Sunday, May 31, 2009

Rethinking It All: The Church

In some ways, it is rather odd to start rethinking with the Church. After all, the Church is emphasized only in the New Testament (it is in the Hebrew Bible, but not in the same capacity) and only after the work of the Messiah brings the eschatological fulfillment of Israel's hopes to bear. History, however, has shown that the Church -- where Christians of all stripes live and move -- has not been particularly faithful to its mission or even to its constitution. From early on, it has been gnosticized and mysticized beyond any reasonable recognition of an institution that would have grown out of Temple and synagogue. However, this is where we most fully image the Messiah, as his body, so the Church is indeed one of the forgotten emphases of the faith, one that desparately needs to be recovered before any positive steps can be taken in the redemptive acts of God in the world.

Rather than talking about the marks of the "true" Church, which could be classified as one of the most damaging and violent debates of all human history, re-examining the difference between visible and invisible Church is in order. I am used, in the past, to speaking of the invisible Church as being those who "truly are in faith" as opposed from the "masses" who populate the pews. Philip J. Lee, in his wonderful Against the Protestant Gnostics, calls this what it is: gnostic elitism, leading to a bifurcated people of God, the superspiritual versus the moderate or the normal. Really, this gnostic belief is the same as the Judaizers, only in different terminology: you must be circumcised to be a part of the Messiah's people, or, you must have "true" faith to be part of the Church. Since we can never know for certain whether or not anyone other than ourselves have "true" faith, we must rely instead on the visible Church as our means of defining the community of God's people. In other words, as far as humans are concerned, those who are united with the Messiah are those who unite with his people in worship -- which seems to be Paul's argument throughout the book of I Corinthians. To take it a step further, though, the argument can (and should) be made that the only real example of what the Church is, is found in the local parish. The Church, the true Church, is made of a collection of real people in real places that have participation with the Messiah through faith and therefore have participation with each other, the Messiah's body. The word koinonia, which often is translated rather dully as "fellowship", has this double edge to it: we participate in the Messiah, so we participate with each other. The idea of the imago Dei finds its fullest expression here as well: if the Messiah is the imago, and we are united with the Messiah, even called by his name (12:12), then we -- as the body -- are imago Dei as well. (A quick note to say that this does not mean that either individuals or those outside of the Church are not imago Dei, but the Church qua Church is the expression of the renewed, redeemed imago found in the Messiah).

What then of the invisible Church? We do have the "wheat and tares", however I'm not sure if that parables applies outside on the historical division between those who are allegiant to the Messiah and those who are not, evidenced at AD 70 and AD 135. We do have a wonderful model to consider, though, in the book of Revelation. In God's throne room, where the seer John is taken up, we see not only the redeemed of Israel (the symbolic 144,000), but also ones from "every tribe, tongue, nation in the earth". While we normally experience the Church only on the local level of real people that we know and can interact with, when we worship the one true God, we join the rest of those who are outside of our parish community in heaven, so that the Messiah's body is one on the local level and one worldwide.

The question becomes, and quite relevant, what makes the Church itself? The word itself, ekklesia, comes from the idea of being "called out"; called away from being destructive and dehumanizing, called into a mission of living a truly human life in the midst of sin -- characterized by hospitality, mutual submission, and self-giving. In an earlier post I talked about the unfortunate marriage of religion and power, or probably better put, religion and violence. The New Testament is clear, it seems to me, that the Church is the court of the Messiah, his Session if you will: Paul says that those "called out" are "seated in the heavenlies with the Messiah" -- that seating, of course, is next to the one enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. However, that rule is not to be "live the Gentiles who lord it over their subjects" but rather "the greatest among you shall be the servant of all". The rule of the Messiah turns all other rule, by what Paul calls the "principalities and powers", on its head, openly shaming all those who call themselves the "true authority" or the "answer". The Church, the visible Church wherever it is, is supposed to lead this -- by leading lives characterized by love, mutual edification, and worship of the true God, who is the Creator and, through the Messiah, is the Redeemer of Jew and Gentile.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rethinking It All: Part Two

