Monday, May 30, 2005

Forging a Fresh Vision

The following was posted to my listserv, Toward2015, which can be found on the server:

During the last few days I have had several emails privately and there have been some messages posted to Toward2015 about refocusing of the list on our core essential -- exploring the reality of ministry in the 21st Century. I want to thank all of you for your your helpful insights.

One of the comments that has arisen is whether Toward2015 should be an open listserv or one that is limited to those who define themselves as orthodox and biblical. Certainly, such a notion is very attractive. I, for one, am sick and tired of the fighting and name-calling that spills over onto this forum from the larger church. Indeed, I would be perfectly happy if the fighting and name-calling would disappear from the church never to be heard or seen again, but that is not going to happen any time soon, therefore it shapes the real world within which we are called to live out and think out our faith.

However, what I want to say is that as I look back over more than forty years in ordained ministry or the study of theology, I have benefitted immensely from the presence of ideas and people against whom I have been forced to "cut my teeth," as it were. At each stage along my spiritual and intellectual journey I have found myself confronted by notions and circumstances that have forced me to ask fundamental questions about what I believe, why and how I believe it, and what its implications are in the church and in my own life.

Without this constant poking and prodding I know that my faith and my intellectual life would have settled into a comfortable little mindset that would have stunted my growth, and increasingly disconnected me from the challenges that face the faith within the culture. As I have worked since the beginning of January on a year-long study of 2 Corinthians, one of the things that has come home to me is how both external pressures as well as pressures from within the church played a part in shaping every facet of Paul's faith and ministry. To put it bluntly, the New Testament emerged from a boiling crucible -- so how can we expect anything different?

The value of having people whose perceptions differ on a listserv like this is that they prevent us from getting caught up in our own little postmodern ghetto or tribe which we have carefully insulated from other ghettos and tribes. The hyper-individualistic era in which we live makes it easy for us birds of a feather to flock together and then to reinforce one another's insights and perceptions, to the exclusion of challenging perceptions.

At the moment I am working on a book with someone from a quasi-Presbyterian community church background, whose ideas and perceptions have not been honed and hardened by the cut-and-thrust that we have had to endure in the Episcopal Church, and I can tell the difference. My friend is a highly intelligent and articulate person with theological, bioethical, and medical training under her belt, but having lived this out within a supportive and affirming environment, rather than one that questions and challenges, this has robbed her of some of the intellectual toughness needed at such a time as this.

I am profoundly grateful that I learned my theology in a hostile environment at the University of London, where many of my presuppositions were regularly put out to dry. I felt a lot of times in my undergraduate years that I sometimes faced a hurricane every week as some professor or other tossed off this idea or that. I then had to read, think, and get my brain around not only the notions being fed to me from the the podium, but how those notions related to a robust understanding of what the Scripture teaches. In the midst of this the authority of the Scriptures were constantly under scrutiny from every direction.

It was this experience that brought me to abhor theological sloppiness, of which there is enormous amounts on both sides of the aisle these days, and also doctrinal vacuousness. Then, having been ordained, I was tossed into the bubbling brew that was London in the late Sixties and early Seventies, where I discovered how important it was for the Gospel we proclaim to be able to stand on its own two intellectual feet while being ravaged by all-comers. George Weigel describes the intellectual atmosphere in Europe as being "Christophoic," yet it was that Christophobia which was starting to grow like a weed in those early years of my ordained ministry, and which I had to learn how to address.

Just as my muscles are strengthened each morning when I test them against my exercise bike, so our intellectual and spiritual muscles are strengthened in the cauldron of ideas. It is important to read things with which we disagree, to listen to positions that challenge our own, and to explore whether cherished notions will stand up under this pressure. If they will not, then it is vital that we reassess our position until we find ideas and beliefs that do.

Furthermore, such stretching leaves us in many instances with periods of limbo when we are not sure about something that may until recently have been a lynchpin in our thinking. Rather than running from this experience of ambiguity, it is essential for us to leap into the uncertainty and find an intellectually and spiritually viable way through. Often this means doing the thinking for ourselves, rather than depending on second-hand thought done by others who we believe to be our allies.

