Thursday, April 28, 2005

New Blogs

I've set up two new blogs. One is for professors to put interesting turns of phrase from student papers--

The other one is for students to put up interesting turns of phrase by profs (except for comments, these need to be sent through me to be posted)

Enjoy and participate!

Friday, April 22, 2005

When to Submit

The train of thought on the previous post has become long and interesting enough to warrant a new post. Here's the thread:

Schenck: I guess I would consider the authority of a community in an "absolute" sense to be in proportion to its correspondance to the faith of the ages, the faith "catholic." By the way, I consider this touchstone to apply to the Roman Catholic church as well :>) In other words, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church depends on its correspondance to the true catholic faith rather than its own understanding of the faith catholic.

On the other hand, I believe that communities can be prophetic on various issues, in which their authority is tentative in relation to the catholic faith, but potentially absolute in relation to what the catholic faith might become.

But what I mean when I speak of being in submission to the communities of faith to which I belong will often be something much less than either of these in terms of its relation to absolute faith. It is about my submission to those in authority over me. Whether it proves also to be submission to the church catholic will often be highly debatable in any absolute or even prophetic sense.

Chris: So there are times when we can't be or shouldn't be submissive to our church's authority [meaning the authority of our particular local church and its respective denomination]? or do you just mean the church-at-large?

New Schenck: With the danger of being a hypocrite, here goes.

A person should never submit to any authority over them when that authority is in conflict with the faith catholic (e.g., Trinity). Can we create a category, the "ethic catholic," issues of consensus with regard to practice (e.g., homosexual practice)?

But take the issue of drinking alcohol. There's clearly nothing unbiblical about drinking in moderation. Yet, the communities of faith to which I belong prohibit it. I believe on an issue like this one it is my duty to submit to their authority and not drink. Such rules are often part of what brings group cohesion and are sociologically significant (e.g., not dancing). It does me no harm to submit to such rules, and it does a body good (the body of Christ in terms of cohesiveness).

I don't think it will be a perfect world when every church looks and acts and believes the same way. The diversity allows for the whole counsel of God to come through. Forces in tension have much more "strength" than a lukewarm, watered down unity.

There may be other issues where I believe the authorities over me are in conflict with truths that are not a part of the core faith and that are in the end detrimental to the church. While the Wesleyan Church mostly ignores the personal practice of tongues these days, there was a time when individuals who privately spoke in tongues got into big trouble. What of the days when people were prohibited from translating the Bible into vernacular languages? These aren't core issues, but they would seem to be positions that conflict with either the Bible or the trajectory of faith. Must we submit on them?

I feel that some people may called to be "prophets" on issues like these. Maybe God calls a Wycliff or a Bence to move the church in more biblical or Christian direction when a practice is actually detrimental to God's plan. Does God call us all to change the church on these issues? I know some people who feel that it is their job to correct everything that is wrong with everything. Most of the time I doubt they are truly called to be prophets.

I think there are other and often better ways to change the church than direct confrontation or disobedience. There is the "wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove" method. There is the "subtle change agent" model. The "frog straight into hot water model" backfires a lot of the time, I think.

Then there's the model "choose your battles." For various reasons, I've taken the easy route and chosen to play the kind of "prophetic" role with the issue of women. It's safe because it is one of the things that my own tradition is most prophetic on in relation to the broader church. I can submit to my communities of faith and yet speak out. I feel similarly about the power of God to live victoriously over willful sin.

Are there issues where I should speak out within or in a prophetic role toward my communities of faith? That's so tricky. There aren't any that I personally feel called to be prophetic on. How about you?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

We have a new pope.

I wouldn't have chosen Ratzinger, but what do I know? He had the office of Chief Inquisitor, although they don't call it that anymore. It is he who stomped out Liberation Theology in Latin America (a good thing?). It is he who prohibited priests from running for public office (a good thing?). He has been behind the purging of liberal Catholic universities and seminaries (a good thing?).

In short, there will be no "development" of the sort American and European Catholics want. I did a Google on former Benedicts to try to find out what agenda might hide in this name. I came across Benedict XIV, who was a hard liner on giving in to cultural trends and lost many converts to Catholicism in the seventeen hundreds. Is this why Ratzinger took the name--because he plans on "taking a stand for absolute truth."

