Structuration and Christian Theology PART THREE

CS Lewis said this about scientific theories – once enough externalities (he didn’t use the word, but it means things unexplained by the current theory) pile up so high that the current theory can’t sustain the weight, people go hunting a new theory that will be able to carry the freight of the externalities. It’s not, Lewis argued, that the new theory is actually more true than the old theory, but it serves the questions or discoveries of the current generation better in explaining what they see.

I think what Lewis said about scientific theory is also true about theology. That’s why it changes.

I believe God’s Spirit at work in this interplay, responding to the ways human society develops in its freedom. It’s a much more  “responsive” picture of God’s interaction in His world, rather than a controlling, deterministic one. (This kind of picture of God  doesn’t mean God doesn’t intend to do some things He said He will do, but it looks more to kairos moments rather than chronos pre-scheduled ones). So, a Structuration look at theology would say: as human societies have developed and advanced they have developed their theology to keep up. It’s a parallel view to progressive revelation’s view of the Bible wherein the Mosiac Law gives a deeper understanding of God than Abraham had, which is in turn deepened by the relational insights of the Psalms, developed further –with a deeper level morality – by the Prophets, and finally revealed far, far more accurately in the “mirror image of the Father,” Jesus. Just as the view of progressive revelation says God revealed more of His nature (or the Israelites came to understand more) as time went by across the pages of the Old Testament, and finally most definitely in Jesus, so in Structuration theory we would say our theology understands more about what God is like as time goes by, or at least apply what we know better to our century’s specific issues.

As to the question: “is our theology getting better, more accurate?” Well, in certain areas, hopefully. For example, I do believe that our theology that “Slavery is bad. Period.” is better than theological systems that allowed for slavery. We have a better theology of slavery than the Bible does. Period. Does anyone want to argue that?  We have worked out the implications of the  Bible’s theology of women further than the people in the Bible did.

However, in general, although the development and survival of societies should typically tend to direct their theology in ways that promote well-being, (as I think has happened for both women and slavery), as Lewis said about scientific theory, I don’t know that our theology is necessarily always truer than former ones, but it serves the current generation in more wholesome ways than ones from eras which no longer work, no longer answer pressing questions we have before us. Theology will continue to morph and change in ways, hopefully true to the Gospel, but also answering the questions of each generation in meaningful ways, as time goes on.  Christians with a huge variety of theology have been in love with God and trying their best to do what Jesus says to, for 20 centuries. This is why changes in theology don’t bother me overmuch.

Structuration Theory and Theology PART TWO: the water and the stones

In the last post I described the sociology theory “Structuration” and how I compare its view (of the development of human societies) to water in a streambed flowing among stones – both the water and the stones mutually affecting each other. I was talking about this because I suspect the history of change in Christian theology is also a story of Structuration.

Christians I know tend to have a variety of ideas about changes in theology. Some see change as a watering down of the clear, Divinely-inspired teaching of the Bible; as in, people change theology to suit their whims instead of obeying what God has said. I don’t think that accurately describes the development of Christian doctrine down through the centuries, and certainly doesn’t reflect how a doctrine like, say, the Atonement, has undergone change. People who take this approach are well-meaning I am sure, but I don’t think their understanding of the history of Christian thought is very robust.

Others see it more in terms of progressive revelation; as in, God is helping us slowly develop better and better theology as the centuries unfold. This sounds encouraging, though we have to admit it’s pretty us-focused, self-serving, and naïve concerning the negative effects much theology has.

Some see it as simply a matter of applying the correct scientific methods of interpreting the Scriptures, and whoever does the best work is the one who is correct. Thus the exegetical wars between Wesleyans and Calvinists, etc. etc., ad nauseum.  I think history has shown these wars of textual minutia to be unwinnable, with a large swath of bombed-out territory in between the trenches, littered with lots and lots of human casualties that too many of the weapons-designers don’t get out to see.

