousness and unrighteousness, of decent and indecent people, are overcome.” (p. 43)

Lesslie Newbigin Lectures, Part II: “How do we Know?”

I. According to our present culture, doubt is somehow believed to be more honest than faith, but Newbigin thinks this is nonsense. Both faith and doubt have a role — both are necessary — but faith is primary. You cannot begin to know anything without an initial act of faith.

  • Doubt is only possible on the basis of something that we believe. Why do you doubt it? Because I believe this, that, or the other… Doubt depends on faith, in other words.
  • In every society, there is a plausibility structure, and a set of normal beliefs that nobody questions. If something is proposed that seems to contradict this, it is doubted.
  • We tend to accept what everybody else believes. Anything that is different, we doubt. Doubt is a profoundly conservative move, therefore, Newbigin argues.

II. In our culture, we have separated science out as an equivalent to knowledge, as that which gives us objective facts, and as if everything else is subjective. But Newbigin points out how the idea of a purely objective knowledge is an illusion.

  1. The idea that there is a kind of knowledge that is not dependent on our thinking is a powerful and dominant notion in our culture, but it is absurd. Everything is affected by our subjectivity. There is a subject shaped by the culture to which he or she belongs.
  2. Knowing is not something that happens to us. It is a skill that we have learn! It is an achievement.
  3. We only learn by apprenticeship to a tradition — a tradition of knowing. First of all, we learn through the tradition of our language. No knowing is possible without that This is just as true with science, which is profoundly traditional! No one is accepted who has not had years of apprenticeship.

III. People have always wanted to know how we can be certain that the things that we know are really so

  • The Quest for Certainty: The famous French philosopher Descartes led us astray! He lived in a time of skepticism. He was convinced that we could have certainty, not just belief. And this has guided science ever since.
    o He thought he could start with something that he could not doubt — i.e., his own existence. With the precision and certainty of mathematics, he built from there and developed the critical principle, namely, that all claims to knowledge must be tested by those two criteria (his existence and calculations), and anything that falls short of certainty in that sense is not knowledge but belief.
    o Locke says that belief is a persuasion that falls short of knowledge. So when we say we “believe,” we are saying “we don’t know.”
    o Descartes’ critical method was bound eventually to destroy itself. it has to subject to its own critical principle.
  • The Quest for Certainty Negated: Increasing skepticism followed Descartes, via Hume and Kant, and both concluded that we cannot know ultimate reality. But of course, Newbigin points out, how one knows this we cannot know!
  • The Whole Quest Itself Called into Question: Nietzsche saw then, finally, with terrible clarity, that this aforementioned sequence of thoughts must inevitably lead us to a place where we cannot speak of truth and falsehood or good and evil. Any claim to know the truth is the exercise of dominance, and the only thing that is certain is the will (to power).

IV. Certainty in Crisis: So we have the relapse into what is now called postmodernism — into the kind of belief where people say “it may be true for you, but it is not true for me.” And even though in the realm of science there is still a great deal of trust in objective truth, that too has been increasingly eroded.

  • We have now reached the point in the so-called deconstruction movement, in literary criticism, where the idea that any text has any meaning of itself, is demolished. The ultimately development of this is to say that words are purely cultural constructs, not corresponding themselves to any reality. We are merely expressing subjective feelings when we say things like “I believe in God.”
  • Newbigin Responds: Now, of course it is true, that all truth claims are cultural products. English is just one of the languages of the world! But if we ask, what is the relationship between words and a corresponding reality, it’s obvious that the relation cannot be a matter of words. It has to be something different. This is where the profound mistake of Descartes becomes clear.
    o Descartes conceived the human mind as a disembodied “I”, as though not part of the world, looking at the world from the outside — able to take an objective view, not shaped by any personal viewpoint/interests. But we know that any knowing we have of anything arises out of our bodily engagement with the actual world! And we test our beliefs about what is the case by acting on them. (e.g., the way babies learn about objects in the world, etc.)

We are part of this world which we seek to know. The vast delusion which we have suffered since Descartes, is that we have a kind of spectators privilege, in a kind of non-committed way. This would be a “God’s-eye view” of the world, which of course we do not have.

V. But now that the subjectivity of our knowing has been emphasized, how can we know that we have any reliable relationship to the truth, making contact with reality?

  1. the first token of reality will be a sense of meaning. When a scientist has been struggling to make sense of random data and suddenly sees a coherent, beautiful picture… this indicates meaning.
  2. then he or she publishes it to invite his peers to consider it.
  3. And then if it is true, it will lead on to further truth. Any true discovery leads the searcher/scientists onto further discoveries. There will of course be some searches lead nowhere.

This is a dynamic picture of knowledge that contrasts with Descartes view. Descartes had a view of truth without doubts or uncertainties — a static picture of truth. A working scientist gives you a different picture of truth though, because he knows that there is more to be discovered, leading on into further reaches of reality. This is epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) from “below,” not from “above.”

VI. We can know things, but we can also know persons. Some languages have a distinction between these kind of knowledges! not English, unfortunately. The kind of knowledge of things is one-way in which we are in control. Knowing a person, however, is the kind where the object is a subject!

  • I am not in full control of this kind of knowledge. I must be willing to be questioned myself, to put my trust in that person, to open myself up. Faith here is being used in a second sense — which is not the same thing as being used in a separate sense! Faith has an affective sense, of showing love, for example, and receiving it.

How are these two modes of knowing related to each other?

  • Not separate, but interdependent — still distinct though! They represent different logical levels. A machine, for example, depends on the correct mechanical structure and the quality of its material (physics, chemistry, and engineering design). But if we come across a new machine and examine all of this, we won’t necessarily be able to determine its purpose! The physical provides the conditions that enable the machine to work, but the function of it is a different kind of question and logic. It’s a distinction between the “how” and the “why.”
  • There is a hierarchy of logical levels in all our knowing. If we are looking at the whole world of persons, there is a level above the physical, chemical, biological and mechanical. “Reductionism” says no to this though. But Newbigin is calling for an alternative to reducing knowledge down to the level of the physical, chemical, etc.

