Monday, February 4, 2013

A Personal Manifesto of Christian Faith and Public Life

I prepared a  collection of statements recently to help my friends and acquaintances know the presuppositions that guide my thinking and choices. I also did it so that anyone who so desired might  help me move closer to truth by challenging any principle listed that seems to them false or overstated. 

On the Present Shift of Western Forms of Christianity

1. Our faith is passing through one of the several great transitions it has experienced in its long and evolutionary history. Although this present transition is inevitable and irresistible it is causing and, for the foreseeable future will continue to cause, pain, division and dislocation for many.

2. This transition is as drastic a shift as the Reformation, perhaps more so.

3. This transition, as in the case of the ones that preceded it, is a response to great shifts that have occurred in world culture. In this present case, Christians are attempting to either respond to, or are trying to ignore, the implications of discoveries made by contemporary science, radical changes made in human social organization at the national, local and even family level, the explosion of radically innovative technologies and the unrelenting march of globalization.

4. Christianity is One, not many faiths. Its internal differences of theology, liturgy and spiritual practice are dialects of a single faith language.  The faith’s internal differences are the results of its adaptations to local conditions. These differences are thus rooted in time and place rather than in expressions of eternal truth.

5. In addressing the challenges and opportunities of a globalized and post-modern culture, forms of the faith only recently viewed as peripheral may prove to be more useful to us than ones with which we are more familiar. For example, the Church Fathers, who wrote in the first three centuries, may be more helpful to us than the Reformers.  Copts may be more helpful than leaders of our community churches. This is not because the fathers were holier than contemporary believers, or even because they lived closer in time to the sources of our faith. Copts are not inherently more virtuous than our community church leaders. However, saints and theologians who have thought (and who think now) outside the ideological boundaries of the modern western world have experienced the faith in radically different contexts than Westerners have experienced it in the last five hundred years. As we struggle with postmodernism, we can learn from these other Christian voices ways to image what our faith may look like outside the modern European paradigm that formed our own ways of thinking.  The same case can be made for third word Pentecostalism, which offers a contemporary, but still non-western perspective, through which we can look at our faith through fresh eyes.

6. All that is eternal about our faith transcends temporal and cultural conditions. Therefore, those things connected to our faith that prove to be unable of transition from one culture (or from one generation) to another, however beloved, are adaptations of the faith to temporal conditions. They are not part of its eternal witness and will thus be greatly altered or disappear in the days ahead.

7. All great revivals and reformations  -- including Christianity itself – have been Spirit-initiated responses to a radically changed world. Israel’s loss of temple and nation gave rise to rabbinical Judaism, a form of faith as different from Old Testament Judaism as Christianity. The current desire of some to return to a pure, Jewish from of Christianity, without Greek or Latin elements, is a romantic fantasy; rather like an adult wanting to return to the original form he imagines himself to have had before conception. Christianity has a Greek as well as a Hebrew heritage.  According to the New Testament, this is a work of Divine providence rather than a distortion of our Hebrew roots. That is the template for divinely initiated shifts of religion and spirituality.

8. The End of Medieval European Christianity and the emergence of both modern Protestant and modern Catholic forms of the faith occurred because of the advancement of science, the rise of the nation state, and the invention of the printing press.  Luther, Calvin and all the other reformers were more a part of the old world they denounced than the new world their followers gradually created. Nonetheless, they had the wisdom to recognize the historical shift afoot and to respond to it.  That will be the path of many of today’s great spiritual leaders.

9. All great revivals and reformations, including Christianity itself, have been adaptations of the movements that gave them birth, however they may have appeared to the people who led them.

Thus, through the centuries, the Psalms have been the most beloved and referenced part of the Christian canon, beginning with the writers of the New Testament. The Eucharist, after two thousand years, remains a very obvious adaptation of the Passover celebration. The Christian calendar roughly follows Israel’s ancient feasts and fasts.  Christians are still, in some very important ways, the children of first century Hellenized Jews.

Likewise the reformers, including Wesley, would be viewed as much too catholic for modern evangelical tastes, or for that matter for most modern Roman Catholics. Non-liturgical forms of Christianity are rather recent. They were nearly all birthed in the United States as a series of responses to the immensity of North American geography and the challenges of shepherding a flock scattered throughout that space. The old time religion, as it turns out, is not very old.

Despite these great shifts of form, the essential elements of our faith, from St. Paul to Brother Billy Bob, remain. The vital elements of the faith will survive in the shifts it will now make to meet the challenges of our globalized and post-modern world, though the process to get there will be a painful one for many.

10. Both prophetic innovation and orthodoxy must be honored and maintained in a creative tension that we will never fully resolve.

