Thursday, December 13, 2012

Meeting 10: Some Lingering Questions...and Some Answers

As we conclude our 10-post summary of "the baptist vision," some lingering questions are offered for clarification. In all likelihood, those who have diligently read through this blog will probably have many questions about what certain concepts mean and, even more importantly, how this can all be "lived out." Hopefully, through study, prayer and dialogue, the reader will continue to journey with others in the midst of their many questions as they discover, understand and are transformed.

Here are some closing questions:

1. So, what is our ‘foundation’ for Christian faith? And what about ‘Absolute Truth?’

The age of modernity (1650 to the present) has been characterized by a quest for certainty. In matters of religion or spirituality, this has required an unquestionable, unchallengeable "foundation" for truth claims. For conservative evangelicals in 20th century North America, this has led to a "doctrine" of the Bible referred to as inerrancy or infallibility. An error-free Bible became a reference guide which it claimed allowed for access to the "Absolute Truth"—what my 4th grade teacher at the Christian elementary school used to say, "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." McClendon’s systematic-theological-project represents a shift away from this philosophy of truth and knowing. Truth, in a "post-foundational" setting, is not contained in belief-statements, doctrines or principles mined out of Scripture by bible experts.

Truth, on the contrary, is lived, performed by communities that discern the movement of the Spirit of God in their midst of their bible readings. McClendon’s project puts a strong emphasis on communities practicing the Christian faith each in their own unique context. These performances of faith are either compelling. Or not. (Ethics, chapter 1; Doctrine, chapter 1; Witness, chapter 1—see also, Nancey Murphy’s Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism)

2. What about the trinity?

The focus on a 3-person God is biblical, but a community who puts the priority on practicing the faith as a way-of-life (ethics) will benefit by approaching an almighty God who is active, engaging with and guiding the community and the wider world. It is not enough to nail down the substance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit or to "get it right" when it comes to the beliefs and early century creeds regarding divinity.

Instead, the communities of "the baptist vision" worship a God that reflects the ethical strands. God the Adventurer [resurrection strand] goes before us as the pioneer and trailblazer: God to Moses said, "I will be what I will b"’ or as McClendon paraphrases, "I will always be ahead of you. Find Me as you follow the journey" (Exodus 3:14 with a closer look at the Hebrew).

God is also the Companion along the Way (social strand) who accompanies us in the midst of all our engagements with the "powerful practices" of society: at work, in marriage/dating, at church, in the market, on the freeway, watching a movie.

Lastly, God is the Powerfully Present One (embodied strand) who is with us in nature with all our drives, needs and urges, continually providing and creating. (Doctrine, Chapter 7)

Consider this non-creedal trinitarian prayer for the ‘baptist’ Community:

God the Adventurer, you are always before us.
Your trailblazing leads us into ever new peaks, valleys and vistas.
You are Jesus Christ—-risen and triumphant over evil and death.

God the Companion, you promise and remain loyal.
Your unfailing love and faithfulness will never die.
You are Jesus Christ—-serving and loving and forgiving.

God the Powerfully Present One, you created the world and sustain it.
Your mighty hand continues to nurture us and heal us.
You are Jesus Christ—-liberating and mentoring and comforting.

3. Who is Jesus Christ?

The early creeds also attempted to answer this doctrinal question nailing down the exact substance of the person of Jesus (called ‘two-natures Christology’). McClendon’s ‘baptist vision’ counters this by offering a ‘two-narrative Christology,’ a creative description of the centrality of Christ for the 21st Century. Scripture tells two on-going stories, from Genesis through Revelation, that parallel each other and intersect in the person of Jesus: (1) God and his pursuing relationship to the world and (2) humanity and their stumbling, bumbling relationship with God. The two streams of ‘divine self-expense’ and ‘human investment’ flow together in Jesus, but they inevitably are ONE story that only becomes ‘gospel’ when we make that story our very own. When our own identity and vocation are so wrapped up in this story of God’s pursuit of the world, then we become whole indeed! The identity of Jesus can only rightly be acknowledged by telling the whole story of God and the world and his original redemptive move with Israel. [Doctrine, chapter 6]