I suspect that the truth about changes in theology is a lot like Structuration theory’s explanation of change in human societies. The traditions, beliefs and worldviews a person grows up with shapes their view of theology, (and their understanding of what the Scriptures mean, and which Scriptures are more important than others). But then again, that person’s unique thought processes interpret what they see in the world around them in ways that are possible to break beyond the bounds of the prevailing thought around them – thus pushing the stream of water flow in a different direction, in a minor – or sometimes major – shift. These changes in perspective in theology are often in response to discoveries or new thought in other realms – biology, physics, archeology, humanities, etc. But it’s not one-way, because the prevailing theology/worldview shapes the assumptions those scientists come to their work with as well. Thus I think history shows that the human society and its prevailing thought systems (and new discoveries) affects theology’s development, and theology affects the society as well, in an on-going interplay.  Easy example: when we discover the earth goes ‘round the sun, instead of the sun going ‘round the earth, it’s hard to stick with a theology – and an exegetical method – that says the sun goes ‘round the earth.  There’s a lot more to be said about this. Our theologies have changed in all kinds of ways down through the centuries because of things we’ve learned in science, or because of our consciences. More on structuration theory and theology in the next post.

Today is the fifth day of Christmas Season in the Christian calendar. So it’s not too late for me to sincerely wish you: Merry Christmas.

A humorous description of emergent Christians, part Two

I’ve been tied up for the last three weeks, rushing to meet a publisher’s deadline for a book I wrote on postmodern Christian faith. So, three weeks ago I said I’d post the second half to a humorous, but mostly accurate, description of “You might be emergent if…”  It’s from Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s Why We’re Not Emergent (Moody, 2008). I have already said in other places that their book is my favorite anti-Emergent book, written without aggressive name-calling. My conclusions are different than theirs, because we come from different branches of theology on the family tree. But this description is classic. I put up the first part in my previous post, here’s the second half:

You might be emergent if…

“…if you grew up in a very conservative Christian home that in retrospect seems legalistic, naïve, and rigid; if you support women in all levels of ministry, prioritize urban over suburban, and like your theology narrative instead of systematic; if you disbelieve in any sacred-secular divide; if you want to be a church and not just go to church; if you long for a community that is relational, tribal, and primal like a river or a garden; if you believe doctrine gets in the way of an interactive relationship with Jesus; if you believe who goes to hell is no one’s business and no one may be there anyway; if you believe salvation has little to do with atoning for guilt and a lot to do with bringing the whole creation back into shalom with its Maker; if you believe following Jesus is not believing the right things but living the right way; if it really bugs you when people talk about going to heaven instead of heaven coming to us; if you disdain monological, didactic preaching; if you use the word “story” in all your propositions about postmodernism – if all or most of this tortuously long sentence describes you, then you might be an emergent Christian.”

Priceless.

Why this blog?

The reason for this blog is because I believe that Christianity is once again moving through a phase change, shifting, morphing, as it has many times in the past 20 centuries. At this intersection of the modern and postmodern ages, many people are trying to reassemble a Christian theology that makes sense to them and takes into account the new things we are learning (as happens in every century of rapid discovery). They are trying to hold onto (or find for the first time) a Christian faith that has new answers because the answers we inherited from modern evangelicalism do not actually work satisfactorily. Doctrines like original sin, hell, the Bible, other world religions, predestination, Greek ideas about omniscience, what the Gospel IS, atonement, eschatology and many more are all in play. And they need to be, because this is what Christianity does, it responds in new ways of faithfulness to the time in which that group of Christians is living.

The idea that Christian theology has always been this beleaguered set of doctrines, now under attack from liberals is simply untrue to history. Christian theology has morphed and changed dramatically down through the centuries, always integrating new insights, new things learned by experience, in symbiotic relationship with the culture around us or the new ones we enter, just like Jewish theology was doing before and after the time of Jesus.  An easy example is atonement theory. Western Christianity has cycled through at least six major atonement theologies in the past 20 centuries. Each of them made plenty of use of Scripture and each of them made sense in the culture of their time. Old ones gave way to new ones when the old ones no longer made sense in the culture of the day. Wherever Christian theology ends up in 50 or 100 years, it is of course not the end of the process. We are simply swimming in the part of the stream we are in at this time in history.

