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This conversation is life giving.

And, how ironic, in a way, to say “life-giving” when we are also talking about decline and demise. But this should not be surprising.

New life abounds, Spirit-energy pulses, and before long we have an institution on our hands! What the heck!?!? No one planned for this! In fact, everyone hoped against it. But it happened. It happened and it will happen again, against our designs and against our will.  And it will happen to the renewal movements we form to combat the institutions we don’t like and don’t want to become.

This is just the way it works with human organizations (and it does no good to say everyone else is an institution but Quakerism is not…Quakers are NOT exempt from this).

But there comes a moment every once in a while when we look at what we are holding on to and we ask ourselves whether it is worth it, and whether what we are holding on to is what really is important.

This time comes for all sorts of reasons…maybe we see the thinness of what our lives have become, or we wonder why the same conflicts badger us that plagued the group we thought we were improving, or we sense a huge disconnect between the gospel of Christ and into what we are investing our time and money and sweat and the best years of our lives.

Are we holding on to Christ or to Christianity? Are we holding on to love or to programs of measured compassion? Are we pouring our lives into the new work of God into which the Spirit is breathing life, or are we trying to resuscitate yesterday’s glory?

It’s hard, and anyone who says this is not a scary place to be is lying. We care about the things we hold on to; they become precious over time. But faithfulness to the living God means we will be on the move and that we will need to hold lightly, even those things that mean the world to us. The call to be disciples, friends of Jesus, is to keep our eyes open and to press into life, into the good creation of God.

Whatever postmodernity means, it is one of those moments when we look at what we have in our hands and ask whether we are where we need to be…whether we are doing and being what we need to do and be.

The familiar patterns of church/meeting life have wonderful, life affirming dimensions which we would be crazy to throw away. And at the same time, the structures, practices, activities, and forms, are often premised on a world that does not exist in the same way it did when those were put in place.

Likewise, the seminaries where we form women and men to vocation and where we strengthen gifts, have done and continue to do some things right. However, the realities of living culture, the growth and decay of creation (God’s and humanity’s and GodHuman), and the shifting ways we interact with each other and the world mean that, if we are not careful, our seminaries will be little more than institutions that perpetuate a status quo that cannot even see today, much less tomorrow!

We can hold on tightly and run with confidence toward yesterday, but God will not be there. God was there but is no longer. In fact, neither will be anyone else be there. It is a desolate place and populated only by the ghosts of our memory.

But God calls us to a future that will take all our energy to imagine. God is there and so is everything that pulses with life. I for one, want to press into that future.

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(At the request of BY I’ve moved this Facebook discussion here to Theography where we can continue it and perhaps expand it differently than we might in the other context.)

David Johns is wondering a lot about seminary education, ministerial formation, and the movement from modernity to postmodernity (as well as the emerging church phenomenon). Are seminaries, his own included, so wedded to modernity that they are unable to imagine (and prepare for) ministry in living and birthing contexts?

LisaJoy Zillgitt-Stowers good queries to explore…I have to admit that what I learned about ministry I learned in CPE and other ‘real life’ situations…some things just can’t be taught in seminaries no matter how ‘good’ they may be. I, and other seminary grads, …have thought of writing a book to be given to incoming seminary students, “What to expect in ministry that Seminary does not have a class for”…you’d be in seminary for a lifetime if there was a class on everything you might encounter. CPE is an action/reflection from of education/ministry and thus you learn quickly how to use the framework from classes/education and build it into a real life experience. I learned quickly not to say, “God is always with you and working in your life” to a patient in the state hospital in Indpls when she said, “So YOUR God was there when I was abused and is working through my borderline personality?”…you also learn to be careful what scripture you share as well because it can be used to ‘harm’ in the midst of profound mental illness….just my thoughts.

Erin McDougall David, I am really interested in this query but would love to hear more from you about what you mean by “living and birthing contexts” …

David Johns

‎@Erin: I mean by that the realities of our moment in history and the ones coming into being. Some of the theological discussions we rehearse repeatedly have either been resolved or they are weighted by cultural dynamics, epistemological as…sumptions, et al., that are not overwhelming present concerns and understandings.

