Envision 08: Summary and Review (Part 3 of 3)

In the first and second parts of this review, I covered the first two days of the conference, respectively. Here, in the final part, I evaluate the third day of the conference.

5. Plenary III: Obery Hendricks on the Politics of Jesus

On Tuesday morning, Obery Hendricks presented us with the third plenary session. Like Balmer with Thy Kingdom Come, Hendricks gave us a presentation of his book, The Politics of Jesus. In this book (and in the lecture), he seeks to show that the Jesus of the NT is a political revolutionary. Hendricks did not have a well-organized presentation; his discussion of the issue was very repetitive and (at times) seemingly directionless. His basic thesis was that the Jesus of the NT demonstrates what he calls a “holistic spirituality,” in which the “vertical” and the “horizontal” go together—i.e., in which the worship of God and radical politics go hand-in-hand. The strong points in his presentation include a look at three Hebrew terms—I believe they were mishpat, tsedeq, and hesed—and an examination of the radical politics of the Lord’s Prayer (definitely the highlight of his talk). While I would certainly want to question the ease with which he and others at the conference arbitrarily bifurcate the “vertical” and the “horizontal,” as if one was separate and distinct from the other, I will give him the benefit of the doubt on this issue and focus on what I see to be the two major problems with his talk.

5.1. First, Hendricks repeatedly—not just a couple times but probably a dozen—denigrated theology and church tradition as obstacles in the way of encountering the “real” Jesus in the biblical text. In other words, he identified tradition and theology with a depoliticized Jesus. His own political Jesus can be plainly seen, according to Hendricks, once we discard doctrine and read the text with eyes freed from the past. Besides the self-serving arrogance of this sentiment (I alone know the real Jesus)—“chronological snobbery,” as C. S. Lewis put it—the idea that we must choose between the Christ of faith or the Jesus of the Bible is deeply problematic and, dare I say, anti-Christian.

Of course, Hendricks is not alone in dispensing with theology and doctrine. It was a theme that kept reappearing like a virus throughout the conference, most notably (or notoriously) in the Emerging Church roundtable discussion (see below). The fact of the matter is that people on all sides of the theological spectrum have reasons to denigrate theology. Those on the right do so whenever they want to replace a doctrine they do not like with their own individual interpretation of the biblical text. In such situations, people appeal to sola scriptura and talk about how exegesis always precedes theology, forgetting that all exegesis begins with certain theological presuppositions (even if they are only implicit). Those in the Emergent camp reject theology in favor of practice, hence the common notion that orthopraxis should replace orthodoxy (a patently false platitude which was heard repeatedly throughout the conference). But this again is only to replace one orthodoxy with another. Those on the left, like Hendricks, do so in order to substitute theology with a particular sociopolitical ideology.

What is common to all these positions is a remaking of Jesus in one’s own image. The political conservative makes Jesus into a capitalist warmongerer. The theological conservative makes Jesus into a preacher of penal substitution. The Emerging Church leader makes Jesus into a casual suburban moderate who is relevant to contemporary youth in the Western world. The liberal makes Jesus into an ancient Che Guevara—hence Hendricks’s use of violent imagery and his anti-Yoderian reading of the NT, despite the title of his book. More significantly, the Emergent and liberal views of Jesus end up endorsing a decidedly low christology. Both of them dispense with notions of atonement and soteriology and speak almost exclusively of Jesus as a model for ethical behavior. Hendricks, for his part, explicitly separated God from Jesus—a tactic common among liberals who reduce Jesus to the role of human prophet and want their abstract notion of “God” to be inclusive of, say, Allah. “God” becomes a cipher for whatever people think they worship, and Jesus becomes a model for how we should live socially and politically today. Jesus is a revolutionary, but not a savior.

Whenever one speaks against theology—either as something to be deferred until after exegesis or dispensed with altogether and replaced with some sociopolitical praxis—one must always interrogate the underlying agenda. Everyone has a theology, even atheists, insofar as atheism talks about God by rejecting God. Just as churches who claim to be creed-less or liturgy-less still have a creed and a liturgy, so too people who claim to discard doctrine still have doctrine. At the very least, their doctrine is that the dogmas of the past are irrelevant. Those who dispense with tradition are still part of a tradition: the tradition that dispenses with the past. Despite his claims to the contrary, Hendricks has a theology: his theology states that Jesus is not God incarnate but a human revolutionary who shows us how to live. Christology is reduced to an ethical anthropology, but it is still a theology.