And that’s the point of this blog. To be part of that process, part of the conversation, give people a chance to read and think through some of the things that friends and colleagues of mine are talking about these days. It’s part of loving God with all our mind.

Some Christians will refuse. They will plant stakes in the ground and hold to whatever theology was last compiled in their tradition, as if it were the finale, the sin qua non, the age-old perfect expression of True gospel (even though it was compiled 500, 200 or 100 years ago!)  That’s ok, no use fussing with them all day. In the mean time, there’s work to do.

Cheers

 

Emerging Churches believe the modern church’s evangelistic success is declining

Over a decade ago, a new kind of church began appearing that was, in many respects, very different than other churches on the landscape. As a catch-all term, I will use the word ’emerging’ to describe them, since they often identified with that term for several years.

Emerging churches observe that the church in the modern era, while it accomplished many wonderful things, has gradually become less and less effective at drawing people in our changing culture to life-changing experiences with Jesus.

Postmodern Christians realize that the cultural matrix that modern churches developed in – has changed dramatically.They believe that, in order to communicate the gospel effectively to a culture that no longer knows it by heart, we need to apply the insights learned by missionaries in other cultures about contextualization. They also believe that failure to do so is one of the chief reasons behind why the modern church’s evangelistic success has been waning.

Dan Kimball says it like this in his excellent book The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations “While many of us have been preparing sermons and keeping busy with the internal affairs of our churches, something alarming has been happening on the outside. What was once a Christian nation with a Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly becoming a post-Christian, unchurched, unreached nation…. the fifth largest mission field in the world.” (The Emerging Church, 13-14).

A member of a super-modern church said to me “People who visit church already know what we’re about and what we believe.” I contend nothing could be further from accurate.  Emerging churches realize that the people in our culture do not already know the Bible’s characters nor themes. Doubt it? Remember The Tonight Show’s clips on the streets of New York asking basic bible questions like “Who was bigger, David or Goliath” or “Name one of the 12 disciples”. Or, consider the much-told story of the two young women at a jewelry counter. Do you know that story? They are looking at cross necklaces. One girl says to the other “Are you going to get a cross with the little man on it, or one without the little man?” The other girl responds “What’s with the little man? Why would someone want a little man on their cross?” Emerging churches understand that postmodern people may think ‘Trinity’ refers to Neo’s girlfriend in The Matrix. 

Kimball has said “We start in the middle of a story that they don’t know or that they know very little about mainly through negative experiences. We offer them escape from a peril they don’t know they face, and we use words that either aren’t part of their vocabulary or that they don’t correctly understand.” (Kimball, The Emerging Church, 172).

I start with this point, because it informs so much of what has created the raison d’etre    for emerging churches. Members of emerging churches want the message of Jesus effectively getting to our culture. I stand squarely in the middle of historic and evangelical Christianity in affirming them in this desire.

So, modern church, what’s all that mean? It means this: It’s time we apply missionary science 101 in postmodern culture.

What’s good about this? What’s wonderful about knowing the church is not doing so great in evangelism? Simply this: waking up and smelling the reality is essential to dealing with reality. The first step in addressing an issue, is knowing there is one. Remember the men of the tribe of Issachar:  “…who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”   (1 Chronicles 12: 32).

 

A Different Understanding of ‘Gospel’

Maybe we are witnessing a shift in what we understand ‘the Gospel’ to be about. I’m coming across more and more examples of orienting Christian theology around the Creation narratives and the question ‘What was God’s original intent for Creation?’ Instead of starting with 16th century questions regarding how to get to heaven, the questions center around what the Creation narratives, and subsequent Scriptures,  tell us about God’s desire for how the Creation/Earth should look now. What His will is NOW on Earth (aka the Lord’s prayer).

