Last summer, Mark Van Steenwyk and I taught a Bethel Seminary course called HS-ML729: Resources for Radical Living. Now we are preparing to teach the course again in Bethel’s winter 2011 term, in both a Masters and a DMin mode.
Version 2.0 of the course will be different from version 1.0, both in its basic structure and in the figures and movements we will be studying under the rubrics of the prophetic life, the compassionate life, the penitential life, the devotional life, and the communal life.
We will still explore, under each of these five thematic areas, two figures/movements from Christian history and today–making a total of 10 case studies. But both the framework and the case studies will change. This post outlines the new and, we hope, improved structure. The revised list of case studies (figures and movements) we will cover in version 2.0 can be found here. The first post in this series of three presented the original version of the course.
How has the structure changed? In version 1.0 of the course, we addressed the penitential, compassionate, penitential, communal, and devotional life in that order. After the course, Mark and I put together a book proposal (coming soon to a bookstore near you . . . well, first we need to find a publisher!). In the proposal, we decided to swap the last two units–communal and devotional–and make the communal section the crowning piece of the course. The rationale is that radical Christian living is always communal! We also organized the first four units as two sets of two, based on the twofold “law of love.”
Here’s how the new framework looks, minus the case studies (see the next post for those):
“The Law of Love” has two prongs: (1) “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, (2) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Though the first prong is primary for Christians, the second is more usually associated with the idea of a “radical Christian life.” We could have structured this discussion in many ways, but it seems to make sense to ask first, how do we live radically as Christians in the world—that is, in relationship with others, both Christian and non-Christian, and then to follow up with the question: how do we sustain that compassionate other-directedness with an appropriate attention to rooting ourselves passionately in God—that is, the first prong.
I. Loving others radically
Jesus’ way of radical love isn’t particularly pleasant. He loves—and invites us to love—both the powerful and the powerless, the oppressor and the oppressed, the exalted and the humble. Sometimes that love is expressed through acts of compassion—perhaps best typified by Jesus’ teachings of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46. When we, the church, love the “least of these” we love Jesus. But Jesus also shows us a prophetic way of love: one that calls the powerful and wealthy to repentance. If love compels us to care for the weak, it also compels us to challenge the strong. And in challenging the strong, we not only show love for the ones they oppress, but also show the strong their own way to liberation.
1. The Prophetic Life
Do governments, corporations, and other “principalities and powers” behave in Christian ways? No. Should we expect them to? No. But how do we live Christ-like lives and build God-pleasing churches in light of modern states’ endemic failure to preserve peace and justice for their peoples? What does the famous “obedience passage” of Romans 13 mean in light of this sad reality?
2. The Compassionate Life
Neither Testament of the Christian Scriptures, for all their stunningly super-natural gospel message of God’s transcendent love and grace, stays very long away from the theme of compassion. Though that gospel is so clearly not a teaching about a moral system, it clearly does revolutionize everything we thought we knew about human morality. Why? Because the gospel refuses to leave us alone in the personal, individual (and super-spiritual) realm of “my soul and its relation to God.” Constantly it pushes us back to the horizontal (and thus messy and indeed physical) dimension of relationships with others—of mercy, charity, compassion. It is with us as with Matthew: sheep and goats are separated at the Judgment by cups of cold water, clothing for the naked, visits to the imprisoned.
II. Loving God radically
In our shallow society, “love” has been boiled down to sentiment. Nowhere, perhaps, is this truer than in our love for God. To many church-goers, loving God is mostly about an emotional display of singing on Sunday morning. But to many within the Tradition, loving God goes much deeper than sentiment: it is a way of life that requires deep Godward devotion coupled with ongoing self-denial.
3. The Penitential Life
The penitential life is about clearing away everything in your life that has the potential to interfere with your devotion to God—and, indeed, to others. A corrupted version of “penance” led to the division of the Western church into Catholic and Protestant branches. But the concept itself is sound: we are fallen people, prone to many sins that separate us from God. “Penance” simply means the ways we discipline ourselves and train ourselves toward God, in light of this susceptibility to sin. If the world insists we need material goods in order to live a fulfilled life, then we choose a life of simplicity for the sake of the gospel. If the world sets up sex and romantic involvement as idols, then we choose to give our bodies and hearts to God alone. If the world tells us that to be successful, we must gain for ourselves power and fame, then we choose a path of weakness and humility. To say the penitential life is unpopular today in America is to severely understate the case: self-denial is positively un-American, unless it is a sort of discipline intended to win for us even more money, sex, or power.
4. The Devoted Life
The Puritans were on to something when they framed their conversion narratives as stories of first trying to live good lives out of their own strength, then crashing and burning, then finally being pulled from the wreckage by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Without the grace mediated to us by Jesus, none of us is capable for one second of living lives that are prophetic, compassionate, penitential, communal . . . or, in short, lives that are very much good to anybody, including ourselves, let alone “radical.” So we come to the importance of devotion. Quite simply, the devotional life has been the engine of all successful Christian reform since the beginning of the church. It has also been—despite the good efforts of modern teachers such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Eugene Peterson—the most difficult and elusive aspect of the Christian life for Americans to grasp and live.
III. The linchpin: living radically with others
Though the majority of readers of this book will not end up in an “intentional Christian community” of the sort represented by monasticism (old or new), we all need to recognize the communal dimension of the Christian life: we are saved as individuals, yes, but also into community—the kingdom community that the Peter calls “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Pet. 2:9). To be healthy and productive (and radical!), our Christian lives must be lived in the context of community. That’s the mystery of the church, which as Paul says is like a marriage (Eph. 5). Spouses may separate for a time, by mutual consent, but the normal married life is a life lived together.
The church is a mystery, but maybe God made the community of Christians central to his salvific purposes because this is the place where the two prongs of the law of love come together: here we love others (in ways both prophetic and compassionate), and at the same time we love God (in ways penitential and devotional . . . and also by receiving the prophetic and compassionate ministries of others)
5. The Communal Life
Community is the context of our faith. So much of what is broken about modern Western Christianity can be tied to a growing loss of community. Christianity assumes mutual submission, mutual aid, and communal spirituality. As a remedy for the dark side of individualism, we will examine the stories of three models of community: [CLIPPED, as the models have now changed].