Do Not Despise the Foot: A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

How do we affirm Paul’s “body of Christ” language when the world is not only divided between Jew and Gentile, but is made up of radical diversity even within the Church? In our unique university Christian community there are Catholics and Pentecostals Methodists and Evangelicals and lots of other kinds of Christians. Paul’s language call us to see those that are different as a gift to the whole of the “body.” Listen as we learn to appreciate the great gift that each member our diverse Christian community offers to us all.

Karl Barth as a Spiritual Mentor

I am reading Hans Urs von Balthasar’s substantive book The Theology of Karl Barth for the first time.

But, I’m not reading the book primarily to learn what he says, though this book is part of one of my exams that I am taking next summer.  I’m reading Balthasar devotionally.  I know that seems a bit ridiculous.  Can anyone really read this kind of stuff as an act of devotion?

Well, I decided that I would try it for this nine months which I have committed to chaplaincy right in the middle of my candidacy preparation.  So, my “daily bread” right now consists of Augustine’s Confessions, William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, and von Balthasar’s The Theology of Karl Barth.  Of course the Bible is in there, too. As I read I am asking that God would speak to me through them.  I believe He can.

Here is what I learned today: Balthasar explains that Barth was trying to find a way in between what he saw as failures of liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Liberal Protestantism had taken up the method of dialoguing with all available interlocutors and working diligently to incorporate a variety of sources in a quest for truth.  Barth thought that his theological mentors had erred by trying to validate their work before secular sources which were unwilling to be only contributors to the dialogue. 

Catholicism, however, basically included the content which Barth thought most important, the centrality of Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of the Father.  But the Catholics largely arrived at their doctrine through an over dependence on natural theology.  He had a problem with their method.

I am often amazed by the ways in which I am formed by the people I read, even when I think I may be disagreeing substantially with what they say.  Though I think Barth’s dependence upon the analogy of faith is basically good epistemology, I am not so opposed to the natural theology of the Catholicism he is arguing with.  One thing about Catholicism does bother me, however. The confidence with which Roman Catholicism speaks because of this dependence on a reliable notion of natural theology and an undue regard for the Magisterium of the church is problematic. 

Like Barth, I think the Church as a whole would do well to give Roman Catholic thought its proper due.  Catholicism rightly defends the centrality of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Word.  But they simply do not have a strong enough notion of the noetic effect of sin to suspect the doctrines of the church for my tastes.  I really do want to be always reforming.

So I don’t exactly agree with the problem that Barth had with Roman Catholicism.  But I do pattern myself similarly.  I like much of the content of Catholic doctrine, if we could simply reevaluate the ecclesiology. I don’t take that as a simple rejection of course.  I am still a pentecostal with a strongly congregational ecclesiology.  I am grateful for these differences of opinion, which Roman Catholicism has been more and less comfortable with at different times since the schism of the Reformation. 

But the reason I write this post is not so I muse endlessly on the relation of Barth to Catholicism.  It is because I was able to be formed today.  I had a revelation of sorts.  I can now name my problems with Catholicism and my appreciation of it.  And, when I name it, it doesn’t sound like all that significant of a difference.  Of course, my Catholic friends probably disagree.  But my ability to name these differences enables me to better engage my ongoing dialogue with Catholic friends and colleagues.  That is no small effect.  I want to be able to name our differences well, not to dissolve them but as a matter of discipleship.  Jesus told the disciples that people would recognize them by how they loved one another.  May I be regarded as a disciple.

May God continue to speak to me through these theological texts, they are not only academic considerations but also the mediation of the Rhema word of God.

Peace be with you.

Emerging Church: Defined?

So I have called myself Emergent in this blog for some time now. I dare say that anyone who has been around the church and is under 50 years old (and some who are older) has probably heard the terms “emergent” and “emerging church” without much explanation. Sometimes it refers to a way of worship that includes candles, eclectic music, and some alternative to a traditional sermon, just to name a few key features.