This gives us a different starting point than what we traditionally think of in Western Christianity. We usually characterize the starting point of the Gospel as “How do I get to heaven?” This shift starts us by asking “What is God’s will for Earth?”

Instead of the controlling question being about life after death, it’s about life before death.

Instead of the controlling question/metaphor being “there’s a hell to shun and a heaven to gain,” this is “heaven is vacation between death and resurrection BACK ON EARTH – which is the centerpoint of God’s interest and redemption.”

This also casts the point of Jesus’ coming differently:  In the first case ‘Why did Jesus come?’ is answered with: “to get me to heaven.” In the second: “to enact God’s will on Earth – to restore shalom and Original Intent of the Creator for his humans and world.”

This might be why some of my Reformed/Calvinist friends are so upset by some of today’s shifts. It changes the narrative entirely. And if you are holding onto the Reformation’s narrative with both hands as if it is the sine qua non of the Gospel, then this shift in perspective is not one you like. It may explain the Reformed antagonism vs NT Wright regarding his work on the meaning of justification – because Wright reaches for a much larger biblical narrative than the Reformation question of ‘how am I justified?’

I wonder if this is a shift in Christian theology in general?  If it is, it’s big.   It changes what the whole gospel is about! Instead of the whole point being ‘getting to heaven,’ this conceptualizes the Gospel to be about  restoring God’s will for life on Earth – bringing our lives, and every aspect of life on our planet (ecology, politics, human rights, relationships, etc etc etc), under the Lordship of Jesus and God’s original intent for life on our world.

Some people have called this a bigger Gospel than the one most of us have grown up with. It looks more and more to me that you can legitimately demonstrate this understanding of ‘Gospel’ in the New Testament when you take off the glasses of theological assumptions you’ve grown accustomed to reading with. I am very confident that this is how the Old Testament characterizes humanity’s problem.

 

The ‘Mesa’ list of Ten Commitments

Mesa is a gathering conversation, on-line and in person, of emerging/Emergent Christian leaders around the world. Their website (http://mesa-friends.org/) says “What is mesa? La Mesa is a Spanish word for table. It suggests a way of coming together in mutual acceptance, respect, and service. It reminds us of the life and message of Jesus – who used a table to tell the story of God’s welcoming and reconciling love.”

Mesa lists ten commitments (below). I find them to be characteristic of the kinds of emphases emergent Christians have been talking about for some time now. One thing in this list will probably jump out bold to those against the Emergent movement. I might talk about that next time.

1. We believe in Jesus and the good news of the reign, commonwealth, or ecosystem of God, and we seek for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven by focusing on love – love for God and neighbor, for outsider and enemy.

2. We seek to know, serve, and join the poor in the struggle for justice and freedom … through advocacy, relationships, and action.

3. We seek to honor, interpret, and apply the Bible in fresh and healing ways, aware of the damaging ways the Bible has been used in the past.

4. We seek to reconnect with the earth, understand the harm human beings are doing to it, and discover more responsible, regenerative ways of life in it.

5. We seek the common good, locally and globally, through churches of many diverse forms, contexts, and traditions, and we imagine fresh ways for churches to form Christlike people and join God in the healing of the world.

5. We build inclusive partnerships across gaps between the powerful and vulnerable – including disparities based on wealth, gender, race and ethnic identity, education, religion, sexuality, age, politics, and physical ability.

6. We engage conflict at all levels of human society with the creative and nonviolent wisdom of peacemaking.

7. We propose new ways of encountering the other in today’s pluralistic world and we collaborate with other religious and secular groups in alliances for the common good.

8. We host safe space for constructive theological conversation, seeking to root our practice in theological reflection and seeking to express our reflection in practical action.

9. We value the arts for their unique role in nurturing, challenging, and transforming our humanity.

10. We emphasize spiritual and relational practices to strengthen our inner life with God and our relationships with one another.