Archives For Embedded Theology

A few years back I did an online retreat for a spiritual formations class I was taking. It was a core subject, with a large amount of flexibility in what classes you can choose from[1].

What was revealed to me during of one of these classes was the short but sweet statement, ‘aim to bless, rather than impress’. Recently, I found myself questioning it’s viability as a theological statement from which society can be critiqued.

I began wrestling with the question, is there ever an appropriate time to impress people? As a budding student theologian, I immediately started to critically work out a reasoned polemic.

The answer I came up with was no. There should never be a need to try to impress people, ever. If there is follow Paul’s advice and run, run far and run fast (2 Tim.2:22 ESV).

I’m a fairly confident guitar player, and I love a large variety of musical genres, so putting on a show is in my very westernized and socially engineered self-conscience. Throughout junior and senior high school, getting the latest riff right down to its semitone and crochet, determined a high level of social acceptance.

As a result I derived my sense of self-worth from how well I could play (i.e.: put on a show). In my pre-Christ alignment, this became an idol I obsessed over.

From hard learned experiences, for me appearance determined reputation and was therefore everything. The language of acceptance was, at least from my prespective, my musical ability.

The statement ‘aim to bless, rather than impress’ is counter-cultural. We know this because God’s standard is to ‘look upon the heart and not outward appearance..not as humans do’ (1.Sam.16:7).

This means that a statement like aim to bless rather than impress, is the ordained orientation for humanity, even if it is not always the reality. This statement appears on the ‘horizon of the possibility’s of grace’ (Leonard Ravenhill).

Father, Son and Spirit rushes towards us, not unlike the prodigal’s father running towards his son, undeterred by his “wasteful” public display of affection, joy, gratitude and forgiveness (Lk. 15:17) [2].

For now, I have concluded that humans are called to be bothered with how we bless people, as opposed to how we impress them. This does not mean I give up on performing, it means that I resist any area in my life where my performance, worth and acceptance is tempted to become about simply just ‘putting on a show’.

Today, I was reading my news feeds and stumbled across this relevant gem by Wendy Murray:

”Your worth, and mine, cannot–I dare say, must not — be reduced to “likes,” “retweets,” “shares,” and “mentions.” Your worth and, mine; your influence on others’ lives, and mine, have nothing to do with measureable algorythms. It is a lie…be who you are, before God. Do what God made you to do. Look people in the eye. Show up. That is enough’’

What that all means is this:

In order to express excellence we must only do our best! Outside simply giving our best, the contemporary ”virtue” of excellence and the quest for it can become an idol.

In doing so we live out of a darkened sense of self-worth dictated to us by others, instead of God’s idea of who we are. When we aim to bless, rather than impress, we set our feet on the Christological reality that says,

‘it is only from God that men and women know who they are’ (Bonhoeffer 1966, p.31).

This is the only measuring stick, and from it we ‘intuitively recognize that we, ourselves are more than what has been defined for us’ (Cone paraphrased p.11, 1975).

Give thanks, for “we are found”… (David Crowder)


References:

Bonhoeffer, D. 1966 Christology William Collins Sons and Co Ltd, London

Cone, J.H. 1975, God of the oppressed Orbis books, Maryknoll, N.Y

(Edited from an article originally posted in 2013)


[1] I plan to write on some of my experiences, if I get the time to formulate them into a coherent and linear framework.

[2] Luke 15:17 ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (ESV)

Photo by José Martín on Unsplash

IMG_20130627_191543I have long been a subscriber to the idea that hate is not a sin. However, I need to qualify this statement by firstly saying that: a) my alignment with this theory is a work in progress and b) my current theological understanding is that unless hatred is answered through confession with reconciliation as its goal, it will lead to sin.

For example: 1 Jn.3:15 in context would read ‘wherever hatred is, there is an inclination to do mischief’ (John Calvin, Institutes VIII:347).

Reconciliation and forgiveness are the primary spheres in which transformation is achieved, and it begins with the process of confession.

Ambrose of Milan stated that: ‘if you have confessed at the call of Christ the bars will be broken, and every chain loosed’ (Ambrose of Milan).

