"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Saturday, March 31, 2012

On Coming Out of the Closet

Many of you who are connected with the George Fox Community (and perhaps some who are not) might be aware of “OneGeorgeFox”—a community of GFU alums who are pushing for more conversation about gender and sexuality on GFU’s campus.

Their goal is to validate the sexual orientation of all people, support those who’ve been hurt by a Christian anti-gay message, and bring about change in GFU’s own policy toward issues of sexuality. Many of these people are LGBTQ; some are not, but rather allies who share a similar perspective and hope.

Here’s a link to their letter; I strongly suggest visiting the site: http://www.onegeorgefox.org/. It might make more sense of what I have to say here.

If you visit the site and scroll down to the signatures—those who, at the very least, have read the letter, agree with the views and cause presented, and feel there is value to identifying with the “movement” and perhaps even felt a sense of “call” to sign—you’ll see my name. At least that was something like my experience in signing the letter.

Yes…I signed the letter. Considering my own journey on the matter, the opportunity to publicly support this group was almost providential timing. I come from a generally conservative evangelical experience, so for those of you that are not a part of that tradition reading this, it might help to know this background information to understand why this was a big step for me (and for Joann, who also signed the letter; though I will say that in what follows, these are my thoughts…I don’t speak to her journey on the matter here).

I would guess my journey is similar to many. As I explained to a friend recently, that path goes something like this: staunchly condemn LGBTQs—be sad for them and their condition—“love” them but expect them to change—“love” them and “tolerate” them—see them as equal and valid—see the beauty and goodness of their orientation.

I’ve been uncertain for some time how I’ve felt about the issue. I guess there are actually two issues I’ve felt unclear about. One: do I support gay marriage? And, two: do I believe in the inherent goodness and rightness of having an LGBTQ orientation?

They really are separate issues to me. The first—the support of gay marriage—concerns issues of liberty, politics, the Church’s role in society, and the definition of marriage. Believing that it is good, ethical, and Christ-centered to encourage this kind of marriage seems possible even if one didn’t find validity in the actual orientation of homosexuality.

Considering what felt most loving, most in line with the character of God, most consistent with Jesus’ teachings, and what seemed to be the utilitarian choice, and even most evangelistic (loaded word, I know)—I at some point concluded that it was good and right to support gay marriage.

But the second issue—is it “good” to be gay—is a different one, for me at least. My feelings on this are complex, and I’m still sorting through them. I don’t like to talk in certainties; I’m much more comfortable saying “I believe it enough” than “I know for sure.” To me, that’s not weak faith; it’s just honesty, with myself and with others.

But I’ve reached a point where I’m much more comfortable landing on the pro-LGBTQ side than the anti-. I know that’s very reductive to say “pro” and “anti,” as I’m sure many who are “anti-gay” would say they are “pro-love” and “pro-people” but against the “illness” or “sin” of homosexuality. But hopefully the way I’m using those prefixes is clear.

I can respect a gay person who wants to change themselves and fervently try to remain straight out of religious conviction. But I don’t think it’s necessary, and my experience with God—one experience among many—has led me to believe that homosexuals should accept their nature and seek happiness and love without living the rest of their lives in conflict about their feelings. To me, thinking of homosexuality as an illness or a sin is neither helpful nor accurate.

I think what will most bring glory to God, most bring people to encounter God, most allow the Church to be a demonstration of the character of God, and most honor the individual is a willingness on our part to embrace the love that LGBTQ people have for one another as something beautiful and pleasing to God.

It’s funny; I think some Christians have had to wrestle with fear over how their bold statements of faith might be ridiculed by the culture around them. For example, I think Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, and even was resurrected from the dead in an act that had eternal significance for all humankind. That’s a ridiculous and untenable viewpoint to some outside the Christian faith.

But the issue in question here seems to lead to the opposite phenomenon. I’m confident there are many Christians out there who want to be more outspoken about their feelings about this issue but are fearful of the ramifications from their own community. Or maybe they’re just not yet convinced, given their long-held traditional views. It’s hard for them to not feel like supporting homosexuality means being anti-Jesus or anti-Bible.

Most of my hesitation has actually been more about science than the Bible. Maybe that seems backwards to some. But if both sides of the issue are honest with one another, it’s pretty clear that there’s more than one “Biblical perspective.” I get really exhausted by those who believe homosexuality to be a “sin” who claim that the “pro-gays” are ignoring the Bible and simply accommodating to a liberal, secular culture. Please, please…stop saying this.

