Ecclesiology

Theology of the church

The Necessity of White American Christian Repentance

 At Personal musings I wrote a sober (perhaps depressing) account of our situation as citizens of the U.S.A, as a country and nation that is racist, has committed genocide and war crimes as it has attempted to bring its ideal of democracy and freedom across a contentment and as a beacon of democracy to the world.  I contended there, that any good such a nation produces is always already mixed with its evil. The Nation State and its citizenry are stuck in this impossible bind even as that people might seek to disentangle and only live into its good ideal, but the ideal is suspect.

For the U.S. this has a theological and ecclesiological dimension. I will suggest here (and this post isn’t the place to flesh this out fully, rather this is a sketch that maybe some would like to help flesh out), that part of what we are seeing still working itself out in our streets, in our policing and criminal justice system and our politics, is a working out of an heretical misapplication of the qualities and the purpose of the Body of Christ to a nation state.

Theologically what I described, in the other post, could be summed up by the theological concept of original sin.  Human failure and evil have powerful and continuing effect upon generation after generation of the original act.  Human good of its own can’t cancel out or redeem human evil and failure. At best, from the perspective of mere human action, what we can  hope for is a mixture that might be accented upon human goodness.  But any human goodness is always already tainted by human failure and human evil.  The solution is in two parts: one is repentance, a change of heart and mind and which is opening up to the second part of the solution is that which God ultimately did in Jesus of Nazareth, as the crucified one.

However, for white Christians in the United States this theological account runs aground as a way forward.  The reason for this is ecclesiology, or an ecclesiological heresy. This too is twofold: There is the identification of the United States, America, with images and role of the Church, the People of God, Israel, the Body of Christ.  The U.S. as America is a “City set upon a hill” to be a light to the nations.  At the same time Whites, those of European descent, think of themselves as Whites as the People of God entrusted to bring the truth, civilization and salvation to people of color.  These two misappropriations of ecclesial distinctive to a nation and a race create the divisions and racial segregation we continue to see in American Christian Religion.

Part of the mythology of the United States is the heretical appropriation of the purposes and reality of the Body of Christ to a particular Race , Whites, and a particular Nation State, the U.S.A, under the name “America”.  The mythological greatness of the United States and its role in the world is founded upon this appropriation of the role of the Church the Body of Christ by this Nation State.

While one dimension of this was something Europeans had already begun as Race and Whiteness were invented.  However, White American Christians took it further and identified it with the state formed out of the rebellion from the British Empire, “America”.

One can argue that White Christians then bear a particular burden for what we see today in our streets and justice system.

The hopeful response to all of this, the bad theology, the misapplication of some special role for the United States as America in bringing democracy and enlightenment to the world, is the repentance of White American Christians, which should include the renunciation of the mythology of “America”

This repentance and renunciation of this heresy of American exceptionalism, of bringing the light of freedom and democracy to the world, a light to the nations, can lead to further repentance both in regards to slavery but also in regards to the genocide of Native Americans.  White Christians need to stop appealing to the American mythology, recant any claim to exceptionalism for the United States, and seek to first be identified not as Christians but as members of the Church the Body of Christ.  Such a repentance and renunciation and subsequent affirmation would be one source hope in our time.

The Peculiar Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit

This reflection is a riff on Ephesians 1:1-14, and is the first post in a series of blog posts whose introduction  can be found here

Ephesians shows us what has been revealed about God’s will. Paul is an apostle within this will of God.  God’s will is that we are in Jesus Christ, joined with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The nature of these relationships is part of the revelation of God’s will. Ephesians conceives of these relations through the analogy of the household.

God is addressed as our Father in the opening verses of Ephesians, yet this “fatherhood” isn’t generic nor due to our being created by God (God as creator at this moment isn’t in view) Rather the Father is father due to the Father’s relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ.  God the Father (our Father) is father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  it is through our relationship to Jesus Christ the Son, that God the Father is our father.

The relation that  is “natural” in God, between Father and Son with the Holy Spirit is in terms of the Father’s relationship to humanity is God’s choice and desire for us.  This is God’s will that we are joined with the Son and thus are, by the Father’s choice, adopted Sons.  Sons here means both those united with and in Jesus Christ, and heirs of the household of God.  We as adopted have an inheritance through the Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of this relationship we have in and through the Son, Jesus Christ.

We may find this masculine language troubling.  We may find ourselves reifying the masculinity of this language and even attributing such reification to the author of Ephesians. Yet , “Paul” makes use of the  household, which in the culture of the time, was always a household of a father whose heir would be the son of the father.  However, we should see (and I think are intended to see) that this household and paternity of God are strange and peculiar.

The peculiarity is that we don’t have only one son.  Adoption for the sake of gaining an heir would have been somewhat commonplace for the time and culture, but the Father’s household doesn’t have only one heir.  All in the household are heirs, sons. We are brought into this peculiar household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit as sons, being joined to and with the Son.  We are guaranteed this position as sons through and in the Holy Spirit, which seals the inheritance and is through whom we have as the guarantee that we are heirs who will inherit.

