John Milbank – Radical Orthodoxy

I remember when I first read Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason by John Milbank. It was a thick read (still is) and it blew my mind (still does) but one that was part of my own maturing as a theologian (and still is). There are three themes that I initially came away with from reading Milbank that have endured for me:

1) a participatory and incarnational sacramentalism that is part of creation itself,

2) a trinitarian ontology, and

3) the importance of liturgy and our existence as ‘liturgical’ creatures before we are even linguistic/language creatures.

Milbanks ideas have become a movement known as Radical Orthodoxy. Below is a video where you can be introduced to Milbanks ideas, including the three I listed above, in about 15 minutes (either enjoy now if this is your thing or save it for later if you find it boring and need help sleeping :-)).

PS: Also be sure to take a look at one of my favorite engagements with Radical Orthodoxy – Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology by James K.A. Smith. Very good!

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Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 2): What Have We Missed?

Yesterday, I posted some preliminary reflections on the need for lament in the wake of manifestations of evil and suffering like the Aurora shooting. In the wake of this tragedy I suggest that instead of offering words of comfort (however well meaning) up front, instead of offering clichés meant to defend God’s honor or keep other’s faith from failing (ie, ‘God has a greater plan in mind’), and instead of delving into intractable political debate at this time that we…

Stop!

Just stop…

And grieve…

And cry out to Father, Son, and Spirit…

And lament.

To lament is not to offer words of comfort, or to try to solve the problem right now, or even to attempt to come to God’s defense (which raises the question that if God is really as providential and sovereign as people claim, why then is there such a felt need to ‘defend’ God? I really suspect modern apologetics has failed us here). Politicizing the tragedy for political gain is not lament. Delving into a conversation about gun control right now, which in our gun worshiping culture obsessed with violence I think needs to happen at some point, is not lament either.

I want to additionally suggest that many of these things that are not lament still need to be done, but they cannot be done well until we take the time to share the pain of the ‘other’ (incarnation), cry out to God for a creation that is not as it should be, and lament. A couple of people at work today asked me about my weekend. I talked to them about the need for lament. One just looked at me funny … the other was offended and put off. ‘The Lord calls us to rejoice not lament’ they told me … ‘Its not right to question God!’ I wondered if they had ever read the Psalms, or Lamentations, or Romans 12:15.

The language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament.

So, this leads me to the main question at hand in this post: what have we missed that lament is not our first language … that it seems so many do everything they can to avoid lament?

I offer three suggestions (with help from Stanley Hauerwas)…

First, we have missed the inadequacy of our theodicies both formal and informal.

Hauerwas says in God, Medicine, and Suffering (note: I read this book during my year residency as a CPE/chaplain resident and it impacted me greatly, but I don’t own it myself. Therefore, I am having to pull these quotes from the Theology Forum blog)…

Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian believe per se” . . . That Christians now think the problem of suffering renders their faith in God unintelligible indicates that they now are determined by ways of life that are at odds with their fundamental convictions.

For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be “explained.” Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be “explained”—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering. […]

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune [quotes Rom 5:1-5]. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response. […] (48-52, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas here is pointing out the basic inadequacy of theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and justifications of God in the face of such. In general terms a theodicy is simply an account for why evil and suffering exists. In more academic terms theodicies are attempts at the justification of God in the face of evil and suffering (ie, “If God is love, then why…?).

The study of theodicy can be very fruitful … in perspective.

There are numerous academic theodicies one can formulate as well as numerous ‘folk’ theodicies that come out in response to evil and suffering. ‘God has a better plan in mind’ is an example of a ‘folk’ theodicy. We must remember that theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and theodicies are revealed to be inadequate in the face of the real experience of human suffering and anguish. I have learned both through personal experience (which I will share more of in a subsequent post) and as a hospital chaplain, that no matter how correct we presume our ‘explanations’, defenses, or accounts – in the face of evil and suffering all our theodicies are stripped and laid bare. When revealed to be inadequate and laid bare we are simply left with lament.

Second, we have missed how Christianity actually ‘works’.