Plato asked, what does it mean to seek/love for truth? Is truth something we know or don’t know? If we know it, why do we seek for it? If we don’t know, how would we recognize when we found it?

  • In the passion to find meaning in seemingly meaningless things. Is it not possible that this passion is a response to something that calls out that passion? We are drawn forward by the intuition by something that is to be found, a hidden meaning, beauty, coherence in things.

VII. Conclusion: This brings us to the limits of philosophy. Because if it is true, as the Christian faith affirms, that the ultimate logical level upon which things are to be understood, is none of these hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, mechanics, etc.), but the personal, and that our whole existence can only be understood if we take this person level into account — if that were true, then everything would depend upon whether the one who is the person whose purpose governs all things has revealed that purpose to us. And that is what the gospel affirms.

  • But the Gospel affirms this not in the way that the Muslims do — that God has simply dictated the truth to us — but through a person, an action in which truth and grace go together, truth and love are one. Christians affirm that God’s self-revelation of himself is exactly what this argument would suggestion, namely, something which draws us to himself. If that is true, then we have to say that this is the secret of our knowing and our being, such that one is not separate from the other!
  • That which draws forth the whole process of evolution is not mere chance, as Darwin though, but is a response to the one who calls all creation to its proper fulfillment. So our heuristic passion is a response to God’s calling to us who alone in creation are conscious of God’s calling to seek the truth and seek it in him. And that would mean, in the end of the day, contrary to Descartes, we are not dealing with disembodied ideas. The truth can only be known through incarnation, through the actual involvement and coming of God in history, to the presence of the one who is in history who calls us with the words “follow me.” When we accept this calling, we are not then people who know everything, but we know that we are on the way — that we have the clue that will lead us into the fullness of the truth.

There will be those who say this is irrational, a leap of faith, etc., but the illusion that underlies that criticism is this:

  • If everything in this world can be understood by the hard sciences, then the way to know would simply be by observation and reason. But if the ultimate reality is personal and is grounded in the eternal love of the Triune God, then the only way we can come to know the truth is by a personal response to a personal calling.
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”: That means we have to remind our contemporaries that here is no spectator’s gallery. An objective standpoint is not available. We are called upon to a person commitment to understanding, to knowing — the limits of natural theology are at this point. It is only because we know God has revealed himself in the grace and flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ — his incarnation, life, death and resurrection — that we can recognize the illusion of the whole Cartesian project, accept our calling to the one incarnate Lord, and to know that that is the way to the truth.

Lesslie Newbigin on the Church

The following is an outline of Lesslie Newbigin’s lecture at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in May of 1995.  I’ll be posting a few more of these in the coming weeks.  I’m making these outlines available to read along with the audio of the lectures, which will be posted soon at saintpeters.me:

I. Thesis: Christ has created a place where sinful men and women may nevertheless be accepted by God and enabled to live and rejoice in his presence.

  • The Church is continuation of the ministry of Jesus who received sinners, and who ate and drank with them. The Church is that place where that still happens
  • The Church is an integral part of the gospel. Nobody becomes a Christian simply by studying the doctrines of atonement and justification by faith and then looking for some place to make contact. Rather, in one way or another, the work of the Holy Spirit draws us into some kind of existing Christian fellowship. The Church precedes our faith.
  • Moreover, the gospel is not a set of disembodied ideas or words. It is always a concrete reality in history, a given reality, and the context for that reality is the Church.

II. Unity of the Church

  • Ecclesia, the Greek word for Church, was a secular word that described the assembly of all the people in the Greek city-states. So, Gentiles could understand it. It literally means “the calling out of the people” or “assembly.” When used in the NT, then it is not just an “assembly” though, but the “Assembly of God.”
    o The same word is used for an individual local church and the whole church. The early church did not make a distinction. Paul spoke of the churches in terms of their area (e.g., Asia). It is not that the individual churches are branches of the Church. Rather, the church is that act of God gathering people together, in each place and in all places. it’s a dynamic picture, through Jesus Christ, gathering people into this place of atonement.
    o The church is never designated by any other adjectives than by the name of the place and by the one who calls it. Location and God’s name. That’s it. (e.g., The God of Jesus Christ in Charleston/Mt. Pleasant).
    o We are not “Peter’s party,” “Paul’s,” “Apollos,” etc. This is carnal and dismembers the body of Christ, Newbigin says. The church in each place is the catholic church (little ‘c’). Where God is, it is not a branch, but the Church. It is of the very nature of the church then that it is One, just as God is One.

III. Disunity in the Church

And yet we come to the sad story of disunity through history of the church. The main divisions are (approximately every 500 years — see Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence):

  1. The 4th and 5th centuries, churches outside of Roman Empire that could not take part in the theological discussions which defined the nature of Christ, became separated (e.g., Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Ethiopians). A tremendous political divide when Roman and Persian Empires.
  2. The Great Schism (1054)
  3. The Reformation (1517)
  4. 19th century U.S. church history: the development of the idea of a denomination, and the proliferation of so many different denominations in the US.

From these divisions, we can discern that there are three great emphases in the Christian Church, which are not mutually contradictory, even though they’ve become separate and are often unnecessarily in competition:

1. Catholic
2. Protestant
3. Pentecostal

1. Catholic

  • The Church is defined in part by its valid historic succession.
  • The church was chosen by God/Jesus, not the other way around. So we do not “choose” it.
  • But this consecration by apostles/bishops does not exempt the church from falling into error/sin/etc. Lineal descent is not the only mark by which the true church is known…

The Catholic Church can become lifeless.