Likewise, much of our formation is oriented toward helping keep alive institutions and organizations (movements, denominations, et al.) that have largely run their course. (Some of these, perhaps many, are structured appropriately for the 1940’s or 50’s and are speaking to cultural realities and religious sensibilities of such eras–and if our intention is to preserve them, then preaching, pastoral care, theology, leadership, spirituality, religious education, et al., will take on a particular tone, and it will not be one of new life). When do we offer thanks for the long run of our religious organizations and then allow them to pass away or to be reborn into something completely new? How do we imagine new ways of being the people of God that speak grace and gospel in our time?

This is, of course, a deep concern of mine with regard to Quakerism (and anyone who has walked with me in class has heard this before)…even the wonderfully energetic renewal movements within Friends (such as YAF), will simply reinvent the institution of Quakerism (complete with our oddities and two centuries old debates) if they do not allow Quakerism itself to break open into something very different (this is what I have begun discussing (see the most recent Quaker Religious Thought issue) as a postQuaker Christianity).

I think a lot about my vocation as a seminary prof. Am I preparing people to preserve the structures of what has been rather than to prepare people to move into the new things that God is doing (that look little like the familiar shapes of church and denomination and seminary and and and)? I can not prepare my students for yesterday and I’m not even sure that it is wise to prepare them for today. How, on the other hand, can I press into the future of God and enliven imaginations to join in those edges?

Thanks for the question, Erin. It’s just another Saturday of wondering for me.

David Johns ‎@Erin: I have to say also that I am co-clerk of our Meeting’s pastoral search committee. So, ministry, leadership, and risky (vs. tame) vision are very much on my mind.

John Price David, did not the early Quakers strip Christianity down to its very bones? If Christ is with me at all times then how am I to live? It seems to me that this simple premise and query are immutable, that terms like post-modern, modern, eva…ngelical, liberal, and conservative are irrelevant. Forms and rituals presuppose that Christ is not immediately available to me. Why do I need a water baptism or a communion ritual when I am bathed in the breath of Christ every minute of every day? These are symbols, not reality, just as wearing gray clothing today would be a symbol, not an actual act of faith or conscience, so they are irrelevant as well.

The exercise of my faith is fluid, not cast in concrete. The question is constantly in my mind and heart: What would Christ have me do in this situation? The answers that flow from these simple, yet powerful questions guide my actions and my words. They cannot be codified, compiled, nor extrapolated to someone else’s life. These questions and answers are uniquely mine. I cannot look for comfort and reassurance through conformity to a doctrine or creed, nor agreement from my neighbor. Each one is a decision I make in consultation with Christ and I must be strong enough in my faith to bear the consequences. If I am not then I will need and crave the approval of men because I am not in touch with Christ. It seems to me that the argument is how best to be reassured by other men, which is also an irrelevant argument.

Eden Grace Very interesting discussion. I can say several things from my own experience — Firstly, I was schooled in “post-modernity” twenty years ago. It did a lot of damage to my faith. Whatever we’re looking to emerge now, hopefully it isn’t that…. Secondly, while my seminary education was deeply formative for me as a Christian and as a leader, the content of my education has been almost completely irrelevant to my ministry in Kenya. I would have been much better served if I’d done an MBA or economics degree. Thirdly, the more I grow in the present reality of a living faith, the more I yearn to be steeped in the living Tradition. I worry about the utter subjectivity of the comment from John Price. I don’t know if I am representative of my generation or not, but I am not particularly comfortable with framing things as post-anything. Maybe I’d rather the pre-something. Mostly I want to stand in the living stream of 2000 years of faithfulness to Christ, and allow myself to be shaped and corrected by that Tradition.

Raymond Ontko is wondering whether the unity we seek as Quakers and modernists is in fundamental conflict with post-modernism.

Al Dodson David, I think you are struggling with a hugely important set of ideas. Might I suggest a conversation between you and Russell Haitch on the role of the Spirit in education? Both you and Russell have outstanding minds and sensitivities and seem to be thinking in related directions on this topic.

Erin McDougall David,

These are ideas that I have struggled with for some time now and continue to struggle with and I am glad to hear of your struggles with them. Personally, I am at a place where I feel that institutions are essentially un-Quaker. Afte…r all, the meeting structure was invented by G. F. after some time when he was concerned about Quakerism becoming something he didn’t think it was. (I know it’s more complicated than that, but there is some truth to that.)

