Cross, Community, New Creation

I apologize for the delay in posting the next part of the discussion started 2 weeks ago in my previous post. There were a lot of interesting points raised and some good dialogue-thanks to all who have been willing to engage these questions. Part of the reason for my slow posting is because I want to be careful and sensitive in furthering the conversation without being divisive or making judgments I am not willing (or trying) to make. By even answering the question “What does it mean to be a Christian” it is possible to be seen as “judgmental” or “exclusive” or “arrogant”–for who, indeed, am I to say what is written on the hearts of other people? God, of course, knows and judges all, and so from my perspective, this conversation is not in any way attempting to presume what others think or believe. I find the discussion crucial because it is important to help people realize 1)what they’ve signed up for when they declare themselves a Christian and 2) for those who look at Christianity from a distance to know what it is we’re about.

My personal realization has been that the church needs to be re-evangelized, both liberal and conservative. We need these dialogues because so much has been tossed to the side. No, we will not agree on everything, ever, but it’s for that very reason that we help each other to see the essentials that we must have unity on, in order to value and respect the points of difference.

For me, this is a very personal topic, not merely an exercise in theoretical abstraction. I care deeply about the church, and I want people who call themselves Christians to see both the liberating beauty and hope to which we’ve been called, as well as the no less serious, and no less liberating, death to which we’ve been called.

Instead of point by point answering some of the questions that were raised in the comments of the last post, and then furthering the dialogue that way, I thought I would propose one way to more succinctly talk about the core elements of Christianity. Christian tradition has long held a high view of Scripture, and (as demonstrated in the comments from the last post) even though people may disagree on what precisely that means, I suggest that if we’re committed to reading it faithfully and responsibly, many of the tensions and disagreements will not seem so significant. In other words, Christian Scripture (namely the NT) provides the best place for helping us answer the question, “What is a Christian,” not simply because “all the answers are there,” but rather because it has been the source for our tradition. Reading the Scripture well helps us to see why tradition has come to the conclusions it has. This is not to say there isn’t room for disagreement with tradition–I for one would strongly disagree with the branch of tradition that has embraced militarism and violence as means to bring about justice.

To read Scripture faithfully means to approach it recognizing the Holy Spirit at work in both the writer and the reader, to approach it with humility and allow it to change us, and to recognize that while written for a particular audience, it is also written to us.

To read Scripture responsibly is to recognize that it is a multi-voiced set of books, comprising various genres and purposes. To be responsible in our reading is to be diligent in understanding the conditions under which a particular book of the Bible was written (as best as we are able), and to not impose modern norms and assumptions on the text. Responsible reading reads the text in it’s appropriate genre, and also does not try to explain away tensions and contradictions, but rather lets them exist and speak for themselves.

The point at which responsible and faithful reading come together, I believe, is when we regard the Bible as beautiful literature that can be read, and can be read well. It is possible to read the Bible with a regard for it’s spiritual revelation without compromising the integrity of careful analysis.

With all that said, I turn now to my thesis.

In Richard Hays’ book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, he proposes that the three most significant images in the New Testament are cross, community, and new creation. Instead of providing my own lengthy analysis that supports such a reading of Scripture, I would just recommend the book itself, as Hays has done the work to show these images as crucial (pp 193-204, and then the rest of the book uses these images as lenses to interpret the Scripture).

My thought is that if these images are as prevalent in the NT as Hays has made them out to be, then they might also serve as corresponding focal points for our faith. Tradition has re-applied these images to become the creeds and values of the faith, but many people are skeptical of creeds. I would invite such skeptics to a reading of Scripture through the lens of these focal images. To be properly understood in the NT, however, they must also be understood as welcoming us into the symbolic world of Scripture, meaning that we are able to understand them best when we place ourselves in the eschatological worldview of the writers.

An objection could made to the last point; why must our interpretation of these terms be restricted by how the NT writers viewed God? Quite simply because Christianity is more than a matter of a few beliefs and following righteous teachings. To claim Christ is to join the mystical body of Christ that began thousands of years ago, and to be part of an other-cultured community of worshipers. Becoming a Christian has always meant adopting, as best we can, the cosmological view of those who passed along the faith to us from the beginning, and therefore gaining our understanding of Scripture from the community of those who have interpreted it long before us. In other words, as Stanley Hauerwas might say, individual Christians are not given the right or responsibility to interpret Scripture on our own. But I digress.

