Red Letter Christianity, Black Letter Epistle-anity, or Whole-Canon Spirituality?

Frank Viola pointed to Leonard Sweet’s Napkin Scribbles podcast awhile back, where Sweet explains why he won’t join Red Letter Christians or The Beatitudes Society. Frank asks what we think of Len’s reasons, which you can (and should, for the purposes of this post) listen to here. This is what I think.

I appreciate what Sweet’s saying here about the sometimes-seeming arbitrariness of exalting one portion of Scripture over & above others – for instance, many Reformed Christians seem to exalt the Old Testament to the exclusion of the New Testament altogether! But the flip-side of this observation is that we all do it – whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have our “canon within the canon” to which we afford pride of place. Sweet himself does this when he, after noting that “Red Letters” are themselves an outdated metaphor, then launches into how Paul seemed to care very little about the historical teachings of Jesus. I happen to agree with this assertion, but so what?

Using the “all Scripture is God-breathed” lens that he introduces as his hermeneutic, why should we care what Paul did or did not emphasize if we ought to be…I dunno what Sweet might call us…Whole-Canon Christians? The very existence of the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels would make the teachings of Jesus important, regardless of whatever is or isn’t found in Paul. (And of course, conversely, it would make Paul’s perspectives and understandings important, regardless of what is or isn’t in the Gospels) In short: I like his avoiding the ditch that could characterize some contemporary social justice emphasizing Christians, but I’m not yet convinced that he wouldn’t steer us into the opposite ditch of reading the Epistles to the exclusion of the Gospels – the ditch that the worst excesses of Protestantism has been steering us in for 400 years.

Why do we vacillate from ditch to ditch? Let me offer a possible reason, speaking as a very young Gen-Xer (born in the last years that it’s acceptable to be an X-er, but I’m rather out of place as a Millennial) who has deep sympathies with the theologies that make my friends Sweet and Viola nervous: The reason why groups like The Beatitudes Society seem to be more focused on following Jesus rather than believing in Jesus is because we, generationally, have significant doubts about the kind of world has been left in the wake of “believing in Jesus.” Even if Jesus’ teaching is simply a re-assertion and universalizing of core Judaic values (or indeed, an ethical core at the center of all the great world religions), these are values that we feel the world is out of touch with, and desperately needs. If the Church had followed the Sermon on the Mount instead of  canon law reflecting Christendom-Empire values, would we see the massive devaluation of human, animal, and ecological life that runs rampant today?

For many in my generation, an over-emphasis of the metaphysics of Paul’s Epistles seems to have created a world where ‘spiritual’ salvation is divorced from practical change, where the state of one’s soul seems to have little bearing on the way we treat one another. Nowadays we distrust metaphysics in general – too much talk of God (even in church!) makes us nervous. A dear friend of mine recently asked me wistfully, “Couldn’t we love another another, serve one another, sing, eat together, even pray and meditate, without God? ‘God’ seems to have caused so much pain, and so many problems, in our lives.”

Focusing on the beatitudes, justice and morality of Jesus might indeed be lowest-common-denominator stuff compared to the semiotic actions, signs and wonders, symbol-laden death, vindicating resurrection, astonishing ascension, and (allegedly) transforming indwelling of Jesus the Christ, but for many bewildered Christians of the Red Letter ilk, starting over from square one with the Son of Man seems not only the sanest course of action, but the only viable alternative we have, facing conceptual-metaphysical burnout. Just give us something to do, please, and don’t tell us we have to believe anything.

And yet, having swam in such waters for the past 3-5 years, I have to confess that this perspective is bankrupt, damaging, and most certainly not sustainable. I do not say this as a judgmental outsider, but a sympathetic insider. I love me some deconstruction, some Caputo, Kearney, and Rollins; if given a desert island Bonhoeffer choice, I’ll take Letters and Papers from Prison with it’s death-row-conceived Religion-less Christianity over the bright-eyed idealism of The Cost of Discipleship any day. Give me divine mystery, holy opacity, the via negativa and apophatic mysticism. Revelation conceals as much as it reveals, and I think such a perspective is a healthy corrective of overly-positivist, modernist articulations of Christianity, where there’s a 1:1 correlation to what we imagine to be true and What Exists.

Still – a human life and human faith cannot be nourished in the long term from wholly deconstructive faith paired with righteous activism. We’ll become burned-out husks, without an epistemological web of meaning to rest in. Further, the culture at large, while suspicious of metanarratives, craves a larger meaning-making story to situate ourselves in. It can’t be a contemporvant version of What’s Come Before, but needs to be a deeply-rooted yet wide-open faith, with the human and divine Christ at the center. And I stand by what I said in June – Sweet and Viola’s work is a crucial, needed, and important Evangelical contribution to the re-enchantment and re-faithing that must happen in the next 10 years if Christianity is to be transfigured.

