Theology and the Laughter of the Angels

Two weeks ago I began teaching Systematic Theology II at Tyndale Seminary.   I suspect that not all of the students in the course are excited to be there, both because the class meets at 8:30 AM on Mondays, and because systematic theology is not everyone’s favourite subject.  Some of the students are probably only taking the class because they have to.  I told them, “That’s fine.  You don’t have to love systematic theology.  You don’t have to be excited about it.  But you do have to know the basics.”

I think anyone who wants to be a leader in the church needs to be familiar with the basics of Christian doctrine – how it has developed and why it is important.  Systematic theology is not idle speculation; it’s not about professors sitting in their offices thinking up topics for papers.  It’s about the gospel and the God of the gospel.  It’s about proclaiming that gospel faithfully and biblically.  It’s about seeing the big picture of how each doctrine relates to the others; and it’s also about learning the lessons of history, so that we are not doomed to repeat the theological mistakes of those who have gone before us.

Stanley Hauerwas makes an interesting observation about the nature of seminary training today.  He’s concerned that many people don’t take seminary training seriously enough, and he makes his point by comparing seminary and medical school.  He asks us to imagine if a future doctor got to medical school and said, “You know, I’m just really not into anatomy.  I’m not going to worry about that subject. I’m going to focus more on my bedside manner.”  What do you think the school administrators would say to that student?  They’d say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re not interested in anatomy.  It’s important.  If you want to be a doctor you’ve got to understand how the human body works!”

Likewise, leaders in the church need to be able to think theologically.  It’s important.   This means they need to know the basic doctrines, historical figures, schools of thought, and so on, but more than that, they need to be able to bring these resources to bear upon the questions they face in their own life and ministry, so that these questions can be thought through theologically, and not simply on the basis of other concerns, be they pragmatic, psychological, financial, etc..

It is often said that everyone is a theologian.  I think this is true.  Theology is, simply put, God-talk. We all talk about God, and in that sense, we are all theologians.  The question is, are we going to be good theologians or are we going to be hacks?  We don’t need everyone to be experts.  But just like we expect that doctors will know the difference between our heart and our stomach, church leaders need to know the difference between Christology and ecclesiology; they need to see how they relate to one another, and both our Christological and ecclesiological assumptions inform our practices.  Just like a doctor needs to be able to tell the difference between a healthy person and a diseased person, church leaders need to be able to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy.

Having said all that, it’s important to recognize that theology is not like anatomy.  God is not laid out on a slab for us to poke and prod and test and dissect.  Although God does make himself known to us through Christ and the Spirit, this is always a profound condescension on his part; he comes down to our level so that we can understand him with our limited human minds – but we have to always remind ourselves that God is bigger than any theological system.  He is greater than the greatest thing we can possibly imagine. and so we have to remain humble about our theology.  We can speak truthfully and faithfully about God but we can never speak exhaustively.

I ended my introductory remarks during our first class with this wonderful quote from Karl Barth.  I reminded them that Barth was the greatest theologian of the 20th century – many would say the greatest theologian since the Reformation.  He wrote prolifically.  His Church Dogmatics was up to six million words when he died – and he hadn’t finished it.  In spite of all this, Barth retained a wonderful humility, both regarding himself as a person and about his theological work.  I always try to keep this quote in mind as I think theologically:

“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, “Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!” And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.”
Quoted in Robert McAfee Brown’s “Introduction” to Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casalis, trns. Robert McAfee Brown. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964, p xiii.

Ecclesial homelessness

Some comments here from Stanley Hauerwas on “ecclesial homelessness,” an increasingly familiar situation for many people today.   What he means by describing himself as “ecclesially homeless” is that he isn’t clearly rooted in one particular Christian tradition.   As he says here, he considers himself to be a Methodist.  But, as he accounts in his memoir, he has attended a variety of churches over the years, including a Catholic church while he taught at Notre Dame, and the Anglican church where he worships today (and where his wife, a Methodist pastor, serves on the pastoral staff).   Here are his thoughts, from a Christianity Today interview last Fall:

I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don’t know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that’s true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don’t think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.

Hauerwas seems to suggest here that being Methodist doesn’t necessarily mean worshiping in a Methodist Church.   He can, as he says, live faithful to the charisms of his Methodist identity while being a communicant at Holy Family.

There are many today who find themselves in similar situations.  I personally know of Methodists worshiping at Presbyterian churches, Mennonites at Anglican churches, and Lutherans at Reformed churches.   I myself continue to identify as a Salvationist, though I presently worship at a Free Methodist church.

The lines of denominational demarcation are getting blurrier, but what does it all mean?  Are we entering a post-denominational landscape?  Do people even care about traditional differences of doctrine, worship, and polity, which were so divisive in the past?

With Hauerwas, I think this new situation has some ecumenical promise, although I also worry that it is due, at least in part, to cynical apathy regarding any kind of formal institutions.    The promising thing is that walls are coming down, and people are willing to worship, fellowship, and serve with people from another denominational background without thinking much about it.  In this sense, people on the ground are actually way ahead of their denominational institutions, which often remain relatively isolated.

The danger, of course, is that there are some real historical disagreements which should be aired out and discussed, rather than ignored through an easy ecumenism which treats differences as unimportant.

