Conference Christianity and Pilgrimages

Tonight one of my favorite writers on theology and philosophy of religion is speaking at the college where I started my degree. Unfortunately I live a good 8 hour drive from there now, so I won’t be in attendance. At the same time, across the country, a conference on process theology will be starting up.

I’ve found myself critical of contemporary emerging, progressive, liberal Christianity’s focus on conferences as a major mode of community building. Soularize, Wild Goose, Emergent Village Theological Conversation, Jesus Radicals. In the build up to all of these you hear things like “You’re going to want to be there,” or “If you care about these topics, you need to get there.” It feels somewhere between the advertising industry’s more common “You owe it to yourself to do this” and the more evangelical Christian “God is moving in this place.” To not go is something between denying yourself and denying God.

The site of the work, the community and the celebration is not in the churches, but in the conferences. To some degree it feels to me like “Come do these things here, because you’ll never find this at your local church.” And that’s probably true. But I’ve wondered if the conferences serve as ways to avoid making these things happen in our churches. If we get to talk about process theology once a year, then we don’t have to push to bring in into our churches. If we have alternative worship experiences here and there, then we don’t have to fight to have them at home.

Then there’s the costs of both time and money, which make the gatherings inaccessible to many. Registration, lodging, travel, time away from work, time away from family, childcare, these things add up, and likely figure into why these events are overwhelmingly populated by white, middle to upper-middle class, hetero, cis men.

And to top it all off, I’m such an introvert that being around that many people is draining.

I think these are valid criticisms, but I also think I’ve put too much stock in my criticisms.

The other night I was watching a National Geographic documentary on the Appalachian Trail. Seeing and hearing from those who were hiking the trail made it clear that the experience was one of pilgrimage for many of them.

American Protestantism does not have sacred sites, but many still feel the draw of pilgrimage. We desire having space, time and movement set aside for God. This stuck me this weekend as I ambled around New Orleans, looking at the beautiful church buildings that permeate the city. To travel to a sacred site touches something deep inside many of us, and hearing the hikers speak about their experience on the trail it hit me that these conferences function as pilgrimages for many in American Protestantism. People are creating their own sacred spaces, temporary and movable. People are building their own pilgrimages from the ground up. Whatever critiques I may have of the process, I can relate to that desire.

Tradition as Community

Bo has been discussing the Wesley Quadrilateral in a couple of posts at Homebrewed Christianity, as well as on his own blog. I have absolutely zero background in Methodism or in the teachings of John Wesley, but I love the idea of the Quadrilateral, and his posts and the ensuing comments have me thinking.

Bo described the conversation: “Every time I bring up quadrilateral, more than half of the conversation will be centered on reason. This week was no exception. Reason draws the most concern – which is funny to me because tradition is the one that I find most suspect.”

I can relate to Bo when he writes, “I grew up evangelical and developed a disdain for tradition. It was a bad word to me – like religion. It meant thoughtless, empty ritual done on autopilot in rote repetition. I see things a little differently now.” The church in which I was raised thought of tradition as what those Catholics did, and singing the first, second and fourth verses of hymns and having weekly altar calls as authentic, self-determined worship. Tradition was man-made, and should be discarded, or that was how it was said.

While I wouldn’t say that I find tradition any more suspect than the others, I would say that of the four (scripture, tradition, reason and experience) tradition is the one that holds my attention recently.

It seems as though when tradition is called upon, it is the stick by which we measure our own conclusions. “Does this practice or idea square with the historical practices and ideas of Christianity?” Rather than seeing it as such, perhaps we could reevaluate what tradition means.

Tradition, in the context of the other three parts of the quadrilateral, isn’t a limiting force, nor a measuring stick. Rather it is a recognition of context and of community. Tradition is what we look to in order to see our own limitations. Acknowledging tradition is acknowledging the ways that our spiritual forbears shaped us.

Rather than being that with which we must be in accord, tradition is the means by which we engage in community with our brothers and sisters who came before us, and the means by which those who follow will include us in their own community. In looking at tradition we may easily become aware of the failings of those who came before us. We may see their prejudice and the ways their ideas damaged the world. By engaging those who shaped Christianity over the last 2000 years in community, we can learn from them and we can hopefully retain a sense of humility. In them we can get a glimpse of how our our failings and prejudices will be seen by those who come after us.

