Thursday, February 26, 2009

Transforming Theology: "Thinking Theologically As Full-Time Christians"

The folks taking part in the Transforming Theology conversation are discussing John Cobb's book "Reclaiming the Church." It's about how to revive the Mainline Church. I outlined the book earlier. But now I want to engage the book more practically. I especially want to engage Cobb's idea of the importance of theological reflection by ALL Christians.

Cobb suggests that the Mainline Church needs to renew its vocation of theological reflection. All this means is that we need to reflect more about how our faith in God impacts our daily lives. Reflecting on how our faith impacts our lives would help us become full-time, passionate Christians. Yes, full-time and passionate. Call it engaged Christianity.

In order for us to be more engaged in our Christianity, Cobb encourages us to think about how our Christian values impact our lives as parents, spouses, partners, siblings, co-workers, pet owners, church-goers, etc. It would also be helpful to reflect on how our faith impacts our decisions, plans, schedules, budgets, etc. Our faith not only impacts whether we go to church, but also things like what we buy, eat, and recycle. Christianity is an embodied faith. It's meant to be lived in our real lives. And it's meant to change all of our lives for the better.

I think Cobb is right about the value of thinking theology. It would help us become bolder in our faith. But that doesn't mean we're told what to do by some moralistic list. It means we need to discern what is most faithful according to our understanding of Christ and Scripture. Nobody can do that but ourselves and our God. So in order to contribute to the renewal of theological reflection, I want to list ten sets of questions that would be worthy of deeper reflection. All of these questions seek to ask: How does my faith in God matter in my day-to-day life?

(1) Do I practice Sabbath, renewal, and/or recreation on a regular basis? Is it enough to recharge my batteries? Do I make time to care for myself? Do I care for myself enough so I can care for others?

(2) Do I make my budget based on my faith commitments? Am I a faithful steward of my money? Do I invest in the things I believe are worthy of investment?

(3) Do I plan my schedule in a way that is faithful to my understanding of a Christian lifestyle? What would Jesus have me do? What is God calling me to do?

(4) Do I vote according to my values as a Christian? Do the policies and politicians I support reflect my faith? Since no policy or politician is perfect, how can I vote most faithfully?

(5) Do I reflect my Christian values in the way I behave at work? How can I be an agent of God's Kin-dom with my co-workers? How can I be a Christian in my vocation?

(6) Does my neighborhood reflect the values I hold as a Christian? How can I embody those values without imposing them on others? How can I share God's love, justice, and mutuality where I live?

(7) Does my nation reflect the Christian ideals that I understand in Scripture? What would Christ do if he lived in my country? Would would Jesus ask me to do? How can I advocate for feeding for the poor, caring for the sick, and clothing the naked?

(8) How can I be a Christian when I am in the middle of conflict? What would Jesus do? What would Jesus have me do? How can I "speak my truth in love"?

(9) How can I seek "abundant life" (John 10:10) and "complete joy" (John 15:11) in my life? How can I help others experience those things? How can I enjoy God's "very good" (Genesis 1:31) world more fully? How can I help others enjoy the world more?

(10) Does my church reflect Christian values? What would Jesus ask me to change about my church? What would Jesus ask me to continue at my church? How can the budget reflect a faithful stewardship of my church's resources?

Thank you, Saint Pelagius

Pelagius was a forefather to Celtic Christianity. Celtic places like Iona and Celtic people like John Philip Newell appreciate his theology. What do they find compelling about Pelagius' theology? An affirmation of the goodness of humanity.

Pelagius provided a positive view of the world. Humanity has a core goodness as creatures made in God's image. Our habit of sin hides the image of God within us, hinders our innate goodness, and helps us to forget that we are children of God. The Gospels present us with the good news of our sacred vocation as beloved children of God, reminding us to live out of our goodness instead of our sin. Christ is the one who shows us how to live out of our goodness because he embodies the goodness that is within each of us. He models how to live the good life. Christ also shows humanity how to live because he decisively embodies the image of God. He reveals the image of God for us so we can be reminded of our own sacredness - and live accordingly. By living the good life, Christ reveals the good life. Each of us is called to turn from sin and allow our core goodness to emerge. This theology made Pelagius a hero to Celtic Christians and a heretic to Roman Christians.

Pelagius' wisdom has been ignored and supressed because of his label as a "heretic" by the Roman Church. But modern scholars are discovering that he wasn't as radical as the Roman Church made him out to be. And his theology wasn't as naive as Augustine made it out to be. So it's high time for a re-claiming of Pelagius and his theology.

Pelagius's theology is good stuff. First, he argued that humanity has salvation through God's "original grace." This prevenient grace is God's free gift to humanity. Second, Pelagius sugguested that humanity has a "grace of revelation" whereby God gives us divine guidance to follow, if we so choose to follow it. Scripture and Christ both point the way we are to follow. Third, he affirmed that God gives the "grace of pardon" to those who freely change their lives and attempt to live faithfully. This means that humanity has the free will to follow the example of Christ and turn from sin.

