Friday, September 5, 2008

Easum, Emergent and more conversations about Truth

There's a valuable conversation taking place just now between Bill Easum and Emergent-minded folks that I've been adding my voice to just a bit. In fact, Bill is stimulating several conversation on his blog where he's described...
"...a growing conversation is taking place that no Christian leader can afford to ignore. The players in this conversation are multiplying like rabbits. As we will see in a moment, much of the future of Western Christianity lies at the heart of this conversation. So we had better pay attention.

Here’s a list of the primary players as of now

The Emergent Folks
The Incarnational Folks
The Organic Folks
The Attractional Folks
The Reproductive Folks"

He's taking each of those players in turn to offer his insights and advance the discussion. I highly recommend it. (Bill has been a formative influence in missionalizing my faith for a decade or so.)

Part of his conversation with emergents is playing out in parallel on the Emergent Village blog, which is where I've done most of my posting. I expect this to be especially valuable because Bill and Tony Jones will be alternating posts once a week in a month long "blogologue."

My own interest really spikes when this conversation turns to discussion truth and knowing which is a giant piece of the conflict between Modern and Postmodern thinking that so often is playing out between Evangelicals and Emergents these days. I confess, I like that stuff in part becasue it's brain candy for me. But I'm also very excited becasue I see it having massive practical implications for daily Christian life and evangelical mission.

If you want to follow the discussion and see my writings so far, you can find that at the EV blog I mentioned above. But I'll also be posting a synopsis here soon as well.


Mike L. said...

Hi Tim. I followed you over from the EV blog and thought I'd ask a deeper question without interfering with your ongoing discussion w/ Bill Easum. I really enjoyed it!

My question revolves around this statement in your response:

In order for an actual relationship with Jesus of Nazareth to be possible, there are some things which do have to be “true” in the modern sense, that is, absolute historical facts. For example, Jesus must have actually lived since I can’t have a real relationship with a fictional or mythological character. More importantly, Jesus must actually have risen from the dead and now be alive because I can’t have a relationship with a dead person.

I wonder how/why you've bound the idea of relationship to something so physical? That sounds like a very modernistic approach that negates the ability of a story (mythical character) to transform our lives.

Here's what I mean...

Why couldn't you have relationship with a mythical Jesus? What's so bad about a story?

First, let me say I'd personally bet there was a historical Jesus if I had to bet, so don't hear me suggesting he didn't exit. However, I think we have to be honest. Most of what we know of Jesus is through his (mythical) character(s) in the gospels. None of us have ever spoken to the historical Jesus (not even Paul who's only knowledge of Jesus was through a vision and through interviews). I'd suggest it is very possible to "relate" to someone that we've never met physically or even someone that never physically existed. There are billions of people who have transformational relationships with any number of the thousands of Hindu or Pagan mythical characters over the centuries. Nearly every religion builds on the idea of a relationship to a mythical character. We find Jesus in the story and relate to him through that story as well as through others who operate as mediators for the story (Christians).

Second, people relate to dead people all the time through their work, their writings, and even their legend, so while resurrection is a critical allegorical element to the Christian story, a physical resurrection is not at all necessary for us to relate to Jesus. My grandparents are dead, yet I have an ongoing relationship with them. They continue to shape my life.

I'm a Christian so the story of Jesus is central to my faith, however I find it interesting that you'd make an attempt to boil the whole thing down to set of propositional truths (he physically lived, he physically died, he was physically resurrected). Granted, that may be a smaller set of fundamentals than some, but it is nevertheless a set of fundamentals and all are based on an intellectual assertion of confidence in historical facts rather than a life of faithful following. So on one hand, I really agree with your critique of the western fascination with "knowing", but I also hear that same thread of logic in your approach.

Feral Pastor said...

Hi Mike - thanks for popping over and for your thoughtful post!

Let me start with something from the end of your post and work into the issues from there. You found it interesting that I was trying to "boil the whole thing down to a set of propositional truths" but that's not at all my goal. My approach to the "facts" about Jesus isn't reductionary, as if I was starting with the whole Bible and whittling away until I arrived at the things that just couldn't be eliminated. (Boiling down is a good metaphor there.) Rather, I started with the relational faith I already have in Jesus and then asked what facts have to be "added back," so to speak, in order for my faith to be.... I'm searching for the word here... intellectually tenable. So it's a constructive process, not reductive.

