Weekender: May 27, 2017

Weekender: 05/27/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “Preaching’s value is often in the subtle but powerful ways it forms us into people who have empathy for others, who assume responsibility for the needs of strangers, who feel that we are under judgment from a higher criterion than our own consciences, and who believe that, with the Holy Spirit set loose among us, we can be born again.” From Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism by Will Willimon (Abingdon Press, 2017: review forthcoming).

Blog Post to Read: “Fear” by Marilynne Robinson is a thought-provoking essay on what motivates us and what should motivate us. “Fear,” Robinson writes, “is not a Christian habit of mind.”

Interesting Insight: Christianity Today reports on a study by LifeWay Research that seeks “to discover [American’s] feelings about fear, shame, guilt, and other issues.” The results are interesting and, potentially, insightful for practitioners within the Church.

After seeing the results, you might want to read Kent’s posts on shame. You can find them here and here.

Questions to Ponder: At the church where I’m interning, I’m helping with a small group about the Bible and Christian theology. A member asked an important question: Why does it matter what we call God? The question was in response to me, perhaps arrogantly, correcting what I saw as a flaw in the curriculum a week earlier. Under “Great Doctrines of the Bible,” the author lists “God,” “Jesus,” and “Holy Spirit.” I suggested that a more helpful naming would be: “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” “Each of them,” I explained, “are God, and all together they are God. One is not God and the others something else.” This must have jostled his thoughts throughout the week, so I pose the question, and some follow ups, to you now:

  • Why does it matter what we call God? Or, I think, why does it matter that we call God the Trinity?
  • How would you respond to that question pastorally? How do you encourage congregants to see the significance (i.e. not telling them, “You’ll never understand so don’t worry too much about it.”) without frustrating them?
  • Are there helpful resources you’ve found to assist congregants and students with a fairly basic theological vocabulary to better understand the Trinity?

Recent Posts on Theology Forum:

  1. We Are Here to Love by Kent Eilers
  2. Dear Publishers by Kent Eilers
  3. Ascension Thursday: Salvador Dali and Karl Barth by Zen Hess
  4. Baptism, Preaching, and Politics by Zen Hess
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Weekender: May 6, 2017

Weekender: 05/06/2017

Welcome to the weekend! Each week, we like to offer a few quick highlights from our week that we think will give you something worthwhile to think about over the weekend. Enjoy this week’s Weekender and add to it in the comments below!

Quote Worth Repeating: “To grow as a disciple is to take the journey from understanding into faith, from memory into hope and from will into love.” From Rowan Williams’s Being Disciples. Kent reflected on another quote from this book in his post “On Shame.”

Blog Post to Read: Mark Labberton’s post on Christian Century about the perspicuity, or plainness, of Scripture — or how it’s not so plain after all.“The great irony about the claim of perspicuity is that it is not perspicuous,” Labberton writes. “Or at least not as clear as it might sound. The greatest evidence that perspicuity is not self-evident is provided by Calvin himself, who argued for the perspicuity of the Bible while writing thousands of pages of commentary to help make plain to the ordinary reader what the scriptures were saying and teaching. What was plain and clear plainly needed some explaining.”

Reflecting with Images: William Blake’s Jerusalem, Plate 41, “Bath who is Legions”

William Blake's Jerusalem, Plate 41, "Bath who is Legion"

Questions to Ponder: Kent has been posting on shame this week. His posts have evoked a number of questions for me (Zen).

  • How does a pastor speak well about sin and forgiveness? That is, how does someone call a congregation to confession and repentance without leaving them with a sense of inadequacy? Is preaching forgiveness enough? Or should a call to repentance always begin with a reminder of Christ’s love? How does a thoughtful liturgy help guard pastors from perpetuating shame?
  • I wonder what percentage of Christians attend church because of shame? How many people think going to church is primarily about “getting right with God”? How do we alter the perception of what church is for to something more true, like we attend church to celebrate God’s love and faithfulness and to be nurtured through sacrament, prayer, and preaching?

On Shame (part 2)

I continue thinking about shame since my last post. A few more posts on the topic will trickle out, I think, over the next few weeks. Don’t expect anything comprehensive, or even closely knitted together. I’m just going to ruminate on it and bring to bear some different angles that seem relevant.

