Friday, November 30, 2007

Conversing with Emergents

A few weeks back I was fortunate to be able to attend a brief panel discussion on the Emergent Church. The panel consisted of a local pastor here in Durham who is relatively well known locally as being deeply embedded in the Emergent conversation. Dr. Mary McClintock-Fulkerson was his primary conversation partner, with a moderator as well. The discussion was relatively interesting and was focused on the place of creeds and doctrine in the Emergent Church.

The Emergent pastor was concerned with the way creeds and doctrines have become a litmus of Christian orthodox and wielded as a means of determining who's in and who's out. They function as a means of control, reinforcing the move of groups and nations to enclose themselves over and against other groups. His alternative was grossly ambiguous but he did seem to predicate some sense of doctrine as a unifying principle. But he was highly critical of the way doctrine and creeds have functioned.

This tendency of the Emergent Church is worrisome to me. Those in the conversation are right to critique the way in which theology and doctrine has been reduced to intellectual assent to disembodied ideas. That is, doctrine has been perceived as the litmus for Christian orthodoxy. If you believe the creeds and profess orthodox doctrine you are orthodox. The problem is that such an understanding of doctrine and theology has allowed Christians to continue to live in a modality of existence that does not depend on theology or doctrine. In other words, if orthodox doctrine is the litmus of true Christianity then Christians can live however they want, provided they adhere intellectually to the truths of the creeds.

Whether the Emergent Church recognizes this tendency in its critique is beside the point. Ultimately what they are critiquing is this very move (a theological move that has allowed Christians to order their life after the politics of the state [particularly the United States] and to raise the question of Christ and culture as if culture is monolithic and we must relate Christ to it). I wholeheartedly support this critique. Yet the corrective according to this pastor has tended to mitigate doctrine and creeds. The idea is that if adherence to doctrine and creeds has literally produced religious wars (cf. religious wars in Europe between differing Christian traditions), then reorienting our emphasis to other aspects of Christianity would be advantageous. What this reorientation looks like is nuanced but the basic principle seems to be common throughout the Emergent conversation.

The central problem with this move is that it reinforces the idea that doctrine and creeds are objects of intellectual assent only. That is, it takes this concept as a presupposition of the critique and thus the eschewing of doctrine and creeds ensues. What I want to suggest is that the Emergent Church in this particularity is merely propagating the problem it attempts to resist. Theology is hopelessly enclosed in its propensity for abuse.

What we really need is a corrective that rearticulates the function of doctrine and creeds, that is we need an account of theology that does not assume the theological tasks is one of dotting our theological "I's" and crossing our theological "T's". We need an account that more adequately expresses the function of theology.

In the question and answer period I raised this issue by utilizing an analogy between the creeds and the American pledge of allegiance. While it is highly limited and necessitates qualification, I nonetheless offer it to you. When Americans say the pledge of allegiance they are not merely affirming intellectual truths or propositions. By affirming the pledge they are committing to the lifestyle demanded by the pledge. That is, the pledge demands that its adherents live a certain kind of life. It demands a modality of existence.

Similarly, the Christians creeds demand a modality of existence. They witness to a way of life constituted and sustained by the body of Christ. Doctrine and creeds are not abstract principles of the Christian faith, but are the thinking internal to the Christian faith that not only witnesses to a modality of existence but produces that modality of existence. Theology must be performed. The theological task requires our entrance into the Christian tradition and our deep conditioning by that tradition.

But this understanding of theology is unable to function in the Emergent Church's critique. The EC has condemned theology to the locale of its distortion. We all live committed to some modality of existence, and my concern is that the EC is precariously searching for some locale or orientation. It resists finding it in theology because of theology's distortion. But what then makes demands on the way of life of the EC? If it's not theology I'm concerned it may be simply an inversion of conservative American Christianity.

I'd love to hear the thoughts of someone better acquainted with the EC. Ease my concerns.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

...and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I recognize this is a lengthy piece, but at the behest of my good friend Mike Cline I will be posting some of the essays I am writing during my time at Duke. Enjoy!

