Friday, July 31, 2009


I've been holding this blog post in my head for a couple weeks because I haven't had time to post it, for no good reason perhaps, except that we had our Yearly Meeting sessions this week. Although I didn't have any major roles this week, it was a full week between attending meetings for worship for business, evening worship gatherings, and leading a workshop on Christian Peacemaker Teams. It was also fun connecting with F/friends, old and new.

Anyway, it was interesting reading the three chapters I read for this doctrine, from Barclay's Apology, Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding and Freeing Theology, edited by LaCugna. The most interesting thing was that I agreed with all three of them, and they all added something the others didn't do as well. In a lot of ways they were saying the same thing from different perspectives.

The main point of all three can be summed up with a quote from Barclay: "the scriptures are only a declaration of the source, and not the source itself...." (46). Or again, here is a similar quote from Migliore: "Christians do not believe in the Bible; they believe in the living God attested by the Bible" (50). Sandra M. Schneiders, the author of the essay "The Bible and Feminism" in Freeing Theology, points out that Vatican II emphasizes that Christ is the only true revelation, as opposed to the Catholic Church's previous emphasis on scripture and tradition. All of these authors emphasized that the Word is Jesus, and the biblical text is just words about God, about the history of human interaction with God and words through which God often communicates with us. But without the Spirit, the words therein are just the same as any other words--they can be harmless, and also can be harmful.

It is difficult for all three authors to distinguish this doctrine fully from that of revelation, because so many tend to believe that the Bible is our only source of revelation, that it and it alone tells us the truth. All three of these authors combat that claim. It is the Spirit who communicates Truth to us, the Spirit we recognize speaking through the biblical text. "Otherwise," says Barclay, "there would be no distinction between the law and the gospel" (50). He means that if we think of the biblical text as a kind of law book showing us the truth, then what did we need the gospel for? The gospel frees us from the confines of the law.

The problem with this is its tendency for supercessionism, for making it really easy to demonize Judaism because all they had was the law. (Did I already write about this, or just think about it?) At any rate, the important thing to remember is that this tension exists within Judaism as well as Christianity. There is an amazing prophetic tradition within Judaism, calling the people back to faithfulness to God, not just to the letter of their law. The summaries of the laws Jews are to follow are the same as those for Christians: we are to love God and our neighbors, we are to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with God. In this way both religions are ones of the law--the law of love. Christianity perhaps makes this more explicit, but this theme is present and even dominant in the Hebrew Scriptures (that which we often call the Old Testament).

Although scripture is not the truth itself, it is the written record we have that, whether we like it or not, has been handed down to us as something through which God speaks to us. Personally, I trust that what is in there is there for a reason, although it's hard to see why some of it is in there and how much we can reinterpret for a new time. I think there may have been other things written that could have been in the Bible but were kept out and destroyed because perhaps they were written by women or in support of women, and that is sad. I agree with Migliore who reminds us that although this is something through which God communicates, it is also a human document, written by human writers, and collected by human leaders of the church in particular contexts. I also agree with Schneiders who emphasizes that the Bible is "God's self-communication in human language" (37), so although it is as authentic a communication of God as we can get (apart from Christ in physical form, or the Spirit speaking to us directly), every revelation we receive is communicated in a way we can understand. Therefore obviously it does not contain or communicate all of who God is, because of the limited medium and the limits of our own minds for comprehension.

One huge problem with the biblical text, which of course Barclay doesn't think to talk about, is that "the biblical canon was established by men who selected writings by men that men found valuable since they reflected male experience, interests, and theological positions, because these male authorities obviously thought that male experience was equivalent to human experience" (Schneiders, 42, in LaCugna, ed.). One could add to this that it was written in particular places and times, reflecting particular cultures and norms, which may or may not translate to current cultures. So the text is not perfect for us. It is confusing, it is archaic, it uses metaphors and cultural contexts we don't understand, and without illumination by the Spirit it can be incredibly damaging.

I found Migliore's "Principles of the Interpretation of Scripture" helpful as we think about these things. I think he helpfully balances these tensions by emphasizing personal connection and interpretation of the text combined with communal and historical understandings. Here are his principles:

1. Scripture should be interpreted with historical and literary sensitivity; yet Scripture's unique witness to the living God resists its imprisonment in the past or its reduction to pious fiction.

