This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Moment Is Ours to Seize

At the end of her wonderful article in the latest edition of Orion magazine, Rebecca Solnit gives a description of the emerging economic system after the collapse of Capitalism.  I think it tells us something about what the church is becoming as well.

"The future has never been more uncertain, but that's not all bad news.  This moment could belong to those who want to articulate something that is neither capitalist nor communist but local, durable, humane, imaginative, inclusive, and open to ongoing improvisation, rather than locked up in a fixed ideology.  The moment is ours to seize."  

Replace the economic ideologies with theological orthodoxies --- evangelical, liberal, Reformed, or whatever --- and maybe we are also hoping for something to emerge that is local, durable, humane, inclusive, and open to ongoing improvisation.

It's a great article, by the way.  In the January/February 2009 issue of Orion

A peaceful and blessed New Year to all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Emergent Post-Christendom Polity?

Under Christendom the church was structured to serve the empire.  It was centralized, hierarchical, and geared to produce the uniformity the empire required, accomplish the missions assigned to it by the empire, and diminish dissent.  The church assumed the form and mission that the empire demanded of it.    

Even in democratic systems there remained this common assumption that the churches would consider and do whatever is good for society as the rulers of society understood it.  In a democracy the rulers of society are the people, which means that the church reflects the will and sensibilities of the majority of the people.  This bias has so infected our churches that many often automatically think that the people are the highest authority, not God.  

If Christendom demanded an imperialistic framework for the church, then what kind of ecclesiology will we see emerging now that Christendom no longer functions?   I suspect that our churches will start to look more like marginal, minority, alternative communities, and less like pillars of cultural conformity and imperial power.  Christian communities will be increasingly rooted in counter-cultural practices which emphasize and embody an identity distinct from that of the majority.  

I wonder if the example of the Jewish community provides any insight here.  For centuries, while the Christian churches were mimicking the empire in their polity, the Jewish communities within the same empire were organized differently.  Having little or no investment in the empire or its power, the Jewish communities were more diverse, decentralized, flexible, and small.  They were free to order their lives according to their own understanding of their identity and mission.  They did not have their mission assigned to them by the powers that be.  (Although they certainly had the limits to their mission imposed upon them.)  

Rabbinic Judaism, with its deepest roots in the Babylonian Exile, was well-suited to the situation of a scattered and oppressed religious minority.  Counter-cultural practices had already been developed — kosher laws, circumcision, Sabbath, etc. — that enabled the communities to maintain a distinct identity as a persecuted minority.  (Stanley Hauerwas has said somewhere that the Jewish synagogues were far more in tune with what Jesus had in mind than the imperial church.  I think he is right.)

I suspect that the emerging polity will both transcend and include elements of the three historic polities in the church: congregational/democratic, presbyterian/representative, and episcopal/monarchical.  I also anticipate a looser, more networked format, with local faith communities and ministers voluntarily aligning themselves in “movements” that emphasize different approaches, styles, perspectives, and theological outlooks.

I wonder if polity doesn’t reflect the approach the church has to the Scriptures.   If we have had democratic, representative, and monarchical frameworks in the past, perhaps the future will be more “dialogical,” to use Walter Brueggemann’s term.  That is, instead of a polity which is oriented towards producing the single, consistent, enforceable meaning required by the empire, we may see a polity which is more energized by the way different voices are held in tension/balance, in an ongoing, contextual discernment process.  It will be less legal.  (We Presbyterians no longer call our regional units “judicatories.”  The current nomenclature, “governing bodies,” is also being seriously questioned.  The proposed Form of Government will call such units “councils,” which is a considerably more dialogical, consultative, and interactive term.)

The link between hermeneutic and polity calls for more exploration.  But I am liking the idea of the emergent hermeneutic and polity being described by the word “dialogical.”  

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

I found these in a book by Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.  

The First Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.  I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

The Second Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals.  I am committed to practicing generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need.  I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that ought to belong to others.  I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

The Third Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society.  I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and long-term commitment.  To preserve the happiness of myself and others I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others.  I will do everything within my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

The Fourth Mindfulness Training

 Aware that suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to being joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.  Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to learn to speak truthfully with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.  I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure.  I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord or that can cause the family or the community to split apart.  I will make every effort to reconcile all conflicts however small.

