William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian, Spiritual Director

Category: Church and World (Page 3 of 4)

Shane Hipps on Belief, "religious Christianity" and the Bible today

Selling-Water-ProductThis from Shane Hipps’ latest book Selling Water by the River:

Ironically religious Christianity is often the purveyor of the very beliefs and fears that get in the way of the water.

Beliefs are an important part of any religion.  What we believe matters, but not for the reasons we may assume.  Our beliefs (or lack of beliefs) do not qualify or disqualify us from the river.  Instead, they determine how clearly we will see the river, which is always running just beneath our noses.  Some beliefs clear the way and give us high visibility, while others create a thick fog.  The distance between the river and us never actually changes.  What changes is how well we can see and accept it.

The “water” reference in the above quote and throughout the whole book is a metaphor for many things — God, the “source,” “life,” healing, truth or the salvation we all seek — and the one that guides us there is Jesus, but religious Christianity often gets in the way.  Hipps is not playing the “gospel vs. religion” game though that’s so popular with neo-reformed folks; nor is he even siding with the “spiritual but not religious.”  He continues:

I am convinced that many of the barriers to the water created by religious Christianity share a common source – the ways we have been told to understand and interpret the Bible.

The Bible contains sixty-six books, in dozens of literary genres, written by nearly as many authors, in multiple languages, over several thousand years.  The Bible is not merely a book, but an extensive library capable of conveying wide and brilliant truths.  The Bible is like a piano with a vast range of notes and capable of playing an endless array of songs.

In the last few centuries, Christian institutions have narrowed the range of notes it plays, resulting in a simple song easily learned and repeated.  But through time, repetition, makes any song, no matter how beautiful, lose its edge and interest.

The fresh becomes familiar and what was once powerful become predictable.  Familiarity breeds predictability, and this leads to boredom.

Today, we are in danger of believing that nothing new can come from the pages of this ancient book.

But the notes that have been neglected are waiting to resound with songs that still surprise.  Strings long silent are now eager to sing . . . [A]n effort [is needed] to let sound these neglected notes, to strike the dust from those strings and let a new song rise.

A song big enough for a complex world.

A song that wakes the weary from their boredom and sleep.

I agree with Hipps here, and I believe this new song can and should be sounded.  With regard to the church-world relationship and better engagement with society, however, I also think that we need to mine for songs to sound in culture and in life that corroborate the Bible — not just that stem from it.  And I’m sure Hipps would only say the same thing.  We need to look outside the Bible simply because the Bible is no longer as widely revered as it used to be.  Unfortunate as this may be, it’s a reality with which Christians must do a better job dealing.  There’s no “going back” on this front.

As such, we have to ask, what are the “sacred texts” about “water” that God has given us to discover beyond the holy writ?  Where and what are the sacred places and practices outside of our sanctuaries?   Whether and how we answer these questions is likely to significantly influence the future of Christian churches in North America, for good or ill.

The End of Apologetics: A Follow-up to my "ExploreGod" Post

9780801035982Reflecting more on the issue of apologetics, both in terms of its effectiveness and faithfulness or lack thereof, I came across this book recently by way of David Fitch’s recommendation: The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context by Myron Bradley Penner. It is endorsed, among others, by Carl Raschke, John Franke, Douglas Harink and Robert MacSwain, all of whom are significant voices responding to “church and world” questions today.

Below is a description of the book:

The modern apologetic enterprise, according to Myron Penner, is no longer valid. It tends toward an unbiblical and unchristian form of Christian witness and does not have the ability to attest truthfully to Christ in our postmodern context. In fact, Christians need an entirely new way of conceiving the apologetic task.

This provocative text critiques modern apologetic efforts and offers a concept of faithful Christian witness that is characterized by love and grounded in God’s revelation. Penner seeks to reorient the discussion of Christian belief, change a well-entrenched vocabulary that no longer works, and contextualize the enterprise of apologetics for a postmodern generation.

Peter Enns interviewed Penner, who is an Anglican priest and has his PhD from University of Edinburgh, just before the book was published earlier this summer.  Here are some of Penner’s remarks:

By postmodern I mean the awareness of the contingency or the problematic nature of the so-called modern project . . . And I wrote the book because that’s where I am at. I no longer see how modern apologetics (and by that I mean the attempt to give reasons for Christian belief that are objective, universal, and neutral) is really all that helpful – for me or anyone else.

Penner then goes on to explain and qualify that he is not against “mere apologetics.”  (Neither am I.)  Rather, he’s criticizing a very specific kind of “secular reasoning” that is employed by modern Christians to bolster the allusion of certainty and objectivity (and innocence?) in matters of faith.  Lastly, Penner speaks of the “rhetorical violence” of the “apologetics industry” and calls for an alternative “politics of witness”:

First, apologetic violence happens at the personal level when apologetic arguments are used to treat people badly. Arguments don’t just “prove.” They may perform a wide variety of functions and can be used to do a lot more than advance a conclusion. When they are used to demean, ridicule, show-up, or hurt another person in any way, I call that a form of violence.

