Sunday, March 3, 2013

What has Jesus got to do with 21st C conservative Christianity?

One of the great privileges of my working life is that daily I meet with Christians who live the life Jesus wants them to live. Filled with the Spirit, loved by the Father, obedient to Jesus: in them the God who is Trinity is alive. There is hope for the world.

Nevertheless individual Christians gather together, organise themselves, discuss what is and isn't important about being a Christian, particularly what is and isn't important about being Christians together. This grouping of Christians forms the phenomenon known as Christianity and the institution known as the church (or, if you like, the institutions known as the churches). Theologically, this institution is intended to be a living being, the body of Christ. Somehow, in this institutionalization process, Christians full of the Spirit of Jesus, manage to distance the body of Christ from the Jesus we meet in the Scriptures. The signs are there for us to see. What has Jesus to do with robes in the church, for instance? Something, to be sure, because robes provide a certain anonymity to the priest, thus enabling us to see beyond the priest to the Christ at work through the priest. But when we are getting wrung up over whether the ex-pope wears a white or red cassock (and, for that matter, when the ex-pope chooses for himself what robe he will wear, rather than bowing out to the furtherest away monastery, John 3:30), we are moving a long, long way from the example of Jesus Christ.

But there are other things which I worry about. There is a whole direction of conservatism going on which raises considerable questions for me. Benedict, whatever else he did which is universally acclaimed as good, seemed to lead the Roman church in a conservative direction which went backwards a century or two, but didn't go all the way back to Jesus. His emphasis on the perfection of performance of the liturgy, even, I gather, to the point of regretting the post Vatican 2 involvement of laity, as well as his endorsement of the Latin Mass movement goes back to an idealised past, but not to Jesus who made no requirements concerning liturgical fastidiousness on his followers.

Last week I highlighted some church sites which stake part of their distinctiveness on the teaching of the Reformation. In part that is a code for a way of reading the original Scriptures which pays attention to particular doctrines. But staking a claim in this way runs a risk of freezing Christianity in the 16th century: there is the ideal, walk ye in it. But, as Archbishop Peter Jensen himself once said here in Christchurch, in the context of observing contemporary ambitions to complete the work of the English Reformers, shouldn't we want to go back to the 1st century itself?

Or, to take another example, following recent events in the States, I note a trend in conservative Christianity there to defend the acquisition of rapid firing assault rifles with large magazines. Jesus has got nothing to do with that. Though perhaps it will be asked, what do I know about the translation of the gospel into other cultures?

Conservative Christianity, whether Protestant or Roman is trying hard to be faithfully Christian in a difficult century. But what are we being faithful to? A natural tendency for conservatism (of any kind) is to hark backwards, proposing that some point in the past is the ideal. But isn't that an idolatry? Whether we worship the Latin Mass in all its sartorial splendour or the exposition of the Word with Calvinist precision, are we worshipping an image of what we think Christianity is and not Christ himself? (Does the whole of Eastern Orthodox, which makes a particular point of remaining frozen in time, some seven centuries after Jesus, constitute a form of idolatry?)

The mess over homosexuality, which is what we Western Christians are in (especially, right now, the Roman church), could it just be due to neglecting to ask what Jesus would do? It is difficult, on the basis of what we read in the gospels, to think that Jesus would approve of gay marriage. But would he approve of the way that churches oppose gay marriage? Wasn't Jesus the master of bringing in unpopular, even despised groups of people into his movement (tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes, Zealots)? Would he handle the GLBT community today the way conservative, Protestant and Roman Christianities are handling avoiding it?

In some things I read it feels like Jesus has been co-opted into conservative Christianity ("Look. Jesus agrees with us!") But wasn't the point of the kingdom of God, you know, the kingdom that turned the empire upside down, to co-opt people into it, not to be co-opted into another realm?

Does Jesus want conservative Christianity (21st century version) in his kingdom?

Would we recognise if he allowed us in?