The Fifth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming.  I am committed to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.  I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicants or to ingest other items that contain toxins, such as certain television programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations.  I am aware that damage to my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations.  I will work to transform violence, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society.  I understand that proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

--- Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, pp. 126-134. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Two Good Books

I just finished two books of note: Being Consumed, by William T. Cavanaugh, and What Would Jesus Deconstruct? by John D. Caputo.  They have in common the connection to the theological movement called Radical Orthodoxy.  Both are short, to the point, and highly recommended.  
The Caputo book has the added feature of being endorsed by Brian McLaren and Tony Jones, two leaders of Emergent Village.  I think this connection between Radical Orthodoxy and Emergent could be very fruitful.  Emergent will benefit from a more systematic — though certainly diverse and loose — post-evangelical/post-liberal theological framework.  RO could desperately use input from people doing actual church work with actual people.  
“Being Consumed” is brief, to the point, and way more easily readable than most RO material.  It is an analysis of Capitalism from the Christian perspective and points out that, basically, Christianity and Capitalism-as-we-know-it are incompatible.
“The key question in every transaction is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved, and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of human life, which is participation in the life of God”  (p viii).  The focus on the basic question of life’s chief end ties the book together.  It is also a common theme in Radical Orthodoxy generally.  
In Daniel Bell’s excellent book, Liberation Theology After the End of History, he juxtaposes the assumptions of Capitalism, as framed by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, against those of Christianity.  In the former, the highest and deepest desires of humanity are summarized in material prosperity and consumption, while in the latter it is affirmed that the “joy of human desiring” is Jesus Christ.  It is this rigorously and unapologetically Christian theological reasoning that characterizes the Radical Orthodox approach, both undercutting and exposing the real agenda of Capitalism.
Once we have redefined the true end of human life as “participation in the life of God,” and that this is our truest and best desire, everything else falls into place.  The Capitalism ideology is exposed as godless set of artificial desires imposed on people and fed like an addiction.  

Cavanaugh defines freedom, not as freedom from interference from others (primarily government) but as freedom to move towards fulfillment of our chief end.  In this he lifts up St. Augustine (a favorite of RO thinking), who famously prayed “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” expressing the principle desire of humanity from a Christian perspective; and he critiques the opposite understanding as articulated by Milton Friedman.
Some of this is very timely as we see all around us the failure of Capitalism as we enter what is at least the most severe recession in 60 years.  
In the end, Cavanaugh juxtaposes Capitalism’s manufacture of a sense of scarcity and always needing more, newer, and better, with the Christian view expressed in the eucharist of there always being more than enough, an abundance of good things, in Jesus Christ.  It is isolated individualism vs. community.  It is individuals at war with each other to acquire, control, and consume limited resources, or the development of creative communities of mutual benefit and interaction.
In What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, John D. Caputo delivers an extended riff on the WWJD? question, using rarefied tools of post-modern philosophy.  The book’s value is found in point out again the importance of deconstruction in Christian theology.  Caputo brings the insights of Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, and others, into theology, and he does it here in an extremely accessible, immediate, and informal way.  (Much of the book reads like it was dictated off-the-cuff at a bar somewhere.)
This intersection of deconstruction with theology is not that new.  Thomas J. J. Altizer has been exploring this since at least the early 1980's.  There has always been a certain deconstructive element in Christianity, found in reform movements throughout Christian history.  The iconoclasm of the Reformation is one example.  But all attempts to shed cultural baggage that obscures the gospel can be seen as deconstructive movements, as Caputo points out.
“The good news deconstruction bears to the church is to provide the hermeneutics of the Kingdom of God.  The deconstruction of Christianity is not an attack on the church but a critique of the idols to which it is vulnerable — the literalism and authoritarianism, sexism and racism, the militarism and imperialism, and the love of unrestrained capitalism with which the church in its various forms has today and for far too long been entangled, any one of which is toxic to the Kingdom of God” (p. 137).
In other words, Caputo would say that deconstruction is the hermeneutic in which Christians continually and vigilantly seek out and destroy the idolatries that attack it.  And the criteria/standard for this is the text of the gospels.  Jesus’ message, especially the Sermon on the Mount, is a relentless critique of these idolatries.  His words must not be domesticated or disregarded, but always allowed to shape and reshape his community, and through it the world.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Today's Prayer

Gracious God,
we await the end of the world.
We have always prayed that you would “quickly come!”
What we await is not the destruction 
of your beautiful planet
and not the annihilation 
of your precious and beloved children,
but the fulfillment of our world’s true purpose
revealed in Jesus Christ.  
It is he,
and the shining, glorious, 
eternal, invincible love which he embodies,
who is the end — 
the goal, destiny, purpose, and meaning — 
of our world, and of our lives.
He is the One we are waiting for.

Help us, by the power of your Spirit,
to wait with wisdom,
keeping our lamps ready,
immersed in the good work you call on us to do.

As a church 
let us live in the light of your promised coming,
serving others, 
doing justice, 
cherishing creation, 
gathering together, 
forming communities of peace and acceptance, 
forgiveness and delight, 
where every individual is heard and encouraged, 
loved and respected.

Let us separate ourselves 
from the reign of death and violence.
Let competition and envy,
greed and gluttony.
The need to be first and have more,
gain no traction among us.
But let us walk simply and gently
upon the Earth,
as Jesus did.
Leaving no wake or footprint
except love, joy, and peace.