But this peculiarity doesn’t end in this multiplicity of heirs and sons (whether male or female, Jew or Greek, bond or free, to remember for a moment Galatians).  It continues as it up ends ‘natural” process of inheritance.  IN the household of God the Father, inheritance comes through the actions of a living father, not a dead father.  And also the adoption comes through the Son (anticipating what is about to be said later on in Ephesians), specifically through the death of the Son and his coming to life again.  It is the passion of Christ  is the means of our adoption as sons.

We are brought into the Household of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, by God’s willing our identification with Christ which is our adoption as Sons through receiving the Holy Spirit who seals us as wills, and is who is given to us as the guarantee of our inheritance as adopted sons.  This all may seem to masculine, do women become men in this view? (some in the history of Christianity have come to this conclusion?) We shouldn’t cling to tightly to this identity as sons, for we will find that gender and roles that are played can be a bit fluid in this household.

For the moment, we should see here that the Household of God is about an economy of relationships, that in part can be spoken of in terms of the Relationship of God the Father with God the Son, and we speak of God as our Father because through the Holy Spirit we are joined to Jesus Christ the Son and in that union with Christ we are adopted and made sons, that is heirs.  Yet we inherit, not through the death of the Father but but the Fathers being ever living and our life. And even more peculiar our adoption is made possible by the death and subsequent exaltation of the Son.  Oddly enough in the household of God we inherit only through the ongoing life of the Father, yet we are adopted as sons through the death of the Son.

The plan or economy of the household of God, is a peculiar economy, and it is the economy of a relation that is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into which we are joined through faith in Jesus Christ.  As we follow “Paul’s” reflection on this household, the peculiarity and strangeness of this economy (plan) and relationship will only grow and multiply.

Church, (Sex), Family and Tradition

This is an interlude in the series of blog posts on Ecclesiology and human sexuality begun here.

Peter J Leithart recent essay at First Things Sex and Tradition, illustrates my frustration with much conservative thought on sex, sexuality and the family:  it clings tenaciously to Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics to critique modern and contemporary metaphysics and does so in defense of monogamy and family.  My difficulty has several facets.  First before St Thomas Aquinas achieved his synthesis of Aristotle and the Tradition of the Church, Aristotle wasn’t seen as an obvious friend of the Tradition.  Second there is the assumption that merely because there are current philosophies and understandings of science that challenge the Tradition, there is no possibility of dialog or analogous Thomistic synthesis between the Tradition and current knowledge and theory.  Third, is that there is the consistent failure to reflect on that in the Church’s history celibacy/virginity was the preferred state and not marriage and biological family.

The Church didn’t reject marriage, family, and sex, but in my reading of the Tradition it doesn’t seem to be as enamored of marriage and family as Modern and contemporary conservative expressions of the tradition are.

In regard to the church and its tradition. Leithart’s conclusion that family is the space that Tradition happens is an odd claim if one looks at the history of the Church.  First, if we take up Irenaeus of Lyon, the place of tradition is the gathered people of God around a bishop,  family isn’t in view at all.  While people with families are certainly participants in this process of passing on the Tradition but it is the Bishop that is the locus of tradition.  Also, the monastic tradition of the church has been transmitted for centuries by celibates, without the aid of family or procreation.  Generally it was familial relations that have often threatened the transmission of the tradition when dioceses and monastic foundations became part of familial inheritance.  If we look at the history of the church monogamous marriage and the biological family wasn’t seen as the locus or seen as necessary for the transmission of the Tradition of the Church and its faith.

This isn’t meant to deny that family can be a place of receiving from the past and even of receiving the faith and the Tradition of the Church.  I’m deeply grateful for my family and its long history of faith, and many of my friends have also so received the Tradition as passed through their family.  However, I would argue that my family was able to pass on the faith to me because it didn’t consider itself to be the locus of tradition and the faith, but rather regarded the people of God, the Church, as that space where I could receive the faith.  My family gave up its primacy in my life and brought me to the gathered people of God, the Church and its sacraments.  At a month old, I was Baptized and joined with people to whom I wasn’t related, and even those to whom I was related in the gathered people of God I first knew them as members of the church and only later in life realized that they were also my second and third cousins.  First, and foremost we were in Christ, members of the household of God, secondarily we were biological family.  For the church, it isn’t biological and familial inheritance that is the locus of the tradition, rather family can become a means for passing on the faith when it brings itself and its children to the people of God as the locus of belonging and reception of the Tradition not based on familial ties and biological descent and inheritance but new birth, which is from God and not human will.

