Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Scandal of Particularity

“The scandal of particularity.” I first read those words in a book put out by Intervarsity Press (IVP), “The Nature of Confession” in an essay by Alister McGrath. At this point in his essay, he was talking about those who were believers in such pronouncements as universal religious experience. For McGrath, along with Lindbeck, universal experience itself, is also what has “explanatory and revelatory significance.” Thus, accordingly, evangelicalism will coincide with this aspect of the post-liberal program McGrath says. Whether theology, both historical and present “describes” objective reality or not is not the point that I’m trying to make here. The point I want to make concerns this issue of particularity.

As (Miroslav) Volf says in the next chapter:

“I therefore have strong sympathies not only with what Lindbeck has aptly termed “ecumenical sectarianism” but also with the methodological correlate of such non-sectarian ‘sectarianism,’ the critique of “translating” the biblical message into extra-biblical categories.”

That is, as he says later on:

“In contemporary de-Christianized, pluralistic and rapidly changing Western cultures, only those religious groups that make no apologies about ‘difference’ will be able to survive and thrive.”


“Hence it is not enough to recognize, as Lindbeck does in a good post-liberal fashion, that there is no NEUTRAL STANDPOINT, that we are always shaped by traditions of beliefs and practices. An adequate methodological proposal must also take into account THAT THERE IS NO PURE SPACE ON WHICH TO STAND EVEN FOR THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH. ECCLESIAL NON-NEUTRALITY IS ALWAYS ALREADY SHAPED BY THE CULTURE WHICH THE CHURCH INHABITS because to inhabit a contemporary culture means, to use Jean-Francois Lyotard’s formulation, not to inhabit a single, ‘grand Narrative’ but to live within a complex and mobile ‘fabric of relations.'”

Now compare this to what Stanley Hauerwas says. In his book, “Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America” Hauerwas tells the story of how one Easter morning in Dallas, TX, Billy Dick blurted out while the teacher was speaking of the crucifixion, “If Roy Rogers had been there, those dirty S.O.B.s would not have been able to do it!”

What Hauerwas is doing is speaking about how Americans are held captive to an “American Jesus.” Further down, Hauerwas states:

“That we think we would have stood with Jesus against the crucifixion, that we think that we would recognize him after the resurrection are extraordinary presumptions.”

And further down,

“The story of the Emmaus road neatly challenges our presumption that a resurrected Lord would be readily recognizable.”

On the whole, I’m inclined to agree with this. As Pat Apel says in “Nine Great American Myths: Ways We Confuse the American Dream With the Christian Faith“:

“The problem arises, as Calvin pointed out, when we assign to Jesus a character different from that which He received from God. In the derision of Jesus during the passion, the Roman soldiers dressed Him in purple as king o the Jews. They were using Jesus to mock the Jewish insurrectionists of the day. Halford Luccock writes that “this indignity has been inflicted upon him again and again. More than once has he been…clad in costumes that do not fit his personality, with the result that the man who walks before us has been so completely disguised as to be unrecognizable.”

However, I do think there can be problems with what Hauerwas is saying because these are generalities. And the reason why has to do with what Volf says above–the sectarianism.

Let me explain. Does Jesus look like the Roman Catholic Church with it’s non-ordination of women and all male priests? Does he look like the Mennonites or Amish who are totally pacifistic and non-violent? Does he look like some Methodist Churches that are all-inclusive? What about marriage? No divorce or remarriage? Divorce but no remarriage? Divorce and Remarriage for adultery or abandonment? Any number of reasons? Let’s add to this as these have mostly to do with ethics (though I would definitely not rule out that the two are inter-related (even if in-directly). What about this? Would Jesus look like a Pentecostal or Baptist or Presbyterian? Would he look preterist or is he futurist? Calvinist or open theist? Infant baptism or not? I’m talking doctrine as well as worship styles.

We may have our list of priorities and so we may feel that this or that issue is more important than others. Regardless, the list is practically endless. Now, would I say that those who don’t hold to my litmus test are SOMEHOW any less of a Christian? I’m not saying that Hauerwas comes right out and says this, but he definitely moves in that direction via saying, that we presume that we would recognize Jesus in American Christianity.

