William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theologian

Category: Theology (Page 1 of 7)

Transcending and Including the Reformation: A Tribute

As Christians, we all have our own journeys to go on. And rarely is the path straight. There is progress and regress. I think it’s safe to say the same has been true for the Church throughout its history. One of the best pieces of advice I got as a graduate student in theology was that, no matter how much I may learn, grow, and change, I should always try to make room for the old versions of myself. I’ve also heard it said this way: what we focus on determines what we miss, and while God is always calling us forward, it’s easy to disdain the good things we used to know.

500 years after the Reformation, how does the Church continue to grow and change while still making room for what has come before?

My Own Journey

My family was Southern Baptist growing up, and then we joined a non-denominational congregation that was part of the seeker church movement. I later went to a Baptist university and seminary. For a while I attended a charismatic church, and this was one of the most formative seasons of my life. Throughout my years in school, I spent summers abroad in Spain, Mexico, and Argentina with Baptists, Catholics and Bible church folks. I worked as a youth pastor at a United Methodist Church in Los Angeles and as a professor at a Catholic University in San Antonio. And for the last three years, I was a pastor in an Anglican Church in South Carolina.

After all of this, I still call myself an evangelical and a Protestant, but with an asterisk. I would need to add words like contemplative, Wesleyan, charismatic, liturgical, Anabaptist and Sacramental. All of this to say, I, like many others in my generation, am the product of an inter- and post-denominational age. And yet here we are approaching the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which, among many other things, gave rise to denominationalism.

The Legacy of Protestantism

In 2008, Phyllis Tickle made quite a splash with her book, The Great Emergence, in which she argued that the Church has already been experiencing the next reformation. I had the fortune of getting to speak with her about this when she came to Baylor. I was fairly surprised to discover that, despite her bold claims about a massive rummage sale going on in the Church, she also had a humble and simple Anglo-Protestant piety about her. She could eloquently account for the effect of any historical development on Church and society: the erosion of biblical authority, the sexual revolution, the Civil Rights movement, new discoveries in the sciences, global capitalism, and so on. And yet, we were talking about the problem of religious pluralism over dinner during her visit, and at one point she said: “If you don’t eat the body and drink the blood, well then…may God have mercy on you!”

It was as if there was something at the heart of the Reformation that even this prophet of Protestantism’s downfall herself could not relinquish. After all, what is the legacy of Protestantism if not the proliferation of perspectives on precisely this issue? From Baptism and the Eucharist to Calvinism and Arminianism, did not the Reformation produce answers to one central question: How are we saved?

Of course, behind this question was also the question of ecclesiastical authoritySola Scriptura, Sola fide, and Sola gratia were the responses to Roman Catholic corruption, and scores of us remain indebted to this rich heritage of courageous protest and sacrifice. Not only the household theological names of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, but martyrs by the hundreds gave their lives for the cause of elevating the Bible above the Magisterium, and moreover, eventually delivering it into the hands of the people. Huss (and Wycliffe much earlier), Tyndale, Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley and so many others. And that’s not even to mention the Anabaptists, who were persecuted by other Protestants, and who were the true reformers of church-state relations and witnesses to Jesus’ teachings against violence — in addition to believer’s baptism. These men (and unnamed women) are our saints. (See Roger Olson’s excellent and much more comprehensive post on the Reformation’s legacy and why he’ll celebrate the real beginning of the [Radical] Reformation in 2025. Olson also argues, citing Bebbington and Noll, that it is really Arminianism, Pietism and the Great Awakenings, and not solely the Reformation, that pave the way for what would now be considered classical evengelicalism. I also resonated with this article by Hauerwas that somewhat justifies the persistence of Protestantism even today.)

The Age of the Spirit

In the West, some have called the early to late Medieval centuries of the Church the “Age of the Father.” The Reformation, subsequently, ushered in the “Age of the Son.” By the early 20th Century, however, and probably long before, change was in the air. The turning point probably doesn’t have a date, but Azusa Street is as good a marker as any. It was a new dispensation of sorts, the “Age of the Holy Spirit.” Curiously, with a few exceptions, most of the famed 20th Century theologians didn’t grapple with Charismatic Christianity. It just didn’t seem to fit.

But much like in the book of Acts, the Spirit appeared to be moving among the uneducated and unauthorized. Every movement has a dark side, and Pentecostalism was no exception, but in addition to the experience of new charisms, the Charismatic awakening brought unprecedented racial and economic diversity into worship. Today there’s scarcely a church that hasn’t been touched by it. Within the post-colonial era, the South did indeed rise again — the Global South, that is, and the next great chapter of church history and theology will not likely be European or American.

The Three Streams, and Beyond

In 2014, I became a pastor in a church that was part of a small denominational movement called the Anglican Mission in America. Inspired by the work of missiologists like David Bosch and Lesslie Newbigin, and drawing on the tradition of St. Patrick and Celtic Christianity, this group of church planters and breakaway Episcopalians formulated an identity not based on any one of these three great periods in Christian Church history, but on all of them. They called themselves “three streams” Christians. They claimed to be catholic, evangelical, and charismatic.

