Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What's Matuirty Got To Do With It?

I sometimes wonder how old I'll have to be for people to stop telling me, "wait 'til you're older and you'll think differently." I've received this prophesy from people over a myriad of topics--politics, theology, education, nationalism, etc.--and I cannot recall one wherein the prophesy actually came true. I still think violence is wrong, being gay is ok, and being happy is more important than making money. And being a father, being a little older than I was (30 this year), and perhaps not a little wiser, I have certainly changed but not in the way people seemed to have expected. "Wait 'til you're older and you'll think differently" is really just code for, "you disagree with me now because you're young, and I'm smarter cause I'm older, so when you get older you'll agree with me too." And as far as I can tell, it's usually the mistaken assumption of someone who believes their nostalgic experience of being young makes them a cultural insider of youth and that the only real separation is chronological progress. It's a mistake implicit in using maturity as a qualitative term. 

You've heard people say it. 


It's used as a way of saying that someone is not handling themselves or a particular situation appropriately. "OH, VERY MATURE!" is the sarcastic battle cry of relational superiority. According to common usage, growing up and being more mature means being courteous, being fair, caring about other people's feelings, taking courage, being independent, and taking action, among other things. The way we conceptualize it, maturity is inherently positive and preferable to immaturity. "Mature" is an adjective that's synonymous with "better." We associate maturity with a whole myriad of things we want society to have, but are any of these things actually necessarily products of maturity? Could we leave maturity out of it and still talk about being good and kind and intelligent and appropriate? What's maturity got to do with it?! 

Maturity is associated with age. Being older correlates with maturity. Maturity is associated with adulthood. This is explicit when we accuse someone of "acting like a child." I can't think of a time that I've head that offered as a compliment. It's really no different that saying, "you throw like a girl." It implies that throwing like a boy is better. Saying that someone is acting like a child when they're behaving poorly implies that being an adult is better, that being a child is qualitatively inferior to being an adult. Childhood is, fundamentally, just a stop along the way to adulthood. We have nothing to learn from it, it doesn't challenge adulthood, it just needs to be overcome. 

But this is simply unethical. It's unjust. It is marginalization. Some people used to think that men were superior to women. Some people used to think that white people were better than black people. Some people actually used to think that the wealthy were better than the poor. Of course I'm being tongue-in-cheek here... I'm fully aware that we have't overcome these hegemonic inequalities yet. But for the same reason that we consider these things to be unjust and immoral, it is unjust and immoral for adults to presuppose their own superiority over children. If you think I'm going too far in saying this, at least consider the analogy. This is why we should stop using "maturity" as though it has intrinsic value.

I go back and forth, though.

What if we had a definition of social maturity (and spiritual maturity) that transcended chronological maturity? What if we could imagine a maturity that is indigenous not only to adulthood but to childhood as well? We'd definitely still have to stop using maturity and "growing up" as synonyms. But perhaps we could still use the term! 


Maybe it's just better that we stop assuming that maturity is inherently good. Maybe we should stop using mature and immature as value judgements and consider what it would mean to be a-mature. What if we dispensed with the value judgements and talked about the actual content of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as distinct social practices with distinct qualities and values? What if adults actually considered what we could learn from children while we considered what they can learn from us? What if we shared the responsibility for being human and dispensed with the superiority implied in our use of the term maturity? What if we could actually imagine saying, "you're acting like a child," and meaning it as a compliment?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Is "Maturity" A Useful Category?

This has been a busy summer for me!

Just to fill you in, I've been working three jobs: a job at the mailroom at Princeton Seminary, at the Princeton Institute for Youth Ministry, and for Hopewell Presbyterian Church (I'm sorta their "Summer Pastor," doing pastoral care and preaching for the Summer while their Pastor is on sabbatical). I'm also doing some writing... not on the blog, obviously... My good friend, Dr. Erin Raffety, and I have been writing an article on Youth Ministry and Ethnography (fun stuff!!!). And on top of all that, I'm trying to study for the GRE (a test I have to take in order to apply for PhD programs, ugh.)... Oh, I am also husband and a father of a high-energy toddler...

Yeah. It's been busy.

I hope that explains why I haven't been blogging as much lately.

