It is becoming more and more apparent that one of the major things that ails U.S. Christianity is: bad theology leads to bad practice and bad practice leads to bad theology.
I'll begin with some thoughts on the former and then proceed to the latter of those two thoughts.
More often than not, we seek justification for our beliefs and actions. When this occurs, our actions drive our theology. One need not look too far in the present or in the past to see this happening.
- Slave owners justified slavery citing certain portions of scripture while ignoring others.
- Kings and popes justified the crusades by citing certain portions of scripture while ignoring Jesus' explicit commands.
- Christians continually lobby the government to instill policies and laws which uphold their ideals of what Christianity is about.
Some of my readers at this point might be thinking, "Oh great. Time to stop reading. I'm not interested in theological/scholarly battles. I'd rather just practice my faith without worrying about such matters."
I understand such thoughts. Believe me, I once held to such a line of thinking--content to do my own thing in my area of influence without regard to what was going on in the wider field of the church or society. But I have a problem: I care very deeply about what happens to this faith that has claimed me. I care very deeply for its public expression: the Church. I care that the influence of the Church is currently in decline as is Church membership and attendance. While I am loathe to say that I can have much of an impact on this decline as it is far beyond my power or scope to change anything, I also know that I cannot simply remain silent when I have discovered things which I believe are adding fuel to the fires of decline. If you agree, then please read on.
Of Bultmann, Borg and Crossan
In my recent reading, I have come to see just how much of an influence such scholars as Rudolf Bultmann, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan have had in my own denomination. I believe each of these scholars' work was/is driven by a particular practice leading to bad theology. That theology, in turn, has become very influential in its teaching which has led to bad practice. We begin with Bultmann.
Bultmann worked in the early 1900's, and he was heavily influenced by Enlightenment thought and the rise of reason and science. He found difficulty in reconciling reason and science's empirical nature with what he deemed the mythology found in Christianity. How could one embrace the wonders of science and reason which seemed to eliminate the possibility of God acting in the world and breaking natural law with the miraculous deeds and wonders found in the Bible? Bultmann's answer: demythologize the Bible. Recognize the miraculous as stories and deeds meant to convey a point but lacking any historical reality.
Of course, this meant that one had to approach the Bible in a certain fashion. One could no longer rely on Scriptures to convey the historical truth of things--one had to dig deep within the Bible to figure out what was "really" factual and what was myth. Scripture must now be approached with a hermeneutic of suspicion instead of a hermeneutic of trust. One cannot underestimate the pull that Bultmann had with his theology. It's still around today and has been pushed to some rather unfortunate conclusions.
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan both embrace this hermeneutic of suspicion in their works, and they continue to have tremendous influence in my denomination despite being taken to task by more than a few other scholars. Some outside the ELCA might scoff at this suggestion, but I can assure you, it is no mere flight of fancy of this writer's mind. In the last issue of L Magazine two of the prominent "Resource Picks" are none other than these two scholars.
Each of these men has delved into seeking the "historical" Jesus--again, reading the Gospel narratives with the idea of suspicion instead of trust in an attempt to distinguish what is "really" Jesus from that which is more a community/early Church construct of Jesus.
Yesterday, as I re-read through Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (A head's up to my New Testament prof in Seminary Dr. Ray Pickett. He actually had the guts to suggest this book to his class and say that it was far and away the best of the books to read in the Third Quest for the Historical Jesus. I think Johnson has been surpassed by Richard Bauckham personally, but there are still great and timely thoughts by Johnson even though his book is dated by scholarly standards.), I was struck by Johnson's thorough critique of Borg and Crossan.
