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Idolatry and participation

Lately, I’ve noticed several re-articulations of a theological trend we’ve talked about here plenty of times before, namely the position that the church’s practices mediate God’s presence and action in the world, form Christians to be virtuous selves in contrast to the acids of modernity, and make Christ concretely present in the world, when otherwise salvation would be simply a spiritual abstraction of some sort. What is still needed, advocates of this trend maintain, is an ontology of participation which insists that divine and human action are fundamentally noncompetitive, that God’s action for our salvation is not simply God’s but because of the ontological participation between God and the world, it is also our action, and indeed, the very notion of attributing action distinctly to God versus humanity is problematized. God’s action does not “exclude” but rather is mediated precisely through the church’s own social practices and rituals. So the story goes.

Anyways recent work done along these lines (and this post by my friend Robb brought it to mind for me) tends to argue against those critical of this position that somehow such criticisms simply do not take into account the fact that their position views divine and human action as “noncompetitive” and thus as practically indistinguishable. Once we see that point, it’s no longer problematic to have God’s presence and action possessed and mediated through the church’s social practices and rituals. However, this re-assertion is problematic on a number of levels.

Obviously those of us who are critical of the school of thought that articulates what we might call “ecclesial-practices-as-the-direct-mediation-of-God’s-presence-and-action” are fully aware that certain strains of postliberal and contemporary quasi-Catholic theological sentiment believe that divine and human action cannot be seriously distinguished and thus that the church’s practices simply in some sense “are” and “extend” God’s action, make God present, and bind God, making possible God’s concreteness in the world (this is Reinhard Hütter’s way of talking here, and this line of thought is also pretty clear in Sam Wells’ work, and is made very clear in Jamie Smith’s recent books, it is also articulated very plainly in David Fitch’s recent book, The End of Evangelicalism, if folks want to check out some references). Of course we know that folks think that divine and human action cannot be distinguished, are noncompetitive because of a participatory platonic ontology, etc.

However, I don’t see how any of these re-assertions actually substantially criticize or render problematic anything folks like Nicholas Healy, John Flett, Peter Kline, or Nate Kerr, Ry Sigglekow, and myself have argued. It just re-asserts the position we have argued (in our various and distinct ways) against without really attending to any of the arguments in question, or showing how it withstands the critiques made against it. It is argument by re-assertion, not by engagement. It does not show why we ought to believe in a platonic ontology of participation, why we ought to view divine and human action as distinguishable, rather it simply asserts that when you assume a participatory ontology it makes sense to think of the church’s practices as the extension and concrete reality of God’s being and action in the world. Well, of course it isn’t problematic to see ecclesial practices this way when you assume such an ontology, but why should we? These are the questions that I haven’t seen any answers to (unless “because modernity is bad” counts as an answer somehow).

Moreover, these articulations seems to me to often involve a patently false argumentative turn. Namely they tend to insist that there must be “an impenetrable ontological divide” between God and the world (throw in some stuff about Scotus and nominalism and how evil it is here) if there is to be a distinction of divine and human agency. The problem is there is no reason why this line should be thought to be true. Just because human and divine actions can be distinguished does not in any way imply that God is somehow ontologically locked out of the nitty-gritty of human life and action. Obviously God has broken through any and all barriers (sin, death, the Devil, etc) in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It seems strange to me that this radical act of God, the very act of defeating death, sin, and hell somehow is not adequate to bring God and humanity truly together in an unbreakable sense, a sense that we can depend on. That somehow if we don’t have this reality socially possessed and doled out through the church’s rituals and practices, it is simply something “spiritual” and ephemeral.

Moreover, the whole way in which “noncompetition” between divine and human agency tends to be articulated in these accounts rests on a rather odd misunderstanding of what attributing distinction of action means. It seems to be assumed that if God’s action is properly God’s, and thus, fundamentally not ours, that then we have somehow locked God out of the world. As already mentioned, this fear seems to me to manifest an odd lack of faith in the reality of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, but furthermore it seems to rest on a mistake about the implications of distinguishing between agents and their respective actions. I mean, you and I are both human beings but your actions are yours and mine are mine in a unique and irreducible sense. If you murder someone, there must be a real sense in which that is your action and not mine, our common human nature notwithstanding.

It seems impossible to read the New Testament depictions of judgment any other way, for there it is always people’s own unique actions (feeding the hungry, visiting the poor, etc.) form the basis of how they are judged. Likewise the whole logic of salvation in Paul rests on the fundamental distinction between divine and human agency (“this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God, not the result of human works…” etc). Obviously examples of this could be multiplied extensively.