My problem is that I can’t help but recognize that Jesus IS recognizable IN and THROUGH these different forms and practices of North American Christianity. I’m not attempting to say that all of them are “correct” or “the true version.” THAT would be presumptuous! But if James K.A. Smith is correct and truth is pluriform, then we should (dare I say, MUST) let these things be. Accept that this is the way Christianity is. It’s VERY sectarian. I only recognize Christ through the particularities.

Let me make a suggestion. Hauerwas is a pacifist (to what degree I’m not sure, I haven’t read enough of him, though I have several of his books). I’m not. Now, we know that the issue can be quite complex. We may start off simple enough, but as the noetic structure expands into a weblike direction we begin to see that there are other presuppositions based on all sorts of things and connected to other presuppositions. Everything from history to theology to grammar and etymology– arguments from silence and so forth. A lot of this is built on “what ifs”–things that are not that clear. Something may not be clear in that it could go this way or that way and THAT makes at least somewhat of a difference in the way you would go in your direction say with regard to a particular issue, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

So, what do I do? Am I stuck? Well, not really. My suggestion is that we come to a peaceful acceptance of this state of affairs and not necessarily try to change those who are not on your team in the ballpark (it’s hard enough for me to change myself and ideas through such things new information, never mind whole groups of people, etc. Sociologists tell us that very rarely do all people fall on one side of the fence and not the other on social issues. I don’t think it’s different with the Church). So how does that work? I think it works via listening and searching. Listening to what the other team is saying and approaching them and their understanding of things with humility. Could I, as a non-pacifist, not learn something from my pacifist brothers and sisters? Do they not have something to teach me, especially when things become far too one-sided, i.e., the power politics of the Religious Right? Could their voice(s) not be prophetical? This is why, though we have our sectarian differences, I need them. Even the much despised “fundies” if for nothing else but to recognize my own personal history. What about progressives? Progressives who are inclusive of same-sex relationships? Surely, there is something I can learn from them as well isn’t there? Something I can learn deeply about Christ and how he might respond with such a question. Yes, you’ll worship in your camp with your distinctives and ethics. And I will in mine which may not be as inclusive as yours. You will be very sectarian and so will I. We may cross paths (it’s hard not to do that these days with social media). We may converse about these things. We may walk away with a renewed understanding and changed heart and mind. We may not. People and churches and branches of Christianity have their own “theological consciences.” I just don’t want you to say that your team is THE ball-park or that others don’t recognize Jesus in their particularity.

P.S. Sure, there may be those who hold to their sectarianism to the exclusion of all others and so why should what I’m saying here be something they should listen to or accept or heed? I’m not really speaking to that crowd though. There will always be those folk. They’ll still get to live within their particularity, regardless. I’m speaking to those who recognize that there are legitimate differences between ourselves in this ball-park called, Christianity.

The Atlantic’s, “The Quiet Gay-Rights Revolution in America’s Churches”: Some Thoughts

The “The Atlantic” (is that how I would write that?) has put out an interesting article, The Quiet Gay-Rights Revolution in America’s Churches on the changes within faith communities and how they are “progressing” and are more supportive of gays and same sex marriage. Whether it’s true or not, that this was in a very large part due to some political agenda as described by Capelle here:

“In Albany, who do legislators listen to?” Alan van Capelle asked his fellow activists at a dinner at the Sheraton in Manhattan. “Corporations, labor unions, and people of faith. If we can win their support, we can win the issue.”

where churches have been “infiltrated” to cede ground to gay activists, I don’t know. It could be a number of issues going on here.

Regardless, what I want to do is look at some of the points this article mentions and then give a little commentary on each one.

“It is a recent development — Jones dates the “tipping point” to 2011 — and it has helped marginalize gay-marriage opponents by discrediting their most powerful claim: that they speak for the religious community.”

There are a couple of things that have been pointed out in this article. One is that, though Pope Francis is still very much against SSM, he is more friendly towards LGBT persons saying, ” “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” and the other is the LONG solid history of the Church on sexuality and same-sex attractions and activities/relations. The Christian church has pretty much been unified on this question of same sex relationships. For the Pope to say what he has said is not unusual or even contradictory to the long teaching of the church. But I suppose one could say that proponents of same-sex marriage, in the Christian church don’t speak for the religious community either. At least not for most of those who have lived (past) and those who are still alive (such as the Christians mentioned in the article ie., Southern Baptists, a good portion of Catholics, etc. I mean, are we to say that the Religious Left speaks for the religious community?