We pray that your peace 
may extend through us
into our world.  
We pray especially for those
whose lives were disrupted
by the terror attacks in Mumbai last week.
Our hearts go out to families and friends
of those who died.
We pray for those enduring terrible violence and warfare
in the Congo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Help us to follow the One 
who comes as the Prince of Peace, 
responding to violence with love and forgiveness, witnessing to the power of your cross to save.

We pray, O God, for those who suffer among us
pain of body, soul, or spirit.  We especially lift up....
Restore them to wholeness, O God,
by the power of your Spirit.
Let your light shine upon and within them
knitting back together what is broken,
restoring what is lost,
banishing what is evil.

We thank you for the life of....
And for all in her/him that is good, and kind, and holy.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord,
in the communion 
of all who have gone before us in the faith 
and all who will come after, 
we commend ourselves, one another, 
and our whole life to you, 
O Christ our God, 
and to you we render glory, 
now and forever.  

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Margaret Barker is important.

One of the topics my wife and I get into what passes for a heated discussion about is Margaret Barker.  She even refers to Margaret as “the other woman,” since as soon as Barker’s latest book comes out I may be found curled up with it for days.  Barker is deeply interesting, but as Susan continually points out, Barker is vulnerable to the “so what?” critique.  This is what I will try and answer. in these three entries.

Margaret Barker is an Old Testament scholar who has written several books, all pertaining to what she calls “Temple Theology.”  Temple Theology seeks to discover the influence and symbolism of the Temple, main the first Temple, built by Solomon, and show how it pervades the Scriptures, even undergirding much of Christian theology.
Put in historical terms, Barker’s thesis is that the religious “reform” in Jerusalem instigated by Josiah and Hilkiah in the 7th century bce was actually a purge carried out by one particular faction of Judaism which then nearly wiped out much of what had been the religion of Israel and the Temple.  The original religion was suppressed and many of its adherents were scattered.  
In her earlier work Barker identifies the hints and vestiges of this lost religion in various shreds of tradition and text both within our canonical Scriptures and in a wide variety of other sources.  Her theory is that this tradition went underground but was carefully maintained in places like the Enoch/apocalyptic and Wisdom streams.  
(Much of her evidence for all this is admittedly circumstantial and anecdotal; but she amasses so much of it that it is hard to disregard.) 
She holds that the older, suppressed religion was still around in coherent enough form to provide much of the underpinnings of Christianity.  In fact, I think Barker would say that Christianity was in many ways a resurrection, reconstitution, revival of this older and nearly lost Judaism.  Her theories would be only mildly interesting did they not provide coherent answers to several of the major puzzles of the New Testament and early Christianity.
For instance, I was working with my confirmation class a couple of Sundays ago.  We were considering the question of why it is important that Christians claim that Jesus was God.  What did that claim mean to first century people?  How is it possible?  Why is it a scandalous claim to some?  Where did the early church get this idea?  What possessed them to imagine Jesus could be worshipped and prayed to as God?  As I am reflecting with them on this I hear a voice in my head saying that if only I could get them to read Margaret Barker.  Instead, I have to sort of settle for feeding them the standard party-line.  But Barker insists that the idea of two Gods in heaven was not new to the Jews of Jesus’ time.  We see it in the distinction between Elohim and YHWH.  Furthermore, it was not unheard of for God to become a person and vice=versa.  It was already part of the older tradition that a human-being, the high priest, would “become” YHWH in the Temple ritual.  Part of the liturgy of the Temple was “becoming” angels, like Enoch becomes the heavenly being, Metatron. 
What we understand as Judaism today is really an evolved form of one particular of many sects of Judaism at the time of Jesus.  Barker holds that as Rabbinic Judaism was forming, in tension with emerging Christianity, it took steps to adjust the Scriptures, removing or changing passages that the Christians were using to support their ministry and theology.  The most public and obvious example of this is the change in the Hebrew Masoretic Text in the wording of Isaiah 7:14, from “the virgin,” a reading that remains in the Septuagint, to “a young woman.”  The Septuagint wording reflects an older Hebrew text that was not available to us until copies of it were dug up at Qumran, showing that the original had been altered.  The Septuagint wording has obvious importance for Christians who were confessing Jesus to be born of a virgin.  Barker goes on to talk about how the child to be born and called “Emmanuel,” “God-is-with-us,” referred to the role of the king as representing YHWH to the people.  And that it was not just a virgin, but the Virgin, as in a long-lost semi-Goddess tradition within Judaism.  It emerges in Revelation 12:1-6 as “the woman clothed with the sun,” and obviously gets reinterpreted in terms of Mary as theotokos.  
The effort to repress the older form of Jewish faith, replacing it with the emphasis on Moses and Torah, is something that continued among the community returning from the exile, and was then imposed on the local people when they got back to Canaan.  We see vestiges of this conflict in Third Isaiah.  We also find direct hostility towards the Second Temple and its priesthood among the sectarians at Qumran.  
And we see it reflected in the New Testament where there is explicit talk about getting away from excessive or exclusive focus on law/Torah/Moses.  Paul and Jesus both lift up the older faith of Abraham as a counter to this movement to mosaicize the faith.  Even the term “Jews” may often refer to the mosaic parties like the Pharisees, not all Israelites.  Communities loyal to the older religion may have referred to themselves by other names.  Jesus has some negative things to say (and do) concerning the Temple.  Stephen’s final sermon in Acts deliberately downplays Moses and critiques the Temple.
The early Christians talked about Jesus as God, Lord, and Messiah.  They worshiped him.  They prayed to him.  And they remembered texts showing that he had to suffer and die, and be raised.  Barker says that they were accessing and reviving something already existent within Judaism.  Standard scholarship has had to find/invent Greek influences for this direction.  I have always found this hard to believe since it happened so very early and among people who were not educated Greeks.  But Barker says there was a preformed, deeply Jewish, theological framework that the Christians adopted, adapted, and activated.  This framework was the liturgy and theology of the original Temple.
Furthermore, Jesus may have had far more detailed and comprehensive understanding of his own mission, and one much closer to what the early church would claim about him, than has been realized by many scholars to date.  It is no longer necessary (if it ever was) to rip out of Jesus’ mouth and attribute to later writers the things Jesus says (or allows to have said) about himself as God and Messiah, and about his own suffering, death, and resurrection.  Barker’s view makes the Jesus of the gospels more plausible than any of the reconstructed imaginary Jesuses which  emerge from time to time from the academic community (least of all that of the The Jesus Seminar).  Under Barker’s framework, there is no reason why Jesus could not have known who he was (Lord, God, Messiah) and what he came to do (proclaim the Kingdom of God, establish the new community, and give his life as a sacrifice).