All this to say, being able to attribute a distinction of actions to God and human beings does not create an impenetrable divide between them in any way (any more than distinguishing your action and mine sets us on different sides of an impenetrable ontological divide). It simply recognizes that God is God and human beings are not God. This does not sequester God from the world, but simply recognizes that God is present and active to the world in freedom, not as a function of our “making”. What it refuses to do is amalgamate God, make God some sort of constituent part of the world-event, which is what I think perspectives like the one often articulated by advocates of ecclesial-practices-as-the-direct-mediation-of-God’s-presence-and-action cannot help but ultimately do.

This is why, I fear, in the end such articulations are ultimately idolatrous. In this ontological scheme God becomes the possession of the church, no matter how vigorously this is denied. The church’s practices become God’s presence, no matter how passionately this is nuanced. God ceases to be the free and living Lord and simply becomes the religious commodity that the church dispenses and maintains in its own social rituals and life, despite the pious verbiage in which this is couched. And that is why, eventually, I came to reject this theological trend, at least as an overriding program for doing theology.

A midrash on 2 Corinthians 10:3-5

For though we live fully as human beings, living fully in this world, loving this world, and suffering with, in, and for this world, we do not wage our war according to the pattern of this age, the old age, the age of death, the age that assumes and asserts its sovereignty and normality. For the weapons of our warfare do not belong to anything latent in the potentials and powers of this world; no, the weapons of our warfare are mighty, made for the work of demolishing fortresses, of striking off any and all fetters, of bringing freedom to every captive, of raising from the ashes all those who weep and have no hope; the weapons of our warfare are not of this age, they are not carnal, but mighty, and they are for the obliteration of every wall, of every chain, and every boundary. With them we tear down arguments, rational explanations, reasonable, well-balanced perspectives, and measured, non-overstated, nuanced systems of thought; we tear them down along with every arrogant and subtle obstacle that is raised up against the Gospel of God as made known in Jesus Christ. Instead we attack any and all of these thoughts, we bind them and take them captive. We render them powerless and make them obedient to Christ, the Crucified and Risen Lord. We leave nothing out, we hold nothing back, for all things will be liberated in captivity to Christ, the Crucified and Risen One.

The false glory of John Piper’s god

Recently I was asked (by Kait Dugan, check out her blog) about how John Piper (check out this video for some context), about whose perverse theology I’ve written about previously, manages to come to understand God’s glory as a sort of self-directed hegemonic tyranny. What are the theological moves that lead one to come to think “the glory of God” in terms of chauvinistic self-aggrandisement? Why would one come to conceive God as a self-directed center of power whose “glory” consisted of simply asserting and impose his own supremacy and domination?

My first instinct in responding to this question is to point out that it really isn’t as much of a formally (and that word is the key qualifier here) theological issue as it is fundamentally an issue of gender and power. Piper interprets God as a self-directed man, concerned ultimately which the maximization of his own power (which is of course “good” because this one particular male really is supreme and thus deserves and warrants this rigorous self-fixation). I think it really is just the upshot of thinking God according to the logic of patriarchy.

If there is a theological reason for it, I’d have to say that it is the functional (though not acknowledged or admitted) rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity speaks of a God that does not seek the maximization of any singular self or, but rather of a united yet multidirectional and primordially other-directed love. The God who is Triune never is concerned with “himself.” Rather “the Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” and the Son has come “not to my will but the will of him who sent me” and the Spirit “will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears.”

The Triune God is never concerned with the maximization of a “self” since God is not a self, but rather a singular reality of three identities (to borrow some language from Robert Jenson). No identity of the Trinity seeks their own, but always and only seeks the maximization of the other(s). Thus the Son offers up the kingdom to the Father and the Father places everything in subjection to the Son and so on. The glory of the Triune God is thus the glory of an othering that seeks only to empower, never to claim power for one’s own. Piper’s nontrinitarian theology of self-directed glory is the denial and opposite of this. Indeed the “glory” that he proclaims is nothing less than the projection onto God (at the expense of the witness of the Cross) of patriarchal, homicidal power, the power of sin and death. This is the “glory of God” that he so adores.

Christ’s baptism, Christ’s confession

A fitting reflection I think, for this Sunday, the Baptism of the Lord:

