Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Third World Theology" or just "Theology"?

This week I'm writing my thesis.  It's got to be done; this is the final hour.  If I want to graduate, that is.  (Aside: I can't believe three years of MDiv work is already over!)  The thesis I am arguing is that theologians in the West increasingly need to take into account the work of theologians in the Global South or Third World for their work to be credible.  More simply, Christian theology, if it is to represent Christianity at all, has to present the voice of the world's actual Christians, the majority of whom - as it turns out - live in the Global South.  

But in research and writing I was disappointed to find out that I'm not the first person saying this.  Others before me have pointed out that as more and more of the world's Christians live in places outside of the West, more and more of the world's Christian leaders will also live in places outside the West.  William Dyrness, who will be giving a keynote address at the University of Chicago's 5th student ministry conference (see the facebook page to attend for free!), wrote this in his book Learning About Theology from the Third World
"If theology is to be rooted in the actaul lives of Christians today, increasingly it will have to be from the poor to the poor, in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.  And theology done in the West, if it is not to become increasingly provincial, will have to be done in dialogue with the theological leaders in the Third World."
Dyrness is echoing here the words of Andrew Walls who wrote in an article years earlier that if Christian theology is supposed to be the theology of the world's actual Christians then
"theology in the Third World is now the only theology worth caring about."
But why am I disappointed that others have written down these observations before me?  Pride and vanity?  No.  I'm bummed out because Dyrness was writing in 1988 and Walls in 1976 - 20 and 30 years ago and nothing has changed!  "Third World Theology" is still not "theology proper" but instead a sub-field of totally different disciplines like anthropology or missiology!  

In the meantime, Christians of the West are becoming increasingly out of touch with the majority of the world's Christians.  The Anglican Communion - historically a denomination that prized unity above doctrine! - is now breaking apart.  Christians in Africa and Asia are facing and responding to the presence of other world religions in unique ways, way foreign to the Western ideal of "let's just get along."  And, to highlight one of the biggest concerns that has animated the theology of the Global South, poverty is a reality of the human person in a way totally foreign to many in the West, and one result of this is very different understandings of private property, consumption, personal identity and social commitment than Western Christians have.  

I am not suggesting that Christians of the Global South understand theology better (or worse).  I am only pointing out that they are more and more becoming the new Christianity - embodying what Christianity is in the 21st century - and they understand Christian faith in some significantly different ways than Western Christians do.  All theologians today - and not just those who are "interested in that topic" -  must take this into account if it is to have any credibility at all as theology.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lamin Sanneh Interview

On February 23rd Lamin Sanneh gave an address at the University of Chicago Divinity School on the topic, “Resisting Mission / Redefining Engagement.”  Afterward I sat down with Professor Sanneh over lunch to talk about the Div School’s upcoming 5th Annual Ministry Conference.  He offered some great insights and provocative points that only increase my excitement for the conference on May 1-2.  One of the organizing questions of the conference is why isn’t there more academic and ministerial collaboration between Christian communities around the world at a time when Christianity is growing so rapidly?  I began my conversation with Professor Sanneh on this topic.


Ministry Conference:  The chief question of the ministry conference is, as forms of Christianity are being increasingly indigenized around the world, how do and how ought those affect local Christian practice here in the U.S? 

Lamin Sanneh:  Well I think one of the obvious ways - and I’ve seen this in practice - is to establish partnerships between churches in the U.S. and churches in Asia and Africa. And that partnership being, you know, senior pastors in churches in the United States should visit however briefly the partnership counterparts in Asia and Africa. 

I think it’s important to sort of break down the domestication of Christianity in America, in the United States, where Christianity is a sort of neighborhood project or community project and it doesn’t really think of itself as being connected with anyone else anywhere else.  Paul called this cultural idolatry.  
 And the next stage, I think, is to establish a way in which young people in the church here can engage people in the churches over there.  And the third step may be to establish within mission committees in the United States a program in cross-cultural outreach. 

MC: What would be the theological impetus for that?  What theological understandings say “That’s important” for local churches?

LS: I think it’s important to sort of break down the domestication of Christianity in America, in the United States, where Christianity is a sort of neighborhood project or community project and it doesn’t really think of itself as being connected with anyone else anywhere else.  Paul called this cultural idolatry.   That you become very narcissitic, that you become concerned only with yourself, not with your brothers and sisters in the wider community of faith. 

MC:  What would be the aim or goal of those forms of interaction?  For instance there’s been a rise in popularity of short-term mission trips where the purpose is not even primarily serving the people that you’re going to visit anymore, but rather to have a profound faith experience for yourself.  So, what are the purposes of this kind of interaction? 