For Pelagius, our human condition isn't defined by original sin, yet he still understands that our lives are impacted by sin. He says, "By force of habit, sin attains a power akin to that of nature - sin becomes as it were 'second nature'." Therefore, he takes the reality of sin seriously. But he also thinks that we have the power and responsibility to overcome this "force of habit" with God's grace and guidance. And that is where Augustine departs from Pelagius. Augustine relinquishes human responsibility. Pelagius affirms human responsibility.

Pelagius wanted Christians to live according to the values of the Gospel instead of the values of the Roman Empire. His theology demanded change. It questioned the status quo of the increasingly institutionalized Church in Rome. It made those in power uneasy. It made the morally lax look responsible for changing their own lives. It made people realize they were wasting the gift of life, which God gave humanity, by choosing sinful behaviors. It made this charge to every Christian: "You must avoid that broad path which is worn away by the thronging multitude on their way to their death and continue to follow the rough track of that narrow path to eternal life which few find."

Pelagius' theology was a realistic description of human responsibility and God's graciousness. It wasn't perversely optimistic like the Social Gospel movement and it wasn't perversely pessimistic like Augustine. It was a "third way" between the two extremes. Pelagius says it well in his own words: "I did indeed say that a man can be without sin and keep the commandments of God, if he wishes, for this ability has been given to him by God. However, I did not say that any man can be found who has never sinned from his infancy up to his old age, but that, having been converted from his sins, he can be without sin by his own efforts and God's grace, yet not even by this means is he incapable of change for the future."

Overcoming sin and living out of our core goodness is difficult, yet not impossible with God's help. We can do it. Even Augustine says, "Without us God will not, without God we cannot." In other words, God won't do everything for us and we can't do everything for oursevles. And that is the vision of Christianity that Pelagius hands on to us. We're not distored people with no hope for change. Instead, we're good people who we need God's help to live the good life we were designed to live as people made in God's image.

With Pelagius' theology, we have the agency to change our lives. With Christ's example, we have the vision to change our lives. With God's help, we have the hope that we can change our lives.

Thank you, Saint Pelagius!

Note: A version of this post has been picked up on Tony Jones' blog. If you want to join in on the discussion, click here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Transforming Theology: "Reclaiming the Church with John Cobb"

The folks over at Transforming Theology are hosting a conversation about...well...transforming theology. Wow! What a shock! Actually this conversation seems very interesting. The idea is to get theology books into a variety of people's hands - and then host a dialogue via blogs and conferences. So I decided to take part. The first book being discussed is John Cobb's book "Reclaiming the Church." Here is my overview of Cobb's book.

Mainline Becomes Sidelined

The Mainline Church is on a rapid decline in membership and influence. That's no secret. For years people have been calling it the "Sideline" or "Oldline" Church. And that decline is what John Cobb addresses in his book "Reclaiming the Church." In it, Cobb diagnoses some of the problems in the Mainline Church and then makes suggestions for ways to bring about much needed transformation. As a theologian who lives with one foot in academia and one foot in the church, Cobb is in a unique place to offer his insights.

The Problems

Cobb says Mainline churches, as a whole, are "lukewarm," "inspire no passion," don't "call for a high priority of commitment," and "cannot define the needs of the world from a Christian perspective" (4). The reasons for these problems are many. Cobb explores a few of those reasons.

First, Mainline Christians don't have a shared Christian conviction or vision. There is much ambiguity and diversity of thought, in part because of all the internal ills Mainliners have faced. Mainline Christianity has ambiguously incorporated the individualism and reason of the Enlightenment; has ambiguously repented of the antisemitism in Scripture, liturgy and theology; has ambiguously adapted feminist insights and fought patriarchy; has ambiguously addressed the ecological crises; has ambiguously dealt with institutional racism; has ambiguously begun to address the imperialism of Eurocentrism. It's difficult to get fired up about a faith that has been critiqued for so long and from so many different angles. It's difficult to hold a shared vision when so many of the previous visions have been challenged and changed. It's difficult to have shared convictions when there is so much ambiguity and diversity of thought.

Second, there is a huge chasm between seminaries and churches. Starting in the 1900s, Mainline seminaries began adopting the German model of theological education which turned theology into an academic discipline. Suddenly professors were more interested in theoretical scholarship than practical implications. Professors specialized in their various fields and produced a wide variety of nuanced, impractical theology. Their diverse theologies added to the lack of shared vision and conviction in the Mainline Church. The depth and impracticality of their theology was often too academic for most clergy and laity to understand. This professionalization of theology convinced church folks that theology was a professional activity and of no use for churches. Average people in Mainline churches gave up their vocation as theologians and stopped reflecting theologically and Biblically upon their daily lives.