Our meetings themselves are also institutions. How do we allow for enough risk and freshness in a movement if we must follow a certain way of being? A very simple example is one of ministry given in a unprogrammed meeting. When I lived at PH, I had a dear friend who sometimes danced for his ministry and discomfort with that by others was very interesting. Why would that kind of ministry be uncomfortable except that it is not “normal” and a regular part of how we experience the institution of Meeting?

I have been convinced (at times) that institutions are also important for passing along information. I think this is true and so am not sure that I would get rid of institutions altogether. But I do think that our isms get in the way of thinking freshly about issues. For example, I think ageism is a HUGE reason why institutions become stable – and stagnant. If you look at the history of Quakerism, it is often the YAFs who shake things up and make new exciting things happen. But how many Quaker institutions are headed up by YAFs? Or even have YAFs in positions of power? How many institutions are even taking the YAFs seriously that are among them?? (Including meetings?)

Would a seminary be a more vibrant place if they allowed for young (and I don’t mean 40 – I mean mid-20s) people to teach there or to head it up?? Would a meeting be more vital if they took a giant leap of faith and asked someone to minister who was one of the people-on-fire who was a YF or YAF and didn’t have any formal training? (Of course, one would have to have a strong pastoral care committee and a strong meeting who was putting it’s own energy into the Meeting, not just waiting for a leader to pull them along …)

This is an issue close to my heart these days – and I appreciate being able to “talk” about it with you … Thanks for taking the risky step in asking the difficult/hard questions out in the open.

John Price While the application of Christ’s teachings to my particular life situations must of necessity be subjective, Christ’s teachings are not. To the extent that we hear the same message from Christ concerning our universal questions, so we com…e together as a denomination, affirming that we have all heard that one voice in matters of shared concern. The forms and rituals adopted by that denomination are an expression of that commonality of understanding, but they are not essential. And once they become more an end in themselves than an expression of common understanding they too are irrelevant.

Josie HermioneGranger Tolton Over the past decade I have worshiped across the continuum of ritual with people who gather for Buddhist meditation without instruction on how to do it and unprogrammed Quakers on one end Greek Orthodox, Anglican Catholic and old style Cath…olic on the other. I have found myself settling on an approach to ritual that requires detachment (in the Buddhist sense).

Ritual allows us to connect with our community both in the present and ancestors in the faith. Ritual is a way of acting out our relationship with God. Ritual serves to create meaning. The community recognizes the important moments of our lives, both joyful and sorrowful.

If ritual does not serve a community then it should be discarded. The emergent movement has reminded us that neither abandoning ritual entirely nor holding to it too tightly serves us well.

I am also a bit of a moderate on the absolutist vs. subjectivist controversy. I believe that there is truth out there, reality out there even if we cannot determine it. By training I am a social constructivist. In my communication training I was taught that communication creates reality and that you cannot avoid communicating (even your avoidance is, in fact, communication). In a similar sense it is impossible to have no ritual for whatever you do that you/your community finds important and whenever/wherever you/your community finds meaning there is ritual. Thus, the modernist rejection of sacred actions is ineffectual.

We cannot reject the concept of sacred space and, thus, be wholly modernist. Despite our attempts and rational arguments, having sacred space seems to be part of the way humanity functions. In the US we have had the illusion of having no sacred space because the ancestors of many present residents left sacred spaces behind in Europe, etc. while those who had sacred spaces here were by and large killed leaving few descendants to remember. Over time we are still building up our own collective memory. Again, what we must learn is how to do this rather than focusing on rejection. What stories will we tell and how will we choose/create sacred space.

Oh, and you wanted to know about seminary 😀 People do need to know themselves and be able to communicate that with others. I think this is seminary at its best. Yes, knowing resources like what our ancestors in the faith did is important too, but claiming our own identity and knowing how to live in community with others is the key.

Kimberly Rochelle Hampton hey David…
I’m wondering what are we considering post-modern and when the post-modern era started. Look at who the “post-modernists” reference…Hegel and Schleiermacher. So haven’t we been in the post-modern world for a while now? 🙂

Brian C Young David–any chance you could move this to your blog, or re-start it there? I’d like to read the whole thread and comment later, but FB makes it hard to find stuff once it falls off the news feed… thx.