It seems obvious that – given the very real ecological and humanitarian crises (as well as opportunities) that face us, things we need to act on immediately if we are to survive as a species and a culture – we all need each other. It doesn’t do to dismiss Red Letter Christians only to over-correct in a “Paul Only” Protestant throwback. We need a recovery of the mystical, the positional, and the activist dimensions of faith; we need a gospel that is Good News for the cosmos; we need Sweet and McLaren (and Boff, for that matter, not to mention the scores of unsung women theologians and leaders who truly make up half the sky); we need the same kind of risk-taking taken with early, transgressive works like Quantum Spirituality, and drawing on voices like Brian Swimme, Tim King, Ken Wilber, Cynthia BourgeaultMichael Dowd, the late Thomas Berry, and Bruce Sanguin. We might not agree with everything these folks are saying and doing, but they’re out there, interaction with the questions and crises that people are facing today, as well as addressing the perennial questions of humanity’s search for meaning. Since when is 100% agreement the prerequisite for operating in grace? At what point did we begin thinking that any of our factions could compass an infinite God? Is the idea of a generous orthodoxy so hopelessly early 2000s? As Tim King says, we all need to come together at the intersection of mystery and humility.

All hands on deck, ladies and gentlemen. Spaceship Earth is in for some rough turbulence in the decades ahead – materially, spiritually, kosmically. We need a coordinated effort, not a spitting contest between so-called orthodox, so-called heretics, and everything in between. We’ll need the wisdom of crowds, the nerve of leaders, and the collaboration of every domain of knowledge – as well as its transcendence. Are you with me?

38 Responses to “Red Letter Christianity, Black Letter Epistle-anity, or Whole-Canon Spirituality?”

  1. 1 Ryan November 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    “so what?”
    You mean, besides the fact that it’s very much the Marcion heresy?

    I’ve heard this argument towards Red Letter Christians before. I’m not discrediting the argument, it’s a pretty serious point- if Campolo and others are indeed valuing the words of Jesus above the rest of the Bible, we have a problem, especially since everything Jesus says is based on the Old Testament. A justification I heard is that Red Letter Christians use Jesus’ words more as a lens to read all of Scripture- sort of like a friend telling you about a story and how it ends, before you even start the book. I might be okay with that. Indeed, then we would only be discussing the lens through which Red Letter Christians read the Scripture, which eliminates any sort of Marcion heresy.

    Fortunately, Tony Campolo will be teaching a course this January at Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia entitle “Theology and Ethics of Red Letter Christians”. I’m sure this topic will come up.

  2. 2 george November 22, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    bro. loved the piece. it sounds like a labor of love. i think you’re on to something. i think it is both. i think it means we have to come at this from the parallax and begin to entrench ourselves in discourse that is iscribed by activism but not just for the sake of it. and it does seem at times we inherently do either or for the sake of it. i also love the question, which i think could be a banner to be the impetus for discussion: “Since when is 100% agreement the prerequisite for operating in grace?” –> how do you propose we start?

  3. 3 tana November 22, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    I’m totally with you. I agree that we are in for some turbulent times. This requirement that some have that we all agree, 100%, is very tribal and we need, together, to move forward – past that mentality. Why? So that we can LISTEN to each other.

    So, to answer George’s question above: “How do you propose we start?” I propose we start by keeping quiet and opening our ears and our hearts. We start by keeping our egos and fear in check which means some serious self-work alongside this community work. It requires seeing Christ in all persons and then treating them that way. It requires, dare I say, a bit of mysticism and a whole truckload of trust. Not trust in each other, but trust in God throughout the process and then, eventually, we’ll trust each other more and more.

  4. 4 Herbert Roy George November 22, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    appreciate the writer’s intent but wondering how he will interpret Mat 25:40 – shud it have been ‘whatever you do to anyone you have done unto me ‘ ?

  5. 5 Jeff November 22, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    I am not as well read as the author or many reading this post. However, I do believe that a significant concept is missing, the Sovereignty of God. The author points out many issues and crises that we face.
    The truth is mankind has been facing crises from creation. Because of today’s media, we are much more aware of what is going on in the world and the universe. We are frightened by everything we see. The question is “where is God in all this”? The answer is the same place He has always been and will always be, on the throne and holding all things together until His appointed time.
    We don’t know what the future will bring. We have a responsibility of stewardship with what God has given us. However, we have a greater responsibility to preach the kingdom of God. If this is not our focus, then our works will eventually be burned up like all of what we see around us.
    By the way, there have been enough incidents of exaggeration and outright deception by scientists today (i.e. the global warming hysteria) to make me skeptical of any call for drastic action without proper scrutiny of the science. Scientists are people and as such have biases themselves. We as truth seekers need to be diligent to “test every idea” and make sure it passes the truth test.