When He had Himself baptised with water by John, Jesus confessed both God and [humankind]. A better way of putting it is that because He confessed God, the God whose will was soon to be done on earth as it is in heaven, therefore He confessed [humankind], the [humans] who are in view in this doing of God’s will. Because He is committed unreservedly to subordination to God, therefore He is committed unreservedly to solidarity with [humankind]. He who as God’s Son was very different from all [people], being one with the Father who sent Him, and therefore Himself God, negated this difference, this distance, this strangeness between Himself and others, even to the last remnant. He became wholly and utterly one of them, not in an act of secret or even public condescension, like a king for a change donning a beggar’s rags and mingling with the crowd, but by belonging to them in every way, by being no more and no less than one of them, by having no point of reference except to them. He became one of them, not in order to renounce full fellowship with them when the game was over, like the king exchanging again the beggar’s rags for his kingly robes, not in order to leave again the table where He had seated Himself with publicans and sinners , and to find himself a better place, but in order to be one of them definitively as well as originally, unashamed to call them brethren to all eternity because He was their Brother from all eternity (Heb. 2:11), a veritable King in this true form of His, and at His place of honour. With the men of His people, then, He received the Word of God which came to John and to which John bore witness. With them He looked forward to the intimated new act of God which would change all things. With them He looked forward to the establishment of God’s kingdom, the threatened judgment, the remission and taking away of their sins. With them He obeyed the call for conversion issued to his people. With all the rest He had Himself baptised with water. With them He thus confessed His sins. His sins? If we do not say this, we question and even deny the totality of His self-giving to [humankind], and therewith the totality of His self-giving to God. We say that He had Himself baptised with the rest only improperly, contrary to the meaning of John’s preaching and baptism, in a demonstration which had neither truth nor necessity for Him. We say at root that this was just a theatrical show. But it was not a theatrical show. The seriousness with which others, frightened before God and setting their hope in Him alone, confessed their sins, is infinitely surpassed hereby the divine earnestness with which this One, when faced by the sins of all others, their confusions and corruptions, their big and little acts of ungodliness, did not let these sins be theirs, did not regard, bewail or judge them from a distance with tacit or open accusation, did not simply characterise them as sins by His own Otherness, but as the Son of His Father, elected and ordained from all eternity to be the Brother of these fatal brethren, caused them to be His own sins, confessed them as such, and therewith confessed that He was baptised in prospect of God’s kingdom, judgment and forgiveness. No one who came to the Jordan was as laden and afflicted as He. No one was as needy. No one was so utterly human, because so wholly fellow-human. No one confessed his sins so sincerely, so truly as his own, without side-glances at others. He stands alone in this, He who was elected and ordained from all eternity to partake of the sin of all in His own person, to bear its shame and curse in the place of all, to be the man responsible for all, and as such, wholly theirs, to live and act and suffer. This is what Jesus began to do when He had Himself baptised by John with all the others. This was the opening of His history as the salvation history of all the others.

~Karl Barth, CD IV/4, 58-59.

The severity of hope

The reduction of hope is one of our greatest temptations. Hope, unlike optimism, nostalgia, or raw self-assertion speaks of a space in which all our abilities to “deal” with our situation have vanished. We have no raw data, resources, skills, or powers with which to get a handle on things, and are left only to hope. When have no reason or rationale to anticipate a resolution, we are left either to descend into despair, or somehow to inexplicably live in expectancy of a hope beyond our hopelessness, a Word that cannot be produced, but can only be cried out for, and if uttered, only received with thanks and praise.

The severity of hope is easy to close one’s eyes to precisely because it is so deeply severe. Allowing ourselves to live in expectant hope, when all the signs point to its irrationality and foolishness is supremely difficult and disarming. To venture into the realm of hope is come to the very edge of the void, to finally surrender one’s cleverness, resourcefulness, and courage and cry out for a salvation that is, quite simply impossible on the basis of all that is. As my friend Peter Kline has recently pointed out in his superb essay on Lady Gaga’s Marry the Night video:

The line between despair and hope is razor thin. Both face the future anxiously as a kind of empty darkness. The only difference is that whereas despair cowers before the darkness in fear, grasping for some-thing to stabilize the dizzying anxiety . . . hope leaps forward, dancing into the darkness with an inexplicable expectancy that love is present and that love will come. . . . Love is the impossible possibility of dancing the night away on the razor, treating it not as the precipice of despair, but as the edge of glory.

Walter Brueggemann makes some similarly helpful points in his essay “Faith at the Nullpunkt” in his The Word that Redescribes the World. Examining the crises of faith that Israel negotiates in the Old Testament, he speaks of the point of utter failure, in which the securities of Israel utterly break down in exile. It is precisely at this nullpunkt where the challenge of hope begins. In the face of hopelessness Israel is faced with the dual calling to, on the one hand “relinquish what is gone, to resist every denial and every act of nostalgia, to acknowledge and embrace what YHWH has ended”; and on the other hand “to receive what is inexplicably and inscrutably given by YHWH, to resist every measure of despair, to await and affirm what YHWH, beyond every quid pro quo, now gives.” But the crucial point in all this, the point at which we are all tempted tame and blunt the severity of hope is that we can assure and possess “no automatic move from relinquishment to reception; one does not follow necessarily from or after the other” (62).

The movement from despair to joy, from fissure to healing is not a movement that can be held in hand. We cannot anticipate or secure it. Rather, in the very depths of the darkness of the nullpunkt we can only cry out for it, only hope for it. Ultimately hope, if it is not to be reduced to a grasping for control, or a dishonest and self-possessed optimism, must be understood as that which

stakes everything on the unfettered “Thou” who is not in thrall to the reasonableness of any nullpunkt. All nullpunkt, in every sphere, have common properties. In the end what counts is the capacity of this “Thou” to intrude into the nullpunkt and override it. (Brueggemann, 71)

Hope, real genuine hope must not shy away from this bare point of hopelessness. If we are to avoid abandoning hope for nostalgia, self-assertion, or self-imposed blindness and despair we must not close our eyes to the point of dissolution, of emptiness and screaming in which the world, and all of us in it ultimately find ourselves.