I understand if you believe the Bible condemns homosexuality; I/we know your verses and know your understanding of the nature of Scripture. Yet many of those who are pro-LGBTQ are intelligent, thoughtful, and God-seeking people who love Scripture and have reached a different conclusion. It’s not as simple as who is on the side of God or the Bible and who’s not; stop oversimplifying the issue in this way.

But the Bible is no longer the issue for me here. I think it’s been my own lack of awareness of the various conclusions of the community of neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and biologists. I listen to the Bible; I also listen to science. They are not enemies. But I guess I’ve been given sufficient evidence to conclude that having a homosexual “bent” is something natural, un-chosen, healthy and even—good.

I also have heard the complaint from some who are aware of and opposed to the goals of OneGeorgeFox that their expectations—that GFU would change its view of Scripture and lifestyle policy—are misguided, as it’s inappropriate to ask GFU to make such a change (maybe this isn’t as common a concern as it seems to me).

Frankly, I don’t understand this. These expectations stem from a belief that GFU is actually in error in their understanding of Scripture on this issue and that its current policies are harmful to a certain population of students. It seems a reasonable desire to say to the board and the greater GFU community: consider that you’re wrong, in light of new, fresh reflection on Scripture and new awareness of the human condition, and adjust accordingly. It wouldn’t be the first time that “reformation” has happened in Church history.

I realize there’s a lot in this post that could be unpacked more, and I likely will do so in the coming months as inquiries arise. Consider this my “coming out party” and public support of OneGeorgeFox and its goals.

And consider it my broader support of those who are confused about whether or not God loves them and whether or not they’ll ever find acceptance from others or be able to accept themselves or experience the joy of love and romance in the context of a faithful, committed relationship (see, I’m still old-fashioned about some things). J

I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. The church has been in that place too many times, save for bright spots here and there (go Quakers! J). I want to do the will of God, want to embody the radical love of Jesus, want to encourage people toward fullness of life. My actions in signing this letter reflect my belief that I’m doing this as best as I can.

I knew and know there is some risk to my livelihood and relationships in being more open about this, considering I want to eventually teach theology and religion at an evangelical university, and considering that many people I care about disagree with me. But in the end, I counted the cost—and concluded more help and good than harm and evil would result from my support. Sometimes that’s how my decisions are made. With risk. With faith.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Journey to a PhD Begins

It’s finally happening. A dream that has been present and growing for a few years now is substantially closer to becoming a reality. This coming fall, I will be starting a PhD program at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

This has been in the works for some time. It was a possibility that arose while at seminary working on an MDiv a few years back, though it was only a spark of an interest. At that time, I think I imagined doctoral work being a more distant rather than immediate pursuit, as my interest in church/pastoral ministry was also strong.

My experience in China deepened this interest further. And though we moved to Olympia shortly after marriage to plant a church, the possibility still loomed. Many of you know that this church planting endeavor did not pan out, ending with some hurt, confusion, and un-reconciled relationships that still sting.

But the “fallout” from this church experience also confirmed some things for me as far as what I believed and how I wanted to express these beliefs. Despite the pain and just plain weirdness, it was a fruitful experience.

Though, it has made it challenging at times to see where I fit in the world of Christian ministry, given what clarification I’ve found about my own beliefs and values through all this and how my perspective and approach, in some ways, puts me at odds with others in my own tradition.

This process—coupled with 1 ½ years of a very rich and educational experience at an English school that has grown me as a teacher, communicator, and reconciler of people who are different in different ways—has clarified my call to focus more fully on my dream of being a university professor of theology/religion. The obvious and necessary step was to pursue a PhD.

I spent a lot of time this past summer and fall researching schools, studying for the GRE, writing essays, reading books I thought I probably needed to have read, contacting professors, and seeking clarity about what exactly I wanted to study. I applied to five schools, was accepted to three of them (including Fuller and Claremont-Lincoln, both in L.A.), and ultimately chose the school that seemed the best fit, considering all the relevant criteria.

GTU, loosely affiliated with UC Berkeley, is a partnership of several seminaries and grad schools that is known for its excellent interfaith and ecumenical focus and opportunities. You can read more about GTU here: http://www.gtu.edu/about

Part of being accepted meant having a relatively narrow focus. As a chronically broad thinker, this took some work, and I have yet to narrow my focus enough to hone in on a dissertation topic. Fortunately, my proposal—part of my application—was focused enough to warrant my approval for admission and a substantial scholarship.