But, if you're interested in what's been on my mind lately, I've been thinking about maturity (yes... still). I have been reading a lot on Childhood Studies, which essentially tries to deal with childhood in its own right, without reducing it to a stage on the way to adulthood and thus without presupposing the rubric of maturity in conceptualizing and interpreting the content of childhood. However, I am also reading Susan Neiman's book Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age which, so far, has me perplexed because of it's pejorative title (apparently "infantile" is bad and "growing up" is a choice). Neiman thinks our culture is immature and privileges immaturity and she really wants people to mature... which, at first glance, just looks like a fallacy. You can't just demand that one social group (childhood or adolescence) conform to another (adulthood) as though they are separated by nothing more than chronology. But she may, in fact, be on to something. If her notion of maturity turns out to be something that can be discovered in children and adults alike, then she may actually be breaking some ground. I've only read the first few pages... but she hints that someone's maturity may have less to do with cognitive capacities or social rituals than with depth and courage. She writes, "growing up is more a matter of courage than knowledge..." (6). And while she may overemphasize agency as normative for personhood, she (ironically) describes "being a grown-up" as something that even children do: "Doing what you can to move your part of the world closer to the way that it should be, while never losing sight of the way that it is..." (8). Children, incidentally, are probably better at this than adults. And although the developmentalist narratives of 20th century psychology might implore us to believe otherwise, I think adolescents hold this balance pretty well within themselves. Of course, adults can do this too but they, perhaps no less often than children, miss the mark. Children might be more attune to how things really are than adults (they're certainly better at enjoying it), and if one is ignorant of the ways in which children act upon and shape their realities... well, they haven't been paying attention to the actual social content of childhood. So, by Neiman's definition of maturity, I might be able to learn more from my toddler than I can from many adults. This is an exciting notion of maturity! But is it maturity?

The question that's raised for me in all of this is, "what's the use of maturity?" If what we're after are certain qualities that are often associated with adulthood but are also indigenous to childhood and adolescence--qualities such as agency, courage, and morality--then why don't we just talk about those and leave maturity out of it? Why do we have to cast our cultural critiques in implicitly pejorative references to adolescence and childhood? Why bother with maturity if what we really want is for people to be good? Any child... indeed also any person who has disabilities which preclude them from the "normal" processes of maturation... can be courageous (indeed, they are almost certainly MORE courageous). Any child can act upon their reality to make it better and more harmonious (some call it playing). Any teenager can make empathic moral decisions. Why do we place these qualities on a scale of advancement, especially one that so often implies chronological advancement? Why grow-up, indeed?

I'm afraid that our notions of maturity only serve to obscure the actual content of human experience... and this is especially disconcerting to me as a practical theologian because I believe that God is part of that content. And if that's true, then what we're obscuring when we obscure people's experience is the God whom they are experiencing and thus the ways in which we can participate in God's action... we're obscuring ministry itself!

This is what's on my mind. Hopefully, I'll have more thoughts on this stuff (and thoughts on Neiman's book) in the next few weeks.

Friday, June 26, 2015

There is No Design

Today, the US Supreme Court made a decision to affirm what has always been true--that there is no crime in being gay. For me, this has been a day of celebration. For most of my friends on Facebook, either by virtue of the changing of the tide in the United States or by virtue of my more conservative friends "un-friending" me, this has been a day to proclaim support and express relief. But there is another side of the tracks of this occasion, to put it one way. There are those who are not celebrating, not feeling relief, not proclaiming support. There are those who are filled with fear, distress, and contempt. And this is a time when Christians, particularly those of a more fundamentalist or biblicist persuasion, begin their strange and paradoxical language of "love the sinner, hate the sin" and "I love gay people but I cannot support gay marriage." The rationale is historically complex and multi-layered (even if the claim is that it's one-dimensionally "biblical"), but one part that seems to consistently expose itself is the rationale of "design." "It is against God's design for marriage," they might say. This is the theological way of saying "it's unnatural." "Homosexuality is not God's design."

People talk about a "biblical design" but the fact is, the concept of "design" is theologically alien to the doctrine of creation. The metric of "design" is not indigenous to the Christian doctrine of creation or of the Imago Dei. God's creation of humankind is not just about drawing up plans and putting pieces together. It is about God's breathing life into dust, in loving creativity and ultimately in freedom. The doctrine of creation is about God's turning toward creation, the Imago Dei is about God's friendship with humanity. This precludes the mechanistic notion of "design." There is no "design" which determines or limits God's orientation toward humanity. God did not create a design, God created people... people are the "design"--male female, slave or free, Jew or Muslim, gay or straight, gender conforming or non-gender conforming--and God loves people. God's relation to humanity is primal, and God's relation to humanity is summed up in the phrase, "we are all one in Christ" (Gal. 3:28). This relationship does not follow a pattern like a design, for what is centralized is not an order of the relationship but the characters in it. And as it turns out, some of the characters happen to be gay. What's at stake here, which distinguishes this from conversations about morality, is the characters themselves, not simply their conduct.