Second, apologetic violence can also happen at the social level when Christian apologetic practice merely reinforces and defends a given set of power relations operative within an unjust social structure. We then overlook real people and proclaim to them the “truths” of the gospel packaged in “universal” concepts and categories (as well as practices) to which they cannot relate in any personal way and which have often played some role in their mistreatment or exploitation.

An apologetic argument for Christian truths in those situations will be received as an implicit justification for the wrong that has been done the established powers. This is perhaps an even more insidious form of apologetic violence because it is generally invisible. It permeates our everyday practices and beliefs, and lurks just below the surface.

The point I want to make about apologetic violence is that when it happens at one or both of the above levels, then it is not the Gospel that is being defended or advanced.

Q:  Explain what you mean in your last chapter about “The Politics of Witness.” 

Following up on the second kind of apologetic violence – the social kind – it becomes possible to see how Christian witness (and apologetics) is also political.

The kind of politics operative here is what I call a deep politics, however, for I am not talking about leveraging power within some structure of governance. I am speaking at a more profound level of the relations that exist between persons that constitute them as a people—the level at which values and purposes give rise to explicit political structures that govern the relations between persons and how they conduct their common life together. Deep politics concerns public power and power relations between private persons.

So when I say the Christian witness is political, I mean the concern about ideological or systemic apologetic violence connects Christian witness to the issues of deep politics. Against modern apologetics, a postmodern prophetic witness acknowledges that there is no space outside political power in which we can persuade people. The deep politics of modernity allows modern apologetics to imagine itself as operating apolitically, as dealing only with the rational justifications.


Some thoughts on "Explore God": Privilege, Answer-Christianity and Evangelism Anxiety

This recent news clip testifies to the hype surrounding a movement in Austin known as “Explore God.”  If you live in the area, you might have seen some of the billboards that look like this:


I actually learned about Explore God a year ago.  The website had already been built, and much of the basic content was available then as well.  At the time, it hadn’t garnered much attention.  Clearly things have changed, since last I heard some 350 churches are now on board, and many of them will be dedicating a sermon series to the subject.  I know several of the churches partnering with the movement pretty well.  There’s going to be weekly events at Gateway Church beginning in September on Monday nights addressing “7 Big Questions” that I will consider below.

Below I’ve included two of the negative comments though that were made on this KXAN website about the newsclip.  I don’t put them here because I agree with them necessarily but because I think they uncover a certain sentiment that has perhaps not been taken into full consideration by ExploreGod organizers and supporters:

“It doesn’t matter how many “likes” your FB page gets if the underlying theology is shallow and doesn’t honestly deal with the real questions.”

“What the world needs is less fundamentalist garbage in slick marketing packages. There is a reason that American so-called “Christianity” is in steep decline. It’s a bankrupt, un-Christ-like philosophy that serves only to suck up the love energy that could have been used to solve some of the very real problems that we have in America– Like materialism for instance, i.e. the American so-called Christian church’s real first love.”

While not as hostile and reactionary as these two, and while I certainly don’t think ExploreGod is “fundamentalist garbage,” after digging a little deeper, my initial reaction to ExploreGod was one of relative ambivalence.  It’s not that I don’t want it to be successful.  I hope much good comes from it, and I believe some good definitely will come.  So also, I am not “against” ExploreGod.  As someone who is very interested in exploring God myself, however, I do feel compelled to name its shortcomings.  Despite its design, tech and promotional savviness, the intellectual content of the site fails to engage in serious theological inquiry.  And by “serious,” I don’t mean high-level academic theological thinking.  I mean honest thinking.  I will explain more below.

I also tend to be very suspicious of Christian outreach marketing attempts in general, especially if they are backed by a lot of money.  One can quickly detect the slickness of this operation.  It is clearly a well-resourced project.  This doesn’t automatically make it bad, but already I fear it has too much privilege and affluence attached to it.

As already mentioned, most of the content on the site is professional and substantive.  A broad range of topics are addressed and “explored” — but this is exactly where I start to have more questions.  The mission of the organization seems to me to be somewhat confused.  The news clip above explains that the program is targeting both “believers” and “non-believers,” and I think this might be part of the problem.  I have distaste for the very distinction between “belief” and “non-belief” as a signifier of faith membership in the first place, but nevermind that for the moment.

While the mission claims to simply be about “starting a good conversation,” that is not the impression I get after looking at many of the videos and articles.  Yes, there is an effort to begin the conversation in this tone, but eventually that obviously changes.  Instead, I get the feeling ExploreGod wants to “give us the right answers” and convince us of their truth.  There are over-prescribed end-points for the discussion.  The issue I have with ExploreGod then is this: Theirs is not actually so much an attempt to Explore God.  Rather, it’s predominantly an effort directed at justifying a priori (already held) Christian beliefs about God.  In other words, it’s a video and blog catalog of evangelical Christian apologetics — that is, a defense of the faith.  This is not the same thing as an exploration.

When I survey the material on the website, I’m mostly challenged not to explore but to evaluate: Is this persuasive or not? Is there enough evidence? etc.  Moreover, the questions are predetermined.  This is severely limiting.  The entire project is based on the presupposition that it understands what questions people are asking about God, and how they’re asking them.  My first accusation is that ExploreGod hasn’t really listened, and therefore does not understand society’s questions about God.