In the end, I think these three images are so crucial to what it means to be a Christian, that to deny them in word or practice is to place oneself outside of the narrative of Christianity. Herein lies the rub: what does it mean to deny these in word or practice? As far as “in word,” specifically, to deny the death and bodily resurrection of Christ, to refuse the community of saints by not being a part of a worshiping community, and to reduce the ultimate “not-yet” of God’s restoration of creation to human ability and progress places one in another category (it is indicative of  a modern pressure to say things that are pleasing to all that I am plagued with feelings of guilt at asserting the tenets of Christianity that have been the same for thousands of years).

There are, I believe corresponding practices that one can engage in that deny these same images. Yet, the often over-emphasis on “salvation by grace and not works” has made it forbidden to dare declare specific practices as not Christian (unless they are things like sex, abortion, or gay marriage), even some that are in such contradiction to the essentials of the Gospel as to place the person outside of what can be called Christianity. I am here thinking specifically of violence and willful oppression of others. This is of course not to say that people cannot be redeemed from their actions; obviously the whole of the NT is under-girded by this truth. But we must take the people of “Reaction 2” (in the last post) seriously, that the practice of these core beliefs is as essential as the beliefs themselves. Why is it absurd to believe that those who call themselves Christians could live a life that gives strong testimony to their beliefs? Being a Christian is hard, not in a pride-yourself-on-a-job-well-done kind of hard, but in a this-requires-your-whole-being’s-involvement-and-change kind of hard. We are obviously all “works in progress” and I don’t claim to have “arrived,” but the “cheap grace” proselytized by so many gives a false illusion that is impossible to live the ideals of Jesus’ teachings and the fundamentals of Christianity.

I’m not trying to claim anything new here. I find that these three images are helpful in categorizing the themes of our faith. Behind each one of them is a deep theology and history, so I don’t mean to suggest that our faith can be reduced to these three words.

My hope and prayer for the church is that pastors and church leaders will be people who faithfully and responsibly read Scripture, and in turn lead their congregations and communities into healthy reading of Scripture that clearly illuminates the beauty and challenge of the Gospel. But I also think the notion of prophetic witness compels us to be bold and hold fast to the beliefs and practices that truly make us Christian and to be okay with calling out those who claim the name of Christ and violate these things–again, not in pronouncement of judgment but in celebration and “protestifying” (as Shane Claiborne might say) to the rich and unique aspects of our faith. And, as Chad Holtz has phrased it, ultimately we get to rejoice in what we get to believe and do as Christians, not what we have to do, or what others cannot do or believe and be a Christian.

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10 comments

  1. Johonna · October 11, 2010

    Great blog! Very important material and topic! Just yesterday, a Muslim friend posted an article about the music group, Insane Clown Posse, calling themselves as Christians. While she recognized the fallacy, we have to daily face the reality that the often contradictory declarations and actions of the many who call themselves Christians has made it very difficult for the world (and believers) to understand what Christianity is all about.

    Here’s the article referenced above: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/oct/09/insane-clown-posse-christians-god

    • brianjgorman · October 17, 2010

      Hey Johonna!
      Thanks for commenting. That is an odd, odd article. I’m not sure where to begin with it, but it’s times like that where you wish it was some made up story, not real…

  2. Ethan · October 11, 2010

    That ICP article is the craziest thing I have ever read, I think.

  3. David Alexander · October 17, 2010

    That article was bizarre.

    Thanks, Brian, for writing. That was beautifully written and reflective. I think I might be a candidate for exclusion because I beliebve that violence is sometimes necessary in defense of the innocent. I think of the application of an absolute pacifism in a case like that of Lot and his daughters and the strangers in Sodom when people were pounding at his door to give up his guests to be gang raped. I don’t think Jesus teaches an absolute pacifism. Why did he allow his disciples to carry weapons? Although he said turn the other cheek and bear oppression I don’t think he said surrender ones daughters to the licentious rather than resist with force.

