Friday, December 09, 2005

Campus News and Views

Hey. It's cold. Get some tea, and settle in for Mark's longest (and most exciting, knuckle-whitening, time-flying) blog posting ever.

First, watch this space for the announcement of the grand opening of Mark's other blog, the Oh-fish-al one, what with documents to browse and ignore, or download and bury in a big pile of Utne Readers, and other nifty features. Coming soon to a server near you.

Am cuckoo-for-CocoPuffs over Basil Wiley's The Seventeenth Century Background, whose title doesn't fully reflect the gripping nature of the subject matter or the scintillating writing style. If I had an unbelievably boring life, where all the excitement could be in my imagination, maybe I could write like that, which would be cool.

This will be the Christmas of Blowing Leaves at the Thames household. Jonathan is headed to Mexico for the whole break. We finally finalized that I'm going to the American Philosophical Association (now online!) in New York the week after Christmas. (The cool bit about that is that New York is much too expensive to stay in, so for all but one night I'm going to be based in Baltimore with the absurdly, laughably gorgeous Naseem and Ruben.) Dawn is going to work as hard as a hippie with granola-and-yogurt in sight but just out of reach. Beth will, I'm sure, have exciting plans, although they are currently tba. So there'll be much scattering, not much gathering. Those of you given to prayer might pray against moroseness on the parental part: me and Dawn have to love this arrangement for it to work. It is all colored by The Situation. Those who know what that is, and who are therefore among those whose love will cover over the multitude of various people's sins implied, I also encourage to pray specifically that an equally exciting option emerges for S., the Man of Artificially Yellow Hair. He now has more art history notes than used kleenaxes around his desk, an important threshold to have crossed.

I was delighted to follow the last two weeks' discussion regarding emerging church carried on largely through Andrew Jones's blog and revolving around John Hammett's ETS article on the subject. So much peace and wisdom injected into things by those two guys, in the midst of their different perspectives. No good cause will be served by attempts by existing churches to quench the Spirit in the name of good doctrine--it didn't help in the first two awakenings, and I'm tempted to paraphrase and apply Gamaliel's advice, and say, if emerging / postmodern is a human thing, it'll pass like all things human; but if God's in it, it needs and deserves support. But just as true is the fact that only the Enemy's cause will be served if emerging leaders think of themselves as better than others, or if we drown in their (our) own hipness, or go buy melodramatic and self-serving martyrs' complexes off the discount persecution shelf down at the Leader Attitude store, or fail to acknowledge, respect, and indeed, celebrate our continuity with the historic tradition of the united church. John and Andrew both, in their different contexts, with their different foci, I think very much wish not only for the Spirit to always have freedom but also for new expressions of church to be as authentic to the Gospel as they are to the practitioners of them. It can't heal if it isn't real.

Shpeakin of which, I was interested to note that the British medical journal, The Lancet, in carrying a series of articles on different religious groups' perspectives on end-of-life issues, had a category (where one might have expected something like "evangelical" or "Protestant," since they had "Catholic" as well as "Jewish" and so forth) called "Traditional Christian." I don't know the authors of the article, but their definition (buried in a long second paragraph) of traditional Christian is interesting: the consensus of the first millenium of the Church--that is, when it was united, before not only the Protestant Reformation of 1512ff. but also before the Catholic / Orthodox schism that culminated in 1054. And this gets back to an issue John had raised.

Almost all emerging groups I know of use the Apostles' or Nicene Creeds as their doctrinal statement. These are "conciliar" documents, that is, they come from the period before Christianity's division into denominations, and are products of the practice and theologizing of the churches that led to the seven (or so) so-called general councils of the church. Not only is this true in emerging circles, many of which have evangelical roots of some kind, but there has also been an enormous outpouring of books, commentaries, guides, etc. on the (Apostles') Creed over the past ten or fifteen years in academia, both evangelical and "mainline" Protestant. C.E.B. Cranfield, Alister McGrath, Michael Horton, Luke Timothy Johnson, and many, many others have written guides to Christian life or thought in the form of (non-academic, popular) commentaries on the Creed, joining older ones such as Karl Barth's. I find all of this interesting.

