Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


May 2012

3 things many Christians may not know (but should)

originally published as “I’m not sure most Christians know that

I was reading a fascinating article by Terry Eagelton where he was reviewing Dawkin’s book (the God Delusion) specifically and refuting the new atheist en mass. He took them to task for not knowing much about theology – which, in his mind, is a major problem if one is writing a book about God. He takes an interesting tone, nearly mocking at points, regarding their lack of sophistication and wherewithal in theological understanding and categorization.

Here is a sample (which, by the way, it reads MUCH better in a John Oliver delivery style):

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

I was struck by his attitude and I caught myself thinking “I’m not sure that most Christians know that.” He kind of treats these antagonists with a dismissive “duh” but I am suspicious that the atheist aren’t the only one who aren’t aware of the categorical mistake of calling God a ‘person’ just because knowledge of God can be ‘personal’.

There are two significant implications of this:

  • the new atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris & Dennet) have a stinging criticism that continues to impact those on the margin of the faith and those wrestling with seasonal Christian commitment. Neither the Atheists nor those they seduce know that we don’t mean what they say we mean.
  • Many Christians continue to repeat the Creeds and Catechisms in rote repetition without comprehending the way in which language is being utilized. This concerns me as I continue to wrestle with (and against) the work of Lindbeck, Hauerwaus and MacIntyre.

Here are 3 things that I have learned over the past 5 years that I’m not sure most Christians know. In fact, as I have transitioned from an evangelist-apologist to a theologian, I’ve had the opportunity to converse with and introduce people to these ideas and ,for almost everyone, it is the first time they are hearing the distinction.

God is a Person: When we say that God is a ‘person’ we are not saying that God is like a big you (or me) in the sky. God is not a person in the way that we are a person. You almost have to think about it as a placeholder. It’s a verbal placeholder because whatever God is not exactly a person.
This is where accusations personification and anthropomorphism come in. Folk and Pop brands of christianity are very vulnerable to this charge.

God in 3 Persons: It gets really confusing when we say that there is ONE god but 3 Persons. Gregory of Nyssa, in the 4th century, said:

We can grasp this by reference to a single instance. From him, I say, who is the source of gifts, all things that share in this grace have obtained life. When, then, we inquire whence this good gift came to us, we find through the guidance of the Scriptures that it was through the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But though we take it for granted that there are three persons and names, we do not imagine that three different lives are granted us-one from each of them.

Most explanations I hear about how ‘God is One’ but can also be ‘3 persons’ reek of modalism. I was being too kind: they are modalism (one God in 3 modes). But who can blame them? Elizabeth Johnson is right when she says that it is nearly unavoidable when you start with One – then go to three (all of which are boys) … and claim that it is monotheism and not polytheism. It’s confusing as hell! She, instead, starts with a perichoretic reality and says we do the best we can to express it well.

Jesus is fully God and fully human: We don’t have space to get into  the ‘substance’ confusion about how Jesus could be fully two different things and how 98% of the explanations I have heard make it impossible that there actually was an incarnation. We still have to talk about the difference of God as a ‘being’ and God as being. Then we can deal with the nature of language and gender pronouns for God and all sorts of other stuff.

I also am not blaming people for the explanations they have been handed on these issues – they can be difficult to comprehend and even tougher to defend.I am suspicious that many of our former explanations are incomprehensible and so we simply say they are ‘mystery’ when in reality they are untenable.

What I am concerned about is that theologians not take on a ‘duh’ attitude toward those who are unfamiliar with the categorization employed within the theological endeavor. When our language is a) specific and b) different than the common use, it is we who are obligated to bridge the gap if we want others to understand what we are saying.


Reflecting on Pentecost part 2 (duck the dove)

Originally posted as “Poetics of Pentecost

This past weekend was Pentecost – here is part 2 of my reflection.

Hopefully, most here agree that reading the Bible like contract, constitution, instructional manual or newspaper report is wholly unhelpful [since that is my starting point].