  4. brianjgorman · October 17, 2010

    Hi David,
    I didn’t mean to imply in the latter paragraph that there isn’t room for those who believe in violence in defense of the innocent–but, if we are to accept that as a legitimate position for the Christian, then those who hold such a belief have to be vigilant in our naming and criticism (and working against!) of all violence that does not fit such a description, which in reality is almost all violence. Furthermore, accepting violence at any point makes someone quicker to justify violence for other reasons–violence is a slippery slope. It is an addictive drug; once dirtied with it, our souls develop a higher tolerance for violence and thus a quicker willingness to accept a “last resort” before it really is. This might be the single greatest ethical problem facing the American church.

    The problem I see in the church is not so much the disagreement over absolute pacifism but the refusal of those (especially pastors and church leaders) who claim that position to be bold and loud spoken on other kinds of violence.

    At the same time, I think we also have to be willing to admit that if violence becomes “necessary” to prevent greater evil then Christians have failed in their call to be peacemakers. Violence then, is always a concession and admission of sinfulness and brokenness. It is true weakness; God’s power is through the non-violent cross of Jesus. If we would use violence even to prevent greater harm, then we must acknowledge our weakness and pray for forgiveness.

    As to your points, I don’t think we can say Jesus “allowed” his disciples to carry weapons, in the sense that he told them specifically that it was a good idea to do so. Some of his disciples may have carried weapons, but that was likely because some were Zealot revolutionaries, obviously in contrast to Jesus’ message. It’s more likely that they carried weapons precisely because they didn’t understand Jesus. It is interesting to note that early Christians saw Jesus as disarming all Christians when he disarmed Peter (Tertullian).

    Inevitably, just war is a concession; it is hard to mount, I believe, a substantial argument from New Testament ethics in favor of any kind of violence. At some point you have to be willing to say, “We must resort to violence because we can’t think of any other way.” And that is a failure of imagination and faith, not Scripture. That is not a condemnation, I don’t believe, but a truth that those who believe in some kind of defensible violence must always carry with them. There are other areas of life that people make similar concessions with. That doesn’t make them not a Christian, but it might properly illuminate the weight of those kinds of ethical choices if we were honest that it is our own failure, not God’s, that causes us to concede to working the way the world does.

    • Ethan · October 23, 2010

      Great post Brian, and great explanation on nonviolence too! I will chime in on the nonviolence part later but want to address the main post first.

      I largely agree with everything in the first section before Brian gets to his thesis. One qualification I would make:

      “Reading the Scripture well helps us to see why tradition has come to the conclusions it has.” I agree, and would add that it can also help us figure out which conclusions are not true, or not true for all times and ages. (This is implied somewhat in Brian’s disagreement on violence, for example. More recent tradition is largely supportive of violence in one way or another, while there is no example of violence being permitted or praised in the NT or in early Christianity)

      The section on reading Scripture faithfully and responsibly is great. “It is possible to read the Bible with a regard for it’s spiritual revelation without compromising the integrity of careful analysis.” Right on.

      I get a little confused about the section when eschatology and cosmological views are brought in. I think Brian is saying that the best understanding of the focal points of cross, community, and new creation is achieved when we place ourselves in the eschatological worldview of the writers. I agree, but would take it a step further. We then step out of their eschatological worldview and compare it to what we know today. Then, we can get an even better understanding (at least potentially).

      I’m not sure exactly what Brian means when he asks why our interpretation of these terms must be restricted by how the NT writers viewed God. Do you mean eschatology? Cosmology? Everything?

      “Quite simply because Christianity is more than a matter of a few beliefs and following righteous teachings.” Why is this? Is it because *people* added extra beliefs, concepts, and so forth? Jesus does seem to have a relatively few extremely important core beliefs and righteous teachings, and everything else needful flows from these and is subject to these. (Could this be the meaning of “The head of the Church is Christ”?)

      “To claim Christ is to join the mystical body of Christ that began thousands of years ago, and to be part of an other-cultured community of worshipers. Becoming a Christian has always meant adopting, as best we can, the cosmological view of those who passed along the faith to us from the beginning, and therefore gaining our understanding of Scripture from the community of those who have interpreted it long before us. In other words, as Stanley Hauerwas might say, individual Christians are not given the right or responsibility to interpret Scripture on our own.”