4. What is ‘sin’ and how important is it for us to focus on it?

Much time and effort has been placed on the concept of ‘original sin,’ the idea that through the sin of the first person Adam (and Eve), all of humanity is forever stained with sin: it's in our DNA! We inherit this sin at birth and it is only inevitable for us to be mired in sin all life long. An unintended consequence of a strong belief in original sin over the centuries has led to abandoning the project of ‘good works’ and to relying on the grace of God to ‘save’ us. McClendon’s focus is on the ‘full faithfulness’ of Jesus who lived out the human story with perfection. Indeed, the life of Jesus reveals that ‘to sin is not be human.’ Sin is social, not original. It wreaks havoc on us—-breaks us, victimizes us, injures us, enslaves us. This is a big part of what the event of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means for ‘salvation’—-to liberate us to live faithfully, re-enacting the service, humility, obedience, love and compassion of Jesus [Doctrine, chapter 3].

5. Why does the baptist vision have such a pacifist bent?

Following Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, McClendon’s ‘baptist vision’ reveals a strong emphasis on enemy love, forgiveness and service. This reflects the socio-political message of Jesus’ life, teaching and the painful suffering of the cross. The cross is the inevitable culmination of Jesus’ ‘full faithfulness’ to the will of God. On the cross, Jesus displayed the enemy love, forgiveness and service of what he taught and lived. And in his farewell speech at a meal with his disciples, he calls them to reject the power grabs and domination so valued in the wider world of Caesar. If we read the gospels reminding ourselves that Jesus consistently rejected the temptation to use violence to achieve his mission to liberate Israel, then we can more readily understand why ‘pacifism’ is at the heart of the ‘baptist vision.’ [Ethics, chapter 9]

6. What is the relationship between Christianity and Judaism today?

In 1st century Palestine, there were not two separate belief-systems called ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity,’ but instead many competing forms claiming to be authentic Judaism. Paul and the early Christians represent the ‘Jews for Jesus’ brand of Judaism, which for some decades after the death and resurrection of their leader, continued to be connected to the Temple in Jerusalem. Paul himself was not converted to a separate religion called Christianity, but instead continued to be a Jew who firmly believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. He called gentiles and Jews alike into the messianic lifestyle of Jesus.

Israel as the original people of God were adopted as a unique race that would be a conscience and servant to the world, wherever they would land, from Egypt to Babylon to Rome, they worshipped the one true God as a minority people. Jesus of Nazareth claimed to continue the Jewish legacy of being God’s people for the world and his earliest followers believed that they were, in essence, being ‘true Jews,’ embracing continued obedience to the Law (as interpreted by their Master Jesus), and demonstrating his humility, service, compassion and love. Today, Jews and Christians, in their most authentic forms, both continue to be a conscience and servant to the world as two different brands of the people of God and they should work together for the healing of the nations. [Doctrine, chapter 8]

7. What is ‘biography as theology?’

This is McClendon’s attempt to creatively tell the story of who God is through the models of contemporary followers of Jesus. When we tell the stories of others (especially those who aren’t working for a church full-time or expert theologians and Bible scholars) who embody the identity and vocation of Jesus in unique ways it becomes a powerful tool to show each other who God is. Those of us who pledge allegiance to the Way of Jesus need to see it modeled in others. These are like ‘saints’ who go before us!
McClendon’s words from an interview with Ched Myers:

There is in every church some figure or figures who are perceived as larger than life, as more authentically displaying the way that we're all trying to follow. And when these figures pass into the past, they get posted on the wall of the church or on a marble monument or something like that and all the more are they treated as saintly. I think that's a good thing -- the more local the better. Perhaps one of the mistakes that Roman Catholics make is to try to press too hard for universal saints and thus pay too little attention to the flexible possibilities of local saints. So I'm for saints and for sainthood, because it is just biography as theology.

8. Last but not least, what is all this talk about ‘community’ and ‘narrative’ and ‘practices?

The ‘baptist vision’ of McClendon is certainly indebted to philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre who has outlined his ethical proposals in his seminal work After Virtue. This ethical paradigm has six interrelated concepts:

Narrative—-the master story about life, the world, God and everything else there is—the Great Story of the ‘baptist vision’ is told in Scripture about a God who created the world and is determined to redeem it through the faithfulness of Jesus and his followers

Tradition—-a historically extended conversation—the ‘bapist vision’ is rooted in the tradition of the original disciples [primitive] and through the ‘radical reformation’ of the 1500s [called ‘anabaptism’ by its enemies]

Community—-we are defined by a context-specific, locally gathered group of people who are on mission together and make decisions for the group together

Telos—-the goal of life—to follow the Way of Jesus together as a witness to the wider world

Practices-—the activity of the community—what the community does to achieve its goals [telos]—ie, Yoder’s five practices

Virtues-—skills for living—what it takes for practices to become more and more effective in order to achieve the telos—ie, ‘presence’ is the art of being all there for others

During the Modern period (1650 to the present) many Christians have been attempting to live without these powerful concepts. ALL of these are interconnected and bring coherence and meaning to ethics/morality. ALL are vital for a way-of-life that seeks to effectively witness to ‘the new in Christ.’

