Monday, October 28, 2013

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 5 – The Identity of Jesus in a Pluralistic World

1.  Hall addresses Christianity against the backdrop of religious plurality, which continues to gain momentum worldwide.  Christianity is essentially and fundamentally Christocentric.  Contrary to popular thought, there is no negotiation here.  The temptation, Hall notes, is to shift from Christocentric to Christomonism (not to be confused with my favorite grilled sandwich, the Monte Cristo).  This dogmatic conservatism quickly becomes fundamentalist, relying on “Jesus is God” as an overarching emphasis on the divinity principle.  The first corrective to this is the humanity of Jesus.

When did it become apparent to you that Jesus was “fully human?”  What process of worship, study, or discussion brought you to this important realization?

2.  “The other chief doctrinal guard against Christomonism is the doctrine of the Trinity.”  “Behind it there is an absolutely vital need of Christian faith to be Christocentric whilst remaining monotheistic – or in other words, to pay the closest attention to Jesus Christ without, in the process, displacing or replacing the transcendent God.” 

So…how exactly does this fully “human” Jesus participate also as the fully “divine” Christ of the Trinity?  As if that isn’t hard enough, what is the nature and relationship between the eternal Christ and the historical Jesus?  (Don’t sweat it…no one has ever adequately or definitively answered either question!)

3.  Now we move to “the scandal of particularity”…and who doesn’t love a good scandal every now and then!  But this is the greatest scandal of all…“that Jesus is the crucified one: a ‘crucified God!’ (Luther) – a stumbling block to the religious, and a scandal to the worldly wise.”  Hall points out that all religions single out “one person, one constellation of events centered around this one person.” 
Why?  “Because there is no grasping of the ultimate that does not pass through the sieve of some proximate or penultimate reality; there is no experience of the absolute that is not conditioned by something relative; there is no sense of the universal that is not mediated by some particularity.”  Got that?!

“How does your “particular” function for you?” Hall inquires, citing spouses and children as examples.  In this case, he invites us to seriously consider, “How does the particular called Jesus, the Christ, function for Christians?” 

How do you answer that?  How do others answer that? 
How is inclusivity – grace through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus – perhaps the greatest scandal of all?

Finally, Hall claims, “God, in Jesus Christ, does not give us Christians the Truth; God only allows the Truth, the living Truth, ineffable and uncontainable, to live among us.”  How does such a position and belief assist us “to recognize and to honor others who look beyond themselves for what is ultimate, even when these others are not looking specifically towards Jesus?”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 4 – Where in the World Are We?

Hall introduces this chapter with the help of Chicken Little and the head-ducking ostrich, representing two extreme reactions to the situation at hand.  He asks, “How, as a religious faith, did we arrive at this point in our sojourn?  What were our expectations?”  He then frames the discussion around two imposing changes or metamorphoses:

1.  First, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity resulted in its “adoption by empire” and the “transmutation of Christianity into Christendom.”  Recalling Hall’s numerous examples and the ramifications of this development over the centuries, how have the expansion and alignment of Christianity with political and cultural powers contributed to its current malaise?  How does this weakening alignment serve and/or hinder the Church’s mission today?  Give examples of each.

2.  The second great change or metamorphosis is “nothing less than a reversal of the process of Christian establishment begun in the fourth century: that is, it is a process of disestablishment...the de-Constantinianization of Christendom.”  Hall also refers to it as “the sidelining of Christianity.”  The cultural establishment of Christianity in North America, while still significant, is rapidly and franticly loosing ground…“being edged out towards the periphery of their host cultures.”  Nothing in our past has prepared us for this shift: “that we must share the spiritual nurture of the world with many other faith traditions, and must learn to live without social props and political favors.” 

Where do you see this shift most visibly today, both nationally and globally?  How has this shift served to deflate or energize our motivation and efforts in sharing the gospel of Christ?

3.   Hall suggests this has led to a basic confusion about our identity and our mission.  He offers four basic alternatives:

- The first response is the ostrich syndrome…to deny it or just look the other way as long as possible.
- The second response is to blame the decline of the church on lukewarm – perhaps liberal – leadership, and set out to reverse the trend.
- The third response is to look for the continuation of Christendom elsewhere.

Where do we see each of these three responses today?  Why do they ultimately fail to advance the Church’s mission and witness?

- Finally, Hall breaks down the fourth response into three parts:

(1) Frankly and openly admit the reality of the humiliation of Christendom.
(2) Resist the temptation to regard this great change in purely negative terms, as though the failure of a form of Christianity meant the failure of Christianity itself.
(3) Try to give the process of our disestablishment some positive and meaningful direction, rather than simply allowing it to happen to us.

How might each of these give the Church “a fighting chance” as we navigate the uncertain waters before us? 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter 3 – Who Can Say It as It Is?

1.  This chapter is devoted to Karl Barth’s understanding of the Bible, which flows out of Tillich’s Protestant principle of God’s sovereignty.  After several pages of posturing and reminiscing (rambling) over his “Who’s Who” list of theological heavy-weights, Hall eventually arrives at Luther…who aptly voiced his opinion of the Bible by noting, “The Bible has a wax nose; you can twist it to whatever may be your preference…in noses!”  Hall adds, “Not the letter, but only the divine Spirit, acting upon the letter of Scripture, can establish the practical authority of the Bible in the church.”

