So, what does it mean to be a ‘Christian?’ There are a multitude of explanations of what it means to follow the crucified and risen Messiah and Lord Jesus. And to be completely honest, the last sentence will be explained quite differently by participants in all the diverse brands of Christian faith:
What will it demand of a community to ‘follow’ Jesus?
What significance do Jesus’ ‘crucifixion’ and ‘resurrection’ have for his followers today?
And what do the titles ‘Messiah’ and ‘Lord’ even mean?
According to James McClendon, Christianity is an essentially contested concept, a contest of rivals who have different visions of the Christian life [Doctrine, 44]:
There is no universal agreement, but only competing claims to universality, one of which is our own.
We all have ‘convictions’—the gutsy beliefs that we live out—but we all must humbly admit that any of the ‘convictions’ we have about everything that matters in life may actually false! This principle of fallibility-—even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation [Ethics, 45]—-is of utmost value when we dialogue with our beloved Christian rivals. And with more than 500 different denominations of Christianity in North America alone, there are many rivals! Rivals aren’t our enemies—they are our conversation partners that we should listen to [and vice-versa] and participate with. As McClendon writes,
One of the tests of its authenticity is whether it can be proposed in a spirit of love that will win friends, not enemies, for the good news it seeks to represent. [Doctrine, 44]
For many Christians, ‘theology’ brings up fears and intimidation of people talking in academic language that only the elite can understand. It is important to point out, instead, that we should embrace a conviction that every Christian is a theologian and a scholar—always discovering, understanding and transforming their views on God, faith, church, the Bible…and whatever else there is [Ethics, 23]. And this ‘theology’ is best done in small communities of fellow Jesus followers who dialogue and practice their convictions together.
Theology is struggle. It is not a list of ‘right answers,’ nor is it a system or formula of right beliefs about God and whatever else there is.
Nor is it a ‘foundation’ of unquestionable or unchallengeable truths, principles and beliefs to build a life of faith on.
These other ideas about theology do not make sense in a world of 500 different brands of conversation partners without a final arbiter to judge who is right or wrong about any number of faith issues that we may disagree about. For if we build our lives of faith on a ‘foundation’ of ‘right answers,’ what happens when we discover through dialogue or experience that some of our ‘right answers’ have been wrong all this time? Our building of faith, like a game of Jenga, crumbles to the ground and we must begin our construction project all over again!
Instead, we will use different theological metaphors. Faith is something like being on a voyage to a distant land. With our sights on the destination, we learn and grow in the process of our journey, making changes as we test the elements along the way. We can never start over, no matter how bad or confusing things get.
We are committed to something like a marriage, learning and growing as we live together, knowing that no matter what surprises or shocks us about our partner, we can never start all over again. Instead, learning now what we didn’t know before, we make changes to strengthen the marriage for the coming decades.
A voyage and a marriage are commitments that begin without knowing all the answers, risking that anything can happen along the way! Both involve other people who we live with and learn with as we dialogue from different points of view.
We live during a time of cultural shift. For the past 200 years+, Christians in North America have attempted to build theological systems, formulas and foundations to give authority and certainty to their belief in God. Many today are questioning this 'modern' project. Those skeptical of this project are still convinced that God exists and that Jesus lived, died and rose from the grave, but they are also convinced that there are many, many ways offered to describe this reality and to read the Bible, God’s Word to the world. And whatever 'truth' is, it cannot be proven. These 'postmoderns' are convinced that the quest for the perfect recipe of Christianity is impossible…it is over.
As we get started to understand the baptist vision, it should be noted that this vision has a distinct emphasis on practice. A theological voyage means participation in the Christian life together. It is a performance that involves a lot of hard work and creativity in diverse life situations. Many visions of the Christian life emphasize ‘beliefs,’ often times to the neglect of practice. Truly, this is not intended, but ‘living’ gets squeezed out in the quest for knowing the ‘right foundation.’ Many Christians would say that there is a sequence to faith: first believe [know the truth!], then belong [join a church!], and then behave [application!]. However, the baptist vision gives room to flip the script: first, to participate in the life of radical Christian community and, then, to continue to discover deeper and deeper beliefs over time. The whole process of the Christian life is a lot more 'holistic' than the formulas and steps that have attempted to describe it in modernity. There is, first and foremost, an acknowledgment that the Christian life is ‘lived.’