It is important that we bring our uncertainties into the arena of discussion, for it is there that they are shown the light of day and can be profitably explored. I have somtimes found in such settings that I have grasped my opponents' positions better than they have themselves, and as a result my own position has been enriched and strengthened.

I have an overriding belief in the sovereignty of God. That is, that the self-revealing God is Lord of the univere and the all-powerful holder of time and history in his hands. Scripture teaches that God is the source of all truth, and as we explore the truth in the company of the Christ, and within the context of his faithful people down through the centuries, this truth will set us free. But just as in the record of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of Cyrus, Israel's enemy, as "my anointed" (Isaiah 45:1), so there is a place in God's sovereign plan for the creative engagement of ideas, even ideas that we perceive to be false. The truth is that most of us are unwilling to explore the richness of divinely-given truth until we are challenged to do so.

I have found myself time and again coming back to a magnificent book published a dozen years ago, and which came from the fertile mind of Leander Keck, former Dean of Yale Divinity School. In "The Church Confident" he suggested that for mainline Christians there are four possible courses of action.

One is to become a counter-culture, determined to be a pure church. This is the option that some of our number have followed, but for many of us, and for a variety of reasons, this does not work. As Keck says, the whole of our history makes us tone deaf to such a summons.

A second is the trend that has deeply gouged into the life of our churches, that of "a social activism grounded in the assumption that the church must be the avant-garde of leftward social change -- the flipside of the rightward assumption that it should be the vanguard of the restoration of Christendom" (page 76). This is, Keck points out, a piece with secularization and is part of what I would call a questionable anthropocentrism. He writes in summing up the problem of this approach that "a truly inclusive church either becomes a replica of a pluralist secular society or a sect composed of those who agree on a particular kind of inclusivism" (page 79). Keck is truly perceptive in this observation.

A third approach is that championed by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas that we be resident aliens. "The resident alien church is more concerned to be authentic than to be pure. And for its beat it listens to the Bible and the Christian tradition rather than the pounding rhythms around it" (page 76). This is a much more attractive option, but Keck did not believe this a viable approach in the early 1990s. I would suggest that we have moved on a lot since then as society has drifted further from Christendom, and the Christendom model of being church has crumbled further.

However, he comes up with his notion that "instead of being a community of resident aliens who, like some refugee and immigrant communities, enjoy the advantage of residence while eschewing public life, this vocation entails commitment to being a long-range influence for the common good. The image that comes to mind is that of dual citizenship, for that points to the necessary and inevitable tension that exists between loyalty to society and loyalty to the kingdom of God" (page 85).

This will require, he says, "patient and persistent pursuit of the ordinary that attitudes are formed and understandings are matured. Renewed and confident churches know that in the long run the character and quality of their steady routine is more significant than a frenetic 911 style." This is something that our tradition teaches us over and over again. It is in the routine of the Daily Office, the Holy Table, and the consistent exposition of God's Word, that lives are shaped and formed for the long term.

What we are attempting to do in the midst of the postmodern malaise is to bring into being churches of this kind. Authenticity takes priority over purity, because we know that purity is impossible. Our loyalty to the Kingdom of God takes precedence over any loyalties to the ragged remains of the Episcopal Church, yet it is within this context that we test the substance of the Gospel. It is also within this setting that we will be on the receiving end of the brickbats that come from those whose ideas we consider to be what Keck calls in another place "banal and bizarre" of those who would rework revealed truth and the tradition.

I leave the final word with Leander Keck, "...a new era is dawning. If in this yet ill-defined era the churches are renewed within because they recover their confidence in the gospel, they will be able to offer the 21st Century a vital witness to the truth about God -- and about ourselves.

Perhaps it is not too much to hope that in the closing years of this wretched century (remember, this was written in 1993), in which human ingenuity managed not only to turn technological marvels into unprecedented horrors but to legitimate the decimation of missions, we will see the beginnings of a sobered view of the human condition. The mainline churches, by contributing the wisdom of their heritage to such a rethinking, might desist from sanctifying utopian illusions and, instead, forge a vision of a new Christian humanism for Adam east of Eden" (page 121).

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