Theology

Why Theology? (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of a short piece I used as a pre-semester reading when I was co-teaching a seminary theology 101 course. Part 1 is here, and next are three pieces on creeds.


 

For Christians that understand God to have been enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, there exists a clarion call not only to discipleship, but to a model of God that is grounded in the spiritual and physical realities of this world. A world that is not philosophically divided into spirit and matter, but that is both in simultaneity. God's expression is – and has been – in the particulars of situations, communities, and collective sorrows and joy. And does articulating God by means of our human experience bring about its own challenges?

Absolutely. But what other choice is there? It is only through our brokenness and human sense that we experience anything. The acknowledgement that, in fact, our experience heavily influences discussions on the nature of God, opens up the possibilities of theological discourse. When this is accepted, theology moves from a scientistic discipline of proof and proposition towards a passionate exploration of how God is seen to be ever-renewing all that is, in our lives, our homes, communities, and all across this wounded world. In other words, a God out of context is not much God at all: it is a poor sort of articulation of God that is so far removed from life that it does not have bearing upon human actions and understanding. If our explication of the nature of the Divine somehow places God fully beyond human access, then God becomes available only beyond life. If, conversely, it is the case that God's presence is at least somewhat experiential, then our models and articulations of the Divine ought to provide for this to be the case.

What we know of God is contextual, personal, and ever capable of change. As we study theology we immerse ourselves in a living stream of interpretive tradition. I agree with Tripp Fuller that, "in an unfinished universe it is unreasonable to think a theology is finished." We study not a series of facts about God, but a series of interpretations and articulations developed by certain people at certain times in certain places. Human notions of God are ever-changing, even if God is not. So how then are we to understand our role as theologians? What is our task if we know that we too are grounded in our own context and can't get out of it to articulate God fully and factually complete? I have an answer that I'll offer via analogy, of all things, to chemistry.

Asked what H2O is, most people will answer water. They are correct, and there is more to the story than their response. Formed the other way around, "H2O" as an answer to the question "What is water?" is not wholly correct.

Imagine two molecules of water, each with two atoms of hydrogen associated to a larger atom of oxygen. What we have discovered is that even in a container of "pure" water, the reality is that a collection of H2O molecules do not remain simply a collection of H2Os. Instead, they begin to interact with one another, resulting in one of the two oxygen atoms taking a hydrogen atom from the other, an event which chemists notate as 2 H2O <–-> H3O+ + OH− and refer to as the "self-ionization" of water. Essentially, even though water is H2O, that is, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, water does not ever actually exist in a pure H2O form. Water is constantly in a state of resonance, transition, and relation, an oscillation in process between H3O+ and OH−. So too is God: somewhere between transcendent and immanent; personal and eternal; and any number of other seeming contradictions. By extension then, our task as theologians is not to name God as a fixed God that is and always will be, but to describe God in a such a way that captures some of the Divine nature as it is in the process of becoming something other than what we have named it.

This is not to say that God is becoming something ungodlike any more than it is to say that water is not water-like simply because we always thought it was “just H2O.” The function of our theology is to provide a sketch of how it is that God is at some middle point of becoming something more than we thought it was, but not so far afield that it is unrecognizable. Two molecules of water do not self-ionize into wombats: they stay water-related, just further from the idea of “pure” water than we first thought. There is a sense of continuity between H3O+ and OH− such that it makes sense to call a mixture of those things H2O, even though what we have discovered challenges our sense of what exactly that wet stuff is. The study of theology should do this as well: push us beyond that which we had previously contemplated, enabling us to better name God in our context for our people in our place and time.

Understanding and/or relating to some aspect of the Divine does not entail understanding and/or relating to the entirety of God. If you ask my wife if she knows me, she is sure to say yes, and you would think nothing of it. Of course she knows me. And yet there are thoughts I think, things I see, and stories I have heard that she has no knowledge of. That doesn't mean she does not know me: it means than I am more than that which she knows. I see no reason why this should not be the case with God as well. We articulate God's qualities – and thought about sin, redemption, end-times, the function of the church, etc – not to limit or ascribe finitude to that which we know is profound and immense, but as an offering and invitation to others that they might respond in kind, lending their voices to a conversation which is both the echo of ancient words and the renewal of current hope.

As we scientifically name water as H2O because that is the state in between its two poles of existence, so too can we conceive of God. It's just that while water "self-ionizes" into two distinct parts, each of which is qualitatively identifiable, quantifiable, and fixed, God seems to be formed of more parts than we can name. Yes Father, yes Son, yes Holy Spirit, and yes also Alpha and Omega; Love and Light; and Living Water and Word. Yes, yes, and infinite-becoming yes.

Why theology? Because as people of faith and Christian leaders, part of our work entails leading, and while we may have some vision of what we want to end up with, knowing how to get there – and how people have tried to get there before – certainly helps that effort. Put another way, a map isn't useful for getting you from “here” to “there” if you don't know where “here” is. Theology is the study of human reflection on God and it is our “here.” How we go forward will be up to us.

Why Theology? (Part 1 of 2)

This is the first of five posts prompted by Bo Sanders of Homebrewed Christianity. Just today he put up a post entitled "Of Creeds and Lean-tos: thoughts on temporary shelters," and it made me remember that I'd had a bunch of posts that I wanted to put up on that topic and theology in general. These pieces were part of a short pre-semester reading I wrote for seminary students in a theology 101 course I co-taught here in Rochester. Over the next couple weeks I'll get them all up here, so… Thanks Bo!