For Further Discussion:
1. Which of these questions would you want to explore further?
2. Which of these explanations do you struggle accepting or outright reject?
3. Are there other questions about ‘the baptist vision’ that you would want further clarification on?

**In closing, give your impressions about ‘the baptist vision.’ Does it compel you? How so (or why not)?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Glossary of the baptist Vision

A Sampling of McClendon’s Unique Terms/Phrases

anabaptism (see also "the baptist vision")
neither Protestant nor Catholic--this 500 year tradition seeks to challenge contemporary Christian communities with the original revolution of Jesus and his band of followrs: a radical way-of-life characterized by simple living, enemy love, nonviolent resistence, suffering service and a practical witness to the surrounding culture

authority, three types of (Doctrine, 477-481):
authority on—bible scholars, theologians, church historians—the experts that enlighten the community on a variety of issues, concepts, topics in the Great Story of God and His people

authority in—church leaders (including, but NOT a hierarchy: secretaries, teachers, administrators, elders, pastors, deacons, etc) who, in diverse ways, speak authority into the lives of members of the community

criterial authority—the voice and decision-making of the people of the community

the baptist vision (Ethics, 35)
the unique style of Christianity descended from the Radical Reformation of the 16th C., neither Catholic nor Protestant; "following" Jesus (not ‘faith’ or ‘belief’) is the emphasis; five distinctives include: biblical (story of Scripture is our story), mission (responsibility for costly witness), liberty (freedom to obey God without state help or hindrance), discipleship (life transformed into obedience to Jesus’ lordship) and community (daily sharing in the vision)

catechresis (Doctrine, 107)
the deliberate use of language drawn from one sphere of life in order to indicate something in another sphere that eludes existing speech. The New Testament writers employed various words/concepts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greco-Roman culture in an attempt to explain the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah—-the new reality created by the Risen One—-i.e., Jewish law (justify), holy rite (sanctify), medical healing/military rescue (heal/save), kinship (adopt, wed), life processes (born/reborn), commercial exchange (redeem/reconcile)

Constantinianism (Ethics, 42)
the fateful political shift that led the church to cling to the hope of the state after Constantine’s rise to power in the 4th Century—-the Empire presented itself no longer as the Christians’ enemy but as the very kingdom of God (the bad guys became anyone who opposed imperial church and ‘Christian’ Empire in their holy union)—-this shift has dreadfully compromised the Church

conversation partners (Ethics, 36-37)
God, having created the human variety, wants us to theologize in varied ways—-theology is a dialogue with others from differing contexts, methods and assumptions—-this pluralism should not be confused with "relativism" or "laissez-faire subjectivism" because it is a dialogue between Christian communities that encounter other Christian communities for mutual witness and critical correction—-of course, there is plenty of room, too, for dialogue with communities outside of the Christian umbrella

convictions (Ethics, 22; Doctrine, 29)
"the gutsy beliefs I live out"; less readily expressed, but more tenaciously held than opinions; deeply self-involving and not easily relinquished—-from convictions flow attitudes, beliefs, intentions and practices

crossing over (Witness, 378)
the deliberate choice of some from each people to connect with a congregation of the other people—European Americans choosing to join an African American community—-an intentional strategy to live out Eph 2:14f and Gal 3:27 (and the cross of Jesus and Pentecost) in light of centuries of Christian failure!

