Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Nature of Belief

I have a friend who is a friend of Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke theologian whose reputation for foul mouthed rabble rousing is legendary. Hauerwas has written a memoir, which he’s had my friend read through in manuscript form. Because there are relevant similarities in life experience between Hauerwas and myself, and because my friend thought it might do my soul good to read it, he asked Hauerwas if it would be okay to share the manuscript with me. Hauerwas agreed. So that manuscript has provided my night time reading over this past week.

I have never been much of a fan of Hauerwas. Though I must admit, I’ve only read two of his books. The first was Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (1986). I was motivated to read this as a student at Yale Divinity School because of my work with people with mental retardation. (As you may or may not know I have an undergraduate degree in social work and was a practicing social worker for about three years.) The book did not make much of an impression. That may say more about me than it does about the book, however, as I was all of 23 or 24 years old when I read it. The other book of his that I read and that resonated deeply was Resident Aliens (1989), a book he coauthored with William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke. That book I highly recommend to readers of this blog.

Here in Grand Rapids I’m part of a group called In Vino Theologica or in wine there is theology. It’s a motley little group of men and women, young and old, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant, Confused and Skeptical who come together to read and think about what it means to be Christian. I try to find short(ish), thought-provoking articles for us to read beforehand and then discuss over a couple of bottles of wine and fine cheese. Since I’ve been reading Hauerwas’s memoir I thought I would see if he had anything online that might serve the purposes of our little group. And I came across an article he wrote in 1991 that is immediately relevant to the discussion I was having with Mike Wittmer last week on his blog. Mike and I were discussing the nature of Christian belief.

In that discussion I made the following claims:

I would just point out that practices, rituals, sacraments, feasts and fasts, etc. for 1500 years of Christian history served as the primary means for the redirection and reorientation of our desires, our loves and lives, for our spiritual formation as icons of God and followers of Jesus whose end is communion with God and others. It is only since the reformation that the pendulum has swung away from the embodied practices of concrete communities as central to spiritual formation and toward the atomistic, disembodied and cerebral-centered. I suggest it’s time for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction once again.


When it comes to faith I am, after all these years, still a beginner. I am always ever a beginner. I’m coming to see, I guess, that I am still learning to believe, still learning how to believe. For a long time I was preoccupied with what to believe. As I get older I’m coming to see that how I believe is of equal importance. I am coming to see that belief is something that takes practice and something one learns to do over time.

In the article of Hauerwas’s that I found for use in In Vino, Discipleship as a Craft, Church as a Disciplined Community Hauerwas compares becoming a Christian to learning to lay brick. He says:

To learn to lay brick, it is not sufficient for you to be told how to do it; you must learn to mix the mortar, build scaffolds, joint, and so on. Moreover, it is not enough to be told how to hold a trowel, how to spread mortar, or how to frog the mortar. In order to lay brick you must hour after hour, day after day, lay brick.

Of course, learning to lay brick involves learning not only myriad skills, but also a language that forms, and is formed by those skills. Thus, for example, you have to become familiar with what a trowel is and how it is to be used, as well as mortar, which bricklayers usually call "mud." Thus "frogging mud" means creating a trench in the mortar so that when the brick is placed in the mortar, a vacuum is created that almost makes the brick lay itself. Such language is not just incidental to becoming a bricklayer but is intrinsic to the practice. You cannot learn to lay brick without learning to talk "right."

The language embodies the history of the craft of bricklaying. So when you learn to be a bricklayer you are not learning a craft de novo but rather being initiated into a history. For example, bricks have different names--klinkers, etc.---to denote different qualities that make a difference about how one lays them. These differences are often discovered by apprentices being confronted with new challenges, making mistakes, and then being taught how to do the work by the more experienced.

Now the comparison:

Christianity is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are Christians not because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. To become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.

For example, I am sometimes confronted by people who are not Christians but who say they want to know about Christianity. This is a particular occupational hazard for theologians around a university, because it is assumed that we are smart or at least have a Ph.D., so we must really know something about Christianity. After many years of vain attempts to "explain" God as trinity, I now say, "Well, to begin with we Christians have been taught to pray, 'Our father, who art in heaven. . .’" I then suggest that a good place to begin to understand what we Christians are about is to join me in that prayer.

