Beyond. . . .

The seminar for which I’ve been preparing came up this morning, after the keynote presentation by Prof. Gary Dorrien, and a presentation on the psychology of religion by Prof. Lallene Rector of Garrett. The morning presentations were satisfactory; Prof. Dorrien’s talk started later and went longer than scheduled, so Prof. Rector hurried through her talk, and I had to leave early to get ready for preaching at the communion service.

Now, the service planning operated on several planes. All I knew was that the fellow who had organized the seminar hoped that I would preach, emphasizing the New Testament, on a topic pertinent to the conference. “OK,” I thought, “ ‘Beyond Dichotomous Theology’ is a plausible neutestamentliche topic.” I thought about other services I’d attended, and figured I could fit in to that mode of worship. I asked various Garrett contacts about what I should wear in worship, and all of them demurred — whatever I felt like. (Since I was preaching, not presiding at Eucharist, I brought my cassock and surplice.)

What I didn’t anticipate was that the conference organizer would assign my sermon a title that derived from the topic: I was expected to preach a sermon whose title was, “Liberal and Evangelical Viewed from the Discipline of Biblical Scholarship.” Oh!

Moreover, it turns out that (listen up, Jane and Susie and Frank) Thursday is Praise Worship Day. A rollicking praise band was rehearsing and the PowerPoint screen was warming up as I trundled in wearing my cassock and surplice. I think I might have been able to look more out of place, but I’m not sure how.

I took a quick read of the circumstances and doffed the surplice (the Keanu Reeves/Neo look). I followed the projected lyrics for the first few hymns, and when it was time to read the gospel, I used the terms that Garrett’s President Ted Campbell taught me. (No one responded, except Ted.) Then the sermon began.

I think that no one was disappointed that the sermon departed from the title that had been assigned. It went by fairly smoothly, and one of the very positive effects of the Praise setting was a smattering of “Amens.” (I’ll post the sermon in the extended section.)

Now, it’s the afternoon and we’ll have presentations from Prof. Nancy Bedford of Garrett and Dr. Marti Scott of the Northern Illinois District of the UMC. Then Prof. Dorrien will conclude the series of presentations, perhaps responding to the other presenters, and we’ll have a panel discussion. After that, I’ll collapse in a heap.

Chapel of the Unnamed Faithful
Garrett Evangelical Seminary
Hebrews 6:19-7:3/Matthew 7:15-23
November 3, 2005

Beyond Dichotomous Theology

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First, the good news: a sizable proportion of the best-selling English-language books over the past ten years have taken explicitly theological themes as their plot elements. The doctrine of the Incarnation, questions of ecclesiology, of eschatology and justification, all emerge as key discussion points in contemporary popular fiction. You can strike up a conversation about a 100% certified theological locus with somebody on the El, at the fast-food lunch parlor, perhaps even at coffee hour after church! Popular culture cares about Christian theology, with a vigor and breadth that ought to signal exhilarating days at the seminary.

The bad news, however, we all know: the bestsellers that bring Christian themes to popular consciousness reflect highly questionable theology. On the right hand, pasteboard characters act out improbable responses to historically unthinkable scenarios, and on the left hand, pasteboard characters act out improbable responses to historically unthinkable scenarios – and both hands claim to be revealing to us the truth, the biblical truth about Jesus and God, about our past and our future. The notion that theological voices of depth and subtlety might be heard in public discourse has receded to absurdity, drowned out by the din of partisan voices demanding facile slogans where wisdom offers careful reflection.

The spirit of partisanship didn’t arise out of nowhere in the twentieth century, of course; St Paul devotes considerable energy to defusing his congregations’ tendency to generate rivalries and choose up sides. He lists contentiousness and divisiveness (what the RSV charmingly called “party spirit”) in his vice lists, and repeats the familiar metaphor that the various organs of the body of Christ in order to account for differentiation among his congregations at the same time that he encourages harmony among them. The Gospel, however, permits no antagonism within the Body – the eye may not say to the hand, “I have no need of you.” When the Corinthians fall into line behind their theological heroes (I am of Cephas, I am of Apollos), Paul opts out of the contest. Even if some of the Corinthians think that Paul’s gospel has to prevail, even if he’s one of the stars – and we know how hard it must have been for Paul to step out of the spotlight – Paul refuses the option of taking part in a theology slam that might rend the Body apart. “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Paul aches for congregations to move toward concord even at the cost of getting his own way. Work together, be of the same outlook, bear one another’s burdens and be patient with your weaker brothers and sisters.