LS:  Short term mission, on the positive side, is a sign of the awareness that Christianity is no longer a Western or American monopoly, and therefore the unilateral way of looking at it – we go there to give them faith – has to be given  up.  That’s the positive side.  The negative side, however, is that short term mission may also be just an extension of American individualism.  I’m going there for my own benefit.  Too bad about them, but it’s all about me.  And that doesn’t really break down any walls or any barriers.  It doesn’t really expand what I call the Christian vocabulary of the wider family.  Christianity is the most pluralist and most inclusive religion in all the religions of the world. And yet Christians sometimes behave in a very exclusivist way, individualistic way so that our practices don’t really reflect the broader the wider reality of Christianity so short term missions are both and opportunity and a peril. 

MC: One thing that I have an interest in is theological education in the third world. There is a large need for training pastors, but, because of expense and of time, pastors can’t afford to travel and go to bible college for three years.  So one response has been that a lot of local churches are founding their own bible colleges.  There are a number of these schools and hundreds of pastors who’ve been trained in these schools.  Do you see any way in which that type of phenomenon does or ought be instructive to Christian practice here in the States or is it just sort of its own thing?

University of Chicago students have access to a much larger, greater library of books than Augustine ever did.  And yet, you look at his work and what he was able to accomplish, and you say how did he do it?  Well the reason mainly was because he was a parish priest.
Or for a different type of example, consider the church of North India is an ecumenical denomination that began, I believe, in the 1930s.  Churches that were previously mission affiliated essentially dropped their mission affiliation and said “We’re not primarily Baptist or Anglican or Lutheran; we’re primarily Indian,” and they began an ecumenical denomination.  So again the same question:  What instruction does or should these type of movements provide to Christian theological education in the U.S.? experience of the Christian life helped to sharpen their minds and their ideas so that language itself became for them means of witness.
LS:  We come to religion, the study of religion from the point of view of the text, studying the text, studying books.  I’m a great believer in doing it the other way around.  Actually, practice of the Christian faith informs your understanding in certain ways.  Text by itself can come alive in ways that it would not if you merely look into the text; it remains a kind of inorganic information which it depends for you to bring to life.  The bible is a book of faith but we made it a text of study.  And look at someone like Augustine, bishop of Hippo.  University of Chicago students have access to a much larger, greater library of books than Augustine ever did.  And yet, you look at his work and what he was able to accomplish, and you say how did he do it?  Well the reason mainly was because he was a parish priest. 

MC:  Wow.  That’s really great.

LS:  He was a parish priest.  And the same thing with the others, Origen and the others they were priests; they were pastors.  They had great erudition because their living experience of the Christian life - their practices - helped to sharpen their minds and their ideas so that language itself became for them means of witness, of being faithful.  And so you couldn’t be frivolous, with language.  Augustine said that he met many people who wanted to deceive, but he didn’t know anyone who wanted to be deceived.  So the academy itself can benefit from the exposure of these ideas to the field, and I believe that what happens in the field takes up new life when you have the opportunity, the privilege of reflecting on it. So the two are not necessarily opposed.  They go together.  Only you have to change the combination of them.

MC:  One final question:  So with some of these ideas of theology being deeply embedded in experience, in the parish, in meeting needs and being amongst the people. With these ideas in mind do you see a need for the work of theology itself to change, and, if so, in what ways? 

LS:  I think theology has to grasp the significance of the boundary or the margin.  Not just marginality as an economic issue -those who are poor.  Or marginality as a physical issue - those who are handicapped.  But marginality as a kind of moral consciousness - that we have a responsibility as scholars not only to consume values but to produce values, to create values.  

So that business people architects and professional classes don’t get away with the idea that knowledge is value free and therefore they are not accountable to anybody.
Not only to take what is our right but to give something back. And I think we have this idea that we should press for human rights, the rights of minority, the rights of those who’ve been denied their rights and so on.  That is true, but the heart of Christian theology should be this task of producing not consuming values.  Producing value. Creating values.  Often by taking mainstream establishment values or ideas and redeeming them.  For that way, the task of theology would be the renewal of society, the revitalization of intellectual thought, the renewal of society.  So that business people architects and professional classes don’t get away with the idea that knowledge is value free and therefore they are not accountable to anybody. 

MC:  Yeah, that’s a critical point.

LS:  And that’s a big task for us to do.  And I can’t see history doing that.  I don’t see geography doing that.  Or physics or astronomy.  But theology can do it.

MC:  So is it problematic then to have both a theology and a theological ethics department.

LS:  Yeah. 