      I really appreciate and am inspired by the idea (and reality) of the mystical body of Christ. I think it’s very important. I don’t know what Brian is actually trying to say, though. Being part of the mystical body = sharing the same cosmological view? And gaining our understanding of Scripture from the past? But what about the present? How can we not also gain our understanding of Scripture from the present, and what happens when our present understanding leads to modify or slightly qualify that of what people in the past believed?

      A higher principle than “the mystical body of Christ” is what Jesus himself said: “They who do the will of My Father are those who are my brother and sister and mother.” It seems to me we are having this whole conversation in the first place because we are struggling to know and articulate what *today* makes a person a Christian – what being a Christian is all about, and what is essential. Doesn’t this imply that past tradition isn’t giving a satisfactory or full answer? (I really am just struggling to understand exactly what Brian means and doesn’t mean.)

      I didn’t really understand what cosmological means, so I looked it up. “Cosmology: the branch of philosophy dealing with the origin and general structure of the universe, with its parts, elements, and laws. And especially with such of its characteristics as space, time, causality, and freedom.” It seems to me (and I could be wrong) that Brian is perhaps lumping together the philosophy and unknowable cosmological views (made with much less knowledge than we have today) of the NT writers with the actual content/essence/spirit of Jesus. Do you mean that we should adopt their cosmological views specifically on the cross, community, and new creation, or across the entire board? And if we do adopt their cosmological view on new creation, say, how do we deal with the varying views on this in the bible itself (as you said, it has various voices)? Again, I just don’t know what specifically you are putting out there by saying these things.

      “In other words, as Stanley Hauerwas might say, individual Christians are not given the right or responsibility to interpret Scripture on our own.” I couldn’t disagree with you (and Hauerwas) on this more! Although I do think I understand where you’re coming from so maybe this isn’t as black and white of a statement as one might be led to believe initially.

      Maybe using your previous language of keeping the tension between two things will be useful. There is definitely a tension between understanding for ourselves what the Bible means, interpreting it and applying it – with how we do that as a community. If you and Hauerwas mean that individuals should not be recklessly interpreting scripture and trying to live it completely on their own in isolation from others who are also trying to figure it out, I totally agree. But at the same time, there is a tension that as the community we are discussing grows (say, from some people I get together with regularly to discuss and practice these things, to a church, to an entire country’s denomination, to the world denomination, to a world religion) there is more and more tension to state things more simply, to codify them more – and this can be good or bad, or both!

      From Jesus himself, I do see that he gives us the tools to interpret Scripture for ourselves, individually (but assuming that we will want to be in a process with others.) He teach people how to see through what the Pharisees said to the crux of what really matters? He called us friends that can understand God’s will, not slaves who just obey it. Although community is super important, isn’t one’s own conscience and relationship with God in some ways (not all, but definitely some) – more important?

      Although it is valid that authority can belong to churches, to groups – it still flows first and foremost from the individual (Jesus) – to individuals and as this authority flows upward it is legitimate if it remains intact, whole, and in the same character as Jesus, but it is really hard for that to happen.

      This sounds frightening to many who place so much authority in the church or in the bible itself, but I would argue that the Church only has authority, that the Bible only has authority, that you only have authority, that I only have authority when we really are connected to (and properly being an ambassador for) that ONE authority. The tricky thing is that this gets harder and harder the farther up you go, and there are more and more temptations, misunderstandings, and differences in how people relate to God.

      I’m certainly not promoting a completely individualistic means of interpreting scriptures but I think the foundation of any community or small group based interpretation does rely pretty heavily on its members really struggling and engaging the scriptures themselves, in their own private time, with their own conscience and thoughts.

      Ok, so that’s enough on that topic.

      I think we are largely in agreement on community and new creation. Our difference lies in the cross and interpreting that in the view of the NT writers.

      Community and new creation are very broad and general in many ways. The message and meaning of the cross is also broad and general. Requiring a specific belief in the literally fleshly resurrection does a lot, I think, to blur the actual meaning of it for those not raised in the church or who cannot otherwise believe in that and who have many good reasons to do so – both in understanding the history of religion, in understanding the cosmological and eschatological views of NT writers (which aren’t guaranteed to be perfect or inerrant although the source of what they are trying to get at is), and our own present day understanding, conscience, and questioning.