Indeed, although Paul has a vivid reputation for throwing his rhetorical weight around, he shows a strikingly conciliatory streak when dealing with congregational conflict. In chains, writing to a congregation he loves, Paul acknowledges that rival preachers in Philippi proclaim the gospel so as to antagonize him – yet he shrugs it off: “Whatever; as long as they’re preaching Christ, it’s fine with me.” Rather than rallying his loyal supporters to stifle dissent, Paul urges them to bear with the rivals; twice in this short letter, he invites his brothers and sisters to concentrate on their grounds for sympathy with others: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, being of full accord and of one mind” – and in the words that form the Northwestern University motto, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy, think about these things.”

It’s hard to hear these words without qualifying their scope. Yes, Paul emphasized harmony, and on this occasion at least relativized other considerations to the cardinal significance of cultivating mutual sympathy; but he would have drawn the line somewhere. Yes, Paul asserts that the Body has many wildly diverse members; but he wouldn’t agree that gangrene forms an appropriate part of that diversity. Such reservations strike precisely to the point, for they remind us that the Spirit-shaped community into which Paul invites us is both expansive and bounded. The Body of Christ comes together in a unity that no one part of it can define, but it comes together in a unity, not just a jumbled heap of organic tissues. Yet especially when we need to distance ourselves from unacceptable teaching, we must be all the more cautious. If we repudiate a sister or brother whom we have known to share in the Spirit, we run the risk of too hastily denying the Spirit’s continuing custodianship of their ways.

Paul calls the Philippians together in the name of whatever is true, honorable, praiseworthy – but not just anything they feel like. And although he doesn’t fret about how Christ is proclaimed, I am confident that he would drop his laid-back patience very quickly if he heard that his Philippian rivals were preaching Hermes as Savior. A Pauline vision of variegated harmony entails both unimaginable diversity and a profound, singly-focused principle of unity, the sharing of the Spirit, the same mind that was in Christ Jesus. We may neither impose a constricting homogeneity on the body – If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? – nor may we abandon the gospel by which we learn how to share in the mind of Christ.

None of us can, by her- or himself, ascertain exactly how to balance the demands of like-mindedness and variety, but it’s a pretty safe bet that we’re out of balance when we try to settle arguments by labeling our rivals with derisive nicknames, or by invoking our theological heroes in a litany of authorities – as though it solved our controversies to say, “I am of Benedict XVI” or “I am of Cone,” or “I am of Hooker” or “I am of Wesley!” No, Jesus commands us to refrain from calling our our brother “Airhead,” to refrain from passing judgment on the dust in our sister’s eyes while we wear a two-by-four as a monocle. Most challenging of all, Jesus affirms that some of the people who seem most obviously to be on his side will turn out to be strangers to the gospel. Even if we adhere to what Jesus said and frame our evaluation of others by the fruits that they bear, Jesus reserves the prerogative to turn away the miracle-working, demon-casting, call-on-the-name-of-the-Lord-ing theological stars whom we trusted. That’s Jesus’ job, for which eternal Wisdom equips him; we may not arrogate to ourselves the judgment call of who are the tares, and who are the sheaves of good wheat. There is one lawgiver and one judge who is able to save and to destroy; so who then are you to judge your neighbor?

In other words, the Gospel itself demands that we move beyond simplistic dichotomies, whether they be divisions between liberals and conservatives, between oppressors and victims, between catholics and protestants, between orthodox and revisionist, between us and them. We must move beyond simplistic dichotomies, and at the same time we may not suspend our faculty of discernment, by which we recognize what is good, what is true, what is praiseworthy. We need to learn how to recognize Melchizedek.