Yet when it comes to Pentecost – it’s almost as if we get lazy in our hermeneutic and revert to a Children’s Church level engagement of the text. I say this as a Children’s Minister who is a big fan of teaching kids to read the Bible… it’s just that I don’t want adults to read the Bible at level.

Yes, we are to have faith like a child – but that does not mean a childlike understanding of our faith.

The language of the Bible is read so much more effectively if we employ a relational component to the words and phrases. So in Christ, it’s not that we are brothers and sisters literally. It’s that we relate to one another as brothers and sister do. We can’t be too literal and wooden with this. Otherwise we end up making elaborate ontological and metaphysical gymnastics to explain how it COULD be literal. It’s not. It’s relational language.

So what if we applied that relational hermeneutic to (expressive language instead of exacting representative language) the passages about the coming of Holy Spirit? 

For instance, what if the descending of Holy Spirit was as a dove descends and not AS a dove?  One could imagine the same with the flames of fire. It may be better to think a little poetically and not so literally. The presence of Spirit on the disciples appears as tongues of fire appear. [you have to admit the funny play on words in English with speaking in tongues … tongues of fire … that is fun.]

 I’m afraid that our centuries old compromise with super-natural thinking conditions us to magically import things into the text that don’t necessarily need to be there. It kills our poetic imagination. Whenever something sounds wild, instead of asking “how does the literary device function? How does the text work?” We just splice in ‘magic’ Doves and Flames without examining what poetic mechanism might have been employed.

It is far more beautiful and makes way more sense to read that God’s Holy Spirit descended as a dove descends.  A nice side effect is that we don’t need to insist that it happened literally, make adults feel embarrassed about the chunkiness of the story , and then have to scramble to explain why stuff like that doesn’t happen anymore and have to contrive elaborate secessionist explanations about validating the apostles in order to authenticate the writing of the Bible.

Signs and Wonders work a lot better poetically than they do literally.

Reflecting on Pentecost part 1

Originally posted as “A funny thing happened on the way to Pentecost

This past weekend was Pentecost in the liturgical calendar. As one who emerged from a charismatic evangelical background and is now employed at a mainline church, this is my favorite Sunday of the whole year!

Here are just 3 funny things about Pentecost Sunday:

Charismatics don’t celebrate it. Because the large majority of Pentecostal & Charismatic churches don’t follow the liturgical year, this Sunday goes unnoticed in any special way. It is just another rockin’ week of worship songs! I find that hilarious. When you exist in a context that does not observe Lent (or even Advent) then both Easter and Pentecost are just one more occasion for ‘feasting’. This is a glory theology and neither fasting nor waiting are on the menu (speaking in generalities).

It’s tough to be a Christian and get away from it. Reading the Bible as a white-westerner can cause disorientation and cognitive dissonance. In the Gospel of Mark, fully 65% of Jesus’ ministry was based around miracles, mostly healing and exorcism. If you are going to read the Bible, it is going to be tough to get around just how much time and effort the writers spend on this element of ministry. But if you are part of an educated (enlightenment) tradition that is primarily intellectual about faith … you may have never seen a miraculous healing, exorcism, or manifestation of God’s power. Most of things we call ‘answers to prayer’ are slightly amplified coincidence – like getting a job you applied for and were qualified for or finding it in your heart to forgive someone which brought about reconciliation.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that those things are miraculous and answers to prayer. I just want to note that there might be a difference in intensity from what is recorded in the Book of Acts.

Africa, Asia and South America are foreign to us. We hear lots and lots of reports from the Southern Hemisphere about the explosion of Pentecostal and Charismatic (P&C) Signs and Wonders movements (S&W). Many are calling it ‘the Future of Christianity’. It is tough to argue with when you compare it to the decline in church attendance in Europe and N. America, the overly analytical and often paralyzed intellectual brand of church that is embarrassed at both the zeal and simplicity of the fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the family.