A couple of days ago I heard Will Willimon (in the spirit of Karl Barth) say, "we don't have to devise means of turning toward God because God has turned toward us." This is the first move in all creation. Therefore, what makes us human is not a design to which we must conform, whether it be sexuality or even rationality (or notions of maturity). As John Swinton writes, "There is a necessary degree of uncertainty, openness and mystery inherent in all human understandings of God and humanity, which makes definitive propositions and comprehensive systems impossible" (From Bedlam to Shalom, 17). What makes us human is God's grace toward us in all our inadequacy. This grace is expressed in love. As Swinton puts it, "a person's humanity is defined and maintained by God's gracious movement towards them in love" (31). Humanity comes first because love comes first... whatever "designs" there are can only come second. Thus as the sabbath is for people not people for the sabbath (Mark 2:27), so is marriage for people not people for marriage. The characters precede the plot. If the characters are gay then marriage is for them. Dispense with notions of preceding design.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Moltmann at Princeton Seminary

A couple of days ago I had the rare privilege of hearing Jürgen Moltmann give a lecture at Princeton Seminary's annual Karl Barth Conference. Moltmann gave an impressive lecture on Barth's theology of election and predestination. In true Moltmann fashion, he offered not only a charitable and insightful reading of Barth but also added his own questions and proposals. At 89 years of age, Moltmann is still remarkably witty and incredibly sharp. No one has influenced my theology quite as thoroughly as Moltmann has and it was truly an honor to share space with him and actually (though briefly) meet him. He was kind enough to sign my copy of Theology of Hope. I thanked him for his lecture and for all that he has done. But I wonder if he knew how much I meant that.

Have a listen to his lecture:
Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Entrepreneurial Pastor

"In a society that overvalues progress, development, and personal achievement, the spiritual life becomes quite easily performance oriented: ‘On what level am I now, and how do I move to the next one?’…but it is of great importance that we leave the world of measurements behind when we speak about the life of the Spirit. Spiritual formation, I have come to believe, is not about steps or stages on the way to perfection. It’s about the movements from the mind to the heart through prayer in its many forms that reunite us with God, each other, and our truest selves." -Henri Nouwen
Pastors in America have this innate temptation to think like entrepreneurs, like CEO's even. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, if entrepreneurship implies creativity and forward thinking, then it's gotta be a good thing! But when the entrepreneurial values of progress and achievement take hold of the Pastoral imagination, danger lurks. The pastor falls prey to all kinds of assumptions and expectations that should be alien to the practice of pastoral ministry. The concept of spiritual growth can be confused with spiritual achievement. The fruit of the Spirit can be choked by the weeds of self-fulfillment and successful advancement. The church's ministry can be replaced by the church's expediency in society. And the result is pressure... pressure on the Pastor... pressure on the congregation... pressure to do better, do more, be more faithful, grow, mature, and do all the other things a good business is supposed to do. This is the Western (the American!) thing to do!

This kind of entrepreneurial ambition is fine in some places, but it's not fine in the church... it's never unambiguously synonymous with good ministry, and it's never synonymous with healthy spirituality. Spirituality and human ambition fall on opposing sides of a spectrum. Spirituality, I would say, is a continuous practice of returning to the futility of human ambition and the supremacy of divine action. If there is a spiritual version of ambition, it is only the ambition of discovering Christ in us, ourselves in Christ, and discovering Christ in the wounds of the crucified God. As Jurgen Moltmann has said, "prayer is not an athletic sport..." (this was said in the question and response period following his lecture at the Princeton Karl Barth Conference in Miller Chapel just last night).

Ministry is about God's action (ministry, after all, is not ours but God's). God's action is about relationship. And relationship, as it concerns God insofar as we can discern from Jesus' words, is about friendship. We are made friends of God in Jesus Christ (even as we remain God's enemies in so many ways). So if we can apply the principles of entrepreneurship and ambition to ministry, we can only do so to the extent than we can apply it to friendship. But while entrepreneurship implies a concern for strategy and strategy is birthed in anxiety (and I do not mean this pejoratively) over our place in the system, our success in maintaining our relevance or influence, friendship necessarily precludes this anxiety. Friendship does not fret over its place. It's temperature does not need always be taken. It is a sign, in fact, of trouble in our friendships when we are concerned with the status of them. We can be entrepreneurial in many things, but we cannot be in our friendships... so we cannot be in ministry. We can be creative, yes. We can be purposeful. We can even take up a strategy (if we're careful). But we cannot centralize our concern for success or status. We cannot shape our ministry around the desire for an outcome (read: profit). We must not be so concerned to do things for God. We must, instead, be concerned with God--the God who is love and loves us. We must centralize our own weakness and need for God, our friend. It is not upward mobility that marks ministry and spirituality, but downward mobility. It is not by the metric of a successful business that ministry is measured but by the servanthood that returns no profit, even the washing of feet.

Entrepreneurship implies a desired outcome--call it influence, development, "transformation," or whatever. Ministry is its own outcome. Friendship is its own outcome. For it is in friendship that God encounters us... and ministry is all about God's encounter with us.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Stop Being Surprised

In every youth ministry I've been a part of, almost every time an adult who is not used to working with young people (and often, even one who is) is invited in to engage and interact with young people, they are surprised by the experience. "Those kids are so much more _______ than I thought they would be!" (fill in the blank: kind, intelligent, thoughtful, deep, honest, motivated, empathetic, spiritual, etc....) It almost never fails.