MC:  Well I guess we’ve got some work to do here at the Divinity School then!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Verbal Inspiration / Grammatical Interpretation

The previous post on creation and evolution was not on creation and evolution. This is very important. I do not say in that post what my own views are about creation or evolution or whether I have views. Granted, that non-commitment is annoying, but it's kind of how I do things on this blog at least. So, again, I did not actually say one way or another whether I think Christians can or cannot believe in the Bible and in evolution.

The point of the previous post was about how Christians relate to their convictions. Are we committed to our beliefs before having reasons to believe them? Yes. And no.
Are we committed to our beliefs before having reasons to believe them? Yes. And no.
Yes, in that, as Augstine describes, faith is always seeking understanding (fides quarens intellectum). But no, in that, you only believe things that you have at least some reason to believe, whether personal experience, reliable testimony or historical documentation. There is also an element of willingness involved. You have to be willing to admit the possibility of something before you can find any reasons to believe it.

We who claim Christian faith believe it is true. (Otherwise, presumably we would not believe it. I.e. we would not intentionally believe something false. There is also the question of whether it is actually possible to believe something that one knows to be false.) And Christianity claims to be a full statement of truth for creation. Thus all things that are true are Christian in some sense since if there were something true that was not Christian then Christianity would be making a false claim in claiming to fully represent truth for creation. This is popularly summarized by the phrase "All truth is God's truth."
This is popularly summarized by the phrase "All truth is God's truth."
Wayne Grudem says the meaning of the "inerrancy of Scripture" is that "Scripture in its original manuscripts does not affirm anything contrary to fact."

This means that people claiming Christian are not prohibited from believing anything in ipse, in and of itself. "All things are lawful," wrote the Apostle Paul. It of course does not mean that Christians have to accept as true whatever anyone claims to be true, for John wrote "Test the spirits to see if they be from God." Indeed we have tools for discerning God's will or God's truth on all matter to the greatest degree possible. One of these tools is the Bible.

Now, there are different views on how to interpret the Bible's claims. The issue at stake in relation to the question surround the creation/evolution debate is whether Christian faith requires a verbal inspiration view of the Bible or another. If the Bible is verbally inspired by God (i.e. God selected the specific words themselves for the Bible), then the first and most appropriate method for interpreting the Bible is grammatical. Grammatical interpretation would seem to call Christians to maintain a six day creation of the world because that's what the words themselves say.

So the closing question for this post is, Is a verbal inspiration view of the Bible necessary? Why? What is at stake?

Again, you'll notice that, in keeping with such a view, one would have to read my question as an actual question and not as a suggestion that verbal inspiration is not necessary.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Darwin vs. Creation: A Necessary Antithesis?

I don't get into Faith and Science discussions really simply because God has not blessed me with the brains for science. I wish I could do it, but alas. But Christine does math, so I am at least vicariously linked to science (?). This is a fun graphic from the economist that relates to some questions I have about Christian belief and scientific understanding of the world.

Regarding evolution: Why do many Christians feel evolution represents the paragon of godless secularism? Presumably because evolutionary theory offers an explanation of human origins that does not require God. But note, evolution does not necessarily imply godless origin of the world. God could have ordained the world's creation via evolutionary processes. The sticking point is defending the claims of scripture.

Regarding 7-day creation/ism: Why do many Christians feel that Christian faith requires commitment to a 7 day creation? Presumably because (1) the story of creation in Genesis 1-2 tells of a 7 day creation, (2) to believe in a 60 billion year creation suggests the Bible was wrong, (3) the Bible cannot be wrong and (4) therefore Christian faith requires belief in a 7 day creation.

See some of these helpful links:
Hypothetically speaking, what if the writer of Genesis 1-2 literally intended to be telling a story about how God providentially created the world and cares for it and about how the world is to rely on God in all things, but did not literally mean that God brought the world about in a matter of seconds? (Don't yet say, "But that's not what it says." This is just a thought experiment.) What if the science of the world's creation never even crossed the storyteller's mind? In that case, would a commitment to reading the Bible literally still prohibit a belief in evolution?

Another hypothetical, let's suppose that scientists actually documented incontrovertible proof for the theory of evolution. If this were to happen, would 7-day creationists then (1) say the evolutionary scientists must have made a mistake, (2) say Genesis made a mistake or (3) change their understanding of the meaning of Genesis 1-2?

If #1, then we have a serious problem, for this means that there does not need to be any recorded verification of any kind for true Christian faith. Anyone could always appeal to their own interpretation.

#s 2 or 3, do not undermine the Bible's claims to authoritatively describe the human experience, its helpless state and its source of salvation. The idea that any data-mistake (numerical, geographical, historical, etc.) disproves the Bible is one of the greatest lies to have deceived the Church. Genesis 1-2 can be read in other ways, and I think that there is compelling reason to believe Genesis has no scientific intentions. Thus to read it as making claims about physics, chemistry and biology is actually to misread it.

