We don’t need no thought control?

This Facebook post by Rachel Held Evans has a lot of likes from a lot of people I know.

Reading her post. I find myself having a reaction I have frequently to spiritual and theological commentary. I usually find myself agreeing with a lot.

Yes, good news must be good news to the poor or it is not good news.

Yes, theological reflection is not the private reserve of white guys with PhDs.

Yes, everyone is qualified to talk about faith.

But in these agreements, I know that Evans is not really agreeing with me. Her point is not these simple truths, but a polemical one. What she is arguing is that these young white theologians she has in mind “seem” to think certain things and those things are bad. She is painting with a pretty broad brush here and speaking in generalities, so it is not exactly clear how she knows what these people think. It would be helpful if she’d quote or even name her targets. It is hard to know if her adversary in this argument is a straw man, a phantom, or a actual person expressing the actual arguments she is putting in their mouths.

But putting this aside, I do have a deeper question about this argument.

What I’d like to know from Evans — and I guess the question I have for my United Methodist friends who liked the post — is how do we hold her statements here up against a fairly broad based conversation in the church that we have done a bad job of catechesis for the last 100 years and that our people are largely biblically illiterate.

I recall the words of that straight, white — but old so perhaps not unclean in Evans’ eyes — theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who said that his students come to his classes without minds formed well enough to have anything interesting to say. And yet, Hauerwas would argue strongly that the most interesting thing the church does theologically is be the church in the midst of the world in all its diversity.

There is a movement in the church — not by any means a universal one – to raise standards and requirements for membership. A lot has been said about the need to teach our people the doctrinal foundations of our faith.

Doesn’t the very notion that people need education and training in order to be well-grounded Christians run counter to the sentiment of Evans’ post?

Or is there a way to hold the two together that I am not seeing?

Mr. Wesley’s fabulous contraption

Scripture, of course, is the source as well as the paradigm of Christian speech. What we say must be said faithful to the language of Scripture. This is a complex task because it is no means clear how the many ways of expression in Scripture are to be said coherently. The investigation of that process is called theology. But theologians are often tempted to say too much because the reticence of Scripture, the refusal of Scripture to tell us what we think we need to know, drives us crazy. I sometimes think that the work of historical criticism, essential work for helping us read Scripture faithfully, is a rage against the silences of Scripture. Why do not the Gospels tell us what Jesus is “thinking?”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words

If I were to rename this blog, I would be tempted to steal a phrase from Hauerwas and call it “Rage Against the Silences.”

Rage is not really my thing, but I love that turn of phrase. It speaks to me out of the same place that “An arrow through the air” does. It also capture the desperation I often feel when confronted with silences in my life. To sit in the presence of silence — especially the kind you get when you really want speech — is a discipline I have barely begun to develop.

I don’t think John Wesley was very good at abiding the silences, either.

I was baptized in a United Methodist Church without ever being exposed to Wesley. I later went on to read and study Wesley’s theology as an amateur. As I consider what I have learned from this work, I do wonder whether Wesley fell prey to the temptation of the of the theologians that Hauerwas mentions here. Did he fill up the silence of Scripture or steamroll the conflicts in the interest of constructing a method? There is a sense in reading Wesley’s theology that it works too well. (I know Calvinists will howl about that last line. That’s okay. Let them howl.)

Wesley’s theology is brilliantly constructed to speak to the spiritual condition of people conscious of sin, mindful of wrath, and desiring to know the way of salvation. It is practical and carefully articulated. It shows all the signs of being developed by a skilled practitioner and careful observer of the human soul. It is well engineered and elegant.

But like any finely crafted machine, it does not work very well at things it was never designed to do. For instance, Wesley just waves his hand at the question of salvation outside of Christianity. He neither condemns nor saves Muslims and Hindus and Jews. He merely says that is a question for God and not for him.

I respect that answer, but I do not find it terribly helpful in multi-faith America.