Have you had this experience? It's common in every youth ministry setting I've found myself in, and I am willing to bet that it's common in your church or ministry as well. 

Maybe we should stop being so surprised. If it is so common that young people disrupt our expectations and prove to be "exceptions to the rule," perhaps we should consider changing the rules and adapting our expectations. If we're surprised so often, maybe we should consider the possibility that what surprises us is actually what's to be expected. 

Let me get a little more specific...

In much of the literature on "adolescent development," from both psychological and (so-called) theological perspectives, there is a basic assumption that adolescence is a time of turmoil and chaos--a transitional stage wherein young people struggle through the process of "identity formation" and "individuation," completing the "tasks" of adolescence to achieve "societal adulthood." The assumption is that when we (adults) encounter them, we should expect them to be confused about who they are, preoccupied with themselves and with realizing their place in this world, and a bit angsty if not anxious about the world. This is what makes them "unruly" and "rebellious" and self-centered. Their occupation in the adolescent stage of development justifies our presupposition that, when we encounter a young person, we will discover someone who is less sophisticated, more shallow, and less empathetic than we are. They are not as "developed" as we are and so they are essentially (and I mean essentially, as in according to our essentialism) savages. If we discover an intelligent, compassionate, deep, and empathetic individual who has a basic sense of security and their own identity, we're baffled... and yet... we're ALWAYS BAFFLED! 

Now, the fact is--even if some developmentalist thinkers have convinced us that identity formation is indigenous to adolescence and that adolescence is the stage wherein people struggle with identity, autonomy, and belonging--this struggle is indigenous to all of our experience, no matter if we occupy the social space of adulthood or that of childhood. Individuation is a human experience, not an adolescent experience. So yes, you may find a teenager who struggles with their sense of belonging, but haven't you met a few adults who struggle with that as well, in ways that are indigenous to their own experience? 

If we have been so dissuaded from expecting young people to be caring and compassionate human beings that we are surprised every time we discover it, then maybe we're missing something. If our preoccupation has been so bent toward worrying about adolescence, getting to know it so we can fix it, then perhaps we should redirect our anxieties toward our own issues and our own orientation toward young people. Perhaps we should be less worried about what adolescence is and a lot more worried about how we, as adults and as ministers, should approach these people. And rather than managing the expectations we have of them, rather than worrying about how we can affect their lives, perhaps we should think about what we expect from ourselves and about how we might be disrupted by the experiences of young people in whose lives the Spirit of the Living God is present and active. 

Now, this is not about optimism. But it might be about hope. This is not about pretending that everyone is really made of sugar and spice and everything nice. No. We will discover the same kind of depravity in young people that we will find in adults. We will see greed and hatred and violence and everything else we read about in the news. But in hope, we expect that in the midst of whatever is going on in a person's life, God's Spirit is alive and is inviting us to participate in Her action. We simply must do away with any judgement that precludes our discovery of that action. 

Young people, as it turns out, are people. And as such, they are recipients of God's grace and they are the beloved of God. When it comes to spirituality, psychological maturity has no baring on the sophistication or profundity of God's action in one's life. If we get more mature, if we get better at things, we do not get better at being Christians. As Karl Barth wrote, people "may and can be masters...in many things, but never in what makes them Christians..." (The Christian Life, 79). This means that God is at work in profound ways, even in the life of one who has not entered the social world of adulthood. And we must orient ourselves to be affected and disrupted by that experience.

So we must not orient ourselves to adolescents as a mechanic orients herself to the engine of a car. We must not be preoccupied with the "problem of adolescence." Rather, we must be ready to discover whatever is actually there. We must not assume that they will be any less intelligent, compassionate, spiritual, or secure than we are. We must not assume that their life is in any more turmoil than ours is. We've got to stop being so surprised all the time and start expecting more.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Good Shepherd

In the book of John, Jesus has a habit of using very ordinary things to get at some pretty lofty ideas. He healed a blind man with some mud he made from his own spit, he announced the coming of heaven to earth by changing some dirty water into new wine, he often used very common and everyday ideas to convey deep spiritual truths. And people didn't really get him all the time. When he told a man named Nicodemus that he needed to be "born from above" (John 3) in order to enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus thought he meant that he actually had to be "born again"... literally. When he told a woman that he would give her "living water," she pointed out that he didn't have a bucket for the well. What others took to be simple, mundane, and ordinary; Jesus took to have profound spiritual meaning.