Here’s an excerpt from my “pitch” to the admissions committee:


I would like to explore and develop a theology and methodology of interfaith formation. The goal of my research (and ultimately book) is twofold: to encourage greater emphasis among Christians on character and moral formation (relying heavily on virtue ethics) and to encourage deeper engagement with other religious faiths as both a reconciliatory practice and a pragmatic means of deepening the character of Christians.

My dissertation would explore the necessary theological underpinnings of interfaith formation. It would involve thorough study of various religions (while heavily exploring one in particular). It would outline an implementable methodology for Christian churches. It would compare and contrast virtues and those saints considered to be morally excellent in their respective traditions and to what extent these moral exemplars can aid the Church. It would explore the ethical reasoning of differing religious and examine how such processes can shed light on issues faced by the Church. It would also explore historical attempts at interfaith spiritual formation and the success or failure of such attempts, critiquing these efforts while gleaning relevant strategies.


Essentially, my work will explore the place where interfaith dialogue intersects with ethics and character formation. Those of you who know me or have read some of the stuff I’ve written here will likely not be surprised by this—it probably sounds very “me.” These are my passions, and now I will get the chance to spend several years studying them and further developing my “voice,” hopefully making an increasingly greater contribution to both the Church and to the practice and “field” of interfaith conversation.

I hope to eventually teach at a university and feel like I would fit in both a more conservative evangelical setting as well as a non-religious school. I feel like my theology, attitude toward other faiths, personality, and philosophy of ministry would all “jive” in both these settings, though the experience would certainly be different in each. I also hope to write and be published...once I have something to say and can say it well enough. J

We’re excited to be moving to California, though it obviously comes at a crazy time with a baby due in late July. We’ll make it work. J It’s also hard to leave our life here in Olympia. When things didn’t work out like we expected in late 2010, I’m not sure we anticipated how attached we’d grow to our communities here—Joann with her Tumwater High School family, and myself with my EF International community of teachers and students. Leaving won’t be easy. But the opportunity being what it is makes it easy to be thrilled with what’s coming.

It’s a dream come true, and the beginning of a new journey. Thanks to all of you—whether you’ve helped me or harmed me—who have brought me to this place. I wouldn’t be here without the aid of others. I may have had some agency in my decision, but I’m indebted to the influences of others who’ve made this choice and decision even a possibility by the ways you've shaped me. Thank you.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Books Books Books! (Pt XVII): Cobb, “Process Theology”

John B. Cobb Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976)

Process Theology is a way of doing theology. "Doing theology," to me, means exploring the character and nature of God and God’s relationship with the created world. Process theology is a way of thinking about these things. A relatively new way. Or maybe somewhat new, with a little bit of "old.”

But isn't theology just theology? Why would there be different kinds of theology? I don’t think new or different kinds of theological reflection necessarily set out to say, “we’re going to create new ideas about God, just because we can and we love novelty.” I think “new” theologies spring up for different reasons.

One reason might be that people in a particular era are genuinely interested in discovering Truth, and, for whatever reason—a new self-awareness of the human condition or new scientific discoveries, maybe—they feel there are new things to say about God that haven’t already been said, or new ways to say the same things to make them more intelligible to a new generation, or just whole new discoveries of things that we couldn't have seen before because we weren't capable of seeing them.

Another reason might be that theological reflection—that which is popular—has often been done by those with power or privilege, often white males like myself. Theologies of recent decades like “Feminist Theology” or “Black Theology” or “Post-Colonial Theology” are not meant to be heretical or culturally-accommodating (as they might be accused of) but are instead a kind of justice, a fairness, a sort of affirmative action even—an attempt to “balance” out the perspective a bit with some voices that might have been previously unheard.

That’s my take, at least. “Process theology” would fall under the former of those two possibilities. Process theologians, in dialogue with the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the sciences, are attempting to better understand God and Jesus and the human experience. In a way, it is an updating.

But I think “updating” gets a bad rap sometimes. It’s not necessarily an abandonment of “tradition,” but usually an attempt by those devoted to “the tradition” to truly understand the heart of that tradition and make it accessible and real for people today.

That’s not an endorsement of all the tenets and emphases of process theology. But it is an endorsement of the “process”—an effort to know God and make God known.

