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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Chaos and Creativity

Every time I sit down to write, I end up writing about something else. This has never happened to me before and I am not enjoying it very much. Focus and speed have always been my trustworthy traveling companions but they have become suddenly unreliable.

Part of this is a season of life thing as I round the corner from 43-44. The pressure is starting to get to me.

Part of this is a state of the world thing as the the 24 hour news cycle relentlessly barrages us with crisis after crisis, threat after threat. There is an inevitable fatigue that sets in from this climate of chaos.

Part of this is simple biology as a lack of sleeping through the night for two decades meets a lack of exercise in the past 6 months to form a  a constant chicken-and-egg round-about.  I’m just not at my sharpest.

Perhaps the most significant factor, however, stems as a natural bi-product of being a life-long generalist who has chosen to go into an interdisciplinary field.

  • I’m doing final edits on a book with my mentor introducing post-colonial theology.
  • My dissertation is on critical race theory and church leadership.
  • Spring semester classes include ecclesiology, essentials of christian theology, as well as ‘systems & culture change’ which address the supposed final forms of nation, consumer capitalism, and democracy. I have tied them all together with biblical fundamentalism as the glue that binds them into a concrete whole.

Add to all of this that I am also beginning to look for a job for this fall when my contract at the seminary runs out … and you can see why my thoughts wander like a series of rabbit trails.

Here is the good news: I have been writing a lot. I like what I am writing. It feels like something good will come out of the writing … eventually.

So this little note is both a ‘touching base’ and a prayer request, an update and a confession at the same time. If you have any good advice, I am open – if you are a person who prays, I would appreciate it.

I hope that peace finds you wherever you are on this Wednesday. Gratitude is a wonderful traveling companion and I am grateful for all of your support, affirmation, and engagement.   -Bo

 

p.s. if you have been following along with reading for essentials in christian theology, I just wanted to remind you that we are not reading in sequence and that this week’s topic is Pinnock’s chapter 6 on the evangelical tradition in the intro to N. American perspectives.  A post will follow shortly.

Portland Seminary

Here in an interview that my seminary just posted introducing me as the visiting assistant professor of theology for this year. http://www.georgefox.edu/seminary/news-events/news-interviewing-bo-sanders.html

It gives me a chance to say how much I loved being a student here and to tell a little bit of what I have been up to since I left and went to LA. Since I am not on Facebook or Twitter for another couple of months, please feel free to pass it on to anyone who might want to know what I have been up to …

This has been a fascinating year to be here! I have been able to watch the behind the scenes of:

  1. A name-change / re-branding
  2. creation of an entirely new curriculum
  3. job search for the permanent position

What an amazing opportunity – even if those three things had not been going on. When you add those three things, however, this had been a wild year to be a visitor to this school that has meant so much to me.

I am excited about the name change. As a contextual theologian, I appreciate the identification with place and know how important it is to locate oneself. Theology and ministry do not happen in a vacuum. They are not universal. They are particular and they are located.

The unfortunate part of the move to Portland Seminary is the loss of both ‘George Fox’ to signify the school’s Quaker ties, and ‘evangelical’ which is a hold-over from the original merger with Western Evangelical Seminary back in the day.

As you know, I am not a sentimental person nor do I feel compelled to privilege the past and attempt to hold on to things for historic/heritage reasons alone. This change, however, has really demonstrated to me that change and updating must be done with deep conviction. I have heard people’s hesitance and reservation about the change. So while I personally a big fan of updating and innovating, I respect the communal aspect of continuity and preservation.

In the end, I really believe in this name change and hope the best for Portland Seminary in the years to come! I am glad to be helping out during this year of transition and deeply believe that God loves the people of Portland, the spirit of Portland, and has great desires to see this city reached with the love of Christ.

 

Migration of the Sacred

Political Theology is a fascinating field that continues to become increasingly relevant in our interconnected post-9/11 world. One of my courses this semester is ‘Culture & Systems Change’ and part of the class is looking at the intersection of religion and politics.

In 1922, Carl Schmidt said that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”[1]  The remnants of so many of our former religious and royal forms were adopted and transformed in this novel expression of belonging and duty. Not only is the word sovereign borrowed directly from religious vocabulary, but as Paul Kahn explains: “The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.” [2]

  • Think about the way the American constitution is spoken of as a sacred text that was penned by inspired patriarchs and cannot be questioned. [3]
  • Notice the controversy over the singing of the national anthem (a worship song to the nation) at sporting events.
  • Look at the uproar over burning a flag and realize how sacred that piece of fabric is thought to be because of what it symbolizes.

