Monday, October 31, 2005

Kingdom & application from Jon

Thom: I wonder if, in responding to my post below, you wouldn't give an explanation of your understanding of the Kingdom situation of the church and how this situation might impact a Christian hermeneutic?

Jon: The sole measure of the church's success is the degree to which the kingdom of God is actualized in this world. However, as Jesus tells Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. It is like a mustard seed, a weed growing up everywhere and often where it is least expected or wanted. The kingdom will always be actualized within this world but will never be of this world. Now, what does this kingdom look like?

Let us consider James, although we could consider a variety of other texts. James has a real problem with Christ-believers who replicate social heirarchy within the Christian ekklesia. James will also say that "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (1:27, NRSV). The idea seems to be that the Christian ekklesia should be a place in which distinctions of wealth are meaningless. However, this can only be possible if one attends to the real, objective conditions in which members of the ekklesia find themselves. There is a paradox here, of course. In order to render socio-economic distinctions meaningless one must focus upon these distinctions in practice.

Of course, the kingdom is more than the dissolution of socio-economic distinctions. It is also the place where the lion can lay down with the lamb. These things are related, for only when the distinction between predator and prey are dissolved can the lion and lamb lay down together. Perhaps this is what the kingdom of God is at its core, the place where there are no predators and no prey, no rich and no poor, no great and no small. It is where the meek shall inherit the earth.

And what does this mean globally? Wherever the distinction between the great and the small is meaningless because of a community's conscientious obedience to the God of Israel, there is the kingdom of God. And what does this mean practically? I can't say. Each community must make that decision in their own context; one size cannot fit all. The kingdom, though, is the end toward which we all move. I say "the end" quite specifically, for the kingdom of God is the end. A Christian conception of history is teleological; for us history has an end, an eschaton, a final actualization of the kingdom. Still, now, in history, the kingdom is inaugurated--in Torah, in the words of the prophets, in Jesus--by these the kingdom has been inaugurated. Let us now serve the king, and allow him to use us to establish his reign. And never through force, for the moment that we use force, Christ no longer reigns. No, only through love: a real, practical, making-a-difference sort of love.

Thom: Your insight into how the in-breaking of the Kindom applies to the interpretation of James is quite thought provoking, as is your discussion of paradox. Christian maturity always looks less and less like personal ability and social and psychological wellness and more and more like the anxious-but-hopeful tension of constant (and difficult) interpretation.

Jon: I would tend to say that the more fully one realizes and grasps the paradoxes that play out in texts such as James, the more "psychologically well" one will become. To put this otherwise, I think that the kerygma, properly understood, brings not only theological but also existential clarity. This is where I will cop to being a bit Bultmannian, incidentally; although in certain areas (such as historical Jesus studies) I am solidly post-Bultmannian.

Thom: I have been trying for several weeks to bring my adult Sunday School class to this kind of realization. We have been going through Ephesians. I have very much been trying to get them to stop reading Ephesians as if it is a private, devotional text and, instead, treat it more like a political manifesto or constitution.

Jon: I am very open to this sort of reading. Have you read Taubes's Political Theology of Paul? It is a brilliant book! (It also happened to be translated into English by a professor in my department, so I have a certain bias.)

Thom: Going back to Ephesians again and the desire to devotionalize it, I think of Chapter 2, which divides into two parts. Part 2a discusses "we were dead in our sins but Christ made us alive again," and 2b, "there is no longer a difference between Jew and Gentile in the church but all are made one new humanity in Jesus." No one would even try to spiritualize or privatize 2b, a la Schleiermacher. Indeed, this section had real political consequences in the first century. But the latter portion--2a--is always privatized and demythologized into the purely psychological and existential.

Jon: I would agree, although I would suggest (again) that a serious wrestling with the social dimensions of this text will entail a greater existential awareness. This is because I see the social as a fundamental part of being human, perhaps a more fundamental quality to being human than the self. Thus, a proper reordering of social relationships will go along with a proper reordering of the self.

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