Now, as a student and professor of theology, ethics and philosophy, I recognize that I might be different from many of my evangelical sisters and brothers.  I confess Christ, but I’m also a spiritual seeker.  This means that no matter what I believe right now — and I’ve dedicated much of my life to testing what I believe — because I desire to know the truth, I must be open to changing my views, and I also must be willing to consider the best arguments against my views.  In my estimation so far, despite the good intentions and the quality of content, ExploreGod falls well short of this standard, and therefore my second accusation of ExploreGod is that of false advertising. It would better be called “Come and listen to us talk about why our beliefs are justified afterall.”

In the city of Austin, unless the goal is simply to get the attention of those who might have questions but are already relatively immersed and comfortable in nominal, Western, evangelical, middle-to-upper class Christian culture (i.e., the Bible belt), this movement will not by and large reach a new audience of seekers or de-churched people.  The Enlightenment-based reasoning it uses, its mission and its belief statement remain thoroughly entrenched in a modern worldview, and is therefore, I thirdly accuse, failing to speak to a post-modern, post-Christian society.  For more on what I mean by modern vs. post-modern, see theologian and Truett Seminary professor Roger Olson‘s two recent blog posts.  Here’s a sample:

Modernity, stemming from the Enlightenment and scientific revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, became so pervasive and influenced so many aspects of social and individual life that it changed reality as we (at least in the so-called West) perceive it. Most people are unaware of that. It’s like a fish is unaware of water. Even committed Christians are largely unaware of how modernity shapes their understanding of the Bible and Christianity.

Olson goes on to discuss seven other marks of modernity.  The two that relate most to the ExploreGod mindset are the first that Olson mentions:

1. At the root of everything modern, it seems to me, is Immanuel Kant’s imperative “Sapere aude!”—“think for yourself!” In other words, the mature individual ought to believe only what is convincing to his or her own mind and not allow external authorities to determine what to believe just because they hold positions of authority.

2.  [T]he modern blik includes belief that “knowledge” is “justified true belief” and that “justified true” means rationally certain beyond reasonable doubt.

ExploreGod’s faith statement affirms the “innerancy of Scripture,” which ironically is a completely modern development.  Here is a list of the major questions ExploreGod asks in this modern form:

  1. Does Life Have a Purpose?
  2. Is There a God?
  3. Why is There Pain and Suffering in the World?
  4. Is Christianity Too Narrow?
  5. Is Jesus Really God?
  6. Is The Bible Reliable?
  7. Can I Know God Personally?

I’ve watched all the videos related to each of these questions, and some of them are great; so are some of the discussion questions that go along with them.  In addition, I should say that I do not think these seven questions are unimportant.  What I suspect though is that they are not the questions most God explorers in Austin or in any other culturally progressive city in North America are asking today.  These kind of questions remind me a lot of the flavor of Christianity that went up against the American Atheist Society Convention in Austin this past spring.  Most fundamentally, it’s ahistorical, unsocially conscious “answer-Christianity” — addicted to what Peter Rollins identifies as certainty and satisfaction.  Basically, ExploreGod says 1) see the arguments (which we are sure are convincing) and 2) decide for yourself.

If as an outsider I were going to ask seven questions about the Christian faith, they might be somewhat different from these (see, for example, this talk.)  For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll stick with the given questions — because the biggest problem is not the questions themselves (about God, Jesus, suffering, Bible, etc. — these topics definitely matter), but, to repeat, the way the questions are posed.  These questions are asked in such a way that presumes they can be answered.  They are loaded for bait-and-switch.  While it might sound surprising given that I am a Christian, I actually do not think a single one of these questions can be satisfactorily “answered.”  ExploreGod’s attempts to answer them employ forced logic more so than intensely honest scrutiny (e.g., too many appeals to the authority of apologists like C.S. Lewis, who, great as he was, has decreasing relevance and ability to speak to our context today).

To further explain my disappointment with these seven questions, I’ll take the example of “Is Christianity too narrow?”, which I find to be the most awkward of them all.  An ExploreGod video that speaks to this topic can be found here.

Symbol of the major religions of the world: Ju...

Symbol of the major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)In its defense, the ExploreGod website goes out of its way you might say to give pretty thorough and yet concise summaries of the core tenants of other major world religions and even some of their key distintives.  There is an entry about the Koran, for instance.  The problem is that once the differences are rightly acknowledged, literally all the world religions are then judged on the basis of a Christian (mis)interpretation of their purposes.

So, even though Buddhists, for example — and we could include many other world religions except for probably Islam — are not consciously trying to escape the judgment of a wrathful God for their sins or longing for a Savior due to their guilt, we forget this little detail and accuse them of trying to “earn salvation by their own effort.”  Of course, Buddhists would probably agree with many aspects of the Christian understanding of sin.  Sin is plainly evident, depending on we define it (ignorance or blame).  The difference comes with the Buddhist belief about the supposed consequences and remedy for that sin, which has nothing to do, for them, with merit.  But what ExploreGod does is basically to equate all other world religions with “salvation by works,” or, 16th Century Roman Catholicism.  In doing so, ExploreGod betrays its captivity to a Reformation-based understanding of salvation and Christianity — an understanding that I’ve called into question on this blog before.