(By the way, if anyone knows how to footnote in blogger I'd love to hear how it's done. I have simply placed the references in the essay at the end for lack of a better method.)

The sacraments of the Church are gifts. They are gifts of the Holy Spirit in which the presence of the Spirit dwells. The Spirit gives these gifts to the Church, and the means of being initiated into the Church to share in these gifts is affected by the Spirit in the sacrament of baptism. The language of initiation, though, says little about the nature of the community into which we become initiates. What kind of fellowship does baptism draw us into? This is the question we will seek to elucidate by drawing out the implications of baptism as our initiation and focusing on baptism as constitutive of the Church. We will proceed under the assumption that in so doing we are articulating the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Correlatively we will mention throughout what baptism implicates for Christian discipleship and formation.

Baptism is a symbol but to describe it as so is not to reduce the sacrament but instead presupposes a distinction from other types of signs. It is a sign that has the function of bringing us into the reality that it symbolizes. In other words, baptism not only symbolizes our initiation into the Church but also is the true means by which we are initiated. This initiation occurs through the Holy Spirit, who in the sacrament binds us to Christ. Being bound to Christ we are therefore bound to the perfectly obedient Son of God, who as such is the Israel of God perfectly adequated to Yahweh’s calling of Israel. This becomes the hermeneutical pivot upon which baptism as initiation must function. Our initiation into the Church in baptism is the act of the Holy Spirit binding us to the Israel of God and in so doing also binds us to Yahweh. Thus, we must conspicuously avoid any speech concerning baptism that neglects to speak about Israel.

Speaking of baptism as the act of being bound to Christ through the Spirit thus entails initiation into fellowship with others. First, we are initiated in the story and people of Israel. The story of Israel becomes our story (i.e. the Gentiles) in so far as the Jew Jesus has invited us. Furthermore, we are initiated into fellowship with all the baptized, which necessitates fellowship with all believers in Christ. The basis of this fellowship rests upon the person of Jesus Christ. This is not a fellowship that is grounded in the brother/sisterhood of all humanity but instead is mediated by Christ. We are bound to one another because the Spirit binds us to Christ. Our fellowship thereby exists in Christ and is grounded in his identity. This is the manner by which we are initiated but it only begins to reveal the nature of the community of initiates. Thus, we must also say that by being bound to the Israel of God we come to share in the election of Israel. The nature of this election overlaps with the nature of the Christian fellowship in that it is the very election that Jew and Gentile come to share.

As we utilize the language of election we are necessarily articulating an aspect of the doctrine of God. The election of Israel is revelatory of the inner life of God, and the economy of God in history is the unfolding of this revelation. God brings forth the people of Israel by the calling of Abram. This calling forth occurs through the Spirit and begets the son of God, Israel. Thus establishing a covenant, God offers Godself to this people and Israel is called to respond perfectly to God’s call. God’s covenant with this people is pure grace, and God seeks from Israel a human response adequated to the divine call. God condescends to be identified with this people and God’s presence in this people is unique in relation to his presence in all creation. He chooses to dwell in this “location”. The covenantal relationship thus is a dynamic one in which God makes Godself vulnerable by binding Godself to Israel. This is a scandalous move for God and results in the history of Israel’s vacillating disobedience and obedience.

Through their disobedience Israel is revelatory of God imperfectly. The intention behind Isreal’s election is the manifestation of God’s love to the world. Israel’s election ought to witness to the world that Israel’s God is their God too. The incarnation of Jesus is filled out as the perfect human response to God’s divine call and thus Jesus is Israel in fulfillment. He is the perfect response inasmuch as he is the Israel of God, brought forth in the presence of the Spirit. He is the culmination of Israel’s history and is the proper witness to God’s intention in election. The perfect obedience of the Son brings him inevitably to the cross, to death, to the place of humanity’s deepest estrangement from God. Karl Barth said that “in becoming man God makes Himself responsible for man who became His enemy, and that He takes upon Himself all the consequences of man’s action – his rejection and his death.” By rejecting God humanity seals itself off from God, grounding its existence in itself. This leads to the dissolution of humanity, which finds its ultimate Godforsakenness in death. This is the “consequences of man’s action” that Christ takes unto himself. Through inhabiting this Godforsakenness Christ overcomes it.