Renewal and Transformation

Cobb mentions two tools for reforming the church: renewal (i.e. roots) and transformation (i.e. wings). First, the task of renewal is to adapt ourselves so we are faithful to Jesus Christ (41). The Mainline Church needs a humble yet passionate rootedness in the central figure and symbols of our faith. It needs to be humble enough to learn from our past mistakes but passionate enough to stand on the foundation of the Gospel. Renewal is most needed when cultural patterns dominate our thinking. Second, the task of transformation “is to respond as effectively and appropriately today to the particularities of our situation as the early church responded in its time” (43). This means the Mainline Church needs to discern faithful and contextual ways of being the Church in our various times and places. The Church will look different in rural Iowa, urban Chicago, and ancient Galilee. And it should. We need to adapt ourselves to our contexts as the early church adapted themselves to their contexts. The Church is always an emerging church. Transformation is most needed when historic teachings hinder necessary changes.

Applying the twin goals of renewal and transformation will change the way we address the issues we face. Instead of the ambiguous way the Mainline Church has limped through changes in the past, we need a shared vision that can help us stand up and walk together as we face the future. In place of ambiguity we need conviction. In place of cultural wandering we need theological reflection. In place of Enlightenment individualism we need to appreciate the interconnected web of life. In place of antisemitism we need to learn from our ancestor faith of Judaism. In place of the oppressiveness of patriarchy we need the vision of the Kin-dom of God. In place of the economism (neo-liberal capitalism) of Empire we need the earthism (eco-justice) of Creation-care. In place of tepid responses to the problem of racism we need to concretely repent from the sin of racism. In place of the modern Tower of Babel called Eurocentrism we need the modern Body of Christ which incorporates the plurality of cultures. These are just a few examples of unifying convictions the Mainline Church could claim. They are convictions that are bold enough to inspire passion, yet humble enough to realize that change will be inevitable. In all of these examples, theological reflection is a vitally important aspect. To make this point clear, Cobb says: “There can be neither renewal nor transformation without widespread theological reflection” (56).

Creative Transformation

Cobb privileges transformation above renewal in the goal of reclaiming the Mainline Church. This is where his allegiance to process theology shines through clearly – and helpfully. In process theology, God is understood as continuously active in the world, beckoning it toward creative transformation. Jesus' message of the Kin-dom of God creatively brought change to the people living in the Roman Empire. The early church thought and acted in new ways as it emerged from Judaism to form Christianity. The entire Bible testifies to evolutionary and revolutionary change that God brings to the world through people. The list could go on and on. The point is simple: “authentic transformation is what happens when God is effectively present in an event” (60). God is still active in our world, just as God has always been active. And God is still in the transforming business. God still seeks to bring transformation to and through God's people. But in order to be creatively transformed by God – and not just bounced around by pop culture – Mainliners need a renewal of theological reflection.

Reflection, Conviction, Action

Theological reflection is imperative for Mainliners. Cobb says the Mainline Church “needs to think its way to an understanding of its message that will communicate conviction and evoke devotion to Christ” (67). For Cobb the most important aspect of this thinking is to discern a faithful, appropriate, and passionate understanding of salvation. He then provides a description of salvation that is both personal and global. Salvation means sins are forgiven, diseases are healed, the hungry are fed, the prisoners are freed, and the lonely are visited (68). Salvation also means the soil is regenerated; the air and water are purified; global warming is stopped; the planet is reforested; the wilderness is maintained; and biodiversity is preserved (68). In short, salvation means “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as is prayed weekly in the Mainline Church. This is a vision of salvation that gets brought to us and through us by God. It's graciously given to us by God in Christ. But it's also brought through us as the Church of Jesus Christ in the world. We get to participate in God's salvation as co-workers with God. Our vocation is to be God's Church, disciples of Jesus, and the Body of Christ in the world. In Cobb's words, “We participate everlastingly in the divine life.” This vision gives us ultimate meaning and purpose. It gives us a powerful shared conviction. And it gives us a revived Mainline Church. We just need to dare to believe it's true and act on it.

Vision of a Reclaimed Church

Cobb concludes his book with a vision for the reclaimed Mainline Church: “...our thinking would lead to strong shared convictions about the meaning of our faith and the light it sheds on the issues of our day...we would be able to address the public with insight and wisdom...we would work together for the common good with passion...we would find our inner lives renewed...we would learn anew the importance of our churches and enthusiastically invite others to join with us.”

