Monday, February 13, 2006

Transformation

OK: so this is the sort of word that folks in my circles love to throw around. In fact, it's the favoured self-description of the neo-Calvinism that has played such an important role in the development of my understanding of Christianity. "The Transforming Vision" is, it turns out, a Reformational/neo-Calvinist version of the biblical worldview. And I happlily embraced (and continue to embrace) that vision. But in the past few years I've become more and more restless with the weak view of the church that seems to go with the Reformational tradition. I remember myself struggling with the redundancy of church while studying at ICS: why bother with worshipping on Sundays when I'm worshipping in the library, in the seminar room, in the coffee shop, etc.? That more recent restlessness is due, in part to my immersion in Anglo-Catholicism at King's College Halifax, in part to my mentors in Anglicanism, Paul Friesen and John Stephenson, and in part to the influence of Rowan Williams, IMO currently the world's greatest English-speaking theologian. Anyway, a devaluing of the church may be understandable, given the dualism that the followers of Kuyper had to confront on their arrival in Canada, where "heavenly" and "spiritual" matters were the province of the church and "earthly" and "material" matters were the province of the state or economy. But neither were the Kuyperians helped by that nasty visible/invisible church distinction that Kuyper inherited from the Reformers. In that view, the "true Christians" (which are individual "souls") are known only to God... which makes the "true Church" an invisible (and mystical) rather than visible (and embodied) reality. A disembodied body, as it were.

However, some within the Reformational tradition (notably the prolific and brilliant young philosopher Jamie Smith of Calvin College) are beginning to recover the importance of the church as visible, worshipping, liturgically formed community which grounds and shapes this transforming vision. Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, two friends who have influenced me deeply, are pushing the necessity of community as well, though taking a somewhat different approach from Smith, invoking communitarians such as Stanley Hauerwas and Wendell Berry. (Walsh has also responded strongly to individualist and intellectualist misreadings of The Transforming Vision here). In Smith's case, he's doing it in dialogue with one of the most interesting theological movements of the present time: Radical Orthodoxy. Indeed, a couple of years ago he and Jim Olthuis (my mentor at the Institute for Christian Studies) organized a conference bringing leading lights in the Reformational and RO movements together. The proceedings have now been published here.

All that said, in all this we're really only rediscovering now what Paul knew 2,000 years ago when he uttered those words we Reformationals prize so much: "I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God (in grafting Gentiles into the one community of faith) that you present your bodies as living sacrifices, wholly acceptable to God (a counter to the cult of ancient Israel which excluded Gentiles), which is your spiritual worship. And do not be conformed to this world (he'll talk about this in ch. 13), but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you may discern what is the will of God (be followers of torah), what is good, and acceptable, and perfect" (Rom 12:1-2). We usually stop there and talk about transformation and renewal in all spheres of life: the political, the moral, the scholarly, aesthetic and cultural, etc. What we miss, I think, is Paul's going on to talk about life not in society, but within the church community, and only then the church community's relation to the empire (ch. 13). But then he quickly returns to the question of life in the church community again (the weaker brother in ch. 14).

It sounds obvious. What it means to be transformed is birthed and demonstrated in the life of a community constituted by worship (12:1), by the sharing of ministries (12:3-8), by the maintenance of (counter-imperial) baptismal identity in the disciplining of desire (13:8-14, c.f. Col 3:5-11) and table-hospitality (ch. 14) and in the midst of all this demonstrating this new life to the powers that be (13:1-7). Does this mean that the transformation Paul has in mind is specifically for the church, and not for the state (empire)? Does Paul even envision a transformation of the state (empire) as he imagines a world in which God is all-in-all? He doesn't seem to. From the description of the church, he goes right to a doxology which picks up where he left off in ch. 11, praising the God who has fulfilled his purposes in creating one new community, of Jews and Gentiles (15:7-12).

