Either you only follow tweets for TMZ.com or ESPN Sportscenter or live under a rock away from the din and clang of the blogosphere if you haven’t heard the rumblings about Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) which will hit bookstores on March 29th.  For those following the flurry of activity, the basic issue that arose this weekend started when Justin Taylor posted a blog posting entitled Rob Bell: Universalist?  and later John Piper, the grandfather of neo-Calvinism, Synod of Dort extreme sport TULIP revivalism mentor for Mark Driscoll, and author of Desiring God, offered a rather snarky and damning (pun intended) tweet that simply read “Farewell Rob Bell” in relation to claims that Bell’s new book espoused a universalist view of salvation and Bell has finally been shown to be in league with the devil.   There have been claims from neo-Calvinists for a while that Bell and his NOOMA videos were merely drawing people away from orthodox Christian faith.  Swords began to rattle and the blogosphere exploded.  As reported in Christianity Today’s blog this weekend, Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday… that is the top 10 trending of ALL Tweets globally. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor’s blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers’ personal pages. The article had about 680 comments as of this morning.  Taylor, who is a VP for Crossway Books which publishes some of Piper’s work, has since revised his article, softening the blows he delivered originally including aligning the fate and character of Bell with II Corinthians 11: 14-15 –  “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” [to be expected, this is from the ESV which is the authorized version of neo-Calvinist Piper fanboys (yes… boys) everywhere since, as we have been told, other translations such as the ill-fated TNIV are too “gender-inclusive” and leading to the feminization of the Bible].  As many have pointed out, Bell’s book has yet to be released and these comments are coming from people who have either only seen the book jacket copy or a promotional video that Harper Collins has begun to circulate in promotion of the book.  In short, the blogosphere is offering a premonition of things to come akin to the movie “Minority Report” where people are charged and convicted of crimes they haven’t committed but *might* in the future – taking them out now will save collateral damage.

Some passing thoughts on this bit of cyber rumbling:

1. At its most base level, these type of fist fights in Christianity only serve to remind the world that Christians are seriously wounded, angry people with too much time on their hands to muse about this stuff, are more interested in winning fights on grounds of certainty rather than faith (the fate of souls can be known with certainty?!) and seeming lack of critical faculties in regard to self-reflection so as to see how much damage this type of snarking does in the name of Christ.

2. As Scot McKnight recently noted in a recent Christianity Today blog, this type of activity serves the book publishers best – in this case Crossway and Harper Collins are the winner –  as the church burns itself to the ground and should be a warning to leaders who choose flippancy rather than true compassion and reconciliation as their response in the very public age of social networking:

I’ve not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue … today … and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP’s book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke — and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity’s provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

3. I will ‘out myself’ as someone who respects what Rob has done, how he thinks, and frankly his deep and abiding concern for the well-being of all people who Christ died for – and I do mean *all* people as testified to in Romans 5:18.  True, I don’t find all his theology to be my cup of tea, but that is what makes him real to me… Rob actually has the humility to say he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to offer a one-stop shopping for everything.  Quite refreshing actually.  I will certainly read the book and look forward to seeing what Rob actually says… not what people who haven’t even read the book think.

4. On whether universalism is something worth a theological fist fight about, I suppose it matters as far as our dialogues move us toward humility before a God who is as mysterious and unknowing as He is revealed and apprehendable.  As a theologian I work with students who struggle with the final end of things all the time.  As a pastor who has performed many funerals for children, adult suicides, and family members who are atheists and well as asked the ultimate fate of those who don’t profess a faith in Christ nor have prayed the sinner’s prayer per our traditional understanding and therefore I get asked the questions of heaven and hell quite a bit.

Where we put the cross matters…

My short hand answer begins with where we have put the cross in our midst. For many the cross is iconically viewed every Sunday in church sanctuaries as something bolted to the wall at the end of the sanctuary, high above the ground and therefore beyond our grasp:

In this view there is only one way to approach the cross – it is a 2D thing in our 3D world that is unmovable, without blemish, and only reached through our reason since we cannot touch it or experience in any way that is existential.  There is a front door and no back door to this cross and there just one way to get there.