I could, perhaps should, and even want to keep going. But I have reading to get to. But I plead to the Church, to Christians who see their high-school science classrooms as enemy territory: examine carefully, does scripture prohibit evolutionary explanations? Re-examine. Do not supply the automatic response that you've been told it "correct." Ask, why is it correct? Is it correct? And if it is correct, then no one will be offended if you ask and decide it is.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Gentrification, Hypocrisy, Moving into Woodlawn

The question: Would I be contributing to economic and racial segregation by purchasing a condo in Woodlawn (and thereby participating in the gentrification of the neighborhood)?

The issue: Chicago has a history of gentrifying poorer neighborhoods, and the result has often been that the neighborhood gets nicer but at the expense of moving all the old residents out and bringing in new residents. So the people who could afford to live there when it was a "bad neighborhood" cannot afford to there now that it's a "nice neighborhood." So they move and rich people move in and the division of classes (and usually race) stays roughly the same.

The Woodlawn community just south of the University of Chicago is one such neighborhood. The University has purchased a good deal of land in the neighborhood, and is planning to be moving (and growing) into the area. It has already built new graduate housing, is in the process of building new undergraduate housing and is planning to move its police headquarters to this area.

Gentrification is well under way and there are many old buildings (condo and apartment) that have been gutted and renovated. Because this process is still somewhat just beginning, there are many "great deals" to be found in housing there. The area can't yet support, e.g. $350,000 for a 2-bdr condo in the way that Lincoln Park on the North side can. No one would buy it. Thus, you can get a really nice 3-bdr, 2-bath completely newly renovated condo for $250,000 (pictured).

I really want to buy this condo. It is, objectively, a phenomenal deal. For all intents a purposes it would be getting a brand new condo for about half of what I'd pay for a smaller, lower quality place only a few miles away. But I am nervous that to do so would be to act in complicity with larger forces of social inequity that I claim to oppose.

Any thoughts? I'd love to hear.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Fit In Churches?

"You're never going to find the perfect church." I have heard and used this phrase many times. It's a handy, if unhelpful, reminder to give anyone who is feeling anywhere from "off" to downright dissatisfied with the congregation they attend. I am finding myself feeling quite "off" right now regarding my fit in my local congregation. Something just isn't right. It's not the "right place." It feels a bit "off" is all I can say.

To anyone from my church that may read this (though unlikely): I'm fairly confident my unrest has more to do with me than with our communion. And I have good reason for this confidence since the feelings I'm having are the same feelings I've been having about church in general for about 6 years now - with about 1.5 years of awesome churchness stuck in the middle there. Moreover, because I see that these feelings of unrest and "off"-ness have transcended my interaction with specific churches, I believe that in this case the reminder "You're never going to find the perfect church" does not apply in this case.
...because these feelings of "off"-ness have transcended my interaction with specific churches, I believe "You're never going to find the perfect church" does not apply in this case.
I know what I'm saying is vague. However, many times the thoughts and feelings that excite or trouble us the most (and subsequently affect our moods and decisions) are vague. Thus, a little extra time wading through my vagueries seems appropriate:

For me, the issue here is discerning what kind of church I feel called to and actualized in. That is, I do not have in mind a list of criteria that I expect to meet in a church (theologically, missionally, liturgically, etc.) which the churches I've attended have failed to meet. I am able to point out theological, missional and liturgical things that I would change in my church experience. But these do not form the crux of the matter. The issue is discerning what kind of church setting or tradition I feel at home in.

What calls me out? What liturgical, traditional and theological voices compel me? Yes, I see that I am looking for traditional practices and theological committments that compel me. I am straining to hear voices that hold my attention and regard. I know that I have found such voices in the history of the Church as well as in the comtemporary theological converstation among theologians in various parts of the world (USA, Africa, India, academy, parish, etc.). But where am I to find their corresponding practices in churches?

On the one hand, my life is committed to the service of the Church. At present, I expect this to primarly take the form of work in academic and practical theology and theological education both in the U.S. and in Africa. At the same time, the possibility of serving churches in the capacity of pastor, teacher, elder and so on excites. On the other hand, for whatever reason, I think 2-3 years of just being part of a larger, older, established church might be critical for me to settle down theologically and ministerially as I have finished seminary and am beginning doctoral work. Why?