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Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that we should remain silent when we do not know something—whereon one does not know, thereon one must not speak, or something like that. Of course, Wittgenstein didn’t follow his own advice and neither do most of us. Occasionally we try, but the pressure to say something is strong, the desire to appear knowledgeable too tempting for us to hold our tongue for very long. Maybe he was right—whereon one does not know—and, who knows, maybe there would be fewer conflicts, inner and outer, if we chose silence over bullshit—thereon one must not speak—but we’ll never know for sure.

I’m a professor. This means I’m expected to know a few things, which I do. But whether society expects it or whether my own insecurities demand it, I don’t often chose silence when I don’t know something. I try to find something useful to say, or something clever, or at least I try to sound smart as I think out loud.

When I traveled to Guatemala to teach a workshop on Quaker testimonies I had been speaking Spanish for only one year. I had a lot to say about the topic, but I hadn’t packed enough words to say it.

“Everyone has something that trips them up. Anger. Fear. Something. What’s it for you?”

I stepped over a stack of books when I walked into the office and set my briefcase close to me on the sofa cluttered with magazines and papers. I had never been asked this in a job interview. I might have brushed it aside as inappropriate, but it was coming from the college’s president. “What trips you up?”

There were just the two of us and the sound of our gazing. “I don’t like to look incompetent in front of people,” I said.

I didn’t hesitate and it wasn’t a scripted response; I think I told him the truth. Thereon I knew, so thereon I spoke.

I never wanted to travel to Guatemala or Honduras. I wanted to see India or the Egyptian pyramids, or to kiss a complete stranger atop the Eiffel Tower. But after a reluctant trip to Central America with co-workers, I had become taken with Mesoamerica and just about everything latino, including Guatemala and the language of 350 million people.

I thought I would spend my first sabbatical in Europe breathing the musty air of a great university library writing an important book, or maybe backpacking through India studying ancient rituals and swimming in the murky sacred waters of the Ganges. But in February 2007 I was in Chiquimula, Guatemala, one year old in a new language and a sophomore in confidence.

La Iglesia Amigos Embajadores had invited me to speak to them about the “Quaker Testimonies,” core principles of Quaker faith and practice. I was eager to practice the Spanish I was learning, so I said yes without really considering whether it made sense to do this. I showed up with a stack of notes, my Langenscheidt Spanish dictionary, and an ego big enough for three people.

The church started to fill with workshop attendees from Chiquimula, then a van arrived with a dozen more who had driven all day from El Salvador. Not long after, a couple from Honduras walked in and took a seat. In the colleges where I’ve taught, some students found the dorms a time zone away from the classrooms. I was surprised these people were here to listen to my talk. As I made last minute preparations the attendees visited and made small talk. I overheard some of it but realized I wasn’t eavesdropping because I couldn’t understand most of what was being said.

The meeting room was a cavernous two-story space, wooden benches, tile floors, and not a stitch of cloth to absorb the echoes. Through the morning and into the afternoon the entire room was bright from sunlight that gushed through ten-foot tall open windows. But the sun was slipping behind the mountains as I was introduced and I took my place at the podium beneath the dull glow of florescence.

I’d given this talk a dozen times before—in English, no problema—but this time had to find another way to say familiar things. This alone was enough to cause me to think differently about my words. But on top of that my mouth vibrated through the entire talk, a sensual buzzing along the roof of my mouth and length of my tongue.

I have a friend whose Spanish is very good and we practice together from time to time. His Spanish is better than mine, but he sounds like a North Carolinian. There’s nothing wrong with sounding like a North Carolinian, especially if one was born there, like my friend. But Spanish has a kind of buzzing, vibrating, purring feeling if you let your mouth play with it. I likely sound more a mid-western boy trying to speak Spanish than I think I do—I’m not fooling anyone—but I try to let my tongue taste the language I am learning.

So, even though the ideas were familiar—this point leads to that one, and another comes in later—and although a lot of words were similar—testimonio, cuáqueros, expresión—it all felt different, each word reminded me that I was somewhere between everything I didn’t know.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full!” That’s good advice—whereon one does not know. I was talking with my mouth full and I could feel my cheeks swelling, stretching. I knew sooner or later my talk would be unintelligible and I would choke on my words.

La integridad, la igualdad, and la paz. Each of these testimonies was familiar to me, I had scribbled lecture notes to prove it, and three nations sat before me nodding in recognition, or politeness. Integrity. Yes. Equality. Of course. Peace. That’s who we are.

There is a fourth testimony, simplicity.