In a similar theological vein Karl Barth viewed confession as a referral and submission ‘to a higher tribunal confronting both partners with concrete authority’ (‘Church Dogmatics a selection’, Helmut Gollwitzer); to ‘lay our weapons down’ (John Mayer ‘Heartbreak warfare’, 2009 )

Unconfessed hatred is counter-productive. It leaves us like a ship lost at sea, left with only the stars to navigate by. Only then to find frustration with clouds that are constantly obscuring our efforts.

The outcomes of unresolved and concealed hate are inevitably confusion, anxiety, fear and rage – dysfunctional relationships – as such ‘no one really ever wins’ (John Mayer ‘Heartbreak Warfare’, 2009)

Consequently we become desperate for direction as our judgement increasingly becomes shrouded in fog.

We then abdicate our responsibility to speak the truth. We compromise on our Christian commitment to hope because our moral compass is exchanged for self-preservation, and we abandon the north star finding ourselves drifting deeper into a sea of brokenness and despair.

The counter to this is entering into a confession-that-seeks-truth. This is like choosing to drop the eggs instead of walking over them gently. Working on ways to help those around us ‘understand our pain’ (John Mayer, 2009).

If I say or act in love towards you, yet harbor hatred in my heart I conceal the truth. I am forced to lie in order to keep-the-peace. The problem with this approach is that appeasement tends to only ever benefit those who are appeased [1].

The strength in confession is when we confess our hatred, we can immediately be released from the burden the precarious nature of hatred brings, one which hangs around our neck like a rotting albatross. Confessing hate allows us to process and communicate reasons for such a response.

Only then can the movement towards resolution be enacted. Of course any confession requires being wise in how and who we express that confession to. Confrontation, context, tone and timing are also important considerations.

Sadly, Western society is increasingly being pressured from within to tolerate everything in order to appease post-modern politically correct sensitivities. How can falsehoods be confronted if it is not permissible to do so?

It is true that hate is a strong word that is loaded with emotion. Hate is defined by thesage as being an ’emotion of intense dislike so strong that it demands action’. Goodrick & Kohlenberger write that the Hebrew word for hate is:  שׂנא ‘sane’ which means to be unloved, shunned, disliked, an adversary.

That is why it has become a whip statement, a term utilised to shame and ridicule dissenters into silence with overly generalised terms such as Christians are ‘ignorant, anti-science, haters and bigots’. Such emerging social conventions should not be allowed to bind us into maintaining false appearances via restrictions on the freedom to confront falsehoods, be it society, science, left, right, church or state.

For the biblical authors the existence of falsehoods demand action.

Ps.119: 104 ‘Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
Pr. 26:24-26 ‘People may cover their hatred with pleasant words, but they’re deceiving you. They pretend to be kind, but don’t believe them. Their hearts are full of many evils. While their hatred may be concealed by trickery, their wrongdoing will be exposed in public’ (NLT)
Pr.8:13 ‘The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate’.
Pr.13:5 ‘The righteous hates falsehood’
Eccl.3:8 ‘a time to love, and a time to hate’
Eph.4:26-27 ‘Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil’.

A few years back an estranged relative asked me the question ‘how can you be a minister with so much hate?’ Since then my response has been: “please don’t confuse telling-the-truth with hatred, tolerance with silence and silence with love.”

The act of confession is a compassionate and humble act towards others in grateful response to Father, Son and Spirit. Through ‘open confession’ (Ambrose) and humility, truth speaks through the community. For example Barth writes that `theology is impossible without humility because the truth at issue is a person who says : ”I am the truth” (Jn. 14); (Church Dogmatics, a selection).

Jean Bethke Elshtain puts it this way:

‘Our ideas have to meet the test of being engaged by others, far better than having people retreat into themselves and nurture a sense of grievance, rage and helplessness…thoughts must be tested in the public square where you have to meet certain standards…we must be careful not to confuse tolerance with complete and total embrace…total acceptance does not mean universal love’ (Maxwell School Lecture, State of Democracy 2013).

