This blog is decidedly personal and theological. Be alert and beware!
In 1976, while I was Dean of the Graduate Seminary at Phillips University, Robin Meyers enrolled in the M.Div. program. He was an outstanding student: well read, argumentative, humorous, with a flair for vivid expression, and handsome in a smooth and fair way and married to Shawn—like my wife, Sarah—astonishingly beautiful. In his second year of study, Robin became my student assistant in a couple of introductory courses in theology and ethics.
In 1985 he became pastor of Mayflower Congregational UCC Church in Oklahoma City, and, in due course, my middle daughter, Kindy, and her family became members of Mayflower. In that connection, I was able to hear Robin preach on several occasions. I was even asked to preach one sultry August Sunday in 2002, while Robin vacationed. [sermon on this site]
In 1981 Robin earned a D.Min. from Drew University. And in 1991 he received a Ph.D. in Communications from the University of Oklahoma, and in that same year began teaching Rhetoric in the Philosophy Department of Oklahoma City University, while remaining as pastor at Mayflower.
Robin was raised in the Churches of Christ tradition, a conservative wing of the Stone-Campbell Movement. But the more fundamentalist tendencies of that wing became too much for his father, and the family dropped their membership. It has become increasingly clear to me that Robin still wrestles mightily with that fundamentalism, and he is known in Oklahoma City as the resident liberal who incessantly attacks fundamentalism in the church and politics of the state and the nation. To put a point on this: Robin loves the rhetorical combat, the provocative drawing-a-line-in-the-sand, with all sorts of fundamentalists.
When I use the term ‘fundamentalist’ here I am not referring to what might be called traditional Christian orthodoxy. Rather, I am referring to that strand of American Christianity that has the core belief that the Bible is inerrant in every sentence and any biblical sentence is available for truth and the discernment of error. It is a belief that hides many internal contradictions in how the Bible is used and has often been co-opted by more conservative political interests.
I have, of course, had many students imbued with this sort of fundamentalism. I have always relished their strong passions, and I have never thought it appropriate to either denounce or humiliate them. But I have aimed to ease them out of that straight-jacket and move them into a deeper and richer appreciation of some of the grand themes of trinitarian orthodoxy. It is always possible that once the stranglehold of such fundamentalism is broken that the student will simply reject the whole of Christian tradition and simply abandon the church. Of course, many are they who remain in the church, perhaps now a more ‘liberal’ church, but they wrestle in their guts with the harshness of that fundamentalist past.
William Babcock, a student colleague in graduate school and a faculty colleague at Perkins School of Theology, once wisely said to me: ‘those of us raised in the liberal traditions spend a lifetime trying to be orthodox, more or less, while those of us raised orthodox or fundamentalist spend a lifetime running from it’. Bill and I roughly thought of ourselves as liberal and orthodox in some sense. I think Robin was raised fundamentalist and has spent a lifetime running from it, and in the process virtually abandoned all conversation with I call the grand tradition of ecumenical orthodoxy.
Robin has now published a book that gives me considerable heartburn: Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus (Harper-Collins, 2009). But his book appears to have the endorsement of some heavyweights: Bishop Tutu, Bill Moyers, Fred Craddock, Diana Butler Bass, and a real lightweight: John Spong. Have these folk actually read this book and have they done so without heartburn?
Before we sort through this book, it is appropriate to point out that Robin is a gifted rhetorician, enthralled by catchy phrases that demand attention and sometimes provoke attention. A talented rhetorician—and I do not mean this pejoratively—intends to persuade, to engage and move the audience to a predetermined response. Perhaps what differentiates Robin from me is that I more inclined to massage words and phrases, aiming to understand how they are being used and thereby appraising the appropriateness of that use. I sometimes refer to what I do in theology and philosophy as grammatical analysis. But, let it be granted, that my own work can often bristle with passion and a propensity to take delight in the argument itself!
As I have pondered how to respond to Robin’s book and how to work through the large scheme of his theologizing, I realize that a discerning response would entail rehearsing the large scheme of my Grammar book. That is not feasible here, though readers of this blog are certainly invited to endure such readings in the Grammar and the writings on this website.
To get a leg up on responding to Robin, let us begin by inspecting his book’s title, which we must assume was carefully chosen and intended to provoke, or at least gather attention. “Saving Jesus from the Church”— we will hardly know how to take that until he gives us some more words. We are surely getting worried, as such hard questions race through our minds: which ‘church’? What counts as a church? Well, Robin will surely sort that out for us. And he wants to impress us with the locution “Saving Jesus…” Most of us would have thought that Jesus is one who does the saving, but now it would appear that ‘we’ readers, with Robin’s help, are to do the saving. Wow!
