There will be a variety of reactions to our last meeting together. Some will think this form of witness (hope…warning…demand) to be too ‘wishy-washy,’ not firm enough, too much ‘yes’ to unredeemed culture. These critics will probably make much of actually acknowledging some important ‘truth’ in the midst of Navajo Religion-—truth that Christians can actually learn from and be empowered by.
Others may think the trajectory of witness is a bit arrogant. What right does the gospel story really have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to other master stories? Furthermore, what right does McClendon’s (or anyone else’s) version of the story have to make any sort of truth claims? And still others may think that these competing stories and, even more so, the different versions of each competing story should just keep to themselves and remain ‘safe’ and ‘tolerant’ and ‘private.’
However, this trajectory of witness (hope…warning…demand) rejects these three reactions to competing stories:
1. cultural relativism—-the belief that all cultures are equally valid
2. cultural imperialism—-the belief that our culture is superior to yours and theirs, and as a result, should trump all others
3. cultural apartheid—-the belief that cultures should be kept separate as best as they can
The Christian community, with convictions constantly being (re)discovered, understood and transformed, should instead embrace what McClendon and James Smith call cultural perspectivism. This point of view takes the perspective of each ‘convictional community’ (or religion or society or village or website or organization) seriously and seeks to dialogue (which involves a lot of listening from both sides) with each other in an attempt to discover, understand and transform their own convictions in light of this two-sided conversation.
1. McClendon and Smith have coined the concept ‘principle of fallibility’—-this is the obvious idea (but rarely apparent in individuals and communities) that our most cherished convictions might actually be wrong! This humility is demanded in our ‘pluralistic’ (or better, ‘fragmented’) cultural setting, not only because of so many options on the world-view menu, but more importantly, because it reflects the very nature of Jesus [Phil 2:5-11].
2. The communities that we dialogue with may also be wrong. These communities desperately need an environment that gives them space to be heard and understood so that they too can listen to the ‘baptist’ point of view. Only perspectivism will allow for that space.
3. There is no final judge for ‘truth’ in this present age. That does not mean that there is no ‘truth.’ It simply cannot be verified or proven outside of how compelling the actual lived existence of convictional communities is. The ‘baptist vision’ has a firm conviction that, someday soon, God will judge the world through Christ. This judgment will take into consideration everything we do NOW.
4. Western culture is still attempting to recover from the bad experiment called ‘Constantinianism’ where the church took on the responsibility to manage government, economics and the rest of society. Over the course of 1600+ years, the church compromised its message by coercing, manipulating and abusing any voice coming from an alternative story about life (and still does in some global contexts). These (mostly) sincere Christian leaders have been determined to beat the truth into people with the Bible or other violent objects. Perspectivism can help bandage the wounds inflicted over the centuries and can open up the conversation to ‘the other.’
5. Lastly, all ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ and ‘truth’ are viewed through the unique lens of individuals and communities that have differing agendas, experiences and stories that explain the world. As scientists have known for a while now, facts are not ‘objectively true’ as if any one person can view the world from nowhere. We cannot hide from, nor be ashamed about, our own unique circumstances and point-of-view. We do, however, need to take responsibility for these perspectives and seek to transform them where there are gaps and fractures in the stories we live out.
In a world of many religions, philosophies and beliefs and with more than 500 different visions of Christ (denominations) we cannot afford to slip into relativism, imperialism or apartheid. These options are disastrous for our witness to the gospel story, but also devastating for our own quest for truth.
It was Gandhi, the great Hindu liberator of India, who refused to fight in war because by killing an enemy we kill a conversation partner—-we lose out on one perspective of the truth. It was also Gandhi who, when asked what he thought about Christianity, with a chuckle said that it sounded great, but maybe someone should actually try to live it out for a change. For those with ears to hear, Gandhi speaks the truth that Christian communities, both ‘baptist’ and ‘other,’ desperately need to hear. His words and deeds, speak to our need to learn the enemy love and radical practice of faith that Jesus exemplified in his life, death and resurrection.
