Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Easter Tuesday #3

The contextual education class that I am helping lead on Thursday afternoons at the Candler School of Theology is based on the idea that much contextual education is about learning techniques to be better at leading churches that retain the vestiges of Christendom. The section I am leading with David Pacini begins with the assumption that churches, even in The South, will live increasingly in the tension of Christendom and post-Christendom assumptions. To get at this we read theology, Bowen systems theory and some of the leadership work of Ron Heifetz. There has been some element of ‘designing the airplane in flight’ about the course, but recent conversations suggest that the craft is in the air and flying. As students bring case studies and reflect on them in light of the diverse and substantial readings we are doing, they are getting quite good at identifying the places of cultural tension in the issues they raise and thinking more fundamentally about ecclesiology and mission instead of starting with technique in their analysis.

One book I have read in the past couple of weeks has been John Spong’s book: Jesus for the Non Religious. (Harper, 2007) It is particularly interesting to me in that he deals with questions (that at the risk of grossly oversimplifying things) that could be called ‘modernist’. He takes miracles and birth and resurrection stories and asks if they could possibly be true in the sense of stories that provide accurate historical data. He concludes that the stories are not true in that sense but develop out of the liturgical symbols and rhythms of Israel at the time of Jesus. He shows no patience with those who believe otherwise out of a concern for those who find ridiculous pre-scientific, pre-modern truth claims to be somewhere between irrelevant and actively malignant. He points toward a renewal of the symbols of faith calling Jesus “the breaker of tribal boundaries” and the cross, “a human portrait of the love of God.”

Post modernism and post Christendom are not unrelated concepts. I find myself wondering what happens to worship going forward. I remember asking Bishop Spong about that when he was at All Saints’ during our centennial celebrations. His response was that was something that people younger than him will need to sort out. How will we appropriate the symbols of the faith and make sense of them in a new age. I’m not an ‘out with the old and in with the new’ person, but I do think that meanings can, will and should change over time.


Joshua Case said...


Thanks so much for this post. I've been waiting for a while to respond, and alas, I feel the opportunity is upon us.

As an American from the South of that slightly younger generation, who has been living in Europe for the last six years, I find great excitement from the kind of cultural pulse-taking it seems you are doing with your course at Candler. The South, as you will gather, has always loved her blend of ecclesiologies and big fish stories. Incidentally, this is where I find myself disagreeing with Jack on multiple levels.

First, as a modern, it would seem he would have to come out as he does, in manner which looks down on and negates the centrality of stories held as true, or held up as true, by people who need the literality of them to maintain their beliefs. However, as one who would tend to be a little more post-modern than modern, I think this is where the beauty of the thing comes together. In other words, it is in our capacity to retell these stories as narrative, maybe true maybe not, that makes them so powerful and shaping generation after generation. Sure some will always claim them absolutely literal, and others will claim them to be nothing but fiction, but this is the beauty and challenge of the vocation to unity.

Secondly, I think that this is precisely where the symbol and liturgy question enters the equation: in the post-modern search for meaning. Meaning not centered in a few people agreeing on the facts of the matter, or sound evidence that demands a verdict, but meaning from centuries and centuries of practice. In fact, in my opinion, this makes Jesus so much more than the "breaker of tribal boundaries" and much much more like the unifier of them. After all, if post-modernism gifted us with the abusive over-application of the "I believe", shouldn't the outworking of faith in the next few centuries be a move towards spaces which enable the individual to experience the ancient within the communal (physical and spiritual)? And can you think of a better place for this to happen than in the more historical (some might say mainline) churches?

Finally, I'd be keen to know which contextual education courses (or placements) you're helping with as a future Candler student myself. Give my regards to David.

Thanks for the post...
Joshua Case

Siegel said...

I am a little late on my response to this one, but better late than not at all.

It is inconceivable, at least to me, that it is okay and even liberating to read the central stories of our Christian faith as narratives that may or may not have occurred in historyin some fashion. Such an approach would leave us with little or nothing, at least to me.

Take the Resurrection narratives. There is little doubt that they have been shaped and written by different minds appealing to different audiences. In that sense we are of course not made to take them literally. But the central reality they point to is that Jesus was experienced as alive in some physical or trans-physical form by his disciples and others for some period after his death. If this is simply a story with no connection to some extraordinary events that occurred in history, then I for one have much better things to do on Sunday mornings.

It is just too easy to see all of this as a story, to not worry about whether or not it happened in some fashion -- perhaps because it demystifies Jesus and makes him merely one of us? He surely was that but a whole lot more.

I am as apppalled by mindless literalism as anyone, but I come off the proverbial boat when we start to advance the view that the central narratives of our faith were conjured out of thin air.

Great post, Geoffrey, and great response, Joshua.