It disturbed John when I said this--and it disturbs me a little, too--but it seems to me that maybe two or three things are going on here. One is the sense of relief that postmodernity brings: maybe we don't have to stay in modern debates any more. Rather than solving them, or taking sides in them, we can just skip them, set them to the side, as inappropriate to the evolving sociocultural context, or as badly framed, or as based on limited and perhaps erroneous presuppositions (like the poor physics I saw bandied about in the open theism debate). But if you just say, well, I'm not saying there was no value to or no truth gained in modern theological debates, but just say, those issues aren't valuable to me/us, and so those truths, while true, aren't ones we wish to prioritize, then it puts you either out in third-world theological discussions, or back in pre-1500AD (pre-1000AD?) discussions.
But this lifting of the eyes and broadening of interest, while generally laudable, runs a risk. As John noted to me, it would be a bit biased, although psychologically understandable, for the postmodern church (which Leonard Sweet says has an "openness to the past") to take insights from all the church's experience and learning everywhere except from modernity. And while the Orthodox may shake their heads at the Western (equally Catholic and Protestant, because modernist) obsession with precision and definition in theology (past what the Orthodox think we're capable of, whether it's transubstantiation as the mechanics of communion or penal substitution as the mechanics of atonement), nevertheless surely truth hard-won should not be cavalierly dropped (even if inerrancy, say, or Calvinistic forms of predestination, are not important issues in either the conversion or discipleship of postmodern people).
Secondly, lurking in the idea that modernist theological concerns are simply ignorable is always at least the possibility that the emerging leader or postmodern Christian who thinks thus does so at least partly because they think postmodernity is good and modernity bad, or postmodernity better than modernity, or something like that. This misses the presupposition underlying the Christian attitude to fallen society, that comes logically before even Richard Niebuhr's celebrated (and recently SkinnyPolled) set of alternative approaches to culture. That presupposition is missiological. Christians' first posture towards the world as it is is that it is 1. created in the image of God, and therefore good and worthy of both respect and encouragement 2. fallen into sin, and therefore requiring correction, and sometimes opposition, and 3. needing salvation, and therefore something we are to take the initiative to enter and to engage there in relationships which, by the very nature of them, inject Jesus into that partly-God-structured, partly deformed-and-evil culture.
The message to us now, oddly enough, is one of those kindergarten lessons. If emerging church people want to be affirmed and encouraged by existing church people, the way, on their side, to make that happen is for them to affirm and encourage the work and ministry existing church people do in the modern context in which they find themselves.
The third point about the emerging church's interest in pre-schismatic Christianity, which is the one I find very encouraging, is that it is born partly of a heart-longing for unity in the Body. The evangelical experience since the 1960s has been that conservative Protestants have more in common with each other than with their liberal denomination-mates. But then the prolife movement has shown evangelicals that sometimes that is also true of Catholics: that conservative evangelicals have a great deal in common with orthodox Catholics, despite past histories of enmity. (I wish conservative evangelicals would realize that they have more in common with orthodox Catholics and Orthodox than with secular conservatives.) At any rate, the lesson learned, at the upcoming generations' level anyway, is that unity is possible, and better than local partisanship. This is good news for the Body of Christ.
I had a bittersweet experience sort of along this line. The local Methodist church had a woman pastor a couple of years younger than me. She had previously been a churchplanter for the conference, working to start new Methodist churches in poor, ethnic neighborhoods. She believed in Jesus and in evangelism and in church. Many other things I don't know what she believed; I probably wouldn't have agree with her on lots of them. Anyway. So I came to feel that God wanted me to get to know the pastors in the area, and to just pray for them personally. When I went to have coffee with her the first time, she spent like the whole time trying to make it clear to me that she was totally okay with the gay thing. I said, Look, God hasn't asked or even allowed me to have any opinions about you or about your opinions at all. All He's said is for me to pray for the pastors in the area. Period. But she assumed that if I knew the scoop, I would hate and oppose her. Sigh. Granted, that reach would be longer for an ideal-typical evangelical than reaching out to the prolife, pro-Bush Catholic priest in the neighborhood. But still, you get the point: unity, always and only achieved at a cost, is still a virtue not best observed in the breach, or in consequenceless lipservice.
The early church focus is also good news for evangelism. In John 17 Jesus says, more or less, that if we're not unified, then there won't be any reason for worldly people to think that we're on to anything. Again: partisan cheering for one's own side is something worldlings understand perfectly well. But unity across difference impresses. If in the modern era birds of a feather liked to flock together, and hence church growth theory based evangelistic growth on developing "homogenous units" of believers, I think in the postmodern context, while people certainly feel safer with their own "kind," not only are many of those demographics breaking down, but people find compelling things that cross what normally would be boundaries: diversity legitimizes in my world. Heterogeneity is the desideratum of a group desiring to show as well as tell people about the difference Jesus makes--namely, that his difference effectively trumps other differences, without flattening people or cultures out.
So the move to the Apostles' Creed, to "historic Christianity," to an "ancient future," to first-millenial "traditional Christianity," all these things, while having risks, are, I think, good things. I think I'll go listen to some Celtic music now.

Congratulations on making it to the end of the longest entry not posted by a certified loony in history. Hope you didn't get blogged down in the history and theology of it. I miss both of my readers when I don't touch base often enough. More later soon.


Anonymous Joshua Rudd said...

Wow. I made it through the whole thing!

10:59 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

yeah . . . i almost made it

8:44 AM  
Anonymous brad said...

i skim-read it, liked it. you make sense dr. mark. and you live sense as well.

rock on ...

11:25 AM  
Blogger holmsey said...

that was long. good thing i had a few minutes to spare. you inspired me to start my own blog =)

10:50 PM  

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