Therefore confess hate, speak truth and drop the eggs, watch the lies disintegrate. It may hurt, you may lose, but lose boldly with the hope that those who reject truth return to truth refined, renewed and rescued. Refuse to walk on egg shells, and instead clean up the pieces left behind, lovingly inviting others to do the same.

The truth is much more precious and valuable than any sugar-coated version of it we can create. There are never two sides to a story. There is only ever one story which evidently has multiple perspectives.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: ‘there is but one reality and that is the reality of God, which has become manifest in Christ in the reality of the world’ (Ethics, 195)

To love is not only to understand that Christians are called to speak truth-in-love but to also understand that love-speaks-truthfully. As the words attributed to Solomon so wisely put it:

 ‘Open rebuke is better than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:5-6 ESV)

Loving ourselves is hard, loving our enemies? Even harder. (Lk.6:20-45)


Sources:

Ambrose of Milan, Concerning Repentance Kindle Edition.

Barth, K. Church Dogmatics: A Selection With Introduction by Helmut Gollwitzer (Kindle Locations 1050-1051). Kindle Edition.

Bonhoeffer, D. Ethics Kindle edition.

Calvin, J Institutes of the Christian Religion Eerdmans

Goodrick, E.W & Kohlenberger, J.R 1991 NIVAC: Strongest NIV exhaustive concordance Zondervan

Meier, P. & Wise R. 2003 Crazy Makers: getting along with the difficult people in your life (particularly chapter twelve) Thomas Nelson Publishers Nashville

[1] Historically speaking, nowhere is this more evident than in British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s ‘’gift’’ of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in the 1938 Munich agreement.

(RL2013)

Here is a ‘note to self’ recently rediscovered. I wrote this back in 2011. Long before I’d even considered blogging as a means to connect, share, process, and improve on conclusions and thoughts I’d come to through my undergraduate days.

I’ll never know the privilege of having pride in my father; having a father’s loving advice, or an extended family, on my side, that through mutual reciprocity, enriches my own.

What was broken, is broken and the residue of the struggle to move beyond that remains. This has hindered me having confidence in myself, others, even in having hope for a future.

But through it, I have come to know and acknowledge that God, who in Jesus Christ, redeems even the chiefest of sinners, is greater than all this. Greater than words spoken in order to shame and therefore control.

Evident through Word & impossible changes becoming possible, I’ve seen God choose to step in and move me beyond it; to not let my past define my future.

Don’t let the world, friends, enemies or the past define you. God lives & speaks the same different word every time.

As the Apostle to the Gentile;the foreigner; the alien says, God in His freedom sets us up for freedom and empowers us to cry out ‘Abba Father’ (Romans 8 & 12); recognizing that God delivers on His promise to be the Father of the fatherless.

As the infamous African-American theologian, James Cone once said, ‘we are more than what has been defined for us by broken homes, sin and fatherlessness’ (Cone, p.11) [i]

Posting items and words like this on the internet can be treacherous. I recall Jesus’ wisdom when he talks about “giving to the dogs what is sacred and casting pearls before swine” (Mathew 7:6). Even with the context explained, it’s possible to misuse my words here. As I’ve mentioned plenty of times in the past, social media, when it comes to community, isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. It’s an ongoing conversation, that can bolster community, but it can never truly replace community; and in it’s current form, will only ever remain so.

[For more of my thoughts on this check out: Fake News Sells: Unfriending Ersatz Community ]

I say these things with confidence because community is best displayed by Christianity, or at least it should be. This is because Christianity is incarnational – where Word meets flesh; where Word meets both deed and attitude. It’s something, or rather, someone, who comes to us; not just pointing to the way, but making a way. God sets this standard and empowers it in Jesus Christ.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read these words from African-American, civil rights campaigner, John M. Perkins’ in his new book, ‘Dream With Me‘:

“I believe the human dimension of God;s work is very important. It’s not that He couldn’t accomplish anything He wanted to do without us, He chooses to [work] with human vessels.We are not the main force at work, yet we are involved. We are present. God uses us in one another’s lives.’ (Perkins, p.96)[ii]