But what if we consider the cross as something that is truly in the center of our lives and not merely bolted to the wall? What if the cross that Christ died on and made the way forward for overturning the pattern of Adam as we hear in Romans 8 actually offers a new way, a new path, a new centerpoint for our lives that is truly 3D and in our midst:

Golgotha was a real place in the three-dimensional world with a cross planted in the midst of everything and in the presence of and for all people (Romans 5:18) that could be approached from all directions for this was a death offered for all the world (John 3:16) and not merely those who find the one aisle or doorway our small tribes might conjure as essential in phrase or practice.  This is a cross that is in the middle of everything we are about and everything God wishes for us.  What a shame to bolt that gift to a wall like a prized trophy head captured and preserved safely above all the muck and mire of real life.

Now, am I advocating for an essential universalism whereby everyone is saved and taken to paradise whether they like it or not?

No.

I stand on the belief that my ability to choose is something God counts as so precious as to give me a choice to love or not and thereby I can opt out of relationship with God, deny the offer of paradise, and build my own Hell whether on earth or in the afterlife akin to Satan’s famous aphorism from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “For it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”  I say this with all the Reformed theology in my bones as one who affirms God’s sovereignty in all things, understands depravity as the result of being deprived of God’s grace in a broken world and twisting that which is good into a disordered and not ordered form of love.  To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

Is there Hell? Scripture and the tradition of the Church says that this is as real as the world in which we live.  In fact, Christ is fairly pointed in declaring that perhaps Hell is already here and we have a chance to do something about it for folks who are living in this very real and not imagined Hell everyday… and not merely blogging about it.  In this regard I believe in Hell because I can see, taste and touch its stench all around me in the lives of the marginalized and down-trodden, the broken hearts and afflicted, the ironic and the nihilistic.  To that end my thoughts on whether Hell is real have more to do with the hope and prayer that by the time we catch up to the action of Revelation 20 that God has already put into play that Hell will be as empty as freakin’ possible and that Satan and all the demons will be left alone and tormented by the reality of a cross that stands in their midst as well… a cross that is not impotently framed on a wall like an IKEA wall hanging but holds the door open for all time so that all who seek entrance to this place of separation have to try and get by it first.

As Scot McKnight wisely stated, this whole cyber spat will probably just blow over by the time we go to work on Monday and that is a shame in some regards since what we believe does matter… and it certainly matters more than making arguments about a book nobody has even read yet.

So… what are your thoughts on all this? Does it matter? Why or why not?

Faith communities love acronyms. There are landfills full of WWJD? bracelets to prove that acronyms distill complex ideas down beyond a catch phrase to a few letters and allow a certain hyperlinkedness to vast amounts of data.  In many ways, acronyms are a gift but they can also be a distraction by offering a seemingly summative and all-encompassing certainty.  The latest acronym to take youth workers and many church leaders by storm is MTD which is short-hand for Moral Therapeutic Deism.  Launched into the world via their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers (Oxford, 2005) which resulted from an in-depth study of American teenagers self-reporting about what makes up and sustains belief through the National Study of Youth and Religion.  The findings of the study distilled in Soul Searching hold that what is religious belief for teenagers in America across ethic and religious backgrounds is what Smith and Denton term MTD or Moral Therapeutic Deism which sees belief as a code of right and wrong behaviors (moral) that is centered on the question of what the person needs to feel better about themselves (therapeutic) and organized by a view of the Divine as completely separated from the realm of lived experience, completely at a distance, and only there to consult and affirm (deism).  After the study was released and the book published five years ago, a flood of reactions and later sub-industry has arisen around this model of MTD.  Churches are worried, parents are feeling guilty, and youth workers are frantically seeking new models to change this trend.  To be sure, Smith and Denton have some great data and the ‘wake up call’ to get serious about working with youth toward a deep and abiding sense of what makes up belief should be addressed.  That said, I do worry that many are adopting this MTD mantra without a critical examination of what is at stake and is the course correction proposed in Soul Searching and the MTD concern truly what we need.