My Response in the Form of a Top Ten List

(1) We need to find unity in our diversity

(2) We need to navigate the space between idolatrous certainty and nihilistic relativism

(3) We need a renewal of theological reflection

(4) We need a renewal of spirituality and spiritual practices

(5) We need to explore alternative styles of worship

(6) We need to do new church starts

(7) We need seminaries considering the practical implications of their theology

(8) We need to develop a theology of joy

(9) We need to take our faith more seriously in daily life

(10) We need to be proud of our liberal tradition

Celebrating our Sacredness on Ash Wednesday

It's Ash Wednesday. A time to remember that we have come from ashes and we will return to ashes (Genesis 3:19). Seems kind of somber. But it can also be a time to celebrate our connection to the sacredness of ashes - sacredness of dirt - sacredness of earth. This can be an occasion to remind ourselves of the connection we have with God's "very good" Creation (Genesis 1:31). And this world is not just "very good," but it's also made sacred because it's filled with the presence of God (Psalm 139:7-10). The early Celtic Christian forefather, Pelagius, writes powerfully about the sacredness of the earth:

"Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insect crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent...When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life. Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living things is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly."

The earth is truey good, sacred, and beautiful. And the earth is where we come from and where we will return. That is what we are reminded of on this day of ashes. We are ashy and earthy and holy. Our lives as humans are originated from, and progressing toword, the goodness, sacedness, and beauty of God's earth.

Carl McMolman ephesizes this understanding by saying: "Remember you are ashes, destined for Divinity."

Friday, February 20, 2009

New Translation of Romans 14

Tony Jones is continuing an interesting series of blog posts on "original sin" over on Beliefnet. It has sparked some heated and helpful conversation. After reading through the posts and re-reading Paul's letter to the Romans, I was captivated by Paul's desire to unify the Christian Gentiles and Christian Jews. Paul's words inspired me to write a paraphrase of Romans 14, as a way to seek and explore unity between more "progressive" Christians and more "conservative" Christians. It was just for fun. It's not meant to replace Paul's letter! But writing it did challenge me to consider how Paul might respond to our discussion of "original sin." Maybe, just maybe, Paul would want us to find unity despite our diverse perspectives. In any case, here is what I'll call the "New Revised Emergent Translation" of Romans 14:

Welcome those who are traditional in faith, those who still believe in original sin, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Emergent Christians believe in deconstructing all theologies, while the Traditional Christians only deconstruct certain theologies. Those who deconstruct must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who deconstruct; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own God that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for God is able to make them stand.

Some judge one traditional doctrine to be better than emerging theologies, while others judge a variety of theologies to be of importance. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who preserve traditional theology, observe it in honour God. Also those who explore new theologies, explore in honour of God, since they give thanks to God; while those who conserve tradition, conserve in honour of God and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to God, and if we die, we die to God; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are God's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.' So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that no theology is un-deconstructible in itself; but it is un-deconstructiblble for anyone who thinks it's un-deconstructible. If your brother or sister is being injured by the theology you deconstruct, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let the theology that you deconstruct cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not about certain theologies or particular dogma but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. Do not, for the sake of theology, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed deconstructible, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you deconstruct; it is good not to deconstruct theology or challenge tradition or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they deconstruct, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

The Emergent Christians, who are progressive in faith, ought to put up with the stagnation of the Traditional Christians, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbour for the good purpose of building up the neighbour. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, 'The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.' For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify God.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of those of Traditional Christians on behalf of the truth of God in order that they might confirm the promises given through tradition, and in order that Emergent Christians might glorify God for his mercy.

This paraphrase is also posted on Tony Jones' blog. If you'd like to read the comments in responce - or add your own - click here. Thanks!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thomas in Lost

In the "316" (02/18/09) episode of "Lost," Ben and Jack go to a church basement where Eloise Hawkings works in a Dharma station. After meeting with Hawkings, Ben and Jack have an interesting conversation while standing by a picture of Saint Thomas. Here is dialogue:

Ben: When Jesus wanted to return to Judea knowing that he would probably be murdered there, Thomas said to the others, “Let us also go that we might die with him.” But Thomas was not remembered for this bravery. His claim to fame came later, when he refused to acknowledge the resurrection.

[Ben looks at the painting.]

Ben: He just couldn’t wrap his mind around it.

[Ben looks at Jack.]

Ben: The story goes that he needed to touch Jesus’ wounds to be convinced.

Jack: So was he?

Ben: Of course he was. We’re all convinced sooner or later, Jack.

[Ben walks away.]

Many bloggers are commenting on Lost. But a few have contributed some thoughtful theological musings. Carmen Andres and Jeff Jensen are two of the better bloggers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Promoting Healing During a Memorial Service

Robert and Adrienne Brizee wrote an article in Creative Transformation about facilitating a memorial service with the "goal of promoting healing." This is an important yet difficult part of congregational ministry. So I thought I'd share the article:

A Process of Healing in Six Movements

Prelude: On behalf of the [name] family I thank you for sharing in this memorial service for [name]. As we begin, I invite you to focus upon two images. The first is that as we share these moments together we are encircled by God’s grace. God is as close to us as our own breath and the words that form on our lips. We are cherished. The second is that in some other dimension in some form [name] is entering God’s heavenly community and is well.