Perkins follows this up with,

‘At a recent conference some of the young people I had met tried to convince me that they didn’t really need a preacher. They’re frustrated with traditional church leadership, [then they appealed to] the priesthood of all believers, which is all well and good. That they prefer a virtual church over a traditional one. I told them, “That’s going to be weak, because it’s going to miss the incarnation [the embodiment of Christ; Word made flesh]. It will not have a human touch (Hebrews 10:24-25).The active presence of other believers contributes to God’s work within us. Again, it’s not that God needs us to complete what He is doing – but He allows that human dimension to be a part of His redemptive work.’ (Perkins, p.97)[iii]

Perkins is right. If we don’t speak for fear of the swine or throwing what is sacred to the dogs, then our silence may be motivated by fear, not wisdom.

I’m all for responsible vulnerability; the need to refine what we’re going to say, and then saying that with precision, so as to both guard our hearts with all diligence (Proverbs 4:23). However, we also put on the ‘Armor of Light (Jesus Christ), casting off the works of darkness’ (Romans 13:12); ‘building up and encouraging one another, through endurance and the scriptures, so that we might have hope’ (Romans 15:2).

Posts like these display vulnerability, which is why some, such as Brene Brown, might consider it also an act of extraordinary courage.

Whether or not these are unwise or an act of extraordinary courage, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the raw truth contained it, and the Good News I wish to proclaim through it.

 


Sources:

[i] Cone, J. 1975 God Of the Oppressed, Orbis Books (1997 ed.) p.11

[ii] Perkins, J.M. 2017 Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win, Baker Publishing Group

[iii] Ibid, 2017

Helmut Thielicke To Young TheologiansSome months ago I picked up Helmut Thielicke’s, ‘A little exercise for young theologians’ (1962).

In cautious sympathy with the church, Thielicke presents a range of caveats for theologians. His ultimate aim is to remind theologians-in-training that ministry and theology are interlaced and reciprocally connected[i].

This concludes with Thielicke lifting up the importance of ‘theological reflection’. Which is, simply put, the necessary tension between theory and practice; how what we think theologically {embedded theology}, is challenged by how, what we think is actually applied, or could have been applied {deliberative theology}.

These thoughts are reinforced by a preamble-like evaluation by Martin E. Marty in the introduction:

‘I have tried to think what are the enemies of theology in America.
First is the pervasive unbelief that makes its way into ecclesiastical circles.It motivates the counsel to avoid theology, counsel which says: the Christian faith cannot pass intellectual tests; therefore keep busy, do not subject Christian affirmation to analysis and scrutiny, and it may survive.
Second is an apathy or low imagination extended to many crucial ventures of the church.If something does not immediately seem to affect what goes on within the walls of my church tower, the confines of my parish, I do not often care.
Still another enemy is the idolization of the “doer” as opposed to the “thinker.” The Big-time Operator or the Good Joe somehow builds more buildings, raises more budgets, and preaches louder sermons than does the craftsman who pours over his Greek New Testament.
It is of little consequence to some that he contributes to a greater divorce between Christ and the meaning of life, between the faith and other verities. So long as his engines puff and his and his wheels roll, all is well.[ii]

Ministry in these instances is overshadowed by fear, inflated egos and jargon. As a result theology is abandoned, no longer seen as having anything to say to the Church or society.

As Marty outlines, Thielicke acknowledges the timidity (anxiety) of most Christians with regards to the theological task (read: anti-intellectualism). Balancing this criticism with the observation that the academy and its esoteric narcissism (read: academic arrogance) stiffens and hides the accessibility of theology behind a veil of self-importance, ironic ignorance, yardsticks and insensitivity.

For example:

‘If the theologian does not take more seriously the objections of the ordinary washerwoman and the simple hourly-wage earner, and if he then thinks that the spiritual proletariat is not aware of the delicate questions and must have nothing to do with them – {which is just the way of that esoteric club} – surely something is not right with theology.[iii]

For Thielicke, ‘theology has to do with life[iv]’. However, theology is threatened by what he identifies as “theological puberty”. Defined as the overbearing delivery (bulldozing) from young theologians towards non-theologians about theological concepts.