Epilogue

There are many forms of conservative Christianity in today's world. At first sight the link between assault rifles and constriction of the laity from the liturgy may not be visible. Keep looking! My argument here is that the many conservatisms of the modern world are equally in danger of promoting a version of Christianity which is at odds with Jesus Christ himself. That is the link.




29 comments:

carl jacobs said...

A completely innocuous post, except for one thing. It begs the question "What is a Christian?" It is this question that occurs over and over and over again with your posts. You let the reader impose his own definition. You will not impose a definition on the reader. This non-answer creates a space of ambiguity in which mutually-exclusive definitions can co-exist. It prioritizes relationship over doctrine, and therefore reveals a fundamentally liberal understanding of the nature of the Church. But eventually the doctrinal impasses must surface and the whole model collapses.

Refusing to answer the question "What is a Christian" is itself an answer to the question. A man can't avoid choosing sides. If he claims to be a conservative, but makes his peace with liberalism as a valid alternate expression, then he reveals his own liberal presuppositions. A Christian is not just defined by what he believes. He is also defined by what he rejects.

carl

Peter Carrell said...

Whoops, Carl, that is just a draft (about to be changed). I hadn't realised I had pushed 'Publish'!

Father Ron Smith said...

Carl's so-urgent need to dot the 'I's' and cross the 'T's reminds me of the Pharisees who were constantly challenging Jesus' libertarian views towards the sinners of His day, is so pathetic. I'm quite sorry for him.

It is precisely that God made his human creation so infinitely varied in temperament, ethnicity, culture, gender, and sexual-orientation that makes his children so difficult to categorize. But you know, Carl; Jesus came into the world, died and rose again to save us all. P.T.L.

God knows precisely who belongs to Him. And those who do, know Him. It is up to the Church to let ALL people know that they belong to God and that God belongs to them. That is the Gospel. Labels are just something else. "Those who say to me: "Lord, Lord..."

Sadly, there are people in this world who seem to want to exclude others from being in God's Kingdom,
and some of them think they are obeying the will of God. Jesus said "Come to me, all you who are heavy-burdened, and I WILL refresh you" That is the Gospel!

Malcolm said...

Hi Peter,

I'm not sure what you are trying to say in this post.

It may be because I'm confused by your (surprisingly) human centred description of the church. I'm not sure if that's the most helpful starting point, for it begins with a institution that must first co-opted Jesus by definition. How can you then bring a critique that isn't just special pleading.

I also don't get your link between the "conservatism" of Archbishop Peter Jensen and Pope Benedict and the "conservatism" that advocates for retaining large magazines on automatic weapons.

In the same way that "fundamentalisms" of different stripes can not be homogenised into one single explanation is that not also the case with the large varieties of "conservatisms"?

It is also odd to depreciate Jensen and Benedict on their engagement with Jesus. For, arguably, each of them has made a distinctive and helpful contribution in just that area - Jensen in his Boyer lectures for the ABC, and Benedict with is three volume work on Jesus.

Thomas Schirrmacher, chair of the WEA's theological commission, recently rated this work as Benedict's finest from an evangelical viewpoint: "The Pope wanted to make it clear that Jesus is the epicenter for the Christian faith [that] the Christian faith is a personal relationship with Jesus." (from the WEA website).

Malcolm

Pageantmaster said...

Well Peter, there was the man who built his house upon the rock, and the man who built his house upon shifting sands. But then again, what of the man thinking of founding his house on cardboard?
:-)

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Malcolm,
(1) I am commending ++Peter Jensen for his remark (made, incidentally, in mild disagreement with his own brother and his predilection for finally fulfilling the aims of the 16th century reformers)!

(2) Benedict wrote a great book on Jesus (by all accounts, I haven't read it). That only makes his current decision-making all the more ironic.

(3) You almost get what I am saying (or trying to say): the many conservatisms of the modern world are equally in danger of promoting a version of Christianity which is at odds with Jesus Christ himself. [I will add this last comment to the post, at an attempt at clarity].

