Today I will continue my discussions of a book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians; Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. I’m sure if there are any pastors or theologians who accidentally come across the blog post their first reaction is to adamantly disagree with the title that all theology is local. Here is what Tony Jones says about that:
theology is not universal, nor is it transcendent. The God about whom we theologize is transcendent, but our human musings about God are not. To think that our theology is not local and specific is a falsity that has been foisted on the church. Professional theologians, those men and women who sit on seminary faculties, are sometimes tempted to write and speak with the confidence that their theology is somehow clean or sterile or untainted-that they come to their task without any presuppositions, prejudices, or context. But of course, they’re just as local as the rest of us. They live in a certain place, speak a certain language, talk with certain people, read a certain newspaper, and are held accountable for what they write and say by other theologians in their guild. This localness of theology is a hallmark of emergent thinking and sensibility.
When we recognize that what we think about God is mostly a matter of our life’s circumstances then we understand how to approach the theology of the church both past , present and future. Theology is nothing more than how we humans perceive the nature of God. As mentioned further in the book when we understand that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology was shaped by Nazi Germany, that Augustine’s was formed by his neo-Platonic area of Northern Africa, and Martin Luther’s was fashioned by the Roman Catholic monastery we come to realize that all theology is local. That is not necessarily a bad thing but something we must realize in order to understand it.
Being a human endeavor theology is naturally local. It is shaped by our circumstances. God is indeed transcendent, but our human understanding of him is not. Christian theology has a two thousand-year record that contains some very inspiring writings that all Christians should study and learn from but we must always understand the circumstance around those writings in order to put them in the proper context.
Understanding that all theology is local helps to even explain some of the writing of Paul. We must understand that Paul had no personal exposure to Jesus other than that fateful afternoon on the road to Damascus. So, you could also call his writing theology. When we understand this then we understand why there is almost no cross reference between the teachings of Jesus and the words of Paul. When Paul told women to be quiet in church he was relating his local circumstances. When he said it was better to be a bachelor than to be married he was relaying his condition.
All theology is local and that includes theology throughout church history. When we study the words of the great theologians we must understand the conditions which surrounded the words. Many say the Bible is a very simple document to understand, all we have to do is to read it. Tony Jones says, and I believe, that it is really the opposite. It is a very complicated document and for that very reason it has remained pertinent throughout the ages.
Toward the end of his life, while in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a well known Lutheran theologian, wrote some tantalizing letters to his friend Eberhad Bethage where he wrestles with what he calls “religionless Christianity.”The letters in question were written in 1944 not long before he was executed by the Nazi’s. What did Bohhoeffer mean by Religionless Christianity?
Here are some of the words from those letters:
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience–and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”….
To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.
I realize that I have picked but a few of Bonhoeffer’s words in his letters but I believe these are at the heart of his dilemma. To me these words mean that what we do is more important than what we claim membership to. It seems that Bonhoeffer was looking over seventy years in the future when he said there “even those who honestly describe themselves as religious do not in the least act up to it”. Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that the word “religious” has taken up a different meaning than when it was originally defined.
Unfortunately the words “Christian” and “Religion” are almost just too entwined to be separated but that is indeed what B0nhoeffer seems to propose and I agree with him in that regard. Religion seems to be more closely linked to a club membership than to the teachings of Jesus. So to be a Christian does not necessarily mean being religious.
In closing I want to paraphrase his last words. It is not a passive religious act that makes a Christian, but the participation in the work Christ left us to do. Someday the words Christian and religion may come to mean the same thing but that will take work on our part. When we as “religious” people quit insisting on strict adherence to man-made set of “beliefs” but instead act on the words of Jesus then “religious” will once again come to mean something to the world. Until then I am happy to practice “Religionless Christianity”.
The term Cheap Grace was originally found in a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled The Cost of Discipleship. Bonheoffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. He was hung by the SS as a traitor in 1945 as he rejected Hitler’s rule.
To get started let’s look at the following excerpt is from Wikipedia:
In Bonhoeffer’s words: “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Or, to put it even more clearly, it is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship.
Bonhoeffer made these claims about the church two generations ago because they were settling for what he called “cheap grace”. He said that they were practicing a brand of Christianity without the cross. This was easy believism. In many circles it would seem all that was necessary is to voice creedal tenets, such as justification by faith alone. The ability to affirm right doctrine signifies that we are in the club. Dallas Willard has dubbed this as “bar code” Christianity. If we can be rung up by the great scanner in the sky, then eternal life is assured. With this understanding of Christian life, what is the need to have a transformed life?
Is this cheap grace more prevalent today than it was when Bonhoeffer pointed it out almost 80 years ago? I tend to believe it is. Of course our lives are more hectic than they were eighty years ago. It seems obvious that we just don’t spend as much time praising God as our grandparents used to. Many of the 35,000 versions of Christianity that are around today put almost all emphasis on God’s grace and none of our response to that grace. All we need to do is spend a few hours each week in our country club type facilities and everything is taken care of. Even if we miss a few, or even most Sundays that is OK. Discipleship has almost all but disappeared from our local congregations. We usually do something around the end of the year holidays to make us feel better about ourselves as Christians. Maybe it is putting in a few extra dollars for some poor relief efforts. But those efforts quickly dissappear along with our well intended New Years resolutions.
Call it what you want; cheap grace, McChurch, Church Lite, Bar Code Christianity. It all is pretty much the same. I am just afraid that when it comes to our eternity cheap grace might be very expensive indeed! As I said in the last post we need to live in the Lord moment by moment and not just those times it is convenient for us to do so.