In no intentional order - First, I have not used the M.Div at the Divinity School as a program for preparation for parish ministry. I maintain that I did not use it as simply a stepping stool to PhD study and rather that I have aimed all along at preparation for teaching in seminary and Christian college/university settings; for me the M.Div over an M.A. suits this intention. But the point is, I have taken pretty much the minimum in required pastoral training courses. But I need more work in preaching and I especially desire more training in pastoral care and spiritual formation/direction. I have greatly profited from more sustained study in the history of Christianity than I realized I would receive here. This experience, however, has awakened in me a longing for greater communion with and fidelity to that history in my daily Christian life and congregational church life. I am looking for "church" that feels connected and committed to "Church".
Second, I did both of my field placements in seminary "non-traditionally." My parish internship was in a church plant that simply did not have in place much of the operating structures of established churches and I, as intern, was allowed and expected to play an integral role in the spiritual leadership of the church. I did not gloat in that as I may have a few years earlier, but I did not resist it either as I now think I should have.
I need learning, training and mentoring by older, wiser pastors and elders in what being "pastor" requires.
Granted that I am one term away from finishing an M.Div at a prestigious institution and that, by external measurements, I am "ready" to now move to the pastorate. But, take it from me, I'm not ready (i.e. equipped and matured) to move to the pastorate - associate or otherwise. I need learning, training and mentoring by older, wiser pastors and elders in what being "pastor" requires. Books and being a role model to college student - while vitally important sites of learning and ministry - are not sufficient. My non-parish intership took the form of an immersion project with pentecostal chuches in Africa and it was quite good actually. It schooled me in serving under and alongside Christian belief and practice that is much different than my own. Nevertheless, it was still a project of my own design, and something I feel I really lack is experience in ministry where I am not designing and implementing things myself.

Listen, I lack a spiritual maturity that I hope pastors have. I told my teaching pastor last year, "I can do administration. I can make things run smoothly and efficiently. But that's not spritual leadership to me." My friends tell me a unit of CPE might be a good soul ointment for what ails me. They might be right. It is simply true that to a large degree what I understand the work of the minister, the pastor, to be has come to me through my own experience, and that experience has furthermore been of my own design - an amalgam of personal conversations, books read, courses taken, worship experiences, and a host of cultural influences that I've tried to translate into something called "ministry." Am I essentializing here? Am I looking for something that does not exist? Have I created a fictive and idealized "minister" or "pastor"? Am I already a church leader? Should I be? Should I see myself as such? In reverse order, I don't, I don't think I should be, and I think that I am.

A point that came up a moment ago helped me realize something (or see a way to put something). I wrote, "I am looking for 'church' that feels connected and committed to 'Church'. "
"I am looking for 'church' that feels connected and committed to 'Church'. "
The kinds of churches I have long affiliated with have always emphasized their Bibilicity. The mainstream evangelical culture in which I was raised made the "Biblical" the standard by which all other standards were measured. This, however, often had the sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional result of undermining or dismissing altogether the history of the churches that have striven to preserve the Biblical. Obviously (or at least I hope "obviously") what is Biblical is not self-interpreting. All churches are faithful to traditions of interpretation whether they admit it or not. I feel the need to be part of a church tradition that highly regards its tradition, recognizing that it only is what it is because of the grace of God communicated to it via the tradition that passed down understandings of God's revelation of truth to it. In short, I am looking for a more tradition-based church. A church that is committed to the/a tradition (i.e. both the broader Church tradition and its own specific tradition in it). A church that teaches not only "the Bible" but also actually teaches tradition.

Thus, it seems to me that a church with a mission to make a church out of the unchurched is not the place for me. A church that combines this mission with being a church plant is especially not the place for me. Why? I have a hard time seeing how such a group of people even knows how to go about being a church. The tradition of the church - and the history of Christianity - do not just automatically *poof!* become important to you if you've no prior background or interest. These things must come to be important to you. Therefore, if you're working with a group of people who have no prior background or interest in the history of Christianity and the tradition of the church, you either have to be fine with taking like 20 years to grow and nurture a mature community of believers or you have to emphasize things other than the history of Christian faith and tradition (than historic Christian faith and tradition?). It seems to me that due to convenience many church plants aimed at the unchurched take the latter route. Others turn out all right - hey, they turn out well! - but the road is, like I said, long and the people involved many times weren't expecting things to be so hard or take so long. Cf. the number of church plants that meet the fate of the first three seeds of Jesus' sower parable.

If any potential readers have read all of this, you have too much time on your hands. Anyway, there a few other issues that fill out the rest of the stars in this one constellation. I'll probably put them in other posts I guess. But they include: I'm really battling within myself over some questions about the Christian's correct relation - really, my correct relation - to wealth and poverty. Also, I am having difficulty thinking through how I should be committed serving people and giving of myself to the marginalized that I say I believe are so important in God's eyes. I believe that at the center of God's hear is not theology but the desparate and needy. But at the center of my heart is usually wealth, theology, philosophy and comfort. And is duty ever Christian? Another post - thank you Beau - needs to address what appears to be a contradiction in what I'm saying: how is it that I say I want to be in ministry and that I don't want to be so involved in minstering right now? Probably some of this post gets at that tension, but more sustained reflection is necessary.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Vatican Channel at Youtube

Why do we have to have a Christian version of everything? Why am I predisposed to not liking them?

