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Cultivating a Thoughtful Faith
By Maxie D. Dunnam, Steve G. W. Moore
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Maxie D. Dunnam and Steve G.W. Moore
All rights reserved.
An Enclave of Resistance
Maxie D. Dunnam
Spirituality begins in theology (the revelation and understanding of God) and is guided by it. And theology is never truly itself apart from being expressed in the bodies of the men and women to whom God gives life and whom God then intends to live a full salvation life (spirituality).
—Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places
In September 2002 there was a formal blessing and dedication service for the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Unlike the European cathedrals of old that took generations to complete, construction crews took only three years from the time of excavation in 1999 to build this cathedral out of 151 million pounds of materials. The structure is designed to withstand an 8.0 magnitude earthquake and is expected to serve for five hundred years.
Located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, the eleven-story structure stands along the famous Hollywood Freeway, one of the most heavily traveled freeways in the nation. So, like the ancient cathedrals, this one also sits in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. To create a space for prayer on this very public site, famous Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo was commissioned.
Moneo says he wanted to create "buffering, intermediating spaces," such as plazas, staircases, and colonnades. His creative, modern design used almost no right angles. The resulting complex geometry creates unexpected, mysterious spaces for worshiper One Los Angeles Times journalist commented, "Moneo is creating an alternative world to the everyday world that surrounds the cathedral, a testimony to grandeur of the human spirit, an antidote to a world that is increasingly spiritually empty." Then he wrote this sentence: "The cathedral, set in the midst of the secular city, will be an enclave of resistance." Consider this image: the church as an enclave of resistance.
My friend Mark Trotter once preached a sermon in which he suggested that enclave should be a part of the mission statement of every congregation: "an enclave of resistance against all that diminishes human life." Whether or not this word should be a part of every congregation's mission statement is not my concern in this essay. That enclave should be a factor in our awareness of who we are as the church is absolutely crucial.
Let me state the relevance of this last thought for the Christian community and for institutions of theological education in particular. A big part of my calling from the pastorate to become president of a seminary was the conviction that as the seminary goes, so goes the pastor; as the pastor goes, so goes the local congregation; as the local congregation goes, so goes the whole church. Theological schools, if their mission is to teach, train, and equip persons for ministry in the church, lose their way if they fail to keep a clear vision of the church.
The church is not our idea, but God's. God called Israel in the days of Moses to be God's people: "You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). The call of the church in the days of the apostles echoes this identity: "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Peter 2:9). Jesus was clear about the church's identity. His church would be built on the faith commitment that Jesus was the Messiah, Son of the living God (see Matthew 16:13-20).
Everything that a Christian community does—the way it orders its life as a group, what it teaches (and even how it teaches), how and why it expands its mission, in essence, its whole life and purpose—must be evaluated by how well it lives up to the church's holy identity and foundation on Jesus. As a graduate theological institution, a seminary or divinity school must be judged by this question: how is the church being served? Questions about the nature of the church—its life and ministry, its unique expression in present culture—should be a significant part of the dialogue within a seminary. It is because of these convictions that the image of the church as an enclave has kept a grip on my mind for several years now. So, here I share some of my reflections.
Being an Enclave of Resistance
Let's begin by thinking about the nature of resistance. In one of my favorite Charles Schulz's Peanuts cartoons, Lucy demands that Linus change the television channel. She even threatens him with her fist if he doesn't listen:
Why do you think you can just walk in and take over, Linus questions Lucy.
These five fingers, replies Lucy. Individually they may mean nothing, but when curled together they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.
So which channel do you want? asks Linus. Turning away, Linus looks at his fingers and says to them, Why can't you guys get organized like that?
The church has never been able to get organized in its resistance to the world. In fact, the church has never been able to understand consistently what it means to be in the world, but not of the world. Yet in every period of history, the church has known that its very nature provokes some form of resistance. There is always the sense in which kingdom ideals or norms are in conflict with the realities of cultural contexts in which the kingdom exists. How the church should relate to the world has been debated throughout history. This conflict has been expressed in different ways.
We should not be surprised that theological revisionists attempt to order mission and ministry on the conviction that the church's task is to respond and adjust to the world, not try to convert it. On the contrary, we do not need to adjust to the world, we need to convert it. Scripture is diminished, even denigrated, in this stance of adjusting because priority is given to listening to the world without the crucial reference point of first listening to the Word of God.