I just hope he does not make any "infallible" statements on issues still open for debate. As you might expect, I have serious questions about the idea of papal infallibility. I have problems when one person can encase traditions in stone that cannot change.

Acceptance of the theoretical possibility of change is inherent in Christian tradition. I can't listen to the words of the Bible and not conclude massive theological developments between the Old and New Testaments. The afterlife would be a major case in point since the OT has very little about it and some of what there is in the OT is against it (e.g., Job 14:13-22). We need to put most our faith in the NT if we are to believe in a resurrection (although there is Daniel 12:2-3).

And what of the Trinity or dual nature of Christ? You could argue that Arius had as much biblical support for his position as Athanasius did. The church had to turn to philosophical categories it seems to hammer out these issues because the biblical language by itself did not settle the matter.

But are papal infallibility, purgatory, or the immaculate conception appropriate developments? I'm not sure that they contradict the biblical text as much as we sometimes act like they do, although clearly the Bible doesn't teach any of these things. LaHaye's interpretation of Revelation involves more "addition" to the Biblical text than a purgatory would, I think. But I don't accept these. I especially have questions about a solitary human authority over the church, although I understand he shares this power when he is not speaking ex cathedra.

I end with an affirmation of prophecy. While the primary role of an IWU is to prepare individuals for ministry, I believe another important role for a Christian religion department is to help the church think and reflect on itself. As Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame put it, "This is where the church does its thinking."

I submit to the Christian communities to which I belong, authorities over me. I submit to the Wesleyan Church, and I submit to IWU. But I think communities like these need constructive criticism as well, even if they reject it in the end. When they reject it, it is my duty to submit to their rejections. But I think that it is healthy for a Wesleyan Church to have universities that reflect and critique it for the purpose of edification and growth. I do not mean of the cynical and destructive kind--that is unhealthy although far too common.

But I don't believe any earthly community of faith has it all figured out, and I think it is always healthy to have prophets among us who think they have corrective or steering words from God for our communities. A Christian university in a faith community seems a great place for prophets (and again, not cynics or skeptics).

I don't think the Roman church has as much room for prophets as it should. My greatest fear about Benedict XVI is that he will put the nail in the coffin on some issue that currently remains unresolved. I have a fear he will make some infallible statement on celibacy or birth control. Currently there is none, so these practices could currently be broadened even in the Catholic church.

But I fear a man who may want to make a point for God that God really doesn't want him to make. I doesn't matter whether birth control might help slow AIDS in Africa or if most American and European Catholics ignore Catholic teaching on birth control anyway. I fear a human with such overwhelming authority, yet who might in some instance have "a zeal without knowledge."

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Left Behind Conference

I took some time off this morning to go to the Left Behind conference at Sunnycrest Baptist. It left me with the mix of feelings I have so often given the course of my life.

First, I believe that Sunnycrest Baptist Church is genuinely a force for good in this city of Marion, Indiana. This is a church that I think genuinely reaches out to this community. When I look at churches like it, I wonder how many lives are hanging on by just a thread--and it's the thread.

I might say similar things about the Left Behind series. From what I can tell, there are a lot of lives it has changed for the better. LaHaye tells stories of people who came to Christ after reading the books, and I believe it.

I noticed some things I liked about the way they presented their understandings. For one thing, they are so pre-tribulation rapture in orientation that it didn't quite have as much political impact as it might have. They emphasized that it was the rapture that would change everything, so the audience need not worry. They would be gone when everything went bad.

Of course there were some political implications, comments, and jokes. They were done in good spirit. There was one Gore play on words. Some careful wording distinguished between loving Muslim people and seeing Islam as the enemy of Christianity. The interpretations were up to date enough to include much stronger EU and post 9-11 anti-Islamic rhetoric.

But there was also some criticism of Bush's comments about Islam after 9-11 as well as some other policies that they felt were inappropriate given what was to come. One person was so bold as to say the audience would definitely see the rapture before they died (not said by LaHaye).

So why the mixed feelings? I left with the usual somberness because I feel that so much of this rehashed Darby model just isn't what the Bible says or what will happen. I find myself believing that I know that much of this force for good in the world is way off (and by "know" I mean I'm sure enough in my mind to say "know" rather than "think" or "feel").