      It’s not just the question of the literal fleshly resurrection itself that is doubtful to me and many others, but the practical implications of that. If it was a literal fleshly body, where did it go? How did it magically float up into heaven? If this body “went” somewhere, then we really are thinking of heaven as a place, but we know it’s not a place! (Theologians seem to be agreeing on that these days!) If it is a resurrection body – first of all, what the heck is a resurrection body and how does that exist at the same time as the millions of normal bodies? This has the element of a really meaningful story, not literal truth. I think the truth of Jesus can be affirmed at the same time as one can think that probably a literal fleshly resurrection did not happen. Obviously something important happened because the fearful disciples were transformed, but probably not a literal resurrection. That is my view. Jesus himself said that his Spirit, the Paraclete, would come after he died and that seems like the important and enduring thing to me.
      He told the disciples they should be happy he was going to die for that reason.

      Hyattsville Mennonite Church is a church of very faithful people, in word, deed, and spirit. According to their pastor, many in the church do believe that there is salvation outside of Jesus – i.e. that people aren’t damned merely for not believing specifically in the everything we’re supposed to believe about Jesus. There are groups like the Brethren who do not care about creeds and focus on understanding (on all levels, not just the mind) Jesus and following him. Are these groups not Christian?

      I want you to know that I am not offended, nor am I hurt, if you (or anyone else) truly believes that a group or person has to believe in the literal physical resurrection or anything else about Jesus being the Only One to be Christian. I just ask as a matter of thought what this is implying and if that only creates more division and fracturing of the body of Christ.

      Is it not possible that with all the changes between his day and ours, St. Francis would move even more in the direction of a qualified and responsible pluralism? By qualified, I mean not just letting “anything go” – not putting a blanket statement that all paths are to God because even in this blogging series we agree that there are specific things that put one outside of that (like the violence and oppression). By responsible, I mean that this view isn’t just leapt to because it is comfortable and easy, but it’s truly reached after a lot of questioning, faithful and honest reading of Scripture and other Scriptures, of interacting with a variety of people. I mean the fact that significant numbers of Benedictines and Trappists are coming to the view of a qualified, responsible pluralism might mean something! They have a direct experience with monastics and leaders of other religions and of discussing and learning things at a very deep level both within their own tradition and others. I appreciate them because they don’t arrive at a fluffy and rushed leap to a different view than the traditional view, but one formed after many years, even decades, of struggle, dialog, questioning, wrestling with scripture, and so on. If you read enough of Thomas Merton’s works (journals, letters to Sufis, and so on) you find that he is pretty squarely in this camp, for instance.

      Just as a quick aside, one community I’m pursuing here in NYC is called the Community of the Mystic Heart, inspired by Wayne Teasdale. He wanted to enter a Trappist monastery when he was fairly young (20s or something) and was turned down, and pursued a path of trying to be a “monk in the world”. He became a professor of comparative religion, an oblate of sorts, and spent significant time at a Christian-Hindu ashram in India founded by Catholic Benedictines. This group is founded on these principles and vows (to become a member):

      CMH 9 Vows (related to the 9 elements of a mature spirituality Teasdale focuses on in one of his books)

      l. I vow to actualize and live according to my full moral and ethical capacity
      2. I vow to live in solidarity with the cosmos (I would prefer “world” because cosmos sounds a little hippy-dippy to me) and all living beings
      3. I vow to live in nonviolence
      4. I vow to live in humility
      5. I vow to embrace a daily spiritual practice
      6. I vow to cultivate mature self-knowledge
      7. I vow to live a life of simplicity
      8. I vow to live a life of selfless service and compassionate action
      9. I vow to express the deepest realization of my inner practice through the prophetic call to work for justice, compassion and world transformation

      Excerpt from the Culture Statement

      We acknowledge that typically a group, like an individual, has a conscious experience and an unconscious component. Our intention at CMH is to be conscious about ourselves and to provide space throughout to allow our consciousness to be ever deepened. Accordingly, we share these preliminary statements at this time:

      1. We desire to be a self-aware organization so that the CMH culture is ever being reviewed, explored, and uncovered.
      2. More than tolerant, we acknowledge and explore areas of conflict and friction as areas rich in learning and growth.
      3. We allow space in all group interactions to expand our understanding of our group unconscious and hence our culture.
      4. We include ourselves as part of the whole and treat each member with respect.
      5.Our culture is one of inclusivity in all aspects of our self-expression.
      6.Throughout we aim to keep it simple and keep it light!