There is a genuine attempt by ExploreGod to fairly explain major differences between the world religions, and I gladly admit that they more or less successfully do this.  But it’s as if they completely ignore what their very own descriptions show by proceeding with a sweeping Christian (mis)interpretation of the significance of these same differences.

The real difference between ExploreGod’s version of Christianity and Buddhism is not that Christians believe in salvation by grace while Buddhists belief in salvation by meditation.  It is instead that ExploreGod-Christianity believes we need to be saved from God’s judgement for our sin, while Buddhists believe they need to be free from desire that causes suffering.  These are two completely different notions of, not how to be saved, but salvation itself.  Thus, contrary to popular Protestant evangelical opinion, the essential difference between Christianity and most other religions is not between “works” and “grace” as ExploreGod would have it.

It’s a lot like the video that went viral a while back about Jesus vs. Religion.  Evangelical Christians like to think Jesus and religion are antithetical to each other — I think they are in some ways — but the religion that says “salvation by grace” is still a religion.  It’s a religion that pits right belief against right living.

What is, however, a more significant difference between Christianity and other religions, is the doctrine of the Incarnation and Jesus’s divinity, which ExploreGod also points out.  The only weakness is with what they say this doctrine means.  Basically, its meaning gets reduced back to the false dichotomy of works and grace above.  I’ve written about this as well, but the main idea is that Christianity is not primarily characterized by access to salvation from hell and redirection into heaven after we die.  Nor is it simply that plus living like Jesus until then out of gratitude.  Rather, it’s about a God who comes to us as a human being exemplifying and enabling a transformed life and world (the Kingdom of God).  This isn’t proclaimed in the other world religions — at least not in the same way if at all.  Forgiveness of sin is part of the story, but so is liberation, new identity, ethics and community.  This vision is not nearly as incompatible with Buddhism, even if there are still some incommensurable differences.  Rather, I would say it believes and promises much more than Buddhism.  Christianity hopes in God for historical and political redemption in addition to personal, and not just freedom from the slavery of desire that causes suffering as in Buddhism — though I would argue this freedom can be part of the Christian story as well.

Believing that only Christians can be saved renders most people condemned, and this produces an intense amount of evangelism anxiety.  I do not think this is what Jesus intended for us.  Furthermore, this anxiety is only compounded by a contemporary situation in which the institutional Christian church continues to lose its hold on and place of privilege in the dominant American culture.

I think there are basically two ways out of evangelism anxiety.  First, you could become a Calvinist (i.e., God has predetermined everything, so there’s no need to worry anymore).  And actually I don’t think this one ultimately gets rid of anxiety — it’s just a good suppressant.  Alternatively, however, and more intriguingly, we can move beyond belief-centered Christianity.  (Just notice I said move beyond, not throw away.)  So there’s nothing wrong with evangelism, but evangelism means making disciples and inviting people into the risky, beautiful and adventurous obedience of a Christian lifeExploreGod is not focused on making disciples.  If it were, I think we would see a lot more questions about social justice, ecological sustainability and spiritual formation instead of a premeditated set of reasons for belief. (To be fair, I did find at least one good ExploreGod article on what it means to follow Jesus here, which incidentally happens to have been written by a Truett Seminary professor as well).

As Kierkegaard says, this intellectualist approach, which thinks “Christianity is an objective doctrine and it makes no difference how it is served, . . . has abolished Christianity.”

 An Alternative: Belong, Behave, Believe

So is there a better way to explore God, or am I just a cynical critic? I mentioned Peter Rollins earlier.  Pete is almost certainly not an orthodox Christian.  I still say that I am, so we have our differences.  He helped me tremendously though when he wrote a book called The Fidelity of Betrayal, in which he made a case for the formation of “Churches Beyond Belief.”

In his recent blog post on a related subject, Robin Perry cites the following quote that partly summarizes what I am trying to say here:

‘[T]he life of the church is its witness. The witness of the church is its life. The question of authentic witness is the question of authentic community’ (Norman Kraus).

This ideal church goes beyond belief by recognizing that what people believe about God exactly is not what matters most — which is not to say it doesn’t matter.  Reading the signs of our postmodern, post-Christian times — a time after too many genocides and suicide bombings in the name of certainty of belief — what matters more is whether we create communities of acceptance love that are honest about brokenness and that cultivate good living, where in the process we might come to believe.  The approach of ExploreGod is unfortunately the exact opposite: get people to consider belief, and then maybe they’ll come to belong/behave. The nature of those seven questions above assumes that if people are convinced of the truth, they will become Christians.  In contrast, I’m convinced that today and in our context we should start by inviting people to be compelled by a Christian way of life, to step into it, try it on, and then, perhaps, to “believe” in it.  