The fundamental mistake that he makes is to identify doctrine with a depoliticized christology. He forgets that misuse does not bar proper use. Christian tradition may have misunderstood Christ and abused doctrine for the sake of ideological ends. But that does not preclude the possibility of understanding Jesus both as God in the flesh who accomplished the reconciliation of the world in his death and resurrection and as a sociopolitical radical. The two affirmations are not mutually exclusive. I can accept Hendricks’ political interpretation of Christ without dispensing with orthodox christology. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis support one another, and by grounding the latter in the former, I am not thereby becoming a tool of imperialist nutjobs or becoming a slave to the mistakes of the past (and there are certainly many mistakes). In the end, the agenda of Hendricks is all about clearing the ground of all past understandings of Jesus so that his alone remains as the “right” understanding.

5.2. His first mistake—denigrating theology and doctrine—then leads to his second and perhaps most shocking error: pitting (his version of) Jesus against (his version of) Paul. In the final section of his talk, Hendricks went from being annoying to being non compos mentis. He put forward the disturbing thesis that Paul did not understand Jesus, and that if we accept his view (and the right view) of Jesus, then we are obligated to reject Paul.

Why? Glad you asked. Hendricks, in an attempt to support his thesis, began by rattling off two already well-known facts: Paul does not talk about the historical life of Jesus, and Paul never quotes Jesus. Perhaps realizing that this was not enough, he then went on to assert that Paul was arrogant enough to think he could understand Christ on his own, and so Paul decided not to place himself under the tutelage of the Jerusalem church and went to Arabia instead. This decision, according to Hendricks, means that Paul gets the Christian faith all wrong. Paul doesn’t really know who Jesus is. In place of the radical politics of Jesus, Paul instead speaks theologically about justification, sin, salvation, reconciliation, etc. These are all concepts that are foreign to Jesus, and therefore alien to any true faith in Jesus. Hendricks tries to back this up by appealing to Romans 13 as an example of how Paul misunderstands the radically anti-imperial message of Jesus. The reading of this infamous chapter by Hendricks is nothing short of childish. It was really eye-opening to see him give such a nuanced and historically contextual reading of the Lord’s Prayer, but then decide to give a superficial, literal reading of Rom. 13. He was clearly trying to stack the deck against Paul in favor of Jesus, and thus against theology in favor of his own reading of the Bible. Chris Haw, the co-author with Shane Claiborne of Jesus for President, yelled out in the middle of Hendricks’s so-called exegesis, “Read Yoder! That’s a bad reading!” Others in the crowd murmured their agreement.

In the end, it is a short step from disparaging theology to disparaging Paul. If theology is an obstacle to a proper understanding of Jesus, then Paul—as the first Christian theologian—is also an obstacle. Here the arrogance has come full circle. It’s no longer just “chronological snobbery.” It is actually the arrogance of a person who places himself over against Scripture, over against the biblical canon. Ironically, Hendricks has made himself his own magisterium. He, and he alone, is qualified to interpret the Bible. But is this not precisely the kind of arrogance found in the history of the church which he sought to overcome by rejecting theology in the first place? Is this not to become that which one hates in the Other? Is this not, in the end, pure hypocrisy of the most self-righteous and theologically damaging kind—the kind that undermines the church in the name of Jesus? There might be plenty to gain from Hendricks, and I am sure his book has much to commend it, but it was not on display on Tuesday morning.

What is finally so sad about Hendricks’s presentation is that, in combatting a one-sided depoliticized reading of the NT, he himself gave a one-sided reading of the NT. Despite his best intentions, he ended up collapsing the “vertical” into the “horizontal,” to use his terminology. Rather than provide a broader understanding of Jesus that could reconcile various groups, he only reinforced the us-vs.-them narrative which conferences like Envision are specifically trying to subvert. And in rejecting doctrine, tradition, and the entire Pauline canon, he effectively placed himself against every evangelical who wishes to remain rooted in Scripture. Only at the end, after the panel discussion of his talk, did Hendricks offer the important caveat that he was only presenting one dimension of who Jesus is. But this kind of statement should not come after people respond to your work but before. If we are really going to make any progress in unifying the church and helping Christians to recognize their proper political witness, we need leaders who will seek to make friends, not enemies, and who will engage the full witness of Scripture and tradition, rather than cherrypick what they like and toss out what they don’t.

