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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Is Your View Of God Demanding?

This is my 3rd and final semester in my year of being a seminary professor. I have loved it and have learned so much about faith formation and the local church (more on that this fall).

It is rewarding to introduce students to concepts such as the Surplus of Meaning and the god revealed in Christ (GRIC). I get lots of feedback on my 5 min. video about the 5 Gods That People Believe In as I rank them from highest to lowest in ‘level of commitment’.

The schema goes from ‘highest’ to ‘lowest’:
5 – SuperNatural Agent
4 – Divine Being
3 – Ground of Being (GoB)
2 – the Go(o)d
1 – Event

A student reached out to me for clarification on the ‘level of commitment’ schema. Here is part of my response: 

A little background:  I was raised Billy Graham-style evangelical. I eventually got caught up in Charismatic renewal. I came through the Emergent conversation of the early 2000’s and landed in a Mainline-Progressive set up, not because I agree with it but because there is theological freedom-autonomy.
So one of the things that I have noticed in my theological wanderings/migration is that certain concepts of god are more demanding or invasive on the believer’s daily existence. It has nothing to do with being intellectually rigorous but on the level of how specific the claim on the daily affairs of your life it is.
Here is an example that I have in mind. If you believe in a Divine Being (level 4 in my schema) then you certainly want to make decisions and live in such a way as to please that divine being. If you hold to a SuperNatural Agent who intervenes in human affairs (level 5) then you really have to be careful about each decision, the state of your heart, and even your intentions and motives (right actions are not enough). Because if that god doesn’t like something you do, ‘he’ might interfere and do something about it.
Hold this in contrast to someone like John Caputo. Caputo says that ‘God doesn’t exist, God insists’ because the name of God is an event. I have placed this at Level 1. That is not to say that it is not rigorous – it is very rigorous and takes much effort to work out. Caputo spends hours a day on this concept and has made an entire career out of it.
What I mean is that one who believes in ‘the event of the name of god’ doesn’t have to worry about having an extra glass of wine or upgrading to an expensive cable package or even discerning which school to go to because god’s will is that you meet your future spouse (the one god picked out for you) there.
Let’s take someone who holds to the ‘Ground of Being’ idea from Tillich. If this idea has gripped you, it can encompass and inspire your entire day and life. It can add sacredness to existence that is mystical and fantastic. It can consumer your thought life and change everything from your library or your friendships to your church loyalties. So it is both rigorous and impactful.
What I am mean by ‘level of commitment’ is that it doesn’t necessarily make demands of you or your neighbor the same way. Wine consumption, cable packages, and school selections aside – your neighbor can hold a different view and you can absorb that into your view. Diversity is accounted for within GoB (Level 3) and unlike the SuperNatural Agent view – you don’t need it to be this way which affords you to be a little looser.
It is similar to views about the Bible: if you believe that the Bible is ‘God’s Word’ (even though it says that Jesus is the Word of God) and that it is how God speaks to us – then you will read it every day to see what God speaks to you. Then, when people get a little scholarship about the Bible – unfortunately this new awareness doesn’t lead them to read the Bible differently, it leads to them reading the Bible less and getting less out of it.
This new view just doesn’t require the same level of commitment.
Is there a way that I can say ‘level of commitment’ more clearly?  I would love some feedback. 

Mapping the Theological Landscape

There are some helpful ‘spectrums’ about theology. I use Grenz & Olson’s formulation of:

  • Folk
  • Lay
  • Ministerial
  • Professional
  • Academic

as a starting point to initiate those who are entering the conversation. This summer I am teaching an Essentials of Christian Theology class online. It is the same class that I just finished teaching in Portland this past semester.

There are some crucial elements that help frame the reading for the class [link to our text – also in kindle] that I will be making a series of videos for.

I am suspicious of ‘spectrums’ generally and find ‘maps’ to be more accurate and more helpful. Here is my 23 minute attempt to map the theological landscape (as a protestant) for the 21st century.

We begin with Creedal, Confessional, Constructive, and Critical approaches.

Let me know if you have thoughts or questions 

The Web of Authority

I have been following a fascinating debate about authority and accountability for popular female bloggers. Much of it is response to the evangelical Christianity Today (CT) Women article “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?“.

