Homeless Christianity: The Church Militant or Triumphant? Part I

This past week, Faith and I delivered our daughter, Joelle, to Waco Texas for school and I once again experienced my ambiguity concerning Texas. The brand of Christianity I inherited was Texan Restoration Movement and this remains my point of departure, though departure is most definitive of my faith journey. James Robison, the Texas evangelist, came to our high school in the late 60’s and this determined my path. This Christianity came fused with nationalism and cultural peculiarities, such that I have been trying to sort out New Testament Christianity from Texas religion ever since. The task to move from a religion of triumphalism and supremacy (e.g. white supremacy and protestant supremacy) to the militant faith of the New Testament, something I could not have articulated at age 13, immediately posed itself. Continue reading “Homeless Christianity: The Church Militant or Triumphant? Part I”

Why “Walking Theology”

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Theology is, of course, meant to be a walking form of life, even as it is     undertaken by Jesus. The two on the road to Emmaus are not going to end up in Emmaus and Jesus is certainly not going to Emmaus. The walk and the discovery unfold together, just as being a disciple of Jesus always does. The two, at first, have a set destiny, and then the talk becomes a destiny, as Jesus explains how the narrative journey of the Old Testament is an ongoing travel narrative in which this very walk figures as explanation. When they arrive at their evenings lodging it is at once a terminal point and a reversal of their journey – as afterward they head back to Jerusalem. They have walked nowhere in particular and only thus have they discovered where they are going. This comes at the end of their walk, and the “burning” lesson of the journey sets them on the edge of recognition. It is only when the travelers sit and Jesus breaks bread that they are able to ingest the lesson of who he is. The walk and the discovery go together as journey and sustenance must. Continue reading “Why “Walking Theology””

Why Does Anakin Really Become Darth Vader: The Logic of Empire Versus the Peaceable Kingdom

In an interview with Time George Lucas explains the fall of Anakin Skywalker as a failure to live up to the way of the Jedi (“pop-Buddhism” or, as Lucas describes himself, “Methodist-Buddhist”) teaching: “He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”[1]  If Anakin could have remained detached from his passions, Lucas indicates, he would not have become the evil minion of the Dark Side. Think here of the fully enlightened Obi-Wan Kenobi floating in the ether urging Luke to “Let go.” He has already been struck down, willingly, by Darth Vader but having passed through the veil of death he has come out on the other side, devoid of the hindrance of a physical body and fully in possession of his true essence. Continue reading “Why Does Anakin Really Become Darth Vader: The Logic of Empire Versus the Peaceable Kingdom”

Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: The Deception Behind Experiences of Enlightenment

Part of the attraction of neurotheology, with its focus on chanting, prayer, meditation, and various spiritual exercises (rapid movements of head, body, arms, etc.) is that this a direct route to interrupting negative habits of thought without having to deal with the particulars of belief. Those who achieve “enlightenment” experience a shift in consciousness that seems to open up their world beyond everyday consciousness. They report feelings of greater peace and compassion that pervade every part of their life. The feeling is so intense that it exceeds belief, or at least any particular form of belief, so that it may result in the suspension of belief. Andrew Newberg (the leading researcher in the field) equates the experience of enlightenment with a “shaking up” of cherished beliefs. He maintains, “Beliefs are principles that you formed in the past, and enlightenment — going by the dictionary definition — means ‘to bring new light to ignorance.’”[1] Add to this the hard science of brain scans and the literal reshaping of the brain by means of “intense ritual,” and the recommendations of Newberg seem irrefutable.  Experience trumps belief such that the experience contains the truth that will bend or shape belief accordingly. Isn’t this precisely what is needed in this moment in which Christian belief is proving to be one more degraded ideology subject to the manipulations of the most recent demagogue?  Do not belief and doctrine simply serve as justification for cruelty? While every religion may be effective in describing a particular portion of reality, as with the story of the five blind men and the elephant, error enters in when one imagines that his description precludes the description of the others. The wise man can see what the blind religionists cannot, the various religions affirm a common core of reality (they all have hold of the same elephant) they simply approach it in different ways (the trunk, the tail, the leg, etc.). Is it not the case that the various religious traditions are more or less “true” to the extent that they have a piece of the elephant and help human beings overcome self-centeredness and become open to love?  But when religionists insist upon particular doctrines and beliefs it is like a blind man claiming an elephant is all snake-like trunk. Continue reading “Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: The Deception Behind Experiences of Enlightenment”

Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: Does Enlightenment Promote Moral Idiocy?