Once, when he was at a party and the wine was running low his mother asked him to get some more wine - no big deal, right? - but Jesus, perhaps with a flair for the dramatic, responded, "O Woman... My hour has not yet come." I can imagine Mary saying, "uh... ok..." and turning to the servants saying, "not sure what that's about, but just do what he says." And of course the water turns to wine, a symbol of the restoration and ultimately of the coming of heaven to earth. The ordinary proved to be quite out of the ordinary.

In similar fashion, John's Jesus uses ordinary language to make profound claims about his own identity. He says that he's the bread of life. What's so special about bread? Bread is a daily thing (we at least pray that it is). And yet, for Jesus it is a symbol of God's salvation... an allusion to the manna God gave to the people when the people were wandering in the wilderness. He says that he's the "light of the world."

He also says that he's the "gate" - I love this one.

A gate? Really?

When Jesus uses a "gate" to describe himself, it says that the disciples "...did not understand what he was saying to them." Well why would they? Here is their Messiah, their coming king who is to save them from their oppression and bring them to prosperity. He should be comparing himself to warriors and lightning and stuff... but here he's calling himself a gate... and a gate for sheep enter? Not even like a pretty golden gate or anything?

And then we get to the shepherd... Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd." Again... not "great king" or "mighty savior" but "good shepherd." How perplexing this must have been for the disciples. How is a shepherd going to save them? You see, the fact is, shepherds were not what you'd consider to be of the "upper echelon" of society. If these disciples saw themselves as poor, oppressed, and in need of salvation (which is what they were), then a shepherd was in the same situation they were in. A shepherd would have been in just as poor a situation as they were.

Remember the Christmas story... do you remember that the angels came to shepherds in fields to announce that a savior was born to them? Shepherds needed a savior! ...especially Jewish ones.

The Jews were among the conquered nations of Rome and when Rome conquered a nation (under the banner of the Pax Romana) they were treated like conquered people. It took time before the conquered people were really considered Roman... in fact there was quite a process to becoming Roman. In the meantime, they were ruled pretty harshly, especially those in the lower classes of the people. As such they were taxed very harshly. Rome demanded large percentages of profits to be given in support of the Pax Romana--for Rome's cause of conquering more nations. After all, world domination wasn't cheap. Shepherds were on the under side of the imperial dominion, so they were among those taxed most harshly. They were left with little to feed their families and they were enslaved to the Roman system. And, because they were Jewish, once Rome took their share Herod, the so-called king of the Jews, would take his. Just to be nice, Rome allowed the Jewish authorities (whom the Romans controlled) to tax their own people for the maintenance of what had become a corrupt temple system. To maintain the temple and uphold the temple laws, the Jewish leaders (who were also being taxed by the Romans), needed their own tax system. So everyday people--like shepherds--were double-taxed. They were taxed harshly by the Romans and harshly by the Jewish leaders. So when angels came to shepherd to announce the coming of the Messiah, the new king to liberate them from their slavery to the empire and to their own leaders, you can see why they thought it might be worth checking it out.

But why would Jesus, the one who's supposed to save the world, compare himself to a shepherd. Why would there be any hope in someone who's stuck in the same mess they're already in?

Well, while the immediate circumstances certainly didn't lend themselves to such a comparison, there's a part of their tradition that put a lot of stock in good shepherds. The leaders of the people of Israel--particularly their religious leaders--were often called the shepherds of Israel. Because of the troubled ciurcumstances of shepherds during Jesus' day, and because of the precarious situation in which the Jews found themselves under Roman rule, they may not have appealed to this tradition much. But the leaders of Israel were supposed to lead the people and care for them, not rule over them. And apparently the religious leaders of Jesus' day weren't doing a very good job. When Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he is making alluding to the possibility that there are bad shepherds, and thus he is alluding to Ezekiel 34.
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. (Ezekiel 34:1-4)
Jesus, by referring to himself as a good shepherd, is subtly indicting the religious leaders of his day as "false shepherds" who, instead of caring for the sheep, only care for themselves. Of course they didn't see it that way. They needed enough money to feed themselves, right? They needed enough to maintain their temple, right? They needed to survive, right? So instead of leading the sheep, caring for them and giving themselves up for their sheep, they used their sheep for their own profits. "Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?"

And we cannot miss that this is also an indictment against Rome! In verse 8 (in Ez. 34) God says, "my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd..." The shepherds have abandoned the sheep to the "wild animals." Who are the wild animals? It's the Romans! The Romans are devouring God's people. Now the Romans would have taken offense to that. Romans saw themselves as saviors to their conquered people, bringing culture and order to the savages. Of course they weren't the wild animals. They were the saviors, bringing peace, the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana! But, quite subtly, Jesus calls them wild animals.