It can be troubling to be made aware of these connections for the first time. Is it odd that God and Nation are both referred to as ‘sovereign’, to interpret the constitution like the inspired scriptures, to revere the founding fathers  like the patriarchs, to preserve the flag as if the fabric itself was sacred and not just symbolic, or to demand participation in the national anthem before one can play a game?

If you are interested in this topic, I wanted to point you to 3 really interesting resources:

The first is a podcast interview with Paul Kahn from a CBC Ideas series called ‘The Myth of the Secular’. It is a 7 part series and Kahn is part 5.

The second is a great into book called Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Elizabeth Phillips.

The third is a new article Evangelicals and the End of Civic Religion by Alexandria Barbera in the Other Journal. She explains that:

“In terms of the more recent manifestations of evangelical politics, Lynerd defines republican theology as a political-theological doctrine that “asserts the mutual dependence of individual liberty, moral virtue, and Christian faith to support a civil religion that values all three.” However, a civil religion uses faith to sanctify politics, whereas political theology makes use of theology-based ethics to advance political causes. His use of the phrases political-theological doctrine and civil religion is key here, because it disrupts the prevailing evangelical narrative that political engagement is about duty to one’s faith and not about politics.

Although it may not be clear whether political evangelicalism is a civil religion, which is thus intrinsically political, or a theological system in which politics play a large role, Lynerd’s work foregrounds the explicit political character of right-wing evangelicalism. He reminds us that the alliance between evangelicalism and the American right is “not accidental,” taking on its current shape only in the twentieth century.”

Take at look/listen to those and let me know your thoughts!

_____________

[1] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Reprint (Columbia University Press, 2012), location 37.

[2] Ibid., 360.

[3] CBC Ideas part 5

Surplus of Jesus

The ‘surplus of meaning’ has become the most vibrant theological commitment for me in the last 10 years. It guides the way that I study scripture and preach. It frames the way that I teach and organize my classes (I will have to write about employing the spectrum pedagogy* down the road).  It compels my approach to different Christian denominations and even posture toward other religions.

I am committed to the idea that within any symbol as rich as ‘christ’, or the communion table, or even the Bible – that they are overflowing with significance and possibility! There is a surplus of meaning within these deep and fertile symbols. Words like multiple, plural, and diverse are just the beginning for exploring the ways that we signify these transcendent concepts.

When it comes to Jesus, this has required a major shift in my thinking. I used to pursue the correct and authoritative view of Jesus. I so wanted to get it right. The problem is that I kept finding really good views and solid perspectives … some of which seemed contradictory or at least complicated. I was not great at complexity so I wrestled to eliminate that Jesus in favor of this view of Jesus.

Here is the beautiful realization that I came to: Jesus is so elaborate, multifaceted, complex, and layered that there is more than enough to go around!

People can find so much of what they are looking for in the person and work of Jesus that it is possible to have many good and solid views re/presented. There is merit is so many of them. Ross Douthat said it this way:

“the New Testament’s complexities [have] forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post– sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well.”

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (p. 178).

 

Here is the new conversation: with the plethora of ‘stars’ in the night sky, how do you connect the dots in order to form a ‘constellation’ and construct a narrative that is both coherent and compelling?

It used to bother me that there were four gospels and that they didn’t always match. I really preferred the ‘harmony of the gospels’ and was always attempting to eliminate difference – which I thought led to confusion.

Now, I love that there are four gospels in our cannon and that they are each so rich with insight and perspectives. The Jesus that they portray is overflowing with significance, providing a surplus of meaning at every level of interpretation.

Having said that, Douthat provides a severe caution:

“For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology. These simplifications have usually required telling a somewhat different story about Jesus than the one told across the books of the New Testament. Sometimes this retelling has involved thinning out the Christian canon, eliminating tensions by subtracting them. Sometimes it’s been achieved by combining the four gospels into one, smoothing out their seeming contradictions in the process. More often, though, it’s been achieved by straightforwardly rewriting or even inventing crucial portions of the New Testament account, as the Gospel of Judas’ authors did, to make them offer up a smoother, more palatable, and more straightforward theology.”

 

So, while I acknowledge that this ‘surplus of meaning’ approach calls for a level of caution and seriousness, I am far more interested in being a part of this conversation than one that attempts to reduce Jesus to a simpler or more palatable, boiled-down version.

Let me know what you think.

________

*  Joel J. Heim and Nelia Beth Scovill, “A Spectrum Pedagogy for Christian Ethics: Respecting Difference without Resorting to Relativism,” Teaching Theology & Religion 13, no. 4 (October 1, 2010): 350–70.