Or to hit even closer to home, Wesley’s theology is so dependent on cognitive processes, that I wonder how it speaks to those who by age, injury, or disability cannot form the proper mental states to participate or cooperate with grace as laid out by Wesley.

There are ways we might answer that, but Wesley does not help us at all with those answers. His concern was with the machine he was building, and he does not speculate about other problems, or at least nothing I have seen in his works shows such concern.

I don’t mean this as an attack on Wesley. I’ve learned far too much from him for that. But I do wonder how to properly receive him. I wonder this, in particular, because I take quite seriously the vows of ordination the church may one day ask me to take.

How do I reside in the silences of Scripture while remaining an heir to the fabulous contraption Wesley constructed?

Theology is practical

Theology, to be Christian, is by definition practical. Either it serves the formation of the church or it is trivial and inconsequential. Preachers are the acid test of theology that would be Christian. Alas, too much theology today seems to have as its goal the convincing of preachers that they are too dumb to understand real theology. Before preachers buy into that assumption, we would like preachers to ask themselves if the problem lies with theologies which have become inconsequential.

– Stanley Hauerwas & Will Willimon, Resident Aliens

Out of the isolation room

This summer working at the hospital, I’ve had several visits with people in isolation rooms. To go visit them, I have to put on a gown and rubber gloves and sometimes a mask. When I leave the room, I throw all these things away and wash my hands again.

I do all this because the person is infected and diseased and cannot be let out of the room.

Now, by one way of thinking, the doctor’s work is to kill off the infection, so the patient will be saved. But thought of another way, the real problem the patient has here is that he is dangerous to everyone around him and can’t leave that room. The ultimate bad result is that he will die and never leave that room again. What he needs to be liberated from is that isolated room and freed to be back in the world again. In order to do that, his infection has to be purged from him. Killing the infection is a means by which his liberation from isolation is made possible.

By way of analogy, sin is a contamination and disease. So long as we are so infected, we cannot get out of the isolation cell know as the world, both because we are too weak to do it but not inconsequentially because we are dangerous to those on the outside. Granted, it is a spacious and often comfortable isolation room, but we are trapped and unable to enter the world that is without sin and corruption so long as we are tainted.

Jesus came to usher us into that holy, pure, and beautiful kingdom. But first, our sins must be purged by the means of cross and forgiveness. Our sin must be dealt with as a necessary step to salvation, but that is not salvation itself. Salvation is getting out of the room.

Like all analogies, this is clumsy and limited, but I think there is something useful here.

NT Wright: Paul the theologian

Yes, it is an hour long, but it is typically excellent NT Wright on Paul as the first theologian and the necessity of theology in the life of the church.

You are not a rhubarb pie

I really don’t understand this.

A fellow pastor posted on his Facebook page this blog post from a self-identified progressive Christian blogger and ordained Presbyterian minister. My fellow pastor lauded the post as providing great food for thought.

The point of the post, if you don’t want to read it, is that Jesus never said he was God in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so worshiping Jesus as God should not be a requirement for calling ourselves Christians. The writer informs us that he calls himself a Christian because Jesus is the best teacher he knows about “this god thing.” The title of the blog post does not beat around the bush: Jesus Is Not My God.

As I say, I don’t understand this.

I’m not terribly familiar with the doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian Church (USA), but I assume somewhere in there it talks about Jesus being God. I feel fairly confident about this because this has been a more or less settled question for 1,700 years. What I read of John Calvin and what I’ve read about John Knox suggests to me that they took the whole Jesus is God thing pretty seriously, too.

The blog writer says he is not trying to say orthodox Christians are wrong (I’m allowed to use orthodox in this case, right Via Media?). He just wants to be free to call himself a Christian even though he openly denies that Jesus is God.

Of course, it is a free country. If he wants to call himself a rhubarb pie, he can do so. But the rest of us are still allowed to tell him he is wrong.

Right? Could we still do that if he were a United Methodist?