6. Plenary IV: Emerging Church and Post-Colonial Church Roundtable

The final plenary session had two parts: (1) a roundtable discussion on the Emerging Church with R.M. Keelan Downton, Al Hsu, Claude Nikondeha, Doug Pagitt, Gabriel Salguero, Michael Smitheram, Bowie Snodgrass, Alise Barrymore, and Randy Woodley; and (2) a roundtable discussion on the Post-Colonial Church with Ray Aldred, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Brian McLaren, and Linda Thomas.

The Emerging Church roundtable was fascinating. They adopted the “Pecha Kucha” format for the presentation. With so many speakers, I cannot summarize everything that was said, but I will try to hit the highlights. After Keelan’s very helpful introduction, Al Shu began by talking about Christianity in suburbia and how the suburbs are often places of both physical and spiritual renewal. Bowie Snodgrass talked about her work with Transmission, an emerging liturgical community in New York City, which has sought recently to create a loving community for sex workers, most notably in the 2007 Easter service held at Club Avalon. Snodgrass also talked about her interfaith dialogues, even stating that she no longer believes that Christianity is the only way to salvation. Claude Nikondeha then spoke about his work with the Amahoro Africa project, which is an attempt “to encourage and facilitate a conversation and network of friendships among leaders engaging with the postcolonial African world in the name of Jesus.” The word “amahoro” means peace or wholeness; it is the Africa equivalent to shalom. Claude then introduced us to the word “ubuntu,” which he defined as: “I am who I am because you are who you are.” This was the most memorable and profound part of his presentation. The concept of ubuntu is significant not only because of its ethical and political implications, but also because of its theological import. Karl Barth defines humanity in his theological anthropology with the very similar statement that “I am as thou art.” In both statements, the human person is defined in relation to an other. Humans are essential social beings who exist in community. This is a profound insight, and I am grateful to Claude for making me aware of this African word.

After Claude came Doug Pagitt, famous for being the founder of Solomon’s Porch. His presentation was the pomo version of what we heard earlier in the day from Obery Hendricks. His presentation ostensibly had two goals: (1) first, to reject the concepts, ecclesial models, and doctrines of the past, and (2) second, to affirm a Christainity that is redefined by our contemporary situation. In short, Pagitt’s position could be summarized as the pursuit for a “relevant Christian faith.” In the promotional video for his new book, he talks about how Christianity has to be reconceived so that it meets the needs of those living today. The Christianity of the past has nothing to say to us now; we need a new form of church. Pagitt has come out in the past and said that the creeds of the early church were just culturally bound statements about the faith as they saw it back then and thus need not be determinative for faith today. Creeds, like cathedrals, are basically relics of the past—museum pieces, not living testimonies to Jesus Christ. While I certainly agree with Pagitt that Christianity takes local, concrete forms, he and I differ radically in that I think such forms always have to be tested against the universal faith in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. There is a kind of catholicity that grounds the particular embodiments of the ecclesial community. By rejecting anything catholic or universal in the Christian faith, Pagitt ends up making Christianity—and perhaps the gospel of Jesus Christ itself—in his or his community’s own image.

Pagitt was followed by Randy Woodley, a Native American minister, theologian, and activist. He works with Eagle’s Wings Ministry, which is “a community of Native Americans and others, rooted in the Christian faith” that seeks to be “fully culturally Native American” while still proclaiming the gospel of Christ. He talked about the need for Christians to listen to some neglected voices of the faith, including Anabaptists (yes), Eastern Orthodox (yes), and Nestorians (what??). I think Woodley meant to imply the Assyrian Church of the East, who maintain a Nestorian christology but refuse the term “Nestorian,” both because of its pejorative connotations and the slight differences in their theology. But why stop there? Why not give the mono-/miaphysites in the Oriential Orthodox Church a similar hearing? The strange thing is that the Eastern, Assyrian, and Oriential Churches are all rooted in very ancient, metaphysical debates about the nature of Christ. Why are these still relevant to the church today, but not the churches of the Reformation? I submit that people like Woodley and Pagitt are primarily interested in rejecting the churches which are dominant in their own personal history. Their Emerging spirituality is more reactionary than it is theologically thoughtful.