Why am I sometimes predisposed to criticizing or making fun of evangelicals/ism?  What's the deal with this thing called GodTube?  Why do we have to have a GodTube, a "Christian" version of YouTube?  But, then, why not?  Why is that I was fairly sure before even watching one video there that the enterprise was cheesy and that I wouldn't ever want to be caught watching something there by one of my more liberally inclined friends?  I actually do think it is sort of a corny - not to mention unnecessary - idea.  On the other hand, I'm willing to admit that it has many helpful things to offer Christians.  I also won't say it's not very creative, artistically innovative or professional (things evangelicals are often criticized of being, cf. most Christian movies).  The question is why are many people (myself often included) predisposed to thinking this is so cheesey and this is funny.  

The Truth Project - let's be fair

I was complaining to my wife last night that Focus on the Family's "The Truth Project" seems to be very popular - among evangelicals(?) - and at the same time very out of touch with the very thing it claims to be battling: secular culture. Dell Tackett, who wrote the stuff or something, uses the story of the spies examining the land and fearing the giants in Numbers to illustrate a similar situation facing Christianity in America or in the 21st century or in culture more generally. He writes that "we live in a land filled with giants: judicial tyranny, homosexual activism, terrorism that could strike at any minute, a liberal media that seems to spin and distort everything into ugliness, rampant immorality and so on." The problem with this list is not that it names things that are not issues. The list does name at least two real issues in American social and political discourse. To me it is obvious that homosexuality and terrorism are issues in people's minds. ("Judicial tyranny", "liberal media" and "rampant immorality" are simply too vague and vast as descriptors to be counted as issues all by themselves). The problem with the list is that it says nothing about racial injustice, poverty, corrupt business practices/economics, creation care... Regardless of your opinions/positions in these debates, it seems to me to be undebatable that they are major issues in our culture; and if Focus on the Family is going to claim to be confronting head-on a battle with secular culture facing Christians then it at least needs to acknowledge things the culture is emphasizing. I am not saying FoF needs to take its cues from the culture and make the things I've just listed its top priority. It just needs to acknowledge their existence. Correct me if I'm overlooking something.

Here's the antithesis. My wife, Christine, pointed out that what you consider the "real" issues facing society or facing Christians will depend to a degree on what values you are using to determine the issues. It also depends somewhat on what constituency you are serving. So Focus on the Family may be acting in a way perfectly consistent with its core values as a Christian organization. And its organizing mission is to minister to families, and so the biggest issues or problems in culture, from its viewpoint, will be issues directly relevant to families. Christine also noted that if FoF had given as the "giants" facing culture the list I provided, that ought to be just as open to critique for its relativity to a current trend. Her point in noting the trendiness was not that trends are bad; it was just an observation that emphasizing more "social justice" type issues right now is, in fact, trendy. And those who are quick to criticize groups like FoF for pushing their agenda need to be a little more forthright about the ways they are themselves pushing an agenda. If we are unwilling to admit our own issue-prejudices then we are implicitly claiming a certain universality for view. I.e. we are saying "My views are not just an agenda but they ought to be the view of everyone. They are the correct views for everyone. Everyone would be better off if they adopted this view too." Or we are at least saying, "My views are not just an agenda. They ought to be recognized by everyone as the correct view for me." Such thinking is a perfect example of the kind of oppression we all fear.

From here we expanded our conversation into questions of cultural relativity and the ways theology can and should engage times and histories relevantly. We noted how many people we know - dear friends - who think that homosexuality is a settled issue but that American evangelicals persist in making it an issue. They are correct but in a way opposite to their meaning: In all of Latin American, African (excepting South Africa) and Asian Christianity (excepting some expat Asian theologians writing in the States) homosexuality is a settled issue - there's no question in these parts of the world that Christianity opposes homosexual practice. So in this instance it is the non-FoF/mainline protestant crowd that is acutely out of touch. I will continue to remain silent regarding my own views as I have for the last 3 years because people on both sides of such hotly contested issues is this one read this blog and to say one way or the other would be counter to my purposes both here and in continued graduate study. I really want to see opposing sides of divisive issues talk to one another with Christian charity and take one another seriously. But I think it is simply the case that the vast majority (per capita; granting of course that there are exceptions) of the Christian world believes homosexuality to be contrary to Biblical teaching. I love my friends who are gay; my point is not to offend them or to cast my vote on the matter. My point is aimed at the view that ignores the non-western Christian view on the matter.

