Tuesday, February 17, 2009

God, World, Church, 3

What accounts for some of our practices in church? For instance, what accounts for various practices of communion? In congregations of my ecclesial tradition we typically pass trays down rows and urge people to turn inward, to reflect on the meaning of the death of Jesus for them personally. This is not the way churches have always practiced the Lord's Supper. We read no description of this kind of practice anywhere in the literature of early Christianity? What accounts for this practice?

Several things would have to be answered to get a question like this. Our practices bear many meanings and not all of them are readily accessible. But at the very least there would be issues related to what we think of God and what it means to be human, and in turn what it means to be saved.

I've been making the point that in the Western theological tradition, God tends to be thought of as a single subject with three different roles (creator, redeemer, sustainer). Personhood is related to the acting subject. This not only applies to God, but also to humans. I am a self-contained individual. I count as a person because I am a self. Salvation, therefore, is primarily an encounter between Jesus and the self. It happens to me, in me, as a self-contained individual. It makes sense, in light of this, to practice "table" as a private experience with individual portions and inward thoughts.

This applies to more than just communion. This kind of individualism accounts for much of what we experience in worship. I often hear prayers or calls to worship that invite us to put the cares of the world aside so that we can focus on God, as if we could understand God apart from the cares of the world. I have invited students to observe worship to determine the "horizon" of the congregation's awareness. What is it that the worship service is aiming at? What horizon accounts for its practices, its language, etc. It becomes pretty clear for them that our practices cannot be understood primarily in relation to the world, or to a community, but in relation to individuals and most directly to their inner lives.

This is not wrong, in and of itself. It is, however, limited. And ultimately, if it is the primary imagination of the congregation, it makes otherness a problem. And I think this is rooted in part by our understanding of God.

This is not, however, the only way that God and humanity have been conceived in the Christian tradition. As we noted before, the Eastern church emphasized the thre persons of the Trinity. They had to account for God's unity in some way that did not diminish the three persons. They did this, in part, by redefining what it truly meant to be a person. We are not persons as individuals. We are persons only in relation to an other. Personhood is not defined primarily by individuality, but precisely in our recognition and engagement of the other. We understand personhood more completely when we imagine God as three.

Eastern theological notions have recently gained more currency in ecumenical discussion in large part because our understandings of personhood are changing in the Western philsophical tradition. Descartes' "I think, therefore, I am," has been expanded. There is no, "I think," apart from the recognition of an other. There is no "I" apart from a "Thou." Our identities are inescapably social. Ricouer, Levinas, Volf and others have written powerfully about our obligation to the other on the path toward personhood. It is not surprising, in light of this, that the Trinity has come more into focus in Christian theology. And social understandings of the Trinity have changed the way I think about what happens at church.

But here's the bigger payoff in my book. When we see God this way, the world becomes something other than the target at the end of the church's strategic interests. The church cannot know its true identity apart from its koinonia, its sharing participation, with the world. More, it is in God's love for the world that we truly see the nature of God, the love of the truly other. God's participation with the world, not just the church, is necessary for us to see God as a person, for his righteousness to be revealed. This kind of imagination about God would radically change our practices related to mission.

OK, I've gotten some of the big pieces out there, though in an overly simplified way. Let me see if I can break it down over the ext few weeks. Some of you have confessed eye glaze when you read this kind of stuff. I'll only invite you to love me as an other and I'll try to love you as a reader better as I unpack this.

1 comment:

JNW said...

Last month we were working through a preaching series on hospitality and we brought tables into our worship space and the congregation sat around them for worship and communion. We brought out the linens and candles. We used large pieces of bread and invited everyone to eat, not just taste a pinch. We had decanters or pitchers of grape juice (we aren't quite ready for the wine) and each table poured for one another and we drank out of real cups, not thimbles.

We talked about and focused on the outward, communal, aspect of what we were doing. We emphasized the table as an act of hospitality to the 'other' into the presence of God.

It wasn't perfect, but it was a powerful experience for our congregation. Now....if we could just learn to practice that as a way of being rather than just a Sunday morning event.