One other figure in the Bible that sojourned in Arabia was Elijah. Like Paul, he went there to seek God, asking similar questions: how can these things be? In his case, it was about the idolatry of Israel and the impending destruction at the hands of those idols. For Paul, it was how the God of Israel's righteousness could be revealed in the death of the Messiah. My own escape has clarified, at least a little bit, the historical crises that confront us today (all history is crisis, a golden age has never been).

One of the most alarming trends that I have been a witness to is the prevalent defection from the faith: one strong Christians hanging their hats elsewhere or nowhere at all. At the start of my Arabian adventure, I was there as well -- I have almost left the faith a number of times in the last decade (rethinking, after all, does not come without its perils). By the grace of God, by which I mean the resurrection of Jesus, I have not left -- but I have not been left unscathed.

People change allegiances for a variety of reasons: I am not here to comment on any individual reasons for doing so. If you have left the faith, you know them and you know whether or not they are good reasons. My place, and I would argue most everyone else's, is not to judge your reasons, but instead to try and figure out what exactly it is that is creating and nurturing the environment for those reasons to exist in.

One of the most obvious to me, for I keep running headlong into it, is the dissolution of the old certitudes. Any superficial student of history knows that it is ridiculous to call Christianity a religion of peace: early on it was coopted for the purposes of violence and power, and it has been comfortable in that position. The railing of many "Christians" in our day and age about politics sounds oddly familiar to the railings of elder Christians who argued for the establishment of denominations: the State "defends" the Church with the sword against all enemies, whether heretics or homosexuals or infidels or (insert whatever your church tradition is against). Digging a little deeper into history (ever repeating) it is also easy to see that the Church is in no position to separate itself from this history, since its very theology since the 4th century has been concerned with nurturing and furthering the relationship between Christ and Caesar. I do think Christianity is a religion of peace, but only once it is separated from its dependence on power to assert and maintain its claims.

But this is only one of the old certitudes that have been shattered. The rise of modernism with the Enlightenment was seen by many as a deathblow to Christianity ("God is dead and we have killed him" for example). Christianity adapted and adopted adeptly and became thoroughly modernist, even those branches (American Reformed churches, for one) that clung to an older, "purer" fundamentalism: instead of decimating the division between doctrine and experience (or facts/values, faith/science, whatever dualism you want) the church solidified it in its actions, but denied it in its words. So now we have Christians quite content to say their prayers as a private action, believe in their own salvation (in opposition, of course, to everyone else), but yet not be noticibly different from those who adhere to none of the teachings of the Messiah. Postmodernism, in many ways, has shown that form of Christianity to be a sham: it is all about power, about sex, about money, about the tenets of Nietzsche, Freud, or Smith instead of Jesus. But, as any student of pomo knows, no story replaces the shattered myths, leaving us without a sacred canopy to give direction and meaning.

Now we live in a storied world, as before (even though we denied it), but it is not a coherent or cohesive story: it is many stories, almost all in opposition, vying for credibility, for power, for the 'means of production', for cultural change. Which story to follow, which 'ism' to grasp onto, is the question of the day, even if it is unconscious or implicit. I have seen many students crash upon the waves of consumerism, of 'hard-headed realism', of various forms of theodicy, and not come out the other side. If we believe that God exists to make us happy, or wealthy, or comfortable, or understanding, or anything other than a fellow crucified disciple of Jesus, then our worldview will shatter upon the rocks of the fallen world. Many students have written in papers recently that their main goal in life is to 'be happy', in a sort of morbid (and moribund) christian Utilitarianism. Mill and the Pleasure Principle coopt Christ and the Crucifixion. In a world of competing stories, how can we say what is right or wrong for anyone else (always a good question) or for ourselves? The restrictions, the boundaries, the limitations of the covenant are forgotten because we have no story to bind us to them: our Exodus has been so overly spiritualized that it means absolutely nothing. If our ultimate goal is to attain individualism in heaven, then it makes sense to seek it pre-emptively on earth.