This reading seems to run counter to some of my Reformational sensibilities, which have taught me to look to the state as polis, the creationally-ordained place where justice is to sought (and thus where Christians concerned for justice should act). But I wonder... do we thereby overlook the church as counter-polis (here Hauerwas is especially helpful)? After all, the state also seeks to (trans)form our subjectivity in terms of its own ideological purposes. I know classical Reformationals will be screaming structure/direction at me by this point! But can a Christian organization--whether an academic institution, labour organization, or political advocacy agency--maintain its Christian identity apart from those very "churchy" practices of baptismal identification, eucharistic hospitality, and liturgical celebration of the alternative power-centre of the universe? (And a word to any King's students who may be reading this: chapel is not an "option" if you take this Christian formation stuff seriously; it's "essential.")

I'll stop ramblin' now.

I'm contemplating some research into this in the southern African context, where African Initiated churches functioned as a kind of counter-polis to the state during apartheid, and continue to do so. In the meantime, any comments are welcome!

2 comments:

Daniel Booy said...

Rabbi Martin,

As you well know, I’m quite content to let Paul be wrong on a few things… or, if not wrong per se, then at least mute… as such, the argument from what Paul knew to be true doesn’t do much for me, since I don’t live in his pre-modern sphere of knowledge. That point aside – and truly, it must be put aside, lest conversation cease altogether – I think you have some interesting ideas.

The goodness of community: a good thing? I certainly think so. Communities have a lot going for them… common ethos, shared language, mutual concerns… Christmas is every day in a community. To be sure, the idea of a community does a lot more for me than the far-distant hope that some other souls, lost in the same void of heresy and unscrupulous attitudes, are struggling with me as true believers, praying for me daily as I pray for them… especially since I know that I have far too much of the void in me to be considered a true Christian anyhow.

I am, however, quite wary of defining this community through worship, shared ministry, baptismal identity, table-hospitality, and demonstrating new life to the powers… not because any of these things are particularily bad, but rather because they seem to make for rather rigid and alien walls… essentially, because they do not understand community as I have experienced it. On a large scale, I am a member of the CRCNA… on a smaller scale, I am a member of a rather small community church. I have very little in common with my church proper or specific when it comes to worship; I’m not entirely convinced God requires this sort of thing, and most of the songs, liturgies and prayers spoken consist of statements that I could never agree to with a straight face. Some of the ministries people go about doing I can see some value in, and would participate in; in other areas (mostly proselytizing), I have trouble sharing in this ministry. Baptismal identity is a non issue, mostly because I do not understand it, nor do I feel any true bond with people based on the fact of their baptism. Table hospitality – if Eucharistic – is good for a few moments of silence and some nice reflection, though coffee-time downstairs usually seems to be much more productive in its hospitality. As far as demonstrating new life to the empire goes, it’s a rare occasion that I actually see a church that has anything to give to the empire, so… why bother? Why bother demonstrating a new life in community when the old lives of the empire-residents are humming along just fine?

As for your word to a King’s student like myself… well… what to say? I guess I don’t take Christian formation stuff seriously… chapel here at school has never seemed “essential” in any way. There’s virtually no point of contact between me and the others, and having done the community-for-the-sake-of-community thing before, I’ve realized that it isn’t for me. Their concerns are not mine; their worship is like wormwood; “to traditional eyes, a/theology doubtless appears to be irregular, eccentric, and vagrant. At best it seems aimless, at worst devious.” I’m content for now to wander with the other nomadic thinkers.

Stephen Martin said...

"Like Christmas everyday"?!!! What idealistic community are you talking about? None that I've ever experienced, to be sure. No wonder you reject the idea. Don't misunderstand me: community has nothing to do with the "sweet fantasia of the safe home." (Cockburn) Community is for the tough minded, which is probably why I'm so bad at it (and why at 45 I remain single--but that's another story). It's much easier to cut and run. I suspect that deep down you agree, and I admire your dedication to your own church. Thanks for your comments, though. I've posted a couple of other things above which might interest or infuriate you further. Shall I place an ad for the A/CRC?