It is at this very moment of Godforsakenness that the moment of baptism occurs. In baptism we enter death with Christ, through the Spirit, who in taking upon our Godforsakenness has brought it into the life of God and freed us from our attempt to seal ourselves off from God. Entering baptism at this moment we eschew the “old man”, as Luther calls it, and we enter a new modality of existence constituted by Christ, through the Spirit. Being buried in his death, we therefore “walk in newness of life.” This becomes the normative manner in which Christian existence articulates itself; that is, “from slavery to freedom, from fear to boldness, from death to life, from darkness to light, from selfishness to generous love, in the pattern of the living Lord Jesus and as guided by the Holy Spirit.”

We can thus say that baptism not only initiates us into the fellowship of Christ, but also is constitutive of that fellowship. It establishes the character of fellowship and contains the new existence into which we are drawn. It does so because in baptism we receive, through the Spirit, Christ in his fullness. The baptismal moment is complete. In it we are forgiven, purified, and brought to new life. The baptized are drawn out of the world and into the story of Israel, which is perfectly narrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. As Johnson says, to grow in the Spirit means “understanding ever more deeply and enacting ever more consistently the gift that has been given us by God.” God’s gift to us is complete. Christ is given to us wholly, yet the reality of our baptism must be filled out in discipleship. This is what Johnson means when he says that growing in the Spirit is enacting the gift of baptism more consistently. The life of Christian discipleship can be seen as the reenactment of the Spirit’s work in baptism. Yet even this reenactment takes place under the auspice of the Spirit, who continually draws us into the depth of the baptismal waters. We can make this claim about the sufficiency of baptism because its validity is God’s prerogative, not ours. Thus, baptism always remains valid but one may embrace or resist its reality.

The description of baptism as constitutive of the reality into which we are drawn presses us to inquire as to how baptism is to be resisted or embraced. Resistance to baptism consists in the refusal to reject the powers of nationalism, racism, violence, sexism, and economics. To resist is to cling to a modality of existence that is passing away, a modality already under the lordship of Christ and one that is passing away in lieu of the reign of God being unleashed through the Spirit. Embracing baptism is embracing Christ through the Spirit, and therefore is openness to the social ethic that Jesus is. In order to embrace baptism one must learn repentance. Repentance is not only the confession of our sinful modality but is active rejection of that modality. In the ancient liturgies prior to baptism the catechumens would turn to the West and reject Satan and his powers. This is repentance, and the waters of baptism require it. To live into our baptism requires that our life be different.

The modalities and powers we contend must be rejected function as to utilize wisdom and power in order to position oneself over against others. In contrast God’s wisdom and power are revealed at the cross of Christ, the place of ostensible weakness and abandonment. As Charry writes, “weakness voluntarily assumed to rescue others is spiritual nobility and strength, and […] military and political power reveal spiritual weakness […] True strength and power lie hidden in an executed has-been […] The point is that there has been a great reversal of power. In God’s own time, it will conquer the world.” This wisdom and power are embraced in repentance, and lead to a communal life characterized by forgiveness. Christ, who is our salvation, constitutes the Church’s life of forgiveness. We learn to forgive by being bound to the Father, in Christ, through the Spirit. We are drawn into the life of the God of Israel who endured Israel’s imperfect response with faithfulness and forgiveness. This forgiveness has been bestowed also upon the Gentile in the baptismal waters.