I had the Spanish translation of a 1927 statement from Philadelphia Quakers that I had wanted to read aloud: La verdadera sencillez consiste, no en el uso de formas particulares, sino en la privación del exceso de indulgencia, en mantener la humildad del espíritu… true simplicity, I wanted to tell them, was not a matter of certain kinds of forms but in limiting indulgent excess and maintaining a humble spirit.

I stopped.

I tried to say the word, but I couldn’t. I had used it before in another context—simplicidad—that was one word, another was, sencillez, both mean simplicity and neither is hard to say—sem-plee-cee-dad (accent on the last syllable); sain-see-YAAZ (double ll’s pronounced like a Y…or a J if you’re from Columbia or Argentina). I wasn’t sure which was best, so I planned to use both, like a walking thesaurus. But when I tried I couldn’t pronounce either. I just wanted to say a simple word simply. No purring R’s, nothing fancy. Simple. Simplicity itself. But my mouth was too full and the buzzing felt like a flaying live wire whipping back and forth. There was no room for anything but the one thing I didn’t want.

My face was hot and the front of my shirt was already dotted with blots of Rorschach sweat. Read the smudges: “What trips you up?”

I stammered trying to spit the words from my mouth. I wanted to teach my workshop, to leave and have everyone amazed at how much Spanish I had learned in a year. I wanted people to say: Mira, es casi latino! he’s almost Latino! I wanted more than anything to teach my first workshop in Spanish and not make an ass of myself. But I fell headlong into a stammering mess.

I saw my house back in the states—comfortable in Indiana—extravagant in Chiquimula. The weight of all the letters following my name felt like a string of pearls at a picnic. I felt the irony of a sabbatical, the economic privilege of time and money to travel and be with people who had neither the money nor the time to do the same.

I couldn’t hide, standing in front of three-dozen people, each one willing to help me find the words I needed. I needed to end the talk and get out of there. The longer I spoke the more obvious it was that I was working with a limited palate of words, repeating them in a fashion to make my point but unable to take us as deep as I wanted us to go.  It was best to come clean and to confess that I was falling apart—I wasn’t fooling anyone.

“I don’t know what to say,” and I told them that I was feeling embarrassed, guilty, that I had nothing more to say, and couldn’t finish the talk. I’d never done this before, even when, years ago, irate with class, I had too much to say that I walked out of the room leaving them confused until the next week.

Qué pasó? I heard someone ask.

“What’s wrong?” I looked at the floor and mumbled about how I had come from a wealthy and materialistic country, that’s ‘what’s wrong!’ I knew nothing about their lives, that’s ‘qué pasó!” I had no business talking to them about anything, much less about sencillez. I don’t know whether they had ever witnessed someone crumble before their eyes under the collective weight of their gringo life, but that’s what they got when they invited me to speak.

“Just tell the truth, hermano,” I heard a woman say.

“I don’t know what that is,” I said.

“I have no idea what the truth is.”

The enormity of the room collapsed, the air was gone, and we were all squeezed into a shoebox. But in the box echoed, “I don’t know…I have no idea.” Still looking at the floor I added that I felt like un mentiroso y un mendigo, a liar and a beggar.

Thereon I knew.

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Constructive Theology  (August & Fall)

Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of this World for Crucifixion & Empire. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009. (0807067547)

Serene Jones & Paul Lakeland, eds., Constructive Theology: a Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2005. (0-8006-3683-x)

George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion & Theology in a Postliberal Age. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2009. (0-664-23335-x)

Jeorg Rieger, God and the Excluded: Visions & Blindspots in Contemporary Theology. Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress Press, 2001.  (0-800-6325-40)

PLUS: Each student must select one theological text from his/her own confessional communion (Methodist, Quaker, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, et al.) This book should be a representative work in his/her tradition.

Introduction to Theological Reflection (Fall online; Spring on campus)

S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: a Theology of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2006.  (0802832156)

Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God. New York: Continuum, 2007.  (0826417701)

Catherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.  (0800662768)

Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids. MI: Eerdmans, 2004.  (080282787X)

Donald Musser and Joseph L. Price, eds., New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology.  New and Enlarged Edition.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.  (0687091128)

Jeorg Rieger, Remember the Poor: the Challenge to Theology in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Continuum, 1998.  (1563382563)

Comprehensive Seminar (year-long online)

Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003. (0745624898)

Eddie Gibbs, Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005. (0801027152)

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