Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sorting out some of my muddled thoughts about IOG13

As I've thought about the event last week, and started reading of some of the thinkers whose names came up who I had not read, it seems to me that there are two related but different phenomena happening in the worlds of theology and philosophy.  I probably would have realized this sooner, but I've been a bit outside of the philosophy world since I graduated from seminary, and didn't know much about most of the contemporary philosophers who were discussed.  It seems there has been a movement amongst these thinkers toward a conversation that is neither theistic nor atheistic, and certainly is not dealing with either category in an apologetic way, but rather is moving beyond those categories into this new a/theism territory.

At the same time that philosophers were working through the inadequacy of strictly defined theism/atheism, parts of Christianity were beginning to realize that the faith and practice we inherited are lacking in their ability to address our present world.  Some Christians reacted to that lack by moving in directions we now think of as the emerging church, embracing variations on traditional doctrines and worship styles that enabled them to engage more fully with both their faith and the realities of the world around them.

A side note: I can hear the protests now, that Christian doctrine is and must be timeless and changeless.  Sorry, I don't buy it.  Few of my more "orthodox" brothers and sisters would argue that the church should have remained the same during the Reformation.  Contrary to the typical line that it was just the corruption that changed, a number of doctrines that had before that point been thought of as crucial to the true faith were changed, first by the reformers, and later by the Roman Catholics themselves.  Corruption in the church may have lit the match, but the tinder was already laid on that funeral pyre.  Medieval doctrine and practice were no longer sufficient for the church at that time.  Similarly, I believe that we face a time in which many of the traditional doctrines and practices we have been taught will no longer be sufficient.

The more I thought about what was said last week, and especially what Pete was saying, the more a nagging sense grew in me that I was somehow not quite getting it.  I was missing something significant.  Today I think it might have hit me (although something else may well come to me later; I'm sure I'm missing many things about what most of the people there were saying).  I wasn't getting it because I was framing everything he said from my perspective, which is a particularly church-centric perspective.  An emerging church perspective, but still church, which I've noticed that he and ikon resolutely do not call themselves.  They use some Christian imagery and language, and so the emerging church has sort of adopted them as one of their own in their search for new and creative forms of Christian community.

But this is not the church.

Or maybe it is, in some paradoxical way, but they're not claiming that.

So I've been trying to wrap my head around the great collection of things that other people said and I thought last week, and there was a LOT said and thought.  But one thing I realized today is that I have been approaching radical theology all wrong by expecting it to play nicely with church, at least with the emerging church.  Not that they can't be in conversation, of course.  But part of me wanted to be able to use radical theology to insert some more honesty and more experiential practices into the existing structures, and not actually confront how different it might be.  I wanted these ideas to fit neatly into the existing church.

Because I am deeply invested in the existing church.

I'm a theist, a Christian, a questioning Christian, but a Christian nonetheless, and a minister besides, whose education and livelihood and identity are tied up in the church, whose years have been spent learning the church and caring about things like the Book of Church Order, who poured a ridiculous amount of energy into getting my denomination to FINALLY officially say that ordained women are equal to men.  And I think these things matter.  Some days I think they matter a lot.  But I feel the lack in what the church has become, and failed to become while the world changed around us.  I'm intrigued by how closely intertwined faith and doubt really are.  I long for (and fear) greater honesty, vulnerability, and responsibility for our own beliefs and practices.

I guess what I'm really asking is, how much will I let myself be challenged?  And if I do open myself up to that, will there come a time when a major part of my life doesn't make sense anymore?  What then?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Gender, Marginalization, and Emerging Church Movements

So, I'm just going to go ahead and spit it out without much lead-in: the emerging church movement is pretty much a middle-to-upper class, educated, heterosexual, white male-driven thing.  Here is a list of leading voices in the movement.  Notice anything?  Look up "emerging church figures" on Wikipedia and see if you can find a woman's name.  I couldn't, until I got to the references section, where I learned that women are talking about the emerging church, or rather, about what men are saying in and about the emerging church.  I can't tell from their names whether they are white or socio-economically privileged, but I have yet to see anyone who's not both of those things featured in the emerging church conversations.  And I just attended an event where everyone was white, well off enough to come to a conference in Belfast, well educated, etc., and where we listened almost exclusively to men, except once when we listened to a woman talk...about what men had written.

(I realize that the emergent movement isn't very well defined, and that many of the people considered to be part of it, Peter Rollins included, would not label themselves that way.  Oh well.  I have to group them as something.  Please understand that I mean a variety of alternative theological and ecclesiological ideas that can be broadly classified as "emerging.")