2. Scripture must be interpreted theocentrically [with God at the center]; however, the identity of god is radically redescribed in the overarching narrative of Scripture as the triune God, i.e., the God of Israel who comes to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

3. Scripture must be interpreted ecclesially, i.e., in the context of the life and witness of the church; however, an ecclesial reading of Scripture differs not only from an individualistic reading but also from the control of Scripture by church doctrine or hierarchy.

4. Scripture must be interpreted contextually; however, the context of our interpretation must not be confined to our personal history or to that of our immediate locality.

Interpretation of the text is so important, because it is in our interpretation that meaning occurs. This is also where the Spirit is present with us. I love this quote by Schneiders: "meaning is not 'in' the text but occurs in the interaction between text and reader, just as music is not 'in' the score but occurs as an event when the score is performed" (47). I think when we read the text apart from interacting with the Spirit it's like looking at music notes on a page, when we can't read music and can't even begin to imagine what the song would sound like. But when we listen to the Spirit we can hear the symphony played in us, and through us. We can respond and participate from our own context on our own unique "instrument." This goes well with the following, final Barclay quote:

"This is the great work of the scriptures, and their usefulness to us. They find a respondent spark in us, and in that way we discern the stamp of God's ways and [God's] Spirit upon them. We know this from the inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and with [the Spirit's] work in our hearts" (59).

Monday, July 13, 2009

the trinity

The Trinity is a rather strange doctrine, because on the surface it doesn't have much to do with Christianity or faith, but just seems like a kind of strange belief that Christians are supposed to ascribe to. The Trinity as such is never mentioned in the Bible, and in fact there is a major emphasis on the fact that there is one God. Some feminists actually find the doctrine oppressive (which I will explain shortly), and there have been many splits in the church over the years regarding the level of divinity of each of the three “persons” we call the Trinity.

Early Friends, including Barclay, apparently basically agreed with the doctrine of the Trinity, in that they believed Jesus was somehow part of God (in a way different from how anyone else can be), and they believed in a spiritual being called God who they had no trouble calling Father or Spirit. Barclay doesn't actually address the doctrine of the Trinity in his Apology, but he does make it clear that he believes Jesus to be divine (Freiday in his introduction cites Barclay's Confession of Faith, Article IV on this point).

Also, in Barclay's Apology, Proposition 2, he is discussing revelation but he makes a fairly Trinitarian claim:

“The only knowledge of the Father is by the Son
“The only knowledge of the Son is by the Spirit
“God has always revealed [God's] self to [God's] children by the Spirit....” (p. 23)

What it seems like to me is that early Friends kind of assumed the doctrine of the Trinity was more or less correct, but they didn't get caught up in its nuances. The point is, Jesus is God, we learn about God through the Spirit, the Spirit is both God and Christ, and we don't have to split hairs about who did what in creation, redemption, etc., and who is doing what now—all we know is that God is here, speaking to us, and the God who is present is the God of Jesus and is Jesus.

Other people, however, find the doctrine of the Trinity to be extremely important, and there is a lot of theological work devoted to figuring out exactly how the Trinity works over the centuries. There are two aspects of the Trinity: the “economic” Trinity, meaning the part we can see, the three ways God has interacted with humanity to enact the things going on in our world; and there is the “immanent” Trinity, the speculated internal relationship between the three parts of the Godhead in their own being and essential self, regardless of how they interact with us.

Migliore helpfully distinguishes between the confession of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Trinity: “The Christian confession of God as triune is a summary description of the witness of Scripture to God's unfathomable love incarnate in Jesus Christ and experienced and celebrated in the community of faith. The doctrine of the Trinity is the always-inadequate attempt to interpret this witness in the most suitable images and concepts available to the church in a particular era” (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2004, 67). In other words, we see these three aspects of God named over and over throughout the Bible, so the confession of the Trinity is simply naming how we see God interacting with humanity across time. The doctrine is the attempt to explain those different aspects in a way that makes sense to the context of a particular community. When seen this way, the Trinity can be a helpful concept.

