Webber: The Divine Embrace 7: What now?

Part three of The Divine Embrace is entitled “The Challenge: Returning Spirituality to the Divine Embrace,” which is an excellent encapsulation of Webber’s point: we don’t need to find anything new, we simply need to recapture the church’s original understanding of spirituality, rooted in God’s Story, in God’s Divine Embrace of us and the rest of creation. Crucial to this understanding is the concept of the Incarnation, of God fully embracing humanity. This is a 180-degree turn from much of the evangelical church today. Webber states

… Christian spirituality is not an escape from this world, rather it is the discovery and the experience of spiritual purpose in this world.

This morning I was reading a magazine devoted to church planting issues, and as is typical, the issue of being missional was addressed. As I read the discussion, it occurred to me that the reason that the issue of missional is such a hot topic today is that much of the evangelical and emerging church does not have a clear understanding of God’s story. If our lives are merely focused on “getting saved,” getting others saved, and getting to Heaven, we’re missing the big picture. This is something that the liturgical, confessional traditions have not forgotten. As Richard commented the other day, the liturgy is “the enactment of the story of God, of creation, incarnation, and re-creation, and of the reality of God’s kingdom, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” This is also what we, the Church, are all about.

Spirituality, or our mission, is to reenact God’s story of creation, incarnation and re-creation. This is “what the Father’s doing” as it’s put in the gospel of John; it is rooted firmly in our understanding of God’s incarnational embrace of us. This is God’s story.

The Bible presents 3 clear types or images that demonstrate God’s story:

  1. creation & re-creation: Jesus makes all things new
  2. 1st Adam & 2nd Adam: Jesus, God incarnate, did what we could not do
  3. exodus event & the Christ event: “The ultimate restoration of the whole world is pictured in the Exodus event.”

God’s incarnational embrace recapitulates the human condition; He is re-creating us, and will re-create his creation. He is making all things new.

As we can see, the central concept of the Incarnation, of God fully embracing humanity, without any implication that the physical is in any way less holy than the “spiritual,” is essential to understanding not only God’s story, but our story.

So how do we respond? In Acts 2, Peter preaches 1) repent, 2) be baptized and 3) receive the Holy Spirit. Setting aside the common transactional interpretation, both repentance and baptism reflect a rejection of an identity with the world, and an ongoing identification with the story and purposes of God. Receiving the Holy Spirit, as we know, is the seal, or guarantee, of that identity. As opposed to a typical evangelical understanding, even our repentance – our identifying with God and his purposes – is a response to God’s embrace. Baptism, then, also is not a testimony of our action, but a testimony of the Incarnation, of God’s embrace.

This, then, is our part of the story. God embraces his creation (us), and we respond daily, continuously to that embrace. In this ancient (pre-modern) understanding of the Gospel, the focus is not on us, but on God. If you have been raised with a modern Evangelical worldview, you can perhaps see that this way of thinking changes everything. As Webber states,

… the baptized life has a mission in the world. It is not life-denying or life-escaping. Rather, living the baptized life is a participation in God’s vision within the life of the world.

Webber: The Divine Embrace 6 – Modern to Postmodern

In the opening paragraph to Chapter 4 of Robert Webber’s book, The Divine Embrace, Webber writes:

Spirituality has become situated in the narrative of the self. In this privatized spirituality evangelicals look to themselves for the confirmation of their spiritual condition. The self-focused spiritualities of the twentieth century have not emerged willy-nilly but are deeply rooted in the historical movements that separated spirituality from the vision of God… The problem of these dislocated spiritualities has been compounded by the current antihistorical, narcissistic, and pragmatic nature of evangelical Christianity.

In the 20th Century, three main forms of spirituality developed: legalism, intellectualism, and experientialism. The early century saw the rise of fundamentalism, which developed a legalistic mentality, a spirituality based on what a person does not do. These lists of don’ts is what separated one group from another, creating and us/them mentality. A doctrinal legalism also was developed, as fundamentalist groups defined their theology, adding extra, more defined articles of faith that one had to believe to be “orthodox.” For example, it was not good enough for the Bible to be inspired, you had to believe it was “inerrant.” As Webber states, legalism undermines the Gospel, and actually makes grace the enemy.

