Diana Butler Bass said on a recent online Washington Post chat, “So, while some people are concerned about Christian life and theological vision, most of the loudest voices are from partisan combatants. Politics is drowning out theology.”
I admire Diana Butler Bass greatly. I have heard her speak only once, but that was enough to convince me that she is on the case on many things. Still, I wondered at her distinctions. The logic of her statement requires a few additions. I think the logic of her short collapsed argument, when stretched out, is something like this:
Some people are concerned about Christian life and theological vision.
(These people are doing theology)
The loudest voices are from partisan combatants.
(partisan combat is not theological but political)
(Therefore) Politics is drowning out (in terms of sound and fury) theology.
So her point is that Theology is not being attended to because Politics makes all the noise.
True enough: Politics is noisy. It is full of clamor, strife, occasional fist fights (see the Mexican presidential inauguration), and occasionally civil war.
Theology, however, is no slouch. It may not have a front seat at the moment, but by God a good Theological fight can lead to burning at the stake, outrages like the Crusades, hurls of anathema, and very very noisy activities unbecoming the saints of God.
It is perhaps in this context that the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are so important. (A bow to the Rector of all Lewes, who has begin a teaching series on Bonhoeffer, and from which teaching I found myself rereading Bonhoeffer.)
Bonhoeffer struggled precisely to show that the realm of the political, whose shadow side is what we might call “human love” is related to the Christian life in community, which we might then call the context for “spiritual love.” This relation is primarily shown in the ability of the loving (and we must say exclusive) community of those in love to love beyond itself, to be inclusive. This movement from the political to political/theological concerns constituted the move in focus from self to Jesus Christ. In forming Christian community there is a need to move beyond political and theological partisan positions.
Here is what he says in Life Together:
“…life together under the word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promises of the whole Church. Every principle of selection and every separation connected with it that is not necessitated quite objectively by common work, local conditions, or family connections is of the greatest danger to a Christian community. When the way of intellectual or spiritual selection is taken the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of its spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church, (and) drives it into sectarianism. The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. We must therefore be very careful at this point.” (Life Together, HarperSanFrancisco, 1954, pg.37-38)
The separation of the political and the theological in the discussions and arguments within the ecclesial world is a matter of worldly wisdom. It is true indeed that much of what passes as fervor for the faith is in reality a desire to control.
But worldly wisdom is not enough. The political and the theological are, on a more (let us say) spiritual level, about the same end. Thinking about the polis, the people or even the mob, is not for incarnational believers divorced from thinkng about the theos, the God or the divine.
Diane Butler Bass has some interesting topographical comments about the landscape of the current mess we are in in the Episcopal Church. But mapping the territory in political / theological terms is a tricky business. I am not convinced of her mapping.
A critic who has become rather shrill of late has at the same time put us on to a wonderful sermon by Bishop Festo Kivengere. Babyblue says, “… and it is so extraordinary, hearing it has done more to lift not only my spirits but my soul. This is a bishop of the church - and when he visited Truro over twenty years ago, his preaching changed not only the life of my parish, but my life as well.”
Now Babyblue and I stand far from one another on most matters of the politics of this messy time, and indeed we probably are far from one another on theological matters as well. But in the face of this sermon, a recitation of the whole salvation story, we can indeed be brought up into a spiritual reality that swamps both the theological and the political. Bishop Festo, who I also heard once, can walk us through one preaching of the Good News. It’s a long sermon, as sermon goes these days, but it is worth the listen. It can be found HERE.
I have some problems with some part of his recitation, but on the whole he has it nailed.
So here we are. It has been a difficult week for the Episcopal Church, with some real grace and some real misery. The legal wrangling has reached new levels and there are people of faith pressed all around by forces they only know in part. But there are also great gifts of witness.
And then there is the seeming enemy who offers a great gift.
I am filled with an optimism that has nothing to do with the noise of the politics or the noise of the theologians and even the concerns of those who are concerned for the Christian life.
Diane Butler Bass paints a good picture. But in the end the political and the theological are all grist for the mill.
The noise of the political has not drowned out the theological, the political seems the greater noise, but it is all one.
Bishop Festo in his sermon called for focus on Christ’s return, and on the procession to meet him. That focus is what Bonhoeffer calls us to when he says, “God Himself has undertaken to teach brotherly love; all that men can add to it is to remember this divine instruction and the admonition to excel in it more and more. When God was merciful, when He revealed Jesus Christ to us as our Brother, when He won our hearts by His love, this with the beginning of our instruction in divine love.” (p.24)
I believe the “instruction in divine love” includes both the wisdom both to do the political and the theological, both the concerns for Christian living and the concerns for a livable planet. In the end, our home is present, but always also forward pointing. Any theology or political muttering that is static and not dynamic misses it.
Would I were better at any of it. But there will be those who we have hoped for, people present and in the future, who will help us on the way. I trust the Spirit to have a way for us all.