The church of tomorrow is not likely to grow by way of billboards or big promotional programs, I contend — though this is not to assert that all things like this are intrinsically bad.  Rather, the church in 21st century must embrace a new minority status of post-Christendom humility and grassroots economic integrity.  In order to do this, churches will also need to explore God more so through aesthetics, story and drama.  This would still be a very relational and personal, conversational faith as ExploreGod would have it.  But the answers will be lived and seen more so than discussed and defended.  I wonder how these 350 churches could have used this same money to make a public statement in Austin about a Christian way of life more so than to proclaim the truth of Christian belief?

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Two Admonitions regarding Christian Responsibility for Nationalism and the Ecological Crisis

American preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white, and blue myth. You have to expose, and confront, the great disconnection between the kindness, compassion, and caring of most American people, and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them. This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good, but it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all.

Peter Storey

Our present ecological crisis, the biggest single practical threat to our human existence in the middle to long term, has, religious people would say, a great deal to do with our failure to think of the world as existing in relation to the mystery of God, not just as a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.

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Thomas Keating on Sharing the Gospel and the Mythic Membership Level of Consciousness

Seal of the Society for the Propagation of the...

Seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The church constantly has to integrate new wisdom, new science, new information into the Gospel if she is going to communicate it to contemporary people and to people of other cultures.  Unfortunately, those of little faith tend to identify the values of the Gospel with particular structures or symbols.  Then if the symbol is modified, like turning the altar around or receiving communion in the hand, they think the values of the Gospel are being rejected.  People have to grow beyond this over-identification.  Ancient symbols can sometimes prevent the value of the Gospel from being fully transmitted in new circumstances.  Even words develop opposite meanings over time.  Would we say that Jesus was not in continuity with Moses and the prophets?  They bore witness to him on the mountain.  Yet he was completely free about following their tradition.  He paid no attention to the rabbinical practice of preaching only in synagogues and only with regard to scripture.

[However,] in the parable of the sower Jesus seems to be referring to his own preaching.  Some of the seed, he says, falls on the footpath, that is, on the hard path, the path that goes through the field but that has no give, no flexibility, and is almost as hard as concrete . . . there is no chance of this seed bearing fruit because it can’t get through the concrete.  The concrete represents the mythic membership level of consciousness and the worldviews in which people live with unquestioning presuppositions and preconceived ideas: the world of racism, sexism, prejudice, and every kind of bias. — Thomas Keating, Reawakenings

The over-identification of structures or symbols with the gospel is indeed a problem, but I often see in myself and in others an over-identification with certain leaders, churches, experiences and even language itself as well.  All of these conduits for transmitting the message must be constantly relativized.  Theologically speaking, old forms like Thomism, Calvinism or traditional American evangelicalism, for instance, might also serve to substantially limit the gospel message today.

Moreover, what Keating calls “mythic membership level of consciousness” is similar to Niebuhr’s characterization of “henotheism” in the previous post.  It seems appropriate then to broaden the definition of this inferior kind of faith to include these other types of prejudices along the lines of identity politics — politics from the standpoint of both the oppressor and the oppressed.  Obviously, the two are not equal, but as closed-society faith forms, they are both insufficiently commensurate with the gospel or true faith.

A Little bit on the Gospel and Culture

I found the following selection from Simon Critchley‘s recent op-ed in the New York Times entitled “the Gospel According to ‘Me'” to be a particularly acute diagnosis of some popular spiritualities today (read it all here):

In the gospel of authenticity, well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself. The stroke of genius in the ideology of authenticity is that it doesn’t really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life and baseline well-being. In this, one can claim to be beyond dogma.

Whereas the American dream used to be tied to external reality — say, America as the place where one can openly practice any religion, America as a safe haven from political oppression or America as the land of opportunity where one need not struggle as hard as one’s parents — now, the dream is one of pure psychological transformation.

This is the phenomenon that one might call, with an appreciative nod to Nietzsche, passive nihilism. Authenticity is its dominant contemporary expression. In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now.

Here Thomas Merton writes several decades earlier in a way that I think illumines a Christian response:

All over the face of the earth the avarice and lust of [people] breed unceasing division among them, and the wounds that tear [them] from union with one another widen and open out into huge wars.  Murder, massacres, revolution, hatred, the slaughter and torture of the bodies and souls of [human beings], the destruction of cities by fire, the starvation of millions, the annihilation of populations and finally the cosmic inhumanity of atomic war: Christ is massacred in his members, torn limb from limb; God is murdered in [humanity].

From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of God who delivered himself to the cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of his own creatures out of pity for them.  In conquering death God opened their eyes to the reality of love which overcomes hatred and destroys death.

Humanistic love will not serve.  As long as we believe that we hate no one, that we are merciful, that we are kind by our very nature, we deceive ourselves; our hatred is merely smoldering under the gray ashes of complacent optimism.  We are apparently at peace with everyone because we think we are worthy.

To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion.  To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbor.

Church as Messianic or Prophetic? Attempting a Clarification

Soren Kierkegaard studying

Soren Kierkegaard studying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his book, The Nature and Destiny of [Humanity], Reinhold Niebuhr distinguishes between three different kinds of religious “identity” and “purpose” (my words).  I see them closely corresponding to Soren Kierkegaard‘s three stages of life: the aesthetic, the ethical-moral, and the religious.