 

What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights us is so great!

If only we would let ourselves be dominated

as things do by some immense storm,

we would become strong too,

as do the trees, not needing names.

 

When we win it's with small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

What is extraordinary and eternal

does not want to be bent by us.

I mean the Angel who appeared

to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:

when the wrestler's sinews

grew long like metal strings,

he felt them under his fingers

like chords of deep music.

 

-R.M. Rilke, “The Man Watching”

God is.

End of conversation.

For many folks, those two words are sufficient, and yet, for such a short declarative statement, the sentence "God is." has quite a bit of baggage packed into it. Whose god? we might ask. The God who allowed the Crusades to happen? The Shoah? Lynchings and slavery? That god? Is that the God that is? And immediately we plunge into other issues.

As soon as we attempt to provide positive affirmation of God's existence through words alone we stretch the limits of our language. Sure, details could be ironed out: What are the qualities of God? What are the powers of God? Is God a cognizant being? Does God have infinite foreknowledge? Does God feel?, but we might never reach satisfactory answers to these questions and we would still be lacking a better, short way of saying what it is that God is all about, let alone addressing questions of sin, redemption, end times, or the purpose of the church. The challenge of it all seem so complex and unsatisfactorily answerable that many conversations are cut short and overly simplified. And while I would agree that issues of the Divine are too complex to definitively settle and explain, that does not mean there is not another way. While some might throw their hands in the air in frustration, settling for "God just is," saying that language simply cannot express the enormity of the Divine, and others would attempt to reduce God to a mere logical construction for the sake of explaining it all the way through, I think there is another, richer path to tread.

Theology is human reflection upon the Divine Event, which is still happening. We reflect on that which still transpires, living in the tension of Rilke's wrestler: struggling against a mighty obstacle, knowing that there may be a blessing in the struggle. Holding both the power of language to bring clarity in perspective and the awareness that God ever makes things new, we might strike out on a fruitful course. A course during which we may find that language helps us to clarify our faith. That in thinking more sharply about the Divine we can root out the damaging and exclusionary teachings we have inherited not from a Divine source, but from fellow fallible humans. And yet, we must cede that for all that is to be gained, we may also encounter moments when in our days of wrestling with language for the Divine our best response will be to join with the trees bent in the immense storm: silent and moved by a greater force.

Language about God resides within the tensions of a challenging dilemma. On the one hand, God's transcendent nature and ineffability makes us want to abandon any attempt to put language to the Divine, knowing we're never going to quite get it perfect. On the other, our human predilection for wanting certainty and reassurance makes us want to clarify and propositionalize God's holy mystery. Most Christians believe that the Bible is authoritative. No problem there. The issue is how to interpret this authority correctly. The Bible is rife with contradictory passages, so the question becomes by what authority will you claim resolution of their tensions? Or will you allow the tensions to remain, their very lack of resolution driving you to new questions, perspectives, and faithfulness?

The Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber wrote that our task as thinking people of faith is to walk the “narrow ridge” between speechless relativism and lifeless dogma. Step too far in either direction, he suggests, and we succumb to the temptation of an easy out and the power and promise of the tension is lost. Move into an abandonment of language and we have nothing to say to those who make use of God's name to spread hate and nothing to say to people who ask of our own faith: we leave the work of naming the function of church entirely to others. On the other hand, trying to fully articulate and explain God means we inherently accept not only the premise that human reason, logic, and language can address the entirety of God, but that our articulation is the articulation. Somewhere between these extremes is that narrow ridge which ministers and scholars of theology must seek to find.

A Critique of Fitch’s Use of Master-Signifier (kinda)

 

 

This week I spent some time over at North Eastern Seminary's event "Ministry Conference on The Radical Future of the Church: Forming Congregations for Mission with Dr. David Fitch." I'd previously reviewed Fitch's book here on TIoF and was amped up by the kind of work that he was doing, so I decided to head over and catch his lectures and learn about the Missio Alliance (which – by the way – has made me more hopeful and excited than I have been in quite some time). During a Q+A something came up between Fitch and I and this is a further fleshing out of that idea.

This video is primarily here for Dave and folks that have either read his book, The End of Evangelicalism? and/or were part of his Northeastern Seminary Seminar. If you fit into any of those categories, I'd love to hear what you think. Am I missing something? Have I misread? Misthought?

Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body

 

This is the next in the series of posts I'm doing about Aesthetic  and Embodied Perspectives of Theology. Here I'm talking about philosopher Mark Johnson's The Meaning of the Body. Johnson is the co-author, with linguist George Lakoff, of the the pivotal text  Metaphors We Live By, which is a foundational piece establishing some of the key ideas in conceptual metaphor

Aesthetics, Embodiment, Dualism, and a Reading List

 

Info about Kant's Aesthetics is here and here.

 

My Reading List

Berleant, Arnold. “Aesthetic Embodiment.” Online here.

Thiessen, Gesa Elsbeth.Theological Aesthetics: A Reader

Johnson, Mark.The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding.

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just.

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory.

Kehl, Medard.The Von Balthasar Reader.

Oliver, Kelly. Ed. Psychoanalysis, Aesthetics, and Politics in the Work of Julia Kristeva.

Crowther, Paul. Art and Embodiment: From Aesthetics to Self-Consciousness.