decisionism (Ethics, 58)
the strong emphases in the modern period on the will and interiorization of each individual Christian—-it is a view of ethics that exalts deliberate moral quandaries and the right responses—-this is critiqued by a narrative emphasis on ethics that is highlighted by Matthew 25’s judgment parable where the righteous are exonerated, not by "deliberate decisions," but instead by "their unreckoned generosity, their uncalculating love, their aimless faithfulness"

dual reference (Witness, 179)
contemporary art’s ability to speak of the world as it is (with its joys and sorrows) and, simultaneously, to speak of the world that art creates (where joy overflows and fellowship is unflawed)

ethical strands (Ethics, 62-67)
biblical morality viewed as a multi-stranded rope—-the whole rope is nothing but the strands, yet none of them alone can do what the rope does—-we relate with God (and everything else there is) as created beings (the embodied strand), as social persons (the social strand), and as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus (the resurrection strand)

experience (Ethics, 38-39; Doctrine, chapter 10)
what we have lived through and lived out in company with one another, the experience that constitutes our share in the Christ story—-the enduring or timely aspect of our lives in relation to God and one another; as plot and character in some setting, it is the stuff of narrative. Every theology is linked to some narrative; successful theology, knowing this, discovers and renovates its own narrative base—-"evangelical experience" should always be accountable to the interpretation of Scripture in community

foreshortening (Doctrine, 105)
when Scripture compresses the end-pictures (heaven/hell, rule of God, judgment, etc) making them imminent, already upon us—-the last things ("the end times")are here NOW

full faithfulness (Doctrine, 123, 270, 273)
the focus on Jesus’ faithfulness to his cause and to God whom he knew as Father—-the renewal of the covenant with Israel (Jer 33) required an authenticator, one who by taking God’s way within the existing social order, affirmed God’s faithfulness toward Israel and opened the way toward God for followers drawn from all nations

identity documents (Ethics, 336; from Hans Frei, the late Yale professor)
reading the four Gospels as writings whose sense was to claim that the one present now in the church, the risen Lord Christ, is none other than the one told about in those very documents--this follows the centrality of the resurrection in all four Gospels, since that alone could explain this identity--in the Gospels, we read not about the Jesus "back then," but instead about the living Jesus NOW, with us

the Israel of God (Doctrine, 361-366)
based on Galatians 6:16, the full umbrella of God’s children—including Israel and the many denominations of Christians—-God’s people, in all their variety, who are a conscience and servant to the wider world (see also Romans 9-11; Eph 2:14f; Gal 3:7f)

meetingplace (Doctrine, 241)
wherever in common worship disciples meet their Lord—"For where two or three meet together in my name, I am there" (Mt 18:20)--these places of worship are infinitely diverse--God shows up just about everywhere!

narrative ethics (Ethics, 330)
the critical analysis of the moral life of those who share in a certain ongoing real story—-it investigates, analyzes, criticizes a way of life, a morality, that is itself story-formed (the opposite of decisionism: see above)

"the new in Christ" (Doctrine, Chapter 3)
an understanding of salvation in the midst of the rule of God as God breaks into human life with a new order, a fulfillment, that transforms everyday life; ultimately, "the new in Christ" is what the disciples (Apostles) grappled to communicate in the days, weeks & years following their Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection—-their recognition that Jesus’ story that had engaged them was not ended by his death, but instead there was a new beginning, a whole new era, a revolution to be lived out in this world

perspectivism (Witness, chapter 1)
the idea that we should value and critique each cultural perspective through loving dialogue and discerning wisdom in community--opposed to the weak options of cultural relativism, cultural apartheid and cultural imperialism

this blog represents a theology based on a philosophical move away from modernity, the project started with Descartes (ca. 1650) which was characterized by the quest for certainty, an unchallengable foundation (an 'inerrant' Bible?), a claim for neutral objectivity and the placement of logic, reason and science on the throne of truth; McClendon's thought emerges from this cul-de-sac, proposing a different biblical "reading strategy" and moving beyond the dualistic liberal and conservative options of the 20th century Christian faith, while rejecting "relativistic" and "imperialistic" truth claims

powerful practices (Ethics, 173-177)
the virtually infinite social powers that organize/systematize society; ie, family, marriage, government, military, free market capitalism, the country club and, yes, religious institutions such as the church; these powers work for good and/or evil in a multitude of ways—-the community that follows Jesus, indeed, is a powerful practice that is engaged with society: ?the task of Christians confronting a world of powerful practices requires almost infinite adjustments, distinctions and gradations"

presence (Ethics, 106)
a highly underrated Christian virtue: the quality of being there for and with another person; being one’s self for someone else; it is refusing the temptation to withdraw mentally and emotionally; but it is also, on occasion, putting our own body’s weight and shape alongside the neighbor, the friend, the lover in need