  6. 6 Sean Witty November 22, 2010 at 7:14 pm


    Your diagnosis and call to action marked by humility and civility is timely and needed, especially your emphasis on including voices from the margins. However, I am inclined to argue for a greater urgency than you imply and a greater awareness of internal resistance which requires greater emphasis on (1) voices from the margins and (2) awakening to fundamental flaws embedded into the contemporary church and conventional theology. There is still so much more to be gained from (to name one project) post-structuralism, for instance, which will be central to the exciting reimagining of Christianity we are privileged to play a small part of. Let the deconstruction continue.

  7. 7 George November 22, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    Sean: Great point. One project I am working on myself is called Post-Structuralist Christianity. I think there is a definitely a much needed space for hybridity, and I hear that in Mike’s offer here, I include in the reverse-margins such things as continental philosophy and other important subjects that tend to get overlooked. We need anything and everything we can get our hands on, for me, we can’t keep creating the same thing over and over. I find a distinct different between christianity and the kingdom of god. and i think there is much hope for insurgence of the latter.

  8. 8 Donnie November 22, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    To me it is not so much which text we chose to emphasize, Red Letter vs. Epistle or even Hebrew Scriptures for that matter, but how we read that text. Interestingly enough, a clue to the best way to do that might be found in the Red Letters themselves and the incredible freedom and creativity with which Jesus handles, alludes to, references and riffs off of texts and once we see that it becomes easier to see how Paul, in the best traditions of the ironic and quizzical rabbinical style, is doing the same. So to your list of thinkers and theologians we need to be engaged with I would add James Alison to whom I owe this perspective and who not only points it out but also demonstrates it himself in his writing and the way he handles texts. He particularly brings out Jesus reading of Scripture in several essays from his latest book “Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal” some of which are available on his website I am contrarian enough to enjoy deconstruction but conservative enough to like seeing it done from a position that is thoroughly grounded in the tradition, particularly when the deconstruction is done by someone saying, “No no, you’re not reading that conservatively enough?”

    This approach in all of it’s theological, interpretive and even contemplative implications is one of the things that has energized my faith recently, especially the insight that Jesus was actually undoing the ‘sacred’ from within and that God isn’t about scapegoating and exclusion. That means that grace is big enough for us to get it wrong sometimes which is good, because we certainly will. As Alison says, “This being shaken up as part of being saved means that we can be un-preoccupied about being wrong! Part of the joy of belief in the infallibility of the salvation with which God is gifting the Church is not having to hold too tightly to any notion of us getting it right, but rather being aware that we are being taken on the rollercoaster of it being got right by someone other than ourselves, with occasional contributions from us, and sometimes despite what seems to us to be our better judgment. This is because the One who is getting it right loves us, and is getting through to us in ways which we don’t at first understand, ways which it takes time for us to be able to grasp as being for our benefit. But we have been found, and can trust that we will get to understand, and it will make sense – in fact, that we will be taken into all truth even in the midst of all our rows and disagreements.” Or as Paul puts it, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

    Since God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control, may we all have the courage and faith to be what Cornel West calls a Jazz Christian and the self-control not to run each other down while we riff together in the key of love. So to answer your question: Amen, brother! Yes, I’m with you. Let’s jam!

  9. 9 jspiers November 22, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    On the button again, Mike, as you often are. As someone approaching emergent Christianity from the Apostolic faith, I find myself often struggling over which portions of the tradition are worth saving, which are invaluable to me, which must be discarded. This is true of theology, doctrine, and practice as well. I find excellent ideas and dare I say, Truth, in the words of many authors you have mentioned, both more and less traditional, more and less socially active, more and less orthodox.

    Keep up the good writing!

  10. 10 John L November 22, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    “revelation conceals as much as it reveals,”

    As Morris Kline wrote “The lesson of history is that our firmest convictions are not to be asserted dogmatically; in fact they should be most suspect; they mark not our conquests but our limitations and our bounds.”

    Good post, Mike.

  11. 11 johnboy November 22, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    re: We need a recovery of the mystical, the positional, and the activist dimensions of faith; we need a gospel that is Good News for the cosmos. … … We’ll need the wisdom of crowds, the nerve of leaders, and the collaboration of every domain of knowledge – as well as its transcendence. Are you with me?


    I like your juxtaposition of collaboration and transcendence, Mike. It speaks to some critical distinctions that come into play in the life of faith.

    Religion does have something to bring to the table that science, culture and philosophy cannot offer. It does have value-added contributions to make that are informative, transformative and performative.

    Religion is informative but not because it competes with science in an attempt to describe reality. Rather, it collaborates with and then transcends science in an attempt to interpret reality.

    Religion is transformative but not because it competes with culture in an attempt to evaluate reality vis a vis its extrinsic rewards. Rather, it collaborates with and then transcends culture in realizing reality’s intrinsic rewards.

    Religion is performative but not because it competes with philosophy in an attempt to norm reality, morally and practically. Rather, it collaborates with and then transcends philosophy with an invitation to be in love.