Friday, November 21, 2008


To vest or not to vest?

I have heard the arguments on both sides.  On the one hand, vestments appear to set apart the "clergy" as a special class above the rest of the church.  They separate and distinguish one class from another.  This is pretty explicit I think in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, with hierarchical implications.  

Christian vestments are originally based simply on the garb of officials in the Roman Empire.  

On the other hand, what do I want to look like up there?  A corporate executive?  A lawyer?  That's what the alternative --- a business suit --- implies.  Why don't I just look like what I am which is a pastor, and wear the robe?  

Or I could wear something really loaded with baggage, like workers' clothes, or even, my favorite fantasy, the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner.  Wouldn't that make a statement?  

My wife, Susan, made another point the other day.  In some ways vestments tell a story and need to indicate the one wearing, keeping, telling, sharing the story.

The wearer of the vestments represents both the story and the people.  He/she is the interface between story and people.  

This relates a little to the role of vestments in ancient Israelite worship.  The High Priest wore the white robe of the angels when he was in the Holy of Holies, but when he was in the other courts he wore a robe of the same fabric and pattern as the veil: blue, purple, red, and white, representing the whole creation.  It was as if, coming out through the veil, the colors and the character of the veil glommed onto him.

(Surely this relates somehow to the "putting on Christ" Paul talks about.)

Anyway, I can go with a robe if it represents not a special, uplifted individual, but rather a role one undertakes as the story keeper/teller/interpreter.   


Thursday, November 20, 2008


It used to be enough to just point to a text in Scripture to settle a theological dispute among Protestants.  That doesn’t work anymore.  In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle points to the slavery dispute in the 19th century as the time when this consensus began to fall apart.  It was no longer enough to identify biblical texts that tolerated slavery as a justification for the practice.  I suspect the problems with the proof-text approach to Scripture go even deeper and farther back than that.  In any case, she shows how a succession of social issues served to undermine Scriptural authority, as the church learned to accept divorce, women in ministry, and now struggles with gays in ministry.  

My view has been that the church was led by the Spirit to a broader understanding of Scripture and its authority.  But I am beginning to wonder about the authority thing as well.  The Reformation replaced the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with that of the Bible.  Tickle says we are at another hinge point in history and when the dust clears we will end up with a different understanding of authority.  While some will continue to hang on to sola scriptura, many will find this severely inadequate.  Many already do.  

Sola scriptura is collapsing, and it’s not just because of external cultural pressures.  It is also because of the different voices that emerge from Scripture itself.  Walter Brueggemann points out that Scripture is best interpreted dialogically.  Which is to say Scripture is always in dialogue, if not contradiction, with itself.  One of many examples of this is the disagreement in the post-exilic period between the Ezra/Nehemiah/Deuteronomist exclusivist position, and the Third Isaiah/Ruth dissenting inclusivist position.  Under Christendom the Church had to choose a single dominant narrative, and relegate other narratives to a subsidiary or even disregarded place.  Society would not bear mixed messages.  But now we are allowing ourselves to hear these other voices within Scripture.    

