Perhaps the most important theme that has developed for me in 2017 is the ongoing realization that there is no neutral position. This has been with me conceptually for the past decade but the seminary classroom has made it less abstract.
One of the great challenge and great opportunities of the multi-denominational seminary is that students come in with layers of experiences, perspectives, loyalties, and insights. They do not come in as clean slates or blank canvases. We never start from scratch (thank God).
Training for ministry does not happen in a vacuum. It happens some where and some when. That is why yesterday I wrote that truth is not dead, it just needs to be understood as situated.
This is a big revelation and a potential stumbling block for some! Truth and meaning do not materialize out of thin air – they are constructed socially. The realization that our access to truth is partial, provisional, and perspectival comes with some profound implications.
Meaning, then, is correspondingly understood to be:
Meaning is mediated because our understanding comes to us through inherited language, social constructs, and mental frameworks (paradigms).
Meaning is located because the same event or data may look very different or be interpreted differently by a different person in another place or time.
Meaning is contested because in a partial/perspectival understanding, no one interpretation gets a free ride or an automatic pass. Everything is up for review.
This realization can have a disrupting effect and can lead to disorientation. However, once it is embraced, there is a comforting peace that can settle in as knowledge of the world and claims within faith correspond more accurately to history and to the world as it really is.
Perhaps the two most significant implications are for the person who has been sold an ideology and for the perennial skeptic. Those two positions are tough to maintain in this new reality. There is no neutral (or exempt) position anymore. One does not simply get to sit back and poo-poo other’s perspective without providing an alternative. It is not sufficient to take shots at or poke holes in opinions that you disagree with.
Because our culture, and our understanding of truth, is so fractured … one has to make the claim or justify ones position in the arena of ideas or the court of public discourse. Nothing gets off scot-free, no idea gets a free ride, and no position is exempt from examination.
There is no neutral anymore. Inactivity reinforces the status quo and is, by default, taking a position.*
Two quick examples: theology and hair.
Whether the topic is women in ministry or speaking in tongues, it is not sufficient for the cynic to encounter a new perspective and simply say “I don’t know about that”. 20 or 40 years ago that may have worked, but it works no longer. If a young man wants to be skeptical after reading feminist theology or looking at charismatic excesses, he gets to do that, but he must bring something to the table in its stead. No longer can one take the privileged position of retreating to the way things are as a defense against engaging new ideas and challenging critiques.
This is a new reality that takes some adjustment. It can be uncomfortable for those who have been groomed or conditioned to succeed in the traditional way things have been.
Hair is an interesting example. It is not enough to make snarky comments about how trendy beards are without realizing that shaving in a social performance as well. One may feel free to criticize the money and attention that a women puts into her hair – but not doing your hair is a decision as well. For both men and women, shaving your legs and armpits are both political statements. For women of a certain age, coloring the gray and not coloring become an issue. A womanist friend of mine explained that African-American women can go-natural, use product, straighten or braid (among a myriad of other options) but they all make a statement (sometimes political) and that position will be reviewed and will likely be contested. There is no neutral.
Sir, you can criticize my expensive organic fair-trade cotton Tshirt, but your $4 Walmart knockoff sweatshop shirt or not wearing any shirt at all are both up for review as well.
Like it or not, the age of inactivity is over. Sitting in your house or protesting the government, cooking at home or going out to eat, buying nice furniture or going off the grid, having kids or using protection are all statements and they are all consequential.
*Academics might reference this as the nature of the hegemonic order. The 20th century saw the ability to presume the established order of things dissolve at every level. Economy, politics, military, ecology, morals, religion, civility, marriage, gender, sexuality, occupations and trades are just a few examples of categories that display this loss of fixed and stable assumptions.