For to learn to pray is no easy matter but requires much training, not unlike learning to lay brick. It does no one any good to believe in God, at least the God we find in Jesus of Nazareth, if they have not learned to pray. To learn to pray means we must acquire humility not as something we try to do, but as commensurate with the practice of prayer. In short, we do not believe in God, become humble and then learn to pray, but in learning to pray we humbly discover we cannot do other than believe in God.

This expresses better than my feeble attempts one of the points I was attempting to make in my discussions with Mike concerning the nature of Christian belief; namely, that Christian belief takes practice. It's not that we first become Christians and then as evidence of that engage in certain sorts of behavior. Rather, it is in the very course of engaging in the practices and rituals peculiar to the Christian way of being in the world that we actually become Christian.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

We Are Liars

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.

That’s what Shakespeare told us. I think he’s mostly right. But what can that mean for us? Stangely, I think it means that we’re all actors and actresses and that as such our task is to lie to the world. And to lie big and bold. Because the bigger and bolder we lie to the world the more honest with the world we will be. It’s just like Wilco says in their song Misunderstood. You’re honest when you’re telling a lie. So you and I owe it to the world to lie our fool heads off and to discharge the debt of honesty we owe to the world.

Just as our task—our godly task!—is to lie to the world, it is the task of the world to tell the truth, and in so doing dishonestly describe the world we inhabit. Our task is to lie—big and bold—and in so doing to honestly describe the world we inhabit. I know this all sounds crazy, and it is. It’s ridiculous. It’s lunacy. It’s foolishness. But, of course, the wisdom of God is foolishness to the likes of us.

If you listen to news reporters, politicians, and marketing executives they tell the truth: the world is a mess, and so are we. Greedy men bilk investors out of billions of dollars; selfish little countries consume disproportionately large amounts of the earth’s resources, while other parts of the world languish; middle eastern nations terrorize each other while we ordinary Western men and women amuse ourselves numb with entertainment and the acquisition of stuff, believing as we do that this is what it means to be human and to flourish. This is the truth. And yet this description of the world is less than honest even if it is true.

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.

You and I, as Christ-followers, are called to be liturgical actors on the stage of the world. We are called to theatrically enact and incarnate the big lie—The Eschaton—the lie that the world and we human beings are not as the newspeople, politicians and advertising executives truthfully describe. The lie is that there’s another world, a new reality, another way of doing business with each other, a way characterized by peace, love, collaboration and unselfishness. And we’re being honest when we’re telling this lie.

Just as we answer the Divine invitation and gather around a table one day a week to dramatically enact and anticipate the eschaton—the heavenly meal where differences don’t divide and where though many we are nevertheless one—so are we called as liturgical creatures to go out into the world and to theatrically incarnate and anticipate this absurdity in the warp and woof of our daily lives, and so honestly describe ourselves and the world, as we quite literally put the lie on display for all the world to see.

We’ll fail of course, at this calling of ours to lie. That's because the truth is we’re horrible liars. Still, even though failure is certain, lie we must. It’s our calling.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Party's On

I've been saying for a long time that we Christians need to relearn how to celebrate. God, after all, is a party-throwing God. And apparently, if the Gospels are to be trusted, we're all invited to the party. Yep, all of us: Me, Mike Wittmer, Pete Rollins, what's the guy's name who delivered the inaugural, Bishop Spong, Ted Haggard, James Dobson, The Farting Preacher, and even that old curmudgeon Dissidens over at

That God is as promiscuous with his love and grace and mercy as the Bible makes God out to be makes some of us a wee bit upset, I know. But look: this whole bloody, awful, beautiful, confusing, depressing, delightful life and world history is going to climax in a party of universal proportions. Well, that's what the bible teaches anyway. And that's worth getting excited about. Isn't it? That's worth practicing for. Isn't it?

Well, I found someone else who who has been captivated by the image of this party-throwing God on a universal mission of reconciliation, healing forgiveness and celebration. This is how he puts it, and he puts really well:

Religion #1:

God is mean, angry and easily provoked. From day 1, we’ve all been a disappointment, and God is–justly–planning to punish us forever. At the last minute, thanks to Jesus stepping in to calm him down, he decides to be gracious.

But don’t do anything to mess that up. Peace is fragile around here.

Religion #2

God is gracious, loving, kind, generous and open-hearted. He rejoices in us as his creations, and is grieved that our sins have made us his enemies and caused so much brokenness and pain. In Jesus, he shows us what kind of God he is and restores the joy that should belong to the children of such a Father. True to his promises, he will bless all people in Jesus, and restore the world by his resurrection victory.