The need for having a monolithic and consistent message emanating from an established and unquestioned authority is probably part of the Christendom model of doing things.  In the imperial State Church it was essential to have one authority imposed hierarchically.  The Reformation did little more than adjust this authority from the Church to the Bible.  But the necessity for having a single authority and a single interpretive schema remained.  Hence the Reformed Confessions which spelled out the official, authoritative interpretation of Scripture for Reformed churches.  Hence the enthusiasm among some Presbyterians historically for requiring subscription to certain confessional standards.  Under Christendom any deviation from the standard party-line was considered a dangerous threat to the whole society.  

But our post-Christendom world means that what-is-good-for-society-as-determined-by-those- who-run-society is no longer the main consideration.  Increasingly, the Church sees something else as the main consideration.  This is its own calling as disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ.  Society’s rulers have always understood the Church to be subservient to their agenda.  Thus the Church was to bless government policy, instill productive values and loyalty in people, and administer social welfare efforts on the State’s behalf.  Now the Church is free to serve, not the State, the society, the will of the people, the economy, the ruling class, etc., but the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ.

A single, hierarchical, objective system of doctrine, imposed and enforced from “above,” is not necessary in a post-Christendom arrangement.     

I am prognosticating that the emerging authority will reflect a post-Christendom context and be non-centralized, contextual, non-standardized, non-hierarchical, and non-objective.  While the authority in the Middle Ages was the Church, and in the Modern Age it was the Bible, I am suggesting that the authority for the next age will be a more fluid and dialogical interaction involving three elements: the Word, the gathered community/ecclesia, and the Spirit.  

1) The Word of God is Jesus Christ.  The Bible is indeed not less than the Word of God, but it is so only derivatively and secondarily by virtue of its unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.  The Bible is the Word of God when and because it witnesses to Jesus Christ.    

2) The gathered community is the locus for interpretation and application of the Word.  The gathering centers on Scripture as the primary medium through which they come to experience and know Jesus Christ and themselves as his body.  There is no question of the kind of individual and private interpretation towards which Protestantism always veered.

3) The movement and inspiration of the Spirit is known in and actively guides this process by driving participants out of themselves and continually offering challenges to conventional and comfortable readings.  The point of the dialogical approach is not to paralyze the gathering because one consistent, exclusive way forward cannot be identified.  It is to involve the gathering in the drama, an ongoing conversation happening among the Trinitarian God and the people.  The Spirit is the Presence of Christ leading the ecclesia towards and in himself.   

This means that not every gathering will have exactly the same theology or practice.  Ecclesial relationships will be less hierarchical or corporate and more network-like and fluid.  It will mean authority is exercised less legally and more as a matter of rhetorical persuasion.  Which is frankly more like the situation of the earliest ecclesia.  The Apostle Paul did not have the power of a hierarchy or a Book of Order or a denominational bureaucracy — or even a canon of Scripture —  behind him, let alone the force of army, police, or judges.  He had the power of his own experience, vision, theology, and ability to communicate effectively the narrative of salvation.

I foresee fluid and reforming networks of gatherings which change and shift and evolve according to the present and emerging missional requirements.  Yet I also see an imperative need to articulate and maintain the basics, the essentials, the characteristics that signify a shared faith. 

One necessary discipline will be to keep in communication with those who have different views.  The tendency will be to form coalitions of the like-minded.  The challenge will be to be continually challenged by the unlike-minded.  So this model of authority could blow apart by centrifugal force if it is not tempered and shaped by some kind of covenanting.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Yoga for Christians

My wife and I just got back from yoga class.  We try to go weekly, and do at least some sun salutations every day, or at least a few times a week.  

There was a very brief debate on CNN a while back on whether Christians should do yoga.  (You can see it on this blog:  The two contestants John MacArthur, the pastor of “Grace Community Church” (a middle-aged white guy in a suit) and Doug Pagitt (who looks about 30, wearing an open blue work shirt).  Pagitt is one of the leaders/authors in the “emerging church” movement.  

The argument against Christian involvement in yoga is that it is an expression of pantheism that focuses people on a “false” deity within, while distracting from the “true” deity above.  MacArthur articulated a disembodied, mental, and verbal understanding of faith: assent to some theological propositions and God will save you.  Summarizing MacArthur’s opinion: You need to go to the word of God, embracing in faith Christ’s sacrifice.  Then God comes, regenerates you, transforms your life, and you’re saved, you’re on your way to heaven. In short, you need to fill your mind with biblical truth and focus on the God who is above you; but yoga tries to find the God inside of you, which is a false religion.
Pagitt really didn’t present adequate theological responses, except that he knows people who do yoga who are also faithful Christians who are not harmed by it so it must be okay.

I have studied yoga off and on over the last 30 years.  My involvement with it was more than the purported health benefits of stretching exercises, which is why most Americans who do yoga do it, I think.  I have always been explicitly interested in the spiritual side of it.  It is part of my own personal search for an authentic and comprehensive spirituality.  More specifically, it represents an interface between the spiritual and the physical that interests me as a Christian for whom the Incarnation is a central doctrine.