Hauerwas comes to our aid again (HT Matt Tebe),

[There] is a deep misunderstanding about how Christianity works. Of course we believe that God is God and we are not and that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit but that this is not a set of propositionsbut is rather embedded in a community of practices that make those beliefs themselves work and give us a community by which we are shaped. Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is — a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance. (emphasis mine)

In the wake of, and under the influence of modernist impulses, much of Western Christianity is proposition or in the words of Hauerwas, ‘text’ oriented. As such, it often seems that what really counts is just saying ‘true’ and ‘correct’ things about God. With the prominence of such propositional thinking, Christian responses to evil, suffering, and tragedies simply reduce to reading from the script with no variation from the ‘text’ … in fact, many people seem to think it is enough to simply quote Bible verses out of context about the ‘joy of the Lord’ and such – as if a Bible verse a day will keep the grief away.

The Christian faith is not simply a repeating of the ‘text’ of the Bible. It is rather like a performance of the story of the Bible – a performance of the drama of our liberating King. Of course this will include propositions, but propositions are not the main thing here. They are instead ‘storied’ and embedded within the faithful performance of the Jesus story and biblical narrative. Propositions without fitting improvisation and faithful performance by a community of practices simply leave us with moral theory and abstraction unable to withstand the weight of the experience of human suffering, grief, and despair. Instead of treating the Christian faith like a ‘text’ we ought to commit ourselves to fitting improvisation and faithful performance – even in the face of evil and suffering. We must recover the cruciform practice of lament.

Third, because of the above we have missed our proper ecclesial response to suffering.

Hauerwas continues from God, Medicine, and Suffering

Historically speaking, Christians have not had a “solution” to the problem of evil. Rather, they have had a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations (53, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas contends that what is needed is not a ‘solution’ to evil or a theoretical account of suffering but the proper response. And Hauerwas contends that this proper response is in essence an ecclesial response – a response of a community of care (ie, the church) able to absorb suffering and the ‘destructive terror of evil’.

The upshot here I think is at least two fold…

1) That lament itself is the most fitting response, improvisation, and performance of the drama of the Jesus story in the wake of human suffering (ie, it is intensely incarnational).

2) That this response, improvisation, and performance of lament, while personal, must also be communal (ie, that is intensely ecclesial).

Lament is something that we do even when we are alone, but not something we can simply do on our own. I propose that we must recover lament as a cruciform, sacramental practice both as a daily discipline and as a weekly corporate performance. We must learn to lament weekly as incarnational communities of our liberating King Jesus.

Lament is not optional for those of us who claim to be incarnational, missional Christians and participants in the cruciform story of Jesus. We cut ourselves off from the mission of the triune God and the cruciform story of Jesus when, both personally and communally/ecclesially, when we fail to lament as the people of the liberating King. Let me restate: the language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament. May we seek to take up the practice and performance of lament as a cruciform people of the kingdom in the coming days.

A prayer of lament:

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.

Being ‘Knit’ Together ‘in Christ’: Communion Reflections for the Seventh Sunday of Pentecost

Yesterday, Sunday July 15th, my family and I had the privilege to lead our church community, Crosspoint Fellowship, in the celebration of the Eucharist or Communion – something we do weekly as a community.

First, I read the Epistles text for the seventh Sunday of Pentecost – Ephesians 1:3-14 (CEB),

Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. 11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design.12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ.13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory.

And then Christie (C.C.) read this brief reflection (in which we tried to tie together the text and Communion with the theme of knitting – since Christie knits … A LOT!),

You may not know it, but the God and Father of our liberating King Jesus is a knitter. We find in Ephesians 1 that we are adopted ‘through the son’…that we have received grace ‘through Jesus Christ’. And seven times the phrase ‘in Christ’ is used: for example we are blessed ‘in Christ’; chosen ‘in Christ’; our hope is ‘in Christ’; and we find that ultimately all things in heaven and on earth are brought, or knit, together ‘in Christ’. The table of our Lord is set with the broken body and shed blood of our Lord which sustains us. It is Christ himself who has invited us to his table. At this table, as we serve the bread and juice to one another in mutual submission, we are knit together in community. At this table we are knit into the story of our liberating King as a cruciform, cross shaped people. As we submit ourselves together to the table of our Lord, we are constituted; we are knit together, as the body of Christ for the sake of Abilene and the world.