2. Protestant

  • The reformers made the point further that the church is something created by the living Christ, through the sacraments and the Word, the Gospel, and is more dynamic, not just historic. This led to tremendous renewal but also division.
  • The danger is that it neglects that which the Catholic emphasis affirms. It makes the church almost too dynamic, something that happens moment after moment, rather than something that is an historical reality given by God.

The Protestant can have no sense of unity even if lively. Over-dependence on correct doctrine leads to continuously dividing.

3. Pentecostal

  • Correct doctrine, sacraments, and succession are important, but the living power of the Spirit may still be absent. This is what Pentecostals emphasize.

The Pentecostal runs the danger of emphasizing experience and the autonomous individual without sufficient attention to what is it that we are experiencing (subjectivism, relativism, feelings… the Methodist/Wesleyan Church tended this way, historically).

In sum, we need all three to be the “true” church. Each is valid. Each is in the Scripture, but each taken by itself can lead to the loss of substance.

IV. How to Overcome these Divisions?

We cannot escape the force of the words that Jesus used (John 17) about being One that the world may believe. We cannot escape the imperative of unity, however much we may be disappointed by the difficulties we face.

  • Each of us is bound to confess that the church we belong to is the one, true church, because it’s the one by which we came to know Christ. The temptation is to look at other and say they lack something in one of the three areas.
  • There is an important difference between saying that something is a proper mark of the church and saying that it is essential!
  • Again, the church only exists by God’s grace, and not by people’s fulfillment of any of the conditions for the church. So the way that we restore unity in the church is that we accept one another as God seems to have accepted us — as we are.
  • We must first acknowledge the many ways we fall short of God’s purpose for the church. And then, only then, can we seek to correct, reform, build up one another in the faith.
    o The is very different from the kind of easy-going way that some are inclined to take, in which we simply stop after acceptance. We must not continue in sin that grace may abound. God’s grace is not so that we can carry on the way we are. That is unthinkable.

About the present situation, we can make three observations (church in Europe, primarily):

1. stubborn intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church is still a tremendous power, but is facing very severe internal contradictions.
2. Mainline Protestant churches are in decline.
3. The main growing churches are evangelical and charismatic.

  1. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the church of England was the strongest wing, had the best scholarship, leadership and so on when Newbigin was growing up. And evangelicals were a relatively small and frightened minority. The position today is almost exactly the opposite. But a major strength of the Catholic church is its stress on the objective reality of the church as a given through the sacraments. This is to be celebrated. The importance of the Eucharistic service, for instance, does not depend on its relative meaningfulness to you and me. So he suggests that we have to begin to express our unity in very informal ways across the board! This is a great challenge to us at the present time.
  2. Newbigin declares that the real issue that divides Christian in “this country today” is not between Protestants and Catholics, or Evangelicals and Pentecostals/Charismatics. Rather, it is between those who believe [trust!?] that there really is a gospel and a God-given reality of good news, and those who do not… And whether there is faith that “here” (in the church), there is the place of atonement, vs. those who say it’s just opinion, experience, etc., with no real gospel. Catholics, evangelicals and Charismatic hold in common this belief, which distinguishes them from many other Christians who have simply lost it, namely, that there is a real gospel.
  3. Either we are built up in our life in Christ through the Eucharist, or we are judged, but there is an objectivity reality there, and we need to recover our sense of that, in the face of the subjectivism/relativism in our culture, because it is the evangelical and charismatic parts that are at this time so strong and confident but in danger nonetheless of losing this important component.

V. In Conclusion, getting back once more to the historic reality of the Christian Church:

  • Whether it is popular or unpopular, big or small, is relatively unimportant.  People talk about the Church in the media as if it is a fairly marginal phenomenon only interested in gaining popular. The only question the media asks is whether they are going to be more popular or not, and that is it. According to Newbigin, this is absurd.
    o The church has outlived empires, philosophical systems, totalitarian systems, everything about public thinking, etc. These will be phantoms half-remembered twenty years from now. But the church will still be there.  This given reality needs to be at the center of our thinking as Christians.
  • That the church is this body of sinful men and women, whom God calls Saints — this is what matters. Because God has made us his own. That is the whole meaning of atonement.
    o Because the church is always a bunch of sinners. It is very easy to become completely pessimistic about the church, but we have to be both realistic and faithful, knowing if God has called us saints, made us his own, given us his gift of atonement in Jesus Christ, then that defines who we are. Above all, let’s not escape with this idea of a merely invisible Church. Invisible means we get to choose who we think is in and out. But that is not the church.
  • The Church is defined by its center, not its boundaries. When we define it by boundaries, we get into all kinds of legalism. Is a person absolutely committed to Christ, and the Christ that we encounter in the Gospels? The church is constituted by its relationship to Jesus Christ. And how can you reconcile what you say and do with Jesus. .
  • That the Church be a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The Church is not itself the kingdom of God, but neither are they completely separate. When we separate the two, we’re susceptible to turning the Church into an ideology, a program, or political utopia.
    o A sign points away from itself, to something that is not itself, but is nevertheless a reality. It may be an instrument of God for doing the will of the King. Because it’s a sign and instrument, it’s a foretaste. And because it’s a foretaste, it can also be a sign and an instrument.
  • The church is in communion with the saints who have gone before. This is an element we are in danger of losing in the reformed, Protestant churches. We are in communion with those who wait for the resurrection and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

Mind, Body, Heart: Reflections on Conversion in Acts 16

[Below is the manuscript of a sermon I just gave at St. Peter's Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC, where I am now the associate pastor.  To listen to the audio, go here (saintpeters.me).]