There are some positive and negative things about the doctrine of the Trinity, however. Feminist thealogians point out (and I believe rightly) that the way the Trinity is often envisioned is both hierarchical and all male, both of which are not helpful because they are so often used as the basis for other Christian doctrines (Catherine Mowry LaCugna explains these well in the chapter I read for this week, “God in Communion with Us: The Trinity,” in Freeing Theology, 83-114. Migliore also does a good job of presenting these issues in his chapter “The Triune God,” 64-91.)

In many explanations of the Trinity, it is seen as a hierarchy of “persons,” from the Father-God who is the supreme divine being, to Jesus who is “his” Son and therefore heir but not quite equal because he was a human being for a time, to the Spirit who is sent by the Father through the Son as sort of their messenger or mediator. On this basis, many have tried to back up the hierarchy they posit in church leadership, family roles, races and/or slavery, and the hierarchy some see in the natural world (with human beings at the top).

Another major problem is that all the “persons” of the Trinity are spoken of as male. We use masculine pronouns for all of them in English. (In Greek, all nouns are assigned a “gender,” masculine, feminine or neuter. “Spirit” is neuter, so technically in the original language the Spirit is referred to as “it.” But the other two are masculine.) If you ask most Christians, I think they will tell you that God is neither male nor female, and yet often people think of God's qualities as more “masculine,” and males as more like God than females. There is the ever-pervasive analogy of Christ and the church, where Jesus is a prototype for males and the church (submissive, obedient, passive) is the model for females. I think this misses the whole point of that analogy, but that's for another post. The point is, because all the “persons” of the Trinity are set up as male, it is easy to support a hierarchical ideology in all areas of church dogma.

But there is hope! LaCugna and Migliore both spend a good deal of time in their chapters explaining the original reason the doctrine of the Trinity came to be (controversy in the church over the divinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit), and the original understanding of the Trinity. The Cappodocians (two brothers and a friend who were priests in the fourth century, as well as, probably, their sister Macrina) first really explained the Trinity, and their understanding was that the Trinity was an essentially social entity: one God who was in relationship with God's self in an inexplicable way. The three “persons” we have come to know through history exist in constant, perfect, loving communion with one another, and it is this love and communion into which we are invited.

This became the basis for the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity, while the Western understanding became more one of a single God with three aspects, like Augustine's more psychological analogy, where the aspects of God were less persons and more like aspects of one's personality or something akin to Freud's id, ego and superego. Western thought became more focused on the singularity of God, of God's fullness and autonomy in God's self, while Eastern Christianity focused on the social nature of God even within God's self, and how God invites us to live within that social structure of love and mutuality.

Western theologians today, it seems, are beginning to stress the social Trinity more than in the past, which I think is a good thing.

The problem still remains, however, that all these “persons” are considered male. This is a problem because it limits the way we view God, the ways we connect with God, and the way we value human persons. I think part of the problem is that our analogies have become rigid dogma, rather than something to help us understand different parts of God and how they can be part of a whole. The Bible uses many different names for God, and yet over the years, Christians have focused mainly on three, deciding with no actual scriptural basis that God is three persons, no more, no less. I understand the need to make it clear that Christians believe in the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, but I don't think this means we must limit God to only three persons, or three ways of relating to us. These are helpful analogies, but they are only that: analogies. God is not Father, God is like a father, and we can call God “Father” as a way of helping us know how to relate to God. At the same time, God is also like a mother, and it seems to me like we should have permission to call God “Mother” if that name helps us connect with God. I don't see God having a problem with that, and yet many people do have a problem with it.

Now, I understand how easy it is to get set in one's ways and want things to be done how they have always been done. I've actually noticed myself experiencing that a few times this week. I'm at a summer camp where my husband and I have led worship for middle schoolers several times, and there are certain ways we like to do things. We're leading this week with some people who we've never led with before, and they have some great ideas, and yet I find myself chafing about having to do things a little differently. I like the patterns we've set up. They work for us and they seem to help people draw in to worship and attentiveness. And yet, I have to take myself aside and say, “Cherice, are you just annoyed here because we're not doing things the way we've always done them, or do you have a genuine concern that this will be something that will make it difficult for these middle schoolers to practice worship?” Sometimes it's the former, and sometimes the latter. So I've been trying to be really intentional this week about letting my little forms and boxes I want to put around God be broken. But it's hard, and I don't always like it. So I can understand why people don't want to start using other names for God with which they're not familiar—it's hard! It takes work to let ourselves be drawn out of our familiar patterns and the ways we like to connect with God.

