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Evangelicals, Ecumenism and Truth

How we handle theological and social or political differences within the context of Christian community says a lot about us. Something of a personal conversation that has arisen in my own context is discerning how to navigate convictions versus beliefs, whether the two are even different, and what that means in terms of participating in a community.

A conversation that took place in a class this afternoon addressed the great difficulty that Evangelicals have in maintaining unity in the face of differences of opinion, belief and practice. Denominations splinter and churches believe others are not doing “church” right, not preaching the Gospel, or are unbiblical. Those are strong words. The underlying sentiments in these critiques is a great fear of worshiping incorrectly; false theology leads to false worship. For many Evangelical churches, this same fear is the hindrance to gender equality and women in leadership, welcoming and affirming queer persons, or administering the Eucharist openly.

I think the reason behind all of this fear is that we worship truth (I think worshiping truth is appropriate language, but feel free to push back if you think it’s too strong). We equate truth (and are quite fast to affirm objective Truth) with God and godliness, or holiness. It is only natural, then, that prize correctness and theological rightness over anything else. We equate truth with God and aspire to draw nearer to God through our rightness. This justifies our separation and rejection of people who believe differently than we do. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not the quest for truth and correctness is more important than joining in with the greater body of God outside of doctrinal and theological constructs.

That question presents a problem for both progressives and conservatives, though. Most progressive Christians will want to push particular issues forward to wrestle with as a community, those who are more conservative among that community may not be ready, or just unwilling, to have those conversations. This is the difficulty of community, and the presence of so many denominations proves how difficult this tension is. Do progressive Christians compromise by pulling back on particularly pressing issues to preserve unity, or do those who would consider themselves more conservative open themselves to discussion and compromise in order to preserve unity?

Rather than following God via the quest for truth, I think that the story of God invites us to find God in risk. Following God means heading into risk. Love and risk always go hand in hand. Through the incarnation, God risked the misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the revelation––the blending of human and divine––in order to achieve greater relationship and intimacy with creation. Risking our propriety on truth opens us up to greater intimacy with God, each other, and the rest of creation.

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Martin LutherGetting messy with Martin

Our faith communities would do well revisit Martin Luther’s understanding of the Christian as being simul justus et peccator, simultaneously righteous and a sinner. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of inclusiveness in our churches. Luther’s assessment completely levels unofficial hierarchies of holiness and dismantles the all too visible wall that divides between who is in and who is out. When God became human in the person of Jesus, our attempts at becoming like God by trying to escape our humanity were exposed for what they were: bankrupt. Rather, we were taught how to be more fully human. To be human is to be messy, but it is also to love and be loved. “Therefore,” writes brother Martin, “sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.” May we learn to see everyone as beautiful, rather than loving everyone who appears to be beautiful. May we stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we even know what beautiful, ugly, normal, abnormal, or in and out look like. We are always, every one of us, all of those at all times. They blend together in such a way that prevents us from distinguishing between them. How do we teach ourselves to live in this space? I have a feeling it is a very messy place, but it is a place I want to move into.

For a couple decades now, Sallie McFague has been an important and insightful voice in the conversation regarding Christianity and ecological deterioration. Our theologies are far from innocent when it comes to the issues of environmental ethics, caring for creation, and seeking justice for those on the receiving end of environmental and systemic oppression. Christian theologies regarding the material and spiritual, humanity and creation, nature and history, systems of power and authority, and both creation and the eschaton all deeply influence the praxis around human and non-human life. Within the ongoing conversation of ecological theology, McFague takes Christology to task. How do the ways in which we approach Jesus’ life, death and resurrection influence the way that we approach all of creation?

“The task now,” writes McFague, “is to embody in praxis the ecological Christologies that have been developing over the last several decades. Further refining Christology is less critical than putting Christology into practice. The problem is not that we need to know more Christology; rather, we need to know more about nature and how to live out these Christologies in relation to nature.” [1]

She implies that our theology–if not coupled with thoughtful, ecologically influenced praxis–is disconnected and ineffectual to embody God and enact justice in our earth-context. I feel like it is appropriate to play with Aquinas’ words to summarize: a mistake about Christ will lead to a mistake about Creation.

Of course, remembering what we say about the Christ is essential to moving beyond simply knowing “more Christology.” To begin, the creedal confession at Nicea affirmed Jesus’ co-equality and metaphysical oneness with God, “by whom all things were made.” It affirms that there is a uniqueness and salvific purpose in the incarnation. The later Chalcedonian commentary on Nicea cemented the dual nature of Jesus’ being, characterized as “fully God and fully human.” Chalcedon preserves tension, paradox, and mystery in describing God’s blending of the spiritual and material in the incarnation event rather than dualistically subjecting one to the other. This is critical for contemporary ecological theologies in their fervent resistance to dualist tendencies in Christian thought that elevate the spiritual over the physical.