In the first place, there is the sensual life of indulgent self-interest.  And lest we be too hard on this group, it should be acknolwedged that the “aesthetic” life can be quite civil and friendly.  I think about the relative peace enjoyed by those who benefit, for example, from pax romana, or presently, pax america — that is, the economic and political stability established as a result of imperialism.  It is a climate in which we are more or less free to pursue our own ambitions and dreams without too much interference, as long as we don’t harm anyone else and obey the law.

A second mode of existence is one that recognizes and strives to adhere to a higher moral law.  Today we might actually reverse the Kierkegaardian language and call this mode the “religious” life.  The religious life can be very good, and deeply prophetic.  While it risks a great deal of self-righteousness, it also has the capacity to speak truth to power, criticize injustice and inspire generosity.  This mode looks out for the disenfranchised.  The trouble is that it can tend to miss the “log in its own eye.”

Thirdly, there is what Niebuhr calls the messianic consciousness, which is the properly Christian one for him.  The key lesson from messianism is that we cannot achieve justice or be righteous on our own no matter how hard we try.  Sin and egoism have so enslaved us as to make our good deeds no more than “filthy rags” before God’s throne, as Scripture says.  Only a sinless, suffering servant can bring about the full redemption and peace we all long for…


My friend Bo Sanders over at Homebrewed Christianity has become fond of talking about three different kinds of churches: the therapeutic, messianic and prophetic (he claims to get this from Cornell West and Slavoj Zizek).  What’s so interesting to me, and what might already be clear, is the way that the messianic and the prophetic are switched so as to alter the Niebuhrian logic.  On this reading, the prophetic is preferable to and “higher” than the messianic, because the messianic is cynically interpreted to be escapist and other-worldly — i.e., God cleaning up the mess for us, and our responsibility is proportionally shrunk as long as we’re counted among the “saved.”

Now, I think it’s possible to see that both series of depictions are getting at essentially the same thing, but each with slightly greater respective emphasis on one of two necessary components to the life of the church: namely, the messianic (merciful) and the prophetic (just).  Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis was the person who first made the point to me about the problem with sheer messianism.  Of course, the naive Christian in me at the time wanted to challenge him by replying with the weaknesses of strict propheticism, some of which have already been highlighted above.  But actually I believe now that Ellis was right.

This is because Ellis also discusses the concept of revolutionary forgiveness.  This is an especially useful motif with regard to political, ethnic and national reconciliation, but surely it can apply to interpersonal relationships as well.  By this phrase, Ellis means first that no one gets to claim innocence for themselves.  Once all parties agree to this, then there can be some healing and transformation toward a better future, and — I would venture to say — toward salvation itself, which is always messianic and prophetic.

Christian Social Justice: Four Views

Christian Social JusticeThis post goes together with another that was recently made here at Homebrewed Christianity.

Conscious Capitalismdoes not criticize the dominant social order but is concerned about trying to eradicate poverty, practice charity and generosity, and exhibit self-sacrificial love at the individual and ecclesial level so as to impact society and bear witness to a soteriocentric gospel.  Like the other views, there is usually a strong critique of consumerism.  Examples of groups in this camp include evangelical non-profit organizations like World Vision, Compassion International, International Justice Mission, and so on.

Christian Realismsees the flaws and sin of the dominant social order – i.e., the global market and its hyper-financialization – but does not principally call for its transformation.  Instead it desires to work within so as to restrain (e.g., Keynesian fiscal policy or democratic socialism).  Violence might be necessary, and Christians are naïve to think they can avoid it, but it is still evil.  Christian realism therefore recognizes that non-violence is the ideal even if it is judged to be impractical.  I think the Roman Catholic Church probably fits here most of the time. (Is this non-violence only judged to be impractical, however, when the judgment is made from the point of view of those in power?)

Liberation Theologyoffers a fundamental critique of the dominant social order from the standpoint of those on the margins and strives to realize greater justice and peace here by overcoming systemic poverty and oppression through macro as well as micro-political-economic means.  Violence is not justified, but the causes that support liberation are, which may or may not require violence.  There is however such thing as a non-violent liberationist perspective, with which I want to identity myself, and this is why I have not organized the chart above in terms of violence but rather in terms of social justice.  I also prefer the word “resistance” to liberation.  In this way, liberation can be understood more with respect to fidelity to God’s will than to liberation as such.  It’s ok, in other words, if liberation isn’t always achieved, and the goal is not to replace one superstructure with another (e.g., capitalism vs. socialism, etc.).

Anabaptist/Pacifism – shares with liberation theology a fundamental critique of the dominant social order but is concerned with subverting it at the ecclesial and micro-economic level instead of at the “coercive” level of formal public policy and law enforcement.  It privileges the Christian concern for spiritual formation, community, and discipleship, especially in light of rampant cultural individualism (a problem that many other non-european-descendent cultures don’t seem to have as much).  Other groups need not necessarily be opposed to these things.  The Anabaptist/Yoderian position simply makes non-violence the central ethical principle.  Another important commonality that Anabaptism has with Liberation Theology is the assumption that Christians and the Church should expect to have “minority status” (i.e., post-Christendom). [Note: Further, I think it’s important to avoid the distinction between Liberation Theology and Anabaptism that makes the former about “materialism” and the latter “spirituality.” One can easily imagine, I would argue, a materialist pacificism or a spiritualist liberationism.]