As God's faithful people, we are sometimes called to resist the forces that drive the world. The witness of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who paid dearly for his convictions, must never be lost from memory. Bonhoeffer's words ring on in clear opposition to those who would adapt rather than seek to redeem culture:
The Church is always on the battlefield ... struggling to prevent the world from becoming the Church and the Church from becoming the world. The world is the world and the Church the Church, and yet the Word of God must go forth from the Church into all the world, proclaiming that the earth is the Lord's and all that therein is.
Resistance, then, is a part of the church's proclamation and the center of our demonstration. We resist the moral relativism operative in our society. Yet we embrace new ways to speak to our culture. This is no easy assignment: how do we encourage thinking while simultaneously monitoring our boundaries? As Steve Harper says later in this volume, "I am growing in the conviction that the primary role of theological education is not to teach students what to think, but rather to guide them in how they think. As well, it is about the formation of an alive dynamic faith and the shaping of who we become as persons and not just about ideas, propositional truth, or shaping the 'mind.'"
In other words, we resist the moral relativism prevalent in our culture. Off and on throughout history, strong movements have arisen that emphasized denying the world—an action that hints at a monastic retreat from life or withdrawing from the world as much as possible. As a member of the holiness movement, I can say the following: though we would not readily acknowledge it, the holiness movement in Wesleyan circles has a close affinity to the monastic movement. It has a marked world denying dimension. To affirm the world and to celebrate and enjoy what our world has to offer is difficult for "holiness people." In our attempt at holiness, we make the world our enemy, when the truth is the world is evil only when we become its slave.
A second perspective that has often prevailed is the notion that we must wage war with the world. In recent times this notion has been expressed most dramatically in what cultural observers and the media call the "religious right" (especially the radical right). The argument has been that Christians need to take over the government. The problem with this view is that in any governmental system, some human being has to be in a place of power. So, we put our person on the throne. We soon learn how much power corrupts, and how true it is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. When will we learn that we cannot establish the kingdom of God before the King comes? Any sort of war against the world is basically an effort to set up a kingdom without a king.
Another perspective, a third way besides reactionary retreat and a will to power, does exist. Throughout history we've been at our best when we have heard the message of Jesus that we are to be salt, leaven, and light; we are to bring people into relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship of love that is powerfully transforming. It is this vision of being salt, leaven, and light that best fits the biblical image of the church being an enclave of resistance.
The question is not whether we are in a war or not. We are at war. Paul was certain of this fact. He defined the nature of the war in which we are engaged in Ephesians: "For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).
Too often we see ourselves at war with human powers or with the flesh. Thus, we use the weapons and ways of the flesh to wage our war as though that were the arena of battle. Paul says we battle not against flesh, but "principalities" and "powers" (as the King James Version puts it). He also announces in Colossians that Christ has already won the battle: Jesus has "disarmed principalities and powers" and has "made a public spectacle of them" (Colossians 2:15 NKJV).
Our stance must be that of persons who are clear about who the real King is and confident that the King is the victorious One. We seek, then, to live as the Kingdom has already come, and to live as the salt, leaven, and light of it. The Christian community, therefore, becomes at least a hint and glimpse of how things ultimately will be when King Jesus establishes his rule completely.
We always need to be careful about the nature and focus of our resistance. We must not deceive ourselves into thinking that if we can get the right king on the throne—elect the right president, the right Congress, the right governor, and put our people in places of political power—then we can win the battle. There can be no kingdom without a king, and the kingdom to which we're committed has only one King—Jesus. The church needs to think more of transformation than of confrontation. We need to think more about long obedience in the same direction than about quick fixes that may bring superficial changes.
Our task as an enclave of resistance is to subvert the calloused, materialistic, secular culture of which we are a part. We can subvert that culture at its roots by living as though we believe that we do not live by bread alone, as though there is a kingdom reality of love, as though the imperatives of Romans 12 are operative: Our love is without hypocrisy. We abhor what is evil and we cling to what is good. In honor we give preference to one another. We are able to rejoice in hope. We are able to be patient in tribulation. We attend to the needs of the saints. We give ourselves to hospitality. We bless those who persecute us. We rejoice with those who rejoice. We weep with those who weep. We associate with the humble. We do not see ourselves as wise in our own opinions. We don't repay evil for evil. We seek to live peaceably with all persons. We feed our enemies and give them drink. We overcome evil with good.