Now, the three streams are great, but they don’t tell the whole story. We in the West have also learned from the Eastern Church. In addition to Pentecostalism, the 20th Century American religious scene gave us the retrieval of Patristic and pre-Reformational spirituality. One leading figure responsible for this recovery was Thomas Merton. Personally, if I had not been introduced to the contemplative tradition as a chaplain during seminary, I do not know where I would be today.

As early as the late 19th Century, still another dimension of the tradition was being re-discovered: not merely the gospel of the Reformation and the forgiveness of sins, but the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It was always right there under our noses, but the Reformation seemed to block it from view.  If the gospel of the kingdom of God and all of its social implications had been appreciated by Christians after the Reformation, one has to wonder if the history of the U.S. might have turned out a bit different (vis-a-vis slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc.).

And finally, while atheism, Darwinism, biblical criticism and eventually the Holocaust raised challenges with which the Church is still wrestling, there arose another prophetic voice. It was the voice of liberation, and it continues to speak from many difference marginal experiences. Whether Latin American, African-American, feminist, womanist, mujerista, Minjung, Palestinian, or otherwise, as these theologians would have it, if the gospel isn’t good news to the poor and the oppressed, it isn’t the gospel.

Transcending and Including the Reformation

Still, at this 500-year juncture, the gift and legacy of the Reformation is not to be left behind. It must live on. True, it must be transcended, but also included. The Reformation resides at the heart of evangelicalism. It reminds us that the Christian faith is intensely personal, and that evangelion is still a very good word! It’s the stream that preaches the gospel. Not that the gospel wasn’t preached before, but Protestants revived it at a crucial moment when the Church had lost its way and forgotten about the assurance and comfort of God’s grace by faith in Christ. 

So while in the 21st Century it may be safe to say that Mere Protestantism will not do, and ecclesial provincialism is a thing of the past, so is lowest-common denominator ecumenism. Modernity in the 20th Century tried one last time to crack the code on religious diversity in search for a universal theology derived from Enlightenment anthropology. And it failed. So while we must be nurtured by each of the three streams — the Catholic, Evangelical, Charismatic, and others — there will usually be one that is our home. If we forego our particular histories, we risk the universal absorbing us into abstraction. So yes, Catholics will go on being Catholics, and the same goes for Baptists, Anglicans, Pentecostals and so on. The key is simply to make room for other streams to flow through us.

But not simply so that we can remain relevant in a time when no one cares if you’re Baptist or Methodist anymore. Rather, as white Christian America moves from majority to minority, and American civil religion makes another nationalist and even racist grab for power, what were once perhaps beautiful and faithful expressions of Reformation heritage and denominational identity are now giving way to consumer religious preference, at best, and a dying gasp of white Protestant privilege, at worst. By drawing on different streams from the whole Christian tradition, religious consumerism, Protesant privilege, nationalism and even racism can be resisted.

The Age of the Church?

So yes, this may be called the Age of the Spirit, but we are also living in a pivotal time for the Church. As many others have pointed out, however, it’s one that in North America will probably look more like the first few centuries of Christian history than the last sixteen. Discipleship will not be optional anymore. Theological education will continue to become less formal but even more critical. It is a time in which the church must become more important, not less, but it will have to do so precisely by kenosis, not triumph. 

500 years after the Reformation, though the world is radically different, as Protestants and evangelicals we still need the same courage that Luther had to “do no other” — the courage to be reformed and always reforming, and the wisdom to transcend while also including what the Reformation has given us.

The Matthew 25 Gathering: A Eucharistic Ecclesiology of Justice and Mercy Contending for Shalom

matthew 25 gathering image[The second ACNA Matthew 25 Gathering took place last week in Phoenix, and I had the opportunity to present. There was a video recording as well, which I will share when it is available.]

It was not my plan to become a pastor, go to seminary, and certainly not to become a professor. I wanted to go to law school, practice public interest or non-profit law and do human rights work in Latin America. A job at International Justice Mission would have been a dream for if you had asked me in college to envision my future.

But as it turns out, I liked the idea of that kind of work a lot more than I was actually cut out for it. Of course, we’re all called to be involved in mercy and justice initiatives in the world in Jesus’s name and for the advancement of the kingdom at some level. I just had to realize that my strength was more in the area of teaching, thinking, and writing first.

So what I’d like to do here is just underscore three things that the Eucharist in particular teaches us about how and why we contend for shalom in an unjust and merciless world. In other words, what is the relationship between the work of seeking justice and shalom, and a specifically Eucharistic understanding of God’s mission in the world to redeem and restore all things?

I want to try to answer this question about Eucharistic Shalom, let’s call it, by just saying a little bit more about how I got here — because I think it will help to illustrate the first part of what I have to say.Matthew25_2colorlogo_300x300

Like many younger folks who have found themselves drawn to liturgical worship, I did not start out in this place. I was raised in a Baptist and broadly evangelical church setting. During my senior year of college, I went on a spring break mission trip with my church to Juarez, Mexico. My experience at this church taught me some very important new lessons about the Christian life, one of which had to do with the role of the Holy Spirit not only in worship but also in mission. I had certainly been taught to revere God’s Word as inspired and authoritative for my life, and I knew what it meant to be an evangelical Christian, but the charismatic stream was unfamiliar. So you could say this was the season in my life when I discovered two of the three streams of Christian identity, the evangelical and the charismatic, but not yet the sacramental/catholic.