The Emerge-ish Church

 

As usual, I've said most of the things I think are important above in the video, but the basic gist is this:

This is a post for two separate sets of people. The first is the world of the general internet community and the second is a group of students in the Thurman/King School and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School for Christian Leadership. It has come about because I'm teaching a one-time evening seminar to this group on the topic of "The Emerging/Emergent" church and was asked to address the issue for folks that were interested in but didn't have any personal ties. Ok, so now onto the point(s).

If you are NOT in that class, the favor I'd ask is that if you've got another perspective and/or resource that you want to pass along to those students, please post it in the comments and I'll make sure folks get to see it. I'd love for this post to become a living document, so please post away:  personal narrative, resource to read, or otherwise. I'd love to have as many voices as possible on this doc.

If you ARE in that class, please watch the video above and then look at some of these links below and the comments section. Try to read and/or watch at least two from the "Insider Perspectives" section and at least one from each other section. It would be great if you checked them all out, but getting to at least one each should give us grist for the mill. If you have any questions please be in touch and I'll see you in April!

 

Insider Perspectives

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Outsider(ish) Perspectives
 
 
Shane Clawson: Sojouner Blog Post "On the Sloppiness of Naming"

 
 
 
More Critical Perspectives
 
 
 
 
 
On The Difference between Emergent/Emerging
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Miscellaneous Things I Mentioned in the Video
 

Gnosticism’s Divine Spark and The Inner Light

 

A week ago I started to roll out a mini-experiment with the hopes that others would join in.  While details can be found here, the basic gist of it is that I would love to hear from folks about how it is their scholarship feeds a contemporary living faith. My inspiration in this comes from Diana Butler Bass who suggests that with some work we can find moments in history (and theology I might add) that, upon contemporary reflection, pave the way towards a more hopeful, vital, and hospitable future. 

My big wish is that other folks out in the world of the internet will join me in explicitly commenting on how it is that their scholarship feeds a vital contemporary faith.  That tired "well scholarship is important because without it we wouldn't know what has happened before," line won't cut it.  Why exactly do certain and particular events or thinkers inspire you, or give you hope? In attemping to show a few ways that folks might attempt this, I made a short (and ridiculous) film about Origen and Allegory, I did an audio recording about Maximus the Confessor and Theosis, and now I'm closing out the trio with a good ole' fashioned blog post about the Gnostics and the Divine Spark.  

If you are reading this and are a seminarian or arm chair theologian who hasn't yet considered making their work publicly available, please, please, consider doing so. I think that those of us who are blessed to be able to persue scholarship (formally or not) miss out on a great opportunity to share when we keep our work to ourselves. It doesn't have to be perfect for it to serve as useful to another.  Exhibit A? This page.  We're all just trying to figure things out, and I hope you join the conversation. If you have any questions or comments, say hello in the comments below, or via direct contact with me. And now, without further adieu…. 

 

The Gnostics and the Divine Spark

 

The process by which I decided to wrestle with this topic went a little something like this:

 

Me1: So I want to think about history and what in it might bear some hope for the future.

Me2: Thinking about history, eh?

Me1:Yeah, you have a problem with that?

Me2: No, its just that… well, history is pretty big.

Me1:Good point.

Me2: How about you think about what issues you struggle with in the present and see if anything in the past might shed some light on them.

Me1: That's a great idea, I think I'll use that as my topic!

Me2: Glad I could be of… wait. What? 

Me1: Light.

Me2: …?

Me1: What?

Me2: You are going to search for hope in the history of light?

Me1: Yup.

Me2: Do tell.

Me1: Well, in the Religious Society of Friends we talk a lot about the "Inner Light" and the theology around that seems to be pretty sloppy.

Me2: Ok… and that is historical because…

Me1: Because it seems quite similar to the Gnostic idea of "Divine Spark."

Me2: Wait… how did… where did that come from?

Me1: Not sure actually. Think I read it online somewhere once.

 

As you can see, my thought process was incredibly thorough and well-thought out. 

 

My premise was essentially that since I was having this hang-up around what exactly is meant by the idea of “Inner Light,” it might be of some use to see what thoughts have been had about another group of folks that had the idea of some illuminating mark of God being present within.

So what's at stake here?  Well, the basic issue is that a number of Friends I know (generally tending to be on the Liberal, Universalist, and Progressive end of a spectrum) often make use of the phrase “Inner Light,” as if somehow some portion (or a miniaturized replica) of God resided inside each of us.  That kind of thing sounds something like, “Well, we can each believe whatever we want because we each have access to the Inner Light.” It functions something like a get of jail free card for theological discussion.  Now I'm all for pluralism of a sort, but this kind of argument isn't the way I would want to get there.

I think it is telling that the Early generations of Friends tended to use the phrase “Inward Light,” which suggests that the Light is indeed coming from somewhere, namely, God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. As articulated in the second generation of the Religious Society by the Apologist Robert Barclay:

"By this Seed, Grace and Word of God, and Light wherewith everyone is enlightened, we understand a spiritual, heavenly, and invisible Principle, in which God as Father, Son, and Spirit dwells: a measure of which Divine and glorious life is in all men as a Seed, which of its own nature draws, invites and inclines us to God; and this some call vehiculum Dei, or the spiritual body of Christ, the flesh and blood of Christ, which came down from heaven, of which all the saints do feed, and are thereby nourished unto eternal life."