The nullpunkt, in its many forms, is enough to evoke deep and raw fear. The exile offers a fear of abandonment. The pressure of chaos invites fear of obliteration. The immediacy of death bespeaks nullification and nonbeing. The nulpunkt carries the prospect of total nullification. Into that is spoken, “Do not fear.” The antidote seems modest in the face of the threat. Unless, of course, the antidote is uttered by one who is trustworthy. Everything depends upon that. The future always depends for Israel [and the church, the world, and ever human person] upon the trustworthiness of the One who characteristically hovers somewhere between the fear so palpably grounded and the faith so fragilely embraced. It is the pivot point of hope: “Do not fear!” (Bruegggemann, 71)

But this “Do not fear!” is not simply the assurance that there is nothing to fear. No, the word of grace which comes among us and tells us “Do not fear!”, the perfect love that casts out all fear (1 John 4:18) comes not before, but after and during the night of trembling in which blood is sweat from the brow of Jesus. The calling not to fear is spoken precisely into the face of that which is utterly and ultimately fearful. And this calling, this severe hope turns always and only on the one who speaks it. It can ultimately be true only if this one is indeed trustworthy and has and will overcome death forever. And it is this one, the Crucified Resurrected one who indeed speaks this to is, precisely on the precipice of hopelessness: ”Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hell” (Rev 1:17-18).

The fantasy of God

The feast of eternal joy is prepared by the fullness of God and the rejoicing of all created being. If we could talk only about God’s nature and will, we should not do justice to his plenitude. Inappropriate though human analogy is bound to be, in thinking of the fulness of God we can best talk about the inexhaustibly rich fantasy of God, meaning by that his creative imagination. From that imagination live upon live proceeds in protean abundance. If creation is transfigured and glorified . . . then creation is not just the free decision of God’s will; nor is it an outcome of his self-realization. It is like a great song or a splendid poem or a wonderful divine dance of his fantasy, for the communication of his divine plenitude. The laughter of the universe is God’s delight. It is the universal Easter laughter. (Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 338-39)

This indeed the fantasy that I am banking on, praying for, and longing for. In the face of the Good Friday wail and the Holy Saturday silence I’m still waiting for, and hoping for the coming of Easter laughter.

Advent and the end of religion

There’s a somewhat famous quote from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (November 21, 1943, pp. 188-89) on the nature of Advent: “By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that — ultimately negligible things — the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

Interestingly in the same letter Bonhoeffer mentions how much he misses table fellowship and how he’s begun praying Luther’s morning and evening blessing every day. He then says: “Don’t be alarmed! I will definitely not come out here as a ‘homo religiosus’! Quite the opposite: my suspicion and fear of ‘religiosity’ has become greater here than ever.” So then, perhaps we must say that Advent, according to Bonhoeffer’s prior analogy, as a prison cell that can only be opened from outside, should be seen as the end of religion. All religion must have a door that can, at least partially be opened from the inside. Advent proclaims the end of religion as such, speaking of a God who must come to us wholly from beyond us.

To retreat into the comfort of religiosity, the smooth apologetic for Christianity that arises from proclaiming homo religiosus (or its more trendy equivalent these days, homo liturgicus) is to retreat from the very hope of Advent itself, the hope against hope that cannot be satisfied by out own designs, but only by the earth-shattering coming of God in Jesus.

Shrinking from grief

Am I wrong to suspect that grief, the genuine and loud experience and expression of total strickenness and sorrow, is almost totally unacceptable today, both in and outside the church?

And correspondingly, whether or not we reject “all violence” on Christian principles, I wonder if the violence irrupting from grief, from anguish is for us the most unspeakable and reproachable violence. Violence for the sake of security, justice, or retribution, or that eminently understandable violence, the violence of order and reasonable process, perhaps these we might understand but the violence that springs from: ” By the rivers of Babylon we sit down and weep . . . How blessed will be the the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock!” — this violence, the irrational violence of mothers, daughters, of sons, fathers, and friends, we shrink back from in disgust, in visceral fear. And in this shrinking, do we not turn our back on any possibility of speaking truth? I think so.

To become and to be a Christian

To become and to be a Christian is not at all an escape from the world as it is, nor is it a wistful longing for a “better” world, nor a commitment to generous charity, nor fondness for “moral and spiritual values” (whatever that may mean), nor self- serving positive thoughts, nor persuasion to splendid abstractions about God. It is, instead, the knowledge that there is no pain or privation, no humiliation or disaster, no scourge or distress or destitution or hunger, no striving or temptation, no wile or sickness or suffering or poverty which God has not known and borne for [humanity] in Jesus Christ. He has borne death itself on behalf of [humanity], and in that event he has broken the power of death once and for all.