11. There is no compelling reason that unbelievers should accept our faith over their own religion or lack of religion unless Christians can offer one or both of the following:

a. Individuals and communities that have the marks of supernatural transformation by grace, some element of redemption that defies human explanation; that is to say saints, or,

b. Supernatural events and phenomena that occur at least periodically among those who preach and practice the gospel of Christ. Such events and phenomena must be free of manipulation or fraud, and provoke godly awe among believers and unbelievers alike.

12. Churches that function well as a result of human ingenuity and planning alone may impress the already convinced. They may even impress those who seek healthy community but lack a need for answers about ultimate meaning and truth. They will increasingly not satisfy those with serious and honest questions, even if they are children of believers and emotionally attached to the faith. Without transformation of character, and without signs of God’s grace and presence, Christianity will increasingly lack authority and appeal, resulting in a serious decrease of its moral and ethical claims in a postmodern and globalized culture.

13. Intellectual sloth coupled with angry reactionary rhetoric will increasingly provoke disgust, first among unbelievers, then among believers as well.

14. All of these elements suggest that improving our music, having bigger and more accessible parking lots, serving good lattes, and dressing our preachers in jeans, will at best attract bored Christians. These approaches will simply be insufficient to answer the most serious questions of our times, among with are these:

a. Is there a God and if so, what is God like?

b. Can God be found?

c. What is the nature and purpose of the Bible?

d. Can Christianity really engage science, or is it only capable of reacting against it?

e. Does Christianity really care for the poor and suffering and does it have real answers for their plight?

f. What does Christianity say about the human hunger for intimacy, including sexual intimacy if and when this seems unavailable?

g. What does Christianity say about the care of creation?

On the Importance of Orthodoxy

1. Orthodoxy is the term we use to express “that which has at all times and in all places been believed by the whole people of God.” It consists of those common beliefs and practices that believers since Christ have confessed and is the indispensible pillar of any form of Christianity. The loss of orthodoxy is thus the loss of the faith itself.

2. Whereas conservatism is the veneration of the past and liberalism often hostility toward the past, orthodoxy is a rootedness in the past that encourages one to move safely into the future. Thus, orthodoxy is other than either liberalism or conservatism in that it embraces both past and future. For the orthodox believer, the future contains the ultimate purpose toward which we move, while the past embodies the ever-accumulating wisdom by which we discern and chose the right path forward.

3. Christian orthodoxy is like a light flowing through stained glass. The glass through which it passes colors and shapes the light but does not create it. Thus, the various peoples and cultures of the world, now and throughout history, have displayed orthodoxy in ways that are, superficially at least, diverse.

4. Orthodoxy is the dynamic product of the people of God. Each generation of believers have received the faith of those who preceded it, applied its lessons to the challenges of their own day and passed the ever-accumulating body of reflection on to their children. This generation must do the same.  However, we cannot know which of our contemporary contributions will endure. We simply work to keep these contributions consistent with the faith of the ages and offer them to the generations who follow.

5. Christian leaders who lack grounding in orthodoxy have no right to suggest modifications to it, nor the right to represent our faith before the watching world.

6. For all these reasons, both the transmission of orthodoxy and the continual communication of it in relevant forms is a matter of extreme urgency for the Church.

On My View of Scripture

1. The various books of the Bible possess their authority because they were included in the canon.  They were included in the canon because their authorship could be traced to an apostle or because they had been included in the Hebrew canon Christians inherited. Thus, each book of the Bible is to be understood in the light of the entire canon. Christians read the Old Testament in light of the New because for them, the New explains the meaning of the Old. Each part of the Bible may then be justifiably used to comprehend any other part. The parts are not contradictory either to one another or to the whole. Indeed, the meaning of each part of scripture must be discerned by reading it in the light of the whole.

2. It is of secondary importance to know who wrote any portion of the Bible or for what original purpose. The issue of primary importance is determined by asking the question, “Why did the Holy Spirit place this passage in the canon?” The answer to that question comes first from grasping the message of the entire canon; secondly from knowing the works written through the ages by those who reflected deeply on the Bible – including linguistic and textual analysis and all types of theological reflections; and thirdly from the ways in which it strikes the individual heart of the informed reader.

3. The Bible contains many different genres of literature, each one communicating God’s revelation in a different way. Poetry, prose, apocalypticism, parable and theological exposition each tell the story of redemption differently. Therefore, we read, study and interpret the various genres accordingly. “The trees in the field will clap their hands,” is poetry, not prophesy of some a literal, future event. Although metaphor is a legitimate literary and theological device to apply to scripture, it must be consistent with the clear teachings of the witness of the entire canon.

4. For the Christian, all scripture, including the books of the Old Testament, relates to and revolves around the life, teaching, death, burial, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ.