1. We Acknowledge the Reality of Death in Order to Express Our Pain, Grief, and Loss

The first step we need to take is to acknowledge death and our feelings in response to death. Death is harsh and unkind to the human body. Energy is stilled. Creativity ended. A voice is

In the web of relationships in which we live, death grabs and rips out an important thread. There is one less strand—wife, mother, mother-in-law, sister, friend, neighbor, colleague. We may join with John Donne is stating, “Do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Death destroys our plans, dashes our future dreams, and erases our calendar. In this moment it is appropriate to acknowledge and express pain, loss, and grief.

2. We Stand in Silent Awe of this Moment.

In this moment we are brought face to face with mystery. No words are adequate: “Let all
mortal flesh keep silence . . .” Nothing can be done. Though we may stand in shock, shed tears, or shake our fists at the sky, we are rendered truly helpless. The question emerges with great power: What does all this mean? And like Moses before the “burning bush” we hear, “Take off your shoes for the ground upon which you stand is holy ground.”


3. We Confess our Incompleteness to Remove Our Regret and Remorse

Often death catches us off guard, it comes unexpectedly as a thief in the night allowing us no opportunity to voice our regrets, guilt, or remorse. So let us speak now that which we did not speak earlier. We make confession for:

Compliments we could have given and did not, gratitude felt but unexpressed, notes thought about but not written, invitations considered but not extended, issues raised yet left unsettled, anger harbored but not expressed, harsh words hastily spoken, closeness and intimacy which were not developed, opportunities presented which were missed, caring experienced within but not shared outwardly, all intentions which were not transformed into actions.

Let us identify with another who confessed. The Prodigal rehearsed well before meeting the Waiting Parent, “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” He not only planned his confession but also defined how his parent would receive him. And yet he never did speak his well rehearsed confession, for he was accepted home just as he was.

In like manner, let us be free, fully restored, and unburdened! Just as we are!

4. We Celebrate the Life of [name] to Share Our Gratitude

Now we have opportunity to share our experiences with [name].

5. We Hear Words of Hope for [name] and for Us

A number of artists working in their own media—oil, water color, wood, and clay—share with us
symbols and images of hope. A number of voices in chorus are singing of hope. Let us look, let us listen, to find those images and sounds of hope which speak to us.

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want . . . and I shall dwell in
the house of the Lord forever.” - Psalm 23

“Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, Thou art there!” - Psalm 139:7-10

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” - Luke 23.43

“In my Father’s house are many rooms . . .” - John 14:2

“I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, though they die, will live.” - John 11:25

“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” - Romans 8:37

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . and God will be with them. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” - Revelation 21:1

The early church sang: “Jesus stand among us in Thy risen power.”

And the medieval mass proclaimed, “Requiem aeternam, dona eis Domine.”

So, likewise, I proclaim this hope to you: “God feels with us, whispers to us, saves each of our moments, and cherishes everlastingly our entire lives in God’s own life.”

A Hymn, Vocal or Instrumental Solo

Pastoral Prayer

Gracious One, we acknowledge Your presence among us gathered here. We are grateful for all who today surround [name’s] family.

We are thankful for the rich variety of gifts which [name] has shared with us. We are comforted to know that [name] is warmly held in Your arms, just as You comfort us who are present here.
May we depart in peace and wholeness, living in the assurance of Your grace. In the name of
Jesus Christ. Amen.

6. We Re-Affirm our Lives Answering, “How, then, Shall We Live?”

Each of us will make affirmations which are meaningful to us at this awesome moment. Allow me to offer three: First, that we not attempt to predict or to control life, but rather be open and responsive to the ways life may unfold for us; that we know that each present moment is precious, living fully now and hopefully for the future; and that we know that there is no certainty in our lives other than that grace encircles us in each tiny moment and in each
tiny step.

A Closing Hymn

Benediction: May the peace of God which passes all understanding be with us and abide with us always. Amen.


Immortality and Process Theology

The folks at Process and Faith publish a magazine called Creative Transformation. In their archieves there is a month where they focus on immortality from the perspective of Process Theology. Click here if you want to check it out.

Orthodoxy Is Heresy

What is "orthodox" Christianity? What does "orthodoxy" mean? Who gets to decide what gets considered "orthodox"?

"Orthodoxy" is theological claims that got developed and consolidated out of the many theologies and expressions of Christianity that emerged after the Jesus Movement. It was given shape by the Bible, which is a limited collection of some of the earliest Christian writers. It was given shape by the creeds, which were attempts to stifle diversity. It was given shape by Constantine, who wanted a quick resolution to complex theological matters. It was given shape by the loudest, richest, and most connected theologians. Thus, the story of "orthodoxy" is anything but a univocal passing of original, "pure" Christianity from Jesus and his earliest followers on to us today. It's complicated.