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Pageantmaster,
Indeed. And no building around Christchurch is being founded on cardboard. The 'cardboard cathedral' is made (it turns out, in order to meet NZ's tough building regulations) of solid steel superstructure and concrete foundations. The cardboard tubes are more for show than for substance!

Pageantmaster said...

Thanks Peter
Well the cardboard cathedral is rather beautiful, and it is good to hear built to exacting standards although I can imagine what that did to the budget.

Let's hope the man builds his house on steel and concrete and with the right capstone.

Though, I do admit a little disappointment that the tubes are just for show. It reminds me of the architect who was told in the 18thC I think, to put pillars under his self-supporting ceiling by his clients. He did, but left a gap of several inches between the ceiling and the top of the pillars which was not visible from the ground.

Andrei said...

The light is going out in the West as we move into a time of great apostasy.

Our leaders even take it upon themselves to rewrite the understanding, meaning and purpose of the fundamental human relationship, that of a man and a woman united in matrimony.

And this relationship mirrors that of the one between Christ and his Church as we all should know, which might explain the attraction of doing this to the ardent secularists, though probably unbeknownst to themselves.

But as the darkness descends on the West we see extraordinary things happening elsewhere - like this, tens of thousands gathered together outside a cathedral that was destroyed to make way for a monument to atheism that never got built and then raised again from the rubble by the Faithful.

And tens of thousdands of voices are raised in unison to sing the ancient Symbol of Faith, the Nicene Creed.

Make of it what you will but The Lord works in mysterious ways

http://youtu.be/gww2fv3TXIA

Shawn Herles said...

This post is so all over the place that it is difficult to know what to deal with.

I think you have dealt with "conservatism" in a way that renders the term meaningless. You have made no attempt at an identifiable definition of the term, just labeled a few superficial issues "conservative" and left it at that.

That is both sloppy and unfair, and it means your not really dealing with real conservatism, but a charixture of it, which is handy because the term characature efines much of the rest of the post.

An appreciation of the Reformed faith and cateschimal heritage is not about being frozen in time. That's just plain silly commentary.

Much of the rest is just not worth responding too, but it shows a disturbing trend. Like your attack on Geneva Push it treats a serious issue in a superficial way that is unfair and inaccurate. If you had practiced Christian charity and actually contacted GP and given them a chance to explain their structures I am sure they would have obliged. But it was easier to do a once over lightly on a web page and then publically attack them.

That was shoddy.

Now we have a laughable caricature of "conservatism" which makes no attempt at serious definitions but instead puts issues of gun ownership and the robes the Pope wears on the same page.

The predictable result is that your not asking any serious questions about any real "conservatism" because the "conservatism" you have created is a fabrication rendered meaningless by caricature.

Shawn Herles said...

"Carl's so-urgent need to dot the 'I's' and cross the 'T's reminds me of the Pharisees who were constantly challenging Jesus' libertarian views towards the sinners of His day, is so pathetic. I'm quite sorry for him"

Ron's personal attacks keep making it through moderation.

Ron' theology is so pathetic I feel sorry for him,

Let's see how far mine gets.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Shawn,
(1) How do you know how many of Ron's comments make it through moderation? :) [I agree, the one you comment on, verged on not being accepted, as it did contain some unacceptable material].
(2) I accept that that there are variants of 'conservatism' within Christianity, and some variants are more robust than others re closeness to Jesus. Nevertheless I am discerning a tendency (or, as a real theologian might say, a Tendenz) across the conservatism within the main branches of Christianity. I may discern that tendency wrongly. But I am arguing that a common feature is a desire to nail down one point in history as constituting some kind of ideal. There is certainly no intention on my part to caricature conservatism; nor to distance myself from conservatism: I am conservative, and I am as prone to making mistakes re understanding the true character of Christianity as any other conservative.
(3) I have not attacked the Geneva Push. I had attempted to describe its influence on some Kiwi churches. I praised it for its energy and enthusiasm in sharing the gospel. I treated seriously its own public statements about itself: why on earth would I need some private communication with its leaders unless I were not treating seriously their own public description of their work as meaning what it said? I proffered a quite reasonable, and quite non-pejorative description of their state relative to organised Anglicanism under bishops as 'post-Anglican'.
(4) Have you had a private email or two from me about a coffee at TH? I've sent a couple in the last two weeks but not heard back ...

mike greenslade said...