That is the event which Christians confess and celebrate and witness in their daily work and worship for the sake of all [humanity].

To become to be a Christian is, therefore, to have the extraordinary freedom to share the burdens of the daily, common, ambiguous, transient, perishing existence of [humans beings], even to the point of actually taking the place of another [person], whether he be powerful or weak, in health or in sickness, clothed or naked, educated or illiterate, secure or persecuted, complacent or despondent, proud or forgotten, housed or homeless, fed or hungry, at liberty or in prison, young or old, white or Negro, rich or poor.

For a Christian to be poor and to work among the poor is not a conventional charity, but a use of the freedom for which Christ has set [humanity] free.

~ William Stringfellow, My People is the Enemy, 32.

Christian distinctiveness

The epistle to Diognetus is perhaps one of the more well known works from among the Apostolic Fathers these days, at least in popular theological discussions. This is due, less to its remarks on the “common silliness and deception and foolishness and pride of the Jews” (4:6 — yikes), than for the chapter that immediately follows it on the nature of Christian distinctiveness in the world. Among popular works in ecclesiology and various sorts of “church and culture” writings, this has been an incredibly popular chapter to quote over the last decade or so. And, interestingly it has been very popular with folks articulating some version of the “church as polis” model for understanding the church-world relationship. I find this interesting, and downright weird, really in that what the author of the epistle puts forth in this chapter seems downright contradictory to the positions he is being used to support.

The chapter starts out by explaining the nature of the distinictiveness of Christians in the world by saying precisely what does not distinguish them: “For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities [Gk: polis] of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life” (5:1-2). Interestingly, for the author of the epistle, Christians are distinct from the world, not on the basis of anything that would commonly be thought of as cultural – language, social customs, alternative political arrangements, origins, etc. are precisely not what make the church distinct from the world. On the contrary, according to the author, Christians participate fully in whatever cultural situation they happen to inhabit: “But while they live both in Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship” (5:4).

Here is the point of distinctiveness, according to the author: not that the Christian possesses an alternative cultural reality over against the ones in which they are set, but rather, that, regardless of their cultural setting, they manifest a distinctive character of involvement in it. The author goes on to describe this at length: “They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign” (5:5). In other words, the distinctiveness of the Christian in the world is lies precisely in their ability to inhabit any cultural situation “as if not” to borrow the Pauline idiom (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31). Thus, the distinctiveness of the Christian lies not in their cultivation of some sort of alternative habitable culture, but rather in the nonconformed quality of their involvement in whatever culture they happen to reside in. Thus, they marry and have children but do not commit infanticide or adultery (5:6-7); they obey established laws, but transcend them by love (5:10); they love their persecutors (5:11); and on the the list goes.

In other words, the furthest thing from the thought of the epistle is the notion that the church is distinct from the world by virtue of being polis or a culture of its own. Rather the emphasis is constantly on the quality of involvement in the life of the world which the Gospel calls forth. Christians are distinct from the world, not by any sort of cultural or cultic separation from the world, but rather by the form of their life in the world. It is the selflessness of their love for all (5:11) that sets them “apart” not merely from, but precisely for the world.

This bears a striking similarity to John Howard Yoder’s discussion of the nature of the distinction of the church from the world in The Politics of Jesus. Jesus’s message of self-giving love, and his call to reject patterns of power and domination (cf. Luke 22:25ff) envision “a visible structured fellowship, a sober decision guaranteeing that the costs of commitment to the fellowship has been consciously accepted, and a clearly defined life-style distinct from that of the crowd.” However, Yoder goes on to specify precisely what this distinct life-style entails: “This life-style is different, not because of arbitrary rules separating the believer’s behavior from that of ‘normal people,’ but because of the exceptionally normal quality of humanness to which the community is committed.” (emphasis added)

As with the author of the epistle, for Yoder the distinctness of the church from the world emerges precisely at the point of the church’s transformed involvement with the life of the world, an involvement rightly characterized as an “exceptionally normal quality of humanness.” In other words the church is most visible, most distinct precisely at the point that it is the most human, involving itself in the sufferings and sorrows of the world in the pattern of Christ’s kenotic, self-giving love. Thus, as Yoder concludes: “The distinctness is not a cultic or ritual separation, but rather a nonconformed quality of (‘secular’) invovlement in the life of the world” (p. 39 for all quotes).

