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)?