But it was on this mission trip that God would also teach me something else. One day in the city of Juarez, the team I was part of went on an outreach into a public park. We had just performed a street theater-style drama that enacted that enacted the gospel story. Afterwards, we passed out gospel tracts in Spanish. I was one of the translators for our team because I could speak the best Spanish, which wasn’t saying much, and two men came up to us after the drama.

We thought they were wanting to talk about what they had just seen and heard from us, but instead, they kept trying to tell us about some of the struggles they were facing in life at the border of Mexico and the United States — the difficulties of finding good jobs, the poverty in the city, the politics of immigration, the safety issues and the crime problem in that part of the country created by drug cartels and the trafficking of narcotics, and so on. To us, this all seems mostly unrelated to the message we needed to share with them about salvation, which was spiritual — not material, not economic, and above all not political. In our minds at the time, those two dimensions, the temporal and the spiritual, needed to be kept separate and unconfused.

And so as a result of this kind of dualism in our theology, we kept talking past each other. We missed an opportunity to connect, and to share the good news of the gospel with these two men — how it could impact there life then and there, in the present, in the mundane, material, political and economic details of their life. I did not yet grasp what was going on and what was being overlooked in this exchange until probably several years later, but I never forgot it because, I knew even then that something was wrong or at least very incomplete in what we were doing.

It wasn’t even so much though that our church then didn’t care about the material needs of people. We did service projects on that trip, to show our love and God’s love for the vulnerable in Juarez. But even acts of service, with the paradigm we were working with then, were being carried out, I think, as means to an end — the end of evangelism and conversion — rather than as an ends in themselves that could testify and actually be gospel work, just as much as the preaching and street theater.

All of this to say, taking place more than ten years ago, I’ve been on quite a spiritual and theological journey ever since. And it stems from this story. I watched the talks from last year’s Matthew 25 Gathering, and at the beginning then and this time as well, I was particularly struck by Christine’s call for the holding together of the contemplative and the activist, or reflective and practitioner sides of our faith.

This has my been my same lesson and goal. It’s why I work in spiritual formation, as a spiritual director in training, on the one hand, and write and think about how to live out my political theology, on the other hand — and see no disconnection, no contradiction between the two.

For most of my life, though, even though I came to value both the spiritual and social dimensions of the Christian life, I didn’t have an ecclesiology that was able to empower both of these dimensions at the same time. Which is to say, I didn’t appreciate the church’s role and calling, and therefore my role and calling in the face of injustice, in the right way. I didn’t have a concrete, corporate worship practice that regularly drew me in, grounded and centered me in the rhythm and reality of God’s presence.

Once I got “converted” to the gospel of the kingdom of God, in addition to the gospel of the forgiveness of sins, I just kind of assumed that churches should allocate more and more of their resources toward justice efforts until there was only a minimal amount left for anything else. No need for buildings or full-time pastors. Let’s just put the money toward community development and meet in homes practicing contemplative prayer! Which I still don’t think is a terrible idea 🙂 But I judged church in my naive zeal on this basis, and I lacked a sacramental imagination for how the church participates in extending God’s justice in the world and contending for shalom.

In fact I wrote my whole dissertation without yet discovering the role of the sacraments in developing a truly counter-cultural and counter-political movement that would contend for shalom. Part of my subtitle for my work was a political theology of neighborliness and resistance (or, contending), and these practices are vital, but what I really needed, in addition, was a theology, or more specifically an ecclesiology of Eucharistic contending, which I learned especially from a Catholic theologian and economic ethicist named William Cavanaugh in his book Torture and the Eucharist.

And so my main message to you all today, is that it is the Eucharist that is at the Center between the two sides of our faith, the inward and the outward, the eternal and the temporal, the spiritual and the social. There is some distinction between each of these dimensions, but there is no separation between them, and there certainly no conflict between them.

So the first thing the Eucharist does is give us a different ecclesiology. And this ecclesiology could be the subject of an entire conference to itself, but let me just put this way: A Eucharistic ecclesiology understands that God does the heavy lifting, not us. I know this is an obvious point that might even sound cliche, but many churches in North America still struggle to trust that it’s true. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen, for example, the explosion of the mega-church, at the same time that we’ve seen stagnation and even steady decline in overall church participation.

And to ironically borrow business language here, we’ve gotten better at packaging the Christian faith, on the one hand — we’ve reduced the cost, we’ve monetized our sermons and our songs — but we’ve done this largely while at the same time not seeing an increase in our “market share” or tapping into new markets. And we’ve done this at the same time that our churches, again, in general, remain as segregated as ever.

Both evangelical and Mainline churches have done this. Many have developed a utilitarian ecclesiology with regard to numerical church growth within the Seeker Church Movement, and some have even become utilitarian with regard works of justice (dating back to as long ago as the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the 20th Century). In either case, the church is an instrument more than a body, used to have a greater impact on society.