For, consider this. Is not the response from the West to "educate" the entire rest of the world regarding human sexuality a blatantly neo-colonial move: The rest of the world is uncivilized and has not evolved to as advanced a state as we are here in West in this area of human sexuality. Therefore, we should educate them to teach them what their rights really are and how to understand their bodies. That's exactly what America and other European countries are doing. Another, somewhat less loaded example is "Female genital mutilation" - already a politically loaded term by the way. To many women this is not mutilation but "circumcision." See for example the work of Ghanian theologian Mercy Oduyoye. For my own part, it is a difficult thing for me to consider because from my Western context it seems "obviously" harmful. But in holding this view, am I not implying those local peoples in favor of it are "backward" and "undeveloped"?

A few claims and opinions that come to mind relating to this discussion: Americans - liberal and conservative, religious and non-religious alike - are not pluralists despite the claims of some. The paradigm of liberal and conservative is meaningless in American cultural discourse. Either/or truth debates are futile as a way for Christians to engage culture. The genius of American democracy and one of the lasting contributions of the Reformation was the prioritization of the conscience of individuals and individual groups. Pluralism is the way forward for faith Christian engagement with culture.

I would still argue that racial injustice should be very important to people interested in protecting families. To not consider it raises the question of which families you're protecting. My suspicion is that if judges were unilaterally ruling in favor of pro-life positions, small government and opposing gay rights then FoF probably wouldn't have such a problem with judicial tyranny. And I think that mentioning terrorism in this oblique way is just a utilitarian move to get people emotionally juiced. It says nothing about terrorism itself though.

Truth Project Preview:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Faith and Globalization - Volf and Sanneh on Yale panel

How do faith and globalization affect one another?  How is each a function of the other?  These are questions that interest me greatly.  I had a special opportunity to interview Lamin Sanneh yesterday when he came to the Divinity School here in Chicago to give a talk on the topic "Resisting Mission, Redefining Engagement".  I hope to publish some selected portions of that conversation soon, but in the meantime you might enjoy this panel session in which Prof. Sanneh participated as part of the course Tony Blair just taught at Yale, "Faith and Globalization." 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thesis - Everyone's got some of these too

Yeah, so even though I like antithesis, I still have to write a thesis for my M.Div. It's actually due at the end of March and I have yet to start writing, though I have done a fair amount of preparatory research and writing. Here's something of the premise:

Many theologies have emerged from the non-western world in the last half-century.  Most famously one might think of Liberation theologies of Latin America, Black Theology in South Africa and Feminist /Womanist Theology (the latter two being also found in the West but among socially marginalized populations).  Also Asian and Post-Colonial theologies come to mind.  So there is an exciting production of original theological articulation going on, not only in the West, but all around the world.  

The response in the West has been typically western: namely, we've decided to study it.  That is, there have been all sorts of conversations about contextualization and mission, reforming mission, describing and documenting the growth of Christianity around the world and so on.  But what we don't have so much is western theologians engaging non-western theologians in normative conversations, asking questions about what it would mean to say something is normatively Christian "for us."  

One reason for this that immediately springs to mind is that we in the west have an unfortunate track record of dominating the rest - defiling Christian faith, destroying culture and deleting histories in the process.  So maybe theologians in the West have been a little gun-shy.  I respect this hesitation, if that's what it is. But in so doing, we risk ignoring others in the name of respecting them.  What is called for in this situation is not isolationism; no, I think we've actually got to listen to what the world's emerging theologians are telling us.  The argument will simply be that in order to understand who we really are as Christian requires understanding of who others are as Christian.  One's own Christian self-understanding is always a function of the Christian self-understanding of others.  

The goal of the thesis, then, will be to make some claims about what kinds of needs there are for constructive theological exchange between different theological expressions and then to describe the nature of that exchange.  I won't be proposing a model for unity (cf. ecumenism in the 20th century).  I will be proposing a model for pluralism that, by prioritizing self-understanding, forges cross-cultural relationships and partnerships.

Simplified model - 3 Stages
1) Historical theology. Where do I come from theologically?  (With the idea that I understand best the theological terms and definitions that formed my understanding to begin with.)
2) Anthropological theology. How have others answered question #1? (With the idea that others understand best the theological terms and definitions that formed their understandings to begin with.)
3) Systematic theology. How do answers to question #2 change my answer to question #1? 