How are we to ‘save’ Jesus? By learning ‘how to stop worshipping Christ and start following Jesus.’ That is big! Apparently the problem in the church—wherever or whatever church is—is that it is inclined to worship ‘Christ’ and neglect following Jesus. We are to take careful note of this distinction between the title ‘Christ’ and the man ‘Jesus.’ It will become apparent that the title ‘Christ’ will serve as place-marker for Robin for all the various ways in which the church has come to regard Jesus as ‘divine’. So, the church has been worshipping a divine Christ and forgetting the man Jesus. And Robin and a host of others are ready to tell us all we need to know about this man Jesus—the real ‘historical Jesus’ that the Jesus Seminar has finally made evident to modern, intellectually responsible thinkers. Robin is going to save this Jesus-Seminar-Jesus from all the accretions of titles pertaining to Jesus as divine that the church has conjured over these many centuries.
The project here is not new but has cropped up repeatedly in the church over the past two hundred years. Leaving aside the historical misnomers in his use of ‘Christ’, diagnostically his claim is this: there was first this Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, who said and performed some important life-shaking spiritual actions. But the power of his witness was just too much for later followers, and they gradually engaged in a process of conferring divinity on Jesus, which also resulted in—or was an expression of—their refusal to heed his teachings/preachings as the primary concern of his prophetic life. Hence, the rise of doctrines/beliefs about Jesus as divine and the neglect of the ethical/spiritual teachings of Jesus leading to the arduous following of Jesus.
A few diagnostic points can be noted but not extensively argued here:
1. The project depends on the confident retrieval of the real Jesus, who presumably did live, teach, and act and was acted upon in ways clearly discernible. Alas, that is the rub, for our only access to the real Jesus is through the texts of the New Testament, which most scholars of early Christianity agree are invariably texts of folk who regarded Jesus as the Christ, the One Israel could have been expecting. No neutral texts here; no Jesus independent of theological characterization. It is tiresome to say again that the attempt to find a non-theological Jesus, just preaching truths that are compelling, usually means that the finder is finding whatever she wants to find.
2. The texts we do have now, whether they be the NT texts or some others, are theological—connecting Jesus in one way or another to the God of Israel or to the rejecting of the God of Israel.
3. Hence, whatever we in the 21st century want to say or do, we simply cannot avoid coming to grips with these theological issues.
4. So, it is perfectly intelligible that divinity issues—what do we mean by ‘God’ or ‘theos’ or ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Father’—are there for any reader of the NT.
5. But Robin really wants to put the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul in the background, for these seem to him too far along in the process of deifying Jesus.
6. The Jesus Seminar, that so enthralls Robin and which he repeatedly cites as the only intellectually responsible construal of Jesus, has been clear from its beginnings that it intends to dethrone ancient and traditional theological claims about Jesus in the interest of a presumably more politically suitable Jesus for the present days.
OK, now my heart is really burning! Leaving aside my intellectual and moral contempt for the ideological constructions of the Jesus Seminar, I am puzzled why Robin did not pursue the following sort of critique of the discourses and practices of some fundamentalists. It could be argued that the issue about ‘not following Jesus’ has nothing to do with the presumed practice of ‘worshipping Christ’. We could, rather, say that folk who claim to be worshipping a divine Christ and also refusing or neglecting to follow Jesus,’ are speaking an empty language. The conceptual mistake is that they practically think worshipping Christ can be detached from ‘following Jesus.’ Hence, I would affirm that it is theologically impossible to truly worship Christ and not follow Jesus, assuming that we are talking about Jesus as the Christ.
But maybe this is what I think Robin is really saying: ‘church people often claim that Jesus is divine, and they sing songs about his divinity and how he saves us from our sins but they seem to stumble repeatedly over earnestly being a disciple of Jesus and following his way of life.’ Yet, Robin misunderstands this phenomenon by supposing that the real obstacle to being Jesus’ disciple is the belief that he is divine and our savior from sin. My heartburn herein is that I think Robin has grossly misdiagnosed the demons in church discourses and practices and that he completely neglects the ongoing theological work of understanding how Jesus—the one I call Prophet, Priest, and Victor—radically transforms what we mean by ‘God’ or ‘divinity’. Hence, to put a sharp edge on it, Robin would regard the inclination to regard Jesus as divine as the original mistake in Christian tradition, while I would regard it as the theological center of grasping the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I would grant, however, that the church’s discourses and practices in the main ecumenical traditions of the church have often been found wanting in a variety of ways and properly deserve ongoing theological critique.
