Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Blogging Theology, pt 1

I was a terrible writing student. At the beginning of every paper, in nearly every class, through a bachelor's degree and three master's degrees, teachers required a thesis statement and an outline prior to beginning research. I would get stuck there, because I didn't understand how one could research anything with the outcome firmly in mind. If I came across data that contradicted my original thesis, could I change the thesis? And would I recognize the contradictory data if I did? Needless to say, both my teachers and I were often frustrated, and unable to see the other's position.

All human beings have limited perspective: we can never have a God's-eye view of anything. That perspective is the lens through which we view the world. We can learn to change lenses, even modify our particular lens, but we the world we see is always framed by our place and person. Being a "situated knower", as this philosophical problem is called, is both Suchocki's strength and her weakness. It is her greatest strength, because it leads her into concern about the effects of a pluralistic world on Christian ideology. It is also her greatest weakness, at least in Divinity & Diversity, because, like all my frustrated writing teachers, her lens is limited by the thesis she must prove.

Suchocki, like her colleague John Cobb, is one of the great explicators of process theology ["PT"]. Process theology (more on that here) has served to bend and puncture the boxy framework of
modern theology, as well as providing a wholly different understanding of substance (of God, of us, etc.). How does all that happen? By understanding everything and all that is, including God, as an interactive set of what I have elsewhere called "matter-moments" whose action and response is dependent upon other matter-moments' action and response. PT makes God necessarily changeable and changing, at least in part (which is really tough on some people). In PT everything is somewhat interdependent on everything else, including God.

Process theology, like Doug Pagitt's quantum physics, saved my life, and paradoxically made a personal relationship with God possible.

As it happens, I agree with Suchocki's strain of argument : the lens of process theology can help Christians take a different look at our ideology of exclusivity (Jesus as the "only way") because
1) "the image of God is not reducible to ... any individual human quality alone...God is... a complex unity that can only be expressed through irreducible diversity(67)"; and
2) God continually calls us into deeper and richer modes of incarnation.
From here, Suchocki argues that the "deeper and richer modes" of incarnation depend necessarily upon ever increasing depth and breadth of community. This leads her to her main conclusion (the one which "solves" human plurality"): God is calling us to a new and more intense form of mission... not to convert the world to our own religion, but to convert the world toward friendship."(109)

And that's where Suchocki, like all those writing teachers, frustrates me. The first three-quarters of her book, in which she explains PT through the lens of pluralistic culture, is clear, thoughtful, transparent. It should be mandated introductory reading for everyone entering seminary anywhere. (So should Henri Nouwen's Creative Ministry, especially if it replaces The Wounded Healer, which metaphor has by now become a sorry excuse for permanent brokenness. But that's another entry.) But that last quarter, where Suchocki applies PT to global relationships and Christian mission, is utterly clouded by her "situated knower"-ness as a 20th century liberal: her image of Christian faith, of mission, of Jesus himself is so limited that it is rendered a straw man.

In other words, the Christianity she is arguing against is a political effect, not a living faith. It is static and hardened, a cigar-store Indian rather than a creation in which God is and moves and has God's being. It is the mid-century bogieman against which the now-irrelevant ecumenical movement was fighting. The Christianity she portrays is dead or dying: there simply aren't that many churches sending missionaries out to convert the heathen through coercion or force.

More importantly, when Suchocki portrays the new Christian mission as no more than friendship and understanding (even highly relational and rarified friendship and understanding), she reduces the transformative (and essential and unchanging) nature of God's grace, as revealed and incarnated in the person and purpose of Jesus, to simply another tenet of simply another faith and culture. At our best, followers of Jesus are living witnesses to the very process Suchocki argues everything is anyway. Transformative community (of matter-moments or of people) cannot be about "why we believe this or that" (113) or "shar[ing] oneself with another so that the other might know who we really are, and how and why we understand God as we do." (113) By her own sense of PT, transformative community cannot be about "the Methodists [host]ing the Muslims for a church supper"(114) even if it leads to the mutual discovery of and action upon the critical need of their shared geographic community(114).