Building a playhouse for my children I ran a rusty nail into my hand; I was being cheap and trying to reuse nails. The next day, in the midst of teaching, I noticed the veins in my arms had turned a bright red.  I clearly had blood poisoning. A trip to the local doctor cured the blood poisoning but he sent me to the university hospital where they let me in on some terrible news. My blood platelets were over-sized and too few. They told me I could not risk travelling into Tokyo on the train and that I would have to cease working and check into the hospital in the next few days. They made it fairly clear my time was up. They didn’t give us a clear diagnosis but Faith, my wife, and I narrowed it down to two possibilities, both of which were irreversibly fatal. So, I stayed home and began to feel the weight of death descend. I did indeed feel my energy running out. I began to shuffle about the house, moving slowly as life seemed to be ebbing away. Continue reading “Neurotheology Versus Psychotheology: Does Enlightenment Promote Moral Idiocy?”

I AM ONE OF YOU FOREVER

Flying over the desert of an evening, around Window Rock, over the Grand Canyon, the cool breeze a necessity for equilibrium and the star lit sky preferable for navigation; this was my singular capacity. With the veil of darkness, the arms pumping and as I gained confidence, the leap into a canyon or off a tall building (nearly absent in Page, Arizona) and I could just manage to obtain lift-off. Continue reading “I AM ONE OF YOU FOREVER”

Escaping an Evil Christianity: Must Theological Education Go Underground?

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One of the unnamed capacities of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to recognize evil and to call it out at a time when others preferred not to confront it and attempted to explain it away.  As a young pastor he was one of the few who took an early public stance against Hitler and a Nazified Christianity.  Hitler was able to manipulate Christian rhetoric and combine it with a threat which caused German Christians to mostly embrace the evil of National Socialism. Even Martin Niemöller, the head of the Confessing Church, was at first pro-Hitler and, like the majority of his countrymen, anti-Semitic. Niemöller later recognized his own moral failure and described it poetically:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. 

The difference between a Bonhoeffer and a Niemöller, as captured in the poem, is found in the capacity or lack thereof to identify with the oppressed – and to not be blinded by ideology.  The capacity to name and recognize evil is enabled when self-justifying ideology is set aside and we can say though I am not a Socialist, Trade Unionist, mentally handicapped, Jewish, Hispanic – or simply though this is some Other that is being oppressed – this is evil.  The willingness to turn a blind eye or to embrace evil for the “greater good” describes Niemöller’s moral failure, the moral failure of most German Christians and the moral failure of a Christianity given over to ideology.

James Strauss referred to the slow infiltration of the “principalities and powers” into the Church as the frog in the kettle syndrome. The frog is happy to sit in the warm water and misses the fact that he is adjusting gradually to being boiled to death.  There are many indicators that the boiling point of the cultural waters of North America is killing off effective Christian witness.  David Kinnaman[1] has described the statistical fact that Christians are perceived by the younger generation as un-Christian (in every way that counts) as an “image problem.”  Perhaps it is more of a “boiling frog” problem.  The oxymoronic (and yet statistically proven) perception of a “violent Christianity,” an “exclusive Christianity,” or a “hateful Christianity,” indicates the adjectival heat of the ideological powers are boiling away the vital signs of the subject.  “American Christianity” is as oxymoronic as “Nazi Christianity,” “Imperial Japanese Christianity,” or “Constantinian Christianity,” with the sole difference that the former is the extant mantra of a church being stewed in ideology.

The example of Bonhoeffer indicates that moral insight arises with intellectual depth.  On the other hand, moral inanity was clearly connected to an intellectual banality (exemplified in Eichmann and characterized by Hannah Arendt as the “banality of evil”).  The majority of Bonhoeffer’s Christian contemporaries, steeped as they were in German nationalism, were unable to recognize the Devil that was about to consume them.  They succumbed to the boiling stew of anti-Semitism, Aryanism, and fear, that resulted in Hitler gaining power, first in the church, and two months later with the Nazi takeover. Bonhoeffer’s theological sophistication (an ecclesiology and hermeneutic that resulted in both his resistance and death) stood in sharp contrast to the “realism” and “pragmatism” to which even the leaders of the Confessing Church succumbed.  Niemöller thought, until it was too late, that Hitler was a man that could be reasoned with if he could only secure a private meeting.  The pragmatists bent to the “realities” orchestrated by Hitler until, as Niemöller describes, they literally came to arrest him.