Chapter 16 is a fairly lengthy passage, as we saw — and we didn’t even read all of it — so there are many important aspects to it that we could touch on, but we’re gonna have to focus in a little bit. Basically there’s this series of encounters between Paul and Silas and the three other people we just read about — Lydia, a slave girl, and the jailer — each one in very different circumstances, so I just want to walk through and see what we might be able to learn from each exchange.

We can gather from the outset that despite the significant setback of getting thrown in prison, Paul and Silas were used by God in an especially powerful way in this story.  Because in Antioch, in Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas stayed around to encourage the Christians in the church there for about a year. In this case though, in Philippi, Paul and Silas are only there for a matter of days.  And yet, by the power of the Holy Spirit, it was somehow enough to start a church that Paul would later write to with great affection, presumably because they were really on the right track, at least a little more so than some of the other churches Paul was ministering to.

So in light of this fruitful effort by Paul and Silas, here’s the big picture question I want to raise that their example might be able to help us with: When it comes to our ministry to people in the Low Country, as we are striving to share the gospel, how do we as a church engage this community and this culture around us in a way that not only sustains this church but in a way that sows seeds that might even allow new churches to take root — Just as Paul and Silas did in Philippi?

I: Ok, in the story we just heard, there are three very different people are encountered by the power of the Gospel in three very different ways. Let’s take a look, starting with Lydia. That she’s a “seller of purple dyes” tells us that she’s probably a wealthy business woman. She’s described as a “God-worshiper,” so she’s someone who has rejected the many gods and many different ways of salvation that were offered by the mainstream religion of her Greek and Roman environment. She has come to have faith in the One God of Israel, even though she’s neither Jewish nor Christian.

I want to use some imagination here, and admittedly, this is somewhat speculative, but I think it’s appropriate to picture that Lydia’s the kind of person who today we might call a seeker. She really likes to think. She’s searching for meaning, purpose and truth. She’s not satisfied with the religion, values or worldview of the dominant culture around her. Maybe we could even say her main faith language is knowledge.

So the mind is the way that Lydia receives the Gospel. Now, it’s God who opens her heart and whose grace goes ahead of Paul to prepare her to hear and to understand, but the channel through which God does this is her intellect. So she listens and responds to God’s prompting, and Paul is able to reason with her and show how Jesus fulfills the divine promise of a Messiah who has brought salvation.

I want to pause here for a moment. There are some people, I think many of us could say, whose hearts seem pretty closed off or hardened to the things of God. The Bible talks about this. But there are others who, despite reservations, aren’t necessarily closed off completely. Maybe something about the Christian faith just doesn’t seem to make sense to them, or they’ve had a bad experience in church, or with Christians who are judgmental and narrow-minded.  Some people are skeptical, and sometimes for good reason. And I just want to say, if that’s you, if you’re kind of a Lydia, or someone you know is — then we want you here.

And not because you would be our next evangelism project, but because at St. Peter’s — even though I’ve been here for like three weeks — I think I’ve learned that the first thing we want to do is connect with people. This isn’t a place — and frankly I don’t think church should ever be a place — where you have to conform first in order to be accepted. Yes, there is a way of life in Jesus that we want to invite everyone into, and we have beliefs and convictions that are central, but we want to extend friendship to people, whether they’re like us or not. I think this is a church where people can bring their questions. And I believe we’re a community in which, if people have doubts, they can be honest and unashamed about that.

I emphasize this because, if there’s one character out of these three that I resonate with, it’s Lydia.  My main faith language is knowledge too. When I was in high school and college especially, I thought that if I could just answer the difficult questions with convincing arguments, my faith would be in a secure place. This partly why until literally the last month of my senior year of college, I was planning on going to law school instead of seminary. As long as I thought I could understand, I’d be in control. So I read books on apologetics. I even regularly attended the atheist and agnostic society meetings on Baylor’s campus that met weekly for several years, because I thought I had the answers they needed.

As you might guess though, I eventually learned that I didn’t have all those answers, and that some of my answers were misguided, or even flat out wrong. More than that though, as they graciously befriended me, I also began to learn how to listen. And you know, while some of them just wanted to argue and were cynical, others were genuinely open — they just had some tough questions! So knowledge is essential, and God uses our minds to reach us, just as he did with Lydia, and we can use our minds to worship and serve God — but knowledge can become idol, as it did for me, and still does.  So as we continue to welcome people and their questions, I would encourage us to remember not to confuse knowledge and faith.

II. Alright, after Lydia, we come to the Slave Girl: This is a strange and interesting story, because Paul doesn’t even initially set out to free this girl. He merely commands the spirit to come out of her because he’s annoyed. What the girl is saying seems to be a distraction to their mission. But even though Paul may not care very much about her wellbeing in this moment — we don’t know if he does — Paul’s trust in God’s authority over this Spirit allows God to nonetheless free the girl. Because liberating people from bondage is what God does. It’s one of the biggest themes in the Bible, beginning with the Exodus story. But we also find it all throughout Jesus’s ministry. I mean Jesus heals people and casts out oppressive spirits left and right. So for one thing Paul is imitating Jesus here. But the very first words of Jesus’ public ministry in Luke come from his reading of the Isaiah scroll, when he declares that he has come to bring, among other things, deliverance to the captives, good news to the poor, and to set people free.

And this girl is definitely a captive. Yes, there was a Spirit inside of her, but she had to be set free physically — probably before she could even start to understand with her mind, as Lydia does! Lydia was at the top of the social ladder, or close. The slave girl was the very bottom. The importance of this distinction is something else I had to learn.  I think God takes our social circumstances into consideration in the way that God pursues us.

