Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Crucial Importance of Intentional Theology

"The spirit bloweth where it will.  Against that there is no argument.  One can also experience (I experience it within myself) the stench of religious language to the extent that it is not directly linked to the power of the living spirit of God."  I think you (my interlocutor) have done a nice job in putting for us in a few words, something of the spirit of the UCC vision.

Still, unless one is going to depend on an experimental epistemology as the center of value, and I’m not sure this is UCC teaching, without providing some stabilizing structures to ground a christo-centric calling.  For evangelical theology it is in sola scriptura as the final authority.  As put by the astute Gordon-Cornwall theologian, Richard Lints:

We will understand ourselves only if we first understand Scripture.  Once we understand the framework of Scripture, we may then interpret our place in the historical unfolding of the redemptive activity of God.  The Scriptures ought to interpret the modern era rather than vice versa.  This is a lesson from which modern evangelicals might greatly benefit (The Fabric of Theology, p. 190)

This perhaps is even the position of Brueggemann when powerfully pushed from the perspective of his narrative theology, although he is also immersed in contemporary critical biblical scholarship and is largely empathetic to it.  For WB it still remains difficult to determine whether culture (postmodenism) or the strange new world of the Bible is the determining source of legitimacy.  While WB would wince at the “essentialism” of Lints’ evangelical theology, he does say elsewhere that the Scriptures are normative, although, for WB, the revelation through the spirit comes only one verse at a time in its “funding” of secular postmodernity, a voice that is extremely difficult to articulate, never mind legitimize in the current era.  What WB identifies is a moment of time, and those moments can be very crucial.  Still, except for a theology based on the grounding point of the “spirit bloweth where it will,” one wonders how one can come close to stabilizing a religious identity, and more perplexingly, perhaps, how that plays out for the life of a congregation.  I’m not rejecting such “funding” as one of the crucial ways in which the Kairos is speaking to modernity/postmodernity.  What I want to do is examine the implications of such an existential theology, however much it is grounded on a certain reading of narrative theology.

What happens when we can’t hear the spirit, or when we hear “the spirit,” what makes the voice of Christ determinative?  What grounds the choice for that voice as opposed to another—Ghandi, Buddha, Krishna, the Jewish God without the mediation of the Christ, the voice of secular reasoning?  Does it matter?  Perhaps not so at the level of the pure indwelling of the spirit, a place, however, that even Pentecostals cannot perpetually live, never mind staid New England Congregationalists.  Does experience (the pure phenomenology of it as a living truth), then become the ultimate arbiter, for not only the spirit, but for experience itself, which bloweth where it will?  On this topic, I heartily recommend Modes of Revelation by Catholic theologian, Avery Dulles.  As he puts it, “Scripture and tradition are not used atomistically to provide logical premises for deducing arguments, but organically and imaginatively to provide symbols and clues so that the mind of the believer can be ever more fully attuned to the truth of the revelation” (p. 283).

For Dulles and Lints, the construction of theology is a late work, essential to the development of faith in the fleshing out of the “full meaning” (which can only be aspired to) of the Christian revelation through the flow of historical time.  Both Lints and Dulles draw on different founding premises.  However, they both press hard on the necessity for theology as a discipline of faith and the need for grounding faith in something more stabilizing than the ineffability of subjective experience.  The key is not to minimalize the discipline of theology, but to view such formal probings as critical tools (more formally, heuristics) in the thinking and working through the matter of faith.

Then what are we to make of the Incarnation?  One can reject easily enough (raise the most acute of suspicions about) any simplistic claim that the historical person Jesus of Nazareth ever said, “I am the truth, the way, and the life.”  What one cannot do is deny that it is a core statement of the Christ Jesus of the New Testament, in which the claim is nothing other than this Christ is God in human flesh, and that this Christ (through grace) is accessible to those who seek after him with all their heart, mind, strength and soul.  This is a form of biblical literalism that narrative theology cannot lightly move beyond short of denying what is fundamental to its premises.