In contrast to asserting the distinction of the church from the world in cultural terms (the church as its own polis or culture) in which the distinction is defined under the auspices of ritual (typically with the Eucharist or Baptism being turned into the cultic boundary between church and world), Yoder and the author of the epistle to Diognetus offer a different vision: one in which the church is distinct from the world, not in terms of cult, but rather in terms of Christ’s own calling of his disciples into kenosis in, with, and for the world. The distinctness of the church, and of the Christian thus comes to be seen, not in terms of the maintenance of boundaries, and the guarding of cultic gates, but rather in the calling to go “outside the camp,” finding the meaning of true discipleship and true Christian distinctiveness in the giving up of all pretensions to security and establishment, learning instead to simply let our power be brought to an end in weakness, in love, and in self-abandonment for the sake of the world for whom Christ died.

The irresistible devolution

One of the interesting things about the now old News Corp phone-hacking scandals is how evangelical and radical Christians who publish under their umbrella have gone about justifying their involvement with an entity that is demonstrably evil. For example, radical Christian and new monastic superstar Shane Claiborne is well known for his many books, including the bestselling book, The Irresistible Revolution which, as you are probably aware is published by Zondervan, a company own by News Corp.

For a radical Christian pacifist, who calls us to follow Jesus wholly, I found Claiborne’s response to questions about the approriateness of utilizing the News Corp to spread his message rather telling:

“I want to have the broadest readership possible,” Claiborne says by phone, “I don’t want to be someone who just speaks to the choir.” He says smaller publishers have their advantages but the books he has written for them cost “two or three times” more than what they would if Zondervan published them.

Claiborne, who has preached his message via Esquire, Fox News (also owned by News Corp), Al Jazeera and many others, says the key is to “protect the integrity of the message.” If he is convinced the medium won’t change the message, he will work with organizations despite not “[agreeing] with all of their approaches or decisions.”

But even if the message is protected, his work is being used to help enrich a rather well-maintained corner of empire. He feels “conflicted” about this. “I don’t think that the world exists in 100 percent pure and 100 percent impure options,” he says.

. . . . There’s good and bad in each of us, he says, “we are called to work on the log in our own eye, and I’m sure as heck trying to work on the compromises that I make so that those are minimal when it comes to integrity.”

His response, in other words is to oddly assert a sort of Niebuhrianism. Obviously in an ideal world we wouldn’t publish our radical Christian manifestos of hope with publishers who have no ethics and exist solely to produce profits, even at the cost of dehumanizing and oppressing others. But we live in the real world. In the real world sometimes we need to compromise with evil media empires in order to sell enough copies of our book. We may not feel good about this, but this abiguity is an unavoidable tension in which we must live if we wish to deal with “the real world.”

Of course this is exactly the sort of ethical logic that books like Claiborne’s constantly rail against, holding up by contrast the radical politics of Jesus. So when it comes to say, war, the answer is obvious: a complete and radical break with “the world” for the sake of faithfulness to the Gospel. But when it comes to money, and “soft violence”, the kind we don’t easily see, the kind that sustains corporate behemoths like News Corp, well then we have to learn to live in world where things aren’t so black and white. When it comes to “violence” (which always seems to mean simply an ethical disapproval of war) we must not shirk the duty of obedience and faithfulness. When it comes to money, influence, and success (even “good” influence and success in “good” ministries), well then we have to be ok with some compromises with the powers in order to get things done.

Of course one obvious difference between these two contradictory positions that folks like Claiborne tend to take is that simply saying “War is wrong” doesn’t exactly cost us anything or make us ask the hard questions about what violence really is and how it is happening all around us and in us. The reason money, influence, and success are so much harder to simply chuck under the bus of faithfulness and obedience is because we can’t do that without being self-implicating. And there’s the rub.

All of which seems to give further evidence to the fact that “war” and “violence” are not the preeminent capitulations the church has made to the powers. Indeed, arguing about why Christians must be anti-war may well distract us from the real issues, and indeed the real violence that the church consistently ignores for the sake of its own comfort and success.

Or to put an even finer point on the matter: What we really need to be able to do be honest about money. Nothing melts away faux radicalism faster than demanding the people talk about money and change how they relate to it concretely.

Christianity is not a cultural project

One of the central features of what we might call “post-evangelical discontent” is the general state of being sick of hearing about a “personal relationship” with God as central to the meaning of being a Christian. Talk about “personal relationships” with God is pietistic and individualistic drivel through and through, and we must move beyond it to talk about what really matters, namely embodied discipleship in the church, which is a political, cultural reality in its own right. What is vital for those seeking to move beyond their post-evangelical discontent is to stop fixating on such evangelical niceties and pieties, and understand Christian identity in terms of culture, that is the church as a specific cultural project that, through its own life and the virtues it forms in its members, embodies the kingdom in the world.