This problem occurs when pride (or insecurity) permeates good intentions. Overbearing corrections can ‘smother the first little flame of an inquirers own spiritual life and extinguishes a first shy question with the fire extinguisher of the young theologians erudition…For instance: the inquirer becomes too embarrassed ever again to launch into a “naïve” exegesis in the presence of those profoundly knowing ears’[v]

Thielicke is a little heavy-handed, still he shoots straight and for good reason. He is challenging young theologians to stop and think before they comment.

‘It is possible – and laymen have a very exact perception in regard to this – that theology makes the young theologian vain and so kindles in him something like gnostic pride. The chief reason for this is that in us men truth and love are seldom combined.
It is also possible to say precisely why. Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other man who does not know this and that.’[vi]

In many ways this is Thielicke excavating Paul’s exhortation for us to rein in any ego built on cognitive ability alone; restraining ourselves from any association with special/scholastic – super spiritual – self-serving human ‘knowledge that over-inflates, and instead lean on the love (and truth) that builds’ (1. Corinthians 8:1).

In a similar way Barth touches on these same caveats in his discussion on the ‘Veracity of Man’s knowledge of God’:

‘Theology can of course, be sheer vanity. It is this when it is not pertinent, and that simply means – not humble. The pertinence of theology consists in making the exposition of revelation its exclusive task.
How can it fail to be humble in the execution of this task, when it has no control over revelation, but has constantly to find it, or rather be found by it?
…Our thinking, which is executed in views and concepts, is our responsibility to ourselves. Our speech is our responsibility to others’[vii] 

There is always going to be the danger of excessive introspection, however, by the willingness of God, though the aid of the Holy Spirit, with teachable hindsight, like good wine {or so I’m told}, Christian theology (and the theologian) can improve with age.

As Thielicke brilliantly articulates:

‘Whoever ceases to be a man of the spirit automatically furthers a false theology, even if in thought it is pure, orthodox and basically Lutheran. But in that case death lurks in the kettle.
Theology can be a coat of mail which crushes us and in which we freeze to death. It can also be – this is in fact its purpose! – the conscience of the congregation of Christ, its compass and with it all a praise-song of ideas.
Which of the two it is depends upon the degree in which listening and praying Christians stand behind this theological business.’[viii]

Christian theology does not belong to the museum of superfluous thought or singularly to the upper market echelons of Western society.

Thielicke’s final warning might thus read:

For the serious Christian theologian who becomes detached from a concern for responsible ministry, an “ivory tower” becomes a sterile and lifeless “padded cell”.


Source:

[i] Marty phrases this as Practical Churchmanship and Scholarly Inquiry. For example: ‘Thielicke argues that every minister of Jesus Christ must be both a disciplined theologian and a practicing churchman.’ in Thielicke, H. 1962 ‘A little exercise for young theologians’ Wm.B Eerdmans Press Kindle Ed. (Loc. 62-63)

[ii] Ibid, 66-70

[iii] Ibid, 112-114

[iv] Ibid, 97

[v] Ibid, 182-184 & Loc. 134-135

[vi] Ibid, 194-198

[vii] Barth, K. 1940 CD. II.2 The Limits of the Knowledge of God; The Hiddenness of God Hendrickson Publishers, 1957 (pp.203 & 211)

[viii] Thielicke, ibid, 332-335

Related post:

On Entertaining Angels & Academic Arrogance

@Luke 16:10

September 28, 2014 — Leave a comment

Reputation is not always a mirror of a persons character

 

tyranny the god of selfBefore you, is part two of three in a series of posts highlighting some points raised by Barth in Church Dogmatics I/II.

Riding on the wave of content mentioned in my post {here}, Karl Barth connects the authority and government of the Church to that of the Bible ‘as it stands’ in witness to the revelation of Jesus Christ.

He writes:

1. ‘The hearing in obedience is Christian faith and the sphere of Christian faith is the sphere in which God’s Word exercises its power’[i]

2. Another aspect Barth addresses here is how responsible understanding (interpretation) leads to responsible action (application)[ii].

