Friday, June 4, 2010

The Embodied Apologetic


God’s purpose in Christ is still being achieved, and being achieved by the very method by which Jesus lived and died—not by human conquest, but by the radical politics of the cross.
James McClendon, Doctrine (1994)

Today's post is the first in a series commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the passing of James McClendon in October of 2000. McClendon is one of the most important and overlooked theologians of the late 20th century. His "baptist vision" of the Christian life reflects the best of the legacy of the Radical Reformation in North America today.
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The late Anabaptist theologian James McClendon spent the last two decades of his life at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and then Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena constructing a 1,200+ page systematic postmodern theology. What sets his work apart from other voluminous Christian manifestos is not only his commitment to humble, irenic dialogue with traditions both within and outside of Christianity, but also a wholehearted focus on action. The order of his 3 works--Ethics (1986), Doctrine (1994) & Witness (2000)--flipped the robotically followed script within the Christian academy that we are supposed to reckon with what we believe before we can move on to how we behave. One of McClendon's revolutionary convictions (and there are many) is that this notion is entirely backwards and it began about 3 centuries into the Christian experiment:

Is it not worth considering, finally, how different might have been the history of Christianity if after the accension of the Emperor Constantine the church’s leaders had met at Nicaea, not to anathematize others’ inadequate Christological metaphysics, but to devise a strategy by which the church might remain the church in light of the fateful political shift—to secure Christian social ethics before refining Christian dogma?

Instead of nailing down how exactly Christ was fully divine and fully human or other questions about the virgin birth, the Lord's Supper, and eventually the nature of biblical authority, perhaps they should have focused on whether followers of Jesus could or should ever take up arms or what it meant to be citizens of the kingdom of God before Rome. In addition, McClendon rejected the recent 300 year+ Christian obsession with certainty. He proposed that instead of building truth on top of a foundation (like the inerrant Bible or the words of one's chosen pastor-hero), faith was more like a marriage or a voyage: as we learn and grow and find ourselves in different contexts, we must prayerfully discern and adapt. Doubts and complexity are a part of life, but our community of fellow disciples are a vital source of support and energy.

McClendon ultimately set his sights on chronicling and cultivating a Christian faith that was not so concerned with the polarizing issues that had dominated Modern Christianity, pitting Calvinists against Arminians & liberals against fundamentalists. These arguments simply had not caught the attention of a minority report of Western Christians who McClendon described with 5 key characteristics:

…the awareness of the biblical story as our story, but also of mission as responsibility for costly witness, of liberty as the freedom to obey God without state help or hindrance, of discipleship as life transformed into obedience to Jesus’ lordship, and of community as daily sharing in the vision.

This unique kind of Christian read the Bible as the ultimate Script for their lives, a story that disciples of Jesus still find themselves participating in, not as an error-free encyclopedia of truth statements. McClendon reminded readers of the Greek word for the English "witness" that comes up over and over in the New Testament: martyr. Real Christian mission will cost our lives or livelihoods and, for this minority report of Jesus-followers, this has often come at the hands of their fellow Christians. These Christians have never felt comfortable with state-sponsored religion--whether chaplains or national days of prayer or "God Bless America" or "In God We Trust. This brand of "civil religion" lacks the depth and freely-chosen passion required of Christian discipleship. Since Constantine in the 4th century, it has watered down and counterfeited too many elements of Jesus' original message. This kind of Christianity equates salvation with discipleship, not eternal life in heaven. It is not a two-step motion: get saved, then get discipled. Salvation is a process, not a destination, of discipleship, becoming more and more transfomred into the image of Christ as we cultivate the kingdom of God wherever we find ourselves. Sincere Christian folks who ask, "So, then, we need to work our way to heaven?" are enmeshed in a different, dominant framing of Christianity. Lastly, Christianity is not for rugged individualists. The goal of Christian faith is not to get my soul into heaven when I die, but to participate with the worldwide Body of Christ in the redemption of the world. This happens creatively and consistently in local communities who pledge allegiance to "the new in Christ," not to the American Dream

McClendon believed Chrsitianity was about action. After all, more and more of us are realizing that Christian faith cannot be proven, but only compelling. Instead of straining to defend the faith with a logic-driven "apologetics" (reflected in modern works like A Case for Christ and Evidence That Demands A Verdict), he proposed an "embodied apologetic" (a phrase he never used that I know of, but he certainly did embody it) that emphasized a life of love, humility and service to the world. His paradigm for this lifestyle (ethics) was a rope with 3 strands:

The Embodied Strand--every human being is a creation of God. We all have unique needs, desires and yearnings. We are a complex intertwining of unresolved hurts, fears, insecurities, anxieties and modes of self protection. We eat, drink, sleep and hunger for sexual intimacy and all these (and a lot more) become distorted, leading to addiction and enslavement to desire. Salvation is more than a pietistic moral code of rights and wrongs. It is a holistic road to redemption.

The Social Strand--the world is far more than 6.5 billion autonomous individuals. We live and breathe and develop within "systems" (family, nations, economies, media, faith communities, marriages, neighborhoods) that deeply form us. These are the "principalities and powers" (of Colossians and Ephesians) that Jesus exposed, protested and died to save us from. These systems need redeeming and followers of Jesus are called to creatively and consistently discern where and how we can be systems healers. We commit ourselves to become "disciplined nonconformists" (MLK) who pledge allegiance to "powerful practices" that energize us in the alternative way of Christ while criticizing the Powers that order our lives.

The Resurrection Strand--our lives are infused with the acknowledgment and empowerment of the Presence of the resurrected Jesus in our world today. We live for "the New in Christ," by anticipating the End, when "all things become new" and violence, hatred, revenge, scarcity, competition, gossip and chronic anxiety melt away. We are called now to tangibly model what the world will become eventually. We work for global change by practicing heaven now.

The Christian life according to McClendon, however, is not a checklist of these strands, nor is it a series of ethical decisions. It is a (true) Story that we commit to participating in. We need an ethical imagination which blossoms in communities who recognize a 3-stranded lifestyle that is an adventure (God as trailblazer) not an obligation (God as police officer).

--Theological Autopilot

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