Pragmatism always describes the willingness to bend to the perceived necessity and reality of the time.  By this measure biblical Christianity will always be perceived as unworkable and impractical.  Practical Theology, the buzzword of the day, names the tendency to accommodate the revolutionary notions of Scripture to a “workable reality.”  Much like Nazi theology (or that theology set forth by the German Christian (Deutsche Christens) supporters of Hitler), which elected to remove the Old Testament from the Bible, a theology made “practical” begins by separating the New Testament from the Old and thus spiritualizes the political and social revolution Christ inaugurated.  By getting rid of the Old Testament the Jews were expunged from the German church and by the same token a disembodied/depoliticized Christianity is fused with American nationalism.  The stew of pragmatism boiling the North American Church (the remnants of Niebuhr’s Christian realism, nationalism, capitalist greed, the philosophy of church growth, etc.) are accommodated by a morally and intellectually disengaged gnostic-like theology.  Dispensationalism, Christian realism (a violent “Christianity), fundamentalism/liberalism, supersessionism, give rise to a thorough dualism or split between body and soul, heaven and earth, interior and exterior.  The result, in N. T. Wright’s summary, comes to be “God so hated the world that he killed his only Son,” and Christians act accordingly.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from Bonhoeffer’s mode of resistance it will take account of his theological development and his focus on theological education in a Church being decimated by bad theology.  His Cost of Discipleship arises from teaching on the Sermon on the Mount during a period in which Finkenwalde seminary is closed, his students are being arrested, and he is declared to be “a pacifist and enemy of the state.”

His theological insight is one that overcomes the separation of the teaching of Jesus and the theology of Paul brought about in a Constantinian Christianity and sealed by Luther’s notion of justification by faith.  Bonhoeffer envisions a Church that is able to resist Lutheran/Constantinian/Nazi notions of a necessary violence in which God’s will is worked out through heads of state and state purposes.  He recognized that justification is not merely a private affair of going to heaven when you die, but is centered on social concerns (life together as the Church) which call for a radical and costly discipleship.  In John Howard Yoder’s explanation (which seems to extend Bonhoeffers understanding of Paul), Paul builds upon Jesus notion of love of enemies and nonviolent revolution through a revolutionary subordination.  Mutual subordination of husbands and wives, masters and slaves, parents and children, was meant to revolutionize the institutions of marriage, social relations, and family structure, through the culture of the Church.  Likewise, subordination to the state, the same Roman state that crucified Jesus and which would behead Paul, was to recognize God’s purpose would be realized through the Church and that the idolatry of the state was to be resisted.  The Church is made up of those conformed to God’s character (Ro. 12:1-2) and not “content to go on allowing themselves to be continually stamped afresh with the stamp of this age which is passing away.”

Thus, Bonhoeffer goes underground and continues to teach when and where he can meet with his students.  His final moves as a pastor at large were to foster a theology, through ministerial training, that would endure the times.  The Pastors of the German Church had caved in to Nazism, with only some 20% abandoning the corrupted or “destroyed church” for the Confessing Church.  Perhaps it is too heavy handed to draw parallels between “Nazi Christianity” and “American Christianity,” but the same danger prevails; that of conforming to the spirit of the age rather than to the character of God.  To ward off that danger will call for an alternative theological understanding which can be freely set forth in an educational environment that is not subject to pragmatism.

Among the Christian Churches, James DeForest Murch warned that ministerial training was consistently undermined by notions of “efficiency” (read pragmatism) and “feeble rivalry” with State institutions.  R. C. Foster notes that apostasy sets in at the fifty-year mark: “Fifty years is a good round number, but we should remember that man’s apostasy began in the Garden of Eden.” Nonetheless, 50 years “is a fairly accurate estimate of the critical period of apostasy in our colleges.” As the Bible College movement among Christian Churches reaches this fifty-year mark, Foster’s prediction rings true. As Cincinnati Christian University, the school Foster helped found, has drifted from its moorings toward the brink of failure, the Bible college movement itself, among Christian Churches/Churches of Christ seems to be in crisis, as the majority of the regional Bible colleges have either closed their doors or have been absorbed by larger schools with a broader agenda.

The institution from which I was recently terminated (as the last Ph.D. on the faculty) celebrated its first fifty years as it has gone into, what would appear to be, its final years.  As with Cincinnati Christian University, the termination of employees marks the drift of the school.  The termination of full-time faculty teaching Bible and theology is simultaneous with the rise of a “variety” of degree offerings and activities.  The intellectual and theological failure is marked by the same moral failure described by Peter Enns: “Under the high-lofted banner of ‘defending the gospel,’ backroom politicking, gossip, maligning the character of their enemies, lying, vengeance, and even destroying people’s livelihoods are excused as regrettable yet necessary tactics.” One of the saddest occasions I witnessed is when the founding faculty were simultaneously honored with the status of emeritus and terminated as full-time faculty.  The pride in being “practical” and anti-theological leaves in its wake a near complete ignorance of the provenance of the Constantinian “evangelical doctrine” and philosophy of “church growth” that is promoted.  Theological education has not yet been driven underground but the education that survives seems to be stamped with the spirit of the age.