One doesn’t need to have children within a monogamous marriage to understand or have tradition, and certainly the Tradition of the Church is not localized in the biological family unit.  When the biological family dies to itself and makes its union with Christ its primary identity then family is taken up into Christ and can join in being the locus of the transmission of the faith, but it is so because it relativizes biological birth by the spiritual birth of Baptism.  The people of God, created by God’s will and not procreation, is the only locus of the Tradition of the Church.

This study on sexuality and gender through the lense of ecclesiology and the Trinity continues with two posts on Paul’s analogy of the household of God in Epesians one: first post an interpretive riff, second post focusing on the peculiarity of the theme.

On a Way Toward an Ecclesial and Trinitarian Exploration of Sexuality and Gender

Since writing this post I’ve written three more posts moving toward an ecclesial and trinitarian understanding of sexuality and gender:

An excursus on Tradition

The Peculiar Household of God an interpretation of the first 14 verses of the Epistle to the Ephesians

Continued thoughts on the Peculiar Household of God

Rowan Williams, in his essay The Body’s Grace , proposes a way forward in thinking about human sexuality that can both hold to the Tradition of the Church and at the same time be open to and affirming of the diversity of human sexuality and gender expression and identity. As I read The Body’s Grace, Williams sees desire and human sexual intimacy as rooted in God’s own desire: “ God’s desire for God” and God’s desire for humanity and creation.  Our sexulaity and our sexual intimacy , or how we view and conduct ourselves as sexual embodied beings, is key to our spiritual development as persons (It is important to note here that celibacy is seen by Williams as a way of being sexual and having sexual intimacy, thus we don’t need to be “sexualy active” to be fully living into our sexual embodiedness.) What I take away from The Body’s Grace  (and this doesn’t exhaust the essay) is that human sexuality and gender expression and identity are bound up in God as Trinity, the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and the actuality of the Ecclesia.

 

In the connection of sexuality to ecclesiology (God’s desire for and being espoused to God’s people) Williams and Traditionalists are making a similar point.  In my own theological reflections on human sexuality and gender identity and inclusion of LGBTQ I’ve generally avoided thinking along the lines of ecclesiology and Trinitarian theology as being directly related to sexuality.  It dawned on me as I read Williams that part of the objection of Traditionalists is their sense that the views of acceptance of LGBTQ abandon the ecclesiological and trinitarian dimensions that can be found in the traditionalist position on marriage.  Another way to say this is that traditionalists often react to a denial that who God is and has revealed God’s self to be has consequences for the meaning of our sexuality and gender.  Further more ,traditionalists also are concerned that we who seek to be open to and affirming of LGBTQ tend to shy away from Trinitarian language (and the specific Name, Father Son and Holy Spirit) and high Christology.

 

Thus the downside of The Body’s Grace is that, although thinking in terms of Trinity, Christology and Ecclesiology, Williams avoids specifically trinitarian language and names. For instances he says “God’s desire for God” rather than the more directly trinitarian (and Johannine) “The Father’s desire for the Son.”  While Williams is clearly aiming at many of the same things traditionalists are aiming at he consistently stops short of explicitly invoking the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Incarnation.  Though, it is clear to me that the essay is thoroughly grounded in the Trinity and high Christology and high ecclesiology.  Or if the essay isn’t so grounded I find it to be quite solipsistic in its view of God and otherwise nonsensical.

 

However, whether or not I’ve correctly discerned Williams’ intent, through The Body’s Grace I came to see Trinitarian theology, Christology and ecclesiology as rich soil in which to be open to and affirm a diversity of human sexuality and gender expression.  So, I’m seeking to set out from The  Body’s Grace taking up this traditional language and ecclesial way of speaking about our human sexuality, beginning with the marriage of a man to a woman and its use as imaging God’s desire for God’s people and humanity, and move that into a broader understanding of the diversity of human sexuality.

 

Some might object that doing so is too risky. The risk is that taking this all very seriously will simply reinscribe the same patriarchal and heterosexist place in which we’ve already found ourselves.  For others the risk may be in bringing current conceptions of human sexulaity and gender into these orthodox spaces I will have already begun down a path that has departed from the Faith.  I do not deny these risks. However, in embarking on this risky endeavor I’m enacting another aspect of The Body’s Grace, the riskiness of sexual intimacy and true human and divine encounter.  If one believes God is Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit,  that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnation of the Son, The Word of God and that the Church is the locus (though not the full extent ) of God’s liberating transforming work then this must be risked. And I do trust in and rest in all of the above.  After reading The Body’s Grace I feel I can’t but risk this path.

