Sunday, November 26, 2023

Christian Reconciliation: Starting within our own denominations

In Ken Schenck's recent post, he mentions

The divide between the academy and the grassroots church seems larger than ever. The academy has a tendency to be dismissive because it knows stuff, but the popular church has its own interests and is making itself heard. I have long mourned the seeming inability of the two to communicate with each other. They both need each other.

That reminded me of one of C.S Lewis' essays in which he, as an articulate member of the laity, addressed that topic by invitation. While I'm not planning to repeat his points in general, I'll mention as a starter one thing he said (paraphrased, to save me digging through my Lewis collection to lay hands on the exact words): When the pastor visited, there was a time when the layman was concerned not to reveal that he believed fewer points of faith than the pastor; now he may find himself concerned not to reveal that he believes so much more. With Lewis' light touch, he gets to the heart of many of our differences. 

And talking about our differences carries the risk of any conversation delayed, any relationship neglected: each side is likely to have more to discuss, and more frustration, than can be productively tackled in one sitting. Without a sustained effort to bridge the gap, it grows wider. 

To check in with Mr Schenck's comments again: 
A lot of scholarly banter is the process of sorting through ideas, so I suppose much of the process of this sort of scholarship does not end up going anywhere. Probably most papers at SBL, IBR (Institute for Biblical Research), or ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) end up unhelpful to anyone but the presenter.
Some of the laity use discussion boards -- and blogs -- the same way. Working through our thoughts can take time and development. Iron sharpens iron, and all that. Speaking as grassroots, I don't mind that some academic pursuits are academic (if you'll pardon flipping to another definition of the word). I appreciate how much thinking can go into a single well-distilled drop of clarity. And yet a drop of clarity about the life of Christ is worth more than a drop of clarity about the influence of Roman imperialism on Paul's letters. 

So I read Mr Schenck's thoughts as an opportunity, and reply with hopes to participate in an overdue conversation. I've collected some thoughts -- and pared back my list, to keep it conversation-sized: 
  • I'd like to see the academy more interested in the life and teachings of Jesus. I have wondered whether the search for fresh material is the driving force behind neglecting the one thing needful? 
  • I'd like to see the academy more interested in reading the Bible on its own terms. The deep-dives into historical context seemed meant to empower us to read the Bible on its own terms, yet (to the outsider here) the academy looks lost in the weeds, without coming back to read the Bible on its own terms much. When I read an academic's Bible study, it tends to dissect the material rather than magnify it. 
  • I'd like to see the academy exhibit more trust in the Bible to convey God's spiritual and moral guidance -- along with more interest in spiritual and moral guidance. (When is the last time we heard a well-reasoned, Scriptural warning against divisions and factionalism, for example? Or materials on repentance, forgiveness, amends?) It seems that the development of spiritual resources has often been left to those outside the family of faith -- leading to an erosion of trust, and in the sheep going elsewhere to be fed
  • It looks like there is a strong tendency toward credentialism. In the history of the church, there has been a steady stream of saints and spiritual leaders who were from the community rather than the academy. With modern credentialing and publishing, is the academy cutting off some of the church's resources? 
I have so much else that I could say -- and yet experience teaches that more is not always better as a first step. I'd be glad if this became a wider conversation. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Thankful for ...

It has been a challenging year, and this season of gratitude is a welcome reminder of what is still good. This year I am grateful for: my children, my uncle, my friends, a safe home, a steady job. I am grateful for food, and health, and relative peace. 

Wishing all a happy Thanksgiving, safe travels, and kind company. 

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Your own personal theologians

 In my morning's blog readings, MJH over at Pocket Scroll's piece caught my eye. It was based on a social media post by a professor: 

After Christ and your family, committing to a few key theologians is a profoundly life-giving enterprise. My studies have been largely framed by Augustine, Calvin, Torrance, and de Lubac. I imagine these figures will always be with me. (H/T MJH at The Pocket Scroll)

It's a little like the "Five Authors" meme that went around some years back, but without the restrictions on the number of companions. 

Outside Scripture, my theological companions are:

  1. St Athanasius - The friend who introduced me to Athanasius said he was "nearly canonical" in a context where that meant "as inspiring, and God-focused, and spirit-filled, as the best passages of Scripture". On The Incarnation is a rare work of theology: inspired insight into God's actions brings both appreciation for and understanding of God's love for us. Without a hint of a classroom or an orthodoxy-checker in sight, his thoughts set the bar for what would be called orthodoxy in the church for centuries to come. 
  2. Eusebius the Historian - His approach to reality, historicity, and context -- the epistemology of faith -- matters to me even if he isn’t ranked as a theologian, 
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer - For his embodiment of the principle that God should set the agenda in theology, and that Scripture should set the curriculum in Biblical Studies
  4. A.J. Heschel - His view of the Sabbath -- and by implication, the Sinai Covenant Law in general -- shows the "lost treasure" aspects of things we too often allow to be brushed off as unmodern. 
  5. Vladimir Lossky -- For not apologizing for loving beauty and mystery, for standing up for their place in serious theology in light of God's holiness.
  6. Therese of Lisieux -- To me, her life counts as theology. When St Paul wrote that we ourselves are living Scriptures (paraphrased), he could have had her in mind. I think Rome even recognized her as Doctor of the Church, which is a far shorter list than their list of saints. I've recently been pondering how to structure a liturgical service based on her writings. 
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien -- Tolkien packs deeper theology into his works, and I have in mind LOTR especially. His writings call out the worldly short-sightedness of imagining that despair is "wisdom", the companion mistakes of viewing hope as foolish and viewing humble pursuits as unworthy. He advocates humility about our knowledge, and the good that comes from taking the incalculable risk of loving an enemy. 
  8. C.S. Lewis -- While I can become frustrated that his technical theology falls into what seems like beginners' mistakes, still his compassion for everyday concerns fills an important gap and is well-done. And when he ventures into children's stories, his love of beauty, his "baptized imagination", is a glorious thing.

I'd be glad to hear of anyone else's thoughts on their companions in understanding God and Scripture. 

Sunday, November 05, 2023

The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin

Years ago, an avid Bible student pointed out to me some encouraging features of the "Parables of the Lost" in Luke 15. The lost sheep and the lost coin have something in common: the lost do nothing at all to help their being found. The lost sheep was not seeking a shepherd. The lost coin did not hop into the dustpan. They were both oblivious to the heartache they were causing by being lost. The sheep may not have had any concept that the shepherd valued him. And the lost things also did not have any special claim to fame. The shepherd doesn't value the sheep for its performance; it's not a circus-sheep doing circus-tricks with some sort of unusual value. The sheep is not worth more or less than the next sheep. The sheep is valued just because it belongs to the flock. It is the shepherd's sheep, and the shepherd is a good shepherd, so he is bringing it back somewhere safe. In the same way the coin is not a trick coin, not more or less valuable than the next coin. It just belongs to the woman whose thoughts turn to it. 

And so we are treasured whether we know it or not. We are sought whether we realize it or not. God values us -- and we do not have to earn being valued. There is no special performance required before God values us. He is looking for our return -- hoping for our return -- every day.