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