Monday, February 2, 2009

God, World, Church, 2

All of us have an imagination related to God, church, and world. That is, we have imagined a world that accounts for the relationships between these three realities and this imagination authorizes any number of practices. Paul Ricouer (a moment of genuine respect at the mention of his name) sees the imagination as a productive human capacity that mediates the relationship between beliefs and practices. And people like Graham Ward and Charles Taylor argue that this imagination is a social thing. It is something that communities share, a repertory of sorts, that makes us competent in a common life.

The question then is what elements are being tied together in our shared imagination. And here's the thing, the most powerful things in a shared imagination are the things we can take for granted, the things we can assume. For instance, I assumed that all the cars on the road today had a basic respect for red and green lights. It allows us all to function together. We simply assume it. Can you imagine how terrifying it would be to drive to work if you couldn't assume that shared repertory? And these assumed things tend to be the last things that we question.

So, as a theologian (I'm a certain kind of theologian), I'm interested in how our beliefs and practices are tied together in congregational imagination.

One of the beliefs I'm interested in is our functional understanding of God. A congregation's shared imagination is different from what its individual members might believe. There might be a 1,000 different understandings of God in a congregation, but there is a shared life that assumes a common understanding., or at least a range of understanding. So, the real theological question is what view of God best accounts for the practices of a congregation.

Much of a congregation's imagination is not deliberately cultivated, but inherited, and from many sources. It takes something of an archaeology, what cultural anthropologists call a thick description, to uncover the various layers of a congregational imagination. That's what I'm trying to do with regard to our understandings of God, world, and church. Here's the thing: once it rises into view, it can be addressed.

All that to say...

Our practices in mission are embedded in certain understandings of God, and those understandings have to do in part with how we view the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. And even if we have an allergy to the word Trinity in our congregations or rarely talk about it in our congregations, we have functional understandings that have been in the water of Western Christianity since Augustine.

Last time I mentioned that Western views of Trinity tended to emphasize God's oneness (the shared being between the three), while Eastern views tended to emphasize the three persons. Both emphases are susceptible to distortions. The Western view can turn into modalism where Father, Son, and Spirit are thought of as just different modes of the same single acting subject. The Eastern can so emphasize each person that you end up with three gods.

These are more than just ideas to fight about. These differences have practical implications and tend to form a different kind of imagination about things like mission. Western views of God tended to focus on the mode of sending. How do you describe the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit? Mainly in relation to the activity of sending. The Father sends the Son, the Father and Son send the Spirit.

The Eastern views of God tended to focus on the relatedness of the three persons. They are one through an interpenetrating communion, what is referred to as perichoresis. God is less a series of movements, and more a model of social life.

At the risk of a massive oversimplification (which is what I do best), we can at least begin by observing that these traditions produced very different notions of salvation and mission. The history of mission in the West often falls under the word, "expansion." It's how we think about things. The church is on the side of God in a series of sending. We're conquering, expanding the borders of the Kingdom. Eastern mission was thought of more as getting people to church, to experience the mystery of communion.

I want to come back to both views in more detail, especially as the Eastern impulse has been further developed in more recent Trinitarian thought. But for now, I want to point out that in both views the view of the world is problematic. In Western mission, the world is just a target. It's simply on the receiving end of a series of sendings. It has little impact on God's relational identity and plays no positive role in the story of redemption. The church here is both enlarged and reduced. The church is on the side of God and the things of God in the sequence of sendings. It has all the goods. But the church is also reduced to an instrument of God, a way for God to get things done.

It is interesting in light of this to think about Protestant missions in the 19th and 20th centuries (well, maybe intersting is too strong of a word). Mission was thought of almost exclusively in terms of sending to preach to individual souls. The question of establishing congregations was clearly secondary. We've experienced this with crusade evangelism (think Billy Graham or Louis Palau). It's always been a problem to think about how these individuals who have welcomed Jesus into their hearts belong to a community of God's people. And for most mission endeavors in this period, mission was not done by congregations, but by mission societies. Mission was a mode of the church's existence that could actually be done better outside of the congregation by a mission society. Mission is not the church's relational identity to God and world. (Yeah, interesting is really too ambitious for this paragraph).

In Eastern Christianity, everything that counts happens within the mystery of communion and communion happens only within the church. The world can only observe. The gulf between God and world is so wide and massive, that God can only commune with the world in Jesus, and by extension through baptism, the eucharist, and the bishop.

What both of these views of God hold in common is a certain understanding of being itself, an ontology, that has a stake in keeping God safe from the imperfections of the world. This hasn't always been the case in Christian theology, and more recent explorations of Trinity have proceeded from different understandings of God and being. But that's for another day.

1 comment:

Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

Your post brought to mind a book that I really enjoyed reading. The Great Dance by . . . hmmmm . . . I seem to be having a forgetful moment. His last name might begin with a "K". Rats! Anyway, it is a good book with some nice metaphorical thinking around perichoresis.