 

I will begin with a reading of Ephesians along these lines. In doing so I will be looking squarely into (without discarding) “…and God created them male and female…” as well as the gendered and heterosexual images of God’s desire for God’s people.  However, I suggest our starting point be in this regard Paul’s understanding of the mystery of  “ …And for this reason a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  What is this mystery why is the marriage of a man and a woman as sacrament? The mystery isn’t’ the union of the two people rather the mystery is what is revealed of Christ and the Church.  But do note that I’m saying this is the beginning.  This is risky and difficult because traditionalists assert it is the beginning, the ending, and the whole story.  I wish to take Paul on his own terms and accept that as revelation and let this trust guide the exploration. This beginning point is to say our sexuality, and sexual and gender identity is an ecclesiological question and thus it is also a christological and Trinitarian question.  So beginning here while accepting the diversity of sexuality and gender identity and expressed as part of our humanity, is then to approach that diversity formed by Orthodox affirmations of God as Father Son and Holy Spirit and of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnation of the Son.  If you choose to follow this thread this will be a focus for the coming months in Ecclesial Longings.

 

I hope you my readers will engage this journey.  I do not have the end already sketched out, .  You who read this are seeing this exploration in process.  At the beginning of this risky endeavor I have some questions for you my reader:

 

What frightens you about this exploration? What in this exploration is risky for you?

 

What in the above sketch of our journey excites you or pulls at your heart?
Do you have suggestions of books and authors I should be reading and consulting?  Who should be our companions on this way?  I’m especially looking for voices that may be from the margins as well as mainstream voices.  Also, are there commentators on the book of Ephesians that I should be consulting as I take us on this journey?

Fragments of posts in progress

Lately I’ve been posting more at Personal Musings than here.  This space is theological, pastoral, and iconogrpahic.  The three most recent posts at Personal Musings almost fit in this space, yet I felt they were still too bound up in either too bound up in individual opinion, or still too unformed to for solid theological discourse..

What I post here I want to express what is more than just my opinion but is expressive of seeking to  have the Mind of Christ. At the moment this search and desire is my best way to understand what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ.  My thoughts, emotions, opinions need to be brought into the realm of being part of the body of Christ of living into and growing into the reality of my baptism.  There is much that can get in the way of this pursuit and reality.

In my three most recent posts at Personal Musings I’m exploring what can get in the way of being fully a member of the body of Christ, and how national identity and for the United States how Racism and slavery create huge obstacles for American Christianity to truly exhibit the Mind of Christ.

Today I posted my own discomfort with Patriotism, as well as my love for the U.S. but also its problems for my identity as a member of the Church the Body of Christ, and the affirmation that Jesus is Lord. In many ways we need to acknowledge as American Christians that we often attribute (whether Fundamentalists who say this is a Christian nation, or progressives who see our ideals as being exemplary for the world and adopted the world over) to the U.S. what actually is Christs and the body of Christ the Church.  Much of American sense of its self and its mythology is attributing ecclesioligcal identity to the nation state of the U.S.A.

For American Christians for us to find our way to the mind of Christ we really need to understand how racist ideology that was bound to the justification of European enslavement of Africans is bound up in ecclesiolgical heresy of confusing European and American culture (or Whiteness) with being the Church, the body of Christ.  European culture identified as Christian Culture and America as the City set on the hill, all while justifying enslavement of people deemed inferior because they weren’t European, White, is due to a heretical move.  I begin this thought here with a reflection on attempting to limit American racism to the confederate battle flag and terrorists like Roof.  Yet, policies of the United States government in its expansion into the North American continent was racist and based upon the displacement and genocide of native Americans all the while claiming an ecclesial identity in contradiction to the Mind of Christ.

Then there is the issue of do we obtain the Mind of Christ through Law or in Relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Yes, this is a recurring theme, and each time we think we have settled it Law raises its ugly head.  I explore a certain pastors comments about imprecatory prayer and his praying against Caitlyn Jenner, in exposing how his teaching treats the psalms as giving us a law rather than as an example of being in relationship to God, and thus how this pastor railing against Jenner shows him to be the hypocrites that bring the woman caught in Adultery before Jesus, and that his commitment to Law and the Scriptures as Law, keeps him from hearing Christ’s words to the crowd and the woman, and thus shows him to be preaching without the Mind of Christ.

What I’m working out is how the current upheavals around the continued oppression of African Americans (specifically by law enforcement and in our legal system) and our conflicts around human sexuality marriage and gender, are also ecclesiolgical, and much of our confusion around this is that American Christianity hasn’t been the church nor exhibited the Mind of Christ for most if not all of its existence.  There is some very deep repentance and renunciation that needs to take place in American Christianity if we are to find our way to being Church again.  Posts I’ve been working on for this space are attempting some articulation of how this is and why.  The three post mentioned above are the prolegomena to what I hope will appear here soon.

The Mystagogy of Easter: According to what Reality Do We Live?

Mystagogy for the Third Week of Easter: The Meaning of God’s Union with Humanity

(For the first in this Easter mystagogy series see The Doubt of Thomas the Twin)

We are encouraged in the texts for the third Sunday of Easter to revel in the joyful astonishment of the Resurrection and to ecstatically contemplate the amazing work of God in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the Gospel of Luke we remain on that first Easter day, with the Twelve and the disciples of Jesus in that upper room.