Now, I do kinda like music performed by those with dreadlocks. But that isn’t what I mean when I call myself emergent. Part of the reason there is so much confusion and complexity around the term goes back to the very definition of the term to begin with.

First of all, emergence is a term that comes out of systems thinking and some philosophers of science. I don’t know much about how this works in natural systems, but I can understand the concept. Emergence is a complex of interactions between simpler things which causes the appearance of something(s) which is greater than the sum or difference of the parts. Not knowing much about the other philosophies, I will just go straight to the church discussion.

Emergent, at least in one form of the definition, would describe people who believe that the truth of the Christian gospel and the Church comes out of the interaction of a multitude of traditions, not simply one tradition expounded well. Emergents generally do not want to believe that either Roman Catholicism nor Reformed Presbyterianism nor Tibetan Buddhism is a full and complete system of thought without error. Neither is Keynesian economics nor philosophical naturalism.

The natural outworking of this theory is a kind of Christian pluralism which is steeped in the various Christian traditions. Because I am not convinced that my pentecostal heritage is without error, I also intentionally worship with and engage the thought of Roman Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans. This is a new kind of ecumenism, but on somewhat different grounds than the previous versions of ecumenism. The previous ecumenical movement which is now represented by the World Council of Churches and similar bodies imagined that Christianity would be better represented by the various churches’ lowest common denominator. This new brand of emergent ecumenism encourages each Christian or church to fully embrace the complexities of their own system of thought, but to do so in dialogue with other Christians and even those outside of confessing Christian faith. Most of this comes from the disillusionment with the previous generation of leaders’ theological arrogance. This move is perceived to be an act of intellectual and spiritual humility, I think.

I think this humility is a good thing. But for me, the reason for such an approach comes directly out of my pentecostal heritage. Pentecostals embrace a “prophethood of all believers” perspective which considers every Christian to potentially speak the very words of God to the church. The church is then charged with a discernment process whereby the community will determine whether what they have heard are the words of God. Usually this discernment is an informal process and even occurs simultaneously in worship as the pastor, elders, and congregation lift their hands and hearts approvingly after the prophetic word and thank God for speaking. On one or two occasions in my pentecostal life, I have had a leader come to the front of the congregation and explain that they did not believe God had spoken through such a word. For me, being emergent is embracing this process throughout the Christian dialogue, even with voices that rub us the wrong way. The theory of emergence would tell us that the words of God which come from others have the potential to communicate truth to us.

Now this can go in two directions that I think are problematic. The first is a Christian pluralism that becomes little more than pluralism from a Christian perspective. I do not happen to think that Christians can learn as much from Buddhists or Muslims as they can from other Christians. There may be things we can learn from other faiths, but I would prefer to say that we are listening for the lost voice of earlier forgotten Christians among our brothers and sisters of other faiths. There are certainly some emergent-types who are ready to embrace everyone as if all truth is relative. I happen to think Christianity is the one true religion, I am just not sure that my interpretation of Christianity is completely true. I do think there is “absolute truth”, for whatever that term is worth, I just don’t think I have it. I do happen to think I am pretty close to it, or I would change my opinion to something closer to what I think is true. That is the reason for the dialogue.

While some emergents are ready to chuck the idea of truth beyond some subjective “true for you” concept, I think that is pretty ridiculous. Only a very small segment of philosophers and a great deal more literature academics ever really bought this concept, but someone forgets to tell that to every class of freshman undergraduates. People like Derrida and Foucault really buy it. At least if I understand Derrida, he buys it. But I don’t think even Derridians live that way. It is non-sensical. But the theories keep getting repeated in discussions by non-philosophical types over and over until people think it actually has some logical weight. I don’t think it does.