I mentioned I started off in my faith journey as a Lydia. My faith was mostly in my mind and in my beliefs. And I’m still working on this, but as I matured somewhat toward the end of college and beginning of seminary, my eyes began to be opened more to God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed, and this theme throughout Scripture. I grew more sensitive to social injustices, to inequality, and to violence against vulnerable people groups in the world, as I was learning about different conflicts and so on. And in 2007, I went to Juarez, Mexico, right before the drug war got really bad, so it wasn’t too unsafe yet, but seeing the poverty in parts of that city was a wakeup call for me. I’m sure some of y’all can relate to this from when you’ve gone on mission trips to underdeveloped and developing countries. On this particular mission trip, we went there to tell them about Jesus, and it’s like I left with them having told me about their social problems, and how some of those social problems, in their view, were connected with my social privileges! This was a big moment in the shaping of my worldview. I would call it a mini-conversion of sorts.

But you know, in the past few years, God’s been teaching me another lesson. Recently I came across this quote from Gustavo Gutierrez: he says, “It might sound strange to say this, but even justice can become an idol, when it’s not placed within the context of gratuity.” Because what happens after the Israelites were brought out of the land of Egypt? Is everything smooth-sailing with God from then on? Are they totally grateful? Perfectly obedient? No way, not at all, right? After a rough journey through the wilderness, and a lot of highs and lows, they make a covenant with God, but they break it, God gets angry, forgives them, and the whole thing repeats itself.  Eventually they demand a king and establish a kingdom, and while there’s some good moments, before long Israel starts to look a lot like the very place they were delivered from in the first place: Egypt.

Because justice separated from gratitude adds something to or takes something away from the gospel.  Have y’all ever met anyone, for instance, who seems very passionate about social justice, but they’re also kind of mean? I think I was in danger of being that person sometimes.  So justice became an idol for me as well.  What’s currently helping me, and what will always be helping me overcome these idols, can be seen, finally, in what we learn from this third encounter, with the Jailer.  So let’s get there.

III. What else happens when slaves are set free? Well for one thing, the people who used to own them get upset. And that’s exactly what happens. Think of Pharaoh sending his army after the Israelites across the Red Sea. And Philippi did not have a big Jewish community.  It was populated by what we might call Roman “veterans” and their descendants — a pretty patriotic bunch.  So their reaction to some Jewish guys interfering with their commerce and promoting these beliefs and this way of life that ran contrary to the Roman culture is fairly predictable. And it lands Paul and Silas in prison after a severe and unlawful beating — even by Roman standards.

So this is not a very encouraging story so far! But it’s pretty typical in the Bible, in Acts, and especially for Paul it seems like.  The Bible is full of one story after another of men and women who faith great trials and suffering because of their faithfulness.  Why is that? Does God just want to mess with us and test us all the time? Well, that’s a big question. And I’m not going to try to answer it.  But I do think that one of the reasons this tends to happen is this:

The Gospel is counter-cultural.  It’s always subverting the status quo of our society.  And that word subvert has a very subtle meaning. It doesn’t just mean to “directly oppose.” In this instance it means something more like “undermine,” or to “expose the flaw or the deceit in whatever the dominant way of thinking or living might be.” So to subvert is tell a different version of the story, and to present an alternative faith system to live by. These Romans were trusting in Caesar, not Jesus, not the God of Israel. Their faith was in the Roman “Kingdom,” so to speak, not the Kingdom of God. So when you say to a big and powerful Empire, we’re not going to live under your rule — we’re citizens of a different Kingdom — that’s perceived as threatening! Even if you’re non-violent, as the early Christians were.  That’s the kind of thing that can get you beaten up and thrown into prison — or in Jesus’s case, crucified.

What’s incredible though, somehow, is that this didn’t seem to discourage Paul and Silas. Not only did it not discourage them, but it says they were singing! Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I have to confess, this is where some of my doubt comes in… So it helps me to imagine, whether it’s true or not, that if Paul and Silas were actually singing praise songs — maybe they were taunting praise songs, like “our God is an awesome God… and he’s better than yours.” Something like that would make me feel better! But whatever it sounded like, it left an impression on the jailer.. so let’s talk about him.

If Lydia was upper class, and the slave girl obviously in the lowest class, the jailer is somewhere in the middle. And Lydia receives the gospel through the use of her mind, and the slave girl is set free by physical liberation, through the body, then for the jailer the Spirit cuts straight to his heart. This is a guy, in all likelihood, whose dignity and worth is directly tied to his job and his loyalty to the Empire. Unlike Lydia, he’s probably a good pagan worshiper of the many Roman gods, and he calls Caesar his Lord. When it comes to his culture, he’s all in.

So, after the earthquake, we can assume that the jailer is about to kill himself either because of the disgrace he feels for having failed in his duty or out of anticipation for the punishment that was to follow. So, this is a ruthless system that he’s living in, and this is a man who’s probably never known anything different – the Romans governed with brute force and by instilling fear in people — even its own people. The jailer is probably a former soldier who’s good at instilling fear in people too!  He’s been trained to show no mercy.  So it doesn’t matter that this escape wasn’t his fault; he knows he’s not going to get any mercy either.  The sad thing is, this is the way a lot of people still live today: might makes right, competitive, keeping a record of wrongs.  So maybe you sense this too: a guy like that, or anyone living this way for that matter, I think, has to be starving for God’s grace — even if he doesn’t know it.

Paul%2520in%2520jail%2520at%2520PhilippiSo probably for the first time in his life, when Paul and Silas give him a taste of what unconditional love looks like, this leads him to literally beg for more. And even though there’s this crazy earthquake, that’s not finally what God uses to change the jailers heart. It’s Paul and Silas’ care for him. For an enemy! The guy who’s with the Romans, who just beat them and through them in jail. I mean, this doesn’t make any sense! And the jailer doesn’t know what to do with it, other than to say, I want some, I want in on this, whatever it is. I mean, there is no way he has his theology figured out yet. All he knows is that he needs forgiveness, and these guys, his enemies, just showed it to him. And here’s the most incredible thing about this story to me: because Paul and Silas love their enemy, the jailer is able to start becoming the kind of person who loves his enemies too. He washes their wounds, gives them a meal, and the text says that he is overjoyed, even though he has every reason to still suspect that his life is probably going to end soon.  This is a radical transformation.  This is how the gospel turns the world upside-down.