Even though there is much that can be praised about the best that conscious capitalism and Christian realism have to offer, neither is adequate, in my view, due to the respective acquiescence to euro-american-centrism and a failure to align sufficiently with the interests of those on the periphery who have not benefited from the societal machine of “excessive prosperity for a few.”  Evangelical piety is admirable, and Niebuhrian ethics is right in much of what it says.  But both are too implicated by their proximity to the “center” and by a lack of urgency to resist (I think James Cone’s newest book gives a good, appreciative but critical overview of Niebuhr).

About this notion of the societal machine, I like how Brian McLaren has depicted this problem in his book Everything Must Change:

everything must change

As each “crisis cog” gets going too fast, the heat and waste produced rises to unsustainable heights.

A Brief Assessment:

In the context of the mostly white, North American middle class and its churches, the Anabaptist/Yoderian take is very compelling, and I would gladly call it a faithful Christian response in our time.  In fact it is the one that I for one am most often capable of embracing! I do not write this as a disinterested observer, of course, but as someone slowly, and very imperfectly trying to put into practice the takeaways of such observations with others in my life.  The Anabaptist/Yoderian view does not go far enough, however, in translating the gospel for the excluded majority. (Maybe this is ok though, because it seems to me that the excluded majority have been perfectly capable of translating the gospel for themselves.)

Here’s how I imagine this same schema being depicted for a few different church groups today:

New Bitmap Image

I would say in summary that, just as each of the other three groups have a variety of expressions that I have not fully appreciated here, so too does the liberationist hermeneutic have better and worse versions.  In light of the call to be participants in God’s work of making all things new, however, it is my contention that only an ethic that takes seriously and starts from the particular material suffering of the victims of history can offer a thoroughgoing Christian hope in the context of globalization and in the face of all the challenges this age presents (ecological degradation, geopolitical wars for economy stability, and poverty/disease on a massive scale – all of which is an offense to God).  There are eschatological questions remaining here, but I do not think one has to give up eschatological hope or work with an overly realized social gospel to take this position.

Ingolf Dalferth on Post-Secularism, Christianity and Apatheism

The development of Western societies from religious through secular to post-secular societies is often presented as a process of secularization that is in conflict with the interests and objectives of the Christian faith. But this is a mistake. Just as God must not be confused with religion, so Christian faith must not be confused with the religious institution and authority of Christian churches in society. It is true that secularization is a process of transformation and social differentiation, which lessens society’s dependence on organized religion and establishes more or less autonomous sub-systems of society independent from the authority of the Christian churches. But this by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Rightly understood, the developments toward secular and post-secular society are due not only to the enlightenment criticism of religion in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They are also due to the internal criticism of the renewed understanding of Christian faith in the sixteenth century . . .

In the Protestant understanding of Christian faith, there is no theologically relevant distinction between sacred and profane, religious and non-religious, holy and secular, and clergy and laity. Rather, everything in the world is to be judged in the light of the decisive difference between God and world, creator and creation, the one who is and everything else that might not have been. No area of life and thought is intrinsically more “sacred” or “religious” than any other. In each of them, humans can live in appropriate or inappropriate ways with respect to the creative presence of God’s love, and how they live decides on the theological character of this area of their life.

This is not only true of the ordinary life of individual Christians but also of their common life in churches and denominations. In a theological sense, their structure and organization are “worldly matters.” Christians are free to organize them in ways that are best suited for the propagation of the gospel in the cultural matrix of the time. They are not free not to organize their common life as members of the body of Christ, but they are free to do it according to their own lights and on their own responsibility without being bound by a divinely instituted ecclesial pattern of bishops, clergy, and laity.

Thus, in a fundamental and revolutionary sense, Christian faith is a faith that sets humans free to use all their capacities to mold and change human life in the world in accordance with the gospel message of the saving and perfecting presence of God’s creative love. Christians are free to live a free life in responsibility to God and to their fellow creatures—not only their fellow Christians but all human beings who have become God’s freely chosen neighbors. Understood in this sense, Christian faith sets humans free to live on their own responsibility in a secular world, which they know to be God’s good creation, even though it has been distorted by the way humans live in it. They live as Christians in a secular world, but they do so not by denying or ignoring God (secularism) but rather by living an autonomous and self-determining human life in responsibility to God and their fellow-creatures (Christian secularity). They know that to be created is to be made to make oneself, but they also know that this freedom to be free becomes distorted, ruinous, and inhuman when it is not practiced as a created freedom, i.e., a freedom that is grounded in a prior passivity that is not of its own making [italics added].