Theologically these two items stem from prayer and exegesis, vital threads in the working out of orthopraxy. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxy can meet where thinking theology (embedded) meets doing theology (deliberative)  – one critiques the other in light of the necessary critique of God’s word.

3. Barth, possibly recalling his strong attempts to oppose the rise of fascism in the 1930’s focuses on the inevitable deception that results from natural theology, writing:

  • Who can exercise a worse tyranny over us than the god in our hearts? And what further tyranny does not this first and decisive one drag in its train?…
  • ‘It is inevitable that the man or woman who claims to be directly in communion with God, and free from all concrete forms of authority, will all the more certainly be delivered over to the powers of nature and history, to the spirit of the age and of contemporary movements, to the demons of his situation and environment.[iii]

4. Barth asserts that the Word of God creates the Church

  • ‘The Word of God is free, and exercises this freedom in the founding of the Church’[iv]
  • From the inner life of the Word, flows the life of the Church’[v]

Exegesis as more than a literary form of archaeology,
and to say that in the Word of God, we are spoken to,
acted upon and ruled by God, is no metaphor[vi].

  • ‘We understand Holy Scripture falsely, that is, not as Holy Scripture, if we regard it as a fixed, inflexible, self-contained quantity…just as by a dint of excavations many important and interesting conclusions are to be expected about the life of those who have lived by the fact that, however hard we try, more cannot be dug up than was originally there. But the investigation of the Bible does not have to reckon with this natural limitation’[vii].
  • To say that Jesus Christ rules the Church is equivalent to saying that Holy Scripture rules the Church’[viii]
  • ‘For the Bible is a living, indeed, in light of its content, an eternally living thing, so that from the study of it we can expect new truths to meet us’[ix]

 5. Although the Church has a social aspect to it, ultimately the Church is not a social club.

  • At the heart and basis, lacking that horizon, as is the case in all “religions,” he is his own master, the master of his own deepest impulses. In this type of religion the fellowship of religious people, what is called the Church, can be only a society with a particular object, a club, which individual believers join for certain enterprises and common endeavours.[x]

I once said to someone, that trying to hold Barth’s theology in your hands was like trying to hold water. It gets complicated and before you know it the water is gone. This is because there appears to be a constant movement of light, one that cannot be pinned down or tamed.

For me now, reading Barth is more like seeing someone you recognise while out on a stroll. You hear them calling out an invitation to stroll along. Then find yourself being pointed towards things that induce both warning and wonder.

Barth spots something strange and out of the ordinary. He sees things others may have failed to see or acknowledge at the time. As a result he calls us to hear and respond to the warnings of history, as well as to respond with prayer and gratitude for the wonder and the work of God, as He meets us in Jesus Christ.

In doing so Barth points us towards the uniqueness of Jesus the Christ; the Word of God who commits to enslaved humanity a responsible freedom that is a direct result of the God who chooses to act on our behalf.

Barth brilliantly wrote: ‘the Holy Spirit through the witness of the Word of God wins the heart of men and women.In the interval between the ascension and the second coming the believer is certainly responsible, but not autonomous’[xi]

We are not left alone.

Source:

[i] Barth, K. 1938 Church Dogmatics I/II Freedom of the Church; Freedom Under the Word Hendrickson Publishers p.687

[ii] Ibid, pp.696-697: ‘The Church is governed, maintained and created by the Word of God – the testimony to the revelation of Jesus Christ’ We must understand that this ‘testimony cannot be received unless those who accept it are ready and willing themselves to assume the responsibility for its interpretation and application’ (orthodoxy and orthopraxis).’

[iii] Ibid, p.668

[iv] Ibid, p.688

[v] Ibid, p.690

[vi] ‘It is no metaphor when we say that the Word of God speaks, acts and rules’ (p.684)

[vii] Ibid, p.683

[viii] Ibid, p.693

[ix] Ibid, p.684

[x] Ibid, p.692

[xi] Ibid, p.693

(©RL2014)

Albert Camus Quote Work creativity