Here are my two hesitations about the southern hemisphere being the future of the church:

1) As many have noted, the latest turn in the P&C movement is one toward the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ and the wildly demonstrative ‘Signs & Wonders’ movement where the spectacular and the sensational are prized above all else! (including Biblical precedent). This is an ominous turn. I am deeply suspicious that with the rise of global capitalism, deregulated markets and multi-national corporations’ economic and environmental policies … the prosperity ‘blessing’ might be a one-generation phenomenon with a vicious cynical backlash waiting behind it. This bubble will burst and both the pain and disillusionment will be inconsolable.

2) ‘The weirder the better’ is an ugly mantra. I recently talked to a traveling Charismatic evangelist who was disappointed that his most recent rally did not have more pizzaz. Sure good things happened and people reported both salvations, significant personal growth (like forgiveness) and a couple of minor healing (anorexia, etc.) But nothing really demonstrative or spectacular. That is not the part that caught my attention (I am used to that). It was the reasoning behind it.

“ If you come from a background where you have never seen Signs & Wonders then you are less likely for it to happen to you. Seeing it happen creates something in you – a faith or an openness – that allows God to do it with you.”

I was stunned. Did he really just say that if you have never seen it, that it is less likely to happen? Well, actually that makes a lot of sense. If you have never seen someone be ‘slain in the Spirit’ then you may be less likely to go to the ground when prayed for (ever heard of ‘carpet time’?).  This is where testimony and teaching are SO valuable.

Now the funny thing is that this dear minister has no idea that I have Lindbeck & MacIntyre ringing in my head like alarm bells at a fire station! I wanted to say ‘Language not only helps us interpret experience … our language helps create our experience.”

Those two things – the Prosperity turn in the South and the awareness of language/experience – are the two things that keep me from being 100% stoked about the future of Pentecost.   – Bo Sanders


If you would like to read an interesting book on the subject, check out Philip Jenkins’ The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South 

What if this isn’t even Christianity anymore?

One week ago  I caught wind of a cooky Southern preacher who preached about a plan to exterminate lesbians, queers and homosexuals. I hear a lot of chatter about this kind of thing so I hoped it would just go away.

By Tuesday night this North Carolina pastor was showing up all over Facebook and Twitter. By Wednesday morning he was the ‘most popular’ link on all of Yahoo! world homepage.

If you have not seen this video, be warned. It is in no way understated. Here is the link:  NC Pastor 

 I have 3 main thoughts about this:

  1. I know tons of people who are not for ‘same sex marriage’ who would not speak of electric fences. Anytime you are suggesting some tactic that the Germans used in WWII you may want to take note.
  2. This is a different TYPE of Christianity – one that is the concerned with governing morals. We going to have to address why the church is even doing State sanctioned marriage in the first place. So often we try to have the second conversation without the first – no wonder it doesn’t go anywhere.
  3. My church and 50 others that I know of and communicate with on a regular basis do kind things and say loving words all the time and no one press covers it. That is the nature of the modern media. Deal with it.

Nothing thus far is that surprising – save the actual sermon by the NC Pastor. Here is my concern:

  • At what point is some pastor so deep in the Constantinian compromise that he is more Roman than Christ-like? At some point do we say ‘that is not even Christian’ ?
  • OR is this just one branch of Christianity and it is our obligation to treat this man as a brother who has simply lost his way?
  • OR is this Preacher doing more harm than good and actually crippling the gospel message – and in that sense he is an enemy of our cause?  And at that point, what do we do with Jesus’ admonition to love our enemy?

Admission: I have been re-reading Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom and … while that is admittedly probably not the best idea … I have to admit that this whole ‘legislating civil unions and marriages’ thing in North Carolina could not come at a worse time for me.

For what it is worth, here is my 2 cents.

  1. This is not Christianity. Well, it might be Christendom but it is not whatever Jesus was after.
  2. This guy is my brother (in humanity even if not christianity) and has simply lost his way.
  3. Whether he is my crazy cousin or my enemy – Christ compels me to love and respect him as a person even as I wholly (and holy) disagree with his inhuman and immoral speech.