The evangelical party-line that MacArthur spouts has never worked for me.  It smacks of what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.  It limits faith to a cognitive opinion that bears fruit in nothing more than mouthing a few words.  What someone then goes on to actually do in and with their life is immaterial.  There is no connection between soul and body.  This teaching heads clearly in the direction of gnosticism.  

In fact, there actually are bodily postures connected with prayer in Christianity.  The Bible recommends two basic physical attitudes for prayer: kneeling (eg. Psalm 95:6) and standing (eg. Psalm 24:3).  Lifting hands and bowing down are also mentioned.  (No warrant for sitting on one’s butt in a pew or chair to pray, you notice, nor, to be fair, sitting in a lotus position.)   In the Orthodox church worshipers may perform prostrations during the Liturgy.  A prostrations is a form of bowing in which a person ends up face down on the floor.  One may argue that the yogic “sun salutation” is really just an elaborate and embellished form of a prostration.  I have never heard anyone in the Orthodox community argue that there is any health benefit to performing prostrations; it is all about submitting yourself to God in a physical, visible way.  And in the Philokalia we do find rudimentary guidelines for bodily positions enhancing prayer.  (On the negative side I would be remiss not to mention practices like self-flagellation which do attend to the body by punishing it.) 

Standing, kneeling, lifting hands, and bowing down are all part of yoga... as is sitting.  

Protestantism sought to purge nearly everything physical, multi-sensory, and bodily from Christian worship.  In what might be its most extreme and pure form, Puritanism, the congregation is literally boxed into pews, remaining motionless, using nothing more than their auditory sense.  They might stand to sing, but that’s about it.  The minister doesn’t hardly move either.  It is probably as asomatic a practice of worship as has ever existed among humans.

Even when I was a kid, growing up in Presbyterian churches, the physicality of worship was extremely understated.  It was still limited to standing and sitting, singing and listening.  Even the unavoidably physical aspects of worship, like the sacraments, were severely circumscribed.  Like the nearly water-free baptisms that still happen, or the pre-prepared tiny pillows of bread and mini cups of grape juice we still use and serve to people sitting unmoving in rows.  Liturgical dance still scandalizes.  Churches might pass the peace, choirs might process, but even these halting attempts at physical movement are not always welcomed by traditionalists.

The extremely head-centered approach to religion is neither faithful to the gospel nor attractive to people today.  The doctrines of the Incarnation and Resurrection make the physical, somatic dimension of central importance for Christians.  Beyond the health concerns, Christians involved in yoga may be trying to augment from another world spiritual tradition a piece that has always been woefully underdeveloped in Christianity.  Yet it is consonant with Christian doctrine.  The implications of the Incarnation and the bodily Resurrection have not been systematically addressed in the Christian tradition, especially in Protestantism. 

The truth of the gospel is that in Christ the living God becomes flesh to dwell among us.  Yoga is about putting some of our attention on our own “flesh” as a balance to excessive rationalism (in my case).  It gives us an authentic way to manifest the balance and integration between body and soul, flesh and spirit, earth and heaven, that is integral to Christianity but underemphasized for centuries.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

This is a response I wrote to a friend's Reformation Day sermon in which he postulated two different Christianities, one "traditional" and this other, new one he calls "inclusive, accepting." 

You graciously and courageously asked for responses to your sermon.  I respectfully give you mine.

I think you may have identified a “theological chasm” in the church.  However, I certainly don’t recognize myself in the way the evil second theology is depicted.  

I suspect that the most fundamental difference between the two theologies lies in the different understandings of human nature and sin.  One group comes from the Augustinian pole that holds the “total depravity” view of human nature.  That is, human beings are now, due to the Fall, inherently evil.  The redemption they require is basically a replacement of a rotten soul by a new soul, imported from without.  

The alternate view is that human nature was created basically good and remains so.  Original sin is very real and powerful, but it did not destroy, annihilate, and mangle the soul beyond recognition.  Rather, sin is depicted as something that covers, obscures, is encrusted upon, imprisons, or buries the soul.  Deep underneath this accrual, the original good and blessed soul remains.  Therefore, conversion and redemption are spoken of in terms of images like cleansing and liberating.  The idea is to rid the soul of the alien gunk piled on top of it.  

I abandoned the former view a long time ago.  While it is clearly present in Augustine, Calvin, and others, I find it nowhere in many of the other early church fathers, nor is it necessary to read the scriptures as saying this.  Augustine’s view was rejected, sometimes explicitly, by many of the Greek fathers, and it remains a bone of contention between the eastern and western churches today.  In other words, the “new” theology of acceptance and inclusion was not invented in like 1972.  It stretches back to the early church and, as I pointed out on Saturday, even to the prophets.