But I think it is in these places that we really meet God.

I think that's what Quaker silent meetings were originally about. I think the point was to listen for God as God, not through our familiar forms or comfortable patterns, but just to stop and listen, to be vulnerable to the point of being moved, to receive courage and insight that allows us to break out of the ways we've always done things, and to be moved to do something new. It is only through this kind of opening that we are actually able to live out justice and love in the world.

In Quakerism, whether we are programmed or unprogrammed, Christ-centered or not, whether we talk about the Trinity in formal, informal or nonexistent ways, I think we've still allowed ourselves to build up these kind of forms and boxes that hold us in, that keep us from really experiencing God in God's fullness. Perhaps some of us don't use the traditional “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” language, and I know many of us do, but either way, when was the last time any of us allowed God to be someone bigger than we imagined? When was the last time we allowed God to draw us in to God's playful, loving, co-suffering relationship?

Whether we use Trinitarian language or not, I challenge all of us to allow God to envision God's self to us, to break out of the mold we have put around our concept of God, and to experience God ourselves, unmediated, no walls, no forms, and to see where that experience—of a relationship so deep and loving and painfully aware of others' circumstance—leads us.

Thursday, July 09, 2009


This is pretty much the basic Christian doctrine, because how one understands revelation really affects how one speaks of any of the other doctrines. Basic questions are asked here: how do we know what we say we know about God or anything beyond our "normal" senses? What is the content and mode of revelation? What is its purpose? Contemporary theologians ask questions regarding who is believed to be able to receive revelation, and whose interpretation "counts."

Migliore's definition of what we mean by the term "revelation" is helpful: "Revelation is the disclosure of the character and purpose of God, and when it is received, it radically changes the lives of its recipients" (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2004, 22).

Quakers and feminists agree about many things regarding revelation, and in many ways it seems that Quakers were incredibly ahead of their time on this one. Barclay spends his entire Proposition 2 on "Inward and Unmediated Revelation," explaining that it is foundational to being a follower of God, and that other denominations really base everything on this direct revelation at some point, although they do not all agree that we can still receive this kind of revelation. Barclay states that this inward revelation will not contradict scripture, but scripture and reason should not be seen as more important than inward revelation: they cannot be used as something to contradict our inward experience. It is true that we can test things against scripture and reason to see if what we are hearing is likely to be actual revelation from God, or whether it is something else (self-deception, another spirit, etc.). But it is ultimately our own inward experience of God we must trust and live by.

If you're interested in such things, Barclay gives a whole list of "church fathers" who speak of this kind of direct, unmediated revelation, and its importance as the basic way we come to know God. Barclay even gives examples from Luther, Calvin and a prominent Anglican contemporary, "Dr. Smith of Cambridge." This latter wrote, "seek God within your own soul....The best and truest knowledge of God is not that which is wrought by the labor and sweat of the brain, but that which is kindled within us, by a heavenly warmth in our hearts."

Quakers were obviously not the only ones to believe that God speaks to us directly. There is a strong stream throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition of mystics, prophets and activists who claim direct connection with God. (Some of these, Barclay points out, were obviously not in connection with God, but we are not to judge actual connection with the Spirit by the fact that some people claim to have it and don't, any more than we should judge the efficacy of reason just because some claim to be using it and aren't. But how would we know the difference between something that is from God and something that isn't if we didn't each have the capacity to discern that, through Christ's Spirit?) I think Quakers have had a huge impact on Christianity through this particular doctrine. The Wesleyan emphasis on a personal choice of faith was influenced by Wesley's knowledge of Barclay (according to Dean Freiday, as I talked about in a previous post), and this in turn has influenced the entire evangelical and holiness movements, and arguably the Pentecostal movement.

