Reason to Believe

Inexplicably, the Rod Stewart song “Reason to Believe” has just lodged itself in my head. In my book, Rod the Mod never quite lived up to his Jeff Beck/Faces-era potential, but right now I’m really enjoying this song.

I lead with that seeming non-sequitur because the tune’s title sums up what I’ve been going through the past few days. I’ve spent days staring at my computer screen, typing up every argument–and every refutation I could think of–for my core beliefs about the relationship between the church and the world, and, more broadly, how that relationship fits into my understanding of the Christian tradition as a whole.

Yesterday afternoon I came to a crisis point in which I realized I was entirely unsure of the argument that I’d been developing over the past week. In short, my argument is that Christian churches (at least pacifist ones) can and sometimes should aggressively confront society about its failures to take care of the poor and marginalized; but, unlike typical theories of Christian activism, specific churches only have the ability to be confrontational on a given issue when they are actually living out a concrete alternative to whatever society happens to be doing (or not doing) on that issue. I was working away happily on this argument, when it occurred to me that there were two significant problems with it:

(1) The rhetoric of “aggressive confrontation” may play too much into the vitriolic climate of the religio-political debate that characterizes our world.

(2) There has been a somewhat recent move in theology and biblical studies to argue that the church’s mission is not to go out and convince anyone of anything, but to attract people to itself by embodying its teachings in local communities. This is sometimes considered a “Jewish” model of (non)mission, taken up by Jesus and the early church. There is, in my view, substantial evidence in the Bible and church history to justify this argument.

So I was in a crisis, searching, with Rod, for a reason to believe that something I’d invested in so heavily was not going to disappear so quickly. I called it quits yesterday evening, got in a workout and a couple drinks, and went to bed unsure of whether or not I had anything to write on.

I spent this morning leafing through some relevant portions of scripture (mainly portions of Acts and Romans on the Gentile mission) and the section on mission in Tom Finger’s Contemporary Theology of Anabaptism (to get a perspective from within my theological tradition). My conclusion was that my argument could be made, even though it would have to be heavily qualified.

To the first objection, the one about the vitriolic climate of current political debate, I realized that my vision of “aggressive confrontation” depends on a Christian theology of nonviolence. Nonviolent confrontation is not only nonviolent in the sense that it gives up fists, bombs, and guns as its tools of confrontation; rather, it is also “methodologically” nonviolent in the sense that it gives up all claims to control history (God does that). Since we Christians don’t control history, and can never predict exactly how God will move it along, we can never pretend to have a “master” argument about how a given issue should be dealt with, or the one solution that must be followed, at all costs. We must lose the arrogance that assumes we are the only ones that God is moving through in the world, even though we speak out with the confidence that God has called the church to creatively imagine what the coming kingdom looks like. Christian nonviolent confrontation is thus a fragile thing, always open to being changed by the one being confronted–and thus always receptive to being confronted.

Concerning the second objection, I came to see that a biblical theology of (non)mission may be the dominant paradigm with which to work, but the theological concept of witness certainly has a proactive, outwardly-focused component. That is, there are resources within scripture and tradition that point us to “getting out there” and not simply seeing social embodiment as the extent of our witness. But, as I indicated before, this “getting out there” depends on some level of embodiment. In other words, the church can only speak when it has something to say, when it is living out the content of its message. My hunch, which I will try to elaborate in my book, is that embodiment and active witness are in fact dependent on one another: there can be no embodiment that excludes active witness, and there is no active witness not rooted in embodiment.

These arguments may not be foolproof, but I feel pretty good about them at this point, confident enough to start working on an outline and research. Needless to say, I’m glad to leave Rod behind and get to work!

A note: I realize that for some of you this is the only blog you read. Applications like Google Reader are mainly useful when you need to keep track of several blogs, and would rather not check each one of them regularly to see if it’s been updated. If this is the only blog you read, then it’s probably easier to just check in once a week or so (or however often you’d like) to see if I’ve written anything.

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5 Comments »

  1. 1
    Catherine Says:

    Looks like your noggin has been working overtime. That’s some good thinking you’ve done!

  2. 2
    Cousin Mike Says:

    Wow. Good stuff Jamie, you are definitely not wasting any time getting into this.

    And I liked Faces better than I like Rod on his own, although he managed to belt out a few good tunes during his solo career.

  3. 3
    wess Says:

    Jamie, great stuff. I was just talking about Yoder’s point on it not being up to the church to make history come out right in the end last night at Bible study. I agree with both your points and was wondering if you have looked at Craig Carter’s “Rethinking Christ and Culture.” I’m not convinced it’s worth reading all the way through, you know Neibuhr’s argument and Carter’s basic point is that RN’s complete typology works from a Christendom standpoint and one that seeks to protect Christendom. He then develops his own, and that’s where it is kind of interesting. He has 6 types, 3 on the side of coercion three on the non-coercive side. What you can imagine I liked was that his middle of the road anti-Christendom example is William Penn, and the “Holy Experiment.” Carter’s work is based on Yoder’s article he wrote on the subject, but his point is that Penn and the Quakers were involved at various levels of transformation, even to the point of running the government. But as soon as it came down to a choice between violence and nonviolence they opted out, and in fact in a very Yoderian “non-violent” move they allowed themselves to be voted out. So his point is that at least this tradition (along with his other example MLK and Tutu) there is with “the theological concept of witness certainly has a proactive, outwardly-focused component.”

    I am essentially trying to develop this strand in terms of missiology or maybe (non)missiology, it will be interesting to see what direction yours takes.

  4. 4
    Lazlo Says:

    As Rod would say, “Danger, danger when you taste brown sugar. Louie Louie, you’re gonna cry.”

  5. 5
    elcaballo Says:

    I only wish Rod was in Hot Chocolate.

    Wess, I haven’t read that Carter book, but sounds worth looking over. Though I will have to say, it’s interesting that Carter felt the need to turn Yoder’s work into a new typology; Stassen argued that the end of Christian Witness to the State is Yoder’s own typology. Very cool about your Quakey friends getting love. Also interested to see how your work develops.


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