All three conversion stories are legitimate — mind, body and heart, rich, poor, middle class. But I would suggest the jailer’s conversion is the culminating moment and the crescendo of this sequence. New understanding, and physical liberation are vital components to the Gospel. But history and our lives remains tragic without God’s grace.  As long as we trust in our own knowledge, our own ability to achieve justice, or to justify ourselves, we deny our dependence on God’s grace.  But if we start with God’s grace, then we’ll begin to have true knowledge, and our hearts will be set free to pursue real justice.

So to close, I briefly return the big question from the beginning: what would it take for us as a church in sharing the gospel to both deepen our roots as a growing body, but also to produce fruit that yields this harvest — even in a way that starts other churches, as Paul and Silas did? The Christian faith is mysterious, and it’s a journey that never ends.  As soon as I think I’ve arrived — whether in my knowledge, with my concept of justice, or whatever — I either fall on my face, or God reveals a whole new part of me that needs some serious work.

In a word, I think this story teaches us that God’s mission is a reconciling one. It touches on all aspects of our lives — mind, body and heart.  And it’s breaking down social and cultural boundaries between rich and poor, slave and free — even for the purpose of reconciling enemies. Let’s pray.

God, we thank you for your Word, and how you speak to us through the example of the early Church, and through the boldness and faithfulness of Paul and Silas. I pray that in our lives, our jobs, our families and in neighborhoods, that’d we’d live into this picture of what it means to share your good news, in word and deed, with people who are different from us, and that we’d have the courage to do so in ways that are sometimes outside of our comfort zone. By your grace, Lord, use us to set other people free – in mind, body and heart. It’s in Christ’s name we pray.  Amen.

Simon Chan on Liturgy and Church between the World and God’s Kingdom

When Schmemann argues that the liturgy itself expresses a concrete, primary theology, he also specifies what the nature of that theology is. Speaking of the worship of the early church, he says, “It was born out of the Christian vision and experience of the World, the Church, and the Kingdom, of their fundamental relationship to one another. That it so say, in the very act of assembling (church) on the Lord’s Day (world) to break bread (kingdom), the church is concretely expressing its understanding of and realizing the intimate connection between church, kingdom and world. But this fundamental relationship can be maintained only if the church does not lower the eschatological tension of living in this age and in the age to come. Eschatology sustains the mission of the church. The moment it resolves the tension either by becoming totally immersed in this world or by divorcing itself from the world, it ceases to be the true hope of the world, even when it is involved in all sorts of “mission” activities and programs.

liturgicaltheoIn the liturgy, the church straddles the kingdom and the world and maintains its dual orientation toward both. Von Allmen compares this dual orientation to the heart’s pumping blood to keep the body alive. At worship the church keeps a “diastole” beat toward the world and a “systole” beat toward God. These two poles, Von Allmen further argues, are preserved in the application of two key terms to the church’s worship: Eucharist and Mass. Eucharist “connotes . . . a movement . . . of gathering together, of assembly to become an offering of praise for that which God has does in Jesus Christ for the world’s salvation.” Mass, on the other hand, is the movement of going into the world when the celebration ends.These two words describe the very movement of the Church in the world, the pulsation of her life in history.” The Supper is the “center” from which the church goes out to the world and to which it returns from the world with its “harvest” to offer to the Lord.

If we use different imagery, the liturgy may be compared to a journey – a journey from this world to the heavenly kingdom and back to this world. In the language of the liturgy, Word and sacrament are bounded by two other acts: the gathering and sending forth. As Christians leave the world to come together, they are “on their way to constitute the Church . . . to be transformed into the Church of God.” The biblical paradigm for this journey is the Mount of Transfiguration. The disciples separated themselves from the world and ascended the mountain with Jesus Christ and then returned to serve. But the basis is the ascension of Christ. In the eucharist prayer (the anaphora) the church is raised up to heaven to join in the heavenly liturgy: “We have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space.” It is from there that the mission of the church begins; from there that Jesus set the Holy Spirit to constitute the church as his Spirit-filled body; from there that, after being give spiritual food, the church returns to the world – back “time” – to love and serve the Lord. pp. 82-3

Bonnie Honig on the Promises of the Paradox of Politics, Linear Time, and Re-interpellation

I was introduced to Bonnie Honig‘s (Professor of Political Science, Brown University) work through Helene Slessarev-Jamir and the required readings for my religion and politics doctoral exam.  I’m using her writing in a presentation that I’ll be giving at AAR this year, in which I will relate her notion of paradox to the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Soren Kierkegaard (see my proposal here), and will also be incorporating some of the concepts below into my final dissertation chapter on “Neighborliness and Resistance.” Here is quote from her 2011 book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy:

emergency politicsIn order for there to be a people well formed enough for good lawmaking, there must be good law, for how else will the people be well formed? The problem is: Where would that good law come from absent an already well-formed, virtuous people?  But the seeming quandary of chicken-and-egg (which comes first, good people or good law?) takes off and attaches to democratic politics more generally once we see that established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names. Every day, after all, new citizens are born, others immigrate into established regimes, still others mature into adulthood. Every day, established citizens mistake, depart from, or simply differ about their visions of democracy’s future and the commitment of democratic citizenship. Every day the traces of the traumas of the founding generation are discernible in the actions of their heirs. Every day, democracies resocialize, recapture, or reinterpellate citizens into their political institutions and culture in ways those citizens do not freely will, nor could they. Every day, in sum, new citizens are received by established regimes, and every day established citizens are reinterpellated into the laws, norms, and expectations of their regimes such that the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time.

