For the past few days, I’ve been mulling over a recent short piece by Richard Beck. In it, he observes a paradox that runs through many strains of “progressive” theology (a term I despise, incidentally, but I’ve covered that ground before). Beck states this paradox succinctly:
Rhetorically, the political theology many progressive Christians espouse is Anabaptist. The rhetoric is anti-empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.
But in practice, the political theology of many progressive Christians is Niebuhrian. That is, Christians must take and use the power of the state to address our social and international problems. The focus is upon electoral politics and democratic engagement: voting, calling Congress, etc. Jesus may be Lord, but in this unjust world Caesar is how we get stuff done. That’s Niebuhrian realism.
In short, it seems to be that a lot of progressive Christians want to be Anabaptist and Niebuhrian at the same time. Or adjust our position when it suits us. Anti-empire when you need to denounce an administration. Niebuhrian when you need to win an election.
As I read this, my first thoughts were that Beck is ironically describing a tension that runs right through many expressions of present-day Anabaptist theology. And it’s not just “progressive” Anabaptists that tend toward this inconsistency. It’s true on both the left and the right. If Facebook is to be believed (and really, why wouldn’t it be?!), Anabaptist friends of mine on the right enthusiastically cheer on conservative politicians when they speak out against same sex marriage or abortion or welcoming refugees or pipeline restrictions (and protest those who do not). Anabaptist friends of mine on the left enthusiastically cheer on liberal politicians who speak out in favour of the above (and protest those who do not). The content that animates the cheering and protesting is different in each case, obviously, but the assumption is the same, namely, that politics is where the action is.
I have no particular problem with blending and borrowing from various streams of the great Christian tradition (indeed, I happily do it all the time). I don’t think the original Anabaptists got everything right (not by a long shot) or that claiming the title “Anabaptist” requires that we adhere to some kind of idyllic (and imaginary) sixteenth century model of faith and politics. I do, however, think that we should at least be honest that our political advocacy represents a significant departure from the original Anabaptist vision and then provide compelling reasons for why this move might be legitimate or necessary. And we should at least ponder Beck’s claim that at the root of all our political fervour (left or right, Anabaptist or otherwise) there might just be a significantly weakened theological vision for and commitment to the church.
I’ve had a number of conversations recently with people about the question of whether it’s easier or more spiritually healthy or more in tune with the way we’re wired as human beings who grow and develop over time to start conservative and branch out into a more expansive worldview or to start liberal and then try to establish a few theological/ideological anchors later in life. In other words, is it easier to expand out from a solid, if rigid and sometimes stifling worldview than it is to narrow in from a worldview where things seem to be wide open.
I recently listened to an interview with Richard Rohr where he advocated the former. He was raised in rural Kansas as a pre-Vatican II conservative Roman Catholic and has spent his life branching outward. He observes that many people he encouters who were raised post-1968 seem to spend much of their time “sloshing around in disorder.” In many cases, these people were raised in reaction to “fundamentalism.” Now, this observation could just be down to sample size. Maybe sloshing around in disorder is the province of the unique subset of humanity that finds itself drawn to a Richard Rohr retreat. But according to Rohr, it’s easier and maybe even more healthy to start with a more conservative “ordered” view of the world and then stretch the boundaries than to start with disorder and then try to get the horses back in the barn.
It’s a very rough generalization, I know, and it doesn’t apply to everyone. Not by a long shot. I hear all kinds of stories from people who have struggled for much of their lives to deal with their oppressively conservative religious upbringing. And there are undoubtedly those who were raised with liberal approaches to faith that have retained these into adulthood. There are always exceptions to the rule.
But for me, Rohr’s view makes sense experientially and theoretically. It makes sense of my own story and many of the stories I see around me (positively and negatively). It makes sense of my pastoral experience in both more conservative and more liberal churches. My experience is nothing more than that—my experience. But I have typically found it easier to encourage a more conservative person to crack open the windows of their worldview a bit than it is to invite a more liberal person to consider that a bit of narrowing might be necessary. Again, there are exceptions, certainly. And others would almost certainly have a different story. But this is what I have found.
At any rate, if learning faith is anything like learning a language, I suppose we might expect that learning the more rigid and inflexible rules and forms would be a necessary foundation upon which to build more creative and attractive expressions. It’s hard to write a beautiful poem without some kind of training in grammar. I wonder if the same might be analogically true with faith.
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that one of my abiding interests (and laments) is the extent to which our attitudes, habits, and behaviours are conditioned and constrained by the technologies we embrace. The Internet regularly holds up a rather unflattering mirror to our species. I think an excellent case can be made that we are gradually becoming shallower, stupider, more obnoxiously reactive, less charitable and patient with one another, and that our attention spans are gradually being whittled down to nothing by our frantic and greedy search for novelty and distraction (and dopamine) online.