None of us are able to see the full picture, and none of us exist in a vacuum. Tradition is an acknowledgement of that. Tradition is welcoming those who shaped us, those are are shaping us, those who we are shaping and those who will be shaped by us.

Perhaps the word itself should be replaced in our minds.

Perhaps instead of appealing to tradition, we should say we are appealing to community.

Things I’ve been reading, early November edition

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so this is going to be long. There’s lots of good stuff here, though, on a number of topics.

An Outlaw’s Theology

I lose my voice! I lose it because my witness and story are not heard. All my life, it is my voice that conveys my story. Deep from within me, it is my distinct, personal, intimate power of expression. Upon it ride the images and imaginations of my spiritual beliefs, all my hopes and dreams, all facts and truths as I know them and as they live through me. I am baffled, because now I have no voice.

This is not hyperbole. I am not speaking allegorically. I intend no metaphor. One moment I turn to you, my juror, and weave my life story into and throughout yours. About the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the crimes of our government, I speak clearly. My voice is passionate. I expose the sufferings of innocents: skin burning alive with napalm. My voice is truthful: classmates, friends, cousin, and kin, my whole generation, lied to and betrayed by elected officials. My voice is hopeful: “Pacem in Terris,” Peace on earth declares my spiritual leader, Pope John XXIII, and so I declare “Peace!” My voice is confessional: I am just one guy–reaching out in despair, frustration, anger, almost hopeless, but then not–with gritty hope I act as best I can. When the leaders no longer listen, then words are not enough. The draft raid is my way of speaking, “Peace!”


Ears of Stone

It was quite acceptable to talk “politics.” There was at least a nascent sense that the war was intolerable, granted the American system and its “normal” workings. One gained this small leverage. But the fact that the war might be inconsistent with the words and example of Christ, that killing others was repugnant to the letter and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount–this was too much: it turned living ears to stone.


Breaking of the Bridesmaids: a parable for patience, justice and Occupy protests

I begin this way only because our understanding of this text has become so ingrained that it is difficult to think of the story in any way other than a cautionary, apocalyptic tale about the return of Jesus.


Can I worship to this song? Poetics and Process

Being a theologian who loves music can be tricky in the current worship culture. I find myself thinking “can I sing this song with integrity?”

I take worship pretty seriously so I just don’t have the luxury to ‘turn my brain off’ or ‘turn a blind eye’ to the content of the songs that we sing as a congregation. I can’t do what some of my peers do and say with a shrug “these are simply the songs that we sing and that is just the way it is – don’t get too worked up about it or put too much thought into it.” It’s just not possible with my personality and passions.


Women’s boxing split as governing body suggests skirts

During last year’s World Championships, the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) presented competitors with skirts, rather than the usual shorts, which it wanted to “phase in for international competitions”.

AIBA asked boxers to trial the skirts, which they said would allow spectators to distinguish them from men, but at last week’s European Championships in Rotterdam only two nations – Poland and Romania – had taken on the alternative outfits.

Poland Boxing actually took it a step further and made it compulsory for their boxers to wear skirts, saying they are more “elegant”.

“By wearing skirts, in my opinion, it gives a good impression, a womanly impression,” Poland coach Leszek Piotrowski told BBC Sport. “Wearing shorts is not a good way for women boxers to dress.


Lost Boys: New child-sex-trafficking research demolishes the stereotype of the underage sex worker

Most astonishing to the researchers was the demographic profile teased out by the study. Published by the U.S. Department of Justice in September 2008, Curtis and Dank’s findings thoroughly obliterated the long-held core assumptions about underage prostitution:

  • Nearly half the kids — about 45 percent — were boys.
  • Only 10 percent were involved with a “market facilitator” (e.g., a pimp).
  • About 45 percent got into the “business” through friends.
  • More than 90 percent were U.S.- born (56 percent were New York City natives).
  • On average, they started hooking at age 15.
  • Most of them serviced men — preferably white and wealthy.
  • Most deals were struck on the street.
  • Almost 70 percent of the kids said they’d sought assistance at a youth-service agency at least once.
  • Nearly all of the youths — 95 percent — said they exchanged sex for money because it was the surest way to support themselves.