Still, there may be legitimate anxiety over our fragmented quest for truth in a world of infinite perspectives. McClendon offers three important sources of ‘authority’ based on Paul’s words in II Cor 13:13:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
1. God reaches out in LOVE…and humanity experiences it in diverse ways
Our individual experiences of God’s love [testimonies] are extremely important sources of authority, but only when they point to God as its author and final authority. Our experiences must be rooted in a Story that is far bigger than ourselves [Doctrine, 462]:
We participate in this ongoing biblical story, being formed and informed by it, discovering the world of the Bible to be our own real world, and finding its great signs and lesser signs significant as episodes not only of the great story it tells but also of our own stories therein contained.
2. God gives grace through Christ…and holy Scripture gives humanity access to it
There are many ‘reading strategies’ that can offer counterfeit authority:
(A) using a ‘historical-critical method’ that claims to mine out the once and for all meaning for all times and all places;
(B) using interpretations from a single tradition of Christian faith to monopolize how the passage is read; and/or
(C) an ‘inerrant’ view of the Bible that turns it into an information book of timeless truths or a history book of exactly what happened 2000 years ago.
These ‘reading strategies’ are harmful because they, inadvertently, take the Bible away from performing this Great Story here and now. Instead, ‘the baptist vision’ proclaims a participatory ‘this is that’—-the story in the Bible is on-going today as we, the disciples, follow Jesus in our unique context [Doctrine, 466]:
that the Jesus Christ who then rose, truly rose and appeared to the disciples in the breaking of the 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.
3. God evokes fellowship through the Spirit…in salvific community
The evangelical experiences of individual Christians and the reading of the Bible must be placed under the discernment of a community that prays, assesses and judges. This discernment shapes and guides how the community worships, how the community performs kingdom work, how the community is a witness to the wider world and how the community reads the word. Worship…Work…Witness…Word—only the community, in prayer and the power of the Spirit, can discern how these are practiced in their unique setting [Doctrine, 479]:
In all these matters the strength of the congregational polity lies not in a mechanical democracy of yes or no votes…it lies rather in the mutual trust of brothers and sisters who can and will assemble; it lies in a diversity of gifts, of which leadership is one while discernment of spirits is another; it lies in listening to concerned outsiders; it lies in the extension of these very elements of trust, diversity, openness, obedience to the wider peoplehood of which each congregation is but a part.
For Further Discussion:
1. Of the three cultural threats—relativism, imperialism, apartheid—which do you think is most harmful? Which influences you the most?
2. As a group, explain/review how perspectivism critiques each of the three threats.
3. How is McClendon’s idea of ‘authority’ different than your prior understanding of what ‘authority’ means in the Christian life?
4. Why is a conversation about authority so important in the midst of a conversation about culture?
For Further Reading:
Doctrine, McClendon [chapter 11]
Witness, McClendon [chapter 1]
Convictions by McClendon and James Smith
My wife and I have been looking for a ‘reading strategy’ that can help us live in the Great Story as we continue to learn to love and serve each other and the world. This week we started reading Matthew one chapter a day which will lead us through the four gospels for the next few months. After I read Matthew 2, I read the chapter on Matthew in the Global Bible Commentary which devotes about 10 pages to each book of the Bible, each written by a different scholar in different parts of the world.
The GBC takes the context of each scholar as the starting point for reading and performing the text. Matthew’s commentary was written by Alejandro Duarte, a Bible scholar from South America. His reflections on the genocide started by Herod, killing every male baby in Bethlehem two years and younger, stem from his own experience living in Argentina during the military dictatorship [1976-1983] where eleven of his close friends were killed. When he reads about Rachel ‘weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled because they are no more’ [Matthew 2:18] he can relate to this in a deep way:
‘these tragedies constantly remain with me as I reflect on the ways the ‘little ones’ [10:42; 18:1-14] are exploited, marginalized and excluded.’ [GBC, 350]
This ‘other’ perspective on the text is vital for me as I seek to follow the way of Jesus. In my own suburban Southern California upbringing I have not been confronted by the immensity of injustice and violence in this world. Conversation partners like Duarte are badly needed for all of us living in these bubbles. This small example is a reminder that we all have a view from somewhere and this somewhere powerfully affects how we read the Bible and how we see everything else there is.