Now that we see and have passed through the waters of baptism and have died and been risen with Christ, we see two things:  1) This is an amazing thing and  is contrary to what we would expect and 2) it is what God had always set out to do and has been part of God’s revelation and what the witnesses to this revelation have consistently been saying.  Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the Scriptures and Hebrew prophets.  Moses, the writings and prophets all anticipated what is unexpected and astounding.

These two things show us that only after the incarnation passion and resurrection can we then read the Scriptures in the fullness of God’s self-revelation, and enter God’s saving and loving work in the cosmos for all time.  If we look and interpret the world and the Scriptures from without the vantage point of Jesus of Nazareth we see a very different world and hear a different word, read a different text.

This is a source of the joy and awe of the Resurrection: without the Resurrection and prior to the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, the universe and the human condition makes sense but leads one to only death and futility (“vanity”).  While this understanding leads the Church to affirm witness to God’s revelation in the particularity of the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, this biological identity isn’t a guarantee of hearing God’s revelation. The church has also affirmed that human reflection and contemplation on God and the cosmos has encountered something of God.  And on the level of needing completion God’s theophanies and self-revelation to the particular people of Israel and human attempts to know and understanding the divine share a similarity in that such understanding of God is only completed or fulfilled in Jesus Chris,t the incarnation of God.

This is a further mystery the fullness of God found in Jesus Christ doesn’t impart new knowledge , rather the fullness of God in Jesus Christ becomes a way to see all knowledge,  and understanding of  God.

The mystery we wrestle with now after – after Jesus’ Resurrection and ascension, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after our baptism- is that after is often much like before.

What makes the difference?  This is our awe. Nothing is erased, not even the suffering of God the Son. Rather it is all taken up into God, and thus sin and our separation are transformed.  What makes the difference is only the incarnation of God the Son as Jesus of Nazareth. We live either in the awareness of this reality or the reality of the universe before the incarnation, before the union of God and humanity and all creation.  We can see the world and in seeing experience the world in very radically different ways, one of true liberation and one of bondage and futile struggle.

This is the meaning of the Resurrection, there is a new way to be in the universe, and there is a new way of being for all of creation.  The created, physical, and human order is now united to God,  reconciled to God.  The logic of this way of being is life that has passed through and overcome death and futility.

We can still be blind to this, we can still fail to understand and see that God, in Jesus of Nazareth, accomplished a new thing. But if we commit to the path of theosis, to living in the Resurrection, we live in the age to come and no longer need to be bound to the age that was and is now passing away, but is still here bound to sin and death.

Cultural Identity and Expression in Worship

My Covenant Colleague Josef Rasheed‘s recent post about worship and cultural identity beautifully and gracefully articulates the role cultural expression plays in worship as well as its dynamic complexity.  However, I am aware a white pastor saying some of the same things would come off very differently (this isn’t a complaint, there are very legitimate reasons why Whites can’t speak in exactly this way about heritage and cultural identity and worship).  But I wish here to reflect on cultural identity, worship, and contemporaneity in dialogue with Rasheed’s post looking for that place of meeting he articulates so well in his conclusion, which I’d argue is beyond cultural identity or worship as expression, but union in Christ and the Body, the church.

Rasheed’s post has me asking what is my heritage (this is my word not Rasheed’s), what is my cultural identity?  As White this question is full of pitfalls, traps, and possible wrong turns.  Where as Rasheed’s cultural identity and heritage may be labyrinthine (he says it has taken many turns, and he has found it in unexpected moments) as White, for me to speak of cultural identity is mazelike.  Taking a turn may not lead to the way out, can lead to dead ends.  As White I can get lost in this talk of heritage and cultural identity.   Claiming my cultural identify as Swedish or German can simply fall into the realm of facade and kitsch, or worse kitsch as hyper identity. Even this hand wringing over what is my cultural identity is one of those pitfalls: cultural identity, heritage, and the like are what those exotic others have, I’m just White, the default, the measure.  In this pitfall we, who are without “cultural identity”, borrow, appreciate, and identify with what isn’t ours (this can happen in worship in multicultural congregations and worship).  The flip side of that is to attempt to guard against all that isn’t White, to bewail the loss of this or that, that the youth are into other people’s music or culture, etc.

All of this is of course bound up in failing to recognize, at the outset, that part of the heritage of White and European is the oppression of people of color in the process of creating White identity.  It should not be surprising that some of us take refuge in either the worship styles of “contemporary” or “traditional”(really what is familiar from our childhood).

What leads down some of these winding dead ends for Whites is to limit conversation of worship to that one hour (and for Whites it usually is exactly an hour) of worship on a Sunday morning.  When Rasheed talks about worship expressions outside of the Sunday worship service, his example is the funeral.  This resonates with me yet,  I remember in seminary we were taught that we may need to insist to our (White) congregations that funerals were worship.  If it is difficult to talk about worship and cultural identity as whites its in part because everything is so contained, things don’t bleed into each other.  Either worship is an isolated thing with it’s own sets of rules and music and “culture” or it must be seamless with the current culture of the individuals who show up to the worship service.

