Last week Richard Beck posted on Experimental Theology about “Skilled Christianity”. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2012/07/skilled-christianity.html He described his journey from pushing back at the “beliefs” of Christianity towards being more skilled at the “practices of Christianity. To this end he cites a great cloud of inspirational figures who have guided him on this course including – Rene Girard, William Stringfellow, Dorothy Day, Therese of Lisieux, James Alison, Orthodox theology, Arthur McGill, Christus Victor, Walter Wink, Christian anarchism, Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, Walter Brueggemann, Thomas Talbott, N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Rowan Williams
He ends with a neat turn, that faithful Christina practice, even if not faith-filled Christian belief, is driven from a paradigm shift – in seeing everything from a new perspective and with a new interpretive framework. (Romans 12 comes to mind).
§ As well as the excellent post, my attention was grabbed by an interesting post by “Jlh11a”. He wrote; “I’ve been fascinated, as someone who is essentially orthodox and interested in preserving orthodoxy, that about 70% of the time what you are saying sounds like a voice from within. A voice of an orthodox Christian, describing Christianity and (of course) also fighting its abuses, as all orthodox Christians must spend at least some of their time doing.
The other 30% of the time you sounded–heterodox. Not just that you disagreed with me. But that you really seemed to be trying to "make up" an alternative to Christianity, something new, something better. Something that would appeal to your Buddhist readers or your agnostic readers, but left me quite cold. Because however compelling your creation was, I keep deciding that I like Christianity better.
It’s odd, because in most circles I move in I’m the "progressive" or "liberal" guy. But when I look at minority voices within Christianity–pacifism, non-substitionary-atonement, universalism, or whatever–I do so as someone who basically likes the church and likes Christianity and wants to make it better. And I can’t ever figure out whether you’re speaking to me–or to a group who really don’t like the church or Christianity at all, and are trying to invent a better alternative from it–perhaps, even, a moral high(er) ground from which you can look down at all who are evangelical, or conservative, or otherwise traditionally Christian.
I really can’t tell.”
My first take on that was this; “I think I like what you are saying, and it leaves me asking a few other questions.
Firstly one about orthodoxy, which is really a question about our view of history. Is orthodoxy something that we have now, and against which we can measure the orthodox, or is orthodoxy something we’ve lost, perhaps at the Constantinian shift, maybe before or after. (this of course precludes the idea that there never was a single orthodoxy and that the early church celebrated a kind of multidoxy).
If orthodoxy has been with us for 2,000 years then I can imagine that anything that looks a bit new or different will be suspect, but if you subscribe to the idea that orthodoxy is something we lost, to a greater or lesser degree, then novelty or innovation are exciting as they raise the prospect – “is this one of the missing pieces?”. I think that latter experience is what I experience on this site from time to time.
The other question you imply, is the idea, to paraphrase what I think you are saying, of a Christianity 2.0. Inherent in this is the idea that Jesus and Paul etc, gave us all the basic frameworks, and left us with the joyful task of putting flesh to the bones. In other words its impossible to do things like breaking bread, worship or evangelism “to the New Testament” model, because the New Testament doesn’t give us enough data – the most we might hope for is to do things in the spirit of the NT. Thus, as a faithful community, inspired by the Spirit, we should not be surprised if we don’t continue the developmental thrust of the earliest apostles. I would regard slavery as the easiest example of this and non-patriarchal leadership and non-heteronormative sexualities as examples of more tricky (i.e. current) ones.
So is the goal to make / find / re-discover something “better” than orthodox Christianity – well it all depends what you mean, but I find myself – with caution – saying yes.
Look forward to the pushback.”
To which he responded; “I guess it’s a matter of degrees, isn’t it? Everyone I think of as "orthodox"–people like C. S. Lewis and Chesterton, Augustine and Aquinas, N. T. Wright and Dietrich Bonhoeffer–is trying to do at least four things at once: preserve the truth that is there, recover the pieces that went missing, reform the abuses, and innovate by fleshing out the many, many areas where we can appropriately build on the original "bones" of the faith.
And all of this may be what Richard (or others here) are doing. And sometimes we’ll agree with each other, and sometimes we won’t, and that’s fine.
But at some point–and it’s more a matter of tone than a distinct line–people don’t really want to fiddle, from within, with the truth that the real church has really preserved. Whether they are talking about the "Constantinian shift" or the "Papal heresy" or the "dissolution of doctrinal integrity in American evangelicalism," what they’re really saying is that they don’t have to preserve or respect what the real church has really taught. Instead, they use the Christian tradition rather the way I use Peanuts cartoons–a possible source of wisdom, when we happen to agree with it, but that’s about it. And they feel completely dismiss their own grandmothers and cousins and fellow church goers in a way that I would not be willing to dismiss any Christian.
And this may not be what Richard (or others here) are doing. And even if they are, there’s nothing wrong with that. It just isn’t what I mean by orthodoxy, and I don’t find it as persuasive or even interesting as orthodoxy.”
Now, this leaves me thinking a number of things. Jlh11a has correctly identified for me, at least, if not for Beck, a major driver in my engagement with the Christian faith. From the moment I was gripped by the gospel and filled with the Spirit, I have had a sense that the multifaceted life in Christ was so much bigger, better, truer than the way most of us tend to experience / practise it. The more I have read Church History or theology, or heard sermons from different traditions, the more often I get a glimpse of another facet of this jewel. Now the question Jlh11a rightly asks is this; is this a creative process, of adding to orthodox Christianity, or is it mostly an archaeological process of subtracting from our current expressions of Christianity, to pare it back to the orthodox. I think it’s the latter, but I need to be open to the prospect that that is just something I like to tell myself. I think one test of this is that the more I know about Christianities and their histories, the less I confidently hold as personal beliefs. When it comes to virtually everything in the faith now, I can say a little bit about several traditions – and recognise that each has its merits. What’s more even where I do have a preference for one reading, I am reluctant to claim the stamp of orthodoxy, which as a Truth-claim is a power-move. We are all heterodox. Only God is orthodox, and I even have my doubts there.