Ryan Pettit wrote a thoughtful response to my "Christianity maybe an antichrist" entry of 12/4. He graciously critiques my post, offering seasoned rational for his claims.
Ryan began his response by offering three definitions of religion, these are useful. He stresses his third definition as the most precise, as it positions a person for thoughtful engagement with the religions of the world. Religion, he writes is: "a system of ideas and behaviors that assist participants in relating properly to their God and the rest of the world." That feels pretty solid.
The Second Movement of his response began with the powerful statement, "Religion is your friend, Christian." I returned to his definition of religion, and I thought, "ok, I can mostly buy that." From my perspective in laying out his rational for the Christian defense of religion he almost underscores my initial post.
What is the religion that God accepts according to James?
I want to be clear that I am not trying to throw out History, or Orthodoxy. That is not my intention. We are who we are in large part because of "the great cloud of witnesses" that came before us. To throw out history is to fail to know one's social-self. Anyone who seeks to know God in Christ by the Spirit will find themselves sitting under others who have also walked with God.
If God wanted a religious humanity would we not see signs of religion in the pre-fallen state of the Garden of Eden? Instead what we see is a relationship between God and humanity that is tacitly intimate without need of religion. Or maybe we'd see signs of religion in the New Heaven and the New Earth, here again we see relational imagery in contrast with religious imagery. Our Lord Jesus Christ makes for an interesting study for religion. After all Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God, so if one wants to see what a "religious human" looks like, a Christian will look to Christ; and if one wants to see how God sees religion, a Christian will look to Christ.
Jesus Christ was religious. After all, he was a Jew - a Rabbi. Jesus didn't walk around areligiously, he was thoroughly Jewish, in fact there was no option. This is one of the most important aspects of the incarnation, Jesus was more radically particular than most Western Protestant Christ-followers are comfortable admitting; Christ was born into a social/cultural tradition; he was born to a specific family, etc. Jesus did not magically appear out of thin air he was reared in such a religious context that likely he would have scarcely been aware of his religiosity (certainly not as we think of religiosity today). Kind of like a fish being aware of water. He lived at a time and a place where there were a handful of distinct groups; for our purposes we could say Jews of that day saw two groups: Jews and Gentiles.
So Jesus Christ was a Jew but he was different Jesus first concern was not Judaism; Christ's concern is better described as a passion for His Father, love for one another, and the Kingdom of God. What do we defend when we defend religion?
Ryan's hermeneutic tweaks a phrase I used. His reworking of my statement reads, "[God] wants us to live fully human lives, and that can only be accomplished if we live according to God's instructions." I find it interesting that King David breaks almost all of the Ten Commandments yet he is called a "Man after God's own heart" while the Pharisees of Jesus' day kept all the laws and Christ called them "white washed tombs." So what is God looking for? To suggest that God is looking us to live according to God's instructions may be to miss the point.
Len Sweet, in his own unique voice says, "There is no point to Christianity;" there is only Christ (I hope you hear Trinity when I say Christ). To make a point is to set up an idol.
I loved Ryan's emphasis on Divine narrative. The idea that God reveals Godself to the world through history and that part of the privilege and responsibility of those walking in the Way of Christ is to live into that tradition and pass it on. Of course tradition is never passed on without bias and emphasis; this is why prophetic voices are so important, and why religion can be so dangerous. Religions of any stripe often kill their prophets. The gospel which each generation receives is as tainted as the gospel each generation will pass to the next; this is not a reason to despair or give up on faith, rather, it is an act of faith - it is an invitation to live in the Spirit.
By the grace of God and as best as I am able, I love God; thus I love learning more about God. So I study theology. But I study theology carefully and confessionally, for the study of theology can very quickly become an I/It relationship rather than an I/Thou (see Buber). Christian theology is the ongoing joy of the people of God. After 14 years of marriage I still delight to discover the wonder of Lynette; to see her in new light, to be surprised by the beauty of her love. That's not too far from Christian theology. Theology might be described as the perichoresis of soul, text and culture with the Spirit of God.
In passing on tradition we run into the issue of institutionalization and reification. When I was a preteen looking forward to attending my church's youth group, the youth group decided to hold a youth retreat. Everyone loved it. The next spring they held another retreat. Well, the following year the spring retreat was a given. By the time I entered the youth group the spring retreat had been institutionalized. The group that created the retreat to serve the group was now serving the retreat. This is reification in action. Peter Berger handles this masterfully, "Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between man, the producer, and his products is lost to consciousness" (Berger 1989, 89). As a Christ-follower writing to a different audience then Berger was, I would want to stress that Christian religious tradition is not a human creation apart from God. After all, the hope of Glory is that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. God by the Holy Spirit is the unifying person of the social construct we call Christian religion.
Earlier I suggested that Ryan's "Christian defense of religion" might underscore my initial post; let me briefly unpack this. Ryan's defense is one that every human takes. We return to what we think we know to be true because it feels solid. It's a lot like a battered woman returning to her abusive husband; a classic case of our solution being part of our problem. Christ always comes to us and says, "Surrender your confidence in anything but me. Trust me."
God in grace uses this "Balaam's ass" we call Christian Religion. God has used it and I trust/assume God will continue to use it until the great day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The day when religion melts away and we see and are seen, we know and are known, and the oneness at the tail-end of Christ's High Priestly Prayer is experienced in fullness.
But until that time we live in the paradox of honoring our traditions while deconstructing them as an act of love. This is a relational move of faith, trusting in the Holy Spirit of God. It is ancient-future (to borrow from Robert Webber), but it is neither ancient nor future – it must be both. And so I am a student of theology, who loves the church of Christ, yearns for the relational reign of God and question all of it to the Glory of the Triune God reveled in Christ and present by the Spirit.
Religion loves rules; Christ breaks them. People rely on religions; Christ bids us to trust him. He invites us to lay down that which we think we can and should rely on to become humble servants, hosting meals of bread and wine to a hungry and thirsty world - not religiously but out of Divine love.
Ryan, thanks so much for the gift of engagement. Midrash is the work of the church, its the process of Orthodoxy; may God continue to give us grace as we wrestle, as we live and as we love.
Monday, December 13, 2004
More from DF
Dwight expanded on his post from before, and I just want to put it here for later:
Posted by JJ at 12/13/2004 07:46:00 AM