Let's not forget that we stand in a long line of theologians who have attempted to give expression to the Christian faith in their time and context: Jesus, Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Irenaeus, Tatian, Terullian, Origen, Justin, Athenagoras, Cyril, Nestorius, Augustine, Constantine, Ambrose, Palagius, Anselm, Abelard, Lombard, Bonaventure, Scotus, Aquinas, Luther, Zwingly, Denck, Grebel, Hoffman, Simons, Schwenckfeld, Melanchthon, Calvin, Wycliffe, Knox, Browne, Wesley, Edwards, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Schleiermacker, Hegel, Kirkegaard, Rauschenbush, Barth, Bultmann, Niebuhr, Teilhard, Rahner, Moltmann, Cobb, Tamez, Borg, Fiorenza, Dube, etc. We are all part of this great "cloud of witnesses." So instead of the popularity contest (i.e. "orthodoxy") that empowered some theologians and killed others, maybe we should honor the work of all of our foremothers and forefathers. Instead of forcing false uniformity, maybe we should embrace real diversity. Instead of being at war, maybe we should be in conversation.
Quaker theologian Parker Palmer suggests that "truth is an ongoing conversation about things that matter." In much the same way, I think we could call orthodoxy an ongoing conversation about theology that matters. In this perspective, there is neither orthodoxy nor heresy. That's right. No orthodoxy. No heresy.

After all, "heresy" is simply a new theology that hasn't been accepted into the elite club of "orthodoxy" yet. Those with power hold the keys to the club. Those with keys have the power to open and close the gate. It's all political. And by political I simply mean that it's all about power dynamics.

Knowledge is not power. Power is knowledge. Those in power get to decide what is considered knowledge.

Truth is not power. Power is truth. Those in power get to decide what is considered truth.

Orthodoxy is not power. Power is orthodoxy. Those in power get to decide what is considered orthodoxy.

Christianity should be different. Our original leader was executed on a cross by those in power. We know better than to trust those in power. So, perhaps, a faith that takes the cross seriously should compel us to seek "power" in weakness. And reject the "power" of the powerful in favor of the masses whose knowledges, truths, and orthodoxies are oppressed.

Maybe, for Christians, an imposed "orthodoxy" should be considered "heresy." Just a thought.

Original Sin, Apostle Paul, and the Dignity of Difference

Tony Jones has started a series of blog posts about the doctrine of "original sin." These posts explore and deconstruct the doctrine in helpful ways. And they have inspired a diversity of comments in reply.

In his first post, "Original Sin: Jesus' Ambivalence," Jones points out that "Jesus is not recorded in the gospels as saying anything that can be construed as particularly supportive of the doctrine of Original Sin." True enough. Jesus never mentions it. Original sin just doesn't seem important to Jesus. The reality of sin is an important topic for Jesus, but not the idea of original sin. In response to this post, Jones got many replies that brought up Paul's theology of the inherited nature of sin, especially in Romans 5. Jones turns to that topic next.

In "Original Sin, Romans 5, and the Heart of the Issue" Jones points out: "It's in this chapter that Paul writes most specifically about the inherited nature of sin, and it is from this passage that the two most articulate proponents of inherited guilt (Augustine) and the total depravity of humankind (Calvin) get their material." Again, this is true. In fact, Augustine (the guy who developed the idea of original sin) converted to Christianity after reading Romans. And many people where quick to point out Paul's theology in order to defend the doctrine of original sin. But other people challenged Paul's theology. So in the next post, Jones explores what we do if we disagree with Paul.

In Jones' post, "Was Paul Wrong?," he asks the following question: "If you, through an honest and thoroughgoing process of study and discernment, come to decide that the Apostle Paul was wrong about something in his writings, have you forsaken your claim to be an orthodox Christian?" This question inspired me to reply.

My simple answer is that Paul was right and we have much to learn from his letter to the Romans. But this answer needs to be expanded. The devil is in the details. Hm. That doesn't seem like an appropriate phrase for this kind of post. So let me coin a new phrase: The Spirit is in the nuance! So what follows is the nuance of my answer.

Context is important when reading Paul's letter. He wrote "Romans" to the emerging church in Rome. Most of the Romans were called "the strong," otherwise known as Gentile Christians. They were Christians who didn't follow Torah and kosher. They were former pagans who didn't have that in their religious background. There was also a minority group in Rome called "the weak," who were Christian Jews. They were Christians who did follow Torah and kosher. They were Jewish so this was in their religious background. So, in his letter to the Romans, Paul seeks to unite these two different Christian groups.

First, Paul unites both groups as sinners. He states that pagans sin through idolatry (1:23) and Jews sin through hypocracy (2:21-23). To make the point of common sinfulness clear, Paul goes on to say, "there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (3:22-23). In sin, there is neither Greek (1:18-31) nor Jew (2:21-24)! But Paul isn't just a "Debbie Downer." He also unites the two groups of Christians under a more pleasant alternative.

Second, Paul unites both groups as freed sinners. All who have faith are justified through Christ (3:21-26). Christ enables all sinners to be justified and transformed into a new creation, "freed from sin and alive to God in Christ" (6:11). In Christ, there is neither Greek or Jew (Galatians 3:28). Both Christian groups are united as sinners given freedom through Christ.

