The Emergent Theological Conversation

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Exclusion and Embrace
Chapter Three
Reflection by Jayne Davis

In chapter 3, Volf writes, “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us.” (129)

Have we become the ultimate consumers - consumers of God’s grace?

The embrace of the father of ‘the prodigal son’ is a moment we long for, ache for even. The belonging, the identity. No longer a stranger in a strange land, but one who is truly known, and loved. We are amazed that the embrace is offered - again and again. And we reach out to receive it again and again.

But when it comes to offering the invitation of embrace, when it comes to being an agent of God’s grace, when it comes to embodying, in that moment, even a fleeting glimpse of the kingdom, do we not stand, instead, as the older brother with our arms tightly folded as a shield of righteousness? And this at the return of our brother with whom we have a history, one whom we presumably loved. Because we are tied to our ‘stuff’? To our image of ourselves? To the future we have decided we will have? We are hostile at his intrusion back into our ordered world instead of open to the new possibilities it might throw open for both of us. The novum of resurrection, Moltmann might say.

If one then who is a part of us cannot break through this dominant narrative that Volf lays out for us, if the return of one with whom we have at one time laughed and cried cannot be received as a gift of God bringing us to repentance and farther down the road from exclusion to embrace, if one in such close proximity to us cannot move us, how will we ever shed our indifference and our blindness long enough to not only see Christ in the mother of Jihad, but to be open to understanding her, to be willing to be changed by her?

I fear that we want the embrace of the Trinitarian love of God to close as a protective circle around us without offering ourselves in love to be transformed. Where does that leave us?


At 7:42 PM, Blogger Derek said...

What an appropriate book for an emergent theological conversation! Tony, you should point all of your antagonists to this site and especially this book. The point is not to construct a rigid identity that restricts the embrace of others. When we start laying down broad-sweeping dogma, we do not make space for others, space that allows us to be changed by them. And, though justice is essential, "will justice ever be done if the ultimate goal is not reconciliation?" (Volf, 105).

So, on to the reason for commenting, Tony encouraged looking for Volf’s "third way" in contrast to modernity and post-modernity. Griping. I am convinced of the inadequacies of the modern vision, but Volf has piqued my interest in proposing to deconstruct deconstructionism.

In "Adieu to the Grand Narratives" (105), Volf critiques Lyotard, and it is upon Lyotard's post-modern thinking which I wish to reflect.

According to Volf, if we follow Lyotard's reasoning (pp.105-109), then "we are left with a pantheon of gods without hope of knowing how to decide between their competing claims because there are no criteria binding for all...Unable to settle their differences by reasoning, the gods will invariably fight" (Volf, 108). And, in the face of such, if we maintain Lyotard’s thinking (that there can be no way to measure or compare competing truth claims), then what we are saying is that what we are doing does not really matter. How can it? You lose a game and reassure yourself because in the end, it does not matter. You scold children for petty arguments because they are ridiculous and absurd. This may be one reason why so many are having a hard time with the lack of concrete truth claims being articulated by emergent.

It is not that truth claims are unimportant, it is that love is infinitely more imperative. There are a lot of superfluous concepts attached to the grand story of Love, however, you cannot remove the common ground of love. All claims can and must be judged on vulnerable love. Because if we cannot make judgments on validity, then nothing is valid. By clutching onto the schema of "incommensurable 'language games'", we partake in just And, Lyotard makes that somewhat explicit when "he interprets...this struggle [among gods] as 'play,'..." (Volf, 108). Post-modernism goes too far by seeking to annihilate all common ground. The third way does not reject all notions of validity but grounds them in embrace.

Eugene McCarthy said, "Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important." This quote inspired me. Personally, I struggled in my call to vocational ministry. There were a couple of avenues that fascinated me; one of those was politics. As I examined myself, I came to see that this inner tension between full-time vocational ministry and politics was rooted in my subconscious understanding of where power and truth are truly found. For me, to pursue a political career meant that I believed that political power is where true change happens and the seat of genuine power rests. However, Jesus Christ and the cross teach us that power is powerlessness and its seat lies squarely in the throne of God. It is not mine; it is not for humankind to peddle power nor use it to build walls. Rather, it is in this “vulnerable love” where meaning and the really important things of life are discovered.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger George said...

