A Call for Explorers

After decades of debate over the pervasive decline of the Church in both Europe and new the United States it seems clear that no amount of marketing, brand-specialists, new amenities and political “updating” has done anything but increase that decline. In the face of such a crisis, I humbly offer my observations gathered over four decades of carefully watching and studying this “Church in decline,” as well as recent experience and training earning a Masters in leadership that has allowed me to do actual field work in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I ask open questions which I feel can lead us in fresh directions if we are open. 

By Christopher MacDonald, Berkeley, California

The history of theology prior to Modernity had always been dominated by polemics. 90% of it had always been framed as “Against” this or that – and this is the way we have come to learn how to teach, envision and also lead even after the great divide of the 1920s when the Faith began to use polemics on itself and went downs roads of division and micro-division that have left it in a thousand tiny little pieces.

I could spend pages embodying this approach and, in the end, only add to a sense of loss, sadness and confusion as to where the Church-at-large is. I am choosing not to do this. Instead. I choose to follow precept number four and work off a “generative theology” that is creative, open, explorative, and deeply biblical. It is time we got a grip and started to move forward in faith, hope and love.

To jump ahead a bit and explain “generative theology” a bit. It is simply’ a theology based in agape love which “creates value in those it loves.” it is at once tied directly to the cross of Christ but also His resurrection and living Lordship now. It is creative and hopeful and carries with it disciplines that outwardly-imposed morality can never match. It is not based in criticising or being against others though it may find lines of clear disagreement and departure. It seeks peace and to serve through Art and Word.

The word “generative'” points to its creativity but should not be mistaken to say that it is generating a whole new fresh theology or theologies. Rather it is finally mining those rich corridors of theological ore which have been available all along but have been neglected in our seemingly unending need to tell other people where they are “wrong.” It is the unexplored country of “rightness” and beauty which scripture has always been the sole repository of. I will return to its beauty later in this presentation; but hopefully all that proceeds will be “generative.”

Focus One:Christ the Center (Theocentric over Anthropocentric worldview)

It seems that somewhere along the way ( I am guessing the Enlightenment) we shifted or adopted a larger a large anthropocentric world-view/ So much so we can hardly see that it has become the only air we breathe, our sole way of perception and our reference point. But scripture presents us with a theocentric (in many cases more specifically Christocentric) world-view. How might that deeply effect the ways we breathe in, perceive and interpret the world? What if this is, in fact, much closer to reality than any of the myriad of anthropocentric views?

A simple example from the Gospels would be Jesus’ refrain “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” (and the contrasts put forward) and His teachings on the Kingdon of God” in direct contrast with earthly kingdoms.

I would ask the reader to re-read the Gospels and ask honestly if they present a theocentric or anthropocentric worldview; and if the latter, how much are we missing by not adopting the same?

Isn’t it possible that our profound unhappiness, emptiness and even confusion in the Church isn’t just a by-product of our stepping into the central place?. Could we not all relax and more easily “accept and celebrate” our diversity of we located ourselves around a great rim whose spokes all led back to one core Center which was Christ Himself?  

I have watched while large denominations have had “Re-Imagining God” conferences. While it sounds mildly hip isn’t one core point that the God who is “other” chose to reveal God’s own Self in a way we could understand?  Isn’t “re-imagining” God while God is attempting to clearly communicate God’s own Self really at cross purposes? 

And God’s attempt has been by becoming not just sympathetic- but actually by becoming one of us in all ways even gestating in a womb for nine months.   

Of course more than this is revealed as well. God in Christ is revealed as the Center of not only Creation at its inception, but also currently (Colossians 1:15-23). He is also revealed far more as “Lord” than “Savior” – and important view as that is.that possibly explains why St. Paul would “bring every thought captive” to Him (2 Corinthians 10). There is no quarter given to an anthropocentric Gospel or even that general worldview. God does not exist for us; we exist and find our being in God.  

Jesus wants to be the Center and, indeed is so while we are not. He said:

“Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Focus 2: Transformation over a “Betterment Gospel

Our crisis of theology and leadership has to do with our confusion over who we are, where we are going, and the nature of the “Good News.”

Doesn’t the Gospel, at its core, comes with an offer of rescue? Is there really any real taklk in Jesus or any of the Apostles about “betterment” of our current situation and to somehow “Christianize” our worldy way of doing life? It seems to me rather that we are the Titanic and there will be no betterment of this ship only a variety of costly rescue and salvage operations meant to get as many people to safety as possible. A program of human betterment as the essential Gospel is like rearranging deck chairs on that tragic ship. It demonstrates a profound confusion over the state of affairs, where we are headed (for they would simply improve life on the boat and leave it at sea) and the nature of our passage (temporary).