Godly transformation, the morphing of individuals and communities into the image of God -- into Christlikeness -- is not just about intellectual understanding or shared causes. Godly transfomation is not simply holding hands around the globe. It is beyond global and beyond cellular. It is nothing less than the complete transformation of the very matter and moments of all existence into unity with and incarnation of God. That's what we're about. That's what Suchocki's own process theology is about. But it's not where the book leads us, because retaining the thesis trumped the research and theology.

Which, as writing methodology or Christian ideology, still frustrates me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ellen feasting

There is a young girl -- five or six years old -- who comes with her mom to the table for the Eucharist. She is a good bit taller than the communion table; from my vantage point it just barely covers her chest. She arrives at the table ahead of her mother, and takes a nice piece of bread. It's not the biggest piece, but it is sufficient. She has to lean to see into the eye-level chalice. Standing a bit away from the table, she carefully dips her bread into the juice, just halfway, which is enough.

Then, rather than cupping her other hand underneath the bread so as not to drip, this child of God stretches out so that her whole face and a good portion of her body are above the table. Then with eagerness and precision, she bites the juicy purple bread, sparing no drop, no crumb.

She chews the body and blood thoughtfully and with obvious pleasure, relishing its sweetness, and remains on spiritual tiptoe until the last bit has been swallowed. At this meal, nothing has been wasted: no food, no opportunity.

This happens every time we feast at the Lord's table: the joyful, thoughtless approach; the careful taking; the delicious bite; the poignant swallow.

We should all take communion so well.

Friday, April 10, 2009



that's how our church campus is now. Quiet.
The traffic outside sounds like ocean waves set far apart. This keyboard is the only sound in here, besides my breathing. And the last sigh of Jesus of Nazareth.

Last night we celebrated Passover/communion. More people than ever came. We set up for more than had rsvp'd, and we still had to add chairs, with people squeezing a leg and hand in so as to be actually at the table. The first year we separated Holy Thursday from Good Friday there were, oh I don't know, maybe 30 at one and 15 at the other. Last night we had something like 45-50 people, and at least 12 baskets leftover.

Today, hubbub to set up the stations of the cross: fires, 100-lb crucifixes, crossbeams, candles, sound, ecce homo (by Reni), Gethsemane, a prayer room, journals. All the musee it takes to do what we do. Crazy madness. I got home at 5:20, showered, dressed, picked up the baby and the baby's Chris, and was back by 6. Run, run. "Set" changes. Prayer, lots of prayer.

And then, at some point, maybe after the thunder and His death, it grew quiet. Quiet through the vigil, quiet through private absolution. The sounds of those sporadic ocean waves, and tears. People not really ready to leave when It Is Finished.

Then hubbub as staff gathered for debrief. Then a little food, a little more prayer.

And now, quiet.

And a lynched rabbi, a dead savior, an executed king, and two days of waiting and hoping that new life indeed comes.

Quiet. Thank God.

Monday, April 06, 2009


I woke up this morning excited about diving into the Easter texts. Each gospel account is so similar in event and so disparate in style and focus. Mark (minus the longer, probably added, ending) ends at the edge of a cliff and the disciples wearing hang gliders. In Matthew's gospel, the women worship the risen Christ -- a stark change from the pre-Easter relationship -- and Jesus takes authority for all that is and hands a chunk of it to the disciples. Luke shares post-Resurrection experiences, most notably the Emmaus story, and the disciples are told by Jesus to wait for their authority and power. (Plus Luke includes the ascension, which is always a visual treat; see here and here and here.) Then John, God love him, with Christ's appearance to naked Peter (an attempt to discredit, perhaps?) and the disciples return to their old lives after the crucifixion. It's all so rich and layered, and such an excellent reminder that Jesus does not appear to all of us the same way, regardless of all those paintings of him as Scandanavian, and that resurrection itself lives into our lives differently, that is, in accordance with our lives.

Yippee! What a wonderful thing our God's word is!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palms and passion

This year I'm preaching on atonement. The sacrificial kind. And this may be the first year it's ever really, truly made sense to me. Funny what the Holy Spirit and a heck of a lot of reading will do.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To lay aside His crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.