Taking an analogy from the world of sports, there are spectators and players. A spectator is surely ‘involved’ in the game: she knows the names and statistics and history of the teams and players on the field [or court or pool or track]. Spectators even have emotional attachments to the outcome of each contest.
However, the investment that spectators have is in a different category than that of the player. The player knows the scouting report and risks everything [sometimes in front of thousands of spectators] to make errors, miss shots, get injured, etc. Even the last kid on the bench is involved in the game in a way different from even the most rabid of fans—always ready to ‘get in the game.’
The baptist vision is for Christians who play the game, who have committed to pouring over the scouting report, who put time into the details and risk making errors in front of many. It is also for Christians who are a part of a team and commit to using their God-given gifts and talents to making that community better. Lastly, the baptist vision is for Christians who grow in their knowledge and trust in God over time.
Turning back the calendar for a moment, consider a man named Origen [185-254] one of the greatest Bible scholars of all time. He taught at Alexandria, in Egypt, one of the first theological schools ever. At Alexandria, Origen placed a strong emphasis on getting to know the young men who were enrolled in the school. He made friends with them and then got to know them in a deeper way, long before teaching them the finer details of the Bible. One of his best students, Gregory, wrote about his great teacher: ‘penetrating into us more deeply, and probing what is most inward in us, he put us to the question, and made propositions to us, and listened to us in our replies.’ [Pan. vi, Ethics, 43] Origen put the priority on living faith in front of his students!
Consider another point in Christian history, this time a negative. In the 4th century, Constantine the Great became the first ‘Christian’ Roman Emperor. He made the faith, not only legal, but virtually mandatory. He also invited Christian leaders all over the Empire to meet in a town called Nicaea to discuss, debate and decide on issues of the exact nature and substance of Jesus: human or divine or both and how? McClendon asks a pinpointed question:
Is it not worth considering, finally, how different might have been the history of Christianity if after the accession of the Emperor Constantine the church’s leaders had met at Nicaea, not to anathematize others’ inadequate Christological metaphysics, but to devise a strategy by which the church might remain the church in light of the fateful political shift—to secure Christian social ethics before refining Christian dogma? [Ethics, 42]Unlike the Council of Nicaea, which outlined the ‘right beliefs’ for Christians, we want to set our sights on an attempt to devise a strategy to be Christ-like communities, to actually practice the faith in these challenging and changing times. The priority is on performance.
1. What are some ‘convictions’ that you have? Is it possible that these could ever change? What would it take for them to change?
2. The images of a voyage at sea, a committed marriage and a building’s foundation: which of these metaphors best describe your view of the Christian life? How so?
3. Are there areas of your Christian journey where you want to become more of a player and less of a spectator? Explain.
4. Do you agree with the assessment that all Christians are ‘theologians’ and ‘scholars?’ How so?
For Further Reading:
Ethics [chapter 1 and 2] by James McClendon
Witness [chapter 1]
Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism by Nancey Murphy
Beyond Foundationalism by Stanley Grenz and John Franke
Anything by Rob Bell and Brian McLaren
British Old Testament Bible Scholar John Goldingay, teaching in the US at Fuller Theological Seminary, says that one of the biggest challenges for Christians living throughout North America [and a big difference from Christians in the UK] is to emerge out of ‘fundamentalism.’ This sounds like a harsh word that is usually used to describe radical groups that kill and maim in the name of God in other parts of the world. However, it is actually a form of faith that has been particularly harmful to many Christians right here in the States. Fundamentalism has been an outgrowth of the modern culture on the conservative evangelical side of the spectrum usually by being defined as such by an ‘inerrant’ approach to the Bible that guarantees the Absolute Truth through the dictated Word of God. This ‘foundationalist’ approach to knowledge and truth has been a path that has attempted to assure certainty, but instead it has turned out to be a cul-de-sac. The Bible pleads for followers of Jesus to read it with more integrity and honesty. A far more nuanced and sophisticated approach is needed--one that will take time and patience in community. The New Testament isn’t a guide to ‘look up answers,’ but instead a collection of diverse documents that each ‘do’ something in unique ways. They all feed off the Great Story of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ. We will take a step toward a ‘post-foundationalist’ Bible reading strategy in our next meeting.