In the midst of this, I feel somewhat like Habbakuk: how is this better? The violent Babylonians of Modernism and Postmodernism cannot really be the scourge that will eschatologically cleanse the people of God! But like Habbakuk, I must realize that my eyes do not see clearly, that the violent -- whether Christian or pagan -- do not ultimately triumph, but the meek shall inherit the earth.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rethinking It All: Part One

In my mind, one of the most important historical bits of Scripture for my personal life is when Paul says (in Galatians) that after his meeting with Jesus at the Damascus Road, he went to rethink everything for over a decade in Arabia. That passage has caused much consternation over what exactly I should do with the training I have received and nurtured for close to a decade. The more I read of historically-based exegesis, the more troubled I become with the history of Christian interpretation, the history of ecclesial activity (especially the confluence of theology and power), and the basis of present Christian devotion and worship. In many ways, I feel completely outside the pale of this long-standing historic community. I've called it my "postmodern Protestant dilemma" (those interested can look up the link). It is, and will remain, a critique from within -- I am a follower of Israel's Messiah and the Gentiles' Lord. I do not critique out of spite, but out of gratitude for the grace I have received in that Messiah. My writing and thinking revolve around the twin foci of being faithful to God's revealed Word (a faithfulness that does not equal correctness necessarily) and God's redeemed people (both Jew and Gentile who worship the one true God in the Messiah).

My start down the road to Arabia began with a simple premise: the broad outlines of God's mission and work in the world should be comprehensible to all of God's people, even if that comprehension comes from the Spirit rather than 'rationality'. In other words, if an idea/doctrine takes a clergyman to understand, then it probably is there to legitimate power rather than a part of God's revelation. In many ways, I still hold to this premise, but what I have found is that the simplest of things can, upon further investigation, but intricately complex. I understand how a car goes, but I could not tell you the intricacies of a driveshaft, powertrain, or fuel-injection (God bless you if you can). The other premise is that a doctrine or theology must be practical. This one has been harder to hold onto -- many teachings in the history of the Church were practical for that time, but have devolved into abstract, ahistorical concepts now. I learned this, interestingly enough, from pagan philosophy: Plato's battle with the Sophists produced amazingly complex philosophy that was practical in his time, but seems so disconnected now (and has destroyed much theology because of it). These two premises, clarity and simplicity still drive my thought. They have, though, both been chastened. Might I even call them mature?

Even though I teach Bible, I still feel in Arabia. I know I have said things that I do not now agree with: theology must be understood as a human endeavor -- anyone claiming the title of 'mouth of God' perpetuates a dangerous and damaging lie (Let those who have ears hear). The power that comes from the burden (yes, a burden) of teaching the Bible is frightening: I am influencing those for whom the Messiah died. Anyone who teaches that is not scared to death of that should not teach, ever. That fear is a necessary part of my Arabian experience: I have been humbled, and continue to be humbled, but this calling from the Most Holy God. Reading student essays this last semester brought this home to me: are we teaching our students well enough to be independent of their teachers? When erudite non-Christians challenge them on their allegiance to the Messiah, will they be able to stand? I fear the worst.

And so I remain rethinking it all. Some of the conclusions I have come to have rocked my world, so to speak. I have had to hold tightly at points to the resurrection of Jesus as the only fixed point in my faith. In the end, it is not my knowledge that leads me into the life of the age to come; he is my Lord and he holds me in his hands. I mean that in a significantly different way than I did years ago. It is no mere religious trifle or pleasantry, but rather the only way I can speak about my everyday reality: the Messiah loved me and gave his life for me and now the life that I lead must be in the Son of God.