The Situation

McFague takes to defining our situation as such:

The climate change case calls Christology into immediate practice. For affluent Christians, it demands a different view of the abundant life, one that includes cruciform living, the practice of restraint, diminishment, the death of unlimited desire, and control of ecological selfishness. Ecological Christology defines sin as the refusal to share the necessities of life with others, both other humans and other life forms. Sin is insatiable greed, wanting to have it all. Acting justly toward nature and other human beings demands sacrifices from Christian elites. Sustainable living involves acceptance of finite limits, such as how we drive our cars, emissions controls, and carbon taxes on industry. it includes “free trade,” the policies of the world Bank, and stock market investments, as they affect the natural world and poor people. When we see where Christology, economics, and ecology intersect on an issue such as climate change, the need for different practices at personal, professional, national, and global levels becomes apparent. [2]

Sacramental Christology

So, how does the incarnation influence us communally and individually to enact care and love and justice for the entirety of life? This is a huge question that I don’t pretend to possess an answer to. However, I think that a sacramental Christology is a door to a helpful and appropriate ecological theology for our present time. Its focus is a divine immanentalism and the affirmation of God’s presence in all of creation. Inherent in this approach is a challenge to the transcendence of classical theism, something McFague has written about extensively. Nodding to the humanity of Jesus, this approach is deeply incarnational and affirms the vibrant presence of God in both nature and Jesus, a shift that embraces bodies and the physical world around us. These ideas stream through Eastern Orthodoxy and indeed reveal ecological concerns to be of deep importance to theology and the Christian tradition. For example, Dumitru Staniloae writes, “The economy of God consists in the deification of the created world, something which, as a consequence of sin, implies also its salvation.”[3] He continues, “Salvation and deification have an ontologically unified humanity and nature as its aim.”[4]  John Chryssavgis states that “we are a part of the cosmos and are less than human without creation.”[5] Yet, McFague wonders, “while sacramental Christologies find God in nature, do they respect nature itself? Do they pay attention to the other or do they use it, however subtly, as a way to God?”[6]  It is up to us to live the answers to these questions. The following are some of my reflections on a sacramental Christology and questions that point towards praxis, a lived Christology.

Metaphysical Fusion

The mystery of the Incarnation itself, as Jesus embodies the God/Man and possesses the full nature of God and the full nature of humanity, highlights the fusion between the spiritual and the material. This is in stark contrast to Platonic thinking that has deeply influenced Christian thought and swayed us into certainty that the soul is in competition with the body. The Incarnation teaches us that matter and spirit, or body and soul, are not separate, but as Fr. Richard Rohr says, “two sides of the same coin.” This mystery reveals to us that it is inappropriate to elevate the spiritual as superior to the physical––that our souls are more important than our bodies, or that non-human life is ultimately not important to redemption and reconciliation because it lacks a soul that can be saved. Jesus forces us to reconcile that tension and be present in holistic ways.

Location

As the biblical story unfolds the theme of place is absolutely central to the story. The Incarnation continues this pattern of revealing God to be uniquely interested in place. Jesus encounters the full range of his geographical setting by engaging socio-political and religious life. While Jesus certainly was not stationary, he was very much rooted in the community life of a particular region. Though anachronistic, it may be appropriate to understand Jesus as committed to his bioregion. Jesus found himself among both the elite and poor subsistence farmers and revealed the interconnections between religion, economics and production, community and justice. How does the natural world interact with religion, economics and production, community and justice in our own contexts?

Healing

On a broad level I’ve been critical of stories depicting Jesus healing, but the importance that Jesus and the gospel writers placed on physical healing is not lost on me. Through these stories of healing the gospel writers are challenging socio-cultural boundaries regarding clean and unclean which more often than not tend to fall along class distinctions. The healing stories also foreshadow the resurrection, the ultimate transition from broken to whole.  The re-incorporation into community life seen through healing stories is a critical component to any ecological Christology. What are the broken pieces of our natural world that have been splintered from community and reduced to objects or means? How can we attempt to make them whole and re-introduce them to community? Or more likely, what are the broken pieces of our natural world that we need to see with new eyes and allow ourselves to recognize as a part of our vitality and abundant life? What is our responsibility to nature?

Salvation

If we submit to McFague’s definition of sin within an ecological theology stated above, salvation is “neither solely human nor spiritual. It must be for the entire creation. and it must address what makes different creatures and ecosystems flourish.”[7]  These may be abrasive words to many, but traditional concepts of salvation reflect Platonism more than the redemption spoken of in the Hebrew Bible or of the Cosmic Christ that reconciles all things to himself (Colossians 1). Salvation entails repentance to God and to the entire earth community.