For example, it would be hard for me to find a single Old Testament "prophecy" of LaHaye's sort that is fulfilled 100% literally in Jesus. LaHaye bolstered the faith of the audience by talk of the improbability that 109 prophecies about Jesus could all come true coincidentally in one person. I at least think I "know" that the vast majority of these 109 prophecies--perhaps all--were not originally 100% literally about Jesus.

So what am I to do? When I think a person's faith is inaccurately formulated, is it my task to correct them? I don't think it is if they're not hurting anyone. If they're hurting someone, intentionally or unintentionally, then I feel more of a burden. What about when teaching a college Bible class? I feel a little more obligation then, because college is not supposed to be Sunday School. But even then, its a dance, and I shouldn't be the one leading. My general rule is that "saving faith" trumps "truth" in my dealings with others.

So it's another day of life , another day of happiness and sobriety...

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Schenck Innoculation

One dinner when I was doing my graduate studies in England, I sat down with an acquaintance of mine. The college was "evangelical Anglican" in its base, so I thought Will might be a Christian. Without any evangelistic purpose in mind, I asked him, "So are you a Christian, Will?"

The response was scolding, "No"--in that drawn out, pretentious sounding high English accent. "I'm an atheist--the thinking kind."

Well! He sure put me in my place :>)

Now I came to be pretty good friends with Will over the next three years, so I want you to know that I like Will. Intellectually, I don't have any problem with his position. On the other hand, I recognize this answer--it's the typical answer of an ignorant atheist. This is the type of person who has no idea just how deep some Christians think.

Now mind you, I'm not thinking of myself when I refer to deep thinking Christians. I'm talking about the people who astound me when I hear them or try to follow their thoughts. Read some Alvin Plantinga when he's at his deepest, or Richard Swinburne. I don't always agree with these guys, but it sure takes me several rereads even to understand what they're saying. I remember hearing Thomas Oden give his testimony once--I didn't have a clue what he was talking about. It was so far above my puny seminarian mind (mixed of course with a good dose of unnecessary pretention on his part, I might add--if I understand his personality rightly).

In the moment that Will made this comment I felt pretty sure that he really didn't know many "thinking" Christians. I'll be up front with you--I went through immense crises of faith in seminary and doctoral days. I basically came to the conclusion that the incarnation and the resurrection are the rock bottom core items of Christian faith. Everything else is icing on the cake.

I long ago concluded that if I ever abandoned either of these, then I would no longer be a "literal" Christian (of course I'm presuming the literal existence of God as well in all this, as well as other things like God's involvement in the universe, etc...). If I concluded these weren't true, I might call myself a Christian but I would have become a "metaphorical" Christian. Maybe you could call yourself a "Christian sentimentalist" or a "Christ-fearer" after you've left this building.

But make no mistake about it. The church owns the building, and the church believes in these things. If you decide you don't believe these things any more on intellectual grounds, that's fair enough. I deeply respect that. But you don't own the building, and you can't take it with you. Resign from your office as bishop or district superintendent.

John Dominic Crossan left the priesthood--I respect that (although I think he more left to get married). On the other hand, Sprague and Spong somehow think it's their task to make the church believe like them. I respect their intellectual positions (well, maybe Sprague's. Spong's a pseudo-intellectual who doesn't know what he's talking about). But they've forfeited their positions of authority in the Methodist and Episcopal churches. They can feel free to start their own metaphorical Christian church. I'll respect them for that.

By the way, I'm not talking about doubts here either. I could live with Crossan, Sprague, and Spong if they had genuine intellectual doubts but continued to live under the auspice of their offices.

Like I said, the incarnation and resurrection are the cake for me--everything else is icing. And there is a lot of icing to be sure. These aren't the only important things we believe, but they're the heart of what we believe.

I generally hesitate to share the full brunt of my own faith struggles because I know how much we like icing in our communities. I'd love you to believe much more than just the cake. But when you've found something that makes you think your faith world is collapsing around you, remember me.

There are some serious questions you'll come across if you pursue things long enough. Have you ever noticed that Mark says Jesus will appear to the disciples in Galilee, Paul says Jesus appeared first to Peter, John tells us first of him appearing to Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, Luke only tells of appearances in Jerusalem. It's genuinely hard to fit the resurrection stories together if you've tried to do it on a historical basis. It can be done, if this is important to your faith.