The articles states:

“Hits on a viral post lead to book deals, which lead to taking the conference stage. Winsome, relatable writing, good storytelling, and compelling life experiences are often as crucial to audience size—and therefore to authority—as theological teaching, presuppositions, or argument… garnering huge followings based on a cult of personality and holding extensive power and influence, yet often lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.”

It goes on to say that “In the vacuum created by a lack of women’s voices in the church, Christian female bloggers became national leaders who largely operate outside of any denominational or institutional structure.” Instead of authority deriving from institutional (academic or ecclesial) powers, theirs come from the marketplace.

This is vibrant and highly contested discussion (a visible on Twitter) which I am following with great interest. There are 4 levels of investment for me – and none of them seem to connect with one another.

I am an academic, a minister, a blogger and I am from an evangelical background. These four have almost no overlap …

I have had the pleasure of learning at a school with amazing professors like Kathleen J. Greider, Monica A. Coleman, Grace Yia-Hei Kao , Najeeba Syeed and my PhD Advisor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook (who’s book on inter-religious learning is a must read).

As a professor I require my students to read Elizabeth Johnson, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore,  Elaine Graham, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Letty Russell, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, bell hooks, Crystal Downing, and MaryKate Morse.

In my church life – both in Los Angeles and now in Portland – with all of my Dist. Superintendents as well as both Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, the United Methodist has women at every level of leadership.

I am also a blogger – which is quite independent of either my academic or ecclesiastic responsibilities. So I get the concern over accountability with that enterprise.

In contrast to all of the above:  I was raised, ordained, and continue to teach adjunct in a evangelical denomination where CT carries a lot of weight and often initiates conversations.

So while I 100% understand and support those who are upset at the CT article, tone, conclusion, and narrowness of scope … I have to admit that it is a very real problem and concern in those evangelical circles in which CT exists. I know 50 pastors and people in church leadership off the top of my heard who say the sort of things that the article says. 

My experience in the evangelical church stands in stark contrast to my experience in the academy and in the mainline church. They actually could not be more different in this aspect. It is nearly impossible to overstate. When you have male-only leadership, you are bound to have secondary and auxiliary voices become authoritative and this will be viewed either as a challenge or undermining to the establishment.

It reminded me of a conversation that I had with Phyllis Tickle at an event 3 years ago about authority and the age of the spirit. As someone who formerly pastored in an charismatic/evangelical church and now is in a Methodist setting, I had this take on the decentered and radically democratized notion of ‘authority’ heading forward:

Element 1: in the past we talked about seats at the table. Where does authority reside? Past answers have included leaders, scripture, the collective, bylaws, reason, etc. Traditionally we have talked about authority in a static sense – there in a danger of ‘misplaced concreteness’ when we talk about authority a deriving from one element.

Element 2: in the Methodist tradition we have the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, experience and reason. This constellation of sources is vital because if both provides different anchor points for our ‘web of meaning’ and it is sequenced with scripture leading – but as prima scriptura and not sola scripture

Elements 3: I read a fascinating article about developments in neuroscience. Researches have long looked for which part of the brain memories reside in. It turns out that memories are not located in any one place but in the connection made between different parts of the brain.

Having said all of that:

Proposal: Authority, like memory, is not located in any one place. It is uniquely comprised of the connection between component parts. Depending on the collected aspects, the authority that emerges will be unique to that organization, congregation, and movement. It will not look the same for a UMC pastor in Portland and a blogger in Austin, TX or an independent Baptist church planter in Carolina.

Part of our frustration may be that we are looking for one answer instead of (to paraphrase Bonnie Miller-McLemore) a web of meaning/authority.

Authority  doesn’t exist (per se) in that same sense that we have traditionally conceptualized it … OR perhaps I should say it doesn’t reside somewhere (a given place)  – but in the connection and configuration of collected elements and sources.

 

My First Meme

Doing research on memes the other night and I discovered that there are websites that help you generate your own meme. Here is my first attempt:

output

Pretty sarcastic, I know, but that idea shows up in the darnedest place. I sent it to my friends & family to good feedback so I thought I would share it here.

