Retracing My Steps
I read recently, probably in my Twitter feed, something to the effect that we aren't so much what we know but what we have still to learn. If that's the case, I'm happy to say I've got lots of becoming left in front of me. This past year, through the invitation of a friend, I've been spending time with and learning a lot from Alliance of Baptist people. They are, as a group, one of the best kept secrets on the U.S. religious landscape. These are progressive, justice-seeking, activist Baptists whose understanding of following Jesus places them on the leading edge of the struggle for gender equality, racial justice, transgender rights, and more. If you're like many with whom I've shared my recent journey with these particular Christians, you're saying, "Wait. What? Radical, progressive Baptists? No way!" Yes way.
I was trained and ordained a Lutheran, a much more mainline Protestant tradition. My church history courses in seminary included survey courses of the broad sweep of church history, but the dives in the deep end were reserved for the distinctives of the Lutheran aspects of the Reformation. I didn't pay much attention to other historical developments during and after the Reformation, save the Calvinist and Roman Catholic ones because that's who Lutherans tend to most fuss with over points of theology. The so-called "Radical Reformation", including the Anabaptists and subsequently the various Baptists (later, in the 17th century), seemed to me, at the time, incidental. My desire to delve deeply into how my Lutheran tribe developed over time caused me to also gloss over the earliest parts of church history, like the development of Christianity prior to the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine up to the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. Those choices went unexamined until my friend Richard Groves, one of the founding leaders of the Alliance of Baptists, threw down the gauntlet when he matter-of-factly told me that he didn't hold to the statement of beliefs on my congregation's website. I was startled and asked him what he meant. "Well, the creeds you list as foundational (the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles' Creeds) aren't what I believe." I licked my wounds and spent as much time as I could with Richard to learn from him. As a Baptist, Richard doesn't need the conciliar-era formulations of the "universal church" as source documents for his faith. The Bible and what the Bible reveals about Jesus are enough for Richard. That doesn't mean that Richard or each individual Baptist of the Alliance develops their beliefs, theology, ecclesiology, etc. in an isolated vacuum. As they state it on the Alliance of Baptists website, they are committed to "[t]he freedom of the individual, led by God's Spirit within the family of faith, to read and interpret the Scriptures, relying on the historical understanding by the church and on the best methods of modern biblical study" and also to "reverence for biblical authority and respect for open inquiry and responsible scholarship." That's not all they're committed to, but it's a good start, and it's a lot different than claiming the three ecumenical creeds as foundational or required.
My talks with Richard, usually over a plate of pulled-pork barbecue for me and brisket for Richard, collard greens for both of us, drove me back to a new exploration of church history, especially the time prior to 325 and the council summoned to Nicaea by the Roman emperor Constantine I. Some twenty years after seminary, a new exploration of church history is a good thing for anyone to do. You're not the same person two decades later. You're not so much what you know as what you have still to learn.
But this isn't a paean to Richard or the Alliance of Baptists, not that I wouldn't be so inclined. It's all a preamble to telling you about some of the overarching questions being sparked by my second journey through the history of early Christianity.
The Council of Nicaea pointed the ship for so much of what was to come for the "universal Church", ever since. It marked a high level cozying up of church and empire. Empire is ultimate power (in the earthly sense). That's part of RIchard's problem with Nicaea and what came afterwards, namely, that the "Universal" Church's theologizing and the outward expressions of that theologizing were done largely in collusion with the empire. The empire wields the power for both justice and injustice, typically more injustice than justice (or so it seems to me). Consequently, it makes all the sense in the world to me to put the Constantinian and post-Constantinian developments of Christianity under high scrutiny. These are just a very few of the questions I'm struggling with as a result:
- Was a desire for universality of belief a worthy goal then? Is it now? What is it about us that tends to demand uniform belief as foundational to "our" Christianity?
- What about empire and the Church's collusion with it? What kinds of twisting of Christian belief and practice did that lead to and does that result in today?
- In light of those two questions, what isn't on the table for the open inquiry, responsible scholarship, and possible reinterpretation by the family of faith today? Is there anything that shouldn't be on the table?
To me, those are crucial questions as Christianity in the West continues its precipitous decline in both adherents and relevancy (by any reasonable measure). To scratch around in those questions seems to agitate a lot of people, judging by social media interaction when I surface those questions. The thing is, I'm not interested in reacting to where Christianity is in relation to culture and society today by hunkering down and claiming that Christianity in the West is under persecution. We can look elsewhere if we want to see what actual persecution looks like. I'm not even interested in reacting by trying to steady, repair or redirect the ship, necessarily. I'm more interested in responding to the challenge to relevancy by charting new waters, mode of transportation to be determined.