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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Bo Sanders

practical theology, religion and culture

There Is No Neutral Anymore

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:

  1. Mediated
  2. Located
  3. Contested

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.  

Is Truth Dead?

You have probably seen the attention-grabbing cover of this week’s Time magazine. It is a very real issue in our culture and it has serious implications for how we approach faith and church.

Truth has been an urgent topic this semester in the seminary classroom as some students have been asking what it means to think about religion and faith in a “post-truth” society.

I know that some status quo cynics and kind conservatives will smirk and try to dismiss these developments as just the latest assault on ‘what the church has always believed’. They will point to Herod asking “what is truth” in John 18:38 or quote Jude 1:3 and attempt to hide behind “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints”.

Both of those attempts at dismissive evasion miss the point that something has shifted in our culture.

My hope is to seize this moment and to have an honest-to-God reality check that engages in an open-eyed assessment of the actual situation that we find ourselves in.

Here is the approach that I am taking with my students: 

We are exiting a time when truth has been purported to be both universal and timeless. IF that were ever true, and that is debatable, then it is certainly less true today than it ever has been.

First, nothing is timeless. Even if one wants to assert that something is not time-bound, it at least has to be time-ly. 2nd Temple Judaism, Pentecost, the Council of Constantinople, the Nicene Creed, Augustine’s confessions, Thomism, the Protestant Reformation, the birth of Methodism, the 2nd Great Awakening, and the Azusa Street revival were not timeless. They were all timely.

Second, things are not universal – they a situated, located, and particular. Things can not be presumed to be the same everywhere and simply applied anywhere. When and where (not to mention how and why) matter deeply.

Having said that, we have an opportunity (here and now) to evaluate our approach to truth and assess how we want to address this crisis in our culture.

Side-note: perhaps the worst thing that we could do at this kairos moment is to double-down on our truth claims of past centuries and continue to ignore the fact that things may not work as well, as smoothly, as predictably, or as justly as we had been told.

A great start begins with this realization:

Any claim to truth is:

  1. Partial
  2. Provisional
  3. Perspectival

It is partial because I never have all of the information – if there is a ‘god’s eye view’ I do not have access to it. Reality check: if there is a God, you are not God. This doesn’t mean that you have no access to truth – only that you have limited access to truth.

It is provisional because it will need to be amended as new data becomes available. I am free to say ‘at this point, here is what I understand’. If you are under the impression that something is ‘set in stone’, you need to come to terms with the fluid nature of our understanding and the perpetual/liquid nature of our access to all that is going on both in what we can see and the stuff behind the scenes.

It is perspectival because you can only see things from where you stand. Get rid of any notion of being ‘objective’ – you are subjective (thank God) and any access we have to truth is subject to review.

Is truth dead? Not exactly. 

Is our understanding of truth in need of adjustment for our liquid era of perpetual motion and exponential change? Yes. 

Do we still get to believe that things are true? Yes! 

Does that require a little bit of humility and even repentance from our addiction to certainty? Absolutely. 

Mid-March Madness

The past month has been incredibly intense.

I had the honor of flying to NY to meet with my father and his board about rebooting his global ministry.

I am mid-semester at the seminary with 4 amazing classes (ecclesiology, essentials of christian theology, culture & system change, and world religions)

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While I was back east, I went to the Methodist Archives at Drew University and found the documents that I needed to complete my dissertation!!!

I have been applying to professor jobs in the areas of religion, theology & ministry.

I have been talking with denominations about the possibility of being a pastor with them (come August) and have great hope that something is going to work out.

Lastly, I have also been developing a model for revitalizing existing churches AND connecting with post-evangelical / this-is-not-for-me 20 and 30 somethings. [more on this to come]

As you can see, I could use some prayer.

I want to finish this season of being a professor and writing the dissertation well.

I also have an eye toward pastoring again and what it might mean to model what it looks like to do church in a different way.

Thank you for your care, notes, prayers, and engagement. It means a LOT during this time.   -Bo

 

 

Intensifying Cycles

Being a professor is amazing. I am grateful for the opportunity and I am enjoying it so much. Do I miss being in pastoral ministry? Yes. Would I be a pastor again? Absolutely. Am I called to help the next generation of women & men find their way into ministry in the church? Yes!

Since my last post I have had 2 sets of intense conversations about the degree & type distinction – the first centers around the internet and the second relates to 9/11.

We live in a politically turbulent time and many people harken back to the 60’s/1968. This is a 100% valid claim. Many people alluded to the similarities and made a case that our current environment/situation is even worse than it was back then. Those who like to quote that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ shrug these similarities off by talking about how things are cyclical and how people like to hit the panic button but in the end we figure it out and things just keep on going.

That might all be true. The differences that I want to account for, however, are three-fold:

  1. the internet
  2. 24 hour news cycle
  3. increased cynicism, distrust, and discouragement

The growing disillusionment with the system, the fatigue from the constant barrage or coverage, and the crisis overload of manufactured spectacle causes me to ask …

Is it possible that our political, economic, racial, domestic, foreign, and environmental concerns are not just different in degree from 1968 but are in fact a new type or different kind of crisis?