But it doesn't just end with judgment of the bad shepherds. Jesus is still saying that he is the good shepherd... Ezekiel continues:
I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. (Ez 34:11-14)
The hope, the promise, is that God will be the good shepherd. God will become the shepherd of the people! And how will God be a shepherd? Not by ruling over the people, not by using them or ruling over them, but by caring for them feeding them "lie down in good grazing land."Is this not reminiscent of Psalm 23... it should be...
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul."
Counterintuitively - by comparing himself to something as mundane and common as a shepherd - Jesus is claiming for himself a role that only God can fill. Instead of claiming lordship - which can too easily be confused with the type demonstrated by Caesar and by Herod - Jesus promises that he will "lay down [his] life for the sheep" instead of exploiting power over them. He is demonstrating the power of God in the humility and simplicity of a shepherd, of someone who is not above them but shares in the mess they're in and goes before them... leads them.

And he refuses to let this promise only be for an elite few! He says "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also." Jesus reveals God to us not as a tyrant king but as a loving shepherd who restores our soul. He reveals to us a God of grace... a God who refuses to restrict grace from anyone for God's own benefit. This is a God who will die before allowing a sheep to become prey. This is a God who joins us in our struggle and leads us to green pastures.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Bible is Not a Sword

I've been to more than one church or youth group that referred to the bible as a sword. I visited one church where, as part of its liturgy (though I am sure this church would scarcely identify itself with the word "liturgy"), the Pastor would hold up a bible and say "sword up!" (pronouncing sword like "word" with an "s") and the congregation would pull out their bibles and says "ready to defend!" 

Let's be clear. The bible is not a "sword"... 

...nor should it be wielded as one. When we use that metaphor, if we decide to continue down this path, we need to be clear about the sheer irony of doing so. If the bible is the Word of God, as the Christian faith has confessed in various ways, which witnesses to the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us in the crucified body of Jesus Christ which was raised by God to life from death, then the Word of God is not a sword wielded against the world but a word wielded against death itself and against the wielding of swords - swords which pierce the ears of slaves and penetrate the flesh of the condemned. If the bible is a sword, it is an un-sword - a sword beaten into a plowshare. If the bible is compared to a sword it is only in critical irony to criticize the use of all other swords. 

"Sword drills" (and I wish more of you had to look that one up) might be an exercise in the rhetorical dismantling of critical irony.

Some of the worst theologies in the world are the product of missed irony.

Calling Jesus the "lion of Judah," we miss that in Revelation when the author is instructed to "behold the lion of the tribe of Judah..." he is confronted not by a lion but by a lamb "...as though it had been slain..."

Calling Jesus a king, we miss that his crown is made of thorns. Calling God the "almighty God," we miss that God's "might" is displayed in the broken body of Jesus, "broken for you" (Luke 22:19), for "only love is almighty" (Eberhard Jüngel). Calling Jesus our "Lord" we miss that he was the servant who washed his disciples feet. 

If we miss the irony of these confessions, what we get is a ferocious, privileged, domineering, and tyrannical master who demands obedience from his slaves... instead of the lamb, the humble Jesus, who spoke courageously and prophetically against the privileged and the powerful, called his disciples his "friends," and went to a cross instead of a throne. 

If we call the bible a sword without seeing that it is utterly not a sword - without recognizing the critical irony of identifying a weapon used for killing with a collection of stories and poems and songs and letters about a God who creates, empowers, and gives life even in death and suffering - then I'm afraid we might be better off without it. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Imagining The Normative Task of Practical Theology

What is "the normative"?

In practical theology, as it is broadly described (especially by Richard Osmer), there are four tasks which relate to one another in something like a hermeneutical circle. The four tasks can be approached differently at different times in different orders by different theologians, but what basically constitute the work of the practical theologian are the tasks of

1) Description - "what is the situation?"
2) Interpretation - "why is the situation happening?"
3) Normative - "in light of God's action and God's ministry, what ought to be happening?"
4) Pragmatic - "what do we do now?"

This is really basic, but this is at least a skeleton of what we call practical theology.

Significant time needs to be committed to each of these tasks... not only in engaging in them, but in explaining them. What does it really mean to "describe" a situation and to "interpret" it? What are our sources for constructing normative claims? Can or should you presume to "describe" without "interpreting" or presupposing various norms and strategies? Can we separate these tasks from each other at all?

I highly recommend Richard Osmer's Practical Theology: An Introduction if you wanna put some more thought into these things.

But, if you're still tracking with this post, I wanna think out loud a little about the normative task of practical theology. It's particularly this task, I think, that presents the greatest challenge... not so much even in its execution but in its conception. In terms of understanding just what it is we are doing, I think the normative task is the most illusive.