Apology, Proposition 6.8

 

Ok, so where do the Gnostics fit in, and what is the argument that the Gnostics have anything to do with Friends? Well, the Gnostics had this idea they called the “Divine Spark,” and for obvious reasons relating to the nature of any metaphor about internal lighting, there is some overlap.

While there are certainly good places (like here, here, or here) that folks can read about Gnosticism, for this little foray into Divine Sparkiness, suffice it to say that Gnosticism seems to be a form of dualism wherein the manifested physical aspects of the present world were considered evil and a pure spiritual nature, from which we descended, was desirable (mighty Greek if you ask me).  As Stephan A. Hoeller writes:

“A human being consists of physical and psychic components, which are perishable, as well as a spiritual component, which is a fragment of the divine essence, somethings called the divine spark.” 

Stephan A. Hoeller's Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowingpg. 18

 

Now dualism aside, this idea seems to be in some resonance with the Early Quaker ideas about the Inward Light.  

 

Variously referred to in Quaker Founder George Fox's journal as   “Christ Within,” “Inner Light,” “That of God in every man,” and “The Seed of God,” the belief was that there was some essential aspect of humanity that was directly responsive to the Holy Spirit, without need for mediation by a priestly class.  Each could, by virtue of this “Inward Light,” hear and respond to the Divine.  [Side Note: This all being true, Friends have nonetheless noted for hundreds of years now that discerning God's Will is most fully possible in community, not as individual interpretation.]

Important to this principle is that this Light was accessible to all people.  As Fox wrote:

[The Light is] nigh unto all men and women in the whole world, and in them, if their soul and breath be in his hand. Here you may see the eternal, infinite hand of the incomparable God, in whose hand is ‘the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind' in the whole world; for ‘God breathed into man the breath of life, and he became a living soul.’ God, who is immortal, has the breath of all (and all immortal souls) in his hand, and none can fall out of his eternal hand.

 

Marcus T.C. Gould's The Works of George Fox, Vol. VI pg. 333

 

So like the Gnostics, there is this eternal essence associated with some higher calling.  Seems compatible so far.  Until we learn about who responded to this higher calling and by what means:

[In Gnostic thought,]revelation is possible only because within the Gnostic there somehow pre-exists a disposition, a capacity, a potential fitted for testing and getting to know that particular reality. Only like can, in fact, know like. Only spiritual beings can perceive, receive and understand the spiritual. 

Giovanni Filoramo's A History of Gnosticism. pg. 40

 

Uh oh…  An elitist spirituality in which only certain people can perceive the true nature of this particular reality (knowing of course that a truer reality exists in which the evils of the material world have been abandoned)? Yup.  

"People are generally ignorant of the divine spark, [which] is stirred by the call of the ultimate Divine by way of divine men, or messenger of Light. [These messengers] descend from the highest spiritual realms to call souls back; they come to restore the human spirit to its original consciousness and lead it back to the Divine.” 

 Stephan A. Hoeller's Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowingpg. 18

 

So the metaphysical dualistic split between materiality and spirituality is reflected in practice: some people are “asleep” in the material world and unaware of the Divine Spark within them, requiring other people (sent from the highest spiritual realms) to wake them up.

I entered into this little hunt thinking that I'd find something there that might be of use and, backwardsly, I have: it isn't that in Gnostic thought itself I find some resolution directly, but it does point me towards some clarity on why the same issue bugs me in my own context hundreds of years later.  If there is something residing within all, but not everyone is accessing that which is within them, well, why is that?

I feel like there is a distinct, though perhaps subtle, difference between the positions where: 

A) Everyone possesses their own (to use the Gnostic phrase)  “fragment of the Divine” which can be woken up by special “pneumatic” humans who are “awake” and have access to the special Gnosis knowledge that resides within the fragment/spark.

and

B) We each have been made in God's Image and every one of us, being partly of the breath of God, can discern aspects of God's will, acknowledging that this discernment is  best done in community 

 

Even as I wrote that I realized how fuzzy this stuff can be.  Bottom line? I think the idea that there is special interior knowledge that only some elect humans can access is a dangerous one. Is it my experience that some people are more faithful and seem to live more righteous lives? Yes indeed, but I do not think that is due to some special essential difference between them and other people, rather, it is because of choices made that bring themselves into right relationship with God.  Againg, George Fox:

…the spirit of man [sic], is the candle of the Lord, and the candlestick is every man's [sic] body, mind, soul, and conscience, that with this spirit their candle being lighted, and set up in its candlestick, they may see all that is in the house; and with this light they may see Christ that died for them, and is risen for them: so come by this light, which is life in the word, to be grafted into Christ the word, which was in the beginning, which lives and abides, and endures for ever. 

Marcus T.C. Gould's The Works of George Fox, Vol. V pg. 356

 

Without the presence of some common knowledge that we can all work together to live into, the life of faith becomes secretive and individualistic, or worse, cabalistic. And that pretty much clarifies the issue I think: if our theology is somehow hidden or secret — regardless of whether that is because we believe in special pneumatic humans who have access to special knowledge or because we are afraid to talk to one another about about it for fear of offending or being cast out — well, then the opportunity to grapple with discernment together in community is pretty much shot.  The hope then, I suppose, is that we recognize that without frank, open discussion and connection to one another we miss out on any truly egalitarian exploration of faith.