As Volf so vividly argues, a devotion to laws empowers exclusion. The older son of the parable exemplifies this, but so does the mother of Jihad. The violations against her, while unsupportable, are violations against laws, be they of nature or even God. People broke laws and violated her. She demands justice and restitution. Who would not? However, and I appreciate Volf’s strong advocacy of this principle, all are victims and all are perpetrators and all are violators of law.

Paul states that men are enslaved to elementary principles of the world—elementary principles that give the appearance of religion, but are of no value in eliminating desires of the flesh (Gal. 4:8-11, Col. 2:6-23). But what of laws given by God?

I believe that this concern sits at the heart of God’s purposes for individuals, families, and societies. Central to Pauline theology is the conception that righteousness and identity found in rules and laws empowers boasting, for adherence to laws is a product of works. Boasting requires belittling, for some are not able to boast. Whoever embodies the laws is able to boast. In Rome, the Jews boasted in law and the Gentiles boasted in their freedom, both of which created community tensions. Envy, conflict, judgment, and division come with law-based identity.

Why do Christians continue to see God primarily as law-giver and not grace-giver? I believe some of it is tied to foundationalism, which necessarily ties itself to unchanging principle or law-based systems. God indeed gave laws, but why? I believe God gave laws because Israel continued to grumble against God and lost faith in Him. I believe The Law (Torah) was designed to show the supremacy of faith in the loving, delivering God. But we don’t read the Old Testament that way, and don’t understand the God of the Old Testament that way. We see him primarily as a law-giver, and now that we know that people cannot achieve those laws, we think that God is forced to stoop to a lower level and administer grace. Grace is the order now, but the ideal is really fulfilling the laws. I think that is how people think. I think it’s different than that, and Volf’s book is really expanding these ideas for me. I think God is and always has been a God of grace, faith, and love, and has desired His people to be the same way. Laws came because people increasingly moved from faith and love, not because they were God’s ideal. God has not changed. Laws were introduced to demonstrate that we need a change from within, and thus the promise of Jesus, indeed the new covenant.

Just a note…Volf’s “slow read” of the prodigal son parable is the best thing I have ever seen on that parable. He picked up on the textual nuances with great skill, which produced a very fresh and instructive read. Thanks Miroslav!

Some Questions:

1. I want to highlight Volf’s careful observation that social order cannot be completely thrown out in embrace. The prodigal son’s situation did change in some respects. How can we balance this discussion with the necessary exclusions required in rejecting factious and stubborn believers (Titus 3:10-11, Matthew 18:15-20)? How can communities of Christ with a social order (Eph. 3:8-11, 1 Tim 3:14-15) fulfill this calling while maintaining gracious embrace at all times?

At 5:06 PM, Blogger Ellen H. said...

You wrote: I fear that we want the embrace of the Trinitarian love of God to close as a protective circle around us without offering ourselves in love to be transformed. Where does that leave us?

Great question!
Perhaps we can ponder more about what it means to want the embrace of the Trinitarian love of God and what that means. Is the willingness to truly receive the embrace of the Trinity not also the willingness to be identified with the Crucified? Volf quotes Paul, "I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me..." and asserts that this identity is not a dissolution of self, but a de-centering of the self through which Jesus Christ becomes "part and parcel of the very structure of the self", and thus a recentering the self and "establishing the most proper and unassailable center". All that to say, while the embrace of God is a place of acceptance and safety, it is also what creates the possibility of a true embrace of the other, friend or enemy. It is a dying and rebirth of a true catholic personality characterized by making space for (and being shaped by) the other. The embrace of the trinitarian love of God doesn't seem to be a place to hide from the unjustices and pain of the world. As CS Lewis has said, he is not a 'tame lion". :-) And perhaps the embrace of the triune God is then fully realized in our embrace of the "other". Can you love God and not people?


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