You can’t do anything to mess this up. God’s got his heart set on a universe wide celebration...

We have far too many people selling religion #1. Like the Pharisees, they are the authorized representatives of the grumpy, ticked off, hacked off, very, very angry God who MIGHT….maybe, MIGHT let you off the hook….MAYBE…..IF–and it’s a very big IF–you manage to believe enough, obey enough, get the theology questions right enough, find your way to the right church, follow the right script and get the details right, down to the last “amen.”

...We have far too few Christians who are overwhelmed at the news that God has fired the bookkeepers, sent home the bean counters, dismissed the religion cops and bought party hats for the grumpy old people. The big announcement is this: In Jesus, we discover that God is just sloppy with his amazing grace and completely beyond common sense when it comes to his love. Just to enhance his reputation as the God who know how to throw a party, he’s inviting all of us back home, no tickets necessary, no dress code, for a party that will last, literally, forever. With open bar, and all on him. (Oh calm down Baptists. You can go to another room.)...

...The Father will have his party. Even for the undeserving kid who doesn’t quite get it. Even for the Pharisee-wannabe who is horrified that dad’s not cooperating with the system.

God will be gracious. God will be good. God will be overflowing in love. God will be good to the world. God will bless the nations. God will put his lamb and his Spirit and his loving face at the center of a universe made over in the image of the greatest wedding bash/banquet you could ever imagine...

...Your ticket to this event will most certainly NOT have a denominational name on it. Nor will your seat at the table be determined by your church or your theological team. The grace and goodness of God is going to erase all the lines, boxes, definitions, fences, dictionaries, sermons, announcements and pronouncements ever made. Your Biblical interpretations won’t amount to a hill of beans. God himself, and his good grace, will be the star of the show...

...God’s gracious face makes our religion fall apart. It takes away all our soapboxes. It shuts our mouths, because none of us deserve it and all of us can have it. God’s love and grace are so far beyond our ideas of what they ought to be that none of our ideas about God can survive the good news that comes in Jesus. Jesus is a salvation, grace, goodness, God revolution...

...Let’s stop it. Let’s stop hiding the face of a gracious God. Let’s show it, sing it, worship in its light, live as if we know that gracious, glorious God as the one the Bible proclaims and who comes to us in Jesus.

Let’s enjoy the face of a gracious God. Now and forever.

Preach it, brother! Preach it again! And then preach it one more time! Let's all of us preach it, try to live it and then practice for it. Practice for it? Yes; practice for it. How? By throwing some parties of our own in anticipation of the one that's coming. (First, though, I've gotta kick this sore throat.....)

(You can read the original post, by imonk, in its entirety by clicking here.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Which Came First: Chicken or Egg? Thoughts about Belief and Chrsitian Faith

It’s been a VERY long time since my last post. Since then I finished an academic semester, been to London and Belfast and participated on a panel at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship’s Worship Symposium with Jason Clark and Pete Rollins on Emerging Christianity. And I’ve also been trying to explain on someone’s blog claims I made at the panel discussion concerning belief and Christianity.

First, a word about the panel. As I said, the panel was made up of myself, Jason Clark and Pete Rollins with Jamie Smith, Lori Wilson and Mike Wittmer acting as respondents. Nathan Bierma deftly played the role of moderator. We attracted somewhere between 120-130 to the four hour panel discussion and roughly another 100 over the course of the next two days at one-hour discussions for those who didn’t make it to the panel. The Worship Symposium as a whole drew some 1400 participants from 38 different countries.

The impetus for the panel is a book that Pete, Jason, myself and Scot McKnight are doing addressing various issues in emerging. We gathered (except for Scot) the day before the symposium to go over drafts of our chapters. It was for me an enormously beneficial experience; both the colloquium at which we went over chapter drafts and the panel discussion.

Okay, now to the meat and potatoes. At the panel discussion, Mike Wittmer, a theologian at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, asked the panel whether there are any beliefs that are necessary to be a Christian. He wanted to know if someone could be a follower of Christ and lack belief in the resurrection, for example. Each of the panel members was reluctant to answer the question. Speaking for myself, I said that I was reluctant only because belief admits of different grammars and that the question(er) suggested there was only one. I said there that belief must be thought of not synchronically (as happening at a specific point in time) but diachronically (as something that happens over time). I elaborated on this later on Mike Wittmer’s blog.