Of course, every theological trend has a particular source and primary audience, and this one came from, and seems to be answering mostly the questions of, educated, white people who are middle class or above.  However, the emerging movement tends to be critical of the traditional church's exclusivity, homophobia, lack of racial and cultural diversity, and failure to show justice and mercy to the "least of these."  The leading voices in the emerging movement are also egalitarians, that is, they believe in the equality of women in their churches/gatherings.  And yet, when you look around the table of Big Names in New Church these days, it looks pretty much like the table of Big Names in Same Old Church has looked for ages.  Economically advantaged.  Educated.  Straight.  White.  Male.  Those who have always been in power are still leading.  Those who have been marginalized are still at the margins.  

It gets tricky, because it's not like you can go grab someone who fits a target demographic and tell them to write a book about their take on alternative theology.  But I cannot believe that there are no women or non-white people who have something important to say about emerging or radical theology.  What I suspect is that they don't have access to the circles where their voices would be heard, and that there is a cycle in which being privileged makes it easier to do things like be published, and so it is the books of privileged people that get printed, marketed, and read, and thus there just is nothing really available to be read by marginalized people, so they'll never be invited to speak at a conference or contribute to a conversation.

Eventually (or sooner), it will be helpful if those major figures in the movement start being intentional about finding marginalized voices and encouraging them to come forward.  Sometimes that will mean that the star will have to step back.  Otherwise, all of this stuff about critiquing the power structures in the traditional church will have to stop, because you look just like the thing you're criticizing.

Eventually (or sooner, or now), it will also be helpful for some people in the unrepresented groups to decide that they care enough about their voice being heard that they really push for it, and keep speaking - loudly - until they are heard.

Which brings up the related fact that I am feeling some internal pressure to write something substantial.  I'm not sure whether this pressure is because I'm just so annoyed that there are no women in this conversation and know that my voice is, well, loud.  Or because I actually have something to say.  Or because I want to be recognized somehow, and feel like I've achieved something on a larger scale.  Probably some of all of the above.

I think the emerging church movement could use a healthy dose of conversation with liberation theologies, which come from the bottom and intend not to appeal to those in power, but to challenge them.  If they're serious about including those the traditional church has marginalized, they're going to have to be intentional about inviting their voices into the conversation, or perhaps just sitting back and listening to the conversations that go on among them.  As for me, I'm contemplating what a melding of these theological strands of classical Reformed, emerging, radical, and liberation theologies - which is pretty much where I am - might look like in written form, and whether I might write such a thing.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A few random IOG thoughts

One of the themes that keeps arising is that "people don't want to change," by which I think Pete  means that people fear change, and in particular that the institutional church anesthetizes people against the pain that would generate real change, and regulates belief in such a way that people are punished for change.

I would probably amend that slightly and say that people exist in a constant tension between the deep desire for change - freedom from the anxieties and desires that rule them - and a paralyzing fear of the uncertainty of change.  So I wonder, how do we go about fostering (and sometimes creating) communities where people can see change in others and believe it to be more possible in themselves?

One of the things that is fun about being here is a shared sense of awareness.  On the other hand, that wanders sometimes into a sort of "We are the ones who know the cosmic trick" attitude.  So I also wonder, how do we know that we aren't creating a different idol of our own "enlightenment?"

There are a whole lot of people here whose churches and/or families are really uncomfortable with them being here, or who don't even know where they are.  I hadn't even thought about that possibility.  The idea of being in a place where the people closest to you a) know who Peter Rollins is, and b) feel threatened by his ideas, is kind of foreign to me.  I guess I know some people who might not like this stuff, but most of them already think I'm a theological whack job and are kind of past worrying about what weird events I go to.

On a completely non-IOG-related note, I skipped out of the film session last night and instead had a pint at the Royal, which is apparently a paramilitary bar and is full of crazy characters who told me all kinds of stories (true? not true? who knows?) about horse racing, their mental health histories, and their days during the Troubles.  Then I went to the Crown, which is about as different a world from the Royal as one can get.  It's a swanky Victorian bar with gas lights and an imprint of the crown on the floor (which you're supposed to step on if you're Catholic).  There I met some post workers, who also told me stories about the Troubles.  One of them described growing up during that time as "fun," which was kind of interesting, but he mostly remembers the parts where he got out of school early.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Conflict, Decay, Death, and Jay Bakker: Day One at the Idolatry of God

Belfast is not the world's cheeriest place.  Which I suppose makes it an ideal place for a conference about decay and death.  Death is everywhere here, on the murals, in memorial gardens scattered through neighborhoods, in the peace walls that represent everything but peace.

So what am I doing at a conference revolving around death?