In short:  is the supposed cure potentially worse than the disease?

Critiques of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching:

1. There is a danger of a “one size – fits all” view to what is considered biblical literacy and deep faith that plots toward rationalism over and against embodiment and practice :

Smith and Denton argue that “all religious groups seem at risk of losing teens to nonreligious identities[1] which assumes that there is an easily quantifiable religious identity is out there that we can appeal to that is somehow counterpoised to so-called ‘secular’ identities.  I have to admit being puzzled by this notion of ‘nonreligious’ identities and deeply suspicious of what the ‘religious’ persona that is backgrounding this assessment would look and feel like.  As someone watches a generation of young people grab a hold of all the consumerism that Evangelicalism had to offer to ‘mark’ their faith as real – shirts, hats, CDs, messenger bags, etc – as well as use catch phrases and social behaviors valued in certain circles but foreign to others, I am not sure I am buying what Smith and Denton are putting on the table.  They go on to state that “a number of religious teenagers propounded theological views that are, according to the standards of their own religious traditions, simply not orthodox.”[2] To that I would say… come to a Youth Specialties conference and see if you can find the orthodoxy that is being romantically idealized.  Here are people who work with teens and draw from the breadth and height of the Christian tradition – contemplative Celtic prayers mixed with various social networking platforms and funded by sociological and theological reflection.  One of the MTD critics who is voicing a similar concern to what I am reflecting on is Theologian Tom Beaudoin at Fordham University.  In the chapter “The Ethics of Characterizing Popular Faith” from his great book Witness to Dispossession, he underscores the fact that faith is complex and not an easily reducible thing:

[T]heology itself is discovering with ever greater complexity, the particular beliefs that are “sanctioned” by religious leadership, at any particular time and place, are deeply implicated in “nontheological” or “nonreligious” political, social, cultural, and economic factors.  The very opposition between “picking and choosing” and “accepting the whole” is itself a recent way of imaging, often for the sake of an intended control, what the options for belief are today – much like the opposition between fundamentalism and enlightenment, or relativism and moral fundamentalism.[3]

2. The study that Smith and Denton offer in Soul Searching doesn’t sufficiently allow for the inherently inarticulate nature of real faith.

Last time I checked, ‘faith’ was not ‘certainty’.  Following on from the fact that religious vs. irreligious identities are difficult and possibly problematic to view as a goal of our work with young people, the core of Smith and Denton’s work is a concern that youth cannot articulate what they believe with clarity and certainty. As they say:  “The bottom line is, when it comes to their religious belief about God, U.S. teens reflect a great deal of variance on the matter, and perhaps in some cases more than a little conceptual confusion.”[4]

Again, I would ask *who* actually has a LACK of variance in regard to their faith story and can offer a clear picture of belief

As noted by Nancy Ammerman in Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, faith is known through and practiced as “fragments”, “side plots” and “tangents”[5] more than systematically theorized and rendered.  Ammerman puts it this way: “A person may recognize moral imperatives that have a transcendent grounding without ever having a ‘religious experience’ or being able to articulate a set of doctrines about God.”[6] Think for example about the man born blind in John 9.  In this narrative, the man is questioned by many religious leaders (read: data collecting researchers) about what ‘happened’ to him.  Continually he can’t articulate a response that is enough for the religious professionals.  He ultimately states that in reference to who Jesus is that “whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,’ the man replied. ‘All I know is this: I was blind and now I see.’” (9:25)  And here is a man who Jesus celebrates and embraces for a faith that while can’t be articulated is a faith worthy of emulating as testified to its inclusion in our canon of Scripture.