5. Fundamentalism is no less a distortion of scripture than liberalism. Both approaches are modern responses to changes within Western culture and remove scripture from the essential context that gives it meaning, namely the church, which Paul calls, “The Pillar and Ground of Truth.”

6. The eternal meaning of scripture cannot be adversarial to ongoing discoveries made about the origin and nature of the universe. Once a discovery has been reasonably verified by careful research and empirical evidence, it may be legitimately used to shed light on morality, ethics and any perception about reality one has inferred from scripture. Galileo’s heliocentric assertion altered that way in which believers read the story of Joshua commanding the sun to stand still, for example. Truth is a ‘common grace,’ something that God shines upon believer and unbeliever alike.

On My View of The Church

1. The church is the Body of Christ and exists prior to those believers that comprise it. Thus, believers do not define the church; rather the church – the Christian Community of all times and places -- defines what constitutes both a believer and a healthy local church. Just as an Old Testament follower of God joined the nation of Israel, so followers of Christ are called to join themselves to the household of Christian faith: the Church.

2. The church is related to Israel as a man is to a boy. It exists to extend the covenant of Abraham to all who believe in Christ, Israel’s last legitimate king. Christians relate to Jews as bearers of covenant to who we owe gratitude and respect. In some way yet unforeseen, God will ultimately reconcile the two peoples in common allegiance to Him and to His kingdom.

3. The church on earth is a mixed body, consisting of tares and wheat. It is consists of both saints and sinners. God alone knows which is which and only he is capable of sorting the one from the other.

4. The church is meant to be catholic, or “kath’ holos,” which means, “pertaining to the whole.“ Thus, no local body can be truly independent or autonomous from all other local bodies. All local assemblies are thus bound together with all other Christian communities of the past, present and future. This reality is expressed through word and deed in all healthy churches, leading believers to identify and reject all forms of sectarianism.

5. The church is apostolic, which means that in in all its forms, it is bound to the teachings and authority of the apostles. This leads all believers to reject any contemporary expression of Christianity that denies – in word of by its action -- a rootedness in the distant past.

On My View of Mission 

1. Jesus said that he came to the world “that you might have life and that more abundantly.” The apostle John said that Jesus came “to destroy the works of the Devil.” Thus, Christian mission, which is a continuation of this work of Christ, is to promote the salvation of human beings and the redemption of the cosmos.

2. Salvation is another word for the healing of individuals and societies from the effects of sin and evil and their restoration to those purposes for which God created them.

3. Human flourishing is a process that begins when an individual becomes a disciple of Christ. The process continues through life, after death, and through all eternity. This process transforms an individual – a largely non-conscious fragment of family and society -- into a conscious and self-aware person, one fit for divine companionship.

4. On earth, human flourishing is an intergenerational process that gradually lifts entire families and communities out of barbarism and into justice and civility, and is accompanied by ever-higher kinds of discovery, creativity and prosperity for those who comprise those communities.

5. It is the expressed desire of Jesus Christ that all nations and people be invited into his church. For this reason, just as we worship a God who is One but nonetheless contains difference and distinction, so does the Church contain difference and distinction. A healthy local church then ought to contain those differences of race and culture, as well as those distinctions of class, that exist in the place which that church serves. I hold this point as a cardinal doctrine of the faith that we are not allowed to compromise without causing great damage to the faith Christ came to teach.

6. Mission to other peoples and other lands is core to the gospel of Christ and not peripheral to it.  A church without a mission to the peoples of the world thus lacks an essential element of Christian formation.  A world outreach stretches a people from their natural provincialism and helps heal racism and other forms of evil that works to denigrate human beings and separate them into suspicious and hostile groups.

On My View of Spirituality

1. Christian spirituality requires both a communal context and a continual individual response. It is the pursuit and the experience of the presence of God and the work to gradually incarnate the teachings of the faith within one’s own being and work.

2. Communal spiritual life is rooted in the sacraments, charismatic life and Biblical instruction of the church.

3. Communal expression of spiritual life is called ‘worship’ and is meant to be a transcendent moment in time and space in which the soul is awakened to God and eternity. Thus, worship time is not primarily dedicated to evangelism but rather to the strengthening of a believer’s heart and mind in God.

4. An individual’s spiritual life consists of prayer, study of the scripture, and service to others, and, in the expression of his or her spiritual gifts, experiences and training within the specific vocation God gives him or her.

5. Spiritual gifts are vital parts of a believer’s life, and sometimes involve mystical and supernatural experience but these are nonetheless evaluated in the light of scripture and by the common testimony of the Body of Christ of all times and all places.

6. Believers discern God’s guidance through private prayer and in consultation with other believers, viewing the opportunities and challenges of life through the lenses of corporate and individual knowledge faith.