Constructing Theology

There is an art about constructive approaches to theology. I am a big fan of the current trend toward constructive theology and away from ‘systematic’ theology. The problem, as I see it, it two-fold. First, God did not give us a system. What we have inherited is a story – a narrative.  Call it a covenant, call it a relationship, call it the community of creation … what we have is organic and earthy, connective and fleshy, sacred and ordinary at the same time. Systems are very man-made (and in this case ‘man’ is not generic but historically masculine) and extremely formulaic.

Systems are not inherently bad, mind you. It’s just that systems, and systematic theology, sometimes take on a life of their own and become mechanistic and assembly line in the age of factories. Doctrines and ideas are not gears that interlock in intricate and interchangeable ways. Even as an analogy, it leaves much to be desired, let alone the actual exercise production of systematic theology.

The second problem is that in order for all of the moving parts (gears) to work together in systematized and mechanistic ways, much of the data must be shaved off or conformed so that it all fits together in a coherent formula. The goal of systematic theology is to create a system that works as a unit – not to create a story that accounts for the all of the material and data. Systematic theologies are like feature-length movies that have been cut and spliced with a lot of film left on the cutting room floor. The result is that some elements may be neglected while others may get ‘forced’ to fit.

I am not begrudging the history of systematic theology, it is a rich tradition, but only saying that I prefer the move away from systematized and mechanistic approaches to theology and toward a more holistic and organic approach that accounts for more of the data/material of both scripture and church history, as well as human experience. Constructive theology is a different approach that says (in essence) ‘what we have here may not fit together or work together perfectly, but neither does life or faith’ – not everything conforms to a perfect form and it may not necessarily come together in a perfect and transferable unit.

Life and faith are messy but I would prefer that more of the picture be re/presented or accounted for than I am concerned that the categories work together cleanly.

What this shift to constructive theology has meant in practice is that I have taken a half-step away from systematic theology to begin the transition. I have inherited an Essentials of Theology class for this year-long appointment as my school (Portland Seminary) transitions to a new curriculum that will not include this class in this form in the future. So while I have left the inherited categories the same, I have changed two things:

  1. I changed the sequence so that ‘humanity’ (anthropology) was not an afterthought
  2. I don’t expect the content of each category to come together in tidy or even functional ways. They may – but that is not the highest priority.

These little changes make a big difference. Placing ‘humans’ second in the sequence means that we have to deal with the reality of bodies and location before we can tackle the idea that ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. Our sequence of conversations goes God, human, Jesus, …. Instead of the more classic approach of God, Jesus, Bible, Holy Spirit, Church – then humans. As you will hopefully notice in today’s and tomorrow’s posts on humans then Jesus, sequencing is not trivial. [We will get back to nuclear-theology later in the week].

 

When I talk about being human from a theological concern, it seems to bring up a lot of complex words: incarnate, embodied, context, and enacted.  This is an opportunity to employ a playful and structural examination of these concepts. For instance, by simply applying a well-placed backslash, these concepts take on a new level of clarity.

  • In/carnate
  • Em/body
  • Con/text
  • En/acted

These notions take on a profound weightiness to validate human experience (and your story) as a place (or text) of spiritual insight and divine revelation. Your story matters to God. Your experience is valid and tells us something. Your existence is a living text (to quote Bonnie Miller-McLemore) that informs our theological examination.

I close with this: it is important to talk about what it means to be human before we talk about Jesus so that we know how big of a deal it is that Christians claim that Jesus was a revelation of something divine – that Jesus embodied God – or that the Word became flesh.

This isn’t a system. It isn’t simple. It doesn’t always fit together in a neat and tidy formula. It is a story that is messy, fleshy, and earthy. I hope that our approach re/presents that truth whether our ‘final product’ does or not.

 

 

Nuclear Theology part 1

How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A number that you probably haven’t even heard of.

Several years ago, I became concerned about the fading awareness of the atomic age. Growing up in the 1980s, the ‘cold war’ loomed over our politics and our evangelical Christianity. Thirty years later, the post-9/11 world sent me in search of theological addresses of some of my concerns and this is when I stumbled into Theology for a Nuclear Age by Gordon D. Kaufman. While Kaufman’s larger work is outside the scope of my particular theological project, I connect with his concern about the nuclear age very deeply.

It has now been more than 70 years since the bombs were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is odd that Kaufman wrote in the 1980s – 35 years later – and I read his work almost 30 years after they were written. There is something oddly symmetrical about the reality of ‘the bomb’ becoming an issue again 70 years after its devastating power was first unleashed. I have been reading all of this nuclear theology for the past 5 years partly to exercise my own demons on the issue but partly because I feared that it would become a concern again with our global geo-politics.