    Belonging to an interpretive community, formatively, generally will precede desiring, transformatively, which will precede behaving, performatively, which will precede believing, informatively. This is only to recognize that belonging and desiring typically enjoy a certain primacy in the life of faith over behaving and believing. Otherwise, belonging, desiring, behaving and believing are a seamless garment, not to be rent. And behaving and believing do not exist in tension, as if one did not necessarily presuppose the other.

    Again, I affirm what you say regarding the mystical, the positional, and the activist dimensions of faith. These dimensions must remain integrally related. The first rub is that they haven’t been properly integrated as various over- and under-emphases have us swerving into different ditches. And here’s the next rub. While these faith dimensions must collaborate — transformatively, informatively and performatively — with culture, science and philosophy, instead, too many are placing these dimensions in competition rather than collaboration.

    And there is yet another rub. Too many who well know how to properly collaborate do not at all get transcendence. With the Good News thus co-opted, the Gospel brand then enjoys no differentiation in the marketplace. This is not to say that Scripture doesn’t have both literal and moral senses but it is to suggest that personal morality and social justice are already transparent to human reason without the benefit of special revelation, ergo they must not be the most important take-away, hence neither Christianity’s core mission nor core competency.

    Our horizon of concern must go beyond the empirical, moral, practical and political to the robustly relational. It must be anarchical, in the sense of being trans-arch-ical, in taking us beyond the political “establish-ment” of morality, justice and social order to the communal “enjoy-ment” of mercy, forgiveness and being in love.

    For concrete examples: So it is that our Just War Principles must never be considered a theoretical capitulation away from Gospel values but are, merely, a pastoral and practical accommodation to human weakness. The authentic Gospel response remains pacifism, without nuance. Similarly, we may never identify one economic market system or political order as Gospel-sanctioned over other alternatives, for they are naught but necessary evils even in their most exalted expressions. Tillich once lamented how the word ‘faith’ had lost its true meaning. The word ‘religion’ has met a similar fate. Nowadays, it seems to mean political affiliation.

  12. 12 Ted November 22, 2010 at 10:29 pm


    I’m going to tell you how much I enjoyed and appreciated this post, and I’m going to praise you for being brave enough to say some very important things. I will probably try to offer some mushy and/or friendly platitudes, too, so that you don’t think I’m some kind of theological blowhard.

    But I’m also going to point out that you didn’t hit upon My Pet Theological Concept. And this is too bad, because it’s really My Pet Theological Concept that makes sense of all this. The reasons we might question Sweet or the Red Letter Jesus types or the Beatitude is not for the reasons you describe, but really because they haven’t signed on to My Pet Theological Concept.

    I’ll blather on about My Pet Theological Concept for a bit, and toss out My Favorite Prooftext, too, just for good measure.

    I then I’ll sign off with something appropriately spiritual-sounding.


  13. 13 Joel November 23, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    “Are you with me?”

    Short Answer: No.

    Long Answer: How can I be with you when I believe metaphysics to be foundational to Christianity? The REASON for acting, for doing, has its origins in the metaphysics. Likewise, how can I value the words of Jesus over the words of Paul or even Moses when I ardently believe the Holy Spirit guided all three in what they wrote/said? This is asking me to abandon a belief that has been held for 2,000 years by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants (showing the belief has, at the very least, been entrenched, so it’s not some “Protestant belief”).

    Furthermore, leaning on some of your other posts, how can I join up with someone who denies the dual nature of man? Especially when this has massive ramifications on our relationship to God and the Incarnation (meaning the Incarnation isn’t really that big of a deal, because there aren’t two substances, only one substance, which is a heresy).

    I agree that there is too much that divides us, but the solution isn’t to shuck anything we see as divisive or to seek ecumenicalism for the sake of ecumenicalism. Christianity will survive the coming times, no matter what. To assert that it wouldn’t is incredibly ethnocentric, to think that the cultural change we’re facing now is the greatest change humanity has ever faced displays our generational narcissism quite well. Christianity has existed in a multitude of cultures and has faced massive changes – yet it’s survived, intact, and relatively unchanged. While others have left and embraced the philosophies of this world, others have stood fast to the philosophy of Christ.

    The solution is to find that ribbon of faith that has remained unchanged, that has survived heresy, and to latch onto that ribbon.

    So, can I join you in what you’re calling for? No, I can’t, because many of the beliefs you hold are outside the realm of what has been handed down by great men and women. It’s outside of what God Himself has said. If you want to go get coffee, not a problem. Want to watch a movie, let’s go. Want to go out to eat, pick the place (preferably local). None of this means we can’t be friendly towards each other, but it does mean that we can’t move in the same direction, at least on this issue (and it’s quite the issue).

  14. 14 zoecarnate November 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    Hey Joel,

    I think you might be mis-reading me if you think I’m advocating ‘red letter Christianity’ as such, or swinging the pendulum in some other direction.

    Read again.