Any community living out this kind of love is a counterculture. In this kind of living, there exists a power within the Christian community that would subvert the foundations of all that is contrary to the kingdom of Christ. Let me give this some specific shape as we ask the question: how do we, as an enclave of resistance, subvert culture at its root through transformation rather than through a stereotypical against-the-world tactic?
The Holy Church or No Church
I want to paint with broad strokes in the following paragraphs. This statement from John Wesley reminds us of the peril in which we stand:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
Christian communities have the tremendous responsibility of holding fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out. I suggest that the model for that endeavor is an enclave of resistance—a church that is holy, charismatic, and apostolic. I know these are loaded adjectives, charted with diverse meanings. But what I want to articulate is that the church needs a synthesis of Wesleyan theology, charismatic experience, and an apostolic vision for the mission of the church.
Of this, Howard Snyder made the case that the scriptural portrait of the church is both holy and charismatic. I doubt if there is any greater need than for us to recover our dual nature of holy and charismatic. Both are pressing concerns.
There is no question in either Scripture or Wesleyan sources that the community of faith is to be a holy people. Our commitment and passion have not always matched the demand. Certainly the Methodist/Wesleyan movement as a whole—as well as other denominations and movements—has strayed from this center. Oftentimes, outsiders of a movement have better insight than insiders into what is wrong with a movement. Methodist bishop William Oden once told of a visit with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of liberation theology. Oden was eager to discuss theology; Gutiérrez wanted to discuss Methodism. The bishop wanted to hear about Gutiérrez's lay academy in Lima, Peru, and his being silenced by Rome. Gutiérrez wanted to talk about his Methodist friends Mortimer Arias, Emilio Castro, and Justo Gonzáles.
"Tell me about Methodism in America," Gutiérrez said.
"We are struggling to find our center," Oden responded.
Gutiérrez looked at him. "You already have a center."
"Share it with me," the bishop implored.
This is what the theologian shared:
It's scriptural holiness. You inherited that center from Wesley. Don't you see that scriptural holiness is the exact word needed today? Wesley's theology of holiness comes out of the merger of a theology of creation and the experience of God's grace. The holy earth and the holy life cannot be separated.
Shaking his head he continued,
Holiness has been reduced to neurotic perfectionism by some. It's not. It is the joyous response to the grace of God. Holiness is the movement of both creation and church toward fulfillment in God's love. Wesley called it "Christian perfection," and he organized his movement to be small cells of nurture and growth to that end.
Their time up, Gutiérrez embraced Oden and concluded, "Friend, if Methodism can keep its center, it will be a faithful force for God. If not," he shrugged his shoulders, "God will raise up another community with the same biblical and theological vision."
Can we in Methodism hear that prophetic word from a Roman Catholic priest? What distinguishes a Methodist? Holiness of heart and life does. If we could recover that holiness within the Wesleyan movement, then the church would become an enclave of resistance. How do we recover holiness? Listen to another word from Mr. Wesley:
If you preach doctrine only, the people will become antinomians; and if you preach experience only, they will become enthusiasts; and if you preach practice only, they will become Pharisees. But if you preach all these and do not enforce discipline, Methodism will become like a highly cultivated garden without a fence, exposed to the ravages of the wild boar of the forest.
We are seeing the ravage happen. The wild boar of the forest has been loosed in the highly cultivated garden of the Wesleyan movement—and in all mainline denominations for that matter. Many in the church are accommodating the ways of the world rather than resisting its ways and seeking to redeem the people lost in the world. Our lack of holiness betrays, even annuls, our call to orthodox faith. Moreover, we are forgoing discipline within the church to the point that even bishops (in The United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, and perhaps elsewhere) can't hold each other accountable. So, Wesley's warning that the Methodist movement could become a dead sect is an ominous possibility, certainly in the United States.
Excerpted from Cultivating a Thoughtful Faith by Maxie D. Dunnam, Steve G. W. Moore. Copyright © 2005 Maxie D. Dunnam and Steve G.W. Moore. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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