There’s something more to Hauerwas’ comment here, though, as it relates to the whole idea of ecclesial charisms.  He presumes that a Christian person can live out the charisms of one historic tradition while being part of a community that is based in another tradition (hence his status as a Methodist communicant in an Anglican parish).   I’m not sure how much he has thought about this, but it seems he presumes (as I am arguing in my dissertation) that charisms are personal, even when they are identified with a community like Methodism.

That is, properly speaking, the Methodist charisms are not borne by the Methodist community as a whole, but by the persons who call themselves Methodist.  The communal aspects of Methodism might encourage and cultivate those charisms, but at the end of the day, persons are the bearers of the diverse vocational charismata.

In that sense, it should be quite possible for a person to exercise one ecclesial charism in a context which is not normally identified with that charism.  Actually, I would say that this would make more sense than isolating large numbers of people with a particular charism from other parts of the church!

This is also why Methodism was intended in Wesley’s day to exist as a leaven in the Church of England, not as an independent church.   Though the Methodists were to have their own gatherings, which came in various forms, they were to remain within the church, worshiping alongside others in the C of E on Sundays, where the gifts that they brought could excite a renewal among the established structures.

This all might seem pretty far removed from the contemporary issue of “ecclesial homelessness,” but I think there could be a connection, and the changing denominational landscape of the twenty-first century just might make such a vision of the church more plausible than it was in the previous century.

Christian Life as Ecclesial Life

I want to finish this three part discussion of Salvation and the Christian life by drawing attention to the ecclesial nature of the Christian life.  This also brings us full circle, as we return to the question of theology and ethics.

From a Christian perspective, there are no autonomous subjects.  All of us exist in a relation of dependence upon God.  Yet the idea that we are autonomous selves is often found within the Church, as well as in our hyper-individualistic society.  For example, we often treat the topic of Christian life in a highly privatized and individualistic manner.

For those who are evangelicals: think of how much stress is put on the importance of our “personal relationship with Jesus” in the evangelical tradition.  How about “personal devotions?”  We spend a lot of time talking about (and feeling guilty about) “personal devotions.”  I’m not saying that private prayer and meditation on scripture are unimportant; surely they are.  But compare the amount of stress put on “personal devotions” with the attention that is given to other issues.   I mean, of all the challenges facing the church today, of all the things for us to focus our time and energy on, the one thing that evangelicals are racked with guilt over is “personal devotions”?  And when this is done in the context of a consistent focus on our “personal relationship” with Christ, the Church can seem redundant.

We are still dealing with the question of the chrisotogically determined direction of salvation and its implications for the Christian life.  The Christian life is ecclesial because God’s election of Jesus Christ includes the election of the Church to be his witnesses.  There is no “private” salvation; there is no “individualistic” election to salvation.  God’s work in Christ is not intended to sporadically save independent and autonomous Christians who will live solitary lives of saintliness.  Rather, it is about God forming a people who will give witness to his redemption by their words and deeds.   This may seem like a reduntant point but it needs to be said: the Christian life is an ecclesial life.  We are definitely not autonomous subjects; we are members of a body, who can only function in the context of that body.  In attempting to answer the question, “how now shall we live?” the emphasis is on the word we.

But this is not simply to say that Christians are to value “community” and “relationships” in the abstract.  Again we must look to Jesus Christ as the concrete and particular revelation of the truly human life.  We are dealing with the particular God revealed in Christ; this should lead to a very particular Church – a particular kind of community, not “community” in general or as a value in and of itself.  The particular kind of community in which we live means that the Christian life is a very particular kind of life.  Perhaps it would be better to say it is a peculiar kind of life.  Just as the God of the gospel always cuts against the grain of the world’s expectations, so the life of the Christian community ought to be counter-cultural.   The Church is called to embody the always surprising grace of God in its communal life together, and it should therefore be the context in which a different way of life is enacted and sustained.

Therefore as we think about the question of “ethics” within the context of the Christian life, we must reject the enlightenment suspicion of “tradition-dependent” ethics. Christian ethics is explicitly tradition-dependent, because the Christian lives and moves and thinks in the context of the Church and attempts to do so with the Church.  The Christian believes that the commands of God are directed to the Church, not to autonomous individuals.  Ethics, therefore, is always ecclesial.

The task of Christian ethics, then, is not so much about abstracting “timeless principles” that can be applied to any situation, as it is about seeking to inhabit an understanding of God and the world that is shaped by the Church as the people of God, attempting to be a living enactment of the story of the gospel.   In the end, Christian ethics is about what is real, and what is real is Jesus Christ and the gospel.  If the gospel is the true story of God’s history with humanity, then Christian ethics can be described, as Hauerwas puts it, as living as if Jesus and Trinity matter; living as if the gospel is reality.

There is no such thing as “ethics for anybody.” We all stand in a tradition, and cannot exist as  “autonomous individuals.”  Ethics, then, must be received and nurtured in the context of the Christian community.

This too is part of the direction of our salvation.   We are saved for communion with God and with our fellow human creatures.   We find this in the new humanity which Christ has inaugurated.  We participate in it now as an anticipation of its full realization in the new Kingdom.