Wednesday, November 6, 2013

'Round and 'round it goes: The turnstiles of trinity, church, and world

From Toledo, IA
Photo by Tim Green/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Romand Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post reflects on chapter 7, "The Pregnant Reticence of Rowan Williams" by Coles.

First off, it seems right that a bit of an update is in order. In addition to the slower pace of our posts, our e-mail chatter about this book has died down over the past month and a half, and I'm certain that has mostly to do with more "life happening" for each of us. I know Jon's been deep in studies recently, on top of his family and work commitments, all of which add up to quite a load this time of year. He was originally going to write the reflection for this chapter, but sensing his heavy load, I volunteered to take it on for him...which was two weeks ago.

And John's been busy with work, planning for some upcoming transitions, and also dusting off a few of his grad school papers and getting them posted in some cool online places:
For my part I've been juggling my work for EMU, local ministry, a writing project, and a church-planting proposal that needs to be done this week - oh and watching a lot of the show Parenthood with my wife in the evenings. So yeah, things have been a bit hectic but our reading continues and is, at least for me, still stimulating some good thoughts for my local context and work.

While it does take some wild patience to follow Coles' writing at times (and being somewhat snarky, it kind of reminds me of this) - this chapter succeeded in further convincing me that Rowan Williams is someone I should pay a lot more attention to. (Good timing since he's now giving the Gifford Lectures at University of Edinburgh over the next week.) So here are a few scattered thoughts on this chapter...

On sheep and goats in the radical ordinary

The ordinary is where we meet up with Jesus, and he is more profoundly nowhere else. (Coles, p. 177)

"And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" (Jesus, Mt. 25:40)
The latter passage, set in the "sheep and goats" section of vv. 31-46, has long been one that my Anabaptist-trained understanding of the Christian faith has taken at face value. It's never lost its sting for me, and it's a passage that ups the ante on the notion of imago Dei, that humans are created in the image of God. Here, Jesus - our imago Dei par excellence - seems to be suggesting that our treatment of any individual "of the least of these who are members of my (human; not just Christian) family" - that this treatment is somehow, mysteriously, our treatment of him personally. It's so important Jesus says it twice: once for the "sheep" and once for the "goats" that he's sorted out.

In this section of Mt. 25, Jesus is giving his hearers a story/description of what his glorious return will be like. The eschatological dimensions of this word-picture-story seem to dazzle Christians into missing the (nonviolent) ethical punch. In their rush to sort out for themselves who's "saved" or not in the hereafter, many Christians have missed Jesus' point about faithful living in the here and now. Jesus seems to be exploding categories here, smashing together talk of his glorious, kingly return with the notion that he is somehow, in the meantime, to be found in the marginalized and oppressed, and that we should treat them/him well. And since Jesus stated rather plainly elsewhere that the poor would always be with us, the implication is this: There is neither place nor time where Jesus isn't. He is always and everywhere in the ordinary.

Coles, not himself a confessing Christian, continues:
The task, then, is to cultivate a community in relation to the memory of Christ's trial, cross, and resurrection such that Christians might gradually conform themselves to his generous and vulnerable cultivation of becoming, at and through the edges of life rather than in a mythic transcendence of them... as we discover more cruciform possibilities in the present, possibilities that better enable us to see Christ. (178)
"At and through the edges of life" - A striking phrase that is perhaps given some weight when held next to Jesus' ethical demands on us for care of "the least of these." Life for the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, can be - perhaps often is - a precarious thing. It is far more common for the unsafe and insecure members of society to stand close to the edges of our finite human being, catching glimpses of the abyss that privileged people such as myself can only vaguely imagine.

Perhaps our care for "the least of these" should cultivate a deeper sense of the precarious nature of life, something that is more a readily present reality for such people. Jesus is sending us to the brink of death with his command to this kind of care and solidarity, as death to ourselves is what we're ultimately called to by Jesus. Only in such death is there any hope of glorious resurrection in him.

"One more ride, token man"

Later, Coles has a very long and good footnote where he mentions Rowan Williams' writing on the Trinity, including a wonderful description of the Trinity as...
a source, inexhaustibly generative and always generative, from which arises form and determination... the source of all does not and cannot exhaust itself simply in producing shape and structure; it also produces that which dissolves and re-forms all structures in endless and undetermined movement. (189, fn. 13, quote from a chapter by Williams in On Christian Theology)
Notice here that the Trinity is inexhaustibly and always generative, but that generative energy is not merely constructive, but also de-constructive and ultimately re-constructive. This resonates with what I've described elsewhere as the "anarchist" quality of the Holy Spirit, the mighty rushing wind that overturns our best-laid plans and compels us into new ways of seeing and being in the world.

From his understanding of a dynamic, endlessly moving, and un-constrainable trinitarian God, Williams draws ethical implications for the body of Christ seeking to be faithful in a pluralistic world. Inspired by the inter-relationship of the Godhead, with such qualities as "cooperation, analogical perception, mutual nurture" (ibid), Christians must look for similar opportunities to imitate/participate in this kind of "dance," not only with ourselves in the body of Christ, but also our dance with "the world." This more artistic-ethical stance can only be grasped by doing. Williams quotes Catholic priest, Raimundo Panikkar here: "What it will finally be is not something theory will tell us, but something only discoverable in the expanding circles of encounter with what is not the Church" (ibid).

Coles then imagines a kind of turnstile...
that somewhat unpredictably spins people out and pulls people in, in ways that make possible cooperation, pluralized hopes, and unwonted relations - and further undulate the 'exterior' edges of the church... In other words, Williams is suggesting that the edge between the church and nonbelievers has an essentially ambiguous character. (190)

No conflict, no peace; Know conflict, know peace

All this trinitarian and ecclesial reflection is done after Coles mentions Williams' writing about conflict in the life of a monastic cloister. "It is a lifestyle which at one level invites conflict... the conflict which the rest of society is afraid, in order to allow a more truthful and courageous humanity to emerge" (quoted on 187).

Contrary to peace as the absence or avoidance of conflict (which Brethren and Mennonites are terribly guilty of), or else peace as the longing for some cosmic teleportation out of all troubles (popular American Evangelical soteriology), Coles wonders:
What if...Williams is suggesting the possibility that a more thoroughly Godlike peace might involve generative conflict and tension - but conflict and tension forged in generous receptivity among differences whose difficult divergences are part of their ongoing and evolving yet never-resolving gift to one another and to the world? What if this is a part of the gloriousness of God's creation? (188)
This is a somewhat frightening possibility for me. Despite my conflict transformation education, I am by habit a conflict avoider, especially in my personal life. But I think Coles-via-Williams is onto something, and I need to keep stewing on it and perhaps tentatively practicing it before I can say anything more. But I guess that's been a huge point of this chapter: We only know by joining in the dance, and all the risk it entails...

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