  15. 15 Larry November 23, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    It seems to me you and Leonard Sweet aren’t actually all that far apart. In part because I don’t believe he was in referencing Paul was doing what you think he was doing. Paul is a witness, not a proof-text. His point is consistent with the structure of the four Gospels, Jesus’s life and teaching lead him to the Cross, it all makes sense only in Resurrection and Ascension.

    Also, it seems to me that Red Letter and Beatitude Society are both about still about the sort of “orthodoxy” you are objecting to while Sweet is about a different sort of “orthodoxy” one I can find little reason to object to. Sure it sounds like fundamentalism and head in the hole pietism, but it ain’t that. Sweet may be many things but he ain’t an escapist. and Pietism isn’t in truth escapist and quietist. such piety was never truly pious.

    In all places and times and for all christians, Christianity comes down to this what will you do with Jesus of Nazareth, this figure who by all rights should have passed into the obscurity of his first century Palestine, just another failed teacher and revolutionary. Yet, astonishingly and improbably Jesus of Nazareth is worshiped as a crucified criminal. I have to say that Sweets point about the teachings of Jesus alone as not cutting it have a force of credibility that isn’t about Evidence that Demands a Verdict or other highly modernist formulas of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. He’s talking about faith that is neither activist nor quitist, in my opinion. Or at least that is what I heard.

    What he is saying is that Christ is the hermeneutic, not as a teacher or philosopher or revolutionary, but As The God-Human, the one who is the Justice and Righteousness of God (it is unfortunate I have to say both that to us righteousness no longer means justice and that justice to us no longer means righteousness), who is the Word of God made flesh. This is the one that will reconcile us, this is the hope of our chaotic world, this Christ, not ourselves, not our activism, and not our coming together around some teachings.

    It is our tragedy that American Religion has made belief in Christ as saviour and God in human flesh to be a quietist escapist as long as I said the prayer I can do as I please sort of religion, and if you believe faith has meaning for a tangible world you have to abandon orthodox belief about Jesus Christ, and just focus on Jesus being a teacher. Sweet is attempting to address that dichotomy which is simply put false, both sides deny the truth and power of Christian faith.

    Sweet is right not to join these groups. He is right to call into questions the assumptions, which you are also questioning. Keep it up but really there may not be a universal solution to our predicament, and to call into question is not necessarily to condemn. I think his position and words in the podcast are very gracious.

  16. 16 Ted November 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    “The solution is to find that ribbon of faith that has remained unchanged, that has survived heresy, and to latch onto that ribbon.”

    Which you’ll find under the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But come prepared; you can only get there by riding on a unicorn.

  17. 18 Joel November 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm


    I was using it as an example – how can I find common ground with someone (such a people who adhere to Red Letter Christianity) when they’re denying a very basic concept in Christianity?

    Or, how can I “come together” with someone who denies the Incarnation or the dual natures of Christ?

    That’s the point I was making – there are boundaries in doctrine, so much so that in terms of who I work with on certain issues is limited. From the perspective of someone who is orthodox (though this might be a shocking statement), why would I work with someone in helping to save the world when I believe the beliefs the someone holds only entrap the world further? Why coordinate to survive the “coming turbulence” when I believe that some of these people (some of the ones you mentioned) are part of the turbulence?

    Again, none of this means I won’t be friendly or, more importantly, won’t be a friend. But it does mean that I’m limited in how I can work with some people.

  18. 19 Joel November 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm


    I would rather embrace a faith that tells me there’s a pot of gold under the rainbow, accessible only by a unicorn, than to embrace a faith that is confused and defeated by the philosophies of the world. The former sounds far more exciting, and plausible.

    Just because there have been disagreements doesn’t mean that ribbon hasn’t existed. Just because there hasn’t been uniformity on auxiliary issues doesn’t mean uniformity is lacking on essential issues.

  19. 20 Ted November 23, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    At least you’re honest.

  20. 21 zoecarnate November 23, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    Joel, are you saying that I deny the Incarnation, or full humanity & divinity of Christ? ‘Cause I don’t…I’m really keen on both of these ideas (or doctrines, if you prefer) – they form a core part of my spirituality and ethos. Now, a philosophically smart guy like you could probably tell me how other things I espouse (regarding nondualism or panentheism, I’ll bet) contradict these historic beliefs of the Church – let me have it! But insofar as my muddled mind lets things hang together, I’m all about some Incarnation and paradoxical hypostasis, or what have you. 🙂

    As far as the Red Letters thing – c’mon! Tony Campolo & Co. aren’t reverse-Marcionites or anything. Only a surface-y half-reading of their impetus would lead one to such ‘disfellowshipping’ rhetoric. I might think they’re cutting themselves off from some vital material by under-emphasis (as Sweet apparently thinks too), but I don’t think they’re taking scissors to their Bibles, Jefferson-style.