We are also becoming mostly unwitting slaves to massive corporations that have figured out increasingly ingenious ways to monetize our every click and flick of the eyeballs on any one of the myriad screens that we drift around throughout our days. See, for example, a recent piece called The Crisis of Attention Theft—Ads That Steal Your Time for Nothing in Return. It’s a thoroughly depressing piece, yes, but it also delivered one of the more amusing lines I’ve come across in a while:
There’s a big difference between leafing through a magazine, reading articles and advertising by choice, and being blasted at by a screen when you have no place to go. Indeed, consent is the usual way access to the body is conditioned. The brain is a pretty intimate part of your body, from which it follows that your permission ought be asked before having your synapses groped by a stranger.
I’m going to remember this line the next time I’m on an airplane struggling to figure out how to turn off the monitor on the seat in front of me that cycles through advertising until we reach cruising altitude. I’m going to call over the airline attendant and say, “Excuse me, but my synapses do not appreciate being groped by strangers!”
Well, probably not. Because, well, I abhor conflict and will do almost anything do avoid it. Maybe I’ll just throw in my ear buds, close my eyes tight and hold on for the ride. My synapses will undoubtedly thank me for it later.
For one more data point, I grew up (born in 1931) as a traditional Presbyterian. In University of Illinois philosophy classes, those beliefs were challenged, but fortunately I was active in the Presbyterian student center, where the pastor’s theology was on the liberal side. That helped me accommodate to the philosophers. I decided that I was not going to be motivated by promises or threats about the afterlife; I would do my best to follow Jesus, especially in his bias (also the O.T. bias) in advocating for the poor and oppressed. Paul Tillich was important in my theology, but so was Niebuhr. At the same time, I was a firm believer in the reality of God, the efficacy of prayer, and the need for daily confession of sin. On a sabbatical leave at Oregon State I became friends with Marcus Borg. Much of what he said appealed to me, and I owe him a great debt. However, I place more emphasis on prayer, especially the need for daily prayers of confession, than he seemed to advocate. Also, as I have aged, I am increasingly persuaded that there is an afterlife–that we live into Christ and die into Christ. Is this wishful thinking, now that my death draws nearer? Perhaps, but I am convinced that God is an active force in my life–why should not this relationship continue in some form after my death? Conclusion: To use the terms neither of us likes, I changed from conservative to liberal, but in my later years have swung back to a few beliefs that some liberals might consider conservative.
Thanks for sharing your story here, Elmer. It’s fascinating to observe the trajectory your life and faith have taken. It sounds like you have had some remarkable influences along the way. I resonate very much with what you say about “conservative” and “liberal” and the ways we swing back and forth over time. In my view, we should never be entirely comfortable with either. 🙂
Re: the afterlife, I really like how you put it:
We live into Christ and die into Christ… I am convinced that God is an active force in my life–why should not this relationship continue in some form after my death?
This expresses my hope as well.
I like what Mr. Beck says here and your expansion of the idea. Perhaps modernity is our, “Egypt” and it is time for God’s people to enter into a desert experience in search of the, “Promised Land”.
Surely the status quo is untenable. So many of us recognizing the hypocrisy of it all and doing mostly nothing but observing and recording the circumstances…
Oh the mischief you make! MORE Richard Rohr!!!…stop chuckling. 🙂
So Mr. Rohr offers us, his order/disorder/re-ordering theories,….yep, sounds like a three day 5 bills a pop, RC side show retreat, to me. Mr. Rohr stills brings that folksy likability that is charming in a Grandpa but leaves me a little bit more than suspicious when I realize his motives may be more about self promotion.
Forgive the sarcasm but honestly I hear Mr. Rohr here, as vaguely Catholic/ vaguely secular liberal/ vaguely Buddhist and friend to everyone…even those vaguely unfriendly types….yeah somebody be sellin’ somethin’….
HIs contemplative theories, such as he made their case, left me shaking my head. Sounded more like, “Hippie smoke a joint and be trippin’ ” then a deeper experience of the Trinity through the Holy Spirit.
He did make two points that gave me pause, however. His observation that traditionalists seek order/order/ order resonated with the truth of your expansion of Mr. Beck’s premise of, “the NIebuhrian tendencies” within the faith. The works before faith approach that fails both traditionalists and progressives.
It made me think that the right understanding of the tradition should be understood as Father/Son/Holy Spirit and any adaptation of our faith can only be of the truth if it upholds and affirms this understanding.
Progressiveness, as I see it, cannot change what we know to be true but can serve us in revealing what had been previously misunderstood (the Niebruhrian tendency) or not yet revealed.
