“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noontime of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the “Constantinian” era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”(pp. 232-233)
“To be chosen, to be elect, therefore does not mean that the elect are the saved and the rest are the lost. To be elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for his whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom which is for all. It means therefore, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, to take our share in his suffering, to bear the scars of the passion. It means, as Paul says elsewhere, to bear in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of the risen Jesus may be manifest and made available for others. It means that this particular body of people who bear the name of Jesus through history, this strange and often absurd company of people so feeble, so foolish, so often fatally compromised with the world, this body with all its contingency and particularity, is the body which has the responsibility of bearing the secret of God’s reign through world history. The logic of election is all of one piece with the logic of the gospel. God’s purpose of salvation is not that we should be taken out of history and related to him in some way which bypasses the specificities and particularities of history. His purpose is that in and through history there should be brought into being that which is symbolized in the vision with which the Bible ends — the Holy City into which all the glory of the nations will finally be gathered. But — and of course this is the crux of the matter — that consummation can only lie on the other side of death and resurrection. It is the calling of the Church to bear through history to its end the secret of the lordship of the crucified.” (pp. 86-87)
“We have to conclude that [Bertrund] Russell’s account [the scientific method] does not do justice to the way science actually works. If we attend only to the textbook writers and the popularizers of science we get the impression that all this is “fact,” quite different from the worlds of imagination and intuition in which poets move and from the world of faith in which religious people move. But if we look at the way scientists actually work, we see that this is a false impression. There are not two separate avenues to understanding, one marked “knowledge” and the other marked “faith.” There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing. The quest for certainty through universal doubt is a blind alley. The program of universal doubt, the proposal that every belief should be doubted until it could be validated by evidence and arguments not open to doubt, can in the end only lead — as it has led– to universal scepticism and nihilism, to the world which Nietzsche foresaw and which Allan Bloom and other contemporary writers describe.” (32-33)
(this reflection was originally written in January, 2012 for the course Vocation of the Theologian) God reignited my call to ministry in 1994. ((meaning the full-time pastor/teacher role as opposed to the universal vocation that Luther suggests)) I was convinced that if I were to be an effective leader in the church that I would need to pursue higher education and seek a Masters of Divinity, and perhaps a PhD someday. I lived in the desert—both metaphorically and literally. Las Vegas was not ripe with higher theological education, so I was at a loss as to which school I should allow to shape me into the man of learning and wisdom I thought I should be.
This calling came at a time when the internet was still called the “Information Superhighway” and the newest cyber technology was the ability to access a community interface called Prodigy through my dial-up modem. I posted my schooling dilemma on my new cyber community of Prodigy and asked for input from my “friends” out there. One passionate and anonymous “friend” responded in a way that stuck with me and has haunted me ever since. His response resurfaced in my mind as I read the first three chapters of Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks. ((I say “as I read the first three chapters” because in this first session of week three in our course we have come to a moment of conversation different from the past two weeks. Today we will spend two sessions discussing one continuous idea from one man. That means my counterpart in session two—Mr. Mang—and I were faced with the question of how to divide this discussion. It seemed best to simply divide the book symmetrically between the first three chapters and the last three. The first three chapters frame the question that Newbigin asks about the Gospel and the Modern Western Culture and the last three chapters ask the question. I have limited the scope of my discussion to the framing of the question and I will leave my colleague to respond to the questions themselves.))
This anonymous friend asked a pointed and simple question. “Why would you want to go to seminary? What fellowship does Jerusalem have with Athens? The academy has nothing to contribute to the ministry of the gospel.” He proceeded to expound his point with a long diatribe against the current state of theological education as having been perverted by modernity. His question echoed the sentiments of the pastor under whose teaching I was first influenced. He often said from the pulpit, “Seminary is cemetery where good pastors go to die.”
Lesslie Newbigin deals with this seeming tension between the gospel and the academy. He returned to England after spending most of his adult life serving as a missionary in India. What he found upon his return seems to echo the negative critique of both my cyber friend and my former pastor. Indeed, it seems that the gospel has come under the domination of the plausibility structure of modern western culture. He asks the question, “How can we move from the place where we explain the gospel in terms of our modern scientific world-view to the place where we explain our modern scientific world-view from the point of view of the gospel?” ((Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986), 22.))