Maximus the Confessor and Deification (Theosis)

 

Alrighty. So this is my second foray into history hunting for hope. I'm doing this one with audio to point out that there are a number of ways that people can get their thoughts out there:  as I mentioned in a post a bit ago, I am hoping that others with join me in this exploration of tradition.  The video on that link explains the thrust of my invitation more fully, but suffice it to say that I would love to hear from folks about how it is their scholarship feeds a contemporary living faith.  If you have notions about how that might happen, or examples of it happening, send them along.  Either in the comments below, or via direct contact with me. Anywho…

So the above audio is about Maximus the Confessor and his ideas about Deification (Theosis), and the sources referenced in it are below in the order of their appearance audition.

 

Biographical Info

George Berthold's Maximus Confessor. 

The Catholoc Encyclopedia, which is now online here.

 

General Comments on Maximus' Theology

George Berthold's Maximus Confessor. pg. xiii-iv

 

Overview on Theosis

Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharlamov's "Introduction" pg. 1-13

 

Maximus on Theosis 

Elena Vishnevskaya's "Divinization and Spiritual Progress in Maximus the Confessor" pg. 134-42

Maximus' Capita de Charitate. 1.31

Maximus' Mystagogia. 24

Historical Hunting for Vitality, Hospitality, and Hope

 

Among the Progressive Christian circles of which I am typically involved, theological stances range widely, from a version of Universalism that looks askance on traditional Christian language to a form of exploration with "ancient-future" practices and traditions.  Common throughout these encounters though is the pesky question of what to do with tradition(s).

Whether it be the various flavors of orthodox thought (not even needing a captial "O" here) asking us to maintain certain types of historical interpretation and practice, or radical post-Christian theology suggesting we ought to jettison that which has come before, a significant challenge that faces the modern Christian is to figure out where we stand in relation to the rest of the Christian stream, including the part of that stream that predates us by decades and centuries.

Into this mix, Diana Butler Bass steps with her 2009 book, A People's History of Christianity.  A compelling read, Bass's text riffs off of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States with the claim that regardles of what side of the religious aisle you are on, chance are that "the history" and tradition in which you think you need to place yourself is not the only story.  That is, whether you want to reject it or embrace it, Bass suggests the questions to ask are not about rejection or acceptance, but about the "it." What history exactly are you embracing? Rejecting? Is that the only history there is? In rejecting much of Christian Tradition do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? In accepting only once perspective on the past do we miss out on equally true means to depth in faith? Yes indeed, to both, says Bass.

The problem, she claims, is that "the" history that most of us refer to as Christian history is a story of domination and conquest, and while that certainly is present within the tradition, there are also many other storied streams that flow right up to the present, paralleling narratives of compulsion with ones of compassion.  Once we become aware of this she contends, then we can look to history with a different eye, finding the traces of thought and action that are often overlooked.  Doing this then allows us to search out moments and events that, upon contemporary reflection, might become sites of "a vital, hopeful, hospitable, and open faith — a faith that can heal, reconcile, and bring peace." This compelling articulation leads me to an invitation.  

In the next few post on TIoF, I will be engaging in my own hunt for hope in history AND I would love to hear about your own: where do you find vitality, hope, and hospitality in moments, figures, events, or streams of thought from the past?  Put another way, what particulars of your understanding of tradition point you towards a living faith today and how do they do that? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, or, even better, your own blog posts that you share. Writing, video, music, photography… you name it and I'd love to see and share it.

The Religious Society of Friends, Minutes of Travel, and Me

 

 

If you are just interested in reading the Minute of Travel, click right here, otherwise, here goes:

 

This post serves a kind of two-fold purpose, the latter of which is more significant:

 

1) to share with my extended community the Minute of Travel I now carry, and 2) to explain my sense of what a Minute of Travel is, i.e. to articulate my understanding of ministry and carrying a concern within the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

 

The former I want to share because there are those with whom I have connection that might want to see the document, that latter because I think it might be worth sharing another perspective on ministry and travel as Friend. I'm bothering to type up all this so that Google can find it and so that it is in the Cloud in the event others might want access to text. There is not a whole lot written on this topic and I thought it might be of use/interest to someone out there.

For the purposes of trying to make this accessible to those who might not know Quakerese, I'll try to articulate things in such a way that they avoid jargon unless it has explanation.

 

[Note: I am part of a local Meeting congregation that is in the unprogrammed tradition of the RSoF, what is often referred to as Liberal Quakerism and is associated with two of the four sub-sects of of the RSoF. Through New York Yearly Meeting (which is something akin to a Conference in other denominations) I am connected to Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting. The other two forms of the RSoF are the small numbers of Conservative Friends and the Evangelical Friends Church International] For more info about these sub-types of The Religious Society of Friends, check out this video around minute 2:03.

 

If that was enough, and now you're just interested in reading the Minute of Travel, it is still right here, otherwise, here is the rest: 

 

Short Version

A Travel Minute is a document issued when someone feels called to Ministry outside of his/her local congregation. It states the nature of the ministry to which the indivual is called and bears the endorsement of at least the local congregation. Depending on the extent/breadth of the work the person anticipates, sometimes it will have endorsements from Quarterly Meetings (composed of multiple local Meetings) and/or Yearly Meetings (composed of many Quarterly Meetings). My minute was issued and endorsed by Rochester Monthly Meeting on April 18, 2010, endorsed by Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting on May 23, and endorsed by New York Yearly Meeting on November 13. More-or-less, the Minute is documentation of a gathered congregational body's clearness that the contents of the Minute are right and true by their discernment.


