concerning denominations

June 7, 2008

last night i woke up around 3:30 am. i haven’t installed the new-to-us air conditioning unit in the bedroom window as of yet and yesterday was the first day in the chicago summer to feel like it spiked ninety degrees. so i was up in the not-yet-grey hours of the morning, dehydrated and unable to fall back to sleep.

naturally, i turned to karl barth to keep me company while i drank a cup of decaf chocolate-hazelnut tea (good stuff) and sat next to the window. as i struggled through church dogmatics‘ thick prose, the distance between barth’s germanic-reformed meaning of evangelical and my own rocky mountain, non-denominational take on the word kept pushing its way to the fore of my mind.

at times i really like barth. in many ways the same unhelpful alternatives face us that faced believers eighty years ago: the protestant modernism and catholic (super)naturalism that barth protests are still with us, though in new and modified forms. barth swoops in from above to offer a third way, completely outside the assumed possibilities of the dueling protestants and catholics. this much i like.

but i don’t like barth enough. not enough to become like him, to take him on as my theological exemplar. it’s the same problem i have when i consider attaching myself to a denomination: i find things i like in many of them (anglicanism, mennonite-ism (?), even catholicism) but nothing that compels me to become one of them.

this, i think, is a classic evangelical problem. i’ve called evangelicalism the orphan and the widow of the church, and i will stand by that. as for those of us raised in un- or losely-affiliated churches (often with “bible” somewhere in their names), we have no roots, no tradition to draw on. further we have no authority to appeal to, no one to give us definitive direction. so many of us end up walking around like a little bird, asking “are you my mother?” to whatever crosses our path. when we go looking for tradition, we can’t perform a chestertonian or eliot-esque conversion, not because of a lack of good options but because of our lack of something to be converting from. it’s like trying to learn a new language without even a glimmer of the rudimentary grammar of the language we already speak.

this said, i think a quest for a tradition (or even for what can be redeemed in evangelicalism itself) is a worthwhile endeavour–just a difficult one. it’s not one to be stumbled into unreflectively or haphazardly (slapdash, cindy would say). for my own part, i’ve pasted together two somewhat firm guides for the manner in which i go about this:

1. no tradition will be perfect. every denomination, organization, association or movement has its falling-down points, its embarrassments, its closeted skeletons. there will be the inspiring, captivating prophets who draw me to it (the barths, von balthasars, rahners, and john howard yoders), but each tradition will also have its loud, awkward, blustering members (whether in the pew, in the pulpit, or holding the pen) who smell funny, talk loudly, and misbehave (in ways not in vogue). don’t shoot for shiny perfection.

2. broader is better. (this perhaps betrays my jesuit education.) the older and more rooted a tradition, the more varied and sometimes in tension its current manifestations will be. i used to go a-questing for theological orthodoxy, down to my fine points of disagreement with my undergrad’s conservative systematics textbook. how dumb of me! a strait-jacket’s a strait-jacket even when you agree with it. a broader tradition (even if sometimes doctrinally-fringey) has room to listen and respond to God’s voice in ways that go beyond my own interests. it opens up the possibility for me to care about imagining what the claim “Jesus is Lord” looks like lived out here, to read church theology, to invite people over to our very hot apartment for soup (maybe a bisque), and yet the concrete physical needs of refugee families or the prophetic voice to power (etc.) still are carried out by other members (if not other orders).

it’s a hot afternoon now, and i need to see to that air conditioner if i want to sleep better tonight. i’d love to hear your thoughts on your traditions and how you’ve come to them.

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2 Responses to “concerning denominations”

  1. Matt Says:

    “Are You My Mother?” was one of my formative childhood reading experiences. When the bird asks the steam shovel if it is his mother it really blew my conceptions of family units.
    My only church tradition experience thst has been close to me is the liturgy at Christ the King. When I’ve been away from it for too long I feel like I need to “get my fix.” Visiting a reformed episcopal church here in Chicago (the only one is down in Tinley Park) I felt a sweet connection with the rest of the body of Christ. At the same time though, a part of my brain hiccuped when we sang parts of the liturgy to a different tune than we do at C the K.
    I’ve even thought about going to a super early episcopal service before I go play the bass at first baptist just to feel the liturgical connection.

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