There’s a lot to it that I’m still not sure I totally understand, but a few ideas jump out that might seem slightly different from traditional Christian thought:

God does not “know” the future. “To say that God is omniscient means that in every moment of the divine life God knows everything that is knowable at that time. The concrete actuality is temporal, relative, dependant, and constantly changing. In each moment of God’s life there are new, unforeseen happenings in the world which only then have become knowable” (47).

Put differently, the future does not yet exist—it’s not a real thing. God may have intentions for the future, and be an excellent “guesser” but cannot know things—like the classic idea of a round square—that are not real or are illogical.

The point, I think: God and God's creation are “co-creators” of the future, interacting with one another to shape our individual and corporate lives. God creates, but God responds, too. Another implication of this is that God shouldn't be thought of as static and “unchanging” but because of God’s relationship with God’s creation, God is affected by what happens with creation and thus changes over time, just like we change over time. Okay.

God’s creation of the world involved evolutionary processes. Oh no! But...but...the eyeball! (for you, Jake. J) I think because process theology emphasizes God’s very close relationship with the created world, it is able to conceive of a God very involved in the process of creation, to this very moment.

Whereas maybe some traditional Christian “science” might make it seem like God created briefly and extensively, and then was finished, process theology seems to make God still very involved in the smallest details and changes in creation. Whether or not this means my ancestors were monkeys, I don’t know.

The point, I think: there is a deeper connectedness among humankind and between humans and the created world than we tend to think, and God is intimately a part of our lives—as opposed to a remote, distant God. Okay.

Jesus is the revelation of God, but not in essence God. This might be the more radical of the points shared here, as it might seem to tip the scales of the humanity-divinity tension many Christians (like me) hold in their thinking about Jesus toward his humanity.

And I’m not really sure I’ve totally wrapped my mind around what they’re saying. A couple maybe-helpful quotes: Insofar as we genuinely receive Jesus as the revelation of the basic truth about reality, we are more open to the divine impulses in our experience” (102).

And: “the church is the community that is consciously dedicated to maintaining, extending, and strengthening the field of force created by Jesus” (107).

This approach definitely emphasizes Jesus as the key revelation of God while at the same time suggesting Christ can be experienced everywhere, wherever people open themselves to the creative transformation of God, whether or not they know to call it Christ or not.

Jesus, according to process thought, is the Word of God and the fullest revelation of God because he was so responsive to and aligned with God. Okay. I guess that’s as graspable and logical as thinking of Jesus as fully divine and fully human (like I tend to do).

The point, I think: Jesus calls us to follow him because his way is actually more follow-able than we think; he didn’t live a life that was inherently impossible to mimic, lest we should give up in defeat, knowing we are pond scum compared to Jesus.

Rather, we should seek the same responsiveness to God that Jesus embodied, for our own good and the good of the world. I think the term above, “field of force,” is meant to conjure up the image of a pool: Jesus is the stone dropped in the water, we are the ripples. That might be a helpful way to think about it.

One other quickie that is perhaps more shocking out of context: “…we are parts of one another’s bodies.” (115) Actually it's just kind of funny out of context.

Process theology definitely emphasizes our connectedness more than our separation, which seems to lead to whatever good things come from recognizing that our actions affect others, that we are not totally self-made but shaped by those around us and who've gone before us, and that we can learn from and be shaped by “the other” who we might have previously thought had nothing to offer us. Okay. J

Those that know process theology can see I haven’t covered everything; there’s more to it, more interesting nuances and provocative implications. This book and the movement are a few decades old, though it seems like the conversation about the merits, relevancy and truthfulness of process theology is ongoing (and maybe growing?).

If any who know more about it want to chime in and/or correct me here, please do so.

I’m not a full embracer of process theology; I don’t think I understand it well enough yet to know that. But I do see the value in its approach and emphases.

I also see value in the “process” presented and taught in “Directing Tablework,” the workshop Joann is currently attending as I write this. (I’m chaperoning her high school students at a theater conference in Ellensburg this weekend.) Well, I see the value for her; I’m obviously not present. J

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Baby Clara and a Few Father’s Hopes

You know you’re excited to be a father when, as your pregnant wife is leaving the house for work, you say “I love you both.” Been doing that lately. I can't help it. I'm a giddy fool.

Here’s the picture again, since I keep looking at the images of this little girl inside of my wife:

I really am ecstatic about this. The news this past weekend that we’d be having a girl, combined with our naming of said girl, has made this whole experience more real. It’s no longer an “it” or a “he/she” inside of Joann; it’s Clara.

