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The Road Goes On

Thursday, March 24, 2005 at 2:00 AM

How we're all connected

In 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention revised its statement of faith, "The Baptist Faith and Message", for the first time in nearly 40 years. Among the controversial changes -- controversial, but not seriously challenged, since the SBC was firmly in conservative hands by this point -- was the insertion of language about the submission of wives to their husbands (Camassia has some intriguing reflections on this topic here and here) and the deletion of a phrase stating that "the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."

I'll skip over the gender roles debate for now. I've been thinking about how my response to that debate over the Jesus criteria four years ago helped pull me in a significant direction.

The SBC conservatives (I'll refrain from using the "f" word) saw the "Jesus criterion" as a vague and slippery principle that could be -- and had been -- used to sanction unorthodox stances (e.g., appealing to Jesus' recorded silence on the matter or a generalized sense of his "love ethic" to trump passages declaring homosexual activity to be sinful).

The moderates believed the removal of the phrase to be a clear step toward bibliolatry. I especially agreed with those who argued that this step simply flattens the Bible and clears the way for reckless prooftexting (salvation through childbearing, anyone?).

What I remember most about the debate, and what really started me thinking is that conservatives kept insisting that Jesus and the Bible could not be separated from or opposed to each other; our only normative access to Jesus is in scripture.

There are a couple of different responses to this claim. The one I heard most often from traditional Baptist moderates is that we know Jesus through our personal encounter with him. That carries a lot of weight in Baptist circles, with our traditional pietism and classic hymnology ("You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart . . .").

My response was somewhat different -- and no doubt influenced by the fact that I was just beginning to study theology formally and had the author of this book as a professor (a Catholic, no less!).

I knew Jesus because I was told his story by people who believed in him and prayed that he would even live through them. I knew Jesus because I knew his love through those people (especially my parents) in my relationships with them, and through their quiet acts of service -- like my Dad taking a homeless man and his son home to stay with us for a few weeks when I was in Junior High.

I knew about Jesus because most of these people were part of a historical community that -- despite all kinds of divisions, dialects, and scandals -- had never stopped telling his story. I increasingly saw Christ in the story of the people -- his body -- who carried his name (sometimes shamefully) throughout history. (I'm pretty sure Barth had something good to say about this in his lectures on Calvin . . . I'll have to look it up).

This debate in Baptist life occurred at the same time I first studied church history formally. I had also been reading Lesslie Newbigin, who introduced me -- albeit briefly -- to folks like Alasdair MacIntyre, George Lindbeck, and others. I began having moments when I'd be filled with a keen awareness of the communion of saints, past and present, and a deep sense that I was part of the same story as Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Menno Simons, Roger Williams, et al-- even within this very distant branch of the church with little consciousness of or concern for its connection to the historic church universal.

It hit me that my Baptist ancestors owed the scriptures so absolutely central to our tradition to all these others who passed it along -- during all those centuries when copies were scarce and often incomplete and illiteracy was the norm (for more info on all this, check out this fascinating post). Like it or not, we were deeply indebted to all those superstitious medieval papists and others (tic).

I studied Early Christian thought with two professors who began every class session by having us sing "Gimme that Old Time Religion." They had us insert the names of the figures we'd study that day:

Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
Gimme that old time religion
It's good enough for me

It was good enough for Irenaeus (Justin, Cyprian, Chrystostom . . .)
It was good enough for Irenaeus
It was good enough for Irenaeus
It's good enough for me . . . .

Of course, I loved the delicious irony that most of the Christians who know and regularly sing this song would hardly recognize anything resembling their version of "that old time religion" in these patristic figures.

* * * * *

Neither of the major solutions to the Jesus vs. Scripture debate satisfied me because I could no longer sit easy with the notion that I can or should have an unmediated, disembodied personal encounter with Jesus (or the Bible).

My knowledge of Jesus is complex -- I could summarize it in traditional terms by saying it combined elements of scripture, experience and tradition. Yet the terminology gives the misleading impression that these sources can legitimately separated and compared (or even placed in competition). For me the element that gives these their unity is the church -- the community who shaped and is shaped by scripture, who gives me the story and stories with which I interpret my experience in liturgy and teaching and who has an ongoing conversation about what it means to be Jesus' people.

Camassia has given us a good series of reflections (here, here, here and here) on her reading of James Ault's sociological study of a small fundamentalist Baptist church in Massachusetts.

This post was inspired by her thoughts and has turned out to be more confessional and stream-of-consciousness than I'd like, but at least I'm writing.

In the last few years I've probably said several hundred times that I have lots of days when I think I'm eventually going to become Catholic or Orthodox. A big part of this is my (surely romanticized) notion that the authority and stability of the liturgy and tradition make room for someone like me who genuinely finds such abstract reflections meaningful and necessary as well as your average salt of the earth believer who thinks and feels much more concretely. In most low-church protestant churches, there's so little space for this kind of reflection because we're inundated with words -- words that I'm often having to deconstruct to make peace with, which is exhausting.

"I took a walk alone last night
I looked up at the stars
To try and find an answer in my life
I chose a star for me
I chose a star for him
I chose two stars for my kids and one star for my wife
Something made me smile
Something seemed to ease the pain
Something about the universe and how it's all connected"

-Sting, I'm So Happy that I Can't Stop Crying

I'm not completely sure why this post has me thinking of a Sting faux-country song, but there it is.

Blogger Camassia said...

Thanks for the kind words, and the links. Though actually you've linked to the comments to my posts rather than to the posts themselves. One of the quirks of WordPress is that the permalink to each post is the post's title. (That's also why my post titles are now green, instead of blue like the old template -- they're obliged to be the same color as the other links.)  

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Blogger Andy said...

Thanks for the heads-up. I'll fix it as soon as I can visit your site (apparently you're having bandwidth problems).  

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Blogger Coleman said...

Good thoughts as always. I miss getting to talk with you, if only occasionally. Heard anything from schools? You don't have to post the info - send me an e-mail.  

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