I’m not really sure what other course of action I have in this situation. I spent last week in the woods with no technology and unless I want to perpetually retreat away from all this ugliness, I have got to address this kind of craziness at some level. What else is there in the face of hate except to love?

The Church of N. America will always be (mostly) like it is now

Before I headed out into the woods for a week, I had posted this over at HBC. It triggered a good discussion and today when I was reading a thing about Joel Osteen’s individualism I was reminded of it.  I would love to hear your thoughts.

 The church of N. America will always be (mostly) like it is today.  When those who think as individuals read a text that is communal, there is always going to be an issue. 

I know that there is a real danger in painting in broad stokes and speaking in generalities. I normally steer clear of such dangers but once in a while you find something that allows you to wade out onto the normally thin ice with a certain measure of confidence.

I recently finished a term paper on Alisdair MacIntrye’s opus After Virtue which is his attempt to reclaim the Aristotelian notion of character formation within community (to oversimplify a bit). In preparation for writing the paper I went back over some classics like John Rawls and Michael Sandel (the communitarian) and others.

It just so happens that I have also been reading a lot of post-colonial critique during this year and I have a growing suspicion that I wanted to throw out there:

We have individuals (products of the enlightenment) reading a text that was written in a communal framework (a product of a communal society).  That provides a fundamental discrepancy that will never be resolved. It will always provide a disjointed experience and thought process that lacks continuity.

Let’s not pretend that we can think another way. We are heirs of the enlightenment – this is our operating system. We can download a new program like ‘christianity’ but it is operating within the individualist code. Talking with my friends who are from non-European descent (Native American, Pacific Islands or certain Asian communities)  it is clear that there is no simple conversion that an individual can undergo and simply start thinking in communal terms. We are cultural creatures and this is our culture.

It shows up when we read the Bible. It shows up when we talk of government (democracy) economy (consumerism), status, value, worth, choice, success, identity, rights, laws,leadership and … well nearly every other aspect of Western society.

The famous example of Philippians 2:12 admonishing us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” is but a drop in the pond. It’s not just that the English language doesn’t have a plural ‘you’ (unless one counts the ya’all of the Southern US) but it is bigger than that. It is that we think in individual ‘you’s and there is no way around it.

This will always be an issue. So even when somebody talks about character formation, spiritual community, or some ideal of communitarian discipleship (be it Hauerwas, the Radical Orthodox, or any other innovative group) in the end, the church of N.America will always look mostly like it does now. The reason is that this individualism we think in is not all that compatible with the communal thrust of our very scriptures – and that is irreconcilable at some level. It can not be resolved because we can no more stop thinking as individuals than that Bible can stop encouraging community.

Place, Direction and Perspective: changes since I was a pastor

Last week I had chance to return to the place where I had been a pastor for 11 years. I have been away for 4 years pursuing higher education. It was great to reconnect with folks that I love very much. The trip also included a chance to head out into the woods with a group of guys for a week-long canoe trip in the Adirondack Mountains.

One night around the fire, someone asked

“so you have learned a lot and changed a lot since you were our pastor, bring us up to speed. What has changed in your thinking in 4 years?”

It was a question that I hoped would come up and had given it a lot of thought as I flew across the country from LA to NY.

 I said that there were 3 big changes – that I had added 2 things and gotten rid of 1 thing. 


We had a saying that oriented us over those 11 years I was pastor: Upward – Inward – Outward: it must be all 3 – they must be in that order. I have learned that there is a 4th direction: downward. 

When we look downward, two things happen:

  1. We see the earth. This awakens us to things like where our food comes from, ecology, and location – the importance of place. Christianity is an incarnational religion and it is a spirituality that is em-bodied. Location is central to the practices of christian community.
  2. We see those less fortunate or less powerful. This awakens us to issues of justice. Cornel West is the one who has helped me see the importance of not just looking around (which is vital for awareness) and looking up (where our strength come from) but looking down for those who might need some help.

Adding this 4th direction brings in issues of environment, locatedness, and justice. It illustrates the importance of embodying the gospel in a place – none of us are from everywhere.