Rescue must come first. It helps if you have some idea of what you have been rescued from but it is not a requirement.

Jesus, Paul and John mever talk about “improvement,” only being “transformed.” Metamorphoses – the taking of us as one thing and transforming us into something different is what they speak of.  St. John says,

See what kind of love the Father has given us so that we might be called children of God—and we are. Therefore the cosmos does not know us, because it did not know him. 2Beloved ones, now we are children of God, and what we shall be has not yet become apparent. We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-3) [1]

Paul speaks of this transformation using the same word Matthew uses for transfiguration:

Therefore I implore you, brothers, by God’s mercies, to present your bodies as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God, your rational worship; And do not be configured to this age, but be transformed by renewal of the intellect, so you may test the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12;1-2) [2]

Here the contrast is specifically between a stylish “betterment” (the Greek word is a form of schema from which we get schematic; and a substantial inner transformation which requires one to place one’s whole self at God’s disposal (v. 1) as a means of personal existential sacrifice. This is said to be “transfiguring.”

On some level we all know this is true and possibly just avoid Jesus’ words about “taking up your cross” to follow Him. We fail to see that this transformative way of life is really the only avenue open that breeds freedom and life. “Amen, amen, I tell you, unless the grain of wheat falling to the ground dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears plenteous fruit.” (John 12:24)[3]

Amid a subtle American prosperity Gospel that is repackaged in a stunning variety of ways and churches which choose to only offer principle-driven ways of personal “betterment” we should note the decline of the Church in the West. It is as if by trying to compete as a Consumer product “Gospel” ceases to truly be vibrant “Good News” at all and just blends in with infomercials and the mass variety of other betterment products available to Americans with a disposable income, Suddenly Christianity is a personal “for me” investment not a calling and a relationship. You can see why it lapses into a kind of slow killing off of faith.

Isn’t the call to active discipleship (students of Christ in a school of transformation) much more apt to bring real change, enliven real faith and move people out of the roles of passive church consumers to active transformative life in Christ?

Focus 3: Depth Exegesis/Exploration over the Passive Viewer Consumer model

Jesus spent more time discipling His close group of followers than he did preaching, healing or doing anything else during His three years of public ministry. And through that the world was changed. Aren’t we doing the opposite – selling Christian experiences like something you can buy in bulk down at “Christco in a 5 gallon drum via our pre-packaged theologies, betterment books and programs for “successful Christian living?”

Does Jesus present Gospel in this way or through enigmatic parables that challenge? Does Paul offer such a slick package or careful and heartfelt instruction meant to grow men and women up into maturity (Ephesians 4:11-17)  

Megachurches are set up to accommodate mass audiences who will sit and passively watch a presentation. A few hours later can anyone recite the real content of the message or just the title?  It is a passive model – like television where the only relevant question is “did you like it?”

The Problem with passive viewership and consumer religion is that it leaves people unchanged and in many cases actually inoculated to transformation.

In contrast, an interactive, dialogical and immersive exploration of biblical texts and worship combined with active discipleship cannot help but begin to change lives. As Mike Breen points out “Most of us have become quite good at the church thing. And yet, disciples are the only thing that Jesus cares about, and it’s the only number that Jesus is counting.” (Building a Discipling Culture) .

Setup for Middle Eastern full course meal “reclining at tables” while studying Luke 7 (Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house for dinner)

In our latest active study: Adventures with Doctor Luke: Middle Eastern Narratives and Parables of Jesus, we employ a dynamic format built for exploring the text in an open yet also disciplined fashion. Sticking to Middle Eastern (Hebraic) peasant roots, more technical notes on the text are sent out a few days in advance so we are not bogged down in the minutiae of language studies or spend all our time on Hebrew poetic form when we really want to get to what is being said in the text.

I act as a facilitator attempting to draw out as many comments from each student as possible in each session of our “micro-exegesis.” I make sure to include quieter members of the group by asking questions or having them be the readers.

Participants are not only learning the Gospel of Luke over 15 weeks, they are also learning how to use the direct tool of biblical interpretation and how to think biblically while they explore.

There is always an immersive/interactive element. Examples can be found in the chart below for weeks 2-6.

WEEK 2    
Luke 7:36-50
Reclining at Table (Middle Eastern Meal during study
WEEK 3
Luke 10:25-37
Bandage imagined wound after oil and wine applied
WEEK 4
Luke 10:38-11:13
Bread, egg and fish behind the curtain as gift
WEEK 5   
Luke 12:13-21
Gameshow: “O Man!”
WEEK 6   

Luke 12;22-39

                Art Project: Lillies of the Field

Naturally, in such an open (but guided) format, theological and philosophical life questions arise which tempt the group to stray from the textual study. In this case anything major is put on reserve for “Round Two” discussions after the exegetical study of the narrative. Parable or both has been concluded.