The ongoing shift from secular to post-secular society is the cultural matrix in which Western Christianity lives today and in which Christian theology is to be practiced in the foreseeable future. Its major challenges today are not the criticisms of a fanatic scientism and a belated atheism that still fights the bygone battles of yesteryear (cf. Schröder 2008) but rather the widespread apatheism and indifference toward faith and God that characterizes many strands of contemporary society. To counter this, Christians must find ways to show and communicate to their contemporaries that faith, hope, and love in God are inexhaustible gifts that enrich, orient, and humanize human life rather than misconceived reactions to human dependency, misery, lack, and deficiency, and that these gifts do not add a religious dimension to human life that one may or may not practice but rather transform all areas of human life by changing the mode in which humans live their lives. Christian faith does not add a dispensable religious dimension to human life but rather transforms its existential mode from a self-centered to a God-open life that puts its ultimate trust not in any human institution, whether religious or non-religious, but in the creative presence of God’s love.

Seen from this perspective, Christian theology has no interest in defending or returning to a pre-modern society that is dependent on religion and religious institutions. On the contrary, it is interested in an autonomous secular life lived responsibly in the presence of God rather than ignorant or forgetful about God (cf. Thiemann 1996; Eberle 2002). It opposes all forms of religiously dominated society that confuse the liberating dependency on God with the heteronomy of being subject to the norms and rules of particular religious traditions. It also opposes all forms of secularist societies that contest or ignore the prior actuality of God. Instead it argues for a secularity that is mindful of the empowering and liberating dependency of human autonomy on the creative presence of God and hence does not ignore the prior passivity in which all human activities are grounded. If theology’s agenda today is understood in this way, it will no longer disorient Christian life in a radical orthodox way by looking back to times long since past, but creatively help to re-orient it in a liberating Christian way toward the future.

Ingolf U. Dalferth, Claremont Graduate University, School of Religion
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2010, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 317–345

The Third Debate, American Imperialism and "Christian" Voting

Before getting into the problems with political campaigns these days, in response to the third presidential debate on foreign policy last night — which hardly left room for alternatives with respect to any difference between the two candidates regarding the issue, for example, of whether our country should be killing people at will who are unilaterally deemed threatening to our national security without trial, even if they happen to be U.S. citizens — a question came to mind:

If Jesus’s message about the kingdom of God was a narrative intensely at odds with the dominant Roman political program of imperialism, doesn’t this put American Christians especially in an awkward position, since “Jesus was a Middle Eastern man who lived in an occupied country and was killed by the superpower of the day”?[i]  And I do not think we have to worry so much about the exact similarities between the United States and the Roman Empire in order for this analogy to hold.

According to the President, “the United States is the one indispensable nation.”  Governor Romney on the other hand insisted that “America is the greatest hope for the world.”  To paraphrase a tweet from Greg Boyd: if this were true, I would be very depressed.  An unquestioned willingness to exercize violence for the purpose of promoting stability where it essential for our continued economic prosperity and dominance is just about the only consistent criteria that has been espoused since World War II, and even before — regardless of who has been in office.  If this kind of rhetoric doesn’t wake us up to the reality and intensity of nationalism, idolatry and neocolonialism in this country, I don’t think anything will.

What does it say about U.S. culture and the priorities of voters if campaign strategists insist on first and foremost assuring the American people that they are safe from terrorists as long as either candidate is in power?  Does this not reveal an obsession with security and the pervasiveness of fear of “the other”?  What does the gospel say about these things?  I think it is clear.  This is why the decision of who to vote for in November is a thoroughly unChristian one.  The tendency within an empire, Bell and Golden go on to argue, is to tell only one version of the story, the version that glosses over the dark side. In such an empire, “Christians must not become indifferent to the cries of those among us, no matter how uncomfortable they make us.”[ii]

It has long since been time to end all entanglement of the Christian story with mainstream American politics.  This is not to say Christians who happen to be U.S. citizens shouldn’t vote.  There are differences between these two candidates, and some of these differences will indeed affect people’s lives in significant ways, for better or worse.  It’s also ok to have a strong opinion about this (I certainly do), and to identity some measure of overlap between Christian principles and values, and specific policies or economic strategies that either candidate might be supporting.  But there has been almost no conversation whatsoever in these debates about any of the issue that I’m convinced Christians should be most concerned about: mass-incarceration, failed drug policy, global and national poverty, extreme income inequality, environmental degradation, clean water and the impending global water-supply crisis, unjust free trade agreements (which Romney sounded eager to propagate further in Latin America), militarism in general, consumerism, a culture of individualism, the death penalty… etc.  Abortion was brought up once; healthcare is of course debated; there has been some reference to keeping Wall Street accountable (but not nearly enough); and yes, always lipservice to renewable energy initiatives (and even lots of money given in recent years, though unfortunately to little avail due to poor stewardship on the part of the federal government).

Comparatively speaking, however, and with any regard for actual alternatives to the propaganda of American exceptionalism, voting for either candidate in this election has decidedly little consequence for a genuinely Christian politic.  There is no good vs. evil here; there is only evil vs. evil, to a greater or lesser degree.  Simply recognizing this, even if we go on to assume the responsibility of actively exercising our “right to vote” (more about this in a later post), could go a long way toward debasing the false consciousness about our true identity — an identity as disciples and citizens of the Kingdom of God.

[i] Rob Bell and Dan Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 17.

[ii] Ibid., 124.

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