7. Christian spirituality is the awareness of the presence of God and a continual opening of the soul to God’s presence.

8. Christian spirituality involves a continual growing out from self and toward other human beings and God.

9. Evangelism is mostly the outgrowth of the quality of life that radiates from the believer and which makes the ways of God attractive to others.

On My View of Vocation 

1. Each human being is responsible before God to discover his or her passions and gifts, develop these to their greatest extend, and put them to use in ways that benefit the human family.

2. Much of a person’s sense of dignity and fulfillment comes from how she or she stewards his or her vocation.

3. Vocation often overlaps, but is not synonymous with, one’s occupation.

4. One’s vocation is for life and continues even after his or her occupation has come to an end.

5. One’s vocation is the primary way in which one expresses individuality and spiritual life.

On My View of Community and Economy 

1. A healthy community encourages individuals to become responsible for themselves and celebrates the ways in which those individuals develop their unique gifts, passions and talents to the ultimate level of expression possible.

2. A healthy community provides adequate infrastructure for the individuals that comprise it to learn, develop and thrive.

3. A healthy community/economy attempts to make it possible for the handicapped, elderly, and other similarly disadvantaged individuals to equip themselves so they may make a dignity-conveying contribution to society.

4.  A healthy community/economy makes it easy for all of its citizens to become educated.

5. A healthy community / economy invests in the common good, i.e., those things that celebrate the community’s common values, and which celebrate both individual difference and individual contribution.

6. Free enterprise tends to advance these values better than other economic forms, and does so most successfully in my opinion, where there are reasonable obstacles for exploitation of workers, the formation of monopolies, banking regulation to prevent fraud and usury, and other such protections of the citizenry. I cannot believe in laissez-faire capitalism because I believe in human depravity. Economic life, as all other forms of life, must be regulated by reasonable structures of accountability. Nonetheless, it cannot be hindered to the point of strangulation and loss of creative initiative.

On My View of Political Life

1. Christianity does not promote any particular political system but works within any and all political systems to encourage justice, physical sustenance and safety, and freedom for the individual. Therefore, I attempt to separate emotions connected to my faith from those connected to my patriotism.

2. All nations and all people are equal before God. My love for my nation is an extension of the love I feel for family. Therefore, I recognize that other Christians feel similarly about their own nation and that this is normal human life but our loyalties toward our own nations does not separates us from the greater we each have for our common faith.

3.  I believe that individuals thrive best where individuals have freedom to thrive within a community that both respects and celebrates difference and which continually invests in the common good.

4. I believe that in large states, such the United States, both freedom and quality of life is best maintained within a Federal Republic, in which local and regional authorities have the primary responsibility for those things within their ability to address.

5. At present, my views would be best characterized a moderate republican. As neither a libertarian nor a socialist, I embrace a third way, which makes me what in some European countries was once called a Christian Democrat.

The use of religion to promote patriotism erodes the power and the purity of both. For this reason, the idolatrous concoctions that arise from that mixture should be resisted for both spiritual and patriotic reasons

The ideas above represent a rather accurate outline of how my I think about my faith. I will probably prepare another set of principles about my worldview and philosophy in the weeks ahead. Its interesting to do an exercise like this because it helps me realize that as I have been walking the spiritual journey, the view has shifted from time to time as I have rounded first this hill and then the next. The constant in my life has not been my ideas, but the divine presence that has accompanied me along the way. 


Anonymous said...

What I so appreciate about you, Pastor Dan, is that you are who you say you are. None of what I read here surprised me. It's what you've been saying and doing since I've known you. Thank you for being transparent, consistent, moral, and thoughtful. I pray God will continue to bless your ministry, to lead you to those who need the gifts and leadership skills God has given you, and that God will open the eyes of those who doubt your sincerity to the truth. You have blessed my life.

Brandon Freeman said...

"Christianity is One, not many faiths."

I increasingly find comfort in discovering the historical and theological continuity of the Church.

"Our faith is passing through one of the several great transitions it has experienced in its long and evolutionary history. Although this present transition is inevitable and irresistible it is causing and, for the foreseeable future will continue to cause, pain, division and dislocation for many."

I'm reminded of Isaac Asimov's Foundation novel. In it, a group sees the inevitable failure of their empire. They cannot stop it, so instead do what they can to minimize the period of pain. This shift being inevitable, how can we minimize the pain and division that is resulting every day?

"Intellectual sloth coupled with angry reactionary rhetoric will increasingly provoke disgust, first among unbelievers, then among believers as well."

No commentary, just agree wholeheartedly.

Thanks for the post Pastor Dan. I really enjoyed it, and found myself thinking a lot because of it.