The prospect of being a father, especially to a girl, specifically to Clara Clementine Boswell has filled me with much hope.

The name Clara means “bright.” I hope my daughter brings joy to others, that she would be a light in darkness; that her warmth, optimism, and hopeful spirit would enrich the lives of those she encounters. I hope I am that for her.

Clara also means “clear.” I hope Clara finds clarity as she grows older as to who she is, what she wants, and what she can offer the world. I hope she lives with the peace that can come from such self-knowledge, and that her parents give her the tools to cope well with “clouds” that make life more complicated and less clear.

Clara also means “famous.” I don’t really care if she becomes famous or not. It’d be nice if she wasn’t infamous. That’s usually not a good thing. But I suppose if she’s infamous (or famous) for the right reasons—perhaps gaining her notoriety for living a life of virtue and making the right choices—then I guess that’s okay.

I hope that, like St. Clare of Assisi (Santa Clara), she would embody the same faithfulness to God, devotion to virtue, and concern for others.

Clementine means “merciful.” I hope she can show me mercy, whether she’s two, sixteen, or forty. I’ll make mistakes as a parent. I’ll react in anger, fail to be gentle, lose patience, falter in my disciplining, and not treat her with the respect she deserves. Rather than abandon me or punish me with words or actions, I hope she shows me the mercy I probably won’t deserve.

I hope she extends this same mercy to others. People will hurt her, because, people are people, and that’s what they do, sometimes. And I hope I too can embody this kind of merciful life, not wavering in my discipline and justice and steadfastness, but recognizing that my daughter will make mistakes and, while she’ll sometimes need her dessert denied, she’ll also sometimes just need a hug.

I hope that, like St. Clement of Alexandria, an early Church Father, my daughter will recognize the relentless love of God for all people and attempt to treat them with the same kind of love, whatever their gender, culture, religion.

I hope I can say sorry to Clara, where appropriate.

I hope I don’t vomit while changing diapers. I have a pretty sensitive sense of smell. Though I have changed the diapers of grown, disabled men before; a baby might be pretty manageable.

I hope she likes all the silly lullabies I'll write for her. I’ve already written her one, just now:

Clara, Clara is my little doo-pee-doo-pee-doo

Clara, Clara likes to make a poo-pee-poo-pee-poo

Daddy loves his little darling more than broccoli

Cause Clara is my little angel, dop-ee-dop-ee-dee.

(I should say I rather enjoy broccoli. It’s not an underhanded insult. I wouldn’t do that to a small child...come on.)

I hope my daughter takes on a lot of her mom’s physical qualities. Trying to imagine the female version of me is kind of unsettling.

I hope that Clara learns confidence at a very young age, so that regardless of whether or not she’s physically a female version of me, she’ll love herself.

I hope Clara acquires my adventurous taste for food, and Joann’s adventurous creativity.

I hope Clara learns to appreciate geeky baseball statistics like OPS and FIP so she can accurately analyze baseball players with me. And that she loves Shakespeare, for Joann’s sake.

I hope that I can handle being a father to a teenage girl when “suitors” began to show up at the house more often and when Clara starts showing a bit more skin than I’m comfortable with. I hope she doesn’t hate me when I screw around with such suitors to instill in them a bit of healthy fear.

I hope that I will do all I can to guide and teach Clara with love and discipline so that she has life and life in abundance from an early age. And I hope that, when she wanders from “my path” for her and my efforts seem to fall short, that I will realize that I can only do so much, and that she must be given the freedom to be who she will be. I hope I never forget that constant tension that I believe to be one of the most important realities of our lives: that we are profoundly shaped by the environment around us, by our genetics, by biology, by culture, by people, by numerous forces that determine who we are and who we become; and yet, that we are somehow free, we are responsible, we can choose.

I hope that my part in Clara’s life is played as well as I can possibly play it...and that I can let her play her part.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Books Books Books! (Pt XVI): Chittister, “Wisdom Distilled From the Daily”

Joan Chittiser, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990)

This has a much different flavor than the other books I’ve been reading. The others are thought-provoking and challenging in their own way, but this one felt more down-to-earth, simpler, more practical, more elemental. Kind of the feeling I get when reading someone like Buechner, or whoever that person is for you who speaks very plainly, but very truthfully.

Chittister’s goal is to make accessible the rule of St. Benedict, an ancient guide for being human, living well, and following God. The effects of her guidance are akin to my morning cup of coffee—they awaken, they energize, and they comfort. And they have the power to limit the headaches of life—both literal and figurative.