The discerning reader will hopefully grasp that the sort of genuine theological disagreements emerging here between Robin and me are not reducible to simple intellectual or historical investigations. They are deep construals of matters of ultimate reality and the shape of human life and destiny. Because they are so deep, I have recommended that we think of them as confessional in character: no knock-down, astonishingly convincing arguments that will clear the way for all really smart folk and assure them that they are grounded in the very best of human intellectual endeavor and argument. Robin sometimes conveys the impression that fundamentalists and their kin are somehow stupid and ill-educated.
But the large context in which this confessional theologizing takes place for me includes these conversation partners: the NT writings and times, the deep joy and anguish of the ‘patristic’ thinkers and teachers, the creedal confessions of Nicaea and Chalcedon, the work of Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, the Niebuhrs, and the rich discussions of Vatican II and the illuminating work of 20th century trinitarian reflection. I only mention these to contrast with the ones Robin finds intellectually and theologically compelling: Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, Brandon Scott, John Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox. Confessionally, we have different conversation partners, and it may also be in that in our contemporaneous cultures, Robin is speaking to some needy folk better than I. But is what he says true? That is the rub, and it not easily decided.
I should admit that, in my own way, I am greatly disenchanted with what I call ‘the empirical church’ in America. It seems to me more dominated by the peculiarities of American life that it is by any discerning grasp of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I suspect that I am even more counter-cultural than Robin, since he seems more enthralled with a liberal elite culture than I think I am. But when I say ‘empirical church’ I am speaking loosely and not for a moment am I supposing that it is properly and theologically truly church. Instead of accusing the empirical church of ‘worshipping Christ’ and not ‘following Jesus’, I would say something grammatical like this: it impossible (self-contradictory) to say and mean ‘I worship Jesus Christ’ and then refuse to be his disciple. Of course, no one would ever actually say ‘I worship Christ but I refuse to follow Jesus’. The issue is whether it is intelligible to Christian discourse and practice that, for example, folk who claim to be worshipping Christ as their Savior are being consistent when they openly refuse to love the neighbor or the enemy in great need. Yet, people often speak emptily and as mere gesture, and that common occurrence in the discourses and practices of the American church is what distresses me.
There being no real evidence that Robin ever did hear my lectures or read the Grammar—Robin proceeds on 1) to propose a superficial distinction between ‘believing’ and ‘being’, 2) to virtually empty the notion of sin of any theological acuity, 3) to regard the cross of Jesus as bereft of any positive theological significance, and 4) to regard any sense of ‘resurrection’ as involving something that happened to Jesus as a serious intellectual mistake that only the grossest of obscurantists would ever have entertained.
Yet, I would not want to deny that here and there in the book, Robin does make theological points that can also be considered upbuilding for the church and the Christian: 1) the consumerist entrapment of many in the church, 2) the uncanny recent linkage of discipleship to the ‘prosperity gospel’. But Robin becomes ham-fisted when he tries to contrast ‘being relational’ with ‘being righteous’; there is no convincing reason that being righteous has to be so maligned by Robin. Might it not be possible that Christians come to understand themselves as having a righteousness before God conferred upon them by God’s grace, not as an earned moral trait?
Robin: Plato overstated matters when he condemned rhetoric as irretrievably treacherous by aiming only at persuasion and thereby subversive of any protracted and arduous concern for the truth. But the search for catchy contrasts and rhetorical flourishes can often seduce us to neglect the hard and intellectually demanding task of witnessing to the reality of God without trivialization. It does give me pause to think I might have trivialized your earnest searching for truth in your book. On the other hand, it is just hard for me to understand that your own education in the grand traditions of the church, which I had thought you had been offered in seminary, has led you to trivialize and misconstrue so much of the church’s discourses and practices. Methinks your own fundamentalist past has led you to delight in the Jesus Seminar and Crossan, Borg, Spong, Fox, etc. and to neglect reading the serious theological works of Barth, Moltmann, Yoder, Pannenberg, Lindbeck, Polkinghorne, Hartt, Farrer and that shadowy figure from your own past named Jones.
There is no real sense of your betrayal, Robin, as it now seems obvious that we may never have had a deep theological connection. But certainly there is heartburn from the misuse of such talent. And there is much lament over differences so gaping. Matters of faith, of course, are in the final analysis ad hominem.
Enough said, dear friends,