But it is not the job of the church, I submit to you, and therefore it is not the job of Christians, first and foremost, to change the world. This is my Anabaptish — my Anglo-anbaptish theology coming out, if I may. Yeah, no: changing the world, that is God’s job. Our job instead is something more like this — to witness to the change of the world. Though as soon as I say this, I realize it sounds a lot like Ghandi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Which is kind of embarrassing if God has to use a Hindu to tell the church its job description! But I think it’s ok, because I’m pretty sure Ghandi at least partially got this from Jesus (and of course, other Christians have said this too 🙂

There’s a show called Narcos on Netflix, and it’s not very wholesome. There’s violence and sexually explicit content at times. And it’s great TV! Whitney and I like watching it together because it helps us with our Spanish and because I’m fascinated with history of the drug war in Latin America… The main character in the third season is Pena, and he is one of the famed DEA agents who helped take down Pablo Escobar. During the first episode, he’s on leave from his job and back in Laredo, TX, where’s from. And he’s trying to get settled but feeling restless. Pena attempts to rekindle and old relationship with his former girlfriend but finds out that she’s married and has kids so he’s all depressed about this and sharing his frustrating with his dad.

In this conversation, his dad says: “Son, when you were young, you couldn’t wait to get out and see the world, but then you did, and you didn’t like what you saw. So you wanted to change it. But I warned you not to do this, because more than likely, it would end up changing you.” And in fact it did change Pena. He couldn’t rest, and he ended up going back to work long before he was supposed to because he was addicted to it. I know this is an extreme example, but I think it’s still part of what happens when we don’t have a Eucharistic Ecclesiology.

So what does the Eucharist say about ecclesiology? Well, part of what it says  – and if you’ll permit me to take a couple of verses out of context (which theologians love to do because we’re not exegetes, except for when it helps our systematic cause — is the comfortable words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11). Jesus says this to his disciples right after John the Baptist is beheaded and he has given the woes to the unrepentent cities of Galilee.  Or how about John 16, where Jesus says, I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” These words Jesus offers after warning the disciples about the injustice and persecution they’re going to face for his name’s sake.

So the Eucharist is good news to us — we know this. It offers us rest, it receives us in peace, and it gives comfort. When we receive it, it restores us, fill us up, and reminds us of our true identity, and therefore our first purpose, which is that we are children of God called to sit at the feet of God. Hans Urs von Balthasar, says that the Eucharist is contemplation in love and the communion of love with love; and it only from such a celebration that a Christian mission goes out into the world” (Love Alone is Credible).

The Eucharist is a love feast, the agape meal, in other words, where we are nourished, fed, strengthened, enlivened, awakened, by Christ’s real presence in the bread and the wine. It is an encounter with the love of God made known to us in Christ.

I seriously didn’t used to think that this mattered, because the church I grew up in didn’t think it did either. If we took communion, it was passed down the isle to us on a tray! It’s amazing how much the Sacrament of the Eucharist has come to mean to me now, though, just the very practice of coming forward every Sunday. During worship to the Lord’s table to receive something participate with everyone else in more than just sitting, standing, singing and listening. Our bodies get much more involved this way, which again blurs an perception of a disconnection between the spiritual and the physical.

So we start with good news. It’s like Creation and the whole story of the Bible — to begin with, the Eucharist is closely tied to the Sabbath rest of God’s communion with us (this is kind of like the upward movement).

And look, I probably don’t even need to say this, but I’m painfully aware that there’s nothing automatic about this — I’m not suggesting, for instance, that my taking communion, somehow people are just going to become better disciples every week. Sadly, the history of the church just shows that’s not true. We need many other things in the practice of our faith beyond Sunday worship.

But that’s what makes the next aspect of the Eucharist I’m going to talk about so important. The Scripture that’s going to help us, I think, is Corinthians 11:17-34. If the first thing the Eucharist does is draw us “upward,” secondly, it turns us inward. Because at a conference on justice and shalom, we tend to want to look outside of ourselves at the world to point out everything that’s wrong with it, and then ask what can be done? But God doesn’t let us do that just yet:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

The extent and nature of the relationship between the Eucharist and the more general breaking of bread together that’s being referenced here is not entirely clear, but it’s safe to say that the two were more connected than we are used to today. And the close association with worship and eating was familiar to the pagan context of Corinth already.

The problem that Paul is addressing in v. 21 may have either been that 1) wealthier believers were eating together in the official dining room of a Roman villa, whereas second-class citizens were relegated to the atrium; or that 2) wealthier believers came earlier to the house church gathering and ate the best food they brought without waiting to share it with the hungry poorer classes and the slaves, who arrived later.

If we can also hold Acts 2 and 4 in our minds, we might say that one major goal of this worship event in the early Church was a sharing in equal standing before God, regardless of social or economic status. Those who had more brought more so that those who had less got enough.

Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 22:15-18, “I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.” This meal is intended to be a genuine foretaste of the great eschatological love feast, or what I think we can simply call at this gathering, Shalom.

To partake in this meal, therefore, while there is unjust treatment of one another on the basis of social or economic standing is taking place, is in fact unworthy of and unpleasing to God, rendering one guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Christ (v. 27). This is a big deal.

And now we come back to Matthew 25 – those actions make one culpable for the death of Christ himself, for what we do to the least of these, we do to him. Examine yourself, therefore! Is the exhortation, lest you eat and drink condemnation on yourself! Taking communion unadvisedly could apparently kill you!