What has Jesus got to do with 21st C conservative Christianity?

Probably about as much as what he had to do with 1st century conservative Judaism.

carl jacobs said...

Peter

So I thought that post was a little short of substance. I shall observe with wiser eyes in the future. ;)

A few comments about the actual post.

There seems to be an assumption of a Hegelian dynamic about it. You are very concerned about going 'forward' and 'backward' as if those notions have any meaning. They don't. Christianity is not constantly recreating itself by the collision of thesis and antithesis. It possesses static content that doesn't change with time. Going 'backward' is not by definition regression. Going 'forward' is not by definition progress. Which brings me to my second point.

Reformed theology is not "a way of reading the original Scriptures which pays attention to particular doctrines." It is not intended to enshrine any particular era let alone the 16th century. The point is to tack close to Scripture. If you apply a consistent hermeneutic, you gate a consistent result. The point of Semper Reformanda is not to constantly question every single doctrine by whatever authority we think best but to constantly compare our doctrine to the piercing light of Scripture. You commit to following where it leads.

We absolutely know what Jesus would have done in regard to homosexuality, because we know what God did to Sodom. We know the revelation that God gave through the Law in the Old Testament and through Paul in the New Testament. There is no division in the Godhead. Because there is one person with two natures we know there is no division between the Godhead and the Son of Man.

God condemned Sodom for its wickedness - and Jude makes very plain the content of that wickedness. The Son of Man is not divided from the Godhead. Therefore the Son of Man would have condemned Sodom. It's true that Jesus collected around him people with disparate backgrounds. He didn't however collect prostitutes. He gathered ex-prostitutes. He gathered reformed tax collectors. He made claims on people's behavior.


Finally, conservatives aren't avoiding the issue the issue of homosexuality. We are confronting it directly - and at some cost in a culture driven mad by notions of personal autonomy. It is rather others who are avoiding the Scriptural imperative against it, lest they be called to account by the world.

carl

carl jacobs said...

Peter

For what it is worth, I didn't find FRSs post all that offensive. He judges me consistent with his religion. That's fine by me. The post he made was worth it just to get him on record saying "Jesus' libertarian views towards the sinners of His day." Plus he has stated his understanding of the Gospel - which evidently has nothing to do with sin, and atonement, and death, and resurrection. It rather has something to do with being 'refreshed.' If the cost for this kind of information is that he gets to call me a Pharisee, well, I can live with that.

Way back in 2005 when I started commenting on weblogs, I spent about 15 months reading comments at liberal sites. Why, you ask? Because that's how you learn what liberals believe. You read what they say in an environment where they feel comfortable. That's why I think FRSs posts are a good thing. They demonstrate clearly the difference between us. I for one do not fear that difference.

You must enforce your rules in a consistent manner. I understand that. Even so, I for one am happy that you let that post through. The impact on me from such a post is not measurable, but the information gleaned is priceless.

Jesus the Libertarian. Heh. That's what you call first rate exegesis.

carl

Father Ron Smith said...

I have just been reading a most interesting book called 'Crazy for God', by Frank Schaeffer. Frank is the son of the famous duo Francis and Edith Schaeffer, who formed the community 'L'Abri' in Switzerland, and whose prolific writings still are acknowledged by the Religious Right as seminal to their cause.