Woodley closed his presentation by showing how Native Americans would want to replace traditional Christian terminology with a new, more culturally contextual language. He began by giving the traditional version:
I believe in God because I am a Christian. I read my Bible and help build God's kingdom as a missionary, sharing the gospel of salvation with the heathen. I tell them to repent from their sins and to be born again because of God's great love for them.
And then he gave his modified version:
I believe in the Great Mystery because I am a follower of Jesus. I read the scriptures and help build the community of the Creator as an ambassador, sharing the good news of healing to the unversed. I tell them they can turn around from failing and to follow Jesus because of Creator's great love for them.
While I want to affirm the need to rethink our language and categories, there is some serious theological revision going on here. It is not merely a formal change; the content is being altered as well. Some of the more benign changes like “ambassador” instead of “missionary,” or “Creator” instead of “God,” are mostly innocuous (though why not “Reconciler” or “Redeemer” instead of “Creator”?). Some are a bit annoying: “gospel” and “good news” mean the same thing, as do “repent” and “turn around.” There it’s only a matter of connotation, in which case we simply need to reeducate and use such words properly (again: misuse does not bar proper use). But two changes are unacceptable: replacing “salvation” with “healing” and “sin” with “failing.” Theologically speaking, this is to embrace pelagianism and a moral exemplar theory of the atonement—something which was heard throughout the conference. I am perfectly comfortable with replacing “born again” with “following Jesus,” because I think our individual salvation is defined as mission in the way of Jesus. Our reconciliation with God—and thus our freedom from damnation—is the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and encompasses all people already. But reducing salvation and sin to moral-ethical categories is simply untenable.

While there is much to commend in Woodley’s ministry, he is nevertheless an example of the hegemonic rise of contextual theology, of which Pagitt is a part. I say this as one who is perfectly willing to embrace contextual and cultural hermeneutics and who has no interest in being rigidly bound to the tradition if the tradition is wrong. But at the same time I am confident that we have to subordinate contextual theology to biblical and systematic theology. Our contexts certainly shape how we engage Scripture, but they cannot dictate it. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ must always remain a disruptive word of grace which transcends while at the same time embracing our own particular contexts.

After Woodley, Alise Barrymore gave the most polished and poetic presentation. She spoke to the issue of race and racial reconciliation in the Emerging Church. According to Barrymore, the previous generation fought for civil rights and racial justice in a way that was important and necessary. But their efforts were always on behalf of their own ethnic group. They fought for justice for themselves. Barrymore, by contrast, spoke about seeking justice for all people. She is the co-pastor of the Emmaus Community, which “is a non-denominational Christian community that is a unique fusion of post-modern worship and a celebration of the historic African American worship traditions.” Michael Smitheram spoke next about his involvement as the international coordinator for the Micah Challenge, which is “a global campaign to mobilise Christians against poverty.” Their goal is to cut world poverty in half by 2015. The name, of course, comes from Micah 6:8. They have leaders around the world advocating on behalf of the issue of poverty. The final speaker was Gabriel Salguero, who is pastor of the Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene, executive member of the Latino Leadership Circle, and director of the Hispanic/Latino Leadership Program at Princeton Seminary. He gave an excellent talk that brought together a strong evangelical faith with an emphasis on social justice and issues in the Latino community. Some of his powerful statements involved immigration. In a picture of Latinos desperately crossing some muddy water, he declared, “Behold your baptism!” It was a powerful statement.

After a short break, in which a young woman sang a song about humanity’s destruction of the earth, there was a second panel of scholars talking about the Post-Colonial Church. Here I will necessarily be very brief. The presentations were not nearly as memorable, in part because they did not have the beautiful slides to complement their talks. But the issue was very important. Brian McLaren made the important observation that if Emergent-types interested in postmodernism are not equally interested in postcolonialism, then they are only supporting the same colonial narrative which has wreaked so much havoc upon the world. It was an important statement, in part because it demonstrated McLaren’s own progression beyond his earlier infatuation with postmodernity. Ray Aldred and Ruth Padilla DeBorst both gave important messages about the post-colonial situation: Aldred in the context of Native American history, and DeBorst in the context of Latin American history. But it was McLaren’s discussion of his own family history that made the most impact, in part because it was so personal. I cannot tell the whole story here, but suffice it to say that his grandfather was a missionary in Africa whose property was used as a place where Africans who had not paid their taxes were beaten and perhaps killed by the colonial powers. His uncle had looked on in horror and pleaded with his father to do something. McLaren said that Christians in the West today need to stand with his uncle and seek to remedy the injustices of the past.