The experience of American army chaplain, Henry Gerecke, who ministered to the Nuremberg war criminals epitomizes the problem.  Several of his congregation, made up of the German high command responsible for the worst crimes in human history, lived and died as faithful Lutherans. Where practical concerns rule, “Nazi Christians,” “American Christians,” or, most oxymoronic but to the point, “evil Christians” will be the result.  A theology centered on Christ aimed at a real-world departure from the pragmatics of a Constantinian/American/Nazi “Christianity” will, likely, require a new paradigm of theological education which is not dependent on the spirit/ideology of the age.

As we are approaching our 2nd anniversary Forging Ploughares and Ploughshares Bible Institute Looks back to key moments and shaping events which brought about our effort to found a new sort of theological education.

 

[1]Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters

Escaping Law and Order Christianity: From Interpassivity to Intervention into the Law

In Tibetan Buddhism the supplicant writes his prayers or mantra on a piece of paper and attaches the prayer to a prayer wheel and spinning the wheel is the equivalent of chanting the mantra or saying the prayer. The prayer wheel does the chanting or praying and one is freed up to think of other things. Slavoj Žižek compares it to the laugh track on television sit coms. It is not simply that hearing the laughter you will know this is a funny joke, but the laugh track does the laughing for you. Just as the prayer wheel prays for you, or ancient weepers could be hired to weep at the funeral for you, the laugh track relieves you of the effort of laughing. The story is told that a visitor to the house of the famous scientist, Niels Bohr, upon seeing a lucky horseshoe said to Bohr that he was surprised that such a great man would believe such nonsense. Bohr snapped back: “I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works even if one does not believe in it!” The act of hanging the horseshoe relieves one of having to directly believe – it is enough to have nailed it to the wall. This is the way religion works in Japan: if you would interrupt someone at their prayers at a shrine and ask if they believe in the religion, they would likely deny that they are in any way religious. Belief is not a necessary part of the religion as the rituals, the priests, the regular observances, relinquish one of having to directly believe. Robert Pfaller has coined the term “interpassivity” to capture the paradox of this distancing of the self from one’s own beliefs. What one does – nailing the horseshoe, spinning the prayer wheel, employing weepers or laughers – frees from direct engagement in what one is doing. There is relief from the superego injunction to obey, to believe, to enjoy, which is, of course, Paul’s picture of our orientation to the law. There is an incapacity of the “I” or will which arises in this internal distancing – “I am not able to do what I want,” Paul says. Continue reading “Escaping Law and Order Christianity: From Interpassivity to Intervention into the Law”

The Pleasure of Hurting Others Through the Law

In psychoanalysis there is a technical term for someone who is incapable of questioning the law and whose entire effort is aimed at establishing the law. This sort of individual disavows any inadequacy or the notion of anything lacking in the law and wants to ensure that the law is fulfilled or completed.  Completing or establishing the law may involve her own or other’s transgression which results in punishment.  It is precisely through punishment that the law is “felt” to be established and that pleasure is derived.  This pleasure is found in the fact that “the Law is doing it” so that the immediate suffering/pleasure is the assurance the Law is being served/serviced. Children torn from their mother’s breast, wailing at the border, are a living proof that the border laws are effectively established. The Law knows no tolerance as zero tolerance serves to define the sharp and absolute edge of this autonomous god-like force. Continue reading “The Pleasure of Hurting Others Through the Law”

Denying Suicide the Last Word Through Agape Love

The force which would cause us to put the rope around our own neck, I assume, is not distinct from the nihilistic darkness which assails everyone from without. The darkness within and without, that is, are presumably of a piece – the dysfunctional family, the real-world loneliness and alienation, vexing cruelty, or the seeming pointlessness of everything, converge with our inward bent. Or are depression and despair an untreatable and untraceable interior experience? The suicide of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both of whom had reached the heights of success in their respective fields, might seem to mystify suicide – to contradict the notion that suicidal despair is traceable or circumstantial. Bourdain’s mother, Gladys Bourdain, told The New York Times: “He is absolutely the last person in the world I would have ever dreamed would do something like this.” But Bourdain and Spade belonged to a world – food and fashion – which not only does not lend itself to giving voice to despair, neither provides an inherent counter voice.  Food and fashion, the world of the aesthete in Kierkegaardian terms, may not have provided the impetus to continue to get up in the morning. The despair of the human condition is neither articulated nor addressed but is accommodated in aesthetic pursuits. It is not that Bourdain or Spade did not have reason to kill themselves. The futile desire which grips us all is unquenchable, but chefs and fashion designers depend upon this desire for their livelihood, and perhaps, in this instance, for their life?   Continue reading “Denying Suicide the Last Word Through Agape Love”