But not only are we supposed to examine ourselves. This is the first warning. The second instruction is about discerning the body. White churches (and here I’m talking just as much to myself and my own church): the black churches in your city, the Hispanic churches, the Asian churches — are you in communion with them? Are you eating before they get there? In the Roman villas? Have they been relegated to the atrium? How is it with the body of Christ in your city? Do you even know them? Are you listening to them? Do you think you’re part of the same body of Christ?

I almost wonder if the segregation of our neighborhoods and the segregation in our churches, isn’t basically the same thing as wealthy, and mostly white people taking communion first, keeping the best food for ourselves (schools, real estate, the police force, healthcare, the environment, etc.).

Before the Reformation (on this 500 year anniversary), salvation used to depend in part on one’s relationship to the body. I think we’ve lost something by moving away from that. We corrected a corruption, but we also left behind something essential. Of course, then Jon Sobrino came along 500 years later and restated it: Not just no salvation outside the church — outside the Eucharist, in other words — this became no salvation outside the poor, because the poor are part of our body, the very body of Christ.

But we have to be careful not to romanticize the poor, as you all know. And we also have to watch out for turning the Eucharist into something that romanticizes church, or makes it into what Jurgen Moltmann calls an “unbloody repetition of the event that took place on Golgotha on the altar of the church.” Moltmann also has this, moreover, to say as a warning about what he calls “the cult of the cross”:

“[The Eucharist] points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two [rebels] in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates o the city. It does not invite thought but a change of mind. It is a [sacrament] which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned.”

“On the other hand, it is a [sacrament] which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into he fellowship of the crucified God. Where this contradiction in the [Eucharist], and its revolution in religious values, is forgotten, it ceases to be a [sacrament] and become an idol, and no longer invites a revolution in thought, but the end of thought in self-affirmation.”

So the Eucharist, is visible sign of God’s unconditional, invisible grace, granting us peace and rest, but the Eucharist also judges us, as we just saw. And thirdly, the Eucharist commissions us with a task. As we consume the elements and become Christ’s mystical body, we are then entrusted with the mission of extending that body through our presence among the exploited and suffering bodies of the world — reclaiming them as Christ’s own.

Alexander Schmemann talks about the Eucharist as a procession that the church goes on to enter the Kingdom of God. This is helpful, but I think we need to add to that that the way the church makes this procession, is precisely through what J.M.R. Tillard describes as the flesh of the church becoming the flesh of Christ, in his interpretation of Ephesians 5:29-32, which is another familiar passage talking about the great mystery of who husband and wife become one flesh just as Christ’s body and his bride’s body become one flesh. We are Christ’s presence. God realizes Christ’s body through our presence.

Whereas injustice and violence in our world and society is an anti-liturgy concocted by state and market forces to oppress vulnerable bodies, the Eucharistic liturgy extends Christ’s own broken, sacrificed and resurrected body into the members of the church to become martyrs, that is witnesses, in the world.

St. Cyprian speaks of the individual body as a microcosm of Christ’s body, and therefore stresses the importance of resisting the attempts by the powers of this world — in his case, Rome — to use Christian bodies for their own purposes. Cyprian would of course ultimately join the witness of the martyrs themselves, refusing to let bodily pain intimidate him and weaken his allegiance to Christ. The Eucharist creates in ecclesial community the kind of corporate body that can resist capitulation to sexual, political, economic and cultural cooptation.

Y’all know the Didache talks about the three years that candidates for baptism spent in catechesis before they were admitted to the Eucharist. Three years. Questions such as these are asked: Have they honored widows? Have they visited the sick? Have they done every kind of labor? The president would literally say to the congregation, “Whosever is holy, let them approach. Whoso is not, let them repent.”

That is what prepares the Church as counter-body and counter-performance to the liturgies of the dominant culture, state and economy. Christendom ecclesiology, by contrast, indefinitely defers the Kingdom of God, spiritualizes it, tell the poor to wait, and is content with superficial unity that hovers above the political plane of our lives, “setting aside differences,” (that is, by not acknowledging or dealing with them, or just worshipping in our own silos). Eucharistic ecclesiology, however — properly understood — has the kingdom irrupting into time and confusing the eternal and the temporal and thereby resisting the principalities and powers, spiritual and physical.

Many Christians still misunderstand this distinction between flesh and blood on the one hand, and the principalities and power on the other. You see, by contrasting these two realms, Paul is not inserting a chasm between the spiritual and the physical. Rather, he’s making a claim about who is actually in power. Flesh and blood are still enslaved to sin, and so they act like it, and they fight like it. But if all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Christ, then our struggle is no longer with sin, for it has been overcome. The questions is, are we giving our allegiance to the one who is already on the thrown and who will have the ultimate victory over all contenders. If we tap into that power, the immanence of Christ’s eschatological reign will be at our disposal, so that flesh and blood, that is, sin and violence, are no longer weapons with which we wage war, but temporal lies that we resist because we serve and obey the one who’s already conquered them. But this does not mean the battle is not material. It still will be, and we will probably have to suffer.