Indeed, the first thing to go, when we face the chicken-and-egg paradox of politics, is our confidence in linear time, its normativity and its form of causality. What is linear time’s normativity? Belief in a linear time sequence is invariably attended by belief that sequence is either regressive (a Fall narrative) or progressive. In both regressive and progressive time, the time sequence itself is seen to be structured by causal forces that establish meaningful, orderly connections between what comes before and what comes after (Decline and Rise), such that one thing leads to another rather than forming, as plural temporalities and tempos do, a random assemblage or jumble of events. All these elements — linearity, its normativity, causality — are thrown off balance by the paradox of politics in which what is presupposed as coming before (virtue, the people, the law) invariably comes after (if at all), and what comes after invariably replays the paradox of politics that time was supposed to surmount.

It might seem that acknowledging the vicious circularity of the paradox of politics must be costly to a democracy, or demoralizing: If the people do not exist as a prior — or even as a post hoc — unifying force, then what will authorize or legitimate their exercises of power? But there is, as we shall see, also promise in such an acknowledgement. Besides, denial is costly too, for we can deny or disguise the paradox of politics only by suppressing or naturalizing the exclusion of those (elements of the) people whose residual, remaindered, minoritized existence might call the pure general will into question. From the perspective of the paradox of politics, unchosen, unarticulated, or minoritized alternatives — different forms of life, identities, solidarities, sexes or genders, alternative categories of justice, unfamiliar tempos — re-present themselves to us daily, in one form or another, sometimes inchoate. The paradox of politics provides a lens through which to re-enliven those alternatives. It helps us see the lengths to which we go or are driven to insulate ourselves from the remainders of our settled paths. It keeps alive both the centripetal force whereby a people is formed or maintained as a unity and the centrifugal force where its other, the multitude, asserts itself (pp. 14-15).

Von Balthasar Quotes, Theodrama Vol. 2 Part III

We shall not get beyond the alternatives of “lyrical” and “epic,” spirituality (prayer and personal involvement) and theology (the objective discussion of facts), so long as we fail to include the dramatic dimension of revelation, in which alone they can discover their unity. [Human beings] can address God, and [address each other]; the Church, too, can speak to those within and to those without. But this tension is resolved in the context of a third dimension that embraces it: in the context of God’s action, which challenges the believer, takes him [or her] over and appoints him [or her] to be a witness. A witness, moreover, in the early Christian sense: a “martyr” – bearing witness with his whole existence. Otherwise he is no real “witness to the truth”. . (p. 57)

We too are involved in this dramatic campaign, so much so that the “evil day” leaves us no time to speculate about the necessarily favorable outcome: all of us must transform the graces we have received from God into a divine armor (Eph 6:13) and use it as such…

For now, under the God-given “Law” (in all its forms) will be put forward as the presence of the divine in the world, and people will attempt to subject [humanity's] freedoms to its abstract omnipotence. And, on the other hand, under the banner of a self-absolutizing pagan culture, people will play off the “lawless” (anomos, 1 Cor 9:21) and “godless” (atheos, Eph 2:12) freedom of the “autonomous individual” against the abstract Law… Law must prove obsolete in the person who fulfills it from within, out of the love of Christ (Gal 5:23; 1 Tim 1:9), and freedom must hand itself over as a prisoner to Christ, so that it can now truly receive itself back from him (Gal 5:1). (p. 83)

If the once-for-all drama of Christ is to be exalted as the norm of the entire dramatic dimension of human life, two things must happen simultaneously: the abyss of all tragedy must be plumbed to the very bottom (which no purely human tragedy can do); and, in it and transcending it, we must discern the element of gracious destiny that genuinely touches human existence (and not merely seems to touch it). Thus the dramatic aspect of existence yields postulates addressed to Christology, although they can only be meaningful if they have already encountered the revelation concerning Christ. First, there is the postulate that Christ’s being is of such a kind that he is able to descend into the abyss of all that is tragic – far beyond the ability of any tragic hero (who only bears his [or her] own destiny) – and hence that the tragic overstretching of his [or her] person must be absolute, that is, divine. (For “demi-gods” are self-contradictory.) The other postulate is that, precisely in this abyss of unsurpassable tragedy, the element of grace asserts itself, that grace which encompasses existence and can persist and penetrate into the conciliatory aspect of tragedy. Both together lead to the absolute christological paradox: in the horror of dissolution – under the weight of the world’s guilt and of forsakenness by God – we are delivered from the meaninglessness of the world’s suffering, and grace and reconciliation carry the day. John brings both aspects together in his concept of “exaltation” (exaltation on the Cross and exaltation to God’s presence) and “glory”. “Glory” is the manifestation of the Father’s love for the world in the Son’s bearing of the world’s sin: by an inner necessity, this pure obedience to the Father calls for the Father to glorify the Son and announces it in advance . . . (p. 84)

From this vantage point, once more, we can ask the question we asked at the beginning: Are our “eyes of faith” able to see the normative form, now unfolded into a drama, as a form? The answer can now be in the affirmative. Form is a meaningful unity in a multiplicity of organs; in its fundamental articulations – his Incarnation, his preaching of the kingdom and preparing of the Church, his suffering, his solidarity with the dead and reunion with the Father, his return at the end of history – Christ’s dramatic form is the simple self-presentation of a single attitude, which is the effective expression of God’s love for the world… (p. 87)

The New Testament relationship between heaven and earth can only be illuminated dramatically, not aesthetically or in a Gnostic and structuralist manner…

Augustine, it seems, does not entirely escape the danger of an aesthetic interpretation when, arguing against the Manichees, he addresses God in these terms in his famous prayer: O God, through whom the universe, even in its evil part, is made perfect, . . . as the lower things make harmony with the better.”: here the “lower” is applied to the earth and the “better” to heaven, and the two together – despite all the individual clashes – yield a whole, a perfect harmony, in such a way that the unity between the higher and lower is better than the higher on its own…

