The Deep in the Burbs Research project is a postmodern story about navigating the treacherous waters between the Scylla of absolutism/positivism/foundationalism and the Charybdis of relativism/nihilism/deconstructivism. ((Scylla and Charybdis refers to the hazards that Odysseus faced when sailing home in Homer’s The Odyssey)) It is my basic assumption that these dualisms are a cause of much of our difficulty in the church today.
A dualism is when you find two polar opposite options to a single question that both have evidence for being correct. This is true in theology. Is Jesus God or human? Is it predestination or free will? Is reality physical or spiritual? Is God three or one? The answer to these questions seems to be “yes” but then common sense tells us that you can’t say “yes” to both options.
(Read my essay on dualisms)
These dualisms are not found only in the musings of theologians. They are everywhere. Republicans vs. Democrats. Big Government vs. Free Enterprise. Conservatives vs. Liberals. American Military vs. Terrorists. I am right vs. you are wrong. The tensions between party lines are real and the way we navigate these tensions has global implications. So, this project is not merely a mental exercise or a sociological experiment, but is motivated by seeking God’s peace in the world.
How do we navigate these tensions?
Finding the Third Way: A Postfoundationalist Theology
What is Postmodern?
One of the biggest dualities we face in our culture today is the tension between the modern and the postmodern mindset. The term postmodern may not be the most helpful term for our discussion of spirituality in the missional, suburban church. Many lay people in the church have associated the term postmodern with a negative, destructive attitude toward any form of tradition and have closed their ears to anything bearing the postmodern label. Post means after, so postmodern—in its most direct definition—means something that comes after the modern era. This begs two questions: 1) what is the “modern” era, and 2) has it actually ended so that something can be considered to have come after it? ((Some scholars have suggested that a better term for the contemporary discourse would be late-modern, since much of the conversation is built upon modern dogma. See Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.))
Mary Hatch’s language might prove helpful. Hatch provides labels for the two movements that come after the modern era. ((Hatch discusses these terms within the context of organizational theory, but I thing the clarification of terms is helpful in the broader conversation around the term postmodern. , 2006 #26\\ Hatch, Mary Jo and Ann L. Cunliffe. Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.)) The first she calls interpretive/symbolic. The second she calls postmodern. I agree with the two camps that she identifies, but I question her nomenclature. I would suggest that both of these movements are postmodern, in that they follow, chronologically, the modern era, and are concurrent. ((One could argue that it is not helpful to speak of chronological sequence at all, but more of epistemological shift, since modern, interpretive/symbolic, and postmodern systems of thought are all currently functioning within organizations. It can also be argued that the term postmodern is incorrect. It denotes a definite, chronological break from one era to another. A better term might be late-modern, since most of the agendas of the so-called postmodern movements are still in reaction to the modern dogma and may or may not have yet created a new mode of being. Only time will tell when a new era has emerged.)) I would like to propose that the two streams named by Hatch be reframed as constructive postmodernism—to replace interpretive/symbolic—and deconstructive postmodernism—to replace postmodern.
I would like to propose a further modification of the terms. Rather than modernism vs. postmodernism, it may be more helpful to discuss the hermeneutical shift in terms of foundationalism vs. postfoundationalism. ((I was first introduced to these terms by LeRon Shultz at Bethel Seminary. Shults, F. LeRon. The Postfoundationalist Task of Theology: Wolfhart Pannenberg and the New Theological Rationality. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. I have also found Grenz and Franke to be very helpful in this area. Grenz, Stanley J. and John R. Franke. Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context. 1st ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.)) The modern dogma that dichotomized the Conservatives from the liberals was one of foundations. The modern assumption, stemming all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, was that there is a universal ideal that transcends the shadowy realm of the imperfect. Both sides of the divide were seeking a foundation. The Conservatives found their foundation on the authority of Scripture and/or Tradition. ((Protestants more on scripture, Roman Catholics more on tradition)) The liberals found their foundation in human experience.
A Postfoundational Theology
I believe there is a third way between the Scylla and Charybdis we face in the church today. It is a postfoundationalist theology for the missional church. The basis of the postfoundational theology is rooted in Keifert’s proposal that a reasonably adequate Christian theology is done in, with, under, against, and for the church. ((Patrick R. Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992); Patrick R. Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era, a Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery (Eagle, ID: Allelon Publishing, 2006); Patrick R. Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009).)) Kelsey explains how the modern theological school, following Schleiermacher, bifurcated practical theology from systematic theology. ((David H. Kelsey, To Understand God Truly: What’s Theological About a Theological School, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).)) Systematic theology pursued the abstract, universal construct mentioned above, while practical theology trained the pastor to perform the technical duties of the civic function endemic to the office. Kelsey and Keifert, flowing from the stream of Hegel and Tillich, but moving beyond it, propose that God cannot be know directly, but only through the secondary phenomena of the particularities of the local congregation. Kelsey proposes that the theological task is a crossroads hamlet between the dialectic tension of the Athens tradition—inner spiritual development (Plato)—and the Berlin tradition—technical training, implementation and actualization (Aristotle). If one is to Understand God truly, then one must investigate the concrete particularities of how the Spirit of God is drawing people together for worship and service in particular places in the world.