Two things especially intrigued me in this reading. The first was Newbigin’s statement that “the model of the hermeneutical circle is not adequate to account for what is involved in the relationship between the gospel and this or any other culture.” ((Ibid., 53.)) The second is his proposal that part of the answer to how we can explain the gospel to the modern culture is “to listen to the witness of Christians from other cultures.” ((Ibid., 22.))
Regarding the first item, Newbigin claims that it is impossible for the gospel to speak to the modern western culture from within the modern western culture because the gospel operates as a separate and competitive plausibility structure to it. Newbigin explains the difference by painting a picture in which these two plausibility structures are separated by a wide chasm that cannot be traversed by human reason.
On one side of the chasm lies the temple of modernity. It is comprised of an unequal dichotomy between the public and the private sectors. The public sector dominates the temple. The god of this temple is nature. There is no telos here, only the cause and effect relationship of meaningless elements. Fact reigns supreme. Only that which is observable through empirical science can be granted the label “authoritative.” The priest and purveyor of this empirical data, the one who stands as guardian for all human knowing, is the scientist. Any notion of values and/or religion is cloistered off at the side of the temple in a small enclave labeled “private.” Each individual human is held to the heretical imperative in a world of religious pluralism and freedom of choice.
In the plausibility structure of modern western culture all human activity is reduced to the endless labor cycle of production and consumption while the bureaucratic nation-state stands as the source of human happiness. Newbigin says, “the ideal that [the modern man] seeks would eliminate all ideals. With dedicated zeal he purposes to explain the world as something that is without purpose.” ((Ibid., 35.))
The gospel stands on the other side of this chasm. It is a separate plausibility structure altogether. It functions within the presupposition that there is a telos. There is a purpose to creation toward which history is moving. Within this structure the hermeneutical circle functions properly. The gospel is not a rigid text or set of rules. Rather, it is the hermeneutical dance between the scripture and the living community of faith. The scripture shapes the community while the community, as it moves and develops through history, shapes the interpretation of scripture. It is only through praxis that the gospel can be known as the community grows deeper into the imperfect and ever-developing knowledge of the living and active God.
The gospel is inexplicable to and incompatible with the modern western mind. Any attempt to grasp the gospel from within modernity fails and, at best, relegates it to the private sector. Whether it be Barth’s deductive transcendence, Bultmann’s reductive demythologizing, or Schleiermacher’s inductive attempt to find the “signals of transcendence,” all attempts to explain the gospel become little more than another human anthropology and another option on the religious smorgasbord for the autonomous modern individual’s consumption.
The primary reason that the gospel stands in contrast to modernity is the audacious claim that Jesus of Nazareth bodily rose from the dead. Jesus is an historical figure whose death and resurrection were historical events that slam in the face of reason. The gospel and modernity are not two equal partners in Gadamer’s fusion of horizons. ((Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed & Ward, 1975); Jean Grondin, Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, Yale Studies in Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).)) The chasm between the two can only be traversed by God’s call to those who have witnessed the resurrection and proclaim it to the world. Nothing short of conversion is necessary to cross the gap. ((Newbigin, 53.))
I agree with Newbigin that the gospel stands in contrast to the pervasive plausibility structure of modernity. I agree that the gospel cannot be relegated to the private sector but must, by its very nature, confront the principalities and powers of modernity in the public world. I also love the way he presents community praxis as a way to deal with scripture that keeps us from the rigidity of fundamentalism and the dissipation of relativism. However, it still leaves me with a fundamental question. How do I deal with the gospel in the modern western culture, as a Christian scholar in the academy, when it is impossible to discuss the gospel within the plausibility structure of modernity? This is the question we have been wrestling with in this class all along. Can a Christian scholar truly function within the dominant power structure when her core assumptions run diametrically opposed to that structure?
I think part of the answer lies in the second item that I found interesting in the reading. Newbigin says that one of the ways the western church can begin to build an understanding of the gospel that stands outside of modernity in order to speak to modernity is to engage in better and more dialogues with the church outside of modernity. It was Newbigin’s immersion into Indian culture that allowed him to return to the West with fresh eyes. It will only be through humble and open interaction between the western church and the non-western church that the gospel in the west will be set free from this domination.
