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    Entries in tradition (2)


    Sectarianism, Modern Theology, and the Demands of a Tradition

    James K.A. Smith has posted an interesting exchange entitled, "On the State of Contemporary Theology" in which he addresses the concerns of a graduate student seeking to engage others without being quickly pigeonholed as a follower of X who thinks Y, and, since their viewpoint is known (supposedly) before conversation begins, they are quickly dismissed.  This is found to be frustrating.  Smith's friend asks, "Is there some place where young theologians can engage in honest, forthright dialogue without all the posturing?"

    First, it shouldn't be surprising that this type of posturing occurs in graduate school.  Graduate school is highly competitive, and many who move on to higher levels of study are concerned with their egos.  Thus, one way of securing one's place is to remain cocksure on all questions theological or otherwise, showing no signs of intellectual weakness.  I once heard it quipped that if you get a group of professors together in a single room, any point of disagreement is categorized as a failure to understand.  "You're reading me wrong," it is often said when a criticism is offered.  It is rare to find an academic who will humbly say, "Yes, my position needs to change."  Especially once that position has been published.

    In addition to commenting on these frustrations specifically, Smith directs his attention to the state of the academy itself, and why the present environment creates the conditions for this student's frustrations.  Smith writes:

    I also think this state of the field is a by-product of the fact that many up-and-coming theologians right now are not what we used to call "churchmen" in any strong sense ("churchwomen" included): they are not tied to denominational identities, they are not participants in the specifics of ecclesiastical governance/teaching, they are not subject to ecclesial magisteria of any sort, they are not aspiring to chairs in their denominational seminaries, etc. From where I sit, freelancing does not seem very conducive to healthy theologizing.

    This strikes me as critically important, for it is a concern I have faced myself.  I have been critical of Methodists for honoring Wesley with their lips yet willfully ignoring his writings and practice, having done little to pay him any attention outside of a required seminary course.  Thus, I am a Baptist among Methodists who reads Wesley in order to help Methodists remember who they are.  But, being a Baptist, there are other concerns I must attend to in order to preserve my own tradition, and to speak from within it in a way that accords with what it actually is.  Later on in his commentary, Smith notes that he has located himself within the Reformed tradition because it is a good tradition.  It provides him resources to speak logically and consistently in accordance with a history.

    In many respects, I consider myself a journalist of religion, as well as an academic.  My readings and writings have ranged across many traditions, and have reached across the theological spectrum.  I strive to listen to liberals and conservatives, Baptists and Catholics.  But I have struggled to speak with consistency as a "churchman", a representative of a specific quadrant of Christianity.  I would rather be accountable to a body than to a single theologian or ideology.  But in contemporary theology, as Smith notes, the latter is more common than the former.

    My challenge here, of course, is to myself, but it is also to others who call themselves Christian.  I hope to see a return to denominationalism, to the solidifying and strengthening of traditions.  This does not mean that I wish to downplay ecumenism, or see an end to denominational cooperation.  I rather hope to see partnerships that are more honest concerning who we are in our particularities, for it is in our particularities that our treasures are found.  They are important.  They should be honored.  And we should love one another enough to wrestle with the fact that we may disagree, rather than trying to dismiss those disagreements as superfluities to the essence of Christian faithfulness.


    By What Authority? :: Responding to Thad Wilson of KC Star's Faith Walk

    Last Friday the Kansas City Star's Faith Walk section featured a meditation on abusive exercises of religion, written by Thad Wilson.  The article captured well a common objection to Christianity, that being, that oftentimes the organized or established Church (or churches) leverage their collective authority to propagate doctrine and dogma that leads to voilence, hatred, bigotry, exclusion, and oppression.  Wilson, like so many who find harmful expressions of religion difficult to understand, expresses his deep dismay.

    Wilson's article, entitled "No Matter What Religion Says, God Loves All," is a personal, heart-felt column that captures well the struggles faced by those within religious traditions who see their own tradition abused.  Wilson expresses his deep frustrations with those who hate (by his own definition) in the name of God.  Wilson names himself as a Christian, and expresses the conviction on the part of those inside and outside Christianity that Christians should be kind, accepting, compassionate, and marked by love.  When Christians fail to do this, Wilson is tempted to no longer identity with his own tradtion.  He finds it that shameful.

    Wilson writes:

    So when I hear or see good Christian people use their culturally biased beliefs to emotionally harm, control or attempt to destroy other people, I don’t want to be a Christian. I’m thinking in particular of a certain sect that enjoys destroying the sanctity of a funeral and has won several legal battles to make their despicable practice possible. I know these people aren’t mainstream Christians, but they are seen by the world as part of my religious movement.

    It is rather obvious that Wilson is speaking of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, a convenient foil for those who are opponents of organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

    However, the question should be asked, from whence does Wilson's sense of injustice come from?  On what basis does he denounce their protestations of homosexuality?  He states at the beginning of his article, "I believe in a God who is loving, compassionate and caring of all creatures, even those whose beliefs are very different from mine."  But this is not enough, for it does not acknowledge from whence that belief has come.

    In objecting to oppressive expressions of religion, Wilson denounces those who use "their culturally biased beliefs to emotionally harm, control, or attempt to destroy other people".  But in doing so, he assumes that he is able to speak from nowhere.  Others may have "culturally biased" beliefs, but his convictions are neutral of such influences.

    Wilson states:

    There are days when everywhere I turn I am confronted by those willing to use religion to destroy others. On those days, I have to turn to my personal faith in a God who loves everyone and away from organized religion that silently sanctions this abuse of spirituality.

    Wilson fails to recognize that his ability to denounce harmful expressions of religion stem not from his deeply held personal convictions, but from the source of those personal convictions, "organized religion" itself.  The Christian tradition provides a deep well to draw from, and is its own best defense against perverted expressions of the faith.  When aberrant groups like the Westboro Baptist Church proclaim "God Hates Fags," Christians are able to likewise turn and say, "No".  They are able to say things like, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us"(Rom. 5:8).

    While I too regret when fellow Christians speak and act in a way that is violent, or do harm to our fellow human beings, rather than showing forth the love of God, I am unable to disown "organized religion" or the Christian tradition itself.  I must concede that my ideas about a loving God come from within the Christian tradition, and have so permeated Western culture that the conviction that they derive from within my own "personal belief" is an illusion, a failure to recognize the consistency of the water that I swim in.

    The great thing about being part of a tradition is engaging in debate and dialogue concerning what belongs within the tradition, and what should be excluded.  I don't want to retreat from such a calling, but rather embrace it.  By doing so, I make the tradition itself stronger.  I inform a body, a group, and help them as a whole to better identify their own calling, and also to live in to that calling as a loving, caring body of people who witness to Jesus Christ.  I do not, then, represent only my convictions, but the convictions of an alternative polis, a "beloved community," a "new creation" that encompasses not only individuals, but an entire way of being the people of God in the world.