    Larry, good food for thought. I don’t think that Sweet was being particularly ungracious, and I hope I was clear about the areas in which I agree with him. (And you’re right, re: Pietism historically understood. I do think there are neuvo-pietists out there, though – and I don’t consider Viola & Sweet among them – who represent the most shallow Jesus-is-my-boyfriend kind of sentimental tripe out there. But this isn’t to deny the rich treasury of mystical and even erotic hymnody and poetry concerning Christ and Bride as Lover and Beloved – there’s something beautiful about each tradition – including apophatic deconstruction – and I just wish that, instead of comparing one’s best to another’s worst, we could celebrate the best in all of our visions of God in Christ.

  21. 22 Joel November 23, 2010 at 5:40 pm


    Don’t take it so personally my friend. 🙂

    I wasn’t saying you deny the Incarnation (though, I will admit, your non-dualist perspective inevitably leads to a denial of the Incarnation, but we can talk about that when I move to North Carolina…if you’re still there then…if you’re even there now). I’m asking what about those that do? How can I work with those that do deny it? The Trinity and Incarnation are foundational to the Christian faith. If one implicitly denies it (by redefining what they mean) or explicitly denies these beliefs, how can I work with them with any depth when I see their denial as part of the problem? Again, not saying this is you, but I’m asking about others.

    As for Campolo, I’m not saying we should “disfellowship” them (I hate the term ‘fellowship,’ not sure why though) or that I would. I’m saying that on certain issues I can’t work with them. Let me put it this way – if I were a priest, they couldn’t have communion. They could attend, they would go to Heaven, but communion says that on the essentials and beliefs that flow from the essentials, we agree. But to approach Scripture with a hierarchy, saying one part is more inspired than another, unintentionally subverts Christianity in general. The only reason one would do this is if one has bought into the philosophies of the world, which is silly to begin with.

    Again, not saying I wouldn’t help them on issues, especially Campolo. If he asked me to go with him to Africa to help orphans with HIV (and assuming some kind of funding was put in place, considering I’m poor), I’d go. But if he asked me to help found a church with him or write a theological treatise, I couldn’t do it.

    Does that make more sense of where I’m coming from?

    • 23 tana November 23, 2010 at 8:16 pm

      Again, not saying I wouldn’t help them on issues, especially Campolo. If he asked me to go with him to Africa to help orphans with HIV (and assuming some kind of funding was put in place, considering I’m poor), I’d go. But if he asked me to help found a church with him or write a theological treatise, I couldn’t do it.

      Wouldn’t you agree that the most important thing is being done in this?

      I’m finally at a place where I can ask the following question of someone who holds more orthodox beliefs than I do. The question is this: if I do not hold to the same orthodox beliefs regarding the Trinity and/or Incarnation as others (and it’s recently occurred to me that no one has ever engaged in conversation with me about why, only to tell me that I’m wrong/doomed/hell-bound/heretical) as you, can you help me understand why exactly it is that this denial, very personal in nature, is part of the larger, community-driven problem? I guess I’m failing to see how it matters whether or not I personally believe in say, the Trinity, when we’re working side by side in the ditches of life, trying to spread the love of God and live in the Kingdom of God.

      Perhaps I’m assuming too much about our goals, assuming they are more similar than they are. ? I don’t know.

      • 24 Joel November 24, 2010 at 5:39 pm

        I find that it’s simply better to teach what the Trinity and Incarnation mean, both on a theological level and then on a practical level. If you do deny the Trinity or the Incarnation as it’s been taught for 2,000 years (it’s not just what I believe, it’s what has been believed consistently for quite some time), then yes, you’re wrong…but I also don’t believe beating you over the head saying, “You’re wrong!” is going to accomplish anything.

        As for working in the trenches, define what the trenches are. I see the problems of the world as both physical and spiritual. While we might work together on alleviating the physical ailments of the world, we can’t work together on fixing the spiritual ailments (and often the two are tied together). We can work with orphans in Africa together to feed them, but the ultimate solution is helping the local population to understand the ramifications of sin and how sin can cause massive problems. The other horn to the solution is to educate Americans on sin (especially the sin of greed, which is inherent within Capitalism) and how this causes us to harm people from other nations. But these are spiritual problems that can only have an end solution in Christ.

        Do keep in mind that not all people who hold to orthodox beliefs are Palin-loving, Bible-toting, Liberty University graduates. 🙂

  22. 25 johnboy November 23, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    re: your non-dualist perspective inevitably leads to a denial of the Incarnation, but we can talk about that when I move to North Carolina


    • 26 tana November 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm

      I agree with everything you said in response to me. I actually think we could work together on the spiritual problems of the world. We might just work more ardently on different areas which I don’t find to be a negative thing.

      And I know that not all orthodox-believing folks are “Palin-loving, Bible-toting, Liberty U. grads” and THOSE are the orthodox people I most want to act as iron to my iron, so I appreciate your willingness to engage in this discussion with me, in particular.