Long Version

Often times people (sometimes Friends themselves) are under the impression that The Religious Society of Friends (RSoF) has no ministers. This is wrong on at least two counts.

First, two of the four (Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International) strands of the RSoF regularly do appoint or "raise up" pastors to assist congregations with their growth and life in the Spirit. These congegations are often referred to as Pastoral or Programmed Meetings and sometimes as Friends Churches.

 

Second, and more theologically significant, even aside from the pastoral tradition, the RSoF has always had ministers: it is not that ministers were done away with, it is that the notion of laity was abolished. All were/are called to ministry and if some are called to it more than others it is not because of any special merit, marking, or reward. We are all one in the Body of Christ.

 

My own service falls within the second category in something referred to as Traveling in the Ministry, meaning that while I continually return to, and am grounded and held accountable by, community there, the work I do is primarily outside of my congregation.

Often times when a person Travels in the Ministry they do so under a particular "Concern," that is, a certain topic to which they feel called to support and/or bear witness. Most famously, 18th century Friend John Woolman travelled in the Ministry with a concern for the abolition of slavery, moving from congregation to congregation worshipping and praying with people as he shared his sense that God was calling them all to live in greater integrity, freeing all slaves. Contemporarily there are Friends traveling under a concern for the right care of the earth, for the end of torture, and for the full extension of rights to the GLBTQ community, among other things. Historically, these travelling Friends would have often been "Released," or financially assisted so that their worldly economic obligations did not hold them back from service. This rarely occurrs today outside of travel stipends that Meetings can provide for the person to help them get from place to place.

My own "Concern" is somewhat less bound than the ones mentioned above: I sometimes will go to a place without knowing exactly what I am to do there other than listen faithfully and respond as I might. This means I am not always sure what content will be present if I am asked to preach, what precisely will happen at a retreat if I am facilitating, and/or if I will even give vocal ministry when I travel to be present somewhere. Traditionally, this was called Travelling in the Gospel Ministry, and I understand a significant amount of the work I do to be some mix between this calling and an awareness that I am sometimes of use to people by means of offering fresh articulation or a new persepective. Some folks have begun to use the phrase "a Concern for Deepening Faithfulness," and I feel this is accurate as well. Whatever the category, I understand my Vocation to be about listening, being present, and offering whatever I can as needed.

When I head out for some place with a sense that I am travelling there under a sense of this concern, I bring a copy of the minute with me and when I am finished there, someone will take the copy and mail it back to my Meeting in Rochester, attaching an accompanying "endorsement" note sharing their experience of worshipping with me. The note ranges in length from a few sentences to several paragraphs, and serves to keep the congregation apprised as to my work in the world. Traditionally Friends traveled in pairs as per Acts, so there is often someone else with me while I am serving, but that person is not usually from the community to which I am going, so it is useful to9 hear form them directly. When it comes time to consider whether or not it is appropriate to issue a new minute of travel sometime in the future, congregations will sit in discernment with their own sense of the Friend as well as all the endorsements (some of which may be critical) that have been received since the last minute was issued.

Central to all of this, and one of the primary reasons that Friends originally did away with paid clergy, is the idea that the ministy I do isn't mine, and that the spiritual gifts that I employ are not actually in my possesion. That is, I am a steward of gifts that have their origins as charisms of the Spirit for as long those gifts reside in me and since we cannot know the mysterious mechanism(s) by which such gifts show up in the first place, we ought not pretend to know when they might depart. The regular return to worshipping bodies to consider the minutes of those travelling is a matter of routine discernment: Is there a new Concern? Does the person still carry the gifts that were noted in the last minute? Have they left? Deepened? Been replaced by others? The idea is that travel in the ministry should be grounded in a congregational body that looks after the personal and spiritual welfare of the individual, nurturing and pruning as need be so that the work they are engaged in is the work to which they are called, not just a doing of things out of some sense of ego-pleasure, obligation, or personal momentum.

That about does it in terms of the general other than to note that most of the time once a Meeting has become clear that someone's leading to travel in the ministry is rightly ordered, the Meeting appoints a committee of three to five people to routinely worship with the traveler and assist in discernment, support, and grounding. These committees go by different names depending on the practices of the Meeting, but usually are named one of the following: Anchor, Support, Nurture, or Oversight Committees.

Having said all that in the abstract, I would just point folks still interested to the minute itself, which I feel is pretty much resonant with my my own sense of things as pertains to how it is that God is opening in my life. [Nerd Note: I am particularly pumped about the inclusion of the word "catalyst," in the minute as the chemist in me is aware that the catalyst in a reaction is what allows the change to take place, it isn't the actual means of reaction or the end product. I don't want to ever forget that I am not the message: I am the messenger and I bear witness to a great Good News beyond me.] As I continue to rejoice and find fellowship and service beyond just the Religious Society of Friends it may be that the Anchor Committee appointed to discern with me may have to grapple with language that reflects this broader denominational sense of leading, but we shall see. For the moment I think it is a dang fine reflection of what I aspire to. I'm hardly there every day, but at least I know it is there on the edges calling me. I am grateful for that and the community that supports me in that work.

 

If folks have questions or comments, I'd love to see them below.   