Big News Coming Soon

When the contract with Portland Seminary runs out in a few months, I will be heading back into pastoral ministry.

It is not entirely public yet, but I have entered into an agreement with an older congregation in SW Portland to help revitalize their small church and to transition it to be a “conversational community” where critical conversation and historic practices can be integrated with justice concerns.  :~)

  • Relational engament
  • Embodied spirituality
  • Caring for the community

SO if you know any progressive, post-evangelical, or innovative types who want to be a part of transitioning a multi-generational church to a more contemporary engagement built on conversation, practice, and service to the community … please send them along!  We will need partners who want to do (and be) the church in a different way.

Here are my videos on Preaching 2.0 and Church as Google if you are interested. 

Easter In 2 Sentences?

Easter is an amazing symbol which signifies all that we can hope for in that time which is to come!  It has a surplus of meaning and is overflowing with insights, interpretations, and implications.

A pastor friend of mine asked me a fun question today:

If you had to preach an Easter message in just 2 sentences, how would you do it?

Here are my sentences – and I would love to hear yours.

  1. Christ is the prolepsis * of humanity so that we know how this story ends: resurrection and new life for everyone !!!
  2. The glorified Christ can be seen in the gardener (hourly worker), the traveler (immigrant and refuge) and the stranger-become-friend (neighbor-other).

If you had to proclaim the truth of Easter in 2 sentences, how would you do it? 

________________________________

*  Prolepsis is a concept that comes from ancient Roman theatre where a chorus or narrator would come out between acts of play and reveal how it all ends (aka: our hero accidentally kills his father and sleeps with his mother). The audience then goes back to the next act knowing how the play ends but not how the plot gets there. It is a type of foreshadowing that is explicit.

Silent Saturday

This is one of my favorite days of the years. Partly for its awkwardness and partly for its symbolic possibilities.

I grew up evangelical so we never really knew what to do with the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday except to get ready to get ready for the Sunday festivities. Our Catholic neighbors seemed to take the same approach.

Then I was a pastor in Saratoga Springs, NY and we had church on Saturday night. This was wonderful because, like the disciples in the story, we went back to business-as–usual with the full knowledge that it was anything but.

As a Mainline pastor you kind of hold your breath because you have been busy since Ash Wednesday and Lent has worn you down (especially if you gave up something fun) but you still have the biggest service or services of the year to get ready for.

I love Silent Saturday because as much as we declare that we are ‘an Easter People’ and as fond of substitutionary atonement as our worship choruses are, we live primarily on Silent Saturday.

I have been reading a lot in the last couple of years about the spirituality of everyday life.  It is a fascinating subset of thought.

Everyday has the possibility of being transformative and building up an accumulation of goodness. Think of what you could do if you did something 365 times in a row!

Unfortunately in the modern world, it too often becomes the repetition of monotony, boredom, and routine. We have been lulled into the quiet resignation of drudgery and the malaise of channel surfing and binge watching.

The amazing possibilities of the everyday has been drowned out by the dull droning and endless offerings of clickbait and online sales.

This is where our faith should make the biggest difference! Unfortunately something vital has been conceded and many are suffering for it in an impotent existence and unfruitful faith.

My friend put it this way:

” I think we killed belief in the resurrection with historical critical scholarship. When we did that (last century), we killed belief in a God who does anything in general…and the effects are trickling down. We sucked the life out of our tradition. Thing is, the scholarship adds up. It is right. We just need to find something to believe in again if we want our churches to invigorate. It just can’t be the harmonized, naive reading of the gospels. So…we’ve got work to do.”

We have work to do.

It is one of the reasons that I am excited to head back into the pulpit this summer.  This year of being a seminary professor has been a fascinating and eye-opening experience. I am professing at an Evangelical seminary on the heals of pastoring at a Mainline church.  I’m not sure that anything could have illustrated the profound and pronounced differences more than this. Continue reading “Silent Saturday”

How Good Was Friday? part 4

Part 4 in a series of 4. In part 1 I asked if our focus on blood and violence has caused us to miss something vital in the Easter story. Part 2 asked if we have mistakenly celebrated the very thing that Christ came to destroy? Part 3 asked if have heard the new word that God spoke in Christ or are we repeating the old word over and over? 