The missional implications of each view are instructive.  Under the first model, the approach is, in effect, to “destroy the village in order to ‘save’ it.”  The practice would be to wipe out pre-Christian cultures and replace them with “Christian” culture.  It is to teach people to hate their former lives in order to embrace their new “saved” life.  

Under the second model the approach is more “inclusive” in that the idea is to find and lift up the good in a culture, reframing it in terms of the gospel.  It is finding the good in people and building on it, bringing it out, liberating it from the bondage of sin by the power of the Spirit.  This is the missional strategy that characterized, for instance, both the Celtic missions and the Russian mission in Alaska.  They transformed and transfigured native culture, rather than destroying it, which has often been the approach in the west.  To our shame.

The idea that the former model of Christianity is the only one “handed down through the ages” is simply wrong.  It is a particular stream of Christianity, and a problematic one at that. 

It is also important to note that some form of the “inclusive” theology has persisted in western  Christianity for two thousand years.  Figures like Francis, Eckhart, and Bernard, movements like the Celtic mission and the Rhineland mystics expressed it as well, at least in part.  And, while Jesus does say “go and sin no more” on at least one occasion, and he did have a transformative effect on the people he met and healed, he far more often says “your faith has saved you,” at least implying that something already existing inside the person was activated by an encounter with the Lord.

What happened was two things: Protestants started reading the Bible without the blinders of this particular form of “orthodoxy,” and discovered that the version of original sin we had always been fed wasn’t necessarily there.  And we gained an exposure to the eastern Fathers that demonstrated that there were older and more orthodox ways of talking about original sin than that of Augustine.

That’s all an oversimplification, but you get my drift.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Notes on "fulfilled time"

In Mark 1:15 Jesus talks about fulfilled time.  In fact it is the first thing he says in the gospel of Mark: "The time is fulfilled."  

Fulfilled time is resurrection time.  It is time viewed from the perspective of resurrection.  It knows the positive and blessed issue of our time, which is that "all things work together for good," as Paul says in Romans 8.  It means that, in the end, the world is a safe place of blessing and glory, life and love.  It means that life always wins, in the end.  The "end" of the world is Jesus Christ, and our "end," that is, our goal, purpose, and function, is to glorify and enjoy God in him.

To live in fulfilled time is to live in time with constant reference to the end of time, the future.  It is to live backwards, as it were.  Maybe this is one of the meanings of repentance, shub in Hebrew, meaning turning around and proceeding in the opposite direction.  Instead of living in time normally, from the past into the future, we are to live in fulfilled time.  That is, we are to live in a present that is always aimed at, and in the inexorable gravitational pull of, the future.  And we view and interpret the past as well according to what we know of this future, according to resurrection.

One of the Latin words for faith is visio.    It means seeing from the largest and fullest perspective.  It means seeing the whole picture, including the final redemption and deliverance at the end.  This end is embedded in the present and in everything that is.  Resurrection... not as a replacement of creation but as its fulfillment and destiny.  LIke the way the true meaning of any story is found at the end, in the way it resolves.

In any relationship we may focus on the negative and destructive aspects, the fearful elements, the past.  Or we may change our focus so that what comes into view most clearly is this future redemption.  Fulfilled time means seeing all of time as a whole.  Not in overly explicit detail.  Not in trying to predict events and profit from this knowledge.  We remain human and knowledge of such detail remains unknown and unknowable to us.  Jesus does not give us information like who will win the World Series in 2012.  

But his announcement of time's fulfillment means that we know the basic and inexorable trajectory of time and that is it always resurrection.  And resurrection is encoded within all that is.  It is the "dna" of reality.  It is that towards which reality is moving as surely as the caterpillar towards the butterfly or the acorn towards the oak tree.

The future, Jesus says, is settled.  Our task now is to see and live according to this future we know.   The key is to see from the perspective of the future and lift up the ways this future is hinted at know, negating the negativity.  Instead of dwelling crippled by the past, we need to live by enacting in our own lives what we know of the future: resurrection.

This is not just endurance in the sense of a passive waiting.  It is an active anticipation.  An active participation in what is, even if it is not yet visible.

Faith is trusting in this future and living towards it by reshaping our actions according to it.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Doctrine is a guide to practice

I am wondering if the whole point of doctrine is as a guide to practice.

Surely doctrine cannot be an end in itself. This is the fallacy of those who would make cognitive assent to certain doctrines tantamount to faith. Or the assumption that doctrines are framed propositions which summarize the essential truths found in Scripture. Then cognitive assent to these truths is tantamount to faith.

Clearly faith is not merely propositional in the sense that it is just a matter of mental agreement to a set of facts. Faith is better understood as "trust" in that it involves the whole person and actual, bodily commitments and actions.

Therefore, to have faith or to believe has to do with more than something that happens in your brain; it has to do with something that has extension into the world in our practices and actions.