Simpson draws upon the work of Paul Tillich and Jürgen Habermas to propose that the local congregation is a prophetic public companion. ((Gary M. Simpson, CriticalSocial Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).)) Tillich taught that God cannot be known directly as an object in the universe, because God is the ground of being from which objects exist. Therefore, God is known through the experience and interaction of all things at work in the universe. The church is a sign, symbol, and prophetic voice to the world of God’s work toward peace in the world. Habermas, as briefly discussed above, saw society as constructed through communicative rationality. It is only through the church’s prophetic companionship with society that the lifeworlds of every person can be liberated from the oppressive economic and political systems that have colonized the lifeworlds throughout the modern era. ((Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984); Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987).))
A Three-Way Conversation
Grenz and Franke frame the postfoundational theological proposal around a conversation and a focus. ((Grenz and Franke. )) The conversation is a three-way conversation between the Scripture, Tradition, and the Culture. Another way to understand this three-way conversation is to think of each conversation as a frame. Here we are really talking about authority and meaning. Where is the basis for truth? Where is the authority? It does not lie on one solid foundation, but is in the ground of God, which cannot be ascertained directly. We can however, look through three frames to communicatively construct meaning.
The Bible is the first frame. Keifert suggests that Rhetorical Rationality replace the modernist need for logical rationality when approaching the scripture. ((Keifert. Testing the Spirits.)) The Bible is not an object to be analyzed, but is a rhetorical device used to communicate with the original audience, and with the contemporary audience. Grenz and Franke suggest that the scripture is the instrumentality for the speaking of the Holy Spirit to the church. This is best exemplified in Keifert’s call for the church to Dwell in the Word. Dwelling in the Word is an experience in which each participant is invited, as equals, to listen to God in the reading of the text and to listen to God as the participants listen each other into free speech. ((Kiefert. Dwelling in the Word: A Pocket Handbook.))
Tradition forms the next frame. The local church does not exist in a vacuum. It is the product of the stories that have come before it. The historical tradition forms the identity of the church as much as the biblical narrative forms it. The church must engage fully with its tradition to both learn from it and be set on future-oriented trajectory by it.
Culture forms the final frame. Open systems theory has shown us that the local congregation exists within a contextual environment. ((see Van Gelder, Craig. The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007.)) This is not the shadowy, evil place of Plato’s dualistic universe. This is the creation of God, in which God works. The church is called by the Spirit of God to dwell in the World and discern what God is doing in the world and how the church should participate in God’s movement. This is why it is imperative for the church to learn how to engage in liberative, generative, communicative and prophetic dialogue as it is companion to the reasonably friendly looking person of peace ((Luke 10:6)) in the neighborhood.
A Three-Foci Expression
Grenz and Franke talk about three distinctive foci that are important components of the missional, postfoundational church.
The first focus is the Trinitarian Structure of the church. The importance of the new Trinitarian conversation around the social Trinity—Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jenson, Zizioulas, LaCugna, etc.—cannot be underemphasized here. It is only through the relationality of God’s three-in-oneness that the postfoundationalist theological conversation can exist. Without it, Kelsey and Keifert would remain constrained in the same historical reductionism that Hegel, Heideggar, and the Frankfurt school found itself. Simpson would also be trapped in Tillich’s correlational reductionism and the ultimate relativism that Habermas’ ethic perpetuates. Edmund Arens helps us understand that the communicative praxis of the Father, Son, and the Spirit is that which allows the church to be the prophetic voice of God in the world, while not seeking to extract itself from the world. ((Edmund Arens, Christopraxis: A Theology of Action, 1st Fortress Press ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).)) The church is community of communio with God, itself, and the world. Michael Welker also helps us see the polycentric and pluriform nature of the Holy Spirit that permeates, but is not equated with or lost among, the various cultures of the world. ((Welker. God the Spirit.)) The Trinitarian God is at work in the world, calling the church to be gathered around the risen Jesus, to bring doxa to the Father.