Do we need the cross? 

Had Jesus died some other way would we still be saved?

This thought experiment appeals to me for two reasons:

  1. Modern Protestants have overdone it on the cross.
  2. The incarnation and resurrection hold far more interest and power.

My assertion that over 90% of Christianity remains without the cross.

Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection, and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.

Keep in mind what I’m saying and what I am not saying:

  • Just because Jesus’ story went the way it did doesn’t mean that it had to go that way.
  • Just because things are the way they are doesn’t mean that God wants them that way.
  • Jesus’ resurrection could have followed any death – not just the cross.
  • The incarnation is where the old formulations of divine/human or transcendent/imminent are breached or fused.
  • The Christianity that we have was formed in the aftermath of the cross and resurrection … that is not evidence of the cross’ necessity.
  • Had Jesus died some other way, he still would have died once for all.
  • The satisfaction, propitiation, expiation and reconciliation that so many focus on in atonement theories are still there without the cross.
  • The Christianity that would have emerged would have been slightly different but still largely the same.
  • Jesus’ jewishness, the incarnation, resurrection and Pentecost are the 4 things that still anchor the Christian church.
  • The cross really doesn’t play that important of a role – not like the previous 4 – Jesus could have been beheaded or stabbed to death and reception would still have taken place. We would still have the gospel.
  • The cross is a migrating signifier [like palm branches] and now its main purpose is decoration on our buildings, necklaces, and t-shirts.

Once the Roman Empire co-opted christianity (the Constantinian Compromise) the cross has mostly been a hood-ornament on the machine of empire. Except for a few places on the periphery and during a few periods of severe oppression and domination … the more powerful church has been better historically, the more evident that is.

This point does not prove the thought-experiment, so I don’t want it to distract the conversation, but in the end … I’m not sure how much the cross really does for us.

This is one of the many reasons that I promote being an Incarnational Christian. That is where the power is – incarnation and resurrection!

  • Jesus could have died of sudden-infant-death-syndrome or of old age and still died once for all – the sinless one for sinful humanity.
  • Jesus could have been stabbed or beaten to death and it is still the resurrection where God vindicates the victim.

Continue reading “How Good Was Friday? part 4”

How Good Was Friday? part 3

Part 3 in a series of 4. In part 1 I asked if our focus on blood and violence has caused us to miss something vital in the Easter story. Part 2 asked if we have mistakenly celebrated the very thing that Christ came to destroy? In part 4 I will ask if we even need a cross (technically). 

We may have overdone it with the cross. It is out of proportion.  I want to I hear more about the empty tomb (resurrection) and the coming of Holy Spirit (pentecost).

It can seem like , for Protestant Evangelicals, that it is ‘all atonement theory – all the time’.

I have a friend who said “Discipleship is photo-shopping the cross into every picture and angle of my life.”  I asked him if the empty tomb wouldn’t be more appropriate. He said that you can’t have one without the other.

So is that what we are doing?

 Is ‘the cross’ shorthand for the whole story?

Is it assumed that when we say ‘Cross’ we mean also Resurrection and Pentecost?

That would make me nervous.

Here is my concern: in the resurrection God spoke a new word over the world. I would like to live into that new word and participate with God’s Spirit who was given as a gift and a seal of the promise.

To obsess on the cross and related atonement theories is to live perpetually in the old word and to camp in the final thing that God said about the old situation.

It manifests in odd ways too. When my school, Claremont, was entering into a new venture of a Multi-Faith University, new logos were drawn up for each participating school. One symbol and one color for each represented religion or tradition. It is actually a cool branding that sends a message I can really get behind.

The problem is that we, as the Christian representative, got a red logo with the Cross as our symbol. We couldn’t have gone with the Flame or the Dove or the Bible or anything else?  What is the deal with the Cross obsession? Is it really the best representative for what the whole religion is about?

It has also takes on weird colonial connotations which have compromised its essential message.

I’m just a little Crossed-out. It’s too much. It is out of proportion with the other elements of our faith and is used disproportionally to the other symbols we have.

I would like to see us move into God’s new word for the world – and move out of our perpetual lingering in God’s last word over the old world.

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