Now, to be sure I agree that talk of a “personal relationship” with God is theologically problematic, especially in its fundmentalist-evangelical use. The idea that God is primarily interested in having some sort of emotional involvement with us as precious individual snowflakes is, quite obviously stupid. However, I also find it problematic to move, through a sort of short-circuit from this insipid individual relationalism to construing Christianity as primarily a cultural project. The reason this is problematic is because Christianity is not a cultural project. To be a Christian is not to adopt some new cultural identity, ecclesial or otherwise (as the cross-cultural translatability of the Gospel message in the New Testament shows). To be a Christian is rather to be called to witness to the act of God in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. This can happen in any culture and in many forms, which is part of the beauty of God’s ongoing work of raising up witnesses by the Spirit.

As such, we need to pause in our rightful distaste for false pieties before seeking false sanctuaries in construals of “Christianity as culture.” Statements like the following should be roundly rejected:

If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.

It may interest folks to know that this statement comes, not from the pen of leading authors who write books on theology of culture, or the meaning of being the church in the post-Christendom world, but from Anders Behring Breivik, the architect of the recent terrorist attacks in Norway. I use this quote here not to say that the advocates of Christianity as a cultural project would somehow endorse Breivik’s actions; obviously they would not. My point is more basic: Christianity is not a cultural project and to construe it as such is always to set it in the service of some ideology or politics other than it’s call to witness to Christ. Just as we must reject false pieties, so too must we reject the false security that would have us imagine that Christianity is a culture rather than a calling that breaks into all cultures and forms of social life.

More on “place,” ideology, and incarnation

Some of this appears in the comment tread on yesterday’s post, but I thought it needed to be expanded into a post in its own right as well. As we consider what it means to think in terms of “place” and the church’s life, I want to be clear. My point is not that the church should not seek concretely dwell in and be concerned for its particular context. Rather my point is that we need to look not to “place” as a sort of cultural-theological category but rather need to ask “What place? Which spaces?” Inhabiting the culture of suburban affluence is not the same thing as inhabiting the culture of the urban ghetto, and we cannot include them both under the rubric of “place”, at least not if we are talking about how to avoid ideology.

In some of these discussions, as is often the case the language of “incarnation” has come up. If we relativize “place,” does that amount to a denial of the incarnation, in which God in Christ comes and dwells in a particular place and culture? If we are to be in the world as Christ himself was, does that not also mean that the church ought to enculturate itself, establishing rootedness, identity and longevity by stabilizing its life in a particular place, thus imitating and participating in Christ’s incarnation?

This use of “incarnation” I take to be an extremely widespread problem in a lot of contemporary ecclesiological and missional discourse and practice. It relies on an an unbiblical expansion of “incarnation” into a theological category that neglects the actual meaning of that doctrine in terms of the concrete history of Jesus Christ. That is to say, “incarnation” does not name a broad theological principle or metaphysical-ecclesiological quality. Rather it is a doctrine about Christ’s singular person and work that is derived from the radical event of his crucifixion and resurrection. “Incarnation” must be understood concretely in terms of Christ’s own history, his concrete story.

Taken in that light it becomes clear that the incarnation does not sanctify “place” (rootedness, cultural identity, etc.), though it continues to be taken that way. Rather we learn that the Word became flesh and tabernacled (skenoo) among us (John 1). Indeed when the Word comes to those who were “his own”, those who are his own people, those who concretely dwell in the land and the Holy Place of Jerusalem, it is precisely they who “did not receive him.” The mode of God’s “dwelling” is not that of rootedness, of Temple, but rather of Tabernacle, of sojourning without a secure “place.” And thus Jesus never “roots” his ministry anywhere but rather is found traversing all sorts of places, going to the Samaritans, Galilee of the Gentiles, and even to the houses of the Romans. He does indeed come to “the holy place” — only to be reject, driven out, and crucifed outside the city gate (more on this later). His ministry is not one of “inhabiting place” but rather of traversing place, venturing into abandoned spaces with the unclean and the marginalized. As such it is a profound theological mistake to jump from “incarnation” to a vision of rootedness, stability, a sanctifying of place. That is decidedly what Jesus does not do. Rather his whole ministry consists in the relativizing of “place”, especially the Temple, which of course was a major cause of his crucifixion.

Likewise, in the New Testament the incarnation never functions as a way of describing the scandal of the Gospel, rather it is an afterthought, a doctrine that is a mere consequence of the earth-shattering fact of the resurrection of the Crucified One. The notion that God would come and dwell with his people is not the scandal of the Gospel; that was Israel’s earliest hope as well attested throughout the Old Testament. The Scandal of the Gospel was that God would come among Israel as the Crucified One, the one cursed under Torah (Deut 21:23). It is Christ Crucified, not “Christ incarnated” that is the scandal of the Gospel. And it is always to crucifixion-resurrection, not “incarnation” that the Apostles call the church. That’s why I’m hesitant to allow “the incarnation” a sort of independent status to determine the nature of the church and its ministry. The pattern of the New Testament gospel is not from incarnation to “incarnational ministry”, but is rather from crucifixion-resurrection to cruciform self-abandonment. We need to understand “incarnation” from the cross, not the other way round.