      • 27 Joel November 25, 2010 at 6:45 pm

        Thank you for your open-spirit. I honestly believe that things will always divide us (“us” being a universal “us,” as in the human race), but openness is the solution. An openness to willingly listen and dialogue and even approach a subject with the idea of, “I could be wrong on this.”

        That’s something everyone, regardless of ideology, could really bring to the table.

  23. 28 johnboy November 24, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    re: non-dualist

    The concept suffers a lot of ambiguity. It can refer to an approach to reality, an experience of reality or a model of reality.

    As an approach to reality, epistemologically, the nondual can refer to psychological processes like sensation & perception and emotion & motivation that govern raw awareness prior to abstraction (conceptualization), reasoning (inference), judgment and action. It also refers to an approach to reality that is robustly relational (the way we reunite with a loved one as they get off the train at Thanksgiving) and not otherwise involved in problem-solving (empirical, logical, moral or practical, iow, like doing a physics problem re: locomotives).

    As an experience of reality, phenomenologically, the nondual can refer to unitive mystical realizations, which convey a profound sense of the interconnectedness of all reality.

    In neither of the above cases are we talking about another way of interpreting or processing reality to gain cognitive insights via discursive analysis. Rather, these are different ways of seeing and experiencing reality in the service of a more authentic awareness via affective cleansing (e.g. emotional detachment) and conceptual clarity (e.g. Perhaps I should first disambiguate the concept, nondual?).

    In neither case, then, are we talking about an ontology, or a model of reality. We are talking about existential realizations and not philosophical arguments. This can often be true not only for those in the West, who take up certain ascetical disciplines, but also for many in the East, who are gifting us more so with practices and not necessarily conclusions, who are offering us an invitation into an experience and not an initiation into a philosophical system. We might better receive what seem to be their metaphysical assertions as epistemic stances or what seem to be their ontological descriptions as more so a relating of phenomenal experiences. After all, there is no room to presume that folks — who, self-described, would kill the Buddha — are returning from ineffable experiences only to clearly ‘effable’ about reality, or that they are telling us tales about, what they claim to hold in-principle as, untellable stories?

    Of course, the nondual can refer to a model of reality, ontologically. Even then, an ontology is nothing more than an attempt to model reality with a given root metaphor (e.g. substance, process, experience, etc). And ALL metaphors eventually collapse. Also, keep in mind that nondual simply means “not two” so one should not presume by that that the only alternative is one (e.g. When playing jacks as a nondualist, onesies, threesies, foursies and so on still count! String Theory plays elevensies.)

    Not everyone is using a dualistic substance ontology; that metaphor collapsed a long time ago when our concept of species lost rigidity. For sure, Christianity is not married to it. Some folks use what they call a triadic semiotic metaphysic of social experience. Best I can tell, most folks don’t use a root metaphor at all. Like me, they are content to affirm THAT there’s some kind of ontological distinction between Creator and creatures without pretending to explain HOW.

    Finally, there is indeed a nondualism that refers to an ontological monism and which extrapolates theologically to a pantheism and atheologically to a materialist monism. But there are dual-aspect monisms and such.

    How to square all this stuff with the Incarnation? Common sense distinctions work pretty well. Beyond that, we can probe reality without imagining we can prove it, but some folks are saying way more than we can possibly know?

    How do we avoid the ditches of heterodoxy? Just change the metaphor 😉 let’s say to water, as the Christian Mystery. We can see people standing in it, choking on it, fighting it, swimming in it, walking on it, floating in it, sinking in it and drowning in it. I just try to hang out with those who look the most relaxed.

    • 29 Joel November 25, 2010 at 6:51 pm

      Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time AND I don’t want to distract from Mike’s thread, but let me say this:

      Substance dualism is far from dead. What we lost was not substance dualism, but Cartesian dualism; such a dualism created a strict divorce between the material and non-material. But Thomistic dualism doesn’t do such a thing and has relatively been ignored. The only critics I am aware of are generally naturalists, but most post-moderns who would seek to criticize the Thomistic dualism have been relatively silent (mostly because in their incredulity towards metanarratives, they have ironically and unwittingly accepted the naturalistic metanarrative and abandoned metaphysics, which is a tragedy and a mistake).

      Suffice it to say, there is sufficient and warranted reason to accept substance dualism, and indeed, Christianity is married to such a point. If we oust substance dualism, we oust Christianity as we know it, for we must do away with many core concepts, most important being the Trinity and the Incarnation. Such concepts only work under Thomistic dualism.

      • 30 John L November 25, 2010 at 7:22 pm

        I’ve always understood the OT/NT as describing three states of being:

        -was (non-dual)
        -is now (dualistic)
        -will be (non-dual)

        with non-duality beautifully described in both Gen 2 (was) and Jn 17 (will be). For instance, Gen 2 describes intelligence existing in avaitic-like unity – beyond both good and evil.