My last post ended with a comment about mortification and vivification. I said that a shame-based portrait of discipleship is “like talking about the Christian life in terms of ‘mortification’ and ‘vivification’ but without the ‘vivification.’ All death, no resurrection.” I realize the terms aren’t in much use. It’s a shame really, because they name basic realities of the Christian that bear quite importantly on the experience of shame (which I am trying to think towards here).

Here’s John Webster from my book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life.

By mortification is meant the discipline practice in which renewed creatures, reconciled to God by Christ’s meritorious death and moved by the Holy Spirit, repudiate, resist, and do away with the remnants of the old ‘earthly’ nature which has been disqualified but which nevertheless persists ‘in’ us (Col. 3:5). By vivification I mean those habits of life in which renewed creatures make alive and empowered by the Spirit amplify their new nature, actively disclosing, confirming, and exercising it. Mortification and vivification are simultaneous, not sequential. Mortification is not an initial stage which at some point in this life is left behind, for our mixed state will persist until paradise. Vivification, however, has material priority, because mortification is a practice of negation, opposing old habits of life, traces of which remain in the present but have no future, having been condemned and terminated by God. Mortification is not a permanent, essential practice of the regenerate nature but an interim necessity, and once its goal of clearing away the diseased remainders of the old nature is reached, it will no longer be required. Vivification, by contrast, is the implementation of the new nature and stretches out to perfection. In vivification we begin to perform the new nature which will endure and so complete and resolve itself that there will be no necessity for mortification (133).

Webster immediately clarifies. Mortification is not directed at on our “created nature” – as if simply being human is under fire by the Spirit. Rather, it’s

an assault on the sin which opposes created nature’s regeneration. … And so mortification is not hatred of embodied life but opposition to death-dealing vice, its purpose being not nature’s destruction but the ordering and forming of regenerate conduct. It is not [and here Webster quotes Augustine] ‘hostile persecution’ but ‘healthy chastening’ which intends the recovery and flourishing of nature (133).

Mortification is not an assault on embodied human life.

It makes me wonder: could a dimension of Christian-shame be a weak theology of creation? I mean, if we struggle down deep with being creaturely rather than being spiritual (the old Gnostic heresy), then could it be that we unwittingly but disastrously confuse our sinfulness with our creatureliness, and thereby confuse the object of mortification with our humanity? We end up imagining that the Spirit’s holy-making work in our lives is really after the destruction of our embodied humanity—our having-been-made bodily creatures—rather than the destruction of the sin “that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1).

Shame masquerading as sanctification which actually targets our embodiment. That’s not easy to shake off.

On Shame

I met with a student of mine a few days ago who talked to me about shame. She lamented that much of her faith history was in communities that (as she experienced it) emphasized shame. The effect was a lingering sense of her utter inadequacy and condemnation.

Now, a sense of one’s inadequacy regarding salvation is not a bad thing at all, and she knows that (see Ephesians 2). We are not saved on account of the adequacy of what we do, but wholly on account of the adequacy of what God does for us in Jesus the Messiah, as it is brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit. God comes to us with life from the inexpressible sufficiency of his divine life. The super-abundant adequacy of the divine life overmatches our inadequacy. Our sin is no match for his life.

She knows it. Her struggle is more a matter of this: as she sees it, once saved she still doesn’t amount to much.

So I was delighted to hear that she’s been finding a fresh vision for discipleship, one less centered on shame, from one of my favorite theologians: Rowan Williams. After reading his new book, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, my student (who is fast becoming a friend) said a new way forward opened up in front of her. She specifically mentioned an image Williams uses in the first chapter. Birdwatcher

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is about to open up when you are in the Master’s company, and so your awareness…is a little bit like that of a birdwatcher. The experienced birdwatcher, sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knows that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view (4-5).

Beautiful. It makes me wonder: could it be that a shame-based sense of our relation to God gives us the sense that we shouldn’t expect God to show up, surprise us, overwhelm us with delight?  When the Christian life centers on shame, why should we expect God to show up for anything other than condemnation? It’s like talking about the Christian life in terms of “mortification” and “vivification” but without the “vivification.” All death, no resurrection. It’s a shame. No, it’s tragedy, and maybe even heresy.

Father, lead us to know our own worth as we discover our lives in you and only in you.