3. The problem and later solution seems to revolve all-too-conveniently around institutional religion and doesn’t take into account the ‘Pandora Effect’ of social media, internet, web, globalization as a good thing

According to Smith, institutional representatives are the “agents of religious socialization”[7] and as such should bear the burden of righting the wrongs of MTD to a large degree.  That is fine on one level – churches, synagogues, mosques, and other institutional locations should continue to seek new ways of spurring on conversations for and about faith.  Yet what Smith and Denton don’t take into account is the role that other networks play is framing faith and that, in many ways, these serve to remind us that God does indeed move in mysterious ways.  Tom Beaudoin makes the following comment in regard to this aspect of Soul Searching: “The authors imagine religious beliefs as starting from pure official teaching, stewarded by contemporary religious leaders, well or poorly, through official channels, such as programs of religious education.”[8]

Now… I don’t know about you, but faith is a messy thing and how ANYONE comes to some understanding of God and what resources that belief is anything but clean.  When I was in high school, I had a lot of questions about what belief was supposed to be and thought that most things about Christianity was more in line with the Marxist critique: simply a ‘opiate for the masses’, a balm for those unwilling to embrace the horrors of a life without God with courage and choose a fairy tale instead.  So I read everything I could get my hands  – from Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain to The Tao Te Ching – in trying to make sense of what meaning actually was.  Yes, I count myself as a Christian and yes, I situate myself within the orthodox understanding of the faith as framed in the ecumenical creeds and Scriptures canonized by the apostolic faith.  But did my starting point begin with the Church?  Not really.  Is what resources and sustains my question for a deeper and more abiding faith generated solely by the church within which I find myself?  Somewhat.  Am I clear and articulate about what faith is for me?  I suppose better than some.  Does this cause me anxiety?  Not at all.   This leads to my last comment…

4. Eclecticism is not necessarily a bad thing…

Piggybacking on the last concern, there is the assertion in the MTD industry that eclectic approaches to faith development is something of an aberration and that authentic faith is to be found in categorical resolute allegiance to a particular faith tradition.  When Smith makes the statement that  “U.S. teens as a whole are thus not religiously promiscuous faith mixers”[9] he is seeing this as a good thing.

Is this a good thing?

Smith and Denton go on to state that “based on our experience talking through these issues face-to-face with teens around the country, we estimate that no more than 2 to 3 percent of American teens are serious spiritual seekers of the kind described above: self-directing and self-authenticating people pursuing an experimental and eclectic quest for personal spiritual meaning outside of historical religious traditions.”[10]

In many ways I don’t find comfort in this at all.  When did seeking manifold resources by which to ground and still release a faith in being that is larger than institutions, larger than reason, more compelling than route recitation of dogma and more enlivened than an appeal to a dead past?  Students I know find ‘common grace’ flooding through the music they listen to, the books they read in comparative lit courses, in the art they study from the 16th century, and even in the characters they follow on TV shows as ephemeral as Glee, as gritty as The Wire, as bizarre as Lost, and as ridiculous and ironic as Monty Python.  This is in keeping with St. Paul’s repose to the world as he spoke to the Athenians in Acts 17 – seeking not merely the so-called orthodox rendering of what constitutes the faith tradition, but beginning with a tour of their museums and finding whatever cultural artifact seemed to shimmer and resonate with that which connected with their searching for meaning.

So… what do you think?  As you listen to the cry of concern voiced by the MTD industry calling us to a deep state of alarm and fear for the sake of our teens, can we temper that fear and concern with knowledge that faith has always been a messy thing that is difficult to articulate, and often drawn from a crazy and seemingly random set of sources?


[1] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 88

[2] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 136.

[3] Beaudoin, Tom. Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[4] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 42.

[5] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives (New York: Oxford UP, 2007) p. 226.

[6] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, p. 226.

[7] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 27

[8] Beaudoin, Tom Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[9] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 32.

[10] 78

As I have begun to receive comments on my recent book Freedom of the Self, one of the questions I have had is for follow-up reading – people who are tilling the same soil I am seeking to work in bringing together continental philosophy, Christian mysticism, and a deep concern for the contemporary accelerated culture within which live in Western culture.  One of the books I point people to right away is Peter Rollins’ 2006 book How (Not) to Speak of God. It is a dense wee book filled with amazing insights from Rollins work in the academy as a research associate at the Trinity School of Ecumenics in Dublin (he holds a PhD in Post-Structual Thought from Queen’s University, Belfast) and has kept that scholarly reflection in tension alongside faith communities such as a collective in North Ireland  he founded called ‘ikon’ that in true Emergent spirit is a blended presence of live music, visual imagery, soundscapes, theatre and ritual in an act of what Rollins terms ‘transformance art’.