An intellectual spirituality also began to develop, grown out of a rationalistic, modern world-view. Spirituality became proof-oriented, a fact to be believed and argued. From this intellectual spirituality we saw the rise in apologetics. For liberals, who saw many of the Biblical stories as not fact-based or provable, they became myths whose purpose was to instruct about morality.

Then, romanticism and existentialism gave way to experientialism, where feeling God became another way of knowing God. Wesley’s experience, Webber posits, was universalized into the “defining mark of spirituality” and “feeling forgiven” became the goal of evangelism. Experientialism “elevates experience as the apologetic for faith.” Webber also suggests that the requirement to have a “personal relationship with Jesus” has led to a works-based mentality and an individualistic understanding to Christianity.

The later 20th century, with the cultural revolution of the 60’s, saw the development of antinomianism and narcissism, especially in worship, which also incorporated romanticism. Worship became about an emotional relationship which has to make us feel good in order to be true. With the influence of the “New Age” religions, it’s sometimes hard to tell Christianity from mysticism.

Another impact upon the church was the secular field of psychology; the thoughts of Freud, Carl Jung, and others led to the belief that we could be “healed” through self-discovery. The impact of this thinking on the contemporary church is obvious as we walk through any Christian bookstore, and see shelf after shelf of counseling and self-help books. Introspection and focus on the self has replaced meditation on the nature of God.

Finally, of course, we have the post-modern influence, which has rejected the Modernist concept of absolute truth. This is a rejection of the secular culture as well as the evangelical culture, both of which are rooted in modernism. For post-moderns, even experience is not prescriptive. Your story is not my story. I might be a Christian and believe that Jesus died for my sins, but it’s not necessarily right for everyone. Individualism is at an all time high. The “emerging” church seems to question everything, but accept eveything. Evangelical apologetics is essentially useless.

As I consider the many current forms of Christianity – most of them distinguished not by theology, but by the extra-Christian influences that they have adopted – it makes absolute sense that the result is post-modernism, or emergentism. As they say, something had to give. It seems that this cognitive dissonance of the modern church resulted in the letting go of truth (or what passed for it).

The answer to this mess, Webber believes, is that first the church must rediscover God’s story. It is here, that we go next.

Webber: The Divine Embrace 5 – Putting it together

Lately I’ve been writing about Robert Webber’s final book, The Divine Embrace, which has been really helpful in putting together the thoughts that I’ve already been having about the state of American Evangelicalism. It’s really been a breath of fresh air, and has allowed me to finally shake off some of the unhelpful evangelical baggage that I’ve carried around. I’m sometimes tempted to feel that I’ve wasted a lot of time trapped in evangelicalism, but I am quick to remind myself that I am merely continuing my “walk around the elephant” that is God. I am now finding myself full circle, as it were, older, wiser, and more solidly appreciative of my Lutheran roots. My adventures in evangelicalism have given me a perspective that few have, and I am appreciative of that perspective.

Granted, there are areas of evangelicalism that I have never dallied in. As I surf the theological weblogs, I am encountering many mindsets and belief systems that I am glad I haven’t been a part of. I have tasted, perhaps, the better portion of evangelical thought; I am finding that there are areas of the elephant that one shouldn’t dawdle around. Of late, I have been reading and to some extent participating in a theology blog entitled Parchment and Pen, which began discussing “who is emerging?” and drifted into discussions trying to determine who is or isn’t orthodox. A few minutes there should be enough to see why Webber’s analysis is so important.

Throughout the first few chapters of the book, Webber traces the history of the church and how various heresies and philosophies impacted the church’s concept of spirituality (and theology). Before I talk about the next chapter dealing with the Modern period (1900-2000), it would seem that a brief recap would be in order.

It is Webber’s premise that for the early church, spirituality was not separate from theology, which was focused on God’s business of creation, incarnation and re-creation. First, the early heresies:

  • Gnosticism – taught a dualistic deity, a “good god” and a “bad god,” as well as a dualistic view that the physical was bad, and the spiritual was good. Through esoteric knowledge, the human spirit could be set free from the confines of the physical.
  • Arianism – denied the incarnation of Jesus, saying that Jesus was not equal to God, but was created). As I understand it, this grew from a dualistic belief that God could not have become a physical man.
  • Pelagianism – a 4th Century heresy, teaching that man through his own will could live a sinless life, or add to his spiritual achievements by doing good works. Augustine refuted this by saying that man’s free will only leads him to sin.