On listening and decision-making: “…we must seek counsel, take advice, listen to the opinion of others on subjects dear to us. Reflection becomes integral to the process of growth and basic to our style of acting. Impulsiveness becomes suspect even when the impulsive decision turns out to be right. Why? Because truth is a mosaic of the face of God. Because the voice of God comes often from where we would least expect it.” (24)

On relationships: “It is life with another that shows my impatience and life with another that demonstrates my possessiveness and life with another that gives notice to my nagging devotion to the self…in human relationships I learn how to soften my hard spots and how to reconcile and how to care for someone else besides myself.” (49)

On an American “personality disorder”: “Clearly, the cultural effects of rampant individualism have come home to haunt us. The symptoms of narcissism, the professionals agree, that are signs of an unintegrated personality include a grandiose and exaggerated sense of self-importance; preoccupation with fantasies of success; exhibitionism and insatiable attention-getting maneuvers; disdain or disproportionate rage in the face of criticism; a sense of entitlement that undermines any hope for success in personal relationships; talk that is more self-promotion than communication.” (56)

On humility and “wanting”: “I was not put here to have the best of life’s goods; I was put here to have what I need for my body so my soul can thrive. I was put here to appreciate what is.” (61)

On harmony with the earth: “To live a life of Benedictine harmony means we have to become caretakers of our world, not its enemies. We have to learn to love the natural again: natural grass and natural vegetables and natural air. We have to learn to care for what we have rather than casually destroy and unthinkingly replace things simply because they bore us. We have to learn to walk through life on tiptoe, not destroying, trampling, not neglecting what has as much right to be here as we.” (77)

On “fruitful” and “wasteful” prayer: “Real contemplation is not for its own sake. It doesn’t take us out of reality. On the contrary, it puts us in touch with the world around us by giving us the distance we need to see where we are more clearly. To contemplate the gospel and not respond to the wounded in our own world cannot be contemplation at all. That is prayer used as an excuse for not being Christian. That is spiritual dissipation.” (103)

On hospitality: “It is so easy to give clothes to the poor but refuse to honor the ones to whom we have given the goods. Who says, ‘Pardon me’ to the down-and-outers who hang at the kitchen doors and garbage cans of our cities? Who sits and talks to the unskilled workers who clean the office buildings of our towns? Who makes friends with the people on the other side of town, the ones who aren’t ‘our kind of folk’?” (127)

I feel like I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself lately to more tenaciously pursue a more monk-like life (without abandoning my wife or my blue jeans, of course). Part of this is because I feel like being a Christian means I must, kind of like it is “part of the package.” God is gracious to us all, yes, and I think God’s gifts to us are just that—gifts, not contracts. But...Jesus sure seemed like a demanding son of a…God. (Any chuckles or half-grins on that one?)

But it’s not just because I believe God wants it from me or for me. It’s because I believe this is a better way to live. To be whole, to be healthy, to be able to give and receive love in abundance, to be at peace, to be mindful of the beauty around me, to give up exhausting pursuits that ultimately destroy my soul—that sounds awesome.

But it’s not the kind of life that comes overnight.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Books Books Books! (Pt XV): Hauerwas and Willimon, “Resident Aliens”

Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989)

Getting closer to being caught up! (I think I read this one in October?)

To start with, I should clarify. This is not a sci-fi book about beings foreign to our planet coming to dwell among humankind. It’s about the Church. Apologies for the tease. J

Hauerwas has been instrumental in my interest in virtue ethics and Christian character. This book continues in the same vein. Hauerwas believes Christians should be distinct from the world, like many Christians do; he is significantly aligned with the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition, emphasizing the role of the Church as a radical community that challenges “the powers” with its commitment to such goals as non-violence.

He feels the Church’s distinctiveness should lie in its pursuit of character (or goodness), not simply in its beliefs or practices (except where those practices are connected to the shaping of character and social action). But his vision of the Church doesn’t seem to encourage political involvement as a means of shaping the world; rather, the Church subverts social and political “evils” by its alternative lifestyle. That’s the theory at least.

He also stands in what is called the “postliberal” tradition, which I’m not sure how to explain concisely other than to refer to it by its other name, “narrative theology”—a way of thinking about the Christian experience that lessens the emphasis on one’s personal relationship/experience with God and increases the focus on the Church as a community, a “colony” set up by Jesus to be a people committed to Jesus’ values.