One may interpret this incarnational New Testament claim in a variety of ways (and much subtlety as well as the greatest simplicity is warranted as the spirit bloweth).  Even still, I cannot fathom how even the most “generous orthodoxy” can equivocate on this central claim without sacrificing something essential of such orthodoxy.  (One may move beyond orthodoxy, but that is another matter). That is, one may quibble about this and that interpretation, but I cannot fathom how any orthodox belief can do other than accept the Incarnation as a foundational source of Christian truth.  On that, can there be equivocation?  That is a question and not a statement, and it is not a rhetorical one.  Of course, unless that belief is spiritually based, dogma, as mere words is worse than dung.  But let us assume that we have some sense of what we are speaking here and that every once in a while we actually experience the indwelling of the holy spirit, which I view as nothing more and nothing less than Christ consciousness speaking within and to our consciousness, however partially and fragmentarily so.  It is neither spirit nor word alone, but spirit and word together which is essential, even as at any given time within any given individual or community of believers, one may prevail over the other.

This is where dogma, or more formally, theology, as well as apologetics comes into play, to say nothing of a grappling of the relationship of faith within the context of culture, articulated most programmatically, perhaps in H.R. Niehbur’s (as timely as ever) Christ and Culture.  More to the point, one cannot even begin to deal with theology and apologetics in any thorough way unless these critical topics of faith are grounded in what the philosopher John Dewey refers to as the “cultural matrix.”  For, if nothing else, the Judeo-Christian tradition is about a faith in God moving through historical time at specific times and places. However fictional such history may be, the Bible is a historical-like narrative that seeks to account for the drama of human history through the prism of God’s redemptive work in time.  However apologetically and hermeneutically construed, these dynamics of faith need to be factored in within our own contemporary accounts, particularly for any theology that purports to be orthodox.

Such work might be viewed as a sterile academic exercise if the theological dimension of faith did not matter.  That it does is based on at least three assumptions:

(a)   The practical impossibility of living in the continuous sphere of the spiritual realm as even as one does not want to do anything that stifles such an indwelling of the spirit of Christ.

(b)   The compelling questions and problems that people in the pews and those who might attend the pews have that do not beget easy answers is often the source that drives the quest for a meaningful theology and apologetics, which are far from merely “academic,” matters.  While such questions may or may not be posed in formal theological terms, as defined by theologians, just by their very nature they are theological in intent in the manner of faith seeking understanding, and understanding, at times, challenging core faith assumptions.

(c)   The need for the UCC to grapple more dynamically with the creative tension between Christ and culture because it is in and through this nexus where we reside.  Given our residence as post-Constantinian Christians in the secular city of postmodernity, it is impossible, in my view to grapple meaningfully with faith over any extended period of time without a coming to terms with where we are situated within the Christian drama.  And how where “we”, for whomever and however that is defined, relate to “they” whether, they are traditional evangelical Christians or those who reject any claim of religion at all and embrace purely secular values.  Can these relations and these nexus of situations be mediated purely in the spirit, or does it take the full work of our collective heart, mind, strength, and soul to grapple with these matters even in the acknowledgement of our diverse gifts?  Obviously, I sense that something is incomplete without this intentional grappling.  To press this further, the lack of willingness as a denomination to engage in more intentionally theologically probing analysis of the human condition within the context of faith, at this time and place, may be in part, an unconscious desire to escape from the more radical implications of what it may mean to believe.  I offer this as a hypothesis only, but worthy of consideration.

The Logos speaks in its own idiom.  Since we do not live perpetually in that state of blissful at-one-ness with God, formal thought about what drives us when the spirit is more evidently active is also crucial—hence theology and apologetics even for the experience-driven, spirit seeking UCC.  When theological work is well done it forces the writer and reader to come more acutely to terms with ultimate issues.  This is why it is indispensable work—work that all of us as lay theologians, in one form or another, need to take on both for ourselves as individuals and collectively as the body of Christ.

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