But ultimately, my faith stands whether they can be fit together or not. "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again." This I believe. And while I believe in the "icing" of the truthfulness of Scripture--it's icing. My faith in the resurrection would stand even if you could show me a thousand errors in the Bible. "On Christ, the solid rock, I stand. All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand."

"God doesn't speak to me like He did to Moses." Sorry, who are you? You're not Moses, that's for sure. The truth doesn't care about anyone or anything. It just is. Get over it.

I'm not trying to take away any of the icing. I hope most of you will just think I'm odd or (worse) "liberal." But if one day you find yourself on the throes of a faith crisis, remember me. I concluded in my doctoral days that the reason my faith struggled so much was because no one ever clued me in on where the real stakes were. I grew up with an all or nothing kind of approach--"either every word of the Bible is true or none of it is true." I'm quite willing to believe in the truthfulness of the Bible, but its not where Christian faith ultimately collapses or stands. "On Christ, the solid rock, I stand."

So you're having questions about God? I'm genuinely sorry, and I'd love to talk. You're not having questions? Great! But I'd love you to keep me in mind if you ever do. I want you to know that there are plenty others who've had questions and have continued to believe. I want you to realize that there is no doubt you will ever have that someone else who believes hasn't had before you.

It was unfortunately not until I was in my twenties that something dawned on me. It suddenly occurred to me that my parents had already lived those same twenty years--about forty years earlier. Here so often I had thought I was teaching them something. Because it was the first time I was thinking something, I thought it must be the first time for them too. This is the arrogance of youth and of ignorance. There's not a thought any of us will ever have that a million others haven't had countless times in some similar form, even if our modern circumstances put new clothing on it.

It's the arrogant atheist that I find irritating. This is the person who acts like they've suddenly had some earthshaking thought no Christian has ever had before.

Ho hum. Been there, done that. Grow up. You having doubts about God? I respect that. And I respect the person who on intellectual grounds does not believe in God.

But don't pretend for one moment that you're any smarter than the countless Christian thinkers out there who had those same thoughts about forty years ago. No wait, try a thousand years ago for most of those doubts.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Popes and Delegations

Tomorrow is the funeral of Pope John Paul II. By all accounts he was a very godly man indeed. I might not agree with his thinking on every subject. Nevertheless, truth is not the same as godliness. I strongly suspect he was as sanctified as any Wesleyan who has ever lived.

I'm half upset/half really sad that Jimmy Carter was not in the delegation that went. True enough, in the end it was Carter's decision not to go--a reflection of the virtue of the man. Many would say a sign of his godliness--"in honor preferring one another." He bowed out so that others could go. I say this as someone who doesn't necessarily think Carter was the best president from a practical standpoint. But I think he was probably more Christlike than any of the presidents who have lived in my lifetime.

But whose heart was closer to that of the Pope's than Carter's in the delegation than went? President Bush? Not a chance. The Pope spoke out publically against the invasion of Iraq. Perhaps the Pope was wrong, but clearly he and Carter were more of the same heart on that issue--that violence breeds violence. Again, I don't always agree with this dictum, but clearly the Pope and Carter were in greater agreement.

But I'm glad President Bush went--he should have. Frankly, I'm glad they even invited him.

Condoleeza Rice? I suppose as Secretary of State that's a fair thing. Who should represent the United States in a foreign policy situation? That makes sense. A year ago it would have been Colin Powell. Okay, maybe she is a pick over Carter.

But Clinton? Bush Sr.? They are ex-presidents, so I'm okay with that. Did either of them deserve to go more than Carter. No, I don't agree there. Of course you could argue that Carter was only President for a couple years of the Pope's office. Reagan is the one who had the most dealings with him. But Carter had his heart.

Mrs. Bush? Well that's interesting. Power has its privileges. But Mrs. Bush versus Pres. Carter? I have serious problems with that. It seems really selfish to me, almost shameful. It's all about privilege rather than honor. Maybe I don't know the protocall. Maybe most dignitaries took their wives.

Would someone tell me who said it could only be five? Was it the Vatican? If it was Bush, then I'm very upset at him over this. But even if it wasn't, I feel very sad. This is not the collection of people John Paul would have chosen or wanted to honor him.