One cannot read Rollins’ book without seeing the role that irony has played and currently plays in contemporary thought be it theological or culturally embedded.    It has been said that irony is the final trope of theology – that the literal assertion of any theological proposition be it creedal, hermeneutical, or

experiential is ultimately radically undone in the face of its practical outworking given the inherent limits certainty has on things of faith.  Kierkegaard’s famous aphorism that “it is the objective label ‘God’ that ultimately negates the subject” or Martin Heidegger’s grand pronouncement “Das Heilige läßt sich überhaupt nicht ‘theologisch’ ausmachen, denn […] immer dort, wo die Theologie aufkommt, [hat] der Gott schon die Flucht begonnen” (“Wherever theology comes up, God has been on the run for quite a while”) both resonate with the notion of irony as a grand theological trope.  In short, you can’t box up the gift you really want after all…

In Rollins’ book, the place of theological irony is not overtly labeled per se but (rather ironically I might add) is deeply implied throughout.  Rollins lays claim to this tradition in his introduction (ironically subtitled “the secret” given that Rollins quickly notes that there is no secret) by citing Wittgenstein’s final sentence in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (xiii)    As Rollins further argues throughout Part 1 of the book, the tradition of ‘naming’ God has de-evolved into a practice of ‘heretical orthodoxy’ where authenticity in relation to God is falsely boundaried by theoretical constraints born after the Enlightenment where God is only apprehended ideologically vis a vis a disembodied theology.   Here Rollins chooses conversation partners amidst the ‘Masters of Suspicion’ (Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx) and seeks to embrace a way of approaching God that acknowledges that “one of the central elements of the postmodern critique, namely the recognition that relativism (i.e. the claim that there is no meaning) is ultimately self-contradictory, for to say there is no meaning to the universe is itself a meaningful statement, as it makes a meaningful claim about the way that the universe really is.” (11) The path upon which Rollins ventures is a contemporary recovery of the apophatic tradition.

Rollins appeals to the work of Pseudo-Dionysus, Meister Eckhart and other mystics within the Christian faith by noting the challenge of naming God is perpetually bounded by kataphatic or positive language that would correspond with the procession of the divine out of itself into its manifestation in and as the cosmos, as opposed to apophatic or negative language would articulate the path of the created soul’s return to the unmanifest divine transcendence.

Simply put, kataphasis for Rollins has given way to what he terms ‘the idolatry of ideology’ where the primacy of validity given to ideological renderings of God is comparable to fashioning idols.  Conversely, the road of apophasis leads to a silence that continues to be anything but quiet since God desires to be known.  As Rollins concisely states, “revelation [of God] ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown.” (17)   What Rollins advocates as the via media – the middle way – through the constraints of kataphatic and apophatic extremes is what he terms “the third mile” or what philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas terms the way of eminence, where ‘naming God’ would bespeak the completion of the created soul’s return to God as the unmanifest source of the manifestation which the creature is.  This ‘third mile’ of eminence is for Rollins the way of orthopraxis (right action) in fulfillment of orthodoxy (right belief) .  Referring to Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles, this way of God is a movement of procession where the transcendent cause shows itself transcendently embodied in the cosmos whose procession it is.  As Hans von Balthasar has put it long ago, in the kataphatic mode of theology, emphasis is placed on the “manifestation of the unmanifest.”   As immanent to all creation, God “has the name of everything that is” and “the theologians praise it by every name”.   In this regard Rollins agrees yet calls our naming/theology to be incarnate/praxiological.  Rollins makes clear that it is only in going this ‘third mile’ – which he reframes later as going from ‘knowledge’ (orthodoxy) to ‘love’ (orthopraxy) – fulfills the meaning of theology into superabundance.  In this way the Christian path is one that moves beyond mere ethics “[f]or ethical systems allow us to follow rules whether we love or not.  While ethics says, ‘What must I do in order to fulfill my responsibility?’ love says, ‘I will do more than is required.’  (65)  Rollins concludes his book with a number of rituals and liturgies that provide typologies for performing this ‘third mile’ in the midst of marginalized and silenced communities.   As I mentioned earlier, there is a level of irony in the writing of this book – the seeking to unname God in order that God may be made known as a project that ‘names’ the unnaming as such in print.  That said, I commend How (Not) to Speak of God to those seeking a confessional approach to this deep tradition of theological irony and apophasis and perhaps finding means to (re)new ways for services of worship that give voice to those silenced as well as those seeking the name of God as one ‘unnamed’.


