The question is what makes my living authentic, to the extent that it is? In short, what is my ortho-praxis? I don’t know that I can provide an exhaustive answer, because it is far from crystal clear to me. Still, one does have a certain direction, however much through a glass darkly one sees.
My point is that the matter of what a UCC theology is has to be grappled with first, in which the prevailing UCC values of “open and affirming,” inclusiveness and embrace of diversity can point to a theology, but are not synonymous with a theology. I believe the personal application is important, downright crucial, in fact, but that the historical and cultural forces which have influenced the UCC throughout the 20th century, have to be grappled with and somehow made comprehensible. Otherwise, such “personal” faith will have a tendency to be solipsist. That is we do not exist as simply selves, or selves with God as co-pilot, but are historical creatures through and through. To deny or sidestep our history is to marginalize crucial aspects of who we are as persons.
With that rationale as a backdrop, I draw on H.R. Niebhur’s concept of “centers of value” as he discusses in Radical Monotheism in the Western World, particularly on his core argument that the value issue is inescapable. That is, as Niebuhr argues, we have no choice but to decide even as choice is a matter of faith, which, strictly speaking, one cannot get to from pure reasoning, analysis of the evidence, or logic. No matter what the belief, there is always “a leap” of some sort. Having embraced a value center (Niebuhr posits radical monotheism against henotheism (a central belief, e.g., nationalism, and/or polytheism, e.g., postmodernism in contemporary guise), the faith in that center discloses various realities that would not be otherwise accessible without an entering into the chosen pathway. Based on my own reasoned logic, life experience, and awareness of alternatives, I choose to take a leap of faith, stimulated by whatever leanings are nudging me in this direction, and thereby embrace radical monotheism. One might say that this is not simply my choice, as there is a gift dimension to this, in the unique way that I encountered Niebuhr’s text once again at this time in my life, and the ways in which his ideas opened up to my imagination. I think it’s fair to say that in some sense I was seeking what Niebuhr was suggesting, and that at another time and place his book would not have necessarily made an impact. It is not the vehicle of transmission that is important, but the message. God could have used a donkey instead to have convince me.
Thus, in faith I posit a belief in the monotheistic God of the Bible, noting, that if I lacked this plausibility structure in my background it may not have been a viable pathway, and that no matter how much I become convinced of the truths of the traditions of Israel and that of Christ as the New Israel, it remains a matter of faith and not that of certitude—a faith that in principle I can stake my life on.
Niebuhr may lead one to God, but not necessarily Christ. My embrace there also comes out of a combination of my own experience (born again, June 20, 1972, even while incredibly conflicted over the reality of the revelation in light of various autobiographical developments and grappling with various world views over a 30 year period), reasoning, and awareness of alternatives. On the doubt dimension on my 30- year odyssey with Christianity, I grapple with many of the tensions with this faith-walk that I have encountered in a theotalk web essay titled In Search of the Kairos in Modernity/Postmodernity (http://www.ctconfucc.org/resources/theology/insearchofkairos.pdf). In that piece I am raising a broad range of issues largely, though not exclusively from an empathetic, but outside the camp perspective. In writing I was seeking an external interlocutor who could respond from inside the camp. That has not taken place, which in one sense is unfortunate because the issues raised in that piece, I believe, are quite germane for mainline Protestantism, which requires some type of formal theological counter-response, for a fully vigorous coherent sense of faith that speaks both to the mind and the heart in the context of our embedded middle-class modernity/postmodernity.
Notwithstanding this crucial work, raising questions and living out the faith (however imperfectly) are two different things in which the gap between the two simply requires some leap of faith. In drawing on Niebuhr as a critical scaffold, I have taken the leap (once again) and am beginning to answer, for myself, at least, some of the questions I raised in the Search for the Kairos document. In a sense, the Kairos document and The Small Still Prompting of the Shadow Voice of Secular Modernity (http://www.ctconfucc.org/resources/theology/smallstillprompting.pdf) are different shades of a single cloth based on the NT mandate, “seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened.”
This deliberate (re) turn to a more centralized Christian focus does not mean that the searching has ended, but that the pathway has taken on a more definitive shape. Working more from within does open up certain perspectives that are not necessarily evident from without. In stating this I realize that my categories of inside/outside perhaps are overly polarized, but it’s not simply the objective reality of such categories, but their symbolic significance in the iconography of my own imagination. Even in my much more overtly secular orientation, I was virtually always aware of an evangelical subtext, or to use the language of Jungian psychology, an evangelical shadow. The tables have now turned in that the subtext has become more of the main text in which the shadow voice of the secular city still remains. While from the point of view of God, perhaps, this is all of the same cloth, in the nearness of my own experience my imagination is more impressed by the distinctive hues of the various colors of the text’s cloth. It is valuable to become immersed in the aesthetic beauty of the colors and patterns that seems most vivid, which, nonetheless, can become so real that it can become easy to confound the symbols of grace with the substance that is beyond our ability to grasp. Even still, we have little choice but to work with the light that illuminates while keeping attuned to the mystery that both engulfs and transcends our individual searching.
Notwithstanding the highly unique ways in which the Spirit of God unveils Himself (in staying with the biblical language), those who seek the pathway through the Incarnation of God in Christ have a very rich tradition upon which to draw in establishing certain commonalities in the quest. That is, we are not simply working out of our own unique stories. Rather, we share a common discourse in the underlying belief that in Christ, the Incarnation of God in human flesh has been revealed, and, through Christ consciousness and the body of Christ, this revelation, (however mediated), is accessible to us.
I view these resources as instruments through which the revelation of Christ has been and is mediated. I do not view any of the mentioned pathways (scripture, the cloud of witnesses, past and present, common sense, critical scholarship) as singularly normative. Rather, all are critically important in the shaping of what Brian McLaren refers to as a “generous orthodoxy” (http://agenerousorthodoxy.blogspot.com/) although it is God who ultimately disposes, working through, beyond, and in spite of our own constructions.