I think the “narrative” part lies in how the Church exists as the continuation of the story of Israel and of Jesus...kind of like the next stage or chapter. Our individual stories are a part of this, but our corporate story as a people is key.

A quote that expresses this idea:

“In Jesus, we meet not a presentation of basic ideas about God, world, and humanity, but an invitation to join up, to become part of a movement, a people. (The gospel does not claim to be) ideas abstracted from Jesus (but) Jesus with his people.” (21)

That’s essentially the gist of narrative theology, though there’s certainly much more to it. Part of it is a critique of individualism—an excessive focus on the personal experience of being Christian:

“The church (can) become one more consumer-oriented organization, existing to encourage individual fulfillment rather than being a crucible to engender individual conversion into the Body.” (33)

Yes, the individual must convert, he’d say; but convert into an alternative community, not only to a new way of thinking/believing:

“The church today exists as resident aliens, an adventurous colony in a society of unbelief. As a society of unbelief, Western culture is devoid of a sense of journey, of adventure, because it lacks belief in more than the cultivation of an ever-shrinking horizon of self-preservation and self-expression.” (49)

Maybe you don’t feel the Church is “adventurous.” Maybe you think that the Christian Church is really no different than the rest of culture, save a few rituals. Maybe you find this to be overstatement and believe one can have no religious commitments and still find a deep sense of adventure. Maybe you don’t think self-expression should be dismissed so quickly. There might be a lot to take issue with here. I will say that Hauerwas seems to often use “is” in places where I would expect a “should be”. I’m pretty sure it’s intentional.

Hauerwas stands in the same tradition as Lesslie Newbigin—with whom I, figuratively speaking, spent a year of my life with in writing my masters’ thesis—in that he puts the “right” amount of emphasis (“right” according to my tastes J) on what the Church can and can't do:

“…Christians begin our ethics, not with anxious, self-serving questions of what we ought to do as individuals to make history come out right, because, in Christ, God has already made history come out right.” (87)

As with Newbigin, the Church shouldn’t “check out” and say “to hell with the world”, but it also should not anxiously feel like the pressure is on the Church to “fix things.” Our role is a much more modest (but important) one. Yet is a role that demands the Church be something other than just a sort of chaplain to the world that puts its “Christian stamp” on things. The Church must be devoted to things like love and justice because that is its role in the story and it is also something the world needs. We are not to simply accommodate to the world, but to be firm in our convictions (but the right convictions). Hauerwas writes:

“Unfortunately, an accommodationist church, so intent on running errands for the world, is giving the world less and less in which to disbelieve. Atheism slips into the church where God really does not matter, as we go about building bigger and better congregations (church administration), confirming people’s self-esteem (worship), enabling people to adjust to their anxieties brought on by their materialism (pastoral care), and making Christ a worthy subject for poetic reflection (preaching). At every turn the church must ask itself, ‘does it really make any difference, in our life together, in what we do, that in Jesus Christ God is reconciling the world to himself?’” (95).

A firm critique of many churches, yes; and perhaps an unfair exaggeration of the problems with elements of the Christian experience you might view in a much more positive light (worship, preaching, etc). But maybe there’s some truth here. And, finally, a nice summary statement:

“The biggest problem facing Christian theology is not translation but enactment.” (171)

In all my studying—past, present, and future—I don’t feel like my primary aim is to find ways to make the concepts of Christianity, of God, or of Jesus more credible or understandable, as if the right words will come along that I can then use to share my hope with others in a more captivating way.

Words help, but I don’t think non-Christians are wishing for a more articulate Church; they want a more good church (bad grammar intended), a Church that has found better ways to be faithful to its story, a story about how God has reconciled the world and is using as messengers and agents of this reconciliation a community of people who’ve learned how to live well and embody love, justice, healing and reconciliation in their lives together.

That’s my goal in studying/doing theology, I think—to figure out how to better enact this story, and to get others excited and on a similar path toward enactment.

Or maybe non-Christians just want the church to shut up and stay out of the way. That’s possible, too. :)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Books Books Books! (Pt XIV): Sanneh, “Disciples of All Nations”

Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

The book essentially explores the way Christianity interacted with the various cultures to which it was introduced by missionaries of the Church. It examines the history of the Church primarily in Africa, India, the Arab world, China, and Latin America.

The book is a convicting reminder that while Christian missionaries have done extraordinary good through the hope their efforts have brought to many, the Church, in its desire to expand itself and share its joy with as many people as possible, has made some choices that, with the distance of history, can be seen as choices that probably should not be made a second time.