The Death of the Death of God OR “Gott ist tot” ist tot

 

I'll preface all this by noting that what follows is thoroughly not a tracing of the Death of God Theology or Philosophy; mostly it is my perspectives on the whole "God is Dead," thing as it currently stands.  As such, if you are unfamiliar with the "Death of God," thing, the names Friedrich Nietzsche, William Hamilton, or Thomas J. J. Altizer, you might want to check out the wikipedia article on it, and then poke around on the web for a bit.  There is a lot to read about it around.

Also of note: I am not in favor of jettisoning tradition because it is tradition.  I think there is a place for denominational work.  I'm not sure what that place is exactly, but that has more to do with my ignorance of ecumenical geography than it does with any theological position.

 

Yeah.

 

Clarification of Terms

Given the hot topic that "death of God" theology was, and is, it seems worth considering what is actually meant by the phrase.  More particularly, I want to express what I mean by the phrase, and why I think it is an idea with which it is worth grappling. After a brief consideration of what I mean by the phrase I will explore some of the related topics that provide some of the foundation upon which theological grappling may well take place. 

When I refer to the death of God I refer to my sense that (1) Our conceptualizations of God and the word God itself are in need of substantive reformulation.  People have been so swayed by unfaithfulness, judgment, and oppression that terms which resulting in one feeling a century ago sometimes drive people in the opposite direction in the present.  (2) Our traditional liturgies and theologies need to be renewed because they do not adequately speak to the experience and condition of contemporary people of faith.  This is not to be done for the sake of popularity or so as to avoid controversy, but rather because certain ways of thinking about, and naming, the Divine that may have previously "worked" to inspire, drive, and comfort people no longer provide sustenance or succor.  It is not so much that God is dead as that our naming of God no longer seems appropriate or fitting: (3) Our techniques for naming God ought to die.  And be renewed.  The classical traditions and methods still surely point to an abiding reality, but they do so in a way similar to calling a grown man named Timothy "Little Tim-Tim." There must be a better way to point to our faith and practice than what has been done.  Or, in the very least, it is worth the attempt to discover if there is a way.

The InterVarsity Dictionary of Theology entry for "Death of God" closes with  the following question.  "If we agree that God is too transcendent to be described in words, or too immanent for his acts to be distinguished from those of nature and man, then what do we have but a dead, or non-existent God?"  There is such a great wealth of ideas in this question that it seemed worth exploring it in detail for what might recovered in answering it.

 

Too Transcendent

That God is too transcendent to be described in words is a notion I often encounter, especially among progressive Christians, who often extend the idea by commenting that we shouldn't even be expected to be able to describe God because God is such a mysterious force/being/presence.  The results of thinking such as this is that God is left as an utterly amorphous, vague idea, an abstracted mystery that then allows for some very dubious theology to be done.

For Progressive people of faith, I feel very strongly that the desire to leave God almost entirely unarticulated comes as a response to an over-articulated demand for God to be a particular way coming from a more vocal Christian Right.  More or less, what I am suggesting is that the fuzzy theology of many liberal Christians is a sociological result of the  hardline, aggressive stance of some conservative Christians.  Because "they" are clear in their theological tenets and sometimes act in ways that we feel are judgmental and inappropriate, and "we" do not want to be like that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, jettisoning not only judgment, but also clarity.  

One of the struggles that I believe we face is that even the language we use to talk about talking about God is marred with the marks of a Hellenization that does not well suit the numinous.  When we postulate that God may be too transcendent, we seem to be articulating a vision of God that is somehow fixed "out there," something akin a quasi-Platonic Form of Divinity.  Indeed, Plato's description of the Form of Beauty seems not too far removed from how many talk about God: "It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself with itself" (The Symposium, 211b).  That is, the transcendent Form is so far removed from our world and our experience of the world that the best we can hope to do is experience some lesser reproduction of the thing.  The result of this thinking then, is that the best we can do when attempting to articulate something transcendent is hope to name some flawed copy of the thing we actually sought to speak.  I reject this construction.

Given that Hellenized thought is so profoundly foundational to Western education, culture, and theology, it would be naive to presume any capacity to be able to reject it wholesale and still be considered to be in conversation with the tradition, so I reject it knowing that I will hereafter always stand as a possible hypocrite to my own claims, knowing that I can easily far into the type of categorical and Wholly Other thinking that I am dismissing.  That being said, I think that what is called for is not a rejection of talk about God because God is unnameable, but a rejection of colonizing talk about God because God's name has been used to oppress and destroy.  We are called not to abandon attempts to name our experience, but to acknowledge that our attempts will be provisional and contextual, not eternal and utterly accurate.

 

Too Immanent

The fear that God becomes undifferentiateable from the natural world seems to be a hold over from a fear of the physical.  Rather than issues of Immanence and Transcendence being opposite ends of a theological continuum, I believe they are both a response to those same Hellenization processes which thrust God out into the aether.  When God is a bounded being that can be intellectually placed somewhere  – even if that where is "beyond all experience" –  then any claim to God being present in the physical world is simultaneously a claim to placing God within reach.  The issue, it seems to me, is not about whether God is "here" or "there," but that fact that we think God is categorically place-able in anything.  

The phrase  "too immanent for his acts to be distinguished from those of nature and man," suggests that if God is seen to be immanent, then somehow we will lose the capacity to discern God at all.  But what then of the God of Scripture? Of Liturgy?  Would we not still experience a sense of communion in prayer even if we did allow ourselves to panentheistically name the Pretense as present in the world?  Where and when did God inform us that we lived in a polarized world where things are only made in two shades?

