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Posts Tagged ‘Presbyterianism’

Consumerism = Slavery

Very often, religion critiques excessive consumerism.  I am sure many a pulpit has done so with the help of many wonderful theologians.  One such theologian (and one that is quite important to me personally) is Walter Brueggemann.  His later works strongly critique American consumption without, to my knowledge, a substantive enough appreciation for what drives consumerism.  Perhaps what drives consumers is an intent to welcome the “newness” of life.  Perhaps consumerism is a form of communication of the deeper self.  Perhaps consumerism is wishing for something powerful to do.   Who knows for sure?  Not many.  Largely this is because consumerism is critiqued without first being appreciated.  And yet, it seems the only thing that diminishes consumerism is a lack of money.  Self deprivation cannot, for the majority, combat excessive consumerism.   If North American Christians should consume less (food, stuff etc.) how is the church going to honor and redirect what drives consumption.

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Not many people may be interested in John Calvin as the subject of a blog.  John Calvin was a pastor and theologian of the 1500s who took part in the Reformation.  The Reformation was a time of great challenge to the Catholic Church and to their adherents.  Part of Calvin’s response to the Reformation was to write his magnum opus, The Institutes.   In them, Calvin confesses, at length,  his belief in scripture and its revelation to us that we could share union with Christ and that God‘s grace was sufficient for salvation.  Calvin’s institutes are not a systematic theology.  By that I means they are not an intensely rational work that proposes questions and answers.  Rather, they are confessional in nature.  That is, often with unanswered questions and statements that are not entirely rational, Calvin is expressing what he believes the scriptures reveal for our lives.  (It is important to remember when reading Calvin that even Jesus, as recorded in scripture, did not over-interpret Jesus own statements).

As people took note of Calvin and became students, they began to systematize Calvin’s thought.  They began to clean up rough edges around grace, election and depravity.  They compensated for Calvin’s lack of attention to atonement and sin by expounding on those subjects.   The result of the systematization is that Calvin is often confused with the systematized Calvinism that branches out into denominations like Presbyterianism and Baptist.

Calvin was fundamentally a progressive theologian.   His intent was to honor scripture as a unique revelation of what we can know about God and thus ourselves.  He was also a thinker that wanted the parishes of his day to be relevant for the 16th century in which he labored as a pastor.    Ironically the systematization of his thought does not lead to progressive interpretations of God at work in the world today.  To the contrary, systematized Calvin tempts us to understand God as a trickster elitist who has a plan but provides little certain revelation for the world.  Systematization makes a promise that there are rules and boundaries for understanding.  There is a rational step by step process by which we justify our beliefs in God.  But ultimately, a systematized Calvin evades the promise.

The way that Presbyterian congregations interpret Calvin is too often through the systemized Calvin.  The an acronym for the system is TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints).   Not only Presbyterian congregations, but serious theologians from outside the reformed tradition often used the systematized Calvin as the launch for their critique.

No place is this more true than in the important work of Bruce Epperly and his Process Theology:  A Guide for the Perplexed.    Repeatedly throughout this important book, Epperly reveals his bias for the systematized Calvin by citing the way that Calvinism is at odds with Process Theology.   This is a very serious assertion.   Process Theology like few other theologies is interested in the relevance of our 21st century world for local congregations and individuals of faith.  It is progressive.  It attends respectfully to scripture while attending to the knowledge available to us through science, mathematics and the biological world.   Epperly’s assertion that those of us who revere and return to Calvin for our traditional life, are ill-suited to merge our theological life with that of Process Theology, requires a strong reprimand.   A strong reprimand will take the form of a tiptoed backtrack through the TULIP of systematized Calvin in order to find the essential message of the pastor and reformer that, in part, fathered the process of what it is to be Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).

Drawing on the work of  Charles Partee, William Stacy Johnson, Kristine Culp, and Bruce Epperly, we will make the argument that God is not  a mysterious trickster but a reforming God of process that may not always answer our questions but will never abandon us as we experiment and emerge.   Thanks for your comments and critiques as we recover Calvin, backing our tiptoes through the 5 points of Calvinism.

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A little dexterity is helpful in working with ...