His observations about the distinction between chronological time and “deep time” matter. I have often wondered and am coming to believe, through my contemplative relationship with Jesus, that we may be missing an important point about the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord. Though they happen once chronologically in time, perhaps the better understanding is to realize that both actions are still happening through time and to ask ourselves the question, “Am I a part of the ongoing Crucifixion or the ongoing Resurrection?”
I’ve only encountered Rohr’s teaching and writing in a handful of contexts, and of course I don’t really have a dog in the fight with respect to his credibility in the Roman Catholic world, but I am grateful for the wisdom I have encountered in his words.
Yeah, fair enough, Ryan.
I struggle to be so generous when I feel the overall impact of a persons expression does harm to the faith.
So what’s your response to my other observations. Do you think there is any merit to the idea of creating more purposefully Christian communities as a response to your and Mr. Beck ‘s diagnosis?
Do you think that the idea of, “Crucifixion and Resurrection” occuring through time, has any grounding in Scripture? Does it resonate with your understanding of the Holy Spirit?
Yes, of course I think there is merit to creating more purposefully Christian communities. How could that be a bad thing? This is the task of the church.
Re: crucifixion and resurrection occurring through time, I think it’s certainly an interesting idea. The crucifixion and resurrection were obviously specific moments in time as we understand and experience time. But in the life of God? If we think that crucifixion and resurrection express the very heart of God’s nature, character, and orientation toward the world, then we would have to also say that these events somehow extend beyond chronos time and enter kairos time (or deep time).
And, if God’s very character has always had and will always have the character of suffering, self-giving, enemy-embracing love, of dying and rising to new life for the sake of the world he created, and if we are called to be imitators of God, then it follows that the Christian’s life is to exhibit the same pattern: dying (to self, primarily), bearing the pain of the world, and rising to new forms of life in anticipation of the final resurrection. This is our pattern because this is our God.
I am happy that you see the need for more purposefully Christian communities, so obviously. The time is soon coming where important voices like yours will need to articulate what that needs to look like, “on the ground”.
Remember all true prayer, the comforts and the discomforts, the responses and the silences are the presence of Holy Spirit in our hearts, leading us to the Father, through the crucifixion and resuŕrection of the Son.
Whatever the circumstances of life, however torturous it may become, evrything that is allowed to happen, happens for salvation’s sake.
Pray unceasingly. When your prayer life is arid, heartbreakingly dry, take heart. You have been forsaken so that salvation might come nearer to you.
Don’t look to Mr. Rohr for direction here. It is beyond his understanding. Look to St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Catherine of Sienna. These are your better teachers.
May the peace of Christ always be with you, Ryan.
With all my heart I thank you for all you have done for me.
First, thanks for your kind response to my comment. Second, I agree completely with your thoughts about crucifixion and resurrection occurring through time–excellently worded. Third, our church book group has been reading Rohr’s “The Naked Now.” I find it very helpful, and I am willing to dig deeper into contemplative prayer, but most of my praying involves forming words in my head, with tiptoe-waiting in expectation of God’s response (which may come quickly, eventually, or never; and in the form of my own new insights or in things that happen to me or to others–usually as complete surprises). In the aggregate, I am absolutely convinced that God responds to prayers, and I see the evidence daily; but I am never positive that any single event that seems to be an answer actually is. Instead it may be my wishful, prideful thinking, so I try to thank God just in case God meant it to happen. I pray for big things and small ones–who am I to judge what is large or small to God? My rule of thumb on this–if it was too small for me to thank God for answering the prayer, then the request was too small to “bother” God about it. (Three disconnected points are more than enough to make, especially at the rate the words are expanding.)
I like the way you describe and understand prayer very much. Thank you.
(Don’t worry about disconnected points or expanding words… I’ve been contributing plenty of both for ten years on this blog 🙂 )
All the consolations of prayers of petition, big or small, realized or not, were never intended to be the priority. Rather it is relationship with the Eternal that matters. All that matters. St Teresa of Liseaux (the Little Flower) once said something to the effect that all is well with a heart that resides in Christ. All is well. And she succumbed to her illnesses in her very early twenties.
Elmer, I applaud your willingness to explore the practice of christian contemplative prayer, it has changed my life for the better beyond measure. I highly recommend eventually branching into “centering prayer” in particular, which can still and quiet an active mind, in essence putting the mind into a state of “neutral” or suspended animation. It’s a profound method of abiding in/experiencing Gods presence. Should you be so inclined check out John Main’s work, also father Thomas Keeting and Cynthia Bourgeault. (All on YouTube)
As i grow older and realize my days here are numbered, I feel compelled to expand/enhance my day to day awareness of God’s presence in my life in ever-deepening ways and means.
There is a lot going on this post Ryan and I appreciated each section of it. Thank you.