The big and small ideas behind antithesizing: initial thoughts

Hi, So I'm just starting this thing - both the blog and antithesizing in public - and time will tell whether it's something that will last. I'm suspicious of myself. But whatever. I like lots of different things, and so the blog will reflect that diversity of interests. From beer and brewing to theology to Africa to cultural critique to academic review. Labda hata kiswahili kidogo (i.e. perhaps even a little kiswahili).

I believe in the Church and I'm committed to her well-being. I'm not Roman Catholic (yet), though I imagine my deep appreciation for the Roman Church and frustration with Protestants who slight it will come out in posts from time to time. I've never really had to identify with any branch of Protestantism. I spent many years in a generically evangelical setting. My early years were spent in fire-and-brimstone baptist circles, and while that bugged me for a while, I've come to see the many ways it has formed me - I think - for the better. Now, I'd probably fall into some category of Reformed Christianity, very broadly speaking. That is, if Reformed to you means Schleiermacher and co., then I'm Reformed; if the Reformed, however, are found strictly in the company of the Westminster Divines then I'm probably not. Calvin + the Westminster Assembly + a certain reading Schleiermacher = Evangelical Presbyterian Church as the best fit for me right now. Unfortunately, there are no nearby EPC churches. And Christine and I are trying to commit to going to church where we live. But if I continue on towards ordination, my hope at the present is still to pursue ordination in the EPC. I'm still working on a friend of mine who "knows people" in the EPC to advise me along the way.

I usually don't care much for sectarian line-drawing, but I indulge it momentarily because sectarianisms and labels and identity boundaries are so deeply imbedded in American socio-cultural experience that being upfront about them can be helpful for sorting out who we are and who we'd like to be.

And one of my purposes - if not the purpose - in staking this electronic space here is that I am looking for a place to be transparent about what I think about, what concerns me, what I love and what frustrates me. It's called "Antithesis" because all of those thoughts that we all have that we don't share because they might not come out right or because it's not really something we actually hold or believe - all of those thoughts are integral to what we do actually think and believe. But often we probably fear being misunderstood or misrepresented and can't pose a counter-point to the prevailing view. Well, to some degree, this thing for me is all about the counter-point. It's not about cyncism; I find I'm often cynical about cyncism. See, that's an example of antithesizing: at least giving the alternate view some airtime. Not because I think alternate views are always correct or the truth or because I want to support others' views or whatever, but because there's simply value in hearing another view clearly and understanding it well.

So... There are only ideas and actions. Here, idea = action and action = idea. And now I'm getting to bogged down into my own unsettled philosophical questions. Am I a pragmatist yet? A Hegelian too? Is meaning a function of social use and performance? In studying Paul's letter to the churches of Galatia the other day, I started to wonder if Paul was a Kantian. Hah! Well, we'll see what happens. Enough for now since this kind of self-statment and introspection is one of the least popular genres of blogging among the blog-reading public.

To any who may read this: participate as you like, ask questions, voice concern, offer insight, correct and critique, criticize, encourage. "Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." (Ephesians 4.15)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why I am not complaining about Rick Warren's invocation

I know many people are upset both about Rev. Rick Warren's gave the invocation prayer at President Obama's inauguration. While I do not share Rev. Warren's understanding of aspects of Christian faith (or at least the one he describes in his Purpose Driven Life), I must say I do not think he spoke in a way that was divisive or sectarian.

Some people were opposed to his giving the invocation to prayer on principle since he has expressed views in the past (like his stance on homosexuality) that offend many. These views, however, encourage and do not offend many others. So I cannot oppose his being chosen solely on the grounds that some people do not like his views.

I spoke with dear friends today who noted he used individualistic language like "my" and "me", that he insisted on being sectarian by using the name of Jesus five times and that when he a had chance to be large he was small.

I will respond to each point in order: Concerning the first matter, he used first person singular pronouns twice ("me" and "my") and first person plural pronouns 49 times ("we" "us" "our"). Thus I am unable to judge his prayer self-centered, and I actually thought it focused nicely on the well-being of the whole nation.

Second, I feel Warren's invocation was not sectarian for two reasons. One, he used a great deal of inclusive language, including "You [God] are loving to everyone you have made," "When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us," and "Help us to share, to serve and to seek the common good of all." Second, he noted that not all Americans share the same faith and carefully restricted his closing in the name Jesus to be representing only his own personal religious experience by saying, "I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua," etc.

For my money, I did not think it was a particularly good prayer. But neither do I feel any need to find something wrong with it.

Finally, changing gears, perhaps Obama's choice to have Warren give the invocation is reflective of why we elected him president: namely, he seems to aim at actually representing the people. Greatest common denominator religion - i.e. restricting ourselves to what everyone believes - doesn't finally represent what very many believe. And I fear it may rob us of the kinds of unique contributions that make us strong.

Read the transcript here.