The study itself is scheduled each week for one hour only so as to not be burdensome, but members have ritually chosen to expand the time to three to four hours of spirited group exploration. I attribute much of this directly to the participatory and non-passive nature of the format.

Variety of finished art pieces working off black and white print on gessoed canvas. Water-colors, acrylics, pens and colored pencils.

It should also be noted that such a study method places exegesis and biblical studies prior to theology (horse firmly before all carts).

In our study time we are simply free to follow the text wherever they go  “come what may” – not in subjectivity, but rather against the firm bedrock of scholarship and embedded in 1st Century studies that keep the study contextualized.

One student., commenting on the team effort, said “I really feel like an explorer!” And as every “disciple” is a “student of Jesus” we want to foster this reality. 

Focus 4: Generative Theology

Taking direct cues from artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura (The Brehm Institute/Fuller Seminary) and his book Culture Care, I saw that the same crises that happened in the Arts under Modernity had struck Theology at the same time as well.  It was just that this last blow, starting at the turn of the last Century all but extinguished any fresh theology from consideration. It was either being deconstructed  and reinterpreted in a culture of Skepticism that reduced it to a bland liberal moralism; or it was being held hostage by “Funda-gelical” reactionaries whose dominant paradigms involved fear and power. In every case it all goes hand in hand with a deeply anthropocentric world-view and then attempting to compensate for that loss via creating consumer religion.  

Makoto Fujimura, Charis | ID: 201206051 | 89 x 132 x 1.25 inches | mineral pigment and gold leaf.

Fujimura has envisioned a way out of the tragedy of Modernity in his work through “Generative Art.” Given the close parallels and root disease for both the Arts and Theology, I saw no reason that  “Generative Theology” would not also be possible.

What does that term mean? A creative/explorative and generative theology is 1) free to proclaim prophetically while being faithful to the biblical witness and 2) does not jettison what is valuable in any of the work which has been done via the previous approach as if a new vision for theology can be done in a vacuum or is the end-all and be-all.

That also means it is more than a peace-at-any-cost ecumenicism. It truly sees all three major branches of the Church as  common heritage and currently as One Body. Let them pretend they are not connected (as the foot says to the leg “I have no need of you.” They can say it but it does not make it true.

Does it mean we should not be on guard or there is no place for polemics or apologetics? Of course not. But let’s no longer be limited to only doing those things or thinking that is our only modus operendi.

Fr. Thomas Merton in 1968

In searching my mind for theologians in my lifetime who are, or were Generative theologians the only person who truly comes to mind is Thomas  Merton. One can argue that C.S. Lewis – when not doing apologetics- was also doing Generative work in both his fiction and in books like Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer and The Weight of Glory.)  But really it was Merton who chose new themes to write on and explore which were 1) not against anyone; and 2) were not polemics or apologetics (or even a practical guide to a way of life).

Generative Theology would produce those books – like the new ones on Christ’s glory or on the Great Christological Hymn and how it might be connected with quantum physics as well as the search for human meaning. And a new generation of commentaries not adjudicated by immediate American concerns or reduced to pragmatic “principles” (I call this homogenization) for use as consumer products. Theological pursuits not determined solely by what is politically en vogue, but which can draw from the seemingly inexhaustibly suggestive nature of the 66 books we hold sacred.

It is here that the word generative once again becomes important. Just as God is to be worshiped for God’s own sake, so great theology is to be down because it is true and it is at the core of being human to explore and document the full range of human experience. This theological expression should not be dominated by a theology primarily “against.” but be essentially a theology for” especially as “Good News” is at the core of that theology. That it retains a edgy polemic against falsehood is, of course, necessary. The character and witness of the New Testament demonstrate this; but it is not all consuming leading to the myopia and hair-splitting we have currently come to. 

 

 

 

[1] The New Testament: A Translation by David Bently Hart (Kindle Locations 10762-10765). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 7065-7068). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
 
[3] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 4717-4718). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
 
[4] F.F. Bruce remarks “This is one of the great Christological passages of the NT, declaring as it does our Lord’s divine essence, pre-existence, and creative agency. Yet, high as the Christology is, it does not appear to be original to Paul himself; but rather part of what he “received” as primitive Christian teaching.”
[5] Becker, Ernest The Denial of Death,. Free Press 1975 p.
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