The recent US elections have elevated nuclear war to a crisis level again.

My fascination with theological implications of the nuclear age is like being into a vintage band that has only recently come into popularity – thus the hipster joke above.

What follows below, and in the next several posts, will be selections of Kaufman edited or summarized into blog format. The book is a thin 63 pages and my hope is to whet your appetite to pick it up and join me in this consideration.

In a previous address Kaufman had suggested … that the nuclear age into which humankind has now moved – an age in which it is possible we may utterly destroy not only civilization but humanity itself – challenges scholars in theology and in the study of religion to do some radical re-thinking about our discipline and about some of the presuppositions taken for granted in our work. (vii)

There is a new situation in which humanity now finds itself – in which we are able, by the mere press of a button, to destroy our entire world as well as humankind itself – isn’t in a significant way ‘out of sync’ with the central traditional claim about God’s sovereignty over the world. (ix)

The religious eschatology of the West was undergirded by faith in an active creator and governor of history … and the end of history – whether viewed as ultimate catastrophe or ultimate salvation – was to be God’s climactic act. (3)

An end brought about by nuclear holocaust must be conceived primarily not as God’s doing but as ours. The possibility that we will obliterate all future human life is so novel and strange that it is difficult for us to grasp what we are up against. Human kind was never believed to have the power utterly to destroy itself; that power lay with God alone. Many, such as Karl Barth, say that this utterly calamitous self-destruction of humanity will never be allowed to occur. (4-7)

While it is my prayer that this is true … I am deeply convicted that we need to adjust the way that we think about our concept of ‘god’ in light of the new possibility and threat. If folks want to cling to classic/antiquated notions of a BIG GOD, I am fine with that (I really am). They will need to justify those claims again in this new era and not simply parrot formulations of previous centuries. Claims regarding GOD’s power and intervention cannot be grandfathered in to the emerging reality carte blanc.

 

Is the New Year new?

The MLK holiday provides a time to check in on the new year. I actually start getting ready for this question during Advent. Once we round the corner of Christmas day and I begin to take inventory of the past year in preparation for the New Year … I know that today is coming.

Each MLK holiday I ask myself how our society is doing with Dr. King’s triplets of evil: racism, materialism, and militarism.

I am currently reading “The End of White Christian America”  and it reminded my of a post that I put up two years ago today. I thought I would share a part of it again:
The loss of my mother has caused me a nearly indescribable amount of pain. I have given great thought to changing the entire direction of ministry – it has to be about more than just helping people understand the Bible better or be a better person.
Dr. King’s ‘triplets of evil’ are alive and well in our world and impact us all everyday … but because they are embedded in larger structures they can hide from people’s awareness and so they need to be investigated, exposed, and subverted.

In honor of this holiday and my mother’s memory I want to say two things:

  1. Be kind to each other. We are all carrying hurts and concerns and scars that may be impossible to see from the surface. As humans, we are all in this together … the world doesn’t need more strife and violence and division.
  2. We are all caught up in systems and structures that work against the ‘common-wealth’ of humanity and the planet. They need to be confronted and radically dismantled.

Now, as a christian minister I have chosen to stick with the gospel as I think that it provides the tools to do these two things.
On this MLK holiday I just wanted honor the legacy of a man and movement that has deeply impacted me and inspired my vision.

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The God Revealed In Christ

Who said anything about omni-potent?

One of the difficulties of being both a believer, and for me, a pastor is how much time and energy gets taken up by the god that you don’t believe in. I believe in god very deeply and have given much of my life to teaching and leading people into a fuller understanding of faith in and participation with the divine-eternal-transcendent.

I love and try to imitate Jesus. I guess that makes me a Christian. Which is fine because even if there was no such category as ‘christian’, I would still be fascinated with the phenomenon that gets labeled the spirit of Christ/the spirit of God/Holy Spirit. My attraction to the field of practical theology is to examine the ways that religious communities and people of faith live out their beliefs in embodied practices.

I am really committed to this thing that gets called belief-faith-religion. It plays an important role in my life, in my family, in my networks, in our society, and in our world. I feel the need to say this because I get frustrated at the increasing amount of time and energy that gets taken up explaining what I don’t believe.

God has really gotten out of control in our culture. You say that you believe in God or that you have had a religious experience and suddenly you find yourself defending lofty and foreign concepts like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, immutability, and impassibility. You get overwhelmed by an avalanche of historical atrocities and are asked to defend classic conceptions of an all-mighty or sovereign god in the face of human evil and suffering. Now there are accusations of hypocrisy, genocide, crusades, sexual abuse, and every manner of discrimination and hate.