        In a way this mirrors what physics theorizes about creation, starting from a undivided singularity, exploding into plurality, and perhaps* eventually returning to a singular ground of being.

  24. 31 johnboy November 26, 2010 at 5:21 am

    Thanks for stating your position, Joel. I affirm metaphysics as a project and have a great deal of respect for the many varieties of Thomism (and do find it marginally better than the Cartesian dualism). Both this affirmation and this respect are highly qualified, however. In my view, your closing paragraph is VERY controversial — in fact, so much so that I don’t find it interesting.

  25. 32 johnboy November 27, 2010 at 3:08 am

    re: Substance dualism is far from dead.

    To be clear, when I said this metaphor had collapsed, I was not describing the meme’s viability, only its incoherence.

  26. 33 johnboy November 27, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    We often discover wisdom in moderation through “3rd way” movements, triangulations, lowest common denominators, catholicity, holistic appeals and so on. Some of the tensions in play in the present consideration are classical. We are told that we are to avoid what I like to call the Insidious -Isms, which are described as various over- and under-emphases.

    The most recognizable over/under-emphases are rationalism (an overemphasis on the speculative and kataphatic), pietism (an overemphasis on the affective and kataphatic), encratism (an overemphasis on the speculative and apophatic), quietism (an overemphasis on the affective and apophatic), and a host of -isms related to the tension between action and contemplation. In apologetics we have evidentialism (just look at the evidence), presuppositionalism (nihilism is the only other option), rationalism (just follow this logic), fideism (just believe) and existentialism (just rely on your experience). Just belong to the right community (orthocommunio). Just desire the right things (orthopathy). Just believe the right things (orthodoxy). Just behave the right way (orthopraxy). The categories under consideration generally will include theology (Who is God?), christology (Who is Christ?), pneumatology (Who is the Spirit?), anthropology (Who is wo/man?), soteriology (What’s wrong? How to fix it?), eschatology (What can we hope for?) and ecclesiology (What makes us a people?). Or, if you prefer, one can ask with Kant: What can I know? What can I hope for? What must I do?

    In approaching these sorts of questions, Mike’s appeal seems to echo that of a chorus of other voices: First, be holistic (or catholic, universal, both/and) in paying heed to each relevant perspective or approach. Next, be moderate in not over- or under-emphasizing any given perspective or approach.

    Is this dynamic in play here? Or is something else going on?

    Are these necessary conditions for epistemic virtue? If so, are they also sufficient?

    Why or why not: Red Letter Gospel? Black Letter Epistle? Sanskrit Letter Bhagavad Gītā?

  27. 34 johnboy November 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    I’ll venture an answer to my somewhat rhetorical questions. There are some factual matters that suggest that thus and such may be the case in reality. And who isn’t interested in stipulating to the correct facts? However, in my experience, in the life of faith, empirical matters are very sketchy. Very little probabilistic stuff is involved. In the final analysis, we end up dealing with outlooks that are, at best, plausible. And many (not all) approaches end up being equi-plausible, so different stances can be taken that are all consistent with the same facts, or that are equally reasonable.

    None of this is to suggest that we cannot conceive of ways to adjudicate between competing interpretations, only to recognize that none of them have yet been successful in a universally compelling manner. Some suggest that no adjudications could, in principle, ever be successful, but that’s a rather strong claim to defend and, in my view, says far more than we can possibly know about what it is that we could never know. At the same time, I’m not expecting a parting of this particular veil in my lifetime!

    As I said before, moral reality is transparent to human reason without the benefit of special revelation, so I don’t consider that to be religion’s core mission. What we are dealing with, then, are not primarily empirical and moral propositions. We are dealing with the formation of community and of desires and with the transformation of people(s). And it seems to me that, beyond the most general of norms, there’s an enormous latitude of freedom with which we’ve been gifted as created co-creators, honoring our individual temperaments and our differently-abledness. Thus we will enjoy a great diversity of ministry, practically, although with a unity of mission, and a wonderful plurality of expression, aesthetically, with this beauty always ordered to the true and the good. We see this playing out in the many different spiritualities of Christianity, where the Anglican rubric is being lived out: “All may. None must. Some should.”

    I see such formative and transformative dynamics in play in all of our Great Traditions and many indigenous traditions, as well as in those who’ve no tradition at all. With such grand resonances in orthocommunio, orthopathy and orthopraxy, why shouldn’t our orthodoxy be generous?

    And that’s why I think Mike’s suggestions are both necessary and sufficient. The Dude is wise beyond his years 🙂

    Have a Holy Advent, which I’ll be observing in cyber-silence.

  28. 35 dave wainscott February 13, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Thanks for one of your most important posts ever..this will be key in my processing and teaching…
    Thanks for taking the time to say what no one else has said yet.

  29. 36 zoecarnate February 13, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Wow, Dave – that’s a huge compliment, especially coming from you! Thanks. 🙂

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