7. Closing Eucharist Celebration: Jim Wallis and John Perkins

The day closed with a long worship service in which John Perkins was honored with an award for his decades of service to the Christian community. The leaders of Envision 08 said that they have named the award in his honor and will give it to someone following in his footsteps at every future Envision conference. Perkins then gave an impassioned (though at times hard to understand) speech about evangelicals being involved in the issues of poverty and racial reconciliation. After Perkins, Jim Wallis spoke about his experience with evangelicalism and social justice. Unfortunately, I had to leave early, so I did not hear the end of Wallis’s talk nor was I able to partake of the Eucharist. The service was held in the Princeton University Chapel. In the middle of a heat wave and without air conditioning, the service was uncomfortably warm. Even so, it was a fitting close to a remarkable gathering of scholars, ministers, and activists. I look forward with anticipation to Envision 2010.

Tomorrow I will wrap up my summary and review with a note on the learning tracks and some final reflections.


Anonymous said…

Had you been following the Boston Celtics you would be aware that "ubuntu" has been their guiding philosophy all season long. It is nice to hear that theology is able to borrow from the Association.
Interesting. I checked it out and you're right.

By the way, I've been following the Celtics quite consistently. But you really had to be reading the stories about the Celtics to know about their use of "ubuntu."
Anonymous said…
while I understand your suggestion that contextual theology need be subjected to critique by the witness of scripture, the idea that it need be critiqued by a supposed systematic theology that is above it and somehow more true is problematic and shows that you do not really understand the thesis of most contextual theology. the very idea is that there is no theology which is not contextual. systematic theology is just the dominant contextual theology, born from the various contexts of those who CREATED it. while that DOES NOT make it less true, and much of it should be saved, it also does not make it a criterion by which to test other idea.
liam o:

The situation is more complex than that. Of course all theology is contextual; not even systematic theology (AKA dogmatic theology) denies that. The difference is not whether theology is contextual but whether one's context is the primary norm for theology. Systematic/dogmatic theology takes the witness of Holy Scripture as the final norm for all theological statements. Contextual theology subordinates Scripture to one's personal experience or socio-historical context. And so we have a feminist christology, a womanist christology, a black christology, etc.

These can all be very helpful and worthwhile, but at the end of the day, you have a God made in your own image. What you don't have is a God who can stand over against your particular context. The problem with contextual theology is that it ends up identifying one's context with revelation, rather than allowing God to transcend and thus judge our context. We end up placing God in our "contextual box," and that allows us to manipulate God to serve our own interests. In short, contextual theology all too often is indistinguishable from pure ideology. And lest we forget, it was contextual theology that German Lutherans employed to justify Hitler's imperialism. Just because contextual theology is often done by oppressed groups does not make it any better. Once you allow a contextual theology for blacks, you open the door for a contextual theology of white supremacists.

What systematic/dogmatic theology seeks to do is describe God dialectially, as the one who is Wholly Other and the one who is wholly with us and for us in Jesus Christ. We have to hold both sides together in dialectical tension. And we accomplish this by allowing Scripture, and not our particular context, to be the final norm for all theological statements. Of course, such statements will also be conditioned by our personal contexts; systematic theology embraces contextual thinking. But systematic theology also recognizes that our contexts always stand under the judgment of Holy Scripture. We are always disrupted by the Word of God, but we can only be disrupted when we allow that Word to stand over against us even as it proclaims that God is with us.

I hope that makes sense.
Anonymous said…
Stumbled upon your Envision recaps and really appreciated them. Your response to Liam above is excellent. You might even want to further nuance what you are saying by indicating that we stand under the judgment not merely of "Holy Scripture" and what "it" proclaims but--more accurately--under the the judgement of Father, Son and Spirit, as God speaks to us (indeed reveals Godself to us) difinitively "through" or "by means of" the Bible. Thanks again for some terrific posts and keen theological insights.

[a friend of Daniel and Adriel in St Andrews]
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