I at least want to be open to the possibility that we have crossed into a different sort of quagmire and that we don’t want to simple shrug that off with a ‘this happens every generation or so‘ kind of mentality. Which brings me to the second point.

9/11 was a watershed. It just so happens that the readings for all 3 of my classes this week are from the 1990’s. I can not overstate how old they all sounded. It was like they were from a different era. I started pastoring in the 90’s and every time I talk about the changes that I have seen in just those 20 years, people laugh in recognition of how quickly things have moved.

Invariably the nothing new under the sun crowd says that God is still on the throne and that things have been changing since Bible times.

I just want to be open to the possibility that we have crossed into a different era. Between the internet, airline travel, farming practices (industrial agro), constant media, the global war on terror (not a country) and 1,000 other factors … the change is coming not incrementally any more – but exponentially.

Something is definitely different. That can not be questioned. The question is, “is it different in degree only, or is it different in kind?”

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Different in Degree or Kind?

In an either/or world where things are so often presented to us as binary options, it is vital for the thoughtful christian to have maneuvers or techniques to counter the paralyzing confinements of the dominant framework.

The problem with these either/or options is not necessarily with the two options themselves. In fact, they both might be valid in and of themselves. The primary problem is that they are conceived of (or presented as)  A) non-overlapping and B) adversarial.

It is this dual-ism that results from the inherent divide of nearly every topic in modern American life: republican/democrat, creation/evolution, protestant/catholic, white/ person of color, lost/saved, married/single, male/female, gay/straight, conservative/liberal, etc. The list just goes on and on. Nearly everything is framed in this oppositional binary way, then turned inward toward  a ‘silo’ it becomes an echo chamber which then becomes a shouting contest and the volume goes up to 10. It is deafening.

In the past, I have used a simple technique of 3-4 to disrupt the either/or (1-2) stalemate. For instance, in the creation/evolution divide I look to a 3rd way (often a middle-way) of intelligent design to ‘split the middle’ and then look for an approach completely outside the bounded-set. Vine Deloria Jr. helps me there with his book Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths  to introduce the category of non-western origin epics.

I do the same with politics when the either/or mistakenly talks about ‘half of the country’. I point out that actually most of the country didn’t vote at all (3rd category) so while half of those who voted did so one way or another, the majority opted out of the system all together. Then as a dual-citizen with Canada I talk about the advantage of coalition governments (4th perspective) and the need for cooperation & compromise instead of ideology and ‘my team’ mentality which leads to a zero-sum winner/loser scenario.

Side note: earlier, I used the word ‘techniques’  and I just want to give a nod to the work of Michel de Certeau in The Practices of Everyday Life where he differentiates between the ‘strategies’ of the system and the ‘tactics’ of those who are trying to survive, subvert, and adapt to the established (dominant) order.  My use of ‘techniques’ is a homage to his ‘tactics’.

Recently, I have tried a new technique that seems to bear good fruit, even if it is different  than the 1-2-3-4 approach.

The question is: “Are these different only in degree or type?”

This started with christology when asking “is Jesus’s humanity different from ours in degree (more intense) or was he an entirely different kind of human than we are? The answer, of course, is that Jesus was fully human and thus differs from us in degree (faithfulness or openness to the divine). Jesus was the same kind or type of human as we are. This saves us from the popular modern misconception that has Jesus in some sort of Clark Kent  mud-suit which covered his divine super-man underneath.*

That conversation was so fruitful that I have begun to adapt it for other topics. My favorite one so far is in ecclesiology when asking about denominations. Are these two groups different in degree only or are they entirely different types of christianity? It is really helpful, at some level, to have permission to say ‘while these two groups both claim to be christian, they are so different that it may be difficult to find a common thread to link them’.

Degree & Type is especially helpful to correct the soft-cynic type who loves to quote that “there is nothing new under the sun”. When it comes to things like war, we need to ask if modern warfare differs in degree or type from the kind of military strategies that we see in the bible or in colonial history. The truth is that with the introduction of nuclear weapons, war needs to be thought of as a different type. It is not simply an escalation in degree but we have graduated to a different kind of military.

I have been in the classroom a lot lately and I have been finding the degree & type tool for analysis very helpful. It seems to open up new possibilities for people to look at classic sticking points and contemporary conundrums in ways that are not so limiting.

I wanted to introduce it here because I plan on employing in on some upcoming topics. It has added helpful richness and nuance to conversations about Jesus, church, the bible, denominations, politics, military, sexuality, and so many other relevant issues for 21st century expressions of faith.

Let me know what you think.

 

 

*  If I ask you “how did Jesus turn water into wine or do other miracles” and your answer is “he was god” then you have missed the full humanity of Jesus and we need to talk about the work of Holy Spirit.

 

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.

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