Baptism not only bestows forgiveness but through the Spirit generates the practice of forgiveness. We are able to forgive others because we recognize that we are truly sinners. We stand in relationship to one another only through Christ, and our “disillusionment” due to the sin of others, as Bonhoeffer calls it, serves to remind us of this truth. Staniloae similarly makes the claim that our union with Christ, which is the foundation of our fellowship of forgiveness, “can be lived only in the Holy Spirit, and that the experience of being in the Holy Spirit is nothing other than union with Christ.” Our baptismal union with Christ is the activity of the Holy Spirit, and by being bound to him we are formed into a people that see ourselves as inferior to one another. This is not psychological self-deprecation for it is instead the deep willingness to accept our sinfulness. Our hope remains in our union affected by the Spirit and refuses to be lodged in self-justification or sufficiency. The humble one recognizes that we are invited to share in a story that is not our own, and we are formed by that story. The story is one of self-giving, the self-giving of God, and the self-giving response of Israel in return. The giving of ourselves can be described also as service. Christian fellowship is a fellowship of service to one another.

This act of self-giving is a precarious one. In giving oneself one is made vulnerable. The vulnerability of this sort in the Church is reflected in the practice of bearing each other’s burdens. Through the Spirit we have been bound to Christ and thus we are bound to one another. Sharing in one another’s burdens results from inhabiting that union. For in baptism we are bound to people who are not like us, we enter fellowship with people who do not look like us. We bear the burden of the stranger, who is no longer feared but loved. Our attention is turned to the alien, the needy, and the oppressed. Christian existence is deeply formed by this association, for when one in the body of Christ is oppressed all are oppressed. We are compelled to traverse the land of desolation, despair, and abandonment because in his perfect obedience as the Israel of God Jesus entered the depths of human isolation. Where Christ chooses to dwell so also does his Church dwell. This is the miracle and the gift of baptism.

Undoubtedly the most oft repeated phrase in this essay has been “through the Spirit.” This is not said tepidly but is the attempt to make explicit the presupposed activity of the Spirit in all we have discussed. Baptism is a miracle and a gift because the Holy Spirit makes it so. The waters are made holy and effectual because the Spirit descends upon them. Any explication of baptism is by definition an articulation of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We began our exploration by positing the question of the nature of the community into which baptism initiates us. Our articulation determined that baptism is the initiation into a community of fellowship that is defined by the sacrament of baptism itself. Baptism draws us out of one modality of existence and into another, a new modality contained in Christ himself. To describe baptism as a punctiliar moment would therefore be inadequate. Instead, the Christian community is formed by ever deepening its knowledge and practice of the reality of its baptism. This baptism rejects the artificial boundaries of nation-states, and crushes biological distinctions among persons. Our public language must therefore be conditioned by our baptism. What does our baptism cause us to say about illegal immigration? What does our baptism cause us to say about unmitigated violence in Iraq, Darfur, and the other places where the power of militarism ostensibly reigns? May we be ever faithful and diligent as we attempt live in the reality that in Christ we are one, and as one we are Christ.

cf. Dr. J. Kameron Carter, Lecture #17
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), 21.
Ibid. 36.
cf. Dr. J. Kameron Carter, Lecture #11.
cf. Dr. J. Kameron Carter, Lecture #4.
Michael Wyschogrod, “Incarnation,” Pro Ecclesia, 2 (Spring 1993): 212.
cf. Dr. J. Kameron Carter, Lecture #15.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, "The Election of Jesus Christ" (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 124.
Martin Luther, The Large Catechism. trans. Robert H. Fischer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 89.
John Calvin, Instructions in Faith. trans. Paul T. Fuhrmann (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press 1992), 67.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 278.
Letty M. Russell, Essentials of Christian Theology. ed. William C. Placher, "Why Bother with Church?" (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 252.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 278.
cf. Brian Bantum’s Lecture on Baptism.
Martin Luther, The Large Catechism. trans. Robert H. Fischer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 88.
Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 43.
cf. Brian Bantum’s Lecture on Baptism.
Ellen T. Charry, Essentials of Christian Theology. ed. William C. Placher, "How Should We Live?" (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 266-267.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 281.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), 28.
Dumitru Staniloae, Theology and the Church. trans. Robert Barringer (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 14.
cf. Brian Bantum’s Lecture on Baptism.