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At First Presbyterian of Osawatomie we have begun a small group program.  I am a part of one small group that is learning to knit.  Knitting is not easy because it involves just one strand of yarn and a complex series of wraps, tugs and dips to move that yarn into a weave that is plush and warm.   Knitting is not only a discipline of crafters, it is the discipline of theology itself.  For if a certain theological suggestion is to be valid, it must ultimately be practical and a tool for God’s people.

Whitsitt’s last chapter of The Open Source Church,  knits in the concept of the open source church back into the practical tasks of  congregational leadership.  I appreciated the chapters specificity suggesting that leaders should at least and essentially be proclaimers, facilitators and mentors for the congregations they serve.  While it is not my privilege to add a category or even a chapter to the book, I do believe any open source church will also need to be  a place where leaders model a multi-disciplinary approach to scripture and theology.   In a way,  modeling the multi-disciplinary could be easily subsumed into any of Landon’s three fundamental leadership tasks.   But in other ways, it needs to be considered a more fundamental knitting exercise for the leader that will affect proclamation, mentoring and facilitating.

By multi-disciplinary I mean a consistent integration (in pulpit,  classroom and idle conversation) of all the major disciplines of hard and soft sciences, local and global politics, literature and the arts into conversation with scripture.  If our people are really to arrive at church and appropriately use the church to realize God‘s call upon their lives, then that surely begins by allowing the world from which they come to be fully present in the classrooms and sanctuaries of our churches.   There has been, for too long, a battle in our sanctuaries and Sunday School rooms.  It is  a battle that we seemingly wage alone, arguing that the church is the ultimate authority.  Though the world is full of discoveries that rival focused attention to our authority, we pretend that we just need to talk louder about our ancient authority and that will be sufficient.

I think about it a bit differently.   Using the knitting metaphor, all the various disciplines of the world are like the individual fibers within the strand of yarn itself.  And it is the job of congregational leaders to allow the god-given yarn its full integrity.  We must refrain from pretending that our fiber is the only important one.   Folks we are not being invited to a battle as much as we are being invited to knit a bundle of fibers into a warmth that can move our people fully into their present moment.  This means that our task is to be constant learners outside of our own field of discipline in order to pay homage to our God that is fully in the present and is the source of all that is creative and novel. So we don’t try to discount or strip the fibers or disciplines of psychology, sociology, algebra, physics, astronomy, literature etc. from the congregational conversation.   Such integrated attention assures our people at the deepest level that God is present here and now and not lingering in just the past or future.

Lest you think that I am demoting the fiber of religion let me say that what I am suggesting is intended to be most respectful of Jesus’ life and ministry as well. Jesus, after all, made significant responses to the various disciplines of his day.  Politics, family structure, morality, laws of tradition, economics, ethics, religion etc.   I worry that our Christian community is becoming increasingly rigid and focusing more on the record of Jesus in scripture rather than the knitting method of Jesus’ living and loving, part of which is recorded for us and, thus, we hold sacred.  In order to cultivate an open source church leaders must model how it is that one takes the various disciplines of thought as examples of a living and revelatory God.    Examples of a living God then allow us to live non-anxiously into the method of Jesus in new and creative ways in the world.

It is surely a rich part of our Christian tradition that much of how we move forward comes from overt and focused instruction.  Whitsitt recommends just that encouraging open source leaders to be intentional  proclaimers, facilitators and mentors.   However, overt instruction can be exhausting.  I want to suggest that for the sake of the system, the instruction can continue in some gentler ways as well.  Fred Craddock,  in his timeless work as one without authority, reminds us that because communication has grown increasingly complex, overt instruction (like preaching)  must be co-mingled with method in order to communicate fully.  There must be subtle but no less intentional opportunities to “observe” or “overhear” what it means to be an open source congregation. In my experience, an open source church must partly exemplify its values by being open to the world as a source.  

By taking in the current events, trends and discoveries of its world as conversation partners with the gospel,   the open source church practices  relevant meaning from various professional disciplines.  We allow the world to observe us doing this.  This communicates subtly, but powerfully,  the truth, that each individual Christian per their personal relationship with God is also an expert knitter who has a contribution to make to the Kingdom.   The stakes are high!  After yarn that does not get knit….begins to unravel.