So, let’s talk about noses a bit.  What does the wax nose on your Bible look like?  How is it different in shape, size, and function from those of other denominational schnozzles?  Are you satisfied with your nose?  Why or why not?

2.  In, The Bible as Word of God, Hall notes that Barth “would certainly have agreed with Luther who said, ‘Abandon Scripture, and you abandon yourself to the lies of men.’”  God’s Word, he says, is addressed to us in a threefold form: the word preached, the word written, and the word revealed or incarnate.  All three forms are required to hear the gospel and receive faith.  Like the Trinity, each of these forms needs the other.

How do you understand & experience the interaction of this threefold form of God’s Word?  Describe specific experiences.

3.  Zeroing in, Hall says, “If we want to state the matter straightforwardly, then we must say that the Bible is the primary and indispensable witness to God’s living Word, and therefore not to be treated as though it were the reality to which it bore witness.”  Then, quoting Barth, “And the direction in which it looks is to the living Jesus Christ.”  “Therefore, the Bible must remain something like the medium through which the sovereignty of the Christ is communicated to the body of Christ.”

If worship of the Bible itself (bibliolatry) is a flagrant misappropriation and abuse of Scripture and its authority, then why is it so prevalent among evangelical and fundamentalist branches of the church?  Why is it imperative that Christ alone remains the focus of our worship?

4.  Hall emphasizes that the Bible is a very human book, containing the words of human beings.  In other words, “What the Bible wants to say and tries to say cannot be said, not even by this highest authority concretely accessible to humankind.”  “The Bible denies us, in short, the quintessential religious temptation and quest…namely, for mastery through proximity to, or even control over, the master of the universe.” 

Citing a young Billy Graham’s self-righteous and demeaning sermonic declaration, “I’ve got it right here in the Bible,” Hall warns of the delusion of claiming any such thing for ourselves.  “For the Truth to which this book is pointing to infinitely transcends its own words.”  “The Bible is a sign whose function is to point to this living sign, Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection point us to the God by whom he is sent.”

And finally, “The Bible is to be taken with great seriousness, and studied, and made the basis of our preaching, and the guide to the church’s ongoing reformation of itself; but in the knowledge that it is a human book, however transcendent the message that it wants to convey to us.”

So…given these crucial parameters, what value is the Bible to you personally?  What value is the Bible in further shaping our faith communities?  How is the Bible evermore poised in our time to witness to the uncertainty/ambiguity of life and serve as a true companion along our spiritual journeys?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Waiting for Gospel, by Douglas John Hall

Chapter Two - Theology and Quest for Gospel

1.  Hall begins by exposing a long-time problem with theology: it is an unknown science.  By and large, its meaning, purpose and application are not widely understood or embraced by the average person.  He attributes this phenomenon to the remoteness of theology from the life of the church.  In other words, who needed it?  “Power, and not engaged thought, kept Christianity going.”  Tradition, while rapidly losing its grip, has been the mainstay of previous generations.  Also, theology appeared to be a superfluous activity enjoyed primarily by a diminutive and elite group of religious professionals in the ivory halls of academia.  (Growing a beard and pipe smoking were optional.) 

Over your lifetime, how have you seen “theology” presented, interpreted, and applied in your various congregational and community settings?  What was the perceived value of theology?

2.  “Protestantism carried within itself the promise of undoing this unfortunate drift…and here and there still does introduce correctives to this tendency.”  Yet, it remains dependent upon Christian cultural establishment for its continuance.  “Neither the individual believer nor the church as a whole…is impelled to seek theological depth.  The individual can have whatever benefits he or she wants from religion without any serious exercise of the mind.”  As Hall emphasizes, without consistent intellectual nurturing, the church will continue to fade away…and we see it all around us in ever-visible ways.

All is not lost, of course.  Not all churches are disintegrating.  But intellectual/spiritual nourishing remains integral to our existence and growth.  What role does Christian theology (despite its many challenges) play in guiding us toward a genuine path of discipleship?  As you engage in worship, study, and service, how does this theology both inform and guide you?  Without such theological parameters (biblical grounding), what are we left with?  How far do personal opinions/preferences take us?

3.  Hall stresses the historical and existential/contextual components of theology.  They serve to address a variety of growing anxieties, identified by Paul Tillich as: fate and death; guilt and condemnation; and, emptiness and meaninglessness – with variations on the three.  Hall believes the third anxiety to be the most prevalent today. 

He writes, “Thus, along with large numbers of my contemporaries, I will go gladly to hear any preacher who seems to understand something of my own doubt concerning the purpose of my life, however haltingly he or she may attempt to assuage that doubt.  I do not need sermons that want to demonstrate once more that God really exists, the new atheism notwithstanding; I need sermons that know how frequently I doubt the purpose of my own existence!  Gospel today, I think, must speak to that kind of doubt.  There are no experts here.  There are only wounded and needy human beings who can pray, ‘Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.’”

 How does Hall’s confession speak to your life and your search for purpose and meaning?  If Miguel Unamuno is correct in claiming, “Faith without doubt is dead faith,” then how do we balance our footwork in this mysterious dance with both?  How does theology provide the music and rhythm for our movements?