In other words, the typical kid who is commercially exploited for sex in New York City is not a tween girl, has not been sold into sexual slavery, and is not held captive by a pimp.

Nearly all the boys and girls involved in the city’s sex trade are going it alone.


In which some guys do not want to kill stuff at mens’ ministry

I’ve always avoided men’s ministry. I find it almost impossible to believe I share common ancestry with the guys who are into mixed martial arts and anything else that involves beating the hell out of another human being. Tying MMA into a sermon is as incompatible with Christianity as comparing following Jesus with soldiers attacking an enemy combatant.

Men’s ministry lacks metaphors and activities for guys like me. I was the last guy picked for anything involving sports. I opted for the tiny barbells at the gym. It took me years to forgive my college roommate for tackling me “just for the fun of it.” I’m not an aggressive guy. If you’re the kind of guy wondering, “Could I take this guy?” The answer most certainly is: yes.

When we moved to a new home in Columbus, OH this month, one of my first purchases was a bunch of pansies for the front porch. I also spend my evenings hanging in the living room with my wife and our house rabbits. I feel like that says quite enough about me.

My penchant for pansies aside, I generally find that I exist in a separate universe from the “men’s ministry” dudes who use fighting, military, wrestling, and weight-lifting metaphors for the Christian walk or plan events around aggressive activities.


Do not resent, do not react, keep inner stillness

When I was in seminary I had the great blessing of becoming the spiritual son of a Greek bishop, Bishop Kallistos of Xelon. He ended his life as the bishop of Denver of the Greek Archdiocese. It was he who taught me the Jesus Prayer. The whole spiritual vision of Bishop Kallistos had three very simple points.

  • Do not resent.
  • Do not react.
  • Keep inner stillness.

These three spiritual principles, or disciplines, are really a summation of the Philokalia, the collection of Orthodox Christian spiritual wisdom. And they are disciplines every single one of us can practice, no matter where we are in life – whether we’re in the monastery or in school; whether we’re housewives or retired; whether we’ve got a job or we’ve got little kids to run after. If we can hold on to and exercise these three principles, we will be able to go deeper and deeper in our spiritual life.


A Sense of Owingness

I can think of myself as an empty container of freedom, as a sovereign who exists prior to my entanglements with others, but this is a paltry and ghost-like self. The person who matters is the one who is son, father, husband, cousin, son-in-law, friend, and each of those roles limits my ability to do just whatever I want, whenever. As son, I owe piety; as husband, I owe fidelity; as father, I owe gentle instruction; as friend, I owe loyalty. Consequently, I am what I am in virtue of the responsibilities I bear. Insofar as I matter as a person, I am constituted not by sovereignty, but by what I owe. And only by knowing what I owe to others do I know who I am and what I’m for; ignorance of owing is to be devoid of a self.

If this is true, then the ability to cultivate a sense of owingness is to become a real human being, a free human being. But almost every bit of our cultural life is stacked against our developing this sense, and so we are deaf and dumb about what matters most.


Writing for “that chick blog” on Gender and the Gospel

And so it was to a community wrestling with what it looked like to enact the Great Commission and bring the Gospel message to both Jew and Gentile that Paul wrote these revolutionary words.

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

This is not of course to suggest some sort of Gnostic erasing of gender or ethnicity. But for Paul it was central to the very message of the Gospel that the people of God now includes Jew and Gentile, and male and female, on equal footing.

So then part of faithfully proclaiming that Gospel is proclaiming to the people of God that gender, social class, and ethnicity do not define who God can use and how he can use them.


“What Is Process Theology” by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (pdf)

Well, some nuts are hard to crack, but try this: Process theologies are relational ways of thinking about the dynamism of life and faith. Process-relational theologians integrate implications of a thoroughly interdependent universe into how we live and express our faith. We are convinced that everything is dynamically interconnected; that everything matters; that everything has an effect. Such insights can be adapted to many faith traditions, but this particular booklet applies them to Christian faith.