Prophetic Criticism

Because of his embeddedness within a particular context, Jesus not only witnessed abused power but was also affected by it. His own experience and his solidarity with the oppressed led him to be outspoken when persons in power used religion or status or law to dehumanize others and/or esteem themselves. Such dehumanization toward the unclean, the sinners and various Others by persons in power failed to recognize and respect the imago Dei within them. This creates a culture of blindness to the image and presence of God all around us. Similarly, when those in power mistreat forests, fisheries, rivers, the atmosphere, and the people that surround them and depend on them, they are failing to respect the imago Dei pulsing through creation. Do we see God present in creation? What do we do when power is used for exploitation rather than blessing? How do we reveal God through creation for justice?

Resurrection

Lastly, the resurrection is crucial to an ecological Christology because it promises hope. “The resurrection will not solve our ecological crisis;” writes McFague, “it will not tell us what to do with regard to either small or large problems.”[8]  However, what the resurrection does accomplish is the symbolization of the “triumph of life over death.”[9] That death has the final word is not something that Christianity affirms. We live into and participate in a story that affirms and hopes against hope that there can be new life, different life, and better life in the midst of brokenness and even death. This must propel us beyond despair and helplessness.

So…

Discerning the proper response to the environment, as well as defining the role of nature in redemption is still a hotly debated issue within Evangelicalism. How can these categories be better elaborated on and better pointed toward community praxis and toward moving this conversation forward in Evangelicalism? What would you add or edit? Are these concepts true to orthodoxy vis-a-vis early creedal statements? Do you agree with the definitions of sin and salvation, or rather, do they cohere with the biblical categories of sin and salvation?

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1. Sallie McFague, “An Ecological Christology: Does Christianity Have it?” in Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans, eds. Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 39.

2. Ibid., 41-42.

3. Dumitru Staniloae, The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, The World: Creation and Deification (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2000), 1.

4. Ibid.

5. John Chryssavgis, ed., Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eeardmans), 24.

6. McFague, “An Ecological Christology”, 32.

7. Ibid., 38.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

I’ve been intrigued to see Process Theology popping up in the (to varying degrees) evangelical blogs lately. I was excited to see it getting some greater attention from evangelicals, but also really confused and surprised by it.

Undoubtedly, the appeal to Process Theology from disenfranchised evangelicals has much to do with theodicy and God’s intervention–or lack thereof–in a world full of suffering and injustice. This is certainly a problem with classical theism, and evangelicalism generally does not deal well with suffering, injustice and crisis theologically. Douglas John Hall’s critique of the “official optimism” of North American Christianity calls into question the silver-lining theology of God’s glorification in all things, and rightly so. This is especially poignant today given the resurgence of Calvinism that dominates the evangelical world in North America. As the awareness of injustice and oppression awakens many young evangelicals, many millennials are reacting against this brand of Christianity and desperately trying to understand a God who they have been told their whole lives is loving and good.

I’m on my own journey of finding the good God in a world of hate, oppression of humans/earth/earth others, exclusion, inequality and greed. Process Theology absolutely offers an understanding of God and the world that addresses the problems of evil and human responsibility. I embrace the panentheism and interdependence within Process Theology. In it God is intrinsically related to the world and all creation and is deeply affected by our pain and suffering and our sin. I heartily endorse the critique of the monarchical model of God and the hierarchical structures that have emerged as a result. I love the openness of God and God’s lack of coercion towards creation, but creation’s influence upon God (I’m really excited to follow what Tony Jones is up to re: Process Theology and prayer). Whitehead called God the “poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness.” This shifts the emphasis from God toward those of us incorporating God’s being into our own. Additionally, I am a big fan of its heavily kenotic Christology. Most of all, though––and I think this is where Process Theology is resonating with evangelicals––is that the God of Process Theology is our “great companion” and the “fellow sufferer who understands.” This is Immanuel, God with us. A theology of the cross is deeply present in Process Theology, and God is not the cause or root of injustice. Process Theology deconstructs an interventionist God.

Evangelicalism is firmly rooted in the reality of an interventionist and personal God, which Process Theology deconstructs, making it incompatible with evangelicalism. Challenging the notion of an interventionist God is by no means entirely problematic, but what does it really mean for God to be personal, and what would it mean if we were to explore an alternative? Is evangelicalism really looking for something more along the lines of Open Theism and a theology of the cross?

I’m by no means an expert in Process Theology, so feel free to correct me if I am making false claims or assumptions about it. Help me understand this stuff better. What are your thoughts on the relationship between Process Theology and evangelicalism? Is there a future here?