A key seems to be in remembering that in Jesus Christ we have the bridging mediator that guides us to the cross and the rebirth in which the heavens and earth converge.  The Holy Spirit which persists is our guide  in present days.  A guide into new territory which has yet to be named.

 

The Death

Essentially, what I would like to call for, to proclaim, is that "death of God" theology has died.  That is, it no longer captivates, inspires, accurately speaks to the condition of contemporary people of faith, etc.  Rather than a consistent fixation of the end of an era of classical God-talk, I am much more interested in its renewal.  It strikes me that the task of the theologian is always four-fold: Recover, reclaim, cast off, and create.  There is certainly a wealth of information and passion to be recovered within the traditional modes of theological discourse, and some of it ought to be reclaimed for its use in building up the true church of believers in the Body of Christ. And some of it needs to be jettisoned as a nothing more than a historical, philosophical artifact and vestige.

I am interested in that which comes after the casting off of old clothes, the encounter with the open air after centuries of enclosure.  What wondrous words might we find to articulate our sense of the Divine in this world?  What a glorious bricolage we may find.  

 


Caputo’s Hyperrealism – The Caputo Cache

This post is centered around a phone interview that I did with John Caputo about the issue of hyperrealism.  Click "phone interview" to get the MP3.

The question that I open asking references his book, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, and is specifically about this passage.

I compare how Caputo uses the term to the more common usage that Jean Baudrillard uses.

The "Richard" I reference in the interview is Richard Kearney of Boston College, and the book being referenced is his Anatheism, the official site of which is here, and a good (independent) engagement of which is here

A series of conversations between Caputo and Kearney are archived here from the 2007 Emergent Village Philosophical-Theological Conversation.

A series of recordings of lectures from Caputo are found here.

Tripp Fuller's Homebrewed Christianity interview with him is here, and the recent interview I did with him is here.

Relatedly, Caputo asked that I try to promote the Call for Papers for an upcoming conference he is co-hosting around the future of philosophical thought.  He is particularly interested in younger voices being present, so lets send him a whole host of interesting things to read!

The Impossible Kingdom

 

Alrighty… So I am trying to get in the habit of doing things that nourish me before 9am, when I start doing the things that (a) get errands done and/or (b) earn me income.  Who knows how long this pattern will last, but it has, at least for today, brought out another vid.  While not a direct response to anything other folks said, it is certainly prompted by the thinking going on in the comments (and Blake Huggins' post) responding to the vid I posted earlier this week.

As far as I can tell, the thrust of the thinking that is emerging is that while a physical science like, say, geology is about understanding the present state, process, and components of various geological systems and formations, theology cannot be restrained to the present.  Of course, at some level, science must also be able to predict future effects, for example, we like to know in advance if an earthquake is coming, and we attempt to learn new, more detailed things about systems under study; the difference here seems to me to be that science is about predicting the future as it emerges from what has come before while theology (writ large) is invested in the exploration of that which arrived, is arriving, and has yet to arrive again fully.  God is unpredictable: the realities of human life (not just biological functioning) are bewilderingly not something we can predict.  Why do good people die and not others? Why does some art make us cry? How exactly does a poem manage to evoke so much in so little? While there may be precise scientific answers to some of these, the truth is that that science cannot (perhaps cannot yet) predict how or when that will happen again and/or what the human response to it will be. All the more crazy it all becomes when the humans involved are attempting to live into the Kingdom of God in which things are all topsy-turvy (Kraybill's The Upside-down Kingdom is awesome by the way).  Insert the study of God into all this swirl of not-quite-predictibleness and we start to get to the point from which I jumped off.

I quote Blake from his post:

I would want to put a highly eschatological gloss Deleuze’s claim that “theology is now the science of nonexisting entities, ”radicalizing Moltmann’s insistence that eschatology must be the heart and soul of theology from beginning to end.  A theology of the event, then, is not so much about what is but what is yet to come in the future.  It is a discourse of possibility, a poetics of the (im)possible, one might say, which locates itself in the interstitial space of the Pauline already-not yet.

 

This kind of poetics of the (im)possible such as Caputo addresses in his book and that Blake points toward are interesting and yet they make me wonder about what has come before. If we are always pointing (Moltmannically) toward the hopeful future yet to come, some significant questions are raised about the inbreaking of the future that has already arrived: what do we do with the Christ event? Both in terms of the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit as some kind of experiential phenomenon we are left with our theological hands in the air if we can only look toward that which is yet to be.

Perhaps this is why I am so fascinated by incompleteness: to hope for the completed future of some holy eschaton is to hope for some cosmic get out of jail card.  Instead, I think we are called to live in the nexus of becoming the impossible.  It is easy to become an idolitrous cult of the impossible, because the idea of the "crazy-and-Just-yet-to-be" is so appealing, but unless that ideal "lavishly flings us forth" into some engagement with that which already is, I'm not sure that what we're doing is Christian Theology. Interesting to be sure, but perhaps not Christian Theology.  We are called to that sloppy, in-between place of almost-but-not-quite.  We are in this world to be sure, and have access to that which is beyond at the same time,  yet hoping for, and attempting to live into, something which has not yet come in its fullness.

Woah. Writing takes me soooo much longer than blathering into a camera.