However, Frank, having repented of his former zealotry, has become a powerful speaker and writer who, though still a supporter of the 'Right to Life' movement, largely condemns the extremities of the American Religious Right, as being too much focussed on the evils of society and not enough on the need to: 'feed the hungry, heal the sick', be hospitable to strangers - all of those things that are the mark of Jesus in the Gospel.

I invite readers to tap into this link to hear what he has to say about the subject of this post - The conservatives in 'the Church'

www.frankschaeffer.com

Peter Carrell said...

Ron's comment, shorn of its major ad hominems:

"Andrei said...
The light is going out in the West as we move into a time of great apostasy."

...

Back to the topic of this thread, I think one only has to read any of these responses to truly understand what the word 'conservative' really means - a radical retrenchment to the past, with not much hope for the future. God help those parts of the Church that depend on such pathetic nostalgia to proclaim the Gospel of Christ's Resurrection.

The really Good News is that God has recognised our fragile humanity and has given us a Redeemer, who has 'borne our afflictions', taken them to the Cross and recycled them into the possibility of spending eternity with Him in glory. What better outlook can there possibly be for those who look to Him - and not to ourselves - for salvation?

Kyrie eleison! Christe eleison!
"

Anonymous said...

Carl,
two very helpful posts which I must mentally bookmark (as well as precis in my book of loci communes). You are quite right that talk of being 'progressive' (which is the liberals' preferred self-designation) is really posited on a Hegelian view of reality and epistemology: which is to say, in secular terms, the process of history leads irrevocably to the Triumph of the humanum and the discovery of Truth through Science (the pompous capital letters are deliberate), while Hegelianism, transposed into religious terms, is the belief that secular science and epistemology will transform Christianity into a religious version of the same. This is exactly what the philosophaster Jack Spong has been saying for thirty years. He is the guide for all the self-described progressives in Tec, Canada (and for this site's resident contrarian, whom I long ceased to answer as there was no substance to respond to). Metaphorical talk of 'progressive' or 'regressive' is only of value if one recognises a concealed premise that 'progress = good' while 'regressive = bad'. But 'progress' (from Lat. progredior) only means 'to step forward' (i.e. in the way you are facing) - and that could be off a cliff; while 'regredior' means 'I return' - which is of course the basic meaning of Hebrew 'shubh', to repent. When we deconstruct this value-laden metaphor we can see more clearly.

Martin

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Carl,
You make some fair points.
Nevertheless I suggest that when X (an individual or a church) makes a claim about 'Reformation teaching' then it is making a claim about a distinctive set of doctrines. Otherwise why not simply claim to be pure and simply biblically/scripturally based.
Am glad you are unmoved by a little ad hominem and enthused about learning where libertarianism may be found.

Who would have thought, Ayn Rand and Jesus, together freeing the world for personal choice!!

Andrei said...

However, Frank, having repented of his former zealotry, has become a powerful speaker and writer who, though still a supporter of the 'Right to Life' movement, largely condemns the extremities of the American Religious Right, as being too much focussed on the evils of society and not enough on the need to: 'feed the hungry, heal the sick', be hospitable to strangers - all of those things that are the mark of Jesus in the Gospel.

Interesting the concept that those who supposedly "focus on the eviles of society" allegedly do not do enought to "'feed the hungry, heal the sick', be hospitable to strangers - all of those things that are the mark of Jesus in the Gospel."

How do you or anyone else know what anyone does in this regard who does not blow their trumpet as they are doing it Fr Ron?

Indeed some may make great displays of their "virtue" as they go about their good works while the charitable works of others may only be known to Lord.

To point a finger at a particular group and make such a claim as that might even be characterized as bigotry and if not that it is most certainly judgemental

Anonymous said...

Carl writes: "God condemned Sodom for its wickedness - and Jude makes very plain the content of that wickedness. The Son of Man is not divided from the Godhead. Therefore the Son of Man would have condemned Sodom. It's true that Jesus collected around him people with disparate backgrounds. He didn't however collect prostitutes. He gathered ex-prostitutes. He gathered reformed tax collectors. He made claims on people's behavior."