 Critique and Create:

One of the things that I have learned in my travels (from folks like Zizkek, Cornel West, Marc Ellis and Diana Butler Bass) is that there are 3 broad kinds of churches in North America:

  • Prophetic – that critique the system
  • Therapeutic – that help you adjust to the system
  • Messianic – that look to escape the system

We were great at two of them. We had a natural Messianic element because our denomination is staunchly and passionately pre-millennial (the soon coming King! is one of our big 4 things). We also had a good dose of the Therapeutic and helped a lot of people be the best version of themselves within the existing structures.

If I got to do it again, I would add a Prophetic element and address the systems and structures that hold so much sway in our communities and in the lives of our congregations.

The example that I used was routinely praying for a guy with a limited skill set to get a job. “Jesus – please help ‘J’ to get a job”.  By not addressing the relationship of local government with factories and manufactures in our area … we were relegating the answer to our prayers to the ‘powers that be’ and J was perpetually disappointed with God and discouraged in his faith. We nearly set him up to fail.

 Those are the 2 things I have added: a 4th direction and 3rd element. But I have also gotten rid of something – I no longer believe in the supernatural. 

Why the Natural is super:

I am convinced that the church has made a major mistake in adopting the language of the super-natural. Since the epic flub with Galileo and Copernicus the church has allowed science to have the natural (things that make sense) and has been relegated to watching over things that increasingly don’t make sense and retreating into words like ‘mystery’ and ‘faith’ as cover for that which is just not reasonable.

I do not believe in a realm (the natural) that is without God. As a Christian, I believe that God’s work is the most natural thing in the world. I am unwilling to concede the natural-spiritual split and then leave less and less room for God as science is able to explain more and more. The church is foolish to accept the dualism (natural-supernatural) and then superintend only the spiritual part.

No wonder 85% of our kids walk away in their 20’s. This stuff is unbelievable. 

I would prefer to reclaim the language of the ‘miraculous’ (surprising to us or unexpected) and ‘signs’ from the Gospel of John (that point to a greater reality).

So that is what has changed since I was Senior Pastor four years ago. I look down now (at the earth, for location, and for issues of justice). I hear the Prophetic critiquing the system. And I have gotten rid of the super-natural while embracing the miraculous.

 It was so great to share these thoughts and hear the feedback from my friends as we shared the week together. I would love to get your feedback or to hear how you have changed in the past few years.  -Bo 

wake up in the Adirondacks – go to sleep in Los Angeles

This past Saturday I had the unique experience of waking up in the Adirondacks (upstate NY) and falling asleep that evening in West LA (California). This is a surreal experience.

To complicate matters all the more, my wife had been on a trip at the same time – to Seattle, Washington in the Pacific NW. That Saturday night we had the opportunity to compare notes and trade stories.

Here are just 3 of my general thoughts since then:

1. 3,000 miles is a long way. Never mind how long it used to take to cover that distance by wagon, then car, and now plane. It isn’t about speed, its about distance. We may live in a era when you can get from Upstate NY and Los Angeles to Seattle in less than a day – but they are still very far apart. To a contextual theologian like myself this is vitally important.

2. Airports comprise what can be considered their own culture. Air travel is so unlike the rest of your life that it becomes almost its own creation. For both the business traveler and those who have the luxury to travel as a lifestyle, airports and airplanes are a distinct aspect of civilization. The sociologist in me is itching to examine this. For a pastoral angle and a christian concern, it is notable that we may want to keep those folks in our congregations who fly a lot in our prayers as they are constantly navigating not just the cultures of their host and destination cities but also this airborne culture as well.

3. Being away for more than a week and then returning – both from places that we used to live – is a very challenging, while potentially helpful exercise.   Unique questions come to the surface about what one values, how time is spent, what role friends play, how one utilizes technology, etc. I am struck at these moments by how seldom numbers come up and instead how vital stories become.  Rarely do I hear someone say 45% of my former youth group is ____, or 8 out of 10 couples are _____, or the homes in our former neighborhood hood are $35,000 _______. It’s weird but I am struck by how absent numbers are sometimes.  Names and stories provide the snapshots.