principle of fallibility (Ethics, 42)
even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation

proximate authorities (Doctrine, 458)
the human side of authority for our lives, always answerable to God’s ultimate authority; McClendon lists three: evangelical experience, Scripture and community

reading strategy (Doctrine, 45; 463-477)
The way the bible is read by those who (1) accept the plain sense of Scripture as its dominant sense and recognize their continuity with the story it tells, and who (2) acknowledge that finding "the point" of that story leads them to its application, and who also (3) see past and present and future linked by a "this is that" and "then is now" vision…binding the story now to the story then, and the story then and now to God’s future yet to come…"the Jesus Christ who then rose, truly rose and appeared to the disciples in the breaking of bread is present now and does appear to us in our kingdom work and our spiritual worship, in our witness—and in this very word. It tells us the Gospel resurrection narratives both witness to what happened then and stake a claim on what happens now. It tells us his risen presence then coheres with his risen presence now; it is its determinative forerunner; it is its cause. It tells us his presence is the very matrix of the intelligibility of this word and of our world. It is under the hermeneutic guidance of this vision that authentic scriptural authority appears." [466]

self-involving (Ethics, 40)
the theologian’s (every Christian’s!) proposals require testing at every stage by actual participation in the common life

soaring (Doctrine, chapter 9)
the last stage of the life of a growing follower of Jesus; the Christian is "perfected" through communal engagement and discernment

syzygy (Doctrine, 447-449)
the full unity of the Spirit-filled community achieved without the cancellation of the individual; no participant is absorbed into the whole, yet none flourishes in isolation, but each interacts in love—this is achieved by confronting each living human being with the reality of life in the risen Christ, displaying the way of his cross, accepting the uniqueness of each, and inviting from each a response that can be made only by the power of the Spirit of love

theology (Ethics, 23)
the discovery, understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is

Truly Human One (Doctrine)
translation of what most English New Testaments describe as "the Son of Man," the controversial, ambiguous label most used for Jesus by the Gospel writers; Jesus is the faithful one who lives out God’s intended story in this world, bringing together creation, redemption, mission and, in the future, consummation

two-narrative Christology (Doctrine, 276)
a critique of the two-nature Christology developed by the early church councils ("two natures Christology has had its day, and we need not return to it save as to a monument of what has gone before")—-the two stories, of divine self-expense and human investment, of God reaching to people even before people reach to God, of a God who gives in order to be able to receive, and a humanity that receives so that it shall be able to give—-these two stories are indivisibly one in Jesus—-this story becomes gospel, becomes good news, when we discover that it is our own!

virtues (Ethics, chapter 6)
skills for living—-every community inhabits a tradition based on a narrative with corresponding practices—-virtues are simply skills that enable the community to perform these practices more effectively

Monday, December 3, 2012

About Jim McClendon

McClendon embodied the ecumenical spirit. He was the first Protestant professor of theology at a Catholic university (University of San Francisco) and later spent time at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA where he was the Distinguished Scholar in Residence. He was raised in a Southern Baptist church in Louisiana but became quite jaded over the only options available: liberal or fundamentalist. In the early 70s, both his reading of John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and his attendance--with wife Nancey Murphy--at a Manhattan conference entitled "The Church in a Postmodern Age" led him to forge ahead in his passion to find a third way for the some 100 denominations in the world of Anabaptism, or what he called "the baptist vision."

For the last two decades of his life, Jim McClendon poured himself into the project of his 1300 page Systematic Theology. He boldly began with Ethics in his first volume, embodying exactly what he teaches: the practice of Christian faithfulness comes before belief! The theological task, according to Mcclendon, is not a metaphorical building of right answers that forms an unchanging foundation of doctrine.

Instead, the theological task is a journey, a voyage of communities committed to performing the Great Story in Scripture, constantly adapting to the environment, changing course when new insights replace old ones. His writings display the work of a truly postmodern theologian, one who rejects the dualistic "modern" options of either liberal or fundamentalist.

McClendon represents a tremendously important shift in theological thinking in the early years of the 21st century. Most slow and careful readers of McClendon wonder if this "shift" won’t, in fact, turn out to be an all-out prison break, inspiring jaded "baptist" communities all over the world into newer and deeper Christian performances that leave the old, tired modern options in the dust!