This is absolutely correct, and concisely and elegantly stated. I would only add that Jesus stated that Sodom would have repented in his presence (Matt 11.23). The idea that Jesus was somewhow indifferent to the sexual conduct of his followers is ridiculous, unhistorical and blasphemous in its assumptions - but then the 'Jesus' of Progressivism is a self-serving mental construct of 19th and 20th century thought and bears very little relation to the true figure of Scripture and history. Even - especially - Albert Schweitzer understood that point.
Christ scandalized the people of his day not be proclaiming God's forgiveness of sinners (every prohet did this) but by prouncing God's forgiveness in his OWN dominical name (Mark 2).

Martin

Father Ron Smith said...

Martin, you obviously have not yet heard - or if you have, you have closed your ears to, the more modern understanding of Sodom's sin as: inhospitality to strangers (the angelic visitors).

Another thing about that particular passage of Scripture is that the Patriarch offers the virtue of his own daughters - in lieu!! How very 'Christian' is that?

Peter Carrell said...

'Inhospitality', Ron, as a 'more modern understanding' of Sodom's sin? I thought the credit for that belongs to the ancient Ezekiel!

But need we make the matter an either/or? Inhospitality is undoubtedly the general sin of Sodom. But is not the account in Sodom about a particular form of inhospitality, that which proceeds from rapacious intent?

Would our Lord have made his point, adduced in a comment above, about Sodom if, so to speak, its sin was only inhospitality? Was it not a byword for sinfulness because something much worse was at work in its midst than in hospitality?

mike greenslade said...

You are right Peter. It was more than simple inhospitality. It was the sort of inhospitality that began with rape and included the dehumanising of the guest. It had nothing to do with same sex marriage, or the love between two people of whatever gender.
We join Sodom in its sin when we dehumanise and exclude.

Father Ron Smith said...

I do take your point Peter, but that still does not excuse the Patriarch's offering of his daughters to be used in lieu of the angelic strangers. Or is that in some way a 'lesser sin'?.

I suppose that, from your point of view, this does establish the supposed gender of the angelic visitors. They were actually male?

Gosh, this business of exegesis can be very difficult. But I guess that, for certain conservatives in the Church, there could only be one possible understanding of any biblical passage.

I guess that's why Jesus had to teach in parables - so that his hearers would not be able to cite 'chapter and verse'.

Father Ron Smith said...

"And this relationship mirrors that of the one between Christ and his Church as we all should know,"
- Andrei -

Well, we don't all know that automatically, Andrei. Some of us have a problem with your dogmatic statement - especially as the most fought over element in the marriage stakes is that of the virtue- or not -of the sexual component. This is surely absent in Heaven?

So, not exactly mirroring the heterosexual sacrament of marriage.

Peter Carrell said...

I am not aware, Ron, of anyone here there or anywhere trying to excuse the patriarch of his sin, let alone deem it a lesser sin. Sodom stands for sin! It permeated the best and worst households :)

I am also not aware of any one group in the church which is more culpable than another of focusing on one possible understanding of a biblical passage.

Lovers of the Bible revel in the multiplicity of its meanings, praising God for the richness of meaning he has breathed into his Word.

liturgy said...

"only inhospitality" is a first world filter. In the desert, Middle East, Africa, etc. hospitality has a much higher value than in our context.

Blessings

Bosco

MichaelA said...

"Back to the topic of this thread, I think one only has to read any of these responses to truly understand what the word 'conservative' really means - a radical retrenchment to the past, with not much hope for the future."

Peter, I beg to differ. Reading through both the article and the responses, I am left with the understanding that "conservative" means simply what each person thinks it might mean. It wasn't defined in the thesis that started the debate (i.e. the article) and the antitheses (the responses) don't really help much either!