#1 King Jesus Gospel Question

Our responsibility is not to persuade, or to convince, or to defend. Our responsibility is to be a “witness.”


Why Men Should Not Be Pastors

8. Their physical build indicates that men are more suited to tasks such as chopping down trees and wrestling mountain lions. It would be “unnatural” for them to do other forms of work.

6. Men are too emotional to be priests or pastors. This is easily demonstrated by their conduct at football games and watching basketball tournaments.


This is the face of obesity

This is the face of obesity.

I am 5’7” and I weigh 235 pounds. This puts me well into the obese category. I’d need to lose another 40 pounds to be classified as “overweight” by standard BMI calculations.

This picture was taken after I had just spent five hours hiking a rugged 8 miles around Lake Vesuvius in southeastern Ohio.


I’m Religious, Not Spiritual
While I’m not Orthodox enough to hold to everything the author writes, his understanding of the holiness of the body is amazing.

Thus, if we will be like Jesus, we must fully inhabit our bodies and not descend to some Gnostic pretense that we are above our bodies, fallen though they are. Our bodies are not–as is too often and too regrettably preached at Christian funerals–mere containers housing our spirits, which are “set free” at our death to be with God. No, we are our bodies, our bodies house the Holy Spirit and are therefore themselves holy.


With Open Hands

Henri Nouwen, from Compassion, as excerpted in The Only Necessary Thing, pp 92-93.

In a society that seems to be filled with urgencies and emergencies, prayer appears to be an unnatural form of behavior. Without fully realizing it, we have accepted the idea that “doing things” is more important than prayer and have come to think of prayer as something for times when there is nothing urgent to do…

Concentrated human effort is necessary because prayer is not our most natural response to the world. Left to our own impulses, we will always want to do something else before we pray. Often, what we want to do seems so unquestionably good – setting up a religious education program, helping with a soup kitchen, listening to people’s problems, visiting the sick, planning the liturgy, working with prisoners or mental patients – that it is hard to realize that even these things can be done with impatience and so become signs of our own needs rather than of God’s compassion.

Therefore, prayer is in many ways the criterion of Christian life. Prayer requires that we stand in God’s presence with open hands, naked and vulnerable, proclaiming to ourselves and to others that without God we can do nothing. This is difficult in a climate where the predominate counsel is “Do your best and God will do the rest.” When life is divided into “our best” and “God’s rest,” we have turned prayer into a last resort to be used only when all our own resources are depleted. Then even the Lord has become the victim of our impatience. Discipleship does not mean to use God when we can no longer function ourselves. On the contrary, it means to recognize that we can do nothing at all, but that God can do everything through us. As disciples, we find not some but all of our strength, hope, courage, and confidence in God. Therefore, prayer must be our first concern.

Things I’ve been reading

Misusing deconstruction: on belief and the emergent church

Popular use notwithstanding, I do think that emergent church folk are particularly and especially culpable for their use and misuse of the word theoretically and theologically in large part because of their affinity toward postmodern philosophy and their use of key thinkers like Derrida. This makes things complicated and, if dissected closely, I think it shows that the emergent church — or at least some subgroup(s) within it — aren’t all that different from mainstream Christianity and certainly not as subversive as some had initially hoped.


Believing in Johnny Cash: An Open Letter to Atheists
While the focus on the author’s understanding of atheism is unfortunate, this is a wonderful explanation of narrative theology and the idea of Truth as something other than “fact.”

What I propose is that no one lives, or can live, or has ever lived, within the circle of empirical science. I propose that no matter who we are or what our beliefs might be, we have always had to deal with the question of interpretation. And that question is not whether to interpret, but how. No one fails to interpret. Interpreting is what human beings do.

Put another way, we cannot avoid believing in stories. We can only hope to choose the best ones. How to do this? I propose that good stories are stories that tell the truth, and bad ones are ones that do not.


Journeys of a Religious Misfit, Part 2: Accidental Fences

Quakers are pretty much the opposite of Catholics.

Or at least that’s what I thought when I first walked through the meetinghouse door to join the West Knoxville Society of Friends for First Day worship.