The danger of a Gnostic and structuralist interpretation lurks in the late Jewish Apocalyptic, which has its roots in the wisdom literature. According to this, everything that is the come forth at the end of time has already existed, hiddenly, in God (thus privileged seers were able t behold it); history consists simply in drawing back the curtain that conceals what is only provisionally veiled. In such a case anthropology would be merely the realization of a correspondence that already exists between the eternal and temporal [human]: “Living here and now in the Beyond”…

Nor is the possible to take up a standpoint (in salvation history) prior to or subsequent to the earth/heaven dichotomy, as Ephrem the Syrian attempts to do, with naïve boldness in his Hymns on Paradise . . . we cannot know in advance what the stage will look like at the end of the play… not mutilation but transformation… (pp 88-9)

Von Balthasar Quotes, Theodrama vol. 2 Part II

Only when we have mentioned what is common can we start differentiating. In the face of death, the gesture of renouncing all that is past can have different meanings. It can be an act of homage to what is passing away, under the eye of the God who abides forever – the gesture of the departing characters in Calderon’s Theatre of the World… On the other hand, it can be the mere recognition that the minus sign of nothingness before the brackets that contain finitude robs everything within those brackets of all valued. And yet there are mysterious transitions between two extremes, particularly where the Absolute hovers, indefinably, between Nothing and Everything, as in the concept of Nirvana. Where the latter’s whole negativity is interpreted positively, the nothingness of the world’s being also acquired a twofold accent: all individual forms are leveled and extinguished as such; but between the vanishing forms a path can be found, implying something positive in the face of Absolute: a “path of instruction” leading out of the meanders and arabesques of mortal existence. Yet this path too, which already inscribes itself in the living forms, is only recognized by its negativity; it can be traced where finite form is negated and where we see through it to the Absolute that lies beyond. That is an essentially anti-dramatic principle, however, which is why no drama has arisen in India and the Islamic world comparable to Greek or Christian drama. There the epic holds pride of place. And since the Absolute does not come to meet the transitory world on its pilgrim path (for, at most, the latter is governed by the eternal law promulgated by the former), this path lies under the aegis of a “providence” that appears preeminently in the form of “fate”…

From this point on the periphery, we can go on to ask about the center: what kind of relationship must there between the world and Absolute, between humanity and God, if the leveling produced by transitoriness and death is not to cripple the dramatic dimension of existence from within? Or, in other words, if the dramatic is not to become a mere defective mode of the epic – a kind of still photograph of existence, cut out of the film which, in showing the ultimate demise of all the characters, will also relativize everything that has passed between them? Humanity cannot come up with an answer itself; it cannot do it by violently amputating all the factors which extend beyond the framework of the dramatic action – nor by point to the exemplary identity which would be required if a significant action were to be elevated into a manifestation and “deciphering” of the Absolute. At this point the Baroque theatre is right: all human drama contains the element of collapse, implying the leveling of all differences and paying homage to the indifference, impartiality, of the One God. Nonetheless, it is genuine theatre; consequently, for this to be possible, there must be some further factor in the concept of the Absolute…

But if the Greeks also had genuine theatre (leaving aside the somewhat analogous Japanese Noh plays), surely this other factor must have been present in their concept of God too? It must have been an idea of God which allowed him to take part – an inner, divine, absolute part – in the drama of mortal existence without threatening his absolute nature. Such an idea provides a link between early, mythic thought and Christian faith. But the former does not pass without a break into the latter: separating them lies philosophy, which opposes the notion that God can be moved and affected by the human drama. Even the Covenant God of the Old Testament cannot be interpreted as a direct mediation between mythos and Christian revelation; even the foreseeing, judging and compassionate God, the God who accompanies his people through history, is impassive vis-à-vis all human tragedy. Christianity alone provides a new approach: God has become human without ceasing to be God. (pp. 44-5)

Now the question must be addressed to Christianity: Can it legitimately claim to have found the trail that was lost ever since the demise of ancient tragedy? And can it really follow to the end, with its eyes open, this path along which ancient tragedy tried blindly to feel its way? For that is what it really claims to do. The tragic dimension of personal existence is not softened; in fact, it is wrenched apart to the very limit: in the Cross. In Christianity, this tragic dimension actually touches the sphere of the Divine, yet without swallowing it up (as mythology does) in the tragic destiny: Christian dogma has always rejected “Patripassionaism”, that is, the idea that God the Father suffered in the same sense as the Son, even if – in the mystery of the Trinity – it directs its attention with hair’s-breadth precision to the point of contact between the suffering of the God-man and the nonsuffering of God. Finally Christianity sees it in a Catholic light, because, as an individual and personal tragic dimension – not “typical” or “symbolic” – it brings to light the significance and change of meaning of all intramundane tragedy. Thus the dramatic level becomes ultimate, not to be surpassed; it does not point to some prior “wisdom” or “teaching” or “gnosis” or “theology” that could then be recounted in the epic mode: it remains at the center, as drama, as the action that takes place between God and man, undiminished in its contemporary relevance. Herein, too, lies the meaning of the Catholic sacraments, which continually make the one event present; herein, in a more all0embracing sense, the meaning of the Church insofar as she is the re-presentation of the “drama of salvation” once for all on each particular occasion…

Within the drama of Christ, every human fate is deprivatized so that its personal range may extend to the whole universe, depending on how far it is prepared to cooperate in being inserted in to the normative drama of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection. Not only does this gather the unimaginable plurality of human destinies into a concrete, universal point of unity: it actually maintains their plurality within the unity, but as a function of this unity… (pp. 49-50)


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