Theology: Finding our own voice

In the next few days, I am going to post some excerpts from a longer piece that I am working on, probably destined for posting in a more public location.   Here’s the first bit:

Indeed, theological discourse offers its strange jubilation only to the strict extent that it permits, and, dangerously, demands of its workman that he speak beyond his means, precisely because he does not speak of himself. Hence, the danger of a speech that, in a sense, speaks against the one who lends himself to it. One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology.  In all senses.  (Jean Luc Marion, God Without Being, p.2)

Theologia, knowledge of God, is first constituted by bowing before the Mystery in which we are called to participate.  We meet the Divine in a burning silence, which contains within it a demand for speech.  To the extent that our language incarnates God’s Word, we can be sure that it will be crucified upon the limitations of our lives.  Yet, being ever-paschal, it rises again, transformed.  Theology of the second moment, yielding to that demand for speech, is authentic only insofar as it is rooted in prayer and union with God.  Knowing my own frailty in this regard, I can only echo Jean-Luc Marion, in beginning with a plea for forgiveness for what follows. 

Independent Sacramental Christians have been very fond of speaking with the voices of others.  Very few independents grew up in our movement.  Rather, most are transplants from the larger churches, and often struggle with a longing to return to those denominations if only they would change in some way (e.g. ordain women, allow for esotericism, etc).  We are like the Israelites in the desert, traveling on a long road toward a new way of being together.  We are led by the Spirit and offered mysterious sustenance, and yet we grumble and pine for the fleshpots of Egypt  –  proper academic degrees, paid ministerial positions, lovely building with big congregations, secure pensions, well-defined doctrines, and the like.  Most of us learned our theology in such an “Egypt” (e.g., Rome, Canterbury, or Constantinople) and continue to speak in its tongue.  It is high time we looked around and realized we are not in Egypt anymore.  We have crossed into the desert, and we can meet God here, where we are:  Fire will fall on the dusty mountain, and water will spring from the broken rock. 

Our point of departure is the presence of the Spirit of God among us, a pillar of cloud and fire leading us on, calling us to be a peculiar people: not better or worse than other sorts of Christians, but different.  If the Spirit has not called us to be Independent Sacramental Christians, and is not moving among us, we should stop wasting our time.  As frustratingly crazy as our movement can be, we know that it is truly good for us to be here.  Philip Dick liked to say that God hides in the trash strata: what we throw away:   A ragtag collection of tribes, finding a way to be a people.  A young woman of that people, pregnant out of wedlock, claiming an angelically announced purpose in the life growing within her.  Later followers of that Life: an odd, fragmented group of Independent Sacramental Christians, who nonetheless manage prophetic acts such as ordaining a woman in 1892, and opening the way to full inclusion of gay people in the church in 1946.  We may be like Eldad and Medad, who were away from the tabernacle when the spirit of God rested upon the seventy elders, and yet began to prophesy where they were, in the camp of the people. (Numbers 11)    

If the Spirit is resting upon us, here and now, we should look at what is actually happening in our midst for signs of God.  The apostles did not accept the inclusion of the Gentiles because of a theoretical argument, but because the Spirit of God fell on the Gentiles.  Faced with this reality, the church came to an understanding of an opening of the covenant to all peoples.   Looking around us, what do we see?   An opening of holy orders to a larger part of the church’s membership.  Non-professional, experimental models of ministry, and unconventional forms of community.  A seeking for living experience of God through the sacraments.  The welcome of many who have been excluded from, or sidelined within, the larger churches.  New insights into what it means for all Christians to share in the priesthood.  We may also see sadly comic imitations of the structures and hierarchies of the larger churches, and unfortunate displays of the human ego inflating to fill a rhinestoned miter.  Nonetheless, God is a patient gardener, and we need not reject the good plants due to the weeds that grow among them. 

We might begin by asking ourselves what we find embarrassing within the independent movement.  Where are we scandalized, turning aside with quick dismissal or cover-up?   “Y’all are all clergy.  There are no laypeople.”   “This isn’t a real community.”  “Lots of your priests are just saying mass on the bedroom dresser, and doing nothing.”   “You are making this up.”   “This church is mostly gay men who like to dress up in vestments.”  “Is this just an internet thing like the Universal Life Church?”   If we turn toward the accusation, with open hearts and illumined eyes, what treasures might shine out from the trash strata?   It is time to stop justifying ourselves through glossing over reality to make ourselves sound more respectable, more like the mainstream.  We can speak fearlessly from the quirkiness of our lived situation, trusting the Spirit to give us words to answer for the hope that is in us, words that reveal instead of conceal. 

Very often, our language serves only to blind others.  When we use words which point to larger churches (e.g., Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) in describing ourselves, do we thereby set up comparisons and competitions, rather than opening understanding of a different way?  Are we a protest movement inherently tied to one or more of the big denominations, or are we another way of being church?  To give only one more example, we like to talk about how our apostolic succession is valid, which implies accepting the criteria of validity put forward by Rome or Canterbury.   Can we come to accept our own “validity” from Jesus Christ, on his terms, not ours or anyone else’s? 

Finally, we can begin to recover the theology already produced by other Independent Sacramental Christians and our Independent Catholic, Old Catholic, and other ancestors.  Much of this material is in rare books, unpublished sermons, mimeographed manifestos, and the like.  Too much of it is rotting in attics and basements.   While considerable sorting is necessary to gather the parts which are useful to us in our present situation, it seems to me that we are well advised to start with our own “family,” our own tradition, in our quest to find our theological voice.   We can learn from both the wisdom and the mistakes of those who have gone before us.


2 Responses to “Theology: Finding our own voice”

  1. boze Says:

    I was wondering if you had “laryngytius” or something (grin).

    I think I’ll take a page out of your “blog” and post a rough chunk of my piece on mine. Let me sit with this a bit – I’ll hopefully have something more constructive for you soon. Oh, and I hope you did not “delete” the original – I still think that has a place in the final product!

    hugs & blessings,

  2. John Says:

    No laryngitus, just a busy job and life! 🙂 The remainder of the essay (which you saw before) is still intact and will appear here in due course, along with some additional parts that I am working on. I thought it might be useful to put up excerpts, experimentally, and see what folks have to say. Obviously, I am testing out ideas, and trying to find my way through various theological thickets – conversation may help to illumine, clarify, improve, etc.

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