Let me state briefly how I am thinking of belief and you good folks (if there are any of you left out there) can tell me what you think. The preferred grammar of the questioner is the grammar of assent, the view that belief is belief that: belief that Jesus was both God and human; belief that Jesus rose from the dead, etc. Here the idea is that belief is belief that certain propositions are true, and he wanted to know if in order to be a follower of Christ one must assent to certain propositions and if so, which ones.

My response was to tell a story about Pascal, who upon being told by a friend that he wanted to become a Christian, doesn’t tell the guy what to believe; rather, Pascal tells him to “go to Mass and take the Eucharist.”

The idea here is that belief can be the result of engaging in certain practices and rituals. Now most 21st Century, Western, Protestant Christians probably think that engaging in Christian practices or rituals follows on the heels of belief. Pascal suggests that the causal chain runs in the opposite direction, from practices and rituals to belief. Indeed, most of us probably think that belief is what brings about salvation itself and not salvation that brings about belief.

God, I take it, is never satisfied with belief that. God is interested in the total reorientation and rearrangement of our lives, our loves, our desires our entire way of being in the world. The important question is whether being a Christian is fundamentally and primarily about belief that certain propositions are true.

At the most basic level it seems clear to me that God is most interested in the total reorganization and reconfiguration of human life, of reorienting the human will, heart, desires and loves. God is interested in our moral and existential transformation. This of course is in no way incompatible with belief that certain propositions of the relevant sort are true. But the goal is transformed lives, not belief in “Jesus facts.”

And this is why when asked whether followers of Christ must know and put their trust in him, I’m inclined to point out that “being a Christian” (like belief) is progressive, that I am even now, and after all these years still becoming a Christian. Followers of Christ must, of course, put their trust in him. I must put my trust in him: today I must; tomorrow I must, and the next day I must. My frustration with myself is that I often put my trust in Christ one moment and then take it back the next.

As to the resurrection and whether someone could become a follower of Jesus before they come to believe in the resurrection, this is what I said on MW’s blog:

“I think that someone could become a follower of Jesus BEFORE they come to believe in the resurrection. But let me preface this…by saying that I agree that the resurrection of Jesus is indeed an essential piece of the Jesus story.

“Suppose you’re a fledgling writer. And suppose you meet someone at a writer’s workshop in Ann Arbor, another author with whom you share coffee and conversation during the breaks. Suppose this author speaks with you throughout the three day conference about the ins and outs of constructing plot and characters and does so in a way that you’ve never experienced before. You find yourself drawn to this author and to his words, even more so than the author leading the workshop. Suppose he has the effect of revolutionizing your own writing and that after all that time you spent together at the workshop you never bothered to get his last name. You knew him simply as John, the name on his name tag.

“Now suppose you go home utterly changed as a writer. Your writing from that workshop on is of a different caliber and gravitas than what preceded it. And then suppose that a week, a month, a year later you read an article in a writer’s magazine about the weekend John Updike attended a workshop in Ann Arbor and about the many conversations he had with this fledgling writer from Grand Rapids. You’re stunned! You’re shocked! You spent three days conversing with John Updike, whose work you love, and you didn’t even know it was John Updike. Now you do.

“The point of this little story is obvious. It’s certainly possible for you to have an experience of someone, to have your life changed by this someone, without at that very moment knowing who or what that someone is or is about. I imagine the resurrected Jesus could draw people to himself without those people knowing at the time of meeting who he is or what he’s done. Knowledge of that sort, if things go well, will come.

I went on to make a point about the resurrection itself.

“I want to stress again that the resurrection of Jesus gets its meaning and weight from the story it’s embedded in. Apart from that story it’s no more than a historical curiosity. I’m not interested in getting people simply to believe that a guy named Jesus was resurrected from the grave, and I doubt you [MW] are either. The good news is that our sins have been forgiven, that God has reconciled us, that there’s a new way to be human and that everything has changed because of the incarnation, life, death AND resurrection of Jesus. The incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus are themselves embedded in a six thousand year old, unfolding story of a bent and broken world and a God working for its restoration and renewal. In other words, the resurrection as an isolated factoid is not what is of paramount importance. It’s the resurrection as part of God’s program of love and reconciliation that is the issue of supreme importance.”

Well, that was my last and final contribution to the discussion on Mike’s blog. Thoughts?