All I said is that I like Jesus and the one that he called Abba. What have I been pulled into and am I obligated to adopt/defend all of these other things? Is it possible that the concept of God has gotten out of hand and grown over the centuries into the bloated and oversized thing that is unsustainable and indefensible?

Are we allowed to downsize this whole thing to a more understated and humble version? Someone might ask “you want a more manageable god?”

It’s not that I want to manage god or be in control of god … I just want a conception of god that isn’t so amped up, highly-caffeinated, or on steroids. I was looking at a model in the range of ‘the god revealed in christ’. I find that a compelling vision of god – more servant than Caesar, more nurturing parent than distant monarch.

I feel at times like the person looking for a reliable car but getting stuck with a pushy salesman who is bent on getting me into something bigger, faster, more powerful, and fancier. I just want something that gets there, I’m not sure about all the bells and whistles – nor can I afford the payments on the luxury model.

I’m looking for a place to rest but all the mattresses are king-sized, pillow top, space-age foam, with dual temperature control and animated bi-level posture support. I was hoping to watch the evening news and maybe enjoy a game on the weekend but all the cable packages are premier bundles with 500 channels from 130 countries including an extreme sports package and a 100 gigabyte DVR included with your unlimited data upgrade.

A smaller and humbler vision of god seems like heresy to most folks for whom the whole point of there being a divine being is that it is the biggest and best of whatever it is that you would value. Anything less, it appears, is not even worthy of worship and so it becomes an all or nothing dichotomy where God had better be everything that has been promised or there is no point in believing in God at all.

Like so many other things in our culture right now, religion has been turned up to 11 and you had better like it OR YOU CAN GET THE HELL OUT!

Through the advent season and into the new year, my meditation has been on the incarnation and the amazing reality that the eternal word (logos) became flesh and dwelt among us – emmanuel means that god is with us. For good or bad, god is now eternally bound up in the creatures’ fate. God has not only identified with humanity but has become entwined with humanity.

Incarnation is why our bodies matter to god and why our embodied practices mean as much or more than our ideas and concepts about god. I’m looking for the God Reveled In Christ.*

Tomorrow I want to ask if the classic notion of the big-god was destroyed when we entered the nuclear age. I’m not sure that conception of god survived the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like the star over Bethlehem, the mushroom clouds loom over us and divide history from its previous era.

_____________________

*I understand that G.R.I.C. may not be the biggest or best. I get that when we say ‘GOD’ we are saying more than ‘human’ loudly. I have no interest in projecting all of our hopes and dreams onto the screen of the heavens. I accept that those who hold to the inflated and super-sized Almighty King of the Universe are the gate-keepers and boundary guards of what they term orthodoxy. It has taken me 20 years to get comfortable letting go of their interpretation of the KINGdom but after surveying the theological landscape, I am sure that there is plenty of real estate that does not require certainty as an entrance fee.

Getting Ready For God Week

The semester is off to a good start and my 3 classes are coming together in exciting ways.

Side-note: my 3 classes this semester are ecclesiology, culture & systems change, and essentials of christian theology. 

In ‘essentials’ the topic for next week is God. A really interesting cross-reference comes from Changing Signs of Truth by Crystal Downing, which is being read by the culture & systems change class this week.

She has a really innovative take on (re)signing our inherited symbols in order to clarify what those sign/symbols point to or signify. There is a part of me that wishes we could have the two classes meet at the same time and talk about what it would mean to (re)sign the symbol of that little three letter signifier ‘g-o-d’.

For those of you who are planning to follow along and participate in the essentials conversation, I just wanted to let you know how excited I am about how this is all coming together. In the book that we will be using as our primary focus, the list of authors is impressive:
Stanley J. Grenz; John B. Cobb, Jr.; Sallie McFague; Serene Jones; Robert W. Jenson; Hughes Oliphant Old; Ellen T. Charry; Paul F. Knitter; Richard J. Mouw; Noel Leo Erskine; David S. Cunningham; Kathryn Tanner; Clark M. Williamson; Leanne Van Dyk; Letty M. Russell; Michael Battle; J. A. DiNoia, O.P.; and Ted Peters.

What is going to make this exploration even more interesting is that we are putting each section of the essentials book in conversation with an author/thinker from a different tradition/perspective. Those authors include:

  • Emily Townes
  • James Cone
  • Rita Nakashima-Brock
  • Catherine Keller

I am also adding:

  • Randy Woodley
  • Elaine Graham
  • Sheila Greeve Davaney

It is going to be an epic 4 month journey and I hope that you will join us for it.

Let me know if you have any questions or if I can be helpful in any way.

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