Gil Rendle – Journey in the Wilderness

We will be reading Gil Rendle’s book Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches here in the North District next month. It is well worth reading for all of us in the United Methodist Church who desire to see change – change in the direction toward greater faithfulness and fruitfulness in fulfilling our commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

My students have been trained to think that seeing lots of red ink on their papers is a bad thing. I tell them otherwise. When they see lots of red on papers I return to them it often means that they have written something interesting that has spurred me to thinking. It may be that they are entirely wrong in what they write – but they  are wrong in interesting ways, and thus may get a better grade than someone who is boringly correct.

Rendle’s book is not boringly correct. I found not only much of value, but also much to argue with. In this post I’m starting a series on arguments and questions raised by my reading of Rendle.

Rendle says:

The choice for the church is not which of the languages (the language of the church or the multiple languages of other disciplines of the culture) is correct. This is not a moment to examine the postures of Christ for or against culture. For the church to stand against North American culture using only an interior language that is understood only by itself is to be dismissed as irrelevant by a people who search for meaning and a connection with God wherever they can be found. Conversely, to stand only with the culture is to be captured by values and practices not necessarily of the faith. Indeed the challenge now is not either/or but both/and.

Both/and what? This is one place where Lindbeck’s cultural linguistic model of the nature of doctrine breaks down. The neat thing about a language is that one can say many, many things in any language. We can argue and contradict others – and ourselves – all day long and language never utters a protest. Language qua language is neither true nor false. Though Lindbeck and the post-liberal school is correct that Christianity has some similarity to a language, and so Rendle can helpfully speak of the “language of the church,” the church is more than a language. The church is a fellowship of people, engaged in particular practices in the course of inhabiting a particular narrative through time (and toward eternity).

When we look at the languages of the world we see some that relate benignly to the Christian story, and others that set themselves contrary to it. As we continue the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church, we find ourselves as variance with the competing stories of consumerism and eroticism. We cannot take the logic of life in Christ and the logic of self-definition through acquisition and possession as compatible. Adopting the worldly (i.e., non-Christian) stories of acquisition through adopting marketing toward “felt needs” is not something that can be done smoothly. “Felt needs” will need critiquing in the light of the Gospel of Jesus.

Thus we must submit to be judged irrelevant by the world and the stories it tells. The church does not exist to help people live safe, secure, care-free lives with their ever happy families. We do not exist to make the world democratic and American. We do not exist to sanction every relationship people feel they need to make.

People around us are looking for “meaning.” Well, at least some of them. Rendle is right. But our calling is neither to give them meaning nor to help them find meaning – taken in an abstract sense. Our commission is to offer then Jesus, to help them find their meaning in him, not just in anything that might give them feelings of satisfaction.

At the same time, I am not a fideist, thinking there is no connection of any sort between the Christian story and the stories of the world. We find connection in several places. Rather than describing those connections in supposedly universal terms, I’ll start with theology.

Christians and non-Christians are alike creatures, humans made in the image of God. The stories we inhabit play themselves out within creation (though many stories of the world deny that there is a creation, admitting only nature). Because by our own account even non-Christian (and anti-Christian) stories are played out within creation, no story can be totally detached from God (even if it takes itself to be so). In the same way, we take God to be unafraid of any of these competing stories. God is not reluctant to invade them from time to time, never leaving them entirely autonomous, even, again, if they take themselves to be so.

Secondly, each of us Christians inhabit multiple stories, multiple communities. Our primary allegiance is to Jesus and his kingdom, but that allegiance does not entail non-participation in every other story. Other stories have varying levels of incompatibility with the Jesus story, some having great compatibility, others little or no compatibility. As we inhabit these secondary and tertiary stories, we do so with at least some people who give no allegiance to Jesus. We are in relationship with them. Within these stories, we encounter strong and weak ends. Some stories, the story of a family, for instance, might only have weak ends. (By weak ends, I mean that there are nearly innumerable ways for those ends to be fulfilled.) Other stories, particularly those of the institutions we call “practices” have strong ends, with more narrowly conceived ends.

Third, creation is bigger than the phenomenon we call Christianity. As Christians there is much for us to learn, and we can learn from practices (and their stories) even when those practices and stories are in no way specifically Christian. While this is true, we cannot forget that one dimension of the salvation wrought by Jesus, is the healing of creation itself. Because creation is in someway broken, and our interface with creation broken also, we cannot always make easy and direct connections between practices outside the faith and our life within the faith.

One of the features of modern science is that all its deliverances are taken to be correctable and replaceable. Later science might show current science to be mistaken, and in need of change. Modernity has commonly differentiated itself from faith (and in this differentiation it is usually the Christian faith it has in view) as being more rational because it takes nothing as uncorrectable or infallible, always willing to go wherever truth might lead. There have been Christians who have submitted to this universalistic claim of modern science, willing to change the faith as science requires.

But again, things aren’t quite so simple. Science is not just a system of truths (or facts) laid out in order. It also includes a system of generalizations, values, and assumptions. Many of these are simply beyond proof and are not open for discussion. For example, is the commitment to taking its findings as correctable and replaceable itself correctable and replaceable? Or taken to be such? From what I’ve seen, not usually. This conviction is, instead, taken as constitutive of the very nature of science.

In the same way, some features are constitutive of the Christian faith. They cannot be changed or adapted. They are taken to be infallible in the sense that if they are discarded or changed we no longer have Christianity but something else. Our interaction with other stories, whether science (one kind of story or discipline) or Islam (a very different kind of story), gives us reason to examine that which we consider essential to the faith. We say, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” That’s a nice saying representing an ideal practice. The difficulty is that we rarely agree on which features of the faith to put into which category. Our interaction with neighboring communities, practices and stories gives us occasion to examine how we sort the features into these categories.

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