There is something I need to get off my back.   One of the topics I realized recently that I haven’t dialogued about on the blog is where I find myself theologically – in short, what I believe about God.  People I am around are usually trending toward one of three vectors:

(1) Those for whom some abstracted religious exploration animates their everyday life and touches on some aspect or combination of themes drawn from fairly traditional religious traditions.  In this I am fortunate beyond belief to have such a wide range of friends and colleagues who represent just about every imaginable belief system under the sun: atheists, religious libertarians, agnostics, fundamentalists of every stripe, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, reformed and orthodox Jews, and one friend who calls herself a Zoroastrian but only because she didn’t know what else to put in the “religious views” section of her Facebook profile and thought it sounded cool.

(2) Another group of folks would be the majority of the people I swim around with day to day:  people who would call themselves Christians of one persuasion or another: cultural and devote Catholics, liturgically geeky Lutherans, heady Pentecostals, loads of Methodists of every stripe, herds of self-described non-Denominational folks and Evangelical types, and thoughtfully Biblio-centric Episcopalians who dig on KEXP.org, the Bible, and vestments that smell of incense.

(3)  The last group are a jumble sale of secularists of every stripe – those blissfully indifferent to spiritual things (“whatever floats your boat”) or product-centric consumers enraptured with the transcendence of buying things where the warehouse sales  and 1-click web purchases take the luminous place of grand cathedrals and daily devotions due for the pious or politicos whose sense of justice and human potential is best met in Ira Glass aphorisms, reading Harpers in indie cafes, and populating FB status updates with stump quotes linked to key broadsheet periodicals.

No one is a purist in this life and all who find home in Western culture is tainted (for better or worse) by all three vectors – religious seeking writ wide and abstract, the blessing and curse of Christianity’s dominance in culture, and secularism found in government, consumerism and indifference ebbs and flows through most everyone life.

I too am a composite located in the midst of these vectors – a theological geocache of sorts – and yet still frame much of my heritage around my work as a theologian and, more specifically, a Presbyterian.  This Scottish tradition of the Reformation holds a particular view on Christianity and culture at large.

Much of why I am a member of the PC (USA) is summed up in the following three areas of theological focus – the three ‘C’s of Presbyterianism:

I. Christ centered – meaning making finds its center in the Christ event

Presbyterians have a theology that places all of life in the hands of God.  While this is in no way distinctive in the religious marketplace, the notion and vital position of God’s sovereignty is the cornerstone of Reformed Theology after John Calvin and a key orienting concern for my tradition.  The geocache of this is the movement of God’s reconciling presence within humanity through the incarnate life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe that God is intimately involved in the details of daily human life as seen in the incarnate Christ (Emmanuel = God with us) and continuing the in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We recognize how easy it is for people to place idols of all kinds in the place of God (Calvin called human beings “idol making factories”), to worship many things before the worship of God. As a result of this assertion, Presbyterians hold that humanity has a predilection to sinful behavior – a desire to be isolated and removed from God (Sinatra’s “I’m going to do it my way” is the modern version of John Milton’s notion of Satan’s fall from grace framed in the exclamation “it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”). However, the truth of this is not the entirety of our lot in this life:  at the same time humanity strives toward isolation Presbyterians assert that we also hold that humanity is loved and forgiven by God in ways that are inexplicable, undeserved and utterly surprising. God’s grace  is the cause of our daily renewal and therefore we – all of humanity – is invited to live in the fullness of hope and mercy regardless of our desire to be in isolation.  All we have to do is accept the invitation to love – to be loved and to return this love with an intimacy that is found between where a vine grows and binds itself to a branch. In all of this, as the reformer Martin Luther described himself, Presbyterians hold that we are “justus et peccator”, “made righteous and yet a sinner.”

