Wednesday, February 4, 2009

21 Theological Themes For The New Year: Inaugural Prolegomena, 15-21

This is the third and last installment of 21 theological questions, propositions, themes, practices, and hankerings that have arisen in recent weeks and that I expect will be following me throughout the year. They're like new year's resolutions, only theological and mostly involuntary. I have a feeling they will be making return appearances here on the blog in 2009, so I figured a kind of inaugural blogging prolegomena were in order. (Here are 1-7, here are 8-14.) Without further ado or prefatory note: the final seven.

And no, that is not a Cylon reference.

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15. So present still are the politics of modernity. Reading postmodern authors, or at least authors engaging the postmodern context, one gathers the sense that we are currently living in a fundamentally new era marked by new thinking and new assumptions ("new" not necessarily equating to "better," just "different"). From that vantage point, Stanley Hauerwas's ongoing polemic against modernity can elicit a negative reaction: Come on! It's not that bad! You're beating a dead horse and fighting a straw man!

Unfortunately, he is not. And this year I am planning to do my best to stop being surprised when good ol' modernity shows up. Because the beast is not dead, or even breathing that heavy. And we ought not to act otherwise.

16. What it means to speak of Yahweh triumphing over enemies if we know in Jesus that Yahweh loves and dies for his enemies. The God of Israel as attested in the Old Testament, Yahweh of hosts, is a radically nonegalitarian character. He does not equalize; he does not equivocate; he is not nice. The proud, the powerful, chiefs, kings, the rich -- Yahweh will bring them down to where they truly belong. The humble, the weak, peasants, citizens, the poor -- Yahweh will raise them up to the heights of heaven, in gracious love abounding to generations. We know this from story after story, prophet after prophet; but nowhere best than in the Song of Hannah. Yahweh the Lord brings down the mighty and lifts up the weak.

The theme does not disappear in the New Testament. The God of Israel is front and center in exactly the same manner in the Hannah-inspired Magnificat, as sung by Mary in Luke's Gospel. Just as Yahweh gave infertile Hannah a baby boy so he gives virgin Mary the same. And just as Yahweh raised up Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus so he raises up Jesus out of the grip of death in the resurrection.

But what does it mean for Yahweh to triumph over his enemies if, in the incarnation of Jesus the Messiah, Yahweh (and Yahweh's character) is perfectly revealed as enemy-loving, enemy-blessing, and one who dies for his enemies? In the death and resurrection of Jesus, Yahweh triumphs nonviolently, that is, by taking upon himself his enemies' violence without retaliating. He submits to the cross willingly, and in his resurrection comes to his murderers in forgiveness. That is the witness of the incarnation of the God of Israel.

So how do we understand the Exodus? Pharaoh the false god is defeated by the one true God, and he and his people are left decimated, reeling, lifeless. Or even the claim that God raises up the weak and brings down the strong. If the strong are brought down, God is the one doing the razing. I want to know what it means for God to defeat (or to have defeated) enemies if God is revealed as the one who loves his enemies unto death.

17. The limits of finitude in the information age. The internet seduces us into thinking we all ought to, or can, be Renaissance Men and Women. That is, knowing every bit of news that happens, watching every movie that is released, listening to every album of note, reading every book that is acclaimed -- able at any moment to pull up Wikipedia and fill that inexplicable hole in our knowledge banks.

I am the chief of such seduced sinners. I want to know everything: to assess every film and every song and every book. I never, ever -- O great sin of our age! -- want to be on the wrong end of not catching a reference.

Yet we are finite creatures. I am mortal, and therefore I will not read every novel, play, poem, or theological work in my lifetime. I will not see every movie or hear every song. I will be forced, from time to time (and more if I'm honest), to say those terrible words, horror of horrors: "I don't know."

But in our time, it is likely one of the greatest opportunities for Christian witness is to have the simple, honest humility to be able to say, I don't know. I would like to be counted among the not-knowing Christians this year.

18. Ethical demands, inside and outside the church. The church has a particular ethical witness regarding myriad issues, including but not limited to war, poverty, marriage, abortion, and bigotry. I have come under the influence of theologians who seek to restrict the scope of the church's ethics to the sphere of the church; that is, when we answer Christ's call to follow him, our discipleship cannot be imposed upon our non-Christian neighbor. It does not mean that Christ does not call them, or that we ought not to be about sharing the call with them; only that they have not answered the call -- and the implication being that we cannot and should not expect them to act according to the rigors and contours of discipleship to Jesus.