      Many people in this group are Christians exploring other religions, and members of other religions exploring Christianity/Jesus!

      Thanks everyone! Looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts!

      • Ethan · October 23, 2010

        With the whole St. Francis thing, I am speaking of the quote and link I shared in the previous post’s discussion:

        http://www.monasticdialog.com/a.php?id=380

        Here St. Francis of Assisi enlightens our path. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, sites the practice of the Poverello to treat sacred texts with great respect, even those from secular authors. A brother asked him one day why he so carefully collected the writings even of the pagans, where the Name of the Savior was not present. He answered: “My son, it is because we find in them the letters that spell out the glorious Name of Our Lord God. All that is good in these writings belongs neither to the pagans nor to anyone else, but to God alone, from whom we receive every good.”(7) A particular good does not belong to us. We do not possess the truth. Then we can “rejoice in the truth”(8) that we find in others and purify ourselves of an exaggerated attachment to our truths of the faith.

        I really want to know what people think about this St. Francis quote, the Benedictines’ and Trappists’ experiences, and so on!

        Also, excuse my grammatical errors – I definitely saw a few looking over my long response. And about the Mennonite and Brethren example I also meant to say that likely many of the people mentioned question the literal resurrection (although I cannot know for sure because I did not ask that question. I definitely did ask the question about salvation outside of Christianity)

  5. Ethan · November 2, 2010

    Guess this discussion kind of petered out, huh?

    • brianjgorman · November 3, 2010

      Sorry, Ethan! I will try to get to your comments soon. I just haven’t had time. Thanks for posting them, though! There’s a lot to reply to, as usual.

  6. David Alexander · November 15, 2010

    “At the same time, I think we also have to be willing to admit that if violence becomes “necessary” to prevent greater evil then Christians have failed in their call to be peacemakers.” 

    I think I agree with Ghandi that the ends do not justify the means. I do not accept the premise that all violence is evil so I do not view such violence as giving in to the lesser of two evils. I do freely admit that God calls us to be ambassadors of peace but I think the work is God’s and that God also uses violence sometimes. I guess the question is whether He uses Christians to do violence, or when He calls us to be pure vessels that is excluded.  

    “Violence then, is always a concession and admission of sinfulness and brokenness. It is true weakness; God’s power is through the non-violent cross of Jesus.”

    I think your a priori definition of violence as evil should be debated. Jesus actions in the temple overturning the moneychangers tables and driving the livestock out with a whip was violence but it was not a concession and admission of his sinfulness and brokenness.  
     
    “As to your points, I don’t think we can say Jesus “allowed” his disciples to carry weapons, in the sense that he told them specifically that it was a good idea to do so. Some of his disciples may have carried weapons, but that was likely because some were Zealot revolutionaries, obviously in contrast to Jesus’ message.”

    I do not see why it should be conceded that the reasons Jesus’ follower or followers carried weapons must have been because they were zealots. There were bandits on the roads. Jesus was the leader of the Apostles and if he felt strongly about this issue why did he not specifically proscribe their carrying weapons. He did in one place say to only carry a bag, etc. 

    “It’s more likely that they carried weapons precisely because they didn’t understand Jesus. It is interesting to note that early Christians saw Jesus as disarming all Christians when he disarmed Peter (Tertullian).”

    Maybe, maybe not. I also have heard that early Christians did not all have the same view on enlistment in the army, etc. Tertullian as a voice for all the early Christians seems an odd choice because he was infamous for his tongue lashings and irascibility with many other Christians and I believe the Church came to reject some of his teachings.  That is not to say that he is suspect as a Christian to me by any means.

    I also think that a failure of the imagination can occur in not training it to embrace reality. A phenomenal discussion of the imagination and pitfalls to it in different varieties of escapism versus an imagination engaged with reality can be found inthe book Christ and Apollo by Willism Lynch.

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