Presbyterians ground much of our thinking in this regard in our structure of governance – that if how we choose to worship, to gather in community, to support one another, to love the world and sacrifice for the sake of others.  Where some Christian sub-traditions are named and therefore framed around a personality (John Wesley for Wesleyans, Martin Luther for Lutherans) – Presbyterians are akin to Episcopalians and Catholics by framing the tradition around its governance structure.  One document that holds us accountable to is the Book of Order which articulates these key theological values: God alone is the Lord of the conscience. That is, people, being prone to error, are going to be wrong a good portion of the time. Conscience cannot be coerced by any human agency, but only persuaded by God. All power in a Christian body, we believe, is persuasive.

Another way that Presbyterians keep this Christ centeredness core is through worship that is renewed yet traditional – we worship together using new music and old music, new prayers and old prayers, new ways and old ways, using the freedom given to us by our Book of Order.  Preaching and teaching is a big deal and for some Presbyterians get a bit heady in their worship services.  Education has always been a high value from the Scottish reformation (Scotland has four universities founded in the later medieval period while England had only two) and as such this is a tradition that places a high value on preaching that stimulates our minds and moves our hearts, instructs as well as inspires.

Presbyterians are a ‘big tent’ tradition in that we hold (as our system gives us the freedom to hold) a variety of views on scriptural authority and theology, yet we are one community, united around the grace and love of God demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  One of the things I greatly appreciate is how diverse our tradition is… even when it is difficult to be in the same room together.  Yet isn’t that how family is?

II. Creedal

Presbyterians govern themselves by a constitution, based on our Reformed theology that gives  us direction and insight for doing things “decently and in order.” This constitution contains the historic and ecumenical confessions of faith of the church from the earliest days of Christianity (The Book of Confessions) including the Apostles and Nicene Creeds which join us to the Church universal.  This creedal affirmation is not to replace Scripture nor denounce our personal and corporate experiences of God, but likened to a lens, it gives us clarity in reading the fullness of our lives and only helps to frame the Scriptures and traditions of the Church better.  This also is to help frame the rules for the day to day business of being the church outlined in the The Book of Order which I mentioned previously.

III. Connectional

Lastly, Presbyterians do not try to be the church all on our own in their local gatherings, but are connected together in a web of relationships that extends accountability to the larger church. Likened to concentric rings emanating outward from a rock hitting the water that once they hit the shore return in waves back toward the center, our sense of community in local churches reaches out to the larger family of believers and the larger collective is always viewing its business in light of the local congregation.  A collection of churches in a region are joined together as a Presbytery. Each congregation in the region sends its pastors and elects Elders to represent it at Presbytery meetings which occur every other month on average. As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament I serve as part of Seattle Presbytery and also participate in the life of my church – North Creek Presbyterian. A collection of Presbyteries in a region are joined together as a Synod. Each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it at Synod assemblies and there is a nationwide General Assembly to which each Presbytery sends elected pastors and Elders to represent it (the General Assembly – or GA – is occurring in July 2010).   Rather than a system of endless committees and administrative nightmare (which some people see our church tradition as being… and at times guilty of!) this is a system that provides the means of accountability at all levels. There is always in place an approved method of dealing with disputes, complaints, unhappiness and inappropriate behavior by officers and/or members.

One of the things I celebrate most about the PC(USA) is that we have a form of government that encourages us to be the “Priesthood of all Believers.” We are a representative democracy, electing our leaders in administration, spirituality, and service on a regular basis. In fact, the form of government of the United States of America is based so heavily on the Presbyterian form of government that at the time of the Revolutionary War, the King of England was known to have called it the “Presbyterian rebellion.”