However, that view is more than minority: it is nearly nonexistent. I believe it truthfully names the powerless communal witness of the church as envisioned by the New Testament, but it also makes me wonder what Christians can or should say regarding issues of the broader culture -- and, more importantly, how we should say it.

19. Moral seriousness toward real world atrocity and evil. Dennis Prager is an eloquent, direct, and morally serious Jewish conservative author and pundit. (How many more commas does that adjective-rich description demand?) I enjoy reading him as a valuable dialogue partner precisely because we disagree so much. His most recent article, entitled "California College Student: Terror is the New Communism," describes his unpleasant experience talking to a college student from the University of California Santa Barbara, who blames 9/11 on the U.S. government and thinks "terrorism" is simply the new imaginary bogeyman foil for the militant Right like "communism" was a generation ago. Prager deems this thinking a direct result of liberal university inculcation and finds in it a frightening glimpse into the utter dearth of moral seriousness in the political and cultural Left in America.

(It is not that she found blame in U.S. foreign policy or fault in blind militarism against communism/terrorism. Rather, it was her apparent inability to name, or even allow for the reality of, evil actions and ideologies other than America's.)

I assume Prager would find my own positions on such matters similarly discouraging -- though I do not belong to the Left. What I want to be is someone who is able, as a follower of Jesus that takes seriously the mission and call given to the church, to respond articulately to Prager's concerns with equal amounts of thought, care, seriousness, and foresight, not regarding abstract ideas like "communism" or "terrorism" (much less "war" or "politics"), but lived realities on the ground. Even if the Dennis Pragers of the world disagree with me (I want to say "with the church," but I am most certainly not "the church"!), I hope not to respond like an ill-informed, apathetic, comfortably liberal, or compassionately aloof California college student.

(And this Texan smiles for his Californian friends.)

20. Somehow finding a way through, around, or inside nonsensical labels. What does "liberal" mean? Politically liberal -- i.e., Democrat? Theologically liberal -- i.e., Tillich? Classically liberal -- i.e., capitalist? Popularly liberal -- i.e., freethinking hippie? (That last one would may also read: "My wife.")

I am exactly the 3,594, 275th person to note this, but I'll go ahead and do it anyway: labels are unhelpful. They are most unhelpful in theopolitical contexts, because in one paragraph -- one sentence even! -- you might read someone refer to classical liberalism, theological liberalism, and (today's version of) political liberalism and never know the difference, much less authorial intent. We have to find a way through this. (I won't even get started on "conservative." Pejorative, descriptive, political, theological, social, sexual, ethical ... it never ends. Sigh.)

21. The supposed exile of the church in post-Christian America. The myriad claims are as disputated as it is difficult to name them concisely. The question is, essentially, twofold: 1) Is the church in America in exile? 2) If so, is it a good or bad thing?

Regarding the first question, it matters significantly the context from which we ask the question. Culturally? Politically? Ecclesially? Popularly? Undoubtedly we have entered a post-Christian era as a nation, insofar as less than a fifth of Americans attend church (with the numbers declining) and to be "a Christian" has in many places become a negative stigma. It is not "the norm" to be a church-attending, self-labeled "Christian."

At the same time, we are no more than weeks removed from a President whose candidacy, popularity, administration, and policy were determined, influenced, and at times (some claim) even controlled by a certain bloc of American Christians. The current President had to endure months of accusations that he was not a Christian -- an allegation which, if proven, would have most assuredly ended his campaign. Realize the enormity of this claim: Forty years after the civil rights movement, America can elect a black man as President; in no way, shape, or form can we imagine electing someone who is not a Christian.

So is the church in exile? I think we have jumped the gun in our claims. Because so many (myself included!) would like to see the church in exile -- that is, unable or unwilling to "swing our weight around" in idolatrous concession to power politics -- we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that we have been rendered powerless, when the fact is that the Christian voting bloc remains the most coveted and powerful demographic base in the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world.

In other words: let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Now, it is a different thing altogether to argue for the church to take a posture of exile. By all means our teaching, preaching, and writing ought to be calling the church to more faithfully embody the missional vision of the New Testament. But as we think about this year, new yet the same, let us be about living into that reality, not waiting for it, or thinking it's already here.

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