We're supposed to be asking "what ought to be happening?" with a special eye (since we're theologians, after all) toward God's presence or absence in the situation. I like that Andrew Root
adds a caveat:
“…it may be better to see Osmer’s normative question, what ought to be happening? not solely in an ethical frame, but also in a revelatory one, that is, asking, what ought to be happening (what ways should we perceive of reality, ourselves, the church, our practice, and conceptions of God) now that God has encountered us?” (Andrew Root, Christopraxis, 26)
We're not just asking about an "ideal" or about some objective truth (indeed, Root's critical realist framework doesn't allow for such simplistic categories... see Christopraxis for more on critical realism). But we are asking "ontological" questions. We're asking questions not only of the circumstances and contributing factors regarding experience (i.e. descriptive and interpretive questions) but we're trying to get at the object of experience. If practical theology centers on human experience, in my view, it does so in order to center on God's action. We're not just talking about human experience, we're talking about human experience of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That's what makes us theologians and not sociologists of religion. And we're talking about the ways in which humanity encounters God in "practical" lived experience. We're not just talking about what ought to happen under the rubric of moral norms. That's what makes us practical theologians and not theological ethicists.

We get in real trouble when the normative task takes a moralistic or programmatic/pragmatic vantage point (rather than a theological one). When our "ought" questions have their eye turned fundamentally toward "what we should do" and not foremost toward how God is acting, then we tend to leave things out and construct ideals, even hegemonic ideals. The normative becomes a prescription for what humans should do "in a perfect world." Things, then, get left out and and left behind. People's experiences of God get obscured - the collateral damage of the normative.

Take, for example, the sort of influence-driven "relational" ministry that Andrew Root took up arms against in his Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. It was said, and still continues to be said, that youth ministry was fundamentally about influence--getting young people from point A to point B by whatever means were necessary, even "relationship." This was normative, so youth ministry was inarticulable in situation wherein influence was not happening. Is it still ministry if I'm not influencing kids? Not if influence is normative and ministry itself is articulated accordingly.

So Root reoriented youth ministry away from the pragmatic and back toward the theological - seeing that, even in those situations where influence was impossible or not happening, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is a God who meets us, enters relationship with us, and shares our place. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, not the influence of the church on its young subjects, is what is normative... so the minister expects to discover God at work in relationship, even when that relationship doesn't have an external "end" or outcome.

When we talk about what's normative, we're not just talking about what youth ministry should look like "most of the time" even if there are certain outliers. It's not a rule to which there are exceptions.

Since God's love and the ministry of God in the life of the world is universal (and I don't use that word lightly but with all the red-flags of postmodernity waving even as I say it), we should not accept a normative task which obscures the experiences of some and privileges the experience of others.  We cannot, for example, make the clear articulation of one's faith (as in a confession of faith or apologetic evangelization) a normative expectation, for it obscures the work that God is doing in the life of someone who will never be able to "articulate" their faith in rational arguments. I'm thinking of people with developmental disabilities. What's normative is that God is doing something - and the normative task will work to say something specific and guiding about that - and what will follow might look like "articulating the faith" for some but it might look like dancing for others (responsive human action is expected). The normative will speak of God's action and the pragmatic will speak of human actions which correspond to the action of God that is indigenous to their concrete and lived experience.

What we must endeavor to mean by "normative" is that theoretical and theological framework which does not accept "outliers" as collateral damage. We can't offer a true "ought" to a situation if it cannot speak to everyone who recognizes themself in the situation. We cannot offer something as normative if it only includes a privileged few. The God revealed in Jesus Christ - the God who shares God's very identity with the "least of these" (see Matthew 25) - refuses to afford us such exclusivity. As John Swinton has argued,
If a definition includes the weak and the vulnerable...then this is a strong indication that such an understanding may be concomitant with the God who reveals [Godself] in the Biblical narrative and especially in the life of Jesus, that is, as a valid theological understanding. If it in any way excludes such people, then it must be considered an inauthentic representation of the God who "secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy..." (Swinton, From Bedlam to Shalom, 26.)
As ministers seeking to participate in the ministry of God in the lives of others, we should never presume to be explaining the normative for all times and situations but we must move toward some guiding hermeneutic or even "rule" which can include every person to whom God ministers (read: everyone).

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Useless: spirituality at the monastery

During Palm Sunday weekend I went on a retreat with my colleagues from our class on "Practicing the Presence of God" to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. There, we spent a lot of time in prayer, praying the hours with the monks, and in silence away from devices and even conversations. It was a pretty formative time for me, I think. Over the weekend I read through Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and reflected on God's action in my life. It was interesting, perhaps even ironic, to read Life Together by myself... usually during the silent hours at the monastery.