Then Damaris read this introduction to how we practice Communion (we tried to get her to do the prayer too, but she was a bit gun shy on the speaking in public thing),

At Crosspoint we serve the Eucharist, or Communion, every week to each other by intinction. This means when it is your turn to partake of the bread and juice your neighbor will hold the plate while you take a piece of the bread and dip it in the cup. And then you, in turn, hold the plate for the next person as they partake of the bread and juice.

And Christie then finished off with this Communion Prayer:

Loving God,

through your goodness

we have this bread and fruit of the vine to offer,

which has come forth from the earth

and human hands have made.

May we know your presence

in the sharing,

so that we know your touch

and presence of all things.

We celebrate the life that Jesus has shared

among his community through the centuries,

and shares with us now.

Made one in Christ

and one with each other,

we offer these gifts and with them ourselves,

a single, living act of praise.

We pray this in the name of our liberating King Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.

I can’t adequately express how excited I was to be able to lead our community in Communion along with my family in this manner. Firstly, I absolutely loved that the voice of my wife and daughter were heard. Not only am I a supporter of the full inclusion and ordaining of women in ministry as a whole, but I am most fully a supporter of one ordained woman in particular – my wife. And my hope is that as Damaris grows up she will find her own voice as well. We are blessed to be a part of a community that values the hearing and leadership of female voices as well as male voices – and most importantly I think, the hearing of male and female voices alongside each other.

But this was also something I needed, a counter liturgy to what I did all day at work on Friday. If I’m honest, I have to admit the difficulty of working in Christian retail and trying to be authentically kingdom centered and missional. This is because Christian retail represents the commodification of the kingdom and the subversion of anything missional to the liturgies of consumerism. Some of this (but not a lot) is ameliorated working in the books section. Sometimes I have a good and productive chat with people about Bible translations … sometimes. And sometimes I get to talk to someone who has good things to say about N.T. Wright (for example) … sometimes. I feel these consumer liturgies even more when I have to cashier … a liturgy which I had to repeat all day on Friday (I must confess that, as a result, I came home Friday evening in a very bad mood and feeling very defeated and displaced, wanting very much for this current season to be over with).

James K.A. Smith remarks on these sort of consumer liturgies (HT: – of Paper, Pints, and Tweed),

Marketing understands that we are liturgical animals, that we are lovers, that we are longers, that we are shaped and primed by stories that capture our imagination. But we should know that, the church should be the centre that understands and appreciates that. So, if something like this model or argument is right, it will actually become a way to account for Christian assimilation to cultural forces. It actually helps you to understand Christian assimilation to consumerism, nationalism and all kinds of egoisms, because these –isms have had all the best stories. The devil has had all the best liturgies.

The proper response to that situation is to change our practice. It’s not just knowledge, right? I mean, I do think intellectual reflection on these matters is important; that’s kind of what we’re doing tonight. But what the impetus for that intellectual reflection should do then is prompt us to immerse ourselves in practices that will form us otherwise, to reactivate and renew those liturgies and rituals and disciplines that intentionally embody the story of the gospel and enact a vision of the coming kingdom of God in such a way that they’ll seep into our bones and become part of the background of our perceptions, the very baseline for our dispositions.

Quote from Smith’s interview with Encounter, where he talks about the power of storied formation, liturgy, and marketing.

The weekly observance of the Eucharist or Communion is a vital practice that I believe has the ability to ‘form us otherwise’, ‘embody the story of the gospel’, and ‘enact a vision of the coming kingdom of God’. It is at the Lord’s Table that we are drawn into the story of Christ and the triune theo-drama of Father, Son, and Spirit. It is at the Lord’s Table that we are drawn into community with Christians from the whole sweep of Christian history (yes, even the ones we don’t like) and sustained. But Eucharist and Communion is not only about the feeling of community. It is also about being formed into a specific type of community – a cruciform, incarnational, and missional people. In fact, as the reflection above states, I believe that it is at the Table of the Lord’s broken body and spilled blood that we are constituted as Christ’s ecclesia – his cruciform, missional body for the sake of our local contexts and the world alike. Yes, I think Communion is really that important. And to be honest, in leading our community in this sort of counter liturgy is where I felt at home and at peace.

May we seek liturgies that form us otherwise as a kingdom, cruciform people of the liberating King.

Prayer for the Week:

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.