Eucharistic liturgy and Eucharistic imagination disrupts the imagination of injustice and violence, because it invokes a politics of forgiveness, and repentance and enemy love. 

One of the biggest lies that the church has come to believe in the modern period, somehow, and especially in the United States, is that worship is some kind of apolitical space. The Eucharist is a political act, friends — it’s eschatological subversion of the status quo.

We can’t be fooled by the promise of a cheap unity at the Eucharist that floats above or glosses over the real conflict between the oppressed and their oppressors. Let’s not forget that the Eucharist is at least a memorial of Christ’s death at the hands of worldly authorities. And therefore a dangerous memory.

Now, again, it’s important to admit, the body of Christ is liturgically enacted, but not institutionally guaranteed. Anyone who’s part of a church knows that. Anyone studying church history knows that. But that is no reason to shrink back from tapping into the power of the Eucharist. Rather, I believe, this gap between the ideal and real is all the more cause for an urgent reclaiming of that power for precisely such a time as this.

So, our ecclesiology must become reconnected with our eschatology, which is that the Kingdom of God is at hand — not indefinitely deferred as in Christendom — and the touchdown point that holds together our doctrines of ecclesiology and our eschatology, again, is the Eucharist.

What We’re Missing When We Call Jesus “Teacher” or “Rescuer”

[This is a re-post from Missio Alliance.]

Recently I noticed a little twitter interaction between Tim Keller and Rachel Held Evans. Keller tweeted the following:

To which Evans replied:

Keller replied back:

Evans went on to make a number of other responses, when others chimed in, like:

Fully recognizing, of course, that banter on twitter hardly counts as real dialogue or theological discussion, this exchange is nonetheless revealing. Now, it could be dismissed as just a typical debate between two different streams of Christian thought, one evangelical and the other mainline Protestant. And some might want to criticize the way Evans responded to Keller’s tweet, like she was picking a fight (the snarkiness of “I’m one of those crazy people…”).

Still, I think her last tweet above actually gets at something very important. Evans’ point is not a liberal one. Nor is their disagreement necessarily about atonement theory—say, between penal substitution and moral influence. And I do not think Keller and others like him are dismissing Jesus’s teachings or the significance of following him, either.

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Freedom, Contingency and God’s Suffering Love in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Adequacy of the Analogy of Drama for Imagining the God-World Relationship

The following is a working draft of the presentation I will be making at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in the Open and Relational Theologies session on the topic, “A Wider View of Theodicy: The Place of Sufferers, Mourning, Love, and Lament in Theological and Philosophical Reasoning”:

“The Hegelian babble about the real being the true is therefore the same kind of confusion as when people assume that the words and actions of a poet’s dramatic characters are the poet’s own. We must, however, hold fast to the belief that when God—so to speak—decides to write a play, he does not do it simply in order to pass the time, as the pagans thought. No, no: indeed, the utterly serious point here is that loving and being loved is God’s passion. It is almost—infinite love!—as if he is bound to this passion, almost as if it were a weakness on his part; whereas in fact it is his strength, his almighty love: and in that respect his love is subject to no alteration of any kind. There is a staggering perversity in all the human categories that are applied to the God-man; for if we could speak in a completely human way about Christ we would have to say that the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” show a want of patience and a want of truth. Only if God says it, can it be true, i.e., even if the God-man says it. And since it is true, it is also truly the climax of pain. The relationship to God is evidently such a tremendous weight of blessedness that, once I have laid hold of it, it is absolute in the most absolute sense; by contrast, the worldly notion that my enemies are to be excluded from it would actually diminish this blessedness.”

The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in the preface of Theo-Drama Vol. 5: The Last Act, Hans Urs von Balthasar

“If God’s nature, theologically speaking, shows itself to be absolute love by giving itself away and allowing others to be, for no other reason than that this (motiveless) giving is good and full of meaning — and hence is, quite simply, beautiful and glorious — the same must apply to [God’s] “making room” for [God’s] free creatures.” – Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. II, 273

In this paper I’d like to propose that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “theo-dramatic” account of divine and human freedom, on the one hand, and divine experience in humanity’s suffering, on the other hand, can shed light on God’s love for an open and relational understanding of the doctrine of God. For Christian love — both of God and of neighbor — has not only an open and relational quality, but it is also dramatic in that it is embedded in a history the oscillates between freedom and contingency.

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Good Friday

Reflection on John 19

John tells us that this is all happening on Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery, God’s victory over Pharaoh through the Exodus, which was always potentially a politically sensitive time. It isn’t hard to connect a few dots in your mind between Egypt and Rome, in other, if you were in Pontius Pilates place, you never knew when some Galilean hothead would stir up riots against the hated Empire. (Barabbas in Luke’s account as an example of this!)The religious leaders knew this and were taking advantage of it in how they were bargaining with Pilate.

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Imagining the Beauty and Drama of Christ from History’s Underside: Toward an Ecclesial Postmodern Political Theology

If postmodern theology is to awaken the political imagination of Christian churches and energize them in a subversive and liberating way, then I submit that it must do at least two things: First, it must speak with a depth of theological conviction and fidelity to the Christian tradition in a way that at the same time transcends both modern and pre-modern epistemological strongholds.