Thus I must say again that the call to discipleship of the crucified leaves us in an unstable relationship with “place” and “rootedness” and “culture.” I’m haunted by statements like those in Hebrews: “Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb 12:13-14). Jesus comes among us, not as one who “inhabits place”, but as one who is driven out of the security and peace of “place”, rootedness, culture, etc. He is found outside the city gates, driven into the abandoned spaces along with the lepers, prostitutes, and the godforsaken. If, as Hebrews suggest, our calling is to “go to him outside the camp”, I think that should orient us, not towards the lure of stability, place, and culture, but towards the forgotten and hidden spaces in this world, the spaces that “place” crowds out and paves over, where the despised and the worthless of this world, “the poor of Jesus Christ” are abandoned, having no “place” to lay their head. That, it seems to me is where the church should be found, and towards which it should continually move.

Just so people know

The very best in collaborative theology blogging these days is going on at Women in Theology (WIT), who have been on a roll of fantastic posts lately. Also be sure to check out Memoria Dei for other top quality stuff from a great group of bloggers.

Also, people should keep their eye on the most recent solo blog to be added, that of Michael Gibson of IVP. There looks to be more good stuff coming our way from him as well.

“Place” and ideology

A while back David Fitch posted some thoughts on the power of “place” to overcome ideology in the life of the church. He states his argument, briefly as follows:

. . . it is only through “place” that we can break the cycle of ideological church. It is only through engaging in the practices of being the local expression of Christ’s body that we can break out of the entanglements of ideological cynicism. It is only in being the church of Jesus Christ, whose belief and practice is grounded in the Triune relation of God in the world, that we can avoid being ideologized. It is only in building communities that have their own internal integrity built in the on-the-ground participation in the Reign of Christ – that we can escape the ideologization of the church.  No longer dependent upon ideological structure – we can then discern – resist- participate in the world in non violent non-antagonistic ways. This of course (I would argue) is the nature of the incarnation and incarnational communities.

Now, I want to say at the outset that I understand that Fitch is emphasizing “place” (as many missional and new monastic folks do, including myself) in an attempt to combat certain elements of the contemporary evangelical church, such as suburban commuter churches in which the congregates don’t share much in the way of meaningful common life. In the face of churches whose members may live anywhere and not necessarily anywhere near one another, the call to “place” seems to make some sense. Certainly the church is not faithful if it construes itself as a sort of abstract meeting place that does not call us into common life and mission together.

However, I’ve grown increasingly less confident in the notion of “place” to do the sort of heavy lifting that is often asked of it. First of all, in contrast to what Fitch seems to suggest, I don’t see how its possible for us to construe “place” in and of itself as giving us a way to “break the cycle of ideological church.” “Place” speaks of location, stability, longevity, peoplehood, cultivation, it conjures up the images of land and home. But this seems to be part of the problem: Is not commitment to “place” the greatest source of ideology in human history? Are not wars fought precisely in the name of “place”? Is not the effort to carve out and secure “place” at the very center of ideological conflict? To speak of “place” is speak of establishment, and as such, far from becoming a site of resistance to ideology, it forms the place of its very birth. Could not the call to seize upon “place” have the exact opposite effect as Fitch intends? Might it not drive the church towards a territorialism, a possessiveness, that insists upon securing its own “internal integrity”?

We do well to remember that “place” is not neutral. “Places” are created by blood, by division, by violence. It is decidedly easy for the images of belonging and stability that “place” conjures up to imagine that it is simply benign and beautiful. But the truth is that it is not enough to call the church to embrace “place.” Rather the church must be called to critically question and act in response to the forces and powers that divide the world. It is not enough to say “place”; rather we must critically examine the nature of the different spaces in which we find ourselves. The “place” that is the urban ghetto is a decidedly different space than the suburbs or the uptown. They are not really “places” at all, but rather are spaces, created by various forces of social and political (and spiritual!) power. Embracing the “place” that is the urban ghetto is decidedly not the same thing as embracing the “place” that most middle class churches inhabit.

It seems to me that the more pertinent call to the church is not simply to embrace “place”, as if that were some overarching category. Rather the church must discern how different spaces are created in this world, how the principalities and powers seek to divide, enslave, and dehumanize those for whom Christ died and in whom he still suffers. It is into those spaces, the spaces claimed by the idolatrous powers that the church must be found if it is to be counted faithful to the Messiah who proclaimed salvation and restoration to “the least.” In entering these spaces we are not promised the security of “place.” Quite the opposite: “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Discipleship calls us, I believe, not into the security of place, but into the insecurity of obedience, of suffering with and bringing the good news to those who are being ground under the oppressive wheel of the powers. It may be that “place” is not a gift we will always be able to claim or assume upon. It may be instead that we are called to die to the security of “place,” and be driven, by the Spirit to pour ourselves out as a drink offering with, for, and alongside those who are driven out of “place.”

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