The second focus is that of the church’s Communitarian expression. Constituted by the community of God, the church is by nature a community of particularities in relational, ontological interdependence, not a mechanistic organization created to produce a product to be consumed on the open market.
The third focus is the church’s Eschatological direction. Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jenson are especially helpful for the church to understand that God is creating, not from the past toward the future, but as futurity—engulfed in promise—as the narrative evolves and God works in, with, under, against, and through the church to fulfill God’s preferred and promised future. ((Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God, 1st HarperCollins paperback ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991); Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991); Robert W. Jenson, The Triune Identity: God According to the Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982); Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2 vols., vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).))
Hope in the Trinitarian Community
This is a story of hope. Hope has a future orientation. It invites us to look forward with anticipation and imagination. Proverbs tells us that, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12) Spiritual formation in the missional church is a hopeful endeavor. This project is one of a public prophetic imagination of hope in God’s preferred and promised future. ((This statement merges Simpson’s prophetic public companion with Keifert’s Promised and Preferred Future. see Simpson, “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity; Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination; Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism; Patrick R. Keifert, “The Trinity and Congregational Planning: Between Historical Minimum and Eschatological Maximum,” Word & World 18, no. 3 (1998); Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era, a Missional Journey of Spiritual Discovery; Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations.)) This is a countercultural move. Taylor suggests that the modern, buffered self has lost this hope. ((see Taylor. A Secular Age.; Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986).)) The modern schism between fact/value, public/private, and science/faith has collapsed our public sense of identity to radical individualism, the loss of meaning and purpose, and the reduction of life to that of utilitarian transactions for the sole purpose of individual survival. The modern self is left in isolation and with no ultimate hope.
The hope of the world rests in the Triune God. Kiefert argues that the church has lost hope because it has lost its connection to the life of God. ((Keifert, “The Trinity and Congregational Planning: Between Historical Minimum and Eschatological Maximum.”)) The Trinity is the life of the world. The Triune God is the ground of being-in-time, moving the world in the past, present, that is a hope of a preferred and promised future. ((I will explore this more fully in the Trinity Frame. For now I will acknowledge that this language of being-in-time and God-as-history draws upon Robert Jenson’s understanding of the Trinity framed in Heideggarian and Hegelian thorught. Kiefert connects this to the life and hope of the congregation. Ibid.)) God is not a timeless, transcendent being that is separate from the created universe. Nor is God the animating, non-personal life energy that is completely synonymous with the universe. God is the relationality of the Triune persons from which we realize that all people—and all things—are interdependently entangled. ((I introduce the term entangled here as a foreshadowing for a central theme that I will develop more fully in the Trinity Frame. For now, understand entangled as a metaphor borrowed from Quantum Physics. see Simmons; Polkinghorne.))
I will explore this more closely in the The Trinity Frame. For now, it is enough to agree with Keifert that the church exists in the life of God and “is a being in communion within the history of God that is drawn into a promised future, coherent with, but not fully available to us, in the fate and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.” ((Keifert, “The Trinity and Congregational Planning: Between Historical Minimum and Eschatological Maximum,” 288.)) The church is invited to dream God’s dream and to live into the hope within it. Gorringe says, “that everything that we do as Christians, including our politics and our fashioning of the world, should be shaped by that hope.” ((Timothy Gorringe, “Living toward a Vision: Cities, the Common Good, and the Christian Imagination,” Anglican Theological Review 91, no. 4 (2009): 523-524.)) This creative frame is not a subjective romanticism or the whimsy of the idealistic artist, but it is a public imagination. Simpson argues that
As prophetic public companions, missional congregations acknowledge a conviction that they participate in God’s ongoing creative work. In a communicative civil society, these congregations exhibit a compassionate commitment to other institutions and their moral predicaments and to contesting the systemic colonization of the lifeworld. In these two senses, congregations as communicatively prophetic public companions are thoroughly connected, both to God and to the social and natural world. This vocational conviction and commitment yields a critical and self-critical, and thus fully communicative, practice of prophetic engagement. Finally, as communicatively prophetic public companions, congregations participate with other institutions of communicative civil society to create, strengthen, and sustain the moral fabrics that fashion a life-giving and life-accountable world.” ((Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, 144-145.))
The Deep in the Burbs Research Team came together to dream. I invited them to be open to explore new ideas about God (the social Trinity) and imagine new ways of engaging in the practices of spiritual formation. Dreaming is a struggle and the team experienced the agony and ecstasy that always accompanies the process of renegotiating boundaries of identity to be able to welcome the other. The specific stories that I will share in part Two will give granular texture to this rich story of a group of suburbanites who were willing to say, “what if?”