And secondly, postmodern theology must recast the church’s mission in a manner that is, while not defined by this, still significantly informed by of a political-economic ethic from the standpoint of the experience of those on the underside of history — which is to say, those who do not benefit from the dominant center of society but rather find themselves on the periphery, in many respects. In particular, when I say underside, I mean those victimized to some degree by euro-american, “colonial-capitalist” history (whether it be on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or what have you).

So, there two challenges for the church — one postmodern/epistemological, the other postcolonial/political-material. And my way of thinking about these two fronts of that the church is facing, is helped by drawing on the work of two major figures: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Enrique Dussel.

Balthasar’s theology, for those who may not know, begins with a theology of beauty — and really it’s an epistemology – an approach to truth and faith from an aesthetic starting point, rather than a propositional or moral one. And then, only after having started with beauty, does he move into what he calls theo-dramatics. Because he’s saying that what is truly beautiful is the key for knowing, inspiring and approximating God’s goodness in the world, shaped by the Christian story: “God’s drama” of salvation history. This also has implications for ecclesiology, which I will touch on briefly below.

The second thinker I’m relying on is Enrique Dussel. Dussel is a contemporary of Latin American liberation theologians (LTs) like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, but he has really distinguished himself as a philosopher more so than a theologian by seriously and critically engaging modern European and American philosophers of the 20th Century. Specifically he appropriates Emmanuel Levinas but in a more socio-political rather than phenomenological vein, using some of Levinas’s same categories, like exteriority and alterity, to talk about how the most privileged political and ethical perspective is always that of the victim and outsider — the excluded one.

But even more than that, Dussel retells the history of modernity itself, which for him is essentially coterminous with colonialism, in terms of having its origin and defining material moment in the Spanish conquest and invasion of the Americas – in the events of the subjugation, brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people there and what that has continued to mean for Latin American history ever since even well into the 20th and 21st Century. This is how he conceives of history itself from the experience of its “underside,” what he also terms the “subaltern.” Modern Western civilization was built on this imperial “discovery” and the slave-based economy that ensued. The consequences are still being experienced, especially by the governments of Central America in the past 50 years.

But Balthasar is the figure who I believe can guide us — not all the way, but for a while — beyond the modern/post-modern impasse, while also being faithful to the Christian tradition (even though he of course has his blind-spots too). Here’s what I mean: if modernity was guilty of logocentrism, condescension, normalization and universalization by way of trying to smooth out differences, then postmodernity has been prone to paralyze constructive politics in the name of heterogeneity and multiculturalism/pluralism (Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda). Alan Badiou has voiced a comparable critique of postmodernity by describing it as “communitarian particularism” that “reduces the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . [that] ends up in a cultural and historical relativism” (Badiou, 2003). And I think von Bathasar’s theology, again, because of both his aesthetic epistemology, on the one hand, and his christocentrism, on the other, avoids the cliff on either side.

In addition, I’m trying to map an ecclesial political theology, which means it will take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship. For the latter is yet another way that political theology has too often been captured by modernity.

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated. I’m not calling for a neo-anabaptist politic. But Balthasar argues that, in his public ministry, Jesus illustrates how there can be an opening up a horizon beyond the immediacy of the state, indirectly limiting the state by subjecting it to an eschatological critique. Which is by no means an abandonment of the material, but it does signal toward something beyond the material that is always manifesting and incarnating itself in the material. So there remains the indication of a liberation the originates in God, not humanity.

Here’s what this politics boils down to though for Balthasar. In Theodrama vol. 2 he states that:

“Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” of the body of Christ in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize the inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live…”

So political power comes in the weakness of that solidarity that the church has with the most vulnerable.

Like Jesus, though, there is a refusal to concede to the “rivalries of history,” for Balthasar. The church cannot grab power or seek to influence it from the top down. And there’s a lot about this that I think we should hold on to. So Balthasar gives us parameters for a Christian ecclesiology, but there is much wanting here in terms of the promise of and cry for liberation from oppression! There’s not enough urgency in Balthasar. So for a political and economic ethic, I turn to Dussel.

It’s worth noting that while he’s not a pacifist, Dussel considers any power taken by the state, rather than power given by the people in their consent, to be illegitimate. Because this would be self-referential power and therefore fetishism.

Dussel accuses both the neoliberal US and the Latin American Left of historically presupposing the necessity of violence against their political opponent – and instead contends that politics is about the continuation of life whose aim is the very preservation of the opponent — through the means of deliberation and delegation, and so on. So Dussel’s is a biopolitics – of the preservation, enhancement and continuation of the life of the political community but also of its very condition for material reproduction: the planet, culture and indigenous traditions!

  1. So the first of three ethical principles that Dussel follows is a material one, expressed as the obligation to produce life. Its concern is with human bodies and their well-being. This is the source of value for the political community, not production or consumption.
  2. The second principle, then, is more formal and procedural, as that of discourse ethics (it’s the goal of consensus around moral validity). Bearing in mind the first principle then, discourse here is always carried out with the voice of the underside, and of victims setting the terms of dialogue.
  3. Third, there is the criterion of feasibility (feasibility of mediations), the question of what can actually and practically be achieved in any given political situation.