Through my goth identity I have opted for what is contemporaneous, a cultural identity without heritage. Though Goth now has a history, and may be forming a tradition of sorts. I’ve never been one who felt the need for this my pop culture identity to be expressed in worship.

In college I often spent time with an Armenian friend’s family at Easter.  There was food Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, a wonderful feast, and there was music.  Armenian Apostolic services are chanted and there is no instrumentation, the music sung outside of church and the chant are quite different. Yet in the family celebration was continuous with the Divine Liturgy. The two celebrations were one, yet neither reflected nor reproduced the other.  This resonated with me because I remembered such seamless but differentiated celebrations on the feast days in the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church of my childhood. By the time I was in college that cultural expression of worship (of the congregation in which I, my mother, and grandfather had all been raised) was a memory.  In the several thousand member church with multiple services and a contemporary worship service with rock band, worship was just another discrete thing I did in a week .  Neither “traditional ” nor “contemporary” worship appealed to a “sub-culture” an identity I was forming around alternative and goth music. Whether we sang traditional hymns or the latest worship song neither were current expressions of my identity.

I have long been drawn to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship.  This began when at 8 and 9 when I encountered the Cathedrals of Europe as places of mystery and awe.  Part of the draw is some worshipful connection to my Swedish and German cultural identity. Yet it is a bit complex, as it also alienates me from that cultural identity since most directly that identity is Lutheran and not Catholic.  In some sense often what draws me in worship is a sense of deep historical and cultural connection, liturgies and songs passed down through European Christianity from the Mediterranean. Chant Gregorian and Eastern also relate to childhood encounter of the European cathedral.  Though, I have difficulty except in a most vague and abstract way accounting for chant as an expression of my cultural identity.  To some degree connecting to this ancient worship expression fits with family stories of immigration that also seek to keep some historical and familial memory of Sweden or Germany alive in the foreign context of the U.S.

Where does this meandering in the midst of worship, expression and cultural identity lead?  In part Rasheed and I are talking about recognition and reception. Rasheed recognizes the Body of Chirst  in people singing a hymn in the Bahamas in worship in the Congo: the recognition comes both in discovering something familiar in what was initially thought to be unfamiliar and in finding one’s place in what was simply unknown.  In  the cathedrals in Europe, in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship I too find familiarity in what seem unfamiliar and my place in what is unknown.  Our recognitions are bound up in our cultural identities but not entirely accounted for by them: As Rasheed concluded “I was no longer American. They were no longer African. It is moments like these where the cultural expressions which are embedded in the soul of my people say Yes! We are God’s children, privileged to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.”

In these various worship expressions reflective of various cultures we encounter more than our own or others cultural identity in recognizing and receiving that which forms us into the Body of Christ. One may say that another cultural identity is to be formed out of these cultural expressions.  It is then possible that we may discern what forms us and does this work of formation, of knitting us into the living Temple, Christ’s body.

Here I’m brought back to all the pitfalls of saying these things as a White person. Whites have tended to assume that our way of doing things was God’s.  Through White ideology Europeans ceased to be those gathered with others from other nations and people but those to whom others were gathered.  When this heresy goes unrecognized it distorts the ability to recognize and receive, it undermines our ability to come to know the forms of the Body of Christ.

This is turning into the first in series of posts exploring worship, liturgy, culture and the roles of formation and expression in worship that forms us into the Body of Christ. There are two more posts in this unexpected and emerging series: here and here. The connection to these three posts isn’t at the moment self evident.  In part the series is about linking these up. LEK 3/13/15

The Remnants of Christendom among Revivalists and Pietists

Recently it has come to light that Holly Hobby Lobby who posed in a photo with automatic riffle in one hand and the bible in the other, proclaiming her love of God, country, guns, and “family values,” had an adulterous affair with a video editor fo the Tea Party News.  hollyfisherI’m not surprised.  Not because I think all Tea Party members and conservatives are hypocrites but because this person’s Christianity is a remnant of common sort of Christianity in Christendom.

More to the point, I’m not surprised because Holly Hobby Lobby’s Christianity, at the height of Christendom, would have been seen by many (including my forebears) at most as a place to begin the call to conversion and repentance. We don’t often talk about how Christendom functioned to keep people in the orbit  of the Church and Gospel (granted with other less positive effects).  Without Christendom revivalist and pietist call to conversion would have been meaningless.

Excursus: “Church” is a tricky term, and discussions of this sort often fail to define the term.  For the purposes of this post I’m combining a sacramental and pietist understanding of Church. Thus Church is both an entity, the Body of Christ, that transcends time and space and made up of the baptized as the body of Christ, and this body of Christ is best identified by those who are truly converted by and to Christ.  And while were at it: I see “Christendom” as the cultural, societal and political space where the religion of Christianity is dominant and provides a cultural and political supportive environment for the Church. I see the case of Holly Hobby Lobby as a way to flesh out these two definitions in a time of post-Christendom.