In the 5th chapter of Romans, Paul develops his unifying theology even further. He suggests that Christ (as life) is replacing Adam (as death). The man of life is replacing the man of death for all people(5:15, 18). Clearly, Paul is still trying to unite Gentile Christians and Christian Jews under one theological program: sinners in need of justification. So, Paul says, "just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all" (5:18). And with that, Christian Jews and Gentile Christians are united under Paul's theology of justification.

There is still some messy details that need to be cleaned up such as the debate over food (kosher vs. non-kosher). But, again, Paul manages to unite the two groups. This time he does it by suggesting that Christian Jews (the "weak") and Gentile Christians (the "strong") should respect their different meal practices (14:1-15:13) "for the good purpose of building up the neighbor" (15:2). Obviously, Paul isn't concerned with forcing the Gentile Christians into observing the Torah - or forcing the Christian Jews to stop observing it. Neither group is supposed to allow their different religious practices to "cause the ruin of one for whom Christ has died" (14:15). For Paul, the important thing is uniting the two groups of Christians into one "Body of Christ."

Paul's empathetic words and unifying theology for these groups is impressive. Perhaps it comes from the fact that he grew up in a Gentile city as a Jew. Paul understood both contexts. And for him the commonalities in Christ are more important than the differences in culture. For Paul, all Christians are united in Christ despite their differences (Galatians 2:7-9, 3:28).

So was Paul right? Yes! In the context of Rome, where he was dealing with the challenge of trying to unite the Christian Jews with the Gentile Christians, Paul did some amazing ecumenical ministry. There is much that Christians today can learn about finding the dignity in our differences from Paul's letter to the Romans.

At the same time, we need to remember that Paul wrote this letter for the believers in Rome. He had an audience and context in mind. He was trying to resolve conflict and develop appropriate theology for the emerging church in Rome. This is not Paul's letter to the Americans or Africans or Asians of the modern world. Paul's letter to the Romans needs to be honored, appreciated, and interpreted according to the context in which Paul wrote it.

Once we understand Paul's letter to the Romans in its original context, then we can begin to discuss what it may mean for us today. So, we should be challenged by the "spirit" (i.e. ideal of unity) of his letter, but not held captive to the "law" (i.e. specific ideas) of his letter. For example, today Christians aren't debating whether it's good to practice kosher or not. But we are debating different understandings of evangelism, communion, homosexuality, etc. So, following the "spirit" of Paul's letter, we find him challenging us to find our unity in Christ while honoring the dignity of our differences. It wasn't easy to do this in Rome and it's not easy today. But if we're going to take Scripture seriously, we need to rise to Paul's challenge.

Jonathan Sacks says it well: "We will learn to live with diversity once we understand the God-given, world-enhancing dignity of difference."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review of "The New Christians" by Tony Jones

Tony Jones' book "The New Christians" is an outstanding history and overview of the Emergent Church movement. Jones is obviously a compelling writer. He also brings up many important things to consider for the future of the Church. But it was hard to read past the negative and inaccurate characterization of Mainline Christianity in general and the United Church of Christ in particular.

In the first chapter of his book, Jones attempts to set up a dichotomy between conservative Christians (via the Southern Baptist Convention) and liberal Christians (via the United Church of Christ). He then implies that these two denominations represent the extremes of Christianity. The SBC being at the far right and the UCC being at the far left. Jones also says that this SBC-UCC dichotomy represents "Conventional Christianity" that has grown stagnant, ineffective, and irrelevant. He then suggests that the Emergent Church represents a "New Christianity" that is fresh, capable, and relevant. The implied message is that the Emergent Church is the movement that has been able to transcend the conservative-liberal dualism and form something radically different.

The problem with this argument is that it's an oversimplified description and false dichotomy. For example, Jones commented on "the silly television ads from the liberal United Church of Christ." This comment is a misunderstanding of the purpose and meaning of the commercials. The "bouncer ad" (which Jones mentions) was one of many different ads used in the UCC's TV ad campaign. All the ads have different themes and ways of communicating, so it's not possible to describe them with one simple, flippant description. As Bill Moyers says, we must "beware of the great oversimplifiers." Nuance is always important because things are always more complex than our initial impressions reflect. Plus, for Jones to name something as "silly," is dismissive, unhelpful rhetoric for Christian dialogue.

As another example, Jones said the UCC was a "notoriously left-leaning denomination." This label is a gross misrepresentation of the UCC, since the denomination is represented by a vast array of theological perspectives. The UCC is a postmodern denomination that is made up of a diversity of the polities, theologies, perspectives, and peoples from many different contexts: Evangelical, Reform, Congregational, Frontier Christian, Black Church, Rural America, Feminist, Womanist, Queer, etc. So, the UCC is a multiform denomination that seeks unity in it's diversity. It's not an ideological denomination that imposes any one agenda. It's not accurate to label the UCC as a "notoriously left-leaning denomination." A better description might be to label it a "notoriously 'big tent' denomination."