These three criteria – material, dialogical and feasible – are co-constitutive of what Dussel judges can finally be called “good.”

Finally, though, I turn back to Balthasar. In his mind, Beauty (aesthetics) is the starting point, and may in fact have the most potent recourse to inciting the Good.

And obviously, for Balthasar, the archetype of beauty is the life-form, and the whole drama of Jesus, the Christ figure, whose beauty is most fully revealed in relief from the ugliness of humanity’s violence that puts people on crosses. So beauty is made known above all in God’s willingness to go to that human, bodily and historical-material, political place of suffering and rejection.

So to summarize all of this: because of the kind of beauty that is revealed for Christians in Jesus (this is Balthasar), there is an ecclesiological call to solidarity, with those who Jesus has solidarity with in his suffering. What Dussel then demonstrates, moreover, is that this solidarity must start with those on the margins.  And Dussel’s three principles for political-economic ethics stress that this solidarity is not just a willingness to suffer with, but to suffer for. It is a willingness to resist with and to protest with – not just with but for people, to achieve better conditions for the flourishing of their lives.

As I consider what this theology amounts to if practiced, I imagine that it might reflect several aspects of what political theologian Mark Lewis Taylor calls critical movements of resistance.

Taylor discusses critical movements of resistance as responses to various sufferings and injustices that are being experienced by those on history’s underside as a result of the colonial-capitalist state, in theo-poetic fashion, which is not reducible to the level of political economy (so aesthetics!), but is just as much interested in affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to catalyze a social movement.

So an appropriate Critical Movement of Resistance (CMR) will take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in public policy, though it certainly includes this. And it will be constituted by at least three visible markings, Taylor says: an 1) owning of agonistic being — solidarity in suffering, sharing in the weight of the world. Second, 2) cultivating of artful reflex, a kind of mirroring or mimicking of the state. Perhaps most powerfully illustrated just biblically in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, genuine street theater! and thirdly, the 3) fomenting of adversarial political and counter-colonial/decolonial practices, which would need to actually name opponents, call them out, expose them, make evil show itself! Not destroying the opponent, but calling them to repentance! And then attempt to take higher moral ground in an unpredictable and offsetting stealing of the show, beating stakeholders to the stage. It is disruptive and demonstrative, in other words.

This obviously takes strategic planning, vulnerable networking, risk-taking, and in a way that has to be careful not to devolve into sheer aestheticism, and that at least aiming to bring about sustainable, and life-renewing communal activities.


More Atonement Talk: Some Clarification and Application

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 19, 2015.

According to its founding documents, Missio Alliance is committed to two things regarding the doctrinal issue of the atonement: 

[First, asking] what is God’s salvation in Christ in the world and how might we understand it in a way that honors substitutionary atonement yet places it within the whole context of God’s work to set the world right? [And second,] working out what this means for conversion and sanctification of the individual believer as well as his/her participation in the Mission of God in the whole world.”

It is in this spirit that I wrote my post “Payment or Forgiveness?: Putting the Gospel back into the Atonement.” Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t done to the satisfaction of some. In this post, I’m going to try to make a few clarifications concerning the push-back I have received, and then go on to consider the second task mentioned above, which is to say something about what this doctrine means on the ground for individuals and churches participating in God’s mission.

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Payment or Forgiveness? Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 8, 2015.

By now it has become fairly common for many evangelicals to have expanded their understanding of the gospel to include the good news about the Kingdom of God, and about a new way of life that is made available in the Spirit because of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. This should be celebrated! And the message still needs to be proclaimed throughout our culture and the whole earth, for that matter, but it is really great that there has been some headway made on this front in many churches, thanks to scholars like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others before and after them.

At the same time, a problem remains within these same evangelical circles concerning the way we think about the gospel. The “Kingdom-of-God critique” does succeed at making the gospel bigger and more contextualized. It reveals that the good news is for all of creation, and not just human beings, and it situates the story of Jesus within the larger history of Israel as its climax and completion. This is very good, but we still need more.

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Seeing Truth after Modernity in the Gospel of John

[This post appeared first on the Missio Alliance blog here.]

This last month I started teaching a class at our church called “Jesus in John.” In surprising ways, I’m finding that the season of Easter and the celebration of the resurrection is especially brought to life by the fourth Gospel. Immersing myself in a study of John again has alerted me to how much I’ve sometimes let the biases of modern scholarship creep into my thinking about Jesus’ teachings and self-understanding. In spite of all the light that historical criticism may shed on what we can confidently say about the biographical details of Jesus’ life, I’m reminded of the extent to which a focus on merely measurable truth can seriously limit our imagination and capacity for perceiving truly human and transcendent truth.

In the passion narrative of John’s Gospel, Pilate infamously asks, “What is truth?” I say he “asks,” but it is hard to know if Pilate is really asking anything. Does Jesus simply refuse to respond, or is John taking us into Pilate’s inner monologue? Pilate is conflicted. He has no measurable reason for believing the claim that Jesus has been given authority that is greater than the Emperor’s. In the end, for Pilate, the truth of power wins out against the weak truth of his own blurry vision of Jesus, who for John is truth made visible, because he reveals the Father (1:18).

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Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

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