First of all, I don't think I'm entirely on board with everything Pete Rollins writes and says.  Specifically, his critique of the church seems based on a couple of common themes in the contemporary church that I agree are problematic, but which I don't think can be imposed upon the entire institutional church.  Not every Christian community or "orthodox" (whatever that means) Christian person lives in denial of doubt, or fears disagreement, or is addicted to its own certainty.  My sense is that his generalization of the institutional church causes a discarding of the 2,000 years of Christian experience that came before us.  While there are certainly faults there, I believe that Christian tradition has something to teach us, and that sometimes those liturgies, creeds, confessions, and doctrines that feel so limiting, feel limiting because they challenge us and urge us not to create a god that is simply a reflection of our own selves.  I still have hope for the existing Christian community, and I sort of get the idea that he doesn't.

(What?  You don't know what Pete Rollins writes?  Go read some.  I don't think I'm going to get around to explaining.)


I'm here, listening to a lot of talk about pain, uncertainty, decay, and death, for a lot of reasons.  I'm here because I'm frustrated with denominations' and congregations' terror about their own decline, and frantic obsession with self-preservation.  We follow a Christ who died.  What do we expect for our own lives, as individuals and institutions?  So, I am struggling to find a way to help my community and denomination embrace our own impermanence, and truly live the life we have...and not fear our own demise.

I'm here because I believe in the power of shared brokenness and vulnerability, and so rarely see it in Christian communities.

I'm here because I long to integrate art, music, dialogue, and mystery into faith expression, and have never quite managed to do it.

I'm here because I needed to meet some fun and interesting people who can talk about all the theological stuff that is usually so separate from all things fun and interesting.

So, yesterday, with this strange and fascinating group, I toured the conflict and decay of Belfast, and then attended an ikon event that focused on facing our own imminent death.  Then we heard Jay Bakker talk for a while about his unimaginable childhood and how he has been grasped by grace.  He described his own vocation and his inability to escape grace, or Jesus, or church, and wow, could I relate to that.  And so I guess that I'm also here just to be reminded that I am not alone in all of this.  


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Seizures and other fun things

A week ago I had a seizure.  It was my first in six years, which is just long enough to forget what it's like.  I was in the back seat of a car, which is an unusually safe situation in which to have a seizure.  When I rode the same route today, I realized that I don't remember seeing anything for about fifteen miles before the site where the driver pulled over.  When I was more accustomed to seizing, I would have had about fifteen minutes to warn them about what was going to happen, but I didn't see it coming this time.  So, I lost a big block of time, between when I started the whole pre-seizure process, and when I mentally "came to," which was when I was talking to the paramedics.  It's kind of disorienting to regain consciousness while you're standing up, talking to people, trying to remember your address.  My overriding mechanism is competence, so of course I was trying to convince them that I didn't need to get into the ambulance.  It's funny what core part of your being comes out when you are operating subconsciously.  "I'm fine" is clearly situated pretty centrally in my being.

Unfortunately, there are few things quite like a seizure to remind you that you're not really fine.

I scared the crap out of the people who were with me, which is not really in keeping with my general mode of never having people worry about me.

I had no control whatsoever of my body or brain for a while, which doesn't really lend itself to independence.  Even afterward, I had a full day of near immobility, and a week of feeling like I was recovering from electrocution.

I can't drive for a while, and frankly I'm nervous about even being alone until we're sure that the meds are stabilized.  Now this is the kicker: not being able to go or be anywhere on my own.  I am always everywhere on my own.  This seriously sucks.  But I am way too anxious to even try to get behind the wheel of a car right now.  My anxiety about getting into the pulpit this week was very nearly crippling, and the likelihood that I'll kill anyone if I have a seizure there is pretty slim.

I have lost, for now anyway, the ability to trust my own body, my own brain.  I am constantly aware of whether there are any signs that I might seize again, whether my focus is flagging or my vision warped.

Incidentally, I am still getting on a plane in five days and going to Northern Ireland and Scotland, by myself, because I am not missing this trip, and because I believe in doing things that are scary.  And this time, this is scary, even for me, who has traveled alone many times to many places.

But here's the thing about having a seizure, about suddenly not being able to trust your body, about not being able to get yourself anywhere on your own: it's reality.  I don't want this reminder, but I acknowledge that it is a reminder, that I am never really in control of everything my body does, that I am never really independent, that I am never really on my own, and can't be any of those things.  Independence, that thing that is so much at the core of my being that I cling to it even when I'm not fully conscious, is an illusion.  The reality is weakness, uncertainty, and need.  This is onerous, and annoying, and inconvenient, but it is also true.

As much as I hate it, and feel confined by it, the loss of my independence is an interesting lesson.  And so I walk away and leave my car to sit in the church parking lot indefinitely, and call one more person to get a ride to tomorrow's meetings, and I think, none of us can do this alone.  None of us can do this alone.