We are one of the few denominations that ordain lay people, thus placing our clergy and our laity on an absolutely equal footing. We ordain people to the office of Elder (or Presbyter, from the Greek) to be leaders in spirituality and administration. We ordain people to the office of Deacon to be leaders in service. We ordain people to the office of Pastor to be preachers, teachers, and administrators of the sacraments. We are a denomination that has ordained artists, writers and musicians to their respective callings for the service of God’s people. All our ordinations are equal and all are for life.  The fact that I serve a denomination that sees the manifold ministries of the Gospel broadly expressed and corporately supported in such incarnations as children’s television (Fred Rogers of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” was a PC(USA) minister) to novelists (Frederick Buechner) brings me joy.

What about you?

Where do you trend on these three vectors I described in the beginning?

There is a line in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wee 1943 book The Little Prince that caught my eye the other day: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”  It is such an interesting term this notion of taming.  The tension surrounding what it means to be human is ultimately bound up (pun intended) in this notion of whether we are to be tamed or allowed to go native if you will.   From the Age of Reason onward, this tension is framed by a longing for recovering that which is lost as Western culture moved further into a technological dependence. In his 1734 “An Essay on Man”, Alexander Pope romanticised his view of the Native Americans this way:

o, the poor Indian! whose untutor’d mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv’n,
Behind the cloud-topp’d hill, a humbler heav’n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac’d,
Some happier island in the wat’ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
To be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel’s wing, no seraph’s fire:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

While there was this eighteenth century longing for a seemingly simpler age, as Western culture entered the twentieth century, the call was to be more than merely civilized as seen in Frederick Nietzsche’s calling forth to humanity to embrace the Übermensch (Superman/Overman). In his 1896 masterwork, Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche sees the call of the Übermensch as merely our destiny in that all things seek to transcend their natural state as humanity leaves behind the Victorian age and embraces the twentieth century:

“I teach you the overman [Übermensch]. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape…. The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth…. Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” – Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue, 3–4)

And yet Western culture has become deeply suspicious of taming.  If you are a naturalist, taming evokes snuffing out the carnality and majesty out of something: powerful Elephants reduced to mundane circus tricks, horses that once ran free now walking in slow circles at children’s petting zoos, dogs shackled to leashes and trotted around paved sidewalks while suburbanites yak away on cell phones.

Going back to The Little Prince, taming is something of another order than what Pope and Nietzsche are fixated on.  Taming is making a tie to something, a tether, a bond.  It is way to give boundary to our life so that we can not merely walk away from our commitments and choose to stay put, be present, and ultimately to love.  Taming in not taking the divine spark out of something, but rather releasing ourselves to the imaginative possibility that goes beyond what we can see with the naked eye.  In The Little Prince, a downed Aviator encounters the little prince in the Sahara desert.  the Aviator is asked by the little prince to help him find his lost sheep.  He fears that the sheep will be eaten if he is not cared for and pleads with the Aviator to ‘draw’ his sheep so he can see it and know that it is cared for.   After some failed attempts to draw a ‘real’ sheep, the Aviator finally draws a simple box, which he explains has the sheep inside – that the sheep must be seen with imagination and not mere realism.  The prince proclaims that this is perfect and feels that the sheep is now indeed safe.

To be tame is not a bad thing. It is a commitment to being with each other rather than being wild for the sake of ourselves. In a nutshell, this is my deep concern with the neo-manhood movement that is going on after John Eldredge and Mark Driscoll.  This push to find our humanity in beating our chests, buying vintage 4×4’s, and taking the world on through power and will is certainly something that Nietzsche hoped humanity would embrace and many Evangelical males have – think  Übermensch with hair gel, soul patch, and screamo CCM blaring out of the tricked-out Tahoe.  Rather than being “Wild at Heart”, can we find some hope in binding ourselves in full presence with those we are called to care for, to embracing rather than running wild, and waiting for what God has to show us in imagining a new way of life rather than seeking a savage realism?

Just askin…