As I read the chapter from Freeing Theology on this doctrine, I was struck by how much similarity there is in that Catholic, feminist perspective and Quakerism. I don't know that this is from the direct influence of Quakerism, but I think it is at least obliquely due to the challenge Friends (and others) brought to the Roman Catholic church over the last 400 years. The chapter is called "Experience and Tradition--Can the Center Hold? Revelation," by Mary Catherine Hilkert. She emphasizes that feminists' main point is that womens' experience, as well as all human experience, can be revelatory, can be an experience of the divine. She discusses something similar to Migliore's definition above, stating that it is through relationships that we come to points of "conversion," points at which we change in radical ways that we would not have done apart from those relationships. She says that feminists primarily use the human relationship as a metaphor for revelation, which is seen as learning to know God more fully. This can only happen in relationship. Therefore, human friendships are seen as very important in understanding how we can become "friends" with God. Does this sound familiar to us "Friends"?

Barclay states very clearly that revelation is available to all people, and that it is the point of faith. Here is a fun quote: "Take away the Spirit and Christianity is no more Christianity than a corpse is a man...." I think this is so important as we try to understand how we can live a faith that is not just going through the motions. This means that we can't get caught up either in the traditions of the church, or the supposedly not-traditions of Quakerism. Instead we must be constantly led by the Spirit, listening for how the revelation Christ embodied is to be continually lived out in a way that meets us in real relationship here, now, in this moment. We don't ignore the past, but we don't rely on it, either.

One of the main questions feminists ask is, "Whose experience counts?" Barclay deals with this obliquely by saying that everyone can experience God. But the problem is, what do we do with tradition? What do we do with a tradition that has been handed down to us primarily expressing a male perspective from a dominant class? Is there a way to include other voices (women, those who are not in a power-position, etc.) while still calling ourselves "Christian"? Early Friends and feminists mainly agree that while the Bible is a witness to people's interaction with God, it is not itself God's Word--Jesus is that. We read the Bible for its overarching meanings, not getting hung up on any particular verse or passage that either proves or disproves what we think is right. This gets into next week's topic, however, so I will leave it at that.

But how do we utilize scripture and other traditions in ways that support the humanity of all people, and that allows all people's experiences of revelation to "count"?

It is interesting that Migliore's text doesn't really address this question. Although he talks about revelation as something that changes one profoundly, and although he gives some examples of people who realized something internally that shook them to the very core, he doesn't really address the question of inward revelation. He focuses a good deal on whether revelation occurs only in the Christ-event and an individual's encounter with that event through the Bible, or whether God can be seen in a general way through all creation. He doesn't really ask or answer the question of whether and how human beings today know revelation when they see it (in theological terms, this is called "general revelation," while revelation only in Christ is called "special revelation.") Migliore does say that we would know nothing of revelation without the Bible and the Spirit, but really what he means is that the point of revelation is knowing about Jesus, and the only thing that is actual revelation is knowledge of Jesus' life and death (he doesn't mention the resurrection).

I think this is where Quakers and feminists differ. Yes, there is something unqualifiably important about Jesus, but for some reason, God cares about each of us and our lives, too. God has chosen to make us part of Christ's body, a part that is really important in living out God's love in the world. This happens as we experience God ourselves and our lives are transformed. This is utterly more important than knowing anything about Jesus' historical life, although knowing about that helps us understand God better to some degree.

I guess it just seems to me like there is so much more to revelation than just the Bible. Anytime we try to limit it to the Bible we become idolatrous, and this is what Friends responded against. Anytime we limit it to the Bible, we reject the experience of those who were not part of creating that text, and we try to limit God to working only in ways God worked in the past--which is to say, we limit God to only being able to work through people who lived in the past. I think this is the basic point that Quakers and many contemporary theologians try to make: if God was only active in the past, we practice a religion that is dead. If this is the case, why not practice any other religion that claims to be inspired by divine revelation?

It is only through our inward understanding of truth and love that we can come to true belief in a God, faith, religion or community. Otherwise we miss the entire point of faith.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

intro part 3

I'm finally getting to the last post of the introduction to my summer project going here--I read this material fairly quickly, but then getting time to sit down and write about it has proved more challenging. We'll see if this "summer project" actually gets done in the summer!