Put another way, there's a different directionality to the argument I'm making. I am not saying; "I'm confident that Jesus actually lived, died and rose - therefore I should have faith in him." Rather, I'm saying; "I'm confident that I do have a real faith, a real relationship with Jesus - therefore he must have actually lived, died and rose."

Now, that brings us to your question: Why is the historicity even necessary? You wrote; "I'd suggest it is very possible to "relate" to someone... that never physically existed."

I simply disagree with you there, but I suspect it's because we aren't using the same definition for what it means to "relate" or to have a relationship. (I think you sensed this which may be why you put it in quotes.)

So let me clarify: the kind of relationship I'm talking about is the kind that does require two living persons. We can compare it to marriage. T there are lots of "characters," shall we say, who enrich my life... be they fictional, living or dead. But it's simply impossible for me to be married to someone who is not actually alive. In the same way, the kind of relationship I'm considering between Jesus and me is one that requires both of us to be actual, living persons.

Now, having said that I do want to affirm and agree with you about the real and profound ability of Story to affect us... even to "transform" us. (Though there's another term we'd probably need to define pretty carefully!) And I love it when you say; "We find Jesus in the story and relate to him through that story as well as through others who operate as mediators for the story (Christians)."

But for me it's essential that I do find Jesus in the story. If all I've actually found is a story about Jesus, that's just not the same, no matter how wonderful and affecting the story may be.

Does that clear up where I'm coming from? How does it sound to you?

Mike L. said...


Thanks for taking the time to respond.

"I started with the relational faith I already have in Jesus and then asked what facts have to be "added back," so to speak, in order for my faith to be..."

I guess this is the biggest issue I have with your approach. When you start with something in mind and try to work out a conclusion that is intellectually tenable based on your initial perspective then you've really thrown out all ability to be unbiased. That is the definition of biased. I think it does the text a disservice to read it in such a biased way.

You speak about a relationship with Jesus as if he was your wife. I've seen this backfire so many times. People want this relationship to be "human", but it cannot be. Jesus doesn't talk to you, physically touch you, or interact in all the ways necessary to yield healthy human relationships. Actually, by using the term relationship we set up the God experience to be something that looks like a variety of typical human relationship disorders (co-dependency or dependent personality disorder). Add to that the complete lack of bidirectional communication and there is no wonder being Christian feels more like a dysfunctional relationship. How long would your marriage last if your wife didn't communicate with you on a regular basis? What if you thought you had to bow and worship her or that your existence depended on your obedience to her? Any councilor would flag that relationship as headed down the road to ruin. This is the model we've tried to create, yet it is destructive and leaves Christians disillusioned and heart broken.

I think there is a better way, but it involves ending the notion that God is a person and Jesus is a ghost sitting on your shoulder. There has to be something more sane.

Thanks for the interaction! I've enjoyed your comments here and elsewhere.


Feral Pastor said...

Fascinating discussion!

You're quite right about the fact that I am writing from a bias, although I'd personally prefer to describe it as my set of assumptions. (Sounds less covert.) I am approaching the discussion as one who already believes in Jesus in a certain way. I don't claim to be trying to make a case for faith from first principles - sorry if I gave that impression.

Quick question - you wrote about doing a disservice to "the text" to read it with a bias - that's a reference to the Bible, right?

Re. the marriage reference, I only brought that in to make one point of comparison with my relationship with Jesus: namely, that like a marriage it also requires two actual persons who currently exist. There may well be additional commonalities, and there certainly are enormous differences! You pointed out a key one - that communication in marriage, as troubled as it often is, is far different from the communication that may (or may not) be taking place between Jesus and me. But I was only after the one point of comparison in my previous post.

As an aside... one thing that does seem common is that both types of relationships (human-human and human-God) are routinely messed up!

If you want to let the conversation rest at this point that's okay - it's been helpful and enjoyable for me. If you have more questions for me I'm happy to continue. And if you want to take the lead, I'd be interested to hear you expand on your last paragraph about a better and more sane way. In any case, thanks again and blessings on your journey. May your story be beautiful!