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God of all savory truths and digestion, we have gathered this morning to cleanse our palates.  For we have partaken of things too sweet and ravaged what was excessively sour.  We have indulged in the bland and gorged ourselves.  We have avoided the more complex and nourishing diet because we have been in a hurry.  We give you thanks for bread and cup that will remind us of adequate portions.  May what sustains us be a balance between appropriate satisfaction and appropriate hunger so that we may strive as your servant people.  Hear our prayer as we consider the brain of Jesus who enjoyed fellowship and the mind of Christ‘s communion. Amen.

Written by Rev. Dr. Leslie King for March 6th, 2011 worship at the First Presbyterian Church of Osawatomie, Kansas

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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I have just filled out my year-end reports for the my denomination and I cannot help but feel like we have fallen a bit short in the denominational goals of who we should be as a congregation after the  completion of the paperwork.

Mainline congregations receive a lot of criticism.  They are either not growing fast enough, not generous enough, nor diverse enough or not creative enough.  When things are really bad, they are not harmonious enough.  I wonder if our expectations of congregations are a not a bit out of whack.  It seems that expectations pile up like sedimentary layers of soil.  I have a suspicion that our expectations are not only weighty but also not fully unrealized.   When assessing congregations, one needs greater attention to subtlety that can make all the difference in understanding the quality of the shared life of a localized Body of Christ.  In fact, I want to suggest that growth, generosity and diversity are all related to the harmony at work in a congregation.  But I need to take a minute to be more specific about what I mean by harmony.

The term harmony derives from the Greek ἁρμονία (harmonia) meaning “joint, agreement, concord”,from the verb ἁρμόζω (harmozo), “to fit together, to join”.  The Ancient Greek culture used  the term to define a combination of contrasted elements for example a higher and lower note.

While the result of harmony is a pleasant sound…the function of harmony is to work among contrasting elements.  Bill Bishop, in his book The Big Sort details the move in our country to have people increasingly sorted into like-minded groups that can easily identified and mapped.   I think part of this cultural tendency is what has the Presbyterian Church worried that we are too homogenous or complacent.  There is perhaps a very real temptation to sort ourselves because we presume that if we are among like-minded people we will find ourselves in a more harmonious situation.  Others argue to the contrary, saying that the result is no so much harmony as it is malaise or insularity.  But harmony might mean more than just being like-minded.

Process theology makes a significant to contribution to the understanding of harmony.  Honoring the etymology (or origin) of the word harmony, process theologian, John Cobb Jr.  explains harmony within the larger idea of beauty. “When we describe objects as beautiful, we usually mean that they participate in a certain harmony of proportions and relations .  Colors and shapes or sounds are so related with one another that each contributes to the whole in such a way that the whole in turn accentuates its parts.” (A Christian Natural Theology, 2nd ed.:  Based on the Thought of Alfred North Whitehead by John Cobb, Jr., 57).

With a process understanding of harmony, the goal is no longer to be more like each other but rather to live as a whole so that each of our parts is accentuated.  In ordinary congregational life, this can be realized in a number of ways:

  • When there is a building campaign it is not the goal to get all the congregations to give the same amount.  It is not even the goal to have each of them give a same percentage of their incomes.  Rather the goal is provide a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone can say that they have been stewards of the project.
  • When congregation members disagree there is not a move to coerce people to shared opinion, rather there is a venue for diverse opinions to be heard within the whole.
  • When members join the church they do not adhere themselves to a set model of “doing church” or its programs.  Rather the church or local congregation asks itself, “Who will we now become because this new and unique individual has joined us?”

Interestingly, as much as process theology values the highlighting of the parts it also notes the fragility of the whole.  In order for harmony to be sustained over time,”…elements [of the whole] must not clash so strongly that discord outweighs harmony.” (Process Theology:  An Introductory Exposition, 64).  Harmony is tenuous and subtle.   Even if the very meaning of the word harmony might support the theology that each of us are precious and loved uniquely by God, I suspect that harmony itself would be criticized as insular.

So what is it that we expect of our congregations?  Do we expect that within the congregation we will present the world and thus assume that the world should be us?   (A bit of an extreme statement, I admit).  So, shall we humbly honor who we are within the constraints of our harmony and allow that harmony to have its full effect upon our growth, generosity and creativity.     Year end reports to a denomination seem incomplete without some specific and knowledgeable appreciation for subtly unique congregational life on which we have just gone into great detail.

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