This really is a question of justice. And the problem is that both the right and left have been narrowly focused on political engagement. That is, they both have jumped on this or that moral issue and have sought to get government to do something about it not asking the question, “Is this where government should be involved?” I know this sounds slightly derogatory, but both the Right and Left live parasitically off of one moral issue or another (Skillen) instead of asking about the more basic questions, “What is civil society’s role? And what is government’s role?” on these issues.

“I get it all the time,” she said. “People have been told for so many years if you’re a gay person you basically don’t belong in the religious community. And straight folks, too, want to see their religion as a source of love and inclusion that’s making people’s lives better, not shaming people or keeping them out.”

This get’s a little closer to what I’m saying above. Think of it like this. Say you have a public space. In this space there are families, churches, shops, unions, universities, police, voluntary organizations, doctors, banks, and so forth. Now, a university doesn’t have the right to tell a family how to work out their family life or family issues, etc. A union shop doesn’t have a right to tell a church how to run it’s business, etc. With THAT basic understanding in place now think of it like this. You not only have ONE church, but many churches of many different stripes. My Baptist church should not tell the Mormon Church what distinctives it should have. The Catholic Church should not tell the Orthodox or the Protestant churches about it how they believe or their codes of ethics or conduct. Even within denominations, a church should not tell another church how to run it’s business because of the dynamics involved. And so, you begin to see the point that this is not so much a theological question but a POLITICAL one. Churches have their theological teachings as well as their ethical ones. There are certain beliefs and behaviours, etc, that churches adhere to. Thus, if one wants a church that is LGBT friendly, such that it invites them to participate in the full life of the church, such that it marries them or invites them to take communion, etc, then what would be problematic with gay-folk attending THAT church and leaving those that are opposed to same-sex marriage alone–to their own beliefs, teachings, codes of ethics, etc? Why is there this need to change all these more conservative churches on this question? And here’s the thing. This has NOTHING to do with centring out gays PER SE. It has EVERYTHING to do with PUBLIC JUSTICE. Connect the dots, please.

“Central to this outreach has been a message that emphasizes religious teachings about compassion, tolerance, and humility. Religious leaders and followers want to feel that they’re not choosing politics over religion but bringing the two into alignment.”

Given what I’ve said above. Who is doing this? Choosing politics over religion? I would say, it is more those who seek to change a particular church.

“When President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage more than a year ago, he framed it as a matter not of separating church and state but of following Christian teaching: “When we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule,” he said. “Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.”

A religious argument for political question now, right? I mean, churches hold that women should not be ordained as priests, would the President say, that the Golden Rule is not only not being applied but that it is also going against a woman’s civil rights? I mean, there are some that advocate this (goes against a woman’s civil rights). But again, given what I’ve said about churches having “theological consciences” then folk should attend those churches that believe in women’s ordination. Also, this seems to apply only when the issue is “your beloved issue.” Right or Left. The Right, for years has mostly been the one to use religious arguments and those on the Left have said, “You have to hang up your religious hat before you can talk about a particular issue in the public square.” The Left comes out with their particular pet issue (SSM) and it’s OK now? We can use religious arguments?

“There’s no question this is partly the story of an overall change in American public opinion toward gay rights; it’s also partly the story of a rising religious left that seeks an alternative focus to the old religious right.”

All this is is living parasitically in the political system. Right vs Left with no principled understanding or a connecting of the dots between governing and the proper issues. The Left is pretty much doing the same thing that they have accused the Right of doing.

“For faith leaders and LGBT activists alike, a reconciling, gradual but profound, is under way. “People have been told for decades that homosexuality is a sin, but they know really good LGBT people, and they don’t know what to do,” said Groves of the Human Rights Campaign. “We need to be going into those conservative religious spaces with messages like the pope — who am I to judge? Once people see the humanity of LGBT people, it is very hard to hold onto a vitriolic stance.”

Of course, don’t be vitriolic. I know this happens with both sides. Both sides, both Right and Left could tone the speech down. Both can be welcoming but both can’t be affirming. One side will be both welcoming AND affirming and the other will be welcoming but NOT affirming which may look like, invitations to communion, participation in different areas of church life, etc, (again, all of this depending on that particular body’s code of ethics) but don’t believe in or practice SSM.