This is one of the biggest lessons that I am learning in my first year in the Congregational Mission and Leadership program at Luther. In my Hermeneutics of Leading in Mission class I, as a western pastor, was the minority among my colleagues of Ethiopian pastors. I learned as much from their perspective as I did from the textbooks. Now, I am engaged in conversation with ten countries in this course, most of which would comfortably fall outside the label “western.” The fact that this dialogue is happening at Luther is encouraging to me. The question that remains for the leader of the church in the 21st century is how do we practically involve the global church in a multi-cultural dialogue that does not either fall into rigid fundamentalism, dissipate into a religion of ethics, or splinter into warring factions, but is grounded in the biblical praxis of the risen Jesus?
I heard Diana Butler Bass speak at the Festival of Homiletics a couple years ago, and she was fantastic. These are the notes I took from that presentation. It changed the way I look at the Creed, and has impacted how I teach Catechism.
I believe these notes essentially express the thrust of the above mentioned book. Another big take-away for me is the reversal of belonging. It used to be that–in order to belong to a church–a person went through this sequence:
Believe ==> Behave ==> Belong.
In other words, one must first believe and ascribe to the correct doctrines, and demonstrate this to the existing congregation. Then one must pledge to follow certain moral behavioral codes, and be characterized by said holy lifestyle. Then, when one “makes the cut” one would be admitted into the fellowship of the saints.
Butler-Bass, among others, suggests that this flow should be reversed if the church is to a) survive, and b) (more importantly) actually reflect the pattern that Jesus established. The reversed flow would look like this:
Belong ==> Behave ==> Believe.
In other words, the church should be an open, welcoming community where anyone can instantly be welcomed to participate and feel a sense of belonging. Once a person belongs and feels safe, they will notice that the behavior of the community moves to a different rhythm. It is God-centered, and other-oriented, working for justice and peace and reconciliation in the World. Finally, when the person finds this to be a redemptive rhythm, they will begin to believe that this rhythm is the reality of the Triune God, reveled and centered on Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is a way of being the church–a missional imagination–that will inspire hope in the world.
Prepare, Practice, Play, Participate
“Performing faith involves four important actions: prepare, practice, play, and participate.” (259)
“You must prepare by learning the overall religious story of our time.” (259)
“In order to embody the story and help others experience it, we need to practice our faith intentionally in ways that anticipate compassion and justice….God’s reign does not fall from heaven to those who wait. The people of god must live the kingdom by purposefully doing actions that rehearse love, charity, kindness, goodness, mercy, peace, forgiveness, and justice.” (260)
“Performance involves the hard work of practice, but it also entails play….Awakening cannot occur without laughter and lightness. Mirth is essential to vibrant spirituality….performance is ‘entertainment’ in its original sense, which meant ‘to hold together, stick together, or support.’ The purpose of entertainment was to create a community focused on the story at hand.” (260)
“Performance requires that we participate….Ideally, there is no such thing as a passive audience. Instead, audiences conspire with actors to create unique performances. To perform awaking means we all must participate–sometimes as actors, sometimes as audience, as directors, writers, stagehands, set designers, ushers–rather like a community theater, all with interchangeable roles.” (261)
“Churches cannot be clubs for the righteous, institutions that maintain religious conformity in the face of change, or businesses that manage orthodoxy and personal piety. Churches must be more like Rolling Thunder or holy flash mobs. They must grasp–in a profound and authentic way–that they are sacred communities of performance where the faithful learn the script of God’s story, rehearse the reign of God, experience delight, surprise, and wonder, and participate fully in the play.” (261)
“My thesis is a very simple one: I do not believe that epistemology is a bloodless abstraction; the way we know has powerful implications for the way we live. I argue that every epistemology tends to become an ethic and that every way of knowing tends to become a way of living.”1
“The task for leaders is more about how we cultivate environments that call forth and release the mission-shaped imagination of the people of God in a specific place and time.”2
“Once we buy into this language of networks and third spaces, we are essentially buying into a conception of radical individualism in which we create, manage, and control spaces and time and where we intentionally attract (or avoid) particular kinds of people at the times most convenient for us….The result is a pseudo-belonging because we don’t have to struggle with the messiness of long-term relationships with the other, our neighbor, whom we may not like or have chosen.”3
“This belief in a world where place is unimportant and people are increasingly physically disconnected flies in the face of the Incarnation because this most fundamental of Christian convictions confesses that place and people are inseparable and utterly central to human life.”4
“Only when we as church leaders understand that the future is forming offstage and outside the programs will we grasp the implications for the reshaping of our life in this new space: recognition that leadership in the local church is less and less about creating and managing programs and then trying to get people into them and more and more about creating the environments that foster interconnections and conversations among people.”5