Let me give an account of Church, Christianity and Christendom, from a pietist perspective, and specifically Lutheran pietism.  In Lutheran Christendom, as in most forms of Christendom, the state made Christendom possible through making citizenship and being Christian equivalent. In Lutheran Christendom to be Christian was to be Lutheran. ( I know your hackles are all up, but lets let this be a lesson in history for now.)  Pietists tell the story of the State sponsored Christianity as a dead Christianity.  Pietism is in part a critique of dead dogma, and lifeless faith.  As we tell it, Pietists came along and brought the vitality of the Gospel and encounter with God into dead Lutheran orthodoxy.  What this early negative evaluation of Christendom doesn’t recognize is the ways in which Christendom and Christianity of  Lutheran Orthodoxy and State church brought people into the orbit of conversion and encounter with Christ, which then the Pietists could offer.  Pietism fails to recognize it’s own dependence upon Christendom.  Because of Christendom (and that means also dead orthodoxy)  Pietist didn’t have to explain who Jesus Christ was, nor who the God of Jesus Christ was and is.  In the Lutheran state churches since to be a citizen was to be a Christian, one had to know the catechism, the creed, and Lords Prayer.  We pietists, to use the tired phrase, brought head knowledge into the heart, but without Christendom, and the role of the state in making it’s citizens Christian, there would have been know mere “head” knowledge of the Gospel, God , and Christ.

 Pietist and other revivalist Christian groups in Christendom assumed and made use of the common cultural religious assumptions of being Christian, and called  conversion what was, from one point of view,  simply a deepening the Christian commitment and faith of the Christian citizens of Christendom.

What happens then when the fabric of cultural assumptions of Christendom are in tatters or non-existent, and a certain group of Christians, and Christian leaders, still seek to claim that to truly be a citizen of a particular state, one should claim a Christian heritage?  My answer is you get people like Holly Hobby Lobby, who through their own actions show they haven’t a clue what being a member of the Church is truly about, let alone what it would mean to follow Jesus Christ or to have the Mind of Christ, as we Pietists might say.

Granted in the United States Christendom was perpetuated and created through less overt political means.  In the U.S. Christendom was the result of cooperation between various Christian groups that came to be understood as denominations.  So, we still need to account for how we went from Revivalists and Pietists calling for deep commitment and conversion to Holly Hobby Lobby’s identity without conversion and change of being and mind.holly-fisher From the revivalist and “evangelical” view the culturally established and powerful denominations represented the domain of dead and nominal Christianity, as long as these “dead” denominations, the “mainline”, were willing to do the work of maintaining Christendom (if one wonders what I’m talking about a remnant of this reality is still found in the denominational affiliations of the United States Congress, and that oaths are still made upon the Bible).*  As the dominant mainline denominations began to embrace a more secular and pluralist view of the U.S. slowly abandoning Christendom (most likely unwittingly, or so puzzlement over their loss of relevance indicates) Revivalist and Pietist denominations were gaining ascendancy and began to take up the mantle of preserving Christendom, that is America as a “Christian nation.”  It’s not surprising then, that some members of these denominations would come to assume Christian identity as a heritage, and not as a break with the dead identity of the Christian citizen.

Revivalist and Pietist Christian language has now been put to use in shoring up Christendom.  Strangely then conversion for some results in being passionately patriotic.  Before the mainline abandoned Christendom, the revivalists and pietist could leave aside the question of Christian identity and American identity. We could call to conversion and new life in Christ, and such calls wouldn’t necessarily call into question ones American Citizenship nor even have to challenge patriotism. Christendom benefited from more vibrant faith as long as such a faith wasn’t too radical in questioning of the equivalence of citizen and Christian (we know such groups as the Anabaptist or the radical reformers, Mennonites, the Brethren and Society of Friends (Quakers) were seen as trouble makers.).  However, the pietist faith didn’t need to couch itself in patriotic trappings, since cultural assumptions of the Christendom had that covered.  If conversion led some to take up activism to correct the ills in society, well these reformers were working for a better Christians society that all tacitly agreed was a good thing (not to deny that these pietist and revivalist reformers were at times opposed, often by members and leaders of the “mainline”.)

Back to Holly Hobby Lobby: Such a form of Christianity comes out of a pietist and revivalist faith become guardian of Christendom. However, as such it is no different from the “dead faith” of Lutheran orthodoxy. My forbears would recognized it for what it is, at best the beginning, the spiritual space in which the call to conversion could take hold, at worst it is a dead, useless, and hypocritical faith.  As such Such a Christianity can hardly be called faith, and can’t claim to know much if anything of the Mind of Christ or the Church.