It makes me wonder what things are happening today in the Church—practices, stances, whatever—that we’ll look back on in a few decades or centuries and laugh, or maybe cringe.

I don’t believe it’s fair to polarize the Church as all bad or all good. It’s a community with a good guide and goal at its center that has often failed to achieve that goal; yet it has also produced some extraordinary individuals who have shown us what it really means to be human in the best way possible.

One event in the Church’s history often looked backed on as a significant turning point is when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. Others have observed the tension in this event: on one hand, a Church that was once more edgy and radical was inevitably dulled by its alignment with the State. A religion so co-opted can’t quite retain its ability to critique and rebuke the evils of those in power.

Yet on the other hand, it would likely have been hard to pass up an opportunity to become a more visible and tolerated force in the world, and the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire has certainly played a role in the ubiquity of Christianity around the world today, a reality which, despite the harm the Church has done throughout history, can’t be allowed to overshadow the good it’s done.

But another mistake has become increasingly obvious, in light of the postcolonial world that is now our reality, with nations finding their identity separate from the powerful nations of the West. That is the way Western Christian missionaries brought a little too much “Western” with them, failing to see how captive they were to their own culture and failing to recognize the beauty of the values, lifestyles, traditions of those nations to which they brought their gospel.

And that’s what the book addresses—what a "World Christianity" looks like in which Christianity looks increasingly more like the cultures it is present in, without succumbing to the evils of these cultures (like the way American Christianity has been influenced by the consumerism of our own country, for example).


A discussion in class yesterday seems quite relevant to the topic of the book. In one of my “SPIN” classes (essentially electives or “special interest” classes) we frequently discuss culture, specifically American culture and differences between cultures. I gave my students a list of cultural differences between American-born Chinese and Chinese-born Chinese that I found online. But it was obvious to me that the list was relevant to Americans and Chinese in general. (Link: ABC vs OBC List)

It’s basically a list of comparisons between the two cultures of how people generally act and orient themselves. For example, the list suggests Americans are more time-conscious, while Chinese are more conscious about relationships. Americans are suggested to have a greater need to be liked, while Chinese have a greater need to be included.

My class discussed the meanings of each pair of distinctives, while trying to identify where our own respective cultures and then our own lives fit in the spectrum. I thought it was a lively topic (though I’m sure some were bored, but...that’s life).

And a thought occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about the list. And that is: which of the two sides of the spectrum is more in line with the way and values of Jesus?

I’m not sure it’s a great question; it might be a very restricting and unfair one. Like many things in life, it’s usually not necessary or truthful to choose one side.

But it’s a fun thought experiment. At the very least it might challenge that occasional resistance that is felt to what is “other." And it also, like the book in discussion here, encourages us to open our eyes to the rightness and goodness and beauty in the way other cultures think, act, do, and “be.” A global Christianity should look like a collage, a display of God’s love of diversity.

What do you think? Here is a sampling of some of the comparisons; you can check out the full list linked above, if you have the time and interest. Look at each pair and try to answer: which do you think is more "Jesus-y?" Or maybe put less crudely, which seems more in line with God’s best for humankind?

(Disclaimer: you might not agree with these characterizations.)

Try to pick a side…can you?

American: Oriented toward action
Chinese: Oriented toward “harmony keeping”

American: Prefer efficiency and ready for change
Chinese: Prefer stability and structure

American: Emphasis on “doing”
Chinese: Emphasis on “being”

American: Competition seen as healthy
Chinese: Interaction seen as healthy

American: Goal is winning (at all costs)
Chinese: Goal is participation and harmony

American: Relationships of equality
Chinese: Relationships of hierarchy

American: Respect is seeking opinions of all
Chinese: Respect is obedience/submission

American: Love equals quality of time spent together
Chinese: Love equals provision of necessities

American: Direct and confrontational
Chinese: Indirect middle person communication

American: Concern for right vs. wrong
Chinese: Concern for “saving face”

American: “Me-ism” mentality
Chinese: “We-ism” mentality

American: Good parents develop independence
Chinese: Good parents develop family loyalty

American: Alright to be in debt
Chinese: Terrible and shameful to owe someone

American food versus Chinese food. (That’s my addition. I’ll say Jesus would have preferred chopsticks).


(Comparisons gathered from http://www.aacconsulting.com/chinamer.htm)