Anyway, the final book I am reading as part of this project is Freeing Theology, a collection of essays on the various Christian doctrines by Catholic feminist theologians. It may be surprising to some that one can be both a Catholic and a feminist, but actually a good portion of the most renowned feminist theologians are Catholic. Perhaps this is because they have more to fight against, and the academy is their only choice since they cannot go into official parish ministry. At any rate, this book was written in 1993, but I think it is still useful in seeing how these doctrines can be explicated from a feminist perspective. As Catherine Mowry LaCugna, the editor of this book and the author of the short introduction, says, "This is not a book about feminism or about the Christian tradition but an example of doing theology from a new perspective" (LaCugna, ed., 1993, 1). This book was also written to be used in a classroom such as the one for which I originally read it. It doesn't include all the traditional doctrines, so I'll have to use other sources for a couple of the topics, but it gives a sampling of the way feminists look at these doctrines, staying firmly in the Christian tradition while questioning the "androcentrism" we have inherited.

(Androcentrism is a term coined by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, I believe, in her wonderful book In Memory of Her: a feminist theological reconstruction of Christian origins. I don't have that book with me right now so I won't give you the exact citation. Anyway, it means that Christianity assumes the male experience to be normative and central, while the female experience deviates from that norm. She counters this with historical and biblical evidence that Christ's intentions were not thus, and that even the first couple of generations of Christ-follwers did not live this way. As the community became more formal and norms of belief and leadership became established, the egalitarian impulses of Christ's message were suppressed, though never completely eradicated.)

The first chapter of this book is called "The New Vision of Feminist Theology: Method," and is written by Anne E. Carr. She writes about the method of doing theology from a feminist perspective. Part of this method is reminding us that we all come from a particular context with our own assumptions which inform the conclusions we reach. While theologians of the past have not called themselves "contextual," their theologies have yet been shaped by (and shaped) their particular context. They think and write as they do because of the culture and the time period in which they were born. The questions they ask are shaped partially by that context, and the issues at hand in their generation. Since the Enlightenment, many people have tried to get rid of that "contextual," subjective part of theology, attempting to look at theology rationally and objectively. The problem with this, feminists say, is that no matter what, we are all shaped by our context. Feminists and other "contextual theologians" simply state their assumptions and context and see it as an asset as they look at theological questions from their particular vantage point. Rather than becoming discouraged because we cannot get an "objective" view of God or decide based on replicable evidence whether or not a particular faith claim is "true," we recognize that we can each see a different angle, and because of the particular place in which we are located, we can help inform the whole.

Carr highlights the work of two important feminist theologians, and the way they talk about the method of theology from a feminist perspective. She discusses Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, two of my heroes (heroines?)! In her work Sexism & God-Talk Ruether says: "The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive" (qtd. in LaCugna, ed., 1993, 13). Therefore, the goal of feminist theology is not really to promote any major, unfounded agenda or to negate the humanity and worth of men. Instead it simply seeks to remind the Christian communities that women are human being, also created in the image of God, and equally capable of connecting with and interpreting revelation from God.

Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's work focuses on the early church. She is a biblical scholar who sees in the biblical text traces of the egalitarian community that attempted to exist, and the debate that began very early in the life of the church regarding the role of women in leadership and interpretation of revelation. She even calls into question whether things that we take to be anti-women were in fact meant thus, or whether through tradition we have learned to understand them so. I won't go into all that, because it would take forever, but she makes excellent points regarding many difficult passages in In Memory of Her.

I think it's important to include a feminist voice in my little study here, because a) it's important to me, and b) there was no such thing as "feminism" during Barclay's time, and I think in many ways feminism goes along with Quakerism very nicely, but adds an extra element that early Friends just weren't thinking about yet. Like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, early Friends apparently looked back to the early Christian community as one of relative equality, regardless of race, gender or social class. They pre-empted feminism in many ways, although traditional roles were still in effect to some degree in households and such.

I think at times Barclay was too much under the sway of Enlightenment thought and did not give adequate thought to context, either his or anyone else's, so having a theology that emphasizes the context of the individual is helpful.