Non-Christian philosophies which have impacted the church include:

  • Platonic Dualism – saw the material world as separate and inferior to the spiritual world. God moved from subject (who reached out to man) to object (someone for us to reach out to).
  • Mysticism – in the late medieval period, the focus of contemplation moved from the purposes of God to man’s experience. Spirituality became separated from theology and became a “discipline.”
  • Rationalism – borrowing from Descartes, human reason became authoritative. Thinking became based on the separation from subject (“I”) and object (“it”); in other words, everything was studied “objectively.” Knowledge became preoccupied with facts, considered value-free. Anything not “objective” – such as religion – became opinion, rather than fact. As a result, theology also became rationalistic, leading to apologetics and systematic theologies. Spirituality became “right belief.” Sanctification was separated from justification and became works-oriented.
  • Romanticism – a rejection of rationalism, romanticism called for an intuitive, inner experience and sought for a more holistic, organic approach to spirituality. Knowing was through the imagination, the senses and the human will. Pietism and revivalism focused on personal experience and a human-willed conversion and “holiness.” The focus on God’s will and Christ’s experience became replaced with a focus on man’s will and experience. Spirituality originated with the self.

Now that we see the evolution of Christian thought (due to the influence of these secular philosophies) from an emphasis on God’s work to an emphasis on our work combined with a complete split of mind and emotion, the church of the 20th and 21st Centuries begins to make a bit more sense. However, explaining it does not justify it.

Next, from Modern to Emerging.

Webber: The Divine Embrace 4 – Romanticism & Pietism

The second shift away from ancient spirituality resulted from the romantic movement and influenced spirituality toward a preoccupation with experience. –Webber, page 89

The Enlightenment (or so it has been called) resulted in a shift toward an intellectual, reasoned approach to theology, separating theology from spirituality, turning justification into a transaction of sorts, and sanctification into something to accomplish. As a reaction to this rather cataclysmic shift, romanticism arose. The Romantics rejected the analytical method of discovering truth in favor of “a more intuitive, inner experience of knowing through the imagination, the senses, passion, and the will.” Webber explains that the Romantics also emphasized a return to an organic, holistic approach to knowledge rather than the compartmentalization of science. (Sound familiar?)

While Webber says that it is hard to say exactly how Romanticism impacted 19th Century spirituality, he notes that the pietist and revivalist movements also focused on an inner, experiential knowing. Pietist William Spener in 1675 wrote that a “right feeling in the heart” was “more important than pure doctrine.” Spener also taught that a person’s faith was more than acceptance of the truth of the Gospel, it caused “Christ to dwell in the believers’ heart.” Pietism appears to be the beginnings of the emphasis on conversion as a one-time decision/experience, if not the origin of the concept itself.

Revivalism was not too far behind, connected primarily with John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, both of whom had life-changing spiritual experiences. Wesley had a need for something more than the purely intellectual understanding he had as an Anglican priest; I’m sure we’re all familiar with his description of having his “heart strangely warmed” as he listened to Luther’s preface to Romans being read. Edwards’ experience led him to the conclusion that only through what he described as a Divine Light would “bring the soul to a saving close with Christ.” It is interesting to note that both Wesley’s and Edwards’ teachings seemed to be heavily influenced – if not driven – by their experience.

These movements, with their corresponding emphasis on holiness, differed significantly from the ancient church’s understanding of spirituality, as these later movements’ emphasis was on the individual’s experience of forgiveness, not on Christ’s experience. Baptism also shifted from identity with Jesus’ death and resurrection, to “my personal testimony” of an individual decision (Webber points out that baptism, then, no longer has any meaning).

To recap a bit, Webber has pointed out how the reformers took spirituality back from the errors of dualism and mysticism to a spirituality based again on the story of God. However, the language of the Reformation lent itself to a shift from an incarnational understanding to a transactional understanding of salvation and justification, and holiness became something separate, something based on our works rather than God’s work. As the Enlightenment all but destroyed spirituality (and theology), Pietism shifted spirituality from an emphasis on living an incarnational life (focused again on the work of God) to one based on our personal experience, our personal decision, and our personal faith.

Such was the state of the Western church as we entered the 20th Century, which we will look at next time. By the way, I am doing a very inadequate job of summarizing Webber, as I really encourage you to buy the book and read it yourself. There’s a lot more in there than I am presenting.