* Also, I can’t recommend highly enough Martin E. Marty’s book Righteous Empire: the Protestant experience in America for one account of this reality before and during the Modernist/Fundamentalist split and before the Mainline abandoned Christendom to support a more pluralist and secularist societal fabric. 

Words of Comfort and Call to Repentance #StayWokeAdvent

There was no manuscript for my sermon at the Oratory on Sunday December 7th, what follows is my own continuing reflection on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent. Edited 12/15/2014 for clarity and grammar

Scriptures for the Second Sunday of Advent were Isaiah, 2 Peter and the Gospel of Mark.  These Scriptures include words of comfort (from Isaiah) a call to wait patiently for the end(2 Peter), and a call to repentance (Mark).

What I asked us to sit with and I am still sitting with is hearing words of comfort together with call repentance in light of the anguish that so many feel and have long felt.

We though can rush too quickly to take on or apply these Scriptures to our context.  There are resonances surely but not necessarily an easy fit.

The call to comfort “my people” may easily resonate with the continued suffering of the African-American community as it continues to suffer under a racist system.  Yet the words of comfort spoken in Isaiah are to an oppressed people in exile but whom according to the prophets went into exile for their failure to act justly and to remember they were once an oppressed people freed by the act of God.  The people addressed aren’t just human beings in general or the oppressed in general but a particular people, who have been oppressed and then who oppressed their own, and who are now again a subjugated and exiled and oppressed people.

It was to those who returned from exile yet still waiting complete deliverance, once again under subjection and oppression, this time of Rome, These are those addressed by John the Forerunner’s ministry and baptism to repentance.  John the Baptist called the  people of God to repentance.

If we are to hear these Scriptures, in concert with what is revealed in our streets and is coming more and more to light in our institutions particularly the police, we must first hear the Scriptures as addressed to others, the people of God, Israel, the Hebrews, Jews.  I would say this is especially true for White Christians in the United States.

We as White Christians need to regain a sense of being grafted into the people of God.  We are those who weren’t a people and now are a people.  Then we can perhaps begin to repent of our sense of privilege and responsibility.

I’ve recently been reading from a variety of sources how often well meaning Whites seeking to be in solidarity with Blacks, will join a protest and then take the initiative or stick with only other Whites at the protest.  Or how the chant #Blacklivesmatter is changed to #alllivesmatter.  Also,  how attempts at acknowledging privilege (such as the problematic  #crimingwhilewhite) turns attention from the lives of Blacks and people of color to whites and our guilt and shame over our privilege.  These aren’t examples of repentance, but as often as not re-inscribe White dominance and privilege.

When there are studies that show that even whites who don’t express or show any overt racism or even racist attitudes still in simulation will give the benefit of the doubt to armed White men and will shoot people of color who are suspected of holding a weapon, we have some fairly deep and unconscious shit to turn from.  We need a change of mind and being.

Such a transformation for Whites may require  stepping back: letting others take the lead, being less concerned about ones identity as White or even to give up one’s need to speak.  What I hear from Black voices and people of color is that we as Whites need to listen and amplify their voices, not to speak ourselves.  Repentance for White Christians in America may be to turn away from all ways of self-preservation, including attempting to assuage guilt by seeking fix the problems.

Then if there is deep repentance and transformation by White Christians in that we begin to be able to see Blacks and people of color as truly human (thus #blacklivesmater) and as truly members of the Body of Christ.

We want to to do something so this will be difficult.  Yet, here, if we can here Peter’s words, there is an openness to God’s refining fire in us and the world.  At this moment there is opportunity in the turmoil and the protests to let the fire burn and refine.  We can allow this apocalypse ( unveiling) to push us to live according to truth and justice, that will hasten the day when God’s righteousness and justice will be all that we know.

Then in this is also our comfort both for we who wracked by guilt and shame for our being caught up and blinded by our privilege and dominance, but especially for those who suffer and are oppressed by the racist structures and actions of the police.

Words of comfort and call to repentance go hand in hand for the people of God. Sometimes as in our case some of the people of God need to repent for participating in the cause of oppression, so that those who are oppressed may find comfort.

This all begins by hearing “my people” as a people to whom we are foreigners, and to whom have been welcomed into by God in Jesus Christ.

White European Christians the Scriptures and the faith aren’t yours.  In fact we may have betrayed the very faith we think we can defend and spread.  Repent, and be comforted.

“Comfort O Comfort my people, God has come and is coming.  If justice seems slow in coming, it is because of God’s patience with all of humanity.  The place where God’s justice and righteousness shows forth fully is what God desires for all.  Let that knowledge change you. Seek that vision of the world and each other.

Comfort and change of mind and being go hand in hand.  Let your story dissolve into the story of a people of God journeying towards and awaiting the coming of God’s justice and righteousness that we don’t and can’t have or control. Give into the consuming and refining fire. Be comforted and repent.