It does not take an exceptionally discerning eye to detect more than a little of the "dominant consciousness" of yet another sort at work in this [Borg's] analysis, namely, the cultural assumptions of the contemporary American academy. Jesus' "relevance" turns out to be the way in which he can function as the prototype of the sort of "cultural critique" that many academics think the rest of the world needs: the "politics of holiness" that is overly concerned with rules and status and exclusion should be replaced by a "politics of compassion" that is committed to freedom and equality and inclusion. (page 43)
Johnson's critique goes further and deeper, but it is of note that Jesus, for Borg, becomes like Borg--a cultural critic who embraces academia's concerns. As I have noted before, Borg makes Jesus look just like Borg. This is not good theology, historical study, or scholarship.
For all their self-conscious methodology and social-scientific sophistication, Crossan's efforts reveal themselves as an only slightly camouflaged exercise in theologial revisionism rather than genuine historiography...To construct his portrayal of Jesus, he will draw on any apocryphal writing in preference to any canonical writing. The criteria that matter for determining authenticity are those that make up the predetermined portrait that Crossan wishes to emerge. His use of cross-cultural patterns reduces Jesus to a stereotypical cultural category, that of a member of "peasant culture." Into this historical cipher Crossan can pour his own vision of what "Christianity" ought to be: not a church with leaders and cult and creeds, but a loose association of Cynic philosophers who broker their own access to the kingdom of self-esteem and mutual acceptance. (page 50)
Again, we see Crossan constructing his own Jesus to suit his own desires of what Christianity should be. This is not good theology, historical study, or scholarship.
So, how is it that L Magazine holds up Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan as important resources for leaders in the ELCA? How is it that Marcus Borg is invited to a theological conference to speak to pastors and others leaders of the three Texas/Louisiana synods of the ELCA? How is it that these scholars continue to have such an influence in my denomination?
One of the Major Problems with U.S. Christianity
I think Borg, Crossan, and Bultmann give theologial underpinning and theological blessing to the particular agenda embraced by the leadership of the ELCA. These scholars provide a methodology of allowing Scripture to be read with suspicion so that scripture must prove itself. When one approaches scripture in such a fashion, one can easily say, "Well, sure, that's what the Bible says on the surface, but what does it "really" mean?"
With this methodology, one can easily and purposely alter scripture to fit one's personal or social agenda. Certain texts and passages can be disregarded at one's leisure and can be changed to fit the particular historical/social context. In effect, we can change Jesus/we can change the teachings of the Bible instead of Jesus and the teachings of the Bible changing us. Well, that's not entirely true because OUR reading of the Bible has made us pretty comfortable, but it is everyone else who doesn't read the Bible like us who needs to change.
This is a major problem because it leads us straight to idolatry. We construct our own God. We construct our own Jesus. We construct our own faith. We are not held accountable by a faith that is outside of ourselves--it is others who have to change, not us. God has blessed us and our doings, but not those others who disagree with us.
I want to take a small tangent here because one might get the idea that it is only liberal Christianity that I am critiquing. One would be wrong. The Christian right is just as guilty as the Christian left of participating in such matters. While they might deny it vehemently, it is not that difficult to see they too construct their own personal Jesuses. Case in point: I have never met a conservative Christian who says that they take the Bible literally actually take Luke 14:33 literally. ("So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.")
It has become clear to me that in the U.S. in this postmodern age, we live in an age of idolatry. We construct our own personal Jesus based upon our own ideology and actions. We then seek out congregations and denominations and scholars which embrace our portrait of Jesus or paint one very similar to our own. We justify such actions with bad theology which begins with the assumption that the source and norm of our faith--the Bible--be held in skepticism instead of trust.
And voices which call us back to the historic/orthodox faith are all but drowned out and muted. They are not controversial enough. They don't generate headlines. They make us uncomfortable because they do not allow us to be complacent. They call us to transformation, and we are content to be like we are feeling we have no need to change ourselves or our worldviews.
What is the answer? I think I've managed to get some clarity on part of the problem, but it is not enough to simply articulate the problem. Solutions are also demanded. A critic comes down off the mountain after the battle is done and shoots the wounded. A doctor heals them.
What does the orthodox faith teach us? What does the Great Physician say? More to come...