It was nice to have a break from blogging during finals and then being away. I am looking forward getting back into this e-conversation with you all and I feel like I have renewed understanding about the role that this venue plays in my connection-community. Tomorrow I will fire it back up. -Bo

Limits in (religious) Language

I just finished my semester this past week and was going through my desktop cleaning up all the icons when I discovered this post and realized that I had put it up over here yet.
It was originally posted at HBC

I like reading Lindbeck.* I used to say that I love Lindbeck but I ran into two snags.

  1. I didn’t realize what people did with Lindbeck. I did not know that it often led to retreat into a neo-Catholic expression.
  2. There is some philosophical wrinkle that I don’t fully understand about why the language that creates our religious experience implies a one-way limitation of language -it is a bit technical for me but I wanted to acknowledge it because it eventually becomes a real sticking point.

Having said that …

What I am a big fan of is Lindbeck’s critique of Language. He has a riveting analysis of the way that religious language functions in our communities and personal experiences.  I was susceptible to liking Lindbeck because of my deep appreciation for Nancey Murphy’s book “Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism”. I was primed for what Lindbeck brings to the table.

To become religious–no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent–is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with the religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor is that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways. p. 35

Then I found out that saying you appreciate the Lindbeck’s (post-Liberal) approach is like saying you cheer for the New York Yankees in Boston. I understand the concern with the descendants of Lindbeck’s work … but I am still suspicious that he is right about how language works in our faith communities.

Fast Forward: I was reading some stuff to get ready for the 2012 Emergent Village Theological Conversation this past January and I stumbled onto a section of Whitehead’s thoughts on religious language.** I got to a section called “Doctrine and History”. After dealing with the fact that language does not have a one-to-one correlation and that all language thus requires interpretation, the author explains:

“The language of a tradition and the central doctrines that reflect and support that language are the prime turbulence of the particular mode of existence characterizing that tradition. Furthermore, as human existence is shaped in specialized ways during the course of history, experiences occur that are not possible to persons shaped by other traditions.”

I resonate with the idea that a person is shaped by the language one is groomed and conditioned by – and that would both empower and naturally shape the experiences that one has and the interpretation of those experiences … even (or especially) the religious experiences.

It just makes sense that because religious in a communal endeavor – one is always a part of a community that has a tradition and set of practices/beliefs – that it determines, at some level, both the types of experiences one has , can have and how one translates or interprets those experiences.

This is a vital assertion for the 21st century! We no longer live in the monopoly of Christendom or the frameworks of the Colonial Era where one tradition imported and imposed foreign expectations and alien interpretations on another.

With works like “The invention of world religions” by Tomoko Masuzawa and “God is not One” by Stephen Prothero (among many others) we are entering a time in world history (and thus church history) where we need to come to terms with two things that both Lindbeck and Whitehead are pointing out:

  • Language is both inherited and powerful in shaping our experiences and subsequent interpretations of those experiences.
  • Language used in doctrines like ‘the Church’ and ‘Eucharist’ actually facilitate the ability to have certain experiences that are simply not available to those outside the community or language game. Practices like Yoga or Ramadan would be the same for those in different traditions. That is why North American Christians who do yoga are not have the same experience as those in India.

We live in an era where the realities of inter-religious education, cross-denominational communication and trans-national citizenship are going to challenge all of our inherited traditions and conceptual frameworks.

If we are unwilling to do so and insist on simply repeating the same rote answers week after week under the misguided impression that we are being faithful to the tradition … we are in danger of an irrelevance that leads not only to extinction but ultimately failure to accomplish our great commission.

*George Lindbeck wrote “The Nature of Doctrine” and along with Hans Frei (author of “Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative”) is credited with starting the Yale School of thought. One of the most famous proponents of which is Stanley Hauerwas famous for his books like  “Peaceable Kingdom” as well as other things.

** Alfred North Whitehead was a 20th century philosopher who is credited for helping to come up with what became Process-Relational thought.

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