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 Sweet himself does this when he, after noting that “Red Letters” are themselves an outdated metaphor, then launches into how Paul seemed to care very little about the historical teachings of Jesus.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 Bourgeault, Michael 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?