Melchizedek appears in our tradition out of thin air. In Genesis 14, he pops up out of nowhere – neither he nor his kingdom has been mentioned in Scripture before – and a victorious Abram honors Melchizedek as King of Salem and (most unnervingly) as priest of the Most High God. Then Melchizedek vanishes from the story again, leaving us to wonder why Abram is making offerings to a Canaanite priest-king who worships a deity who sounds suspiciously like the Cananaite god El-Elyon. Assuming (as we must) that Abram’s faith in God assured him that Melchizedek represented the One True God rather than God’s Canaanite rival, how did Melchizedek receive this priesthood? And what happens after Abram leaves town?

If we take the path of oversimplification, if we apply some doctrinal checklist to Melchizedek, he comes out looking pretty sketchy. He provoked the interest of some doctrinally-impaired sects, attracting the expository attention of the Qûmran community, and of Gnostics. He wasn’t descended from any of the authorized priestly lines; heavens, there wasn’t even such a thing as an “authorized priesthood” back in Genesis 14. We don’t know who his parents were, we don’t know who his offspring were, we don’t know where he stood on the roles of bishops or sanctification or five-point Calvinism or women’s ministries or any of the other topics that trigger our faction-consciousness. If as the Letter to the Hebrews suggests, he was involved in asexual reproduction – “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life” – who knows where he would have stood on the disciplinary question that so possesses our imaginations at this juncture. Melchizedek doesn’t meet any bright-line standards by which we identify the politically-correct, the doctrinally-correct, the our-factionally-correct figures to whom mass audiences pledge their allegiance.

The truth about Melchizedek comes to light not by interrogating his agenda, and certainly not by constraining our attention to the strictly literal sense of his significance, and absolutely not by fixating on peripheral details with which the Left Behind series might turn him into a Central European tribal chieftain whose symbolic gestures signal the beginning of the Rapture, or a da Vincian pre-Merovingian dynastic ancestor of Jesus. We recognize Melchizedek by dwelling patiently with his mysterious legacy, by attending to the congruity of his intimate strangeness, with Jesus’ strange intimacy with us. We see in Melchizedek a priest who shouldn’t be a priest, who worships a deity who may not be our God, without forebears or progeny, but who establishes the sacral heritage that Jesus – whose heredity, godhead, and sacerdotal standing also involved complications – will consummate and invite us to share. We recognize Melchizedek by waiting with the complications until the Spirit and the saints and the fullness of the Body’s wisdom help us clarify what we think of this peculiar figure.

In the spirit of Melchizedek, then, lies an exemplary sign for non-dichotomous theologizing. If we can live with the smelly, ugly, dirty flat parts of our body long enough to find out that they’re awfully good for walking on; if we can abide patiently the underdetermined complexities of problems that don’t reduce to Aye or Nay; if we can measure twice, three, or four times before we once cut off a part of the Body, we will be that much stronger, truer, wiser in our efforts steadfastly to pursue God’s promise of something better than our wisdom. If we know that our Lord, the one lawgiver and Judge, will call sheep of other folds, strangers from East and West and North and South, of every tribe and people and language and nation, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, then we may find the strength to resist the strident din of faction. Instead we can rely on the one Spirit of unity, to lead us beyond the best-selling rhetoric of insiders and outsiders and to bring us with many sisters and brothers to the feet of the tree of life where hangs the perfect fruit of a righteousness strange and familiar, given for us in the One Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

7 comments / Add your comment below

  1. AKMA, I cannot tell you how glad we were to have you as a part of our conference. For any feeling out of place that we could have alleviated with more forethought and hospitality I must truly apologize. I know the day was exhausting but walked away from the end of the day truly blessed. However, the next conference I plan may attempt to be shorter. Nothing wrong with six hours instead of eight.

  2. Jeff, no problem (especially as everything turned out fine) — there were three or four sets of interests, each operating at a different plane of specificity and expectation, and when all converged, the result promised to be surreal, could have been disastrous, but in fact was ordered by the Spirit toward a startlingly salutary outcome.

    Thanks for the invitation!

  3. surreal . . . I think I might borrow the word to describe the conference. It was a pleasure to experience the real AKMA. I can understand why your students speak so highly of you.

  4. Indeed – Beth and I are enjoying the mental image of the “trundling” about in cassock and surplice in Garrett chapel.

    Sorry I missed it!

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