The other direction which is problematic is what I would call a spiritual consumerism. Here the problem is that emergent types think that they can just pick and choose which elements of the Church’s tradition that they want to select out for recovery. Labyrinths and cathedrals and deification are cool. Original sin and substitutionary atonement and conservative sexual practices are not cool. Now, I think we should only adopt that of the Christian tradition which we find to be truthful and life-giving and we should reject what should be rejected. And I don’t think that the whole tradition is without error or messiness. Honestly, I don’t have any good criteria by which we should engage the tradition critically and not become consumers who simply choose what is bright and shiny and reject our spiritual peas and carrots. I just know that I get nervous when I hear emergent types talking about Lectio Divina, but not talking about hell and evangelism.

So, that is my take on emergent and emerging church. Maybe I will write a follow-up post on the practical implications for the church. For now, this will do.

But, of course, if emergent is really a conversation which produces truthful dialogue, then you all need to comment and tell me what you think I have said truthfully and what I have said that is not quite there.


Generously Disciples

Prompted by Brain McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, I have started a pretty intense study of many different denominations in hopes of gaining a bigger view of God and a bigger view of what it means to be the church. I start that study with the Disciples of Christ. Partly because they have in many ways been my arch-nemesis as an Assemblies of God guy in a vastly different world. I have often felt like Dorothy in the land of Oz. The rules are different here. Where I expect monkeys to hang in trees, they fly. Where I have expected the individual talking to me to be a human, he turns out to be a scarecrow. But a generous orthodoxy does not allow this to be only a dream that I will soon awaken from and find myself in Kansas. I find myself engaging this thinking head on and I have found something that is worthy of hanging my orthodoxy upon.

The Disciples of Christ was founded primarily on two principles: unity and biblical authority. Often times these two have a tendency to come in conflict with one another, precisely because we are not all unified on what the Bible says. Where conflict and disagreement exist, the Disciples have chosen to err to the side of unity. I think this is a valuable lesson for a Protestant church that would much rather just start another denomination as to work out disagreements and live with tension. Even when faced with what many would regard as blatant heresy, the Disciples have generally chosen unity. (There are a couple of splits in the history, so it wasn’t that clean. But the group that now exists as the Disciples have generally been the split from rather than splitters.

Since the Enlighenment, the church has often been concerned with having right theology, a formidable and “biblical” challenge. The early reformers were often splitting into different groups based on theogical differences, political differences, and sometimes simple geographical/cultural differences. The founder of the Disciples, Thomas Campbell, found himself identified with a church that was carrying political differences that were twice removed from the New World in which he ministered. While a product of the Enlightenment himself, he chose to put off differences for the sake of unity. Frankly, Campbell thought that if everyone used the same rules of interpretation, then they would all come to the same conclusion about scripture. But, when this didn’t happen, he and the early Disciples did maintain their commitment to unity.

Can the modern church exist with tension between those on different sides? I hope so. The Campbells main motivation comes from the prayer of Jesus for all the believers in John 17. He is motivated by the idea that a church united with itself and united to Him will be a powerful source of redemption and reconciliation to the world. The world will know that we are His disciples if we love one another. Some will cite the many times when the Epistles give instructions on how to deal with heretics and false teachers. I get that. I see those scriptures and I affirm their validity within the canon of inspired writings. What I question is where we can draw the line between heretic and the simply different? Just remember that the traditions that make up Protestantism were mostly rooted in some movement that at one time of another was considered heresy. Luther was a heretic. The Anabaptists were heretics. Arminean theology is heretical. But who decides what is orthodox…the church that is in power. In America today that is the conservative evangelical church. Sometimes I wonder if we are too busy condemning Martin Luthers. Where would the church be without the heretics of yesterday? …I am not sure the church would be.

I imagine a church where Calvinists and Armineans, Charismatics and fundamentalists, liberals and conservatives, and Catholics and Protestants can worship together. Each celebrating their unique theologies and traditions and holding firmly to their own unique convictions. I think this church has some things to learn from the Disciples of Christ.