Life Together is an exploration of the communal experience of Christian spirituality. The last time I read Life Together I think I was a sophomore in college (at Azusa Pacific University), in about 2005. Reading about 10 years later was a much different experience, especially in the context of Holy Cross Monastery. Bonhoeffer’s reflections are profound. For Bonhoeffer, the spiritual life is not a life in isolation. It is a life of community, a life which opens us to the other. In this, he holds a similar dialectic to that of Henri Houwen (see Way of the Heart, 23-32) wherein even solitude is to make us more compassionate ministers. “The time of meditation does not let us down into the abyss of loneliness; it lets us be alone with the Word. And in so doing it gives us solid ground on which to stand…” (LT, 81). We do not associate with one another in Christian community out of a compulsive and dependent need of the other, in themselves, but out of a need for Jesus Christ. “Within the spiritual community there is never, nor in any way, any ‘immediate’ relationship of one to another…” (LT, 32). This, again, points to Nouwen’s understanding of solitude—a “furnace of transformation” wherein we are liberated from our “immediate” and compulsive need for others, their metrics and their expectations. We cannot be for others in any healthy way if we cannot be “alone with the Word.”

I am so very prone to compare myself to others and, perhaps especially, to measure myself according to what I perceive others to expect of me. And not only what others expect of me, but what I expect of myself. My daily life is consumed by deadlines and rubrics, so much that my spiritual life gets shrink-wrapped and molded in the same cast. My spiritual life has become a new “work” with outcomes external to itself. As work, its value is measured according to what it produces—a deep spiritual thought, a profound spiritual experience that I can “use.” It cannot be a good in itself. “Prayer should not be hindered by work…” (LT, 69). In a sense, prayer does not belong to the world of work. It determines work, it shapes it and orients it—“The prayer of the morning will determine the day” (LT, 71)—but it does not belong to it. In this, Jurgen Moltmann has been helpful. Moltmann frames the Christian life and its liberating qualities in terms of “play.” He writes, “liberation from the bonds of the present system of living takes place by playing games” (Theology of Play, 13). Rather than be enslaved to the need for “purposes” and outcomes and metrics of value, we are invited into the freedom of “uselessness” and joy.
[Humankind] shall give glory to the true God and rejoice in God's and [their] own existence, for this by itself is meaningful enough. Joy is the meaning of human life, joy in thanksgiving and thanksgiving as joy. In a way, this answer abolishes the intent of such questions as: For what purpose has [humanity] been created? For what purpose am I here? For the answer does not indicate ethical goals and ideal purposes but justifies created existence as such... the answer does not lie in demonstrable purposes establishing my usefulness but in the acceptance of my existence as such and in what Dutch biologist and philosopher Buytendijk has called the 'demonstrative value of being.' Recognizing this, we escape the dreadful questions of existence: For what purpose am I here? Am I useful? Can I make myself useful? (Theology of Play, 19).
The value of the spiritual life is not in its ability to live up to expectation or to produce something useful in us. It is delight in God, it is play, and therefore it is—by the standards of work—a waste of time. As Henri Nouwen puts it, in discussing prayer, ‘The world says, ‘If you are not making good use of your time, you are useless.’ Jesus says: ‘come spend some useless time with me.’ If we think about prayer in terns of its usefulness… God cannot easily speak to us” (Spiritual Formation, 19).

Bonhoeffer has a similar outlook, I think. The spiritual life is not a utility of community. Community is a utility of the spiritual life (if we are to think of utility at all). We are not expected to come away with a profound spiritual insight. He writes, “It is not necessary, therefore , that we should be concerned in our meditation to express our thought and prayer in words…. It is not necessary that we should discover new ideas in our meditation…. Above all, it is not necessary that we should have any unexpected, extraordinary experiences in meditation. This can happen, but if it does not, it is not a sign that the mediation period has been useless [as in without intrinsic value, frivolous]” (LT, 83).

The weekend was, in many ways, an experience of solitude in the midst of Christian community. It was a weekend of giving myself permission to be useless and to let my prayer and my silence be useless to me. By this, I do not mean “meaningless.” But something does not need to be necessary or productive according to standards of work to be meaningful. In this sense, though my prayer was deeply meaningful, I gave myself permission for it to be without “purpose." When we prayed, when we received silence, and even when I read Bonhoeffer, I tried to give myself permission not to “learn” anything, but to simply enjoy what I was doing. “Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification” (LT, 30). So I tried to refrain from the frenetic anxiety of making sure I was doing it right and progressing in the right direction. “…The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature” (LT, 30).

 So I remember specifically, when we were doing Ignatian imaginative prayer together and we were invited to imagine a scene in scripture. I found myself unable to enter it. I found myself unable to imagine much at all. And where I would normally have felt anxious and might have tried to force myself to be imaginative, instead I just sat and listened and said to myself, “it’s ok.” And it was a wonderfully meaningful time for me. I didn’t imagine myself having conversations—though that would certainly have been a welcome experience—I just listened and was blessed by the Word of God. This, in the end, is appropriate for, in the spirit of Bonhoeffer, the real “purpose” of Christian life is communion with the Word.