I also think that feminist theologians pick up on a theme similar to Quakers when they emphasize the personal experience of the one doing the theology. For Friends, we emphasize that everyone is able to hear and respond to God. Feminists give us a helpful insight when they remind the church that we sometimes block our collective understanding of revelation when we say it must occur within certain boundaries, which have traditionally excluded huge populations of people from the process of listening to and interpreting what we hear from God. This caution is still important for us as Friends, although we in theory believe God can speak to and through anyone. It is important for us to continue listening to "that of God in everyone," in whatever way God wants to speak. As we listen to the experiences of those around us we test them against history, the biblical record, our community, and our own understanding of God, but we allow new voices to come in and soften the barriers we put up around what "counts" as revelatory experience and what is "acceptable" theology. We stand for something, yes, but within that there is incredible freedom to explore the mystery of the intimate, incarnate, transcendent God who is simultaneously within and beyond.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

intro part 2

I chose the other two texts for this self-imposed summer project because a) I've already read most of them, and b) I really appreciated many things about them and the theologies presented. The main deficiency in this project is that all these texts are written by white Westerners (well, I'm not sure about whether all the women in Freeing Theology are white, but a majority of them are anyway). For my seminary systematic theology courses we also read works of Black theology, Asian theology, Latino/a theology, and other feminists/womanists. (We also read several other "traditional" theologians.) But in order to keep this project somewhat manageable, I'm going to limit it to these three texts.

Daniel L. Migliore's Faith Seeking Understanding was written for use in a classroom as a slightly-more-than-basic introduction to the traditional Christian doctrines. Migliore was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary until he retired at the end of this school year. I never got a chance to take a class from him, but he seems like a genuine, thoughtful person, and I appreciate the way he wrote this text. I like the way he states his objective for this text: he wants "to offer an introduction to Christian theology that is both critically respectful of the classical theological tradition adn critically open to the new voices and emphases of recent theology" (Migliore, 2004, xiii). In other words, he presents theology from the past, and tries to incorporate contemporary and more contextual theologies, but he does not accept either kind without critical reflection.

The name of his text comes from a quote attributed to Anselm, a Medieval theologian, that the task of theology is "faith seeking understanding." Theology is not simply regurgitating what people have said in the past, but "Christian faith prompts inquiry, searches for deeper understanding,d ares to raise questions" (2). I appreciate Migliore's caution that "faith causes us to do more than think" (7). As we do theology, we have to realize that if we're just sitting around thinking and writing about the intricacies and inanities of various doctrines, we aren't doing theology. To do true theological inquiry is to think about things, then act on them, then reflect on that experience, and go out and act on our thoughts some more. (Practical theologians call this "praxis," and perhaps do a better job of living this theory out more often than systematic theologians, but at least Migliore addresses this and sees it as the ideal.)

Migliore lays out four helpful "Questions of Theology" (pp. 10-14):

1. Are the proclamation and practice of the community of faith true to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as attested in Scripture?

2. Do the proclamation and practice of the community of faith give adequate expression to the whole truth of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ?

3. Do the proclamation and practice of the community of faith represent the God of Jesus Christ as a living reality in the present context?

4. Does the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the community of faith lead to transforming practice in personal and social life?

I appreciate these questions as ways to think about theology, rather than just explicating doctrines created by human beings. I think the parts of theology that Quakers have traditionally rejected come in when theology ceases to address these questions. When "theology" is only theoretical, when it does not prompt action in the world for the sake of others, it is useless. On the other hand, it is also not Christian theology when it's not focused to some degree on the Bible and the life of Jesus, historical and present in the Spirit who moves in our midst. I think Quakerism and other denominations witness to the struggle between tradition and contemporary revelation. How do we understand past revelation in a way that is still relevant? How do we make sure that the "revelation" we receive today is actually revelation and not just false prophecy? (I would define "false prophecy" as "things that make give us the impression of happiness without taking into account past, future, other people or the world in which we live.") But that's getting into the next chapters' topic, so I won't say too much about that now. Suffice it to say, I think the way Migliore explains the task of theology is helpful and, when stated thus, is something with which Quakers can be in complete agreement.