Among the plethora Scripture passages which support this understanding I present two of my favorites: Jesus says that it is not those who say "Lord, Lord," who inherit the Kingdom of God but those who do the will of my father in heaven. And the parable of the two brothers who were requested by their father to work in the field. One assented, but later didn’t actually go to the field; the other refused, but later actually did go to the field. Obviously, it was the one who did the work, not the one who merely talked the talk, who did the father’s will.

Practice, lifestyle, actions, what we do: this is the point of Christian faith. If it serves any purpose then theological doctrines must relate to practice. They must guide and inform correct — that is, effective, fruitful, faithful — practice. Practice that actually reflects and brings the practitioner and others closer to the Kingdom of God.

The basic doctrines of Christianity, such as the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ, are not just descriptive about a truth that is irrelevant or immaterial to practice. They have to guide and inform practice. That is in fact why we have them. Not to think of the faith in these ways leads to bad practices which do not reflect the Kingdom of God.

The simple idea that the universe is created by God leads to a whole set of attitudes which govern practice and our activity in the world. To wit: the creation is good, the creation is not identical with God, we are part of creation, the creation belongs to God and should be addressed with the respect and awe accorded the property of another which we are graciously allowed to use, etc.

This and other inferences from the doctrine that says God created the universe lead people and communities to live in certain ways and to reject other ways of living. The creation is not an indifferent, amoral, object we may dispose of as we please. It is not an evil prison in which we are trapped from which we need to escape. And so forth.

The gathered community of believers then needs to take the doctrine and, always holding it up to the standard of the Word of God, Jesus Christ (another doctrinal commitment itself), measure and evaluate our individual and communal practice. Do our actions reflect this thing we claim is true? Do we live in the world as if God created it and gave it to us as stewards? Do we cherish and respect the creation and everything in it as Christ did? Where do we fall short in this effort and how do we improve?

This is just one example examined very perfunctorily. The point is that doctrine is a guide to practice.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Sailing Analogy

I do not sail. I have been sailing maybe a couple of times. But I hope I know enough to make the following analogy:

When attempting to guide a sailboat across a span of water to a particular destination it is only rarely that a straight line is maintained. Rather, the captain has to account for the movements of the currents and the wind. This means that in order to make progress in attaining the goal, the boat has often to move in different directions. Thus if the rudder and sail are set in specific ways in one part of the journey, these must be continually adjusted in order to keep the boat moving towards the desired goal. To keep the rudder and sail in the same position when the conditions have changed is counterproductive. Not only will progress towards the goal cease, but the boat itself might capsize.

The church is also on a journey towards a goal which is the Kingdom of God. In order to keep moving positively towards this goal when the conditions are continually changing it is necessary to change the navigational tactics. In short, if we left the rudder and sail exactly where Calvin set them, we might be faithful to Calvin, but we would no longer make progress towards our goal. In Calvin's day the wind and the current and other seascape factors were configured in a particular way. Today that configuration is completely different. Therefore, the boat must configure its steering capabilities differently.

The church has always done this. Each generation has a set of challenges that are different from the generation before. It has to come up with its own answers in order to keep the ship headed towards the goal. It takes into account what it has learned along the journey.

To be faithful to our Christian forebears does not mean uncritically mimicking their approach. It means having the same goal and managing the navigation so that this goal remains our destination, even if the way the boat is managed, and even the immediate direction in which it is going, is very different. The point is whether we are attaining the goal, not whether we are in perfect imitation of our forebears' tactics.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Response to Beau Weston's article

Weston's original article may be read at .

While he suggests we have a ready-made establishment-in-waiting in our "tall-steeple pastors," I do not share his confidence that this is the group best equipped to lead the church into the future. Weston counts it a positive that these folks have worked their way up through the "market" system, demonstrating certain loyalties and competencies. In a former age it might have been a benefit to have the "insiders" rule. Maybe they were integrated into the larger "insider" group in society, and were thus able to exert substantial influence by means of these connections.

Those days are gone, however. The mainline church has become disestablished, marginalized, and increasingly considered "outsiders" in American culture. The ones we need lift up as leaders are those who are cognizant of this reality and who have demonatrated effectiveness in witnessing to the gospel in this new context. Those who know how to function as a minority, even exilic, community, who can embrace being on the edge, who are not totally invested in culturally dominant economic values and views of success... these are the ones we need to set the agenda now. Call them the anti-establishment.

I am thinking redevelopment & New Church Development pastors and other leaders, where we find creative worship, spreading of spiritual practices, increases in hands-on service activities, new ways to be organized and govern the church, and other examples of serious and faithful witness. A church that is now called to be counter-cultural must be led by those who have the proven experise in being counter-cultural.

Kester Brewin's categories identifying the emerging church come to mind: organic, networked, decentralized, bottom-up, communal, flexible, and always evolving. I humbly suggest that it is not likely that we will find leaders who relate to these categories who are "tall-steeple pastors."