Real life is too complex for labels. But we need to use them in order to make sense of things and engage in conversation. The important thing is to use labels in a careful, prayerful, and mindful way. And to realize that all labels fail to perfectly describe anything or anyone perfectly. So, the flippant way in which Jones used labels in his book seemed inaccurate and unproductive.

I'm writing this note because I care about helping to foster a productive dialogue between the Mainline Church and the Emergent Church. Hopefully we can communicate more clearly and fairly in the future. We both have important things to learn from one another.

May a "generative friendship" continue to develop and grow between all of us missional Christians!

Monday, February 9, 2009

10 Questions for Transforming Theology

The folks over at Transforming Theology are looking for questions to spark their conversation. So I thought about it. Blogged about it. Talked to others about it. And now I have a list of ten questions that I think would be interesting conversation starters. Cheers!

How is Jesus relevant in a postmodern world facing economic problems?

What does postmodern preaching look like?

What is the role of Narrative Therapy in the postmodern Church?

What is the role of Queer Theology in the postmodern Church?

What does a revitalization in progressive Christianity look like?

What does a revitalization in rural congregations look like?

How can seminaries and denominations help rural congregations afford pastors and resources?

In a world of great diversity, how can we live together with peace, justice, and mutuality?

In three to five brief sentences, what is your theology?

What is the difference between Evangelical and Fundementalist Christianity?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

How can we live together (in our postmodern world) with peace, justice, and mutuality?

There's a group of folks trying to set up a conversation between formal theologians (PhDs) and folk theologians (non-PhDs). Their group is called Transforming Theology. This group's project is exciting because for far too long there has been a gap - perhaps more accurately, a great chasm - between the theologies in seminaries and the theologies in local congregations. Many people have discussed this issue. John B. Cobb has suggested that we need a re-vitalization in lay theology in his book Reclaiming The Church. Christian education resources, such as the video series Living The Questions, attempt to strengthen the theology of laypeople by exposing them to a variety of different theologies. So the good news is that the chasm between seminaries and congregations is beginning to be bridged. And the conversation that is happening through the Transforming Theology project will help with that as it seeks to bring the two sides together for a mutually transformative dialogue. In that vein, they have asked for questions to spark this conversation. The question I would like to ask is simple yet complicated.

How can we live together (in our postmodern world) with peace, justice, and mutuality?

With advanced technologies in communication, our world is simultaneously coming together into one common web, yet fragmenting into like-minded strands. So, we're exposed to much more diversity than ever while also being more easily able to divide ourselves into common groups. This makes the world into one large tossed salad of theologies, cultures, races, etc. We're all mixed together in one bowl, yet retain our individuality. We're all sharing one city, yet remain in our respective neighborhoods. Well, you get the idea. We're all living together, separately. Said differently, we live in communities-in-community. And it's tough to live in such close-yet-separate proximity.

Let me use religion as one example of our close-yet-separate diversity. We share our world with communities of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, etc. But even among those groups there is much diversity. Christians, for example, come from many different theological perspectives: Liberation, Neo-Orthodox, Feminist, Process, etc. Yet even those groups have diversity. Case-in-point: the different Process Theologies are represented by people such as: John B. Cobb, Catherine Keller, John W. Riggs, Rebecca Ann Parker, etc. So not only are there many different religions, but also many different perspectives within each of those religions. In a world of such radical diversity, it seems that one of the fundamental issues facing our world is to try to figure out how to live in our shared Earth Town Square with peace, justice, and mutuality. Otherwise we'll continually have Mainline Christians vs. Evangelical Christians vs. Sunni Muslims vs. Shiite Muslims vs. Agnostics vs. Atheists vs. Reform Jews vs. Hasidic Jews and so on. One could easily add examples of our diversity in regard to class, race, gender, etc.

Again, my specific question: How can we live together (in our postmodern world) with peace, justice, and mutuality?

To expand my question: With peace as a goal, how do we stop killing each other (literally and metaphorically) and live together with grace? With justice as a goal, how do we stop forcing one perspective on a world of complexity and attend to contextual detail when discerning and working for justice? With mutuality as a goal, how do we stop the tradition of social Darwinism and start a new practice of collaborating more effectively? How do we come together without losing our individuality? How do we listen to people whose voices have traditionally been marginalized? How can we live with healthy conviction in our world of differing convictions? How do we navigate the space between idolatrous certainty and nihilistic relativism? How can we live together as divergent communities-in-community?

How can we live toward a vision of unity-in-diversity (c.f. I Corinthians 12:12-26) in a world marred by idolatrous universalism (c.f. Genesis 11:1-9) and harmful tribalism (c.f. Luke 10:29-37)?