Friday, November 6, 2009

Radical Discipleship

One of the most significant books I have read in the last forty years is Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship (1968) by Church of the Brethren scholar Vernard Eller. There is bad news and good news about that book: the bad news is that it has long been out of print. The good news is that it is available online, available at this link.

Eller (1927-2007) was a prolific writer, and many of his works are available online (clicking on his name produces a list of those writings). He was a faithful minister in the Church of the Brethren, and he was also a big fan of Kierkegaard. He even named his second son Enten Eller, which as I indicated in my previous posting was the name of Kierkegaard's Danish book known in English as Either/Or.

It is not the second on my list, but one of the "thirty true things" that I plan to write about--in spite of the naysayers--is, "Jesus must be Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all." That is, to be sure, an assertion that has been around for a long time, but I don’t get the impression many Christians think in those terms much any more.

In fact, I get the impression that some Christians now think that we need a much broader view of the world than is possible through Christianity or through Christ. Talk about the lordship of Jesus is for them, it seems, an outmoded idea that we need to move beyond. But I strongly disagree that commitment to the lordship of Jesus is an "ensmalling" act; rightly understood, it is an enlarging one.

For example, in my previous posting I wrote about my intention to be on the side of the oppressed rather than on the side of the oppressor. That has strong implications for how I treat and what I do for and/or with African Americans, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians, etc. My desire to be on the side of the oppressed, though, is not in spite of my being a follower of Jesus Christ; it is precisely because I have confessed Jesus as Lord that I must seek to be on the side of the oppressed.

Further, as I have written previously, I firmly believe we should treat all people with justice and respect. And also in this regard, that is not a position I hold resolutely in spite of being a Christian but one I hold because I have committed my life to the lordship of Jesus.

The radical discipleship that Kierkegaard espoused and that Eller wrote about so well doesn’t narrow our interests or restrict our actions. On the contrary, being a radical disciple of Jesus expands our interests and challenges us to act boldly, especially for the benefit of all who in any way fit in the catch-all category of “the poor and oppressed.”


  1. "A much broader view of the world" is not optional. The question we face as Christians is, can we find that view within Christianity, or must we move beyond it? This challenge is not new, for centuries our universe has expanded beyond our forefathers' expectations, from Galileo, to Newton, to Darwin, to Einstein, to Freud, and even beyond. Christianity has stretched, fought, and evolved in response.

    A key part of the struggle is a necessary review of the foundations of our Christianity. Can we rework it to find the flexibility to be fully Christian and fully modern at the same time? Or do we have to abandon some areas of truth as being completely beyond and irrelevant to Christianity? Can Christianity survive such a limit?

    Several recent posts have danced lightly around questions of the metaphysical standing of Christianity. In my personal nod to "radical discipleship," let me answer the metaphysical question directly, as I see it. If fundamentalism is a block of ice, liberalism is a glass of ice water. My personal stand is a cup of cold water, with no ice in it. When I joined Second Baptist a little over twenty years ago, I joined on my statement of faith and prior baptism. By walking down the aisle of a Baptist church, I laid upon the Lord the heavy burden of Joseph Smith, Jr. and the golden plates. By joining on my prior baptism, I laid on the Lord the heavy burden of W. A. Criswell and the original autographs. Mormonism and Old Landmarkism are so 19th century, and so are their modern echoes. I have laid down the heavy burden of the metaphysical interpretation of scripture, any scripture. With the gospel of John I say, "God is spirit, and those who would worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." I yield the flesh to science.

    I am an American who speaks English. Much is special in both. Yet I know there is much value in other countries and languages. If I had been born elsewhere, I probably would be different on both counts. As a citizen of the world, I do not stop being an American, or speaking English, yet I do have to find common ground with others. As a citizen of the cosmos, like Socrates, I have to wonder at the mystery of it all. As a citizen of the kingdom of God, I have to believe that somehow we can, with God's help, stretch it all out and make it work together. Or, as Joseph Smith, III said, "Our creed is all truth."

  2. Why have you (through your quote above) placed a limitation on Jesus such that he must be "Lord of all or he is not Lord at all?" Why must you impose His lordship on others who do not request or seek it? The line about being Lord of all is exactly the foundation/justification for the various conquests that we've spent so much time discussing. Also, the title "Lord" is an imperial title that is problematic as well. It is not because Jesus is "Lord of all" that you have the convictions you have regarding civil rights, oppression, etc., but because He is Lord of you. You choose to follow Him, which should be sufficient for your moral compass without the need to impose His lordship over all on those who seek other spiritual/moral/ethical guides. There is some weakness of faith, I believe, to rest our faith on the requirement that otherwise believe likewise --- i.e., that our faith is somehow sufficient only when our faith applies to everyone else. If you truly want to be on the side of the oppressed you must cease using oppressive frameworks/concepts to express your views, otherwise it is not justice or truth that you seek, but only your version of it.

  3. I quote George Tinker (an Osage theologian at Iliff in Denver, a Methodist seminary), who writes in his "American Indian Liberation --- A Theology of Sovereignty," the following:

    "Jesus Chris is Lord" So read the huge banner above the dais...the colonial oppressiveness of the proclamation began to weigh heavily on at least one Indian person present...It is the one scriptural metaphor used for the Christ event that is ultimately unacceptable and even hurtful to American Indian peoples. There is no analogue in north american indigenous societies for the relationship of power and disparity that is usually signified by the word "lord"...the American Indian experiential knowledge of lordship only begins with the conquest and colonization of our nations at the onslaught of the european call upon Jesus as lord suddenly began to strike me as a classic example of the colonized participating in our own is to concede the conquest as final and become complicit in our own death, that is, the ongoing genocidal death of our peoples." (pg. 96).

    "The metaphor excuses White amer-european folk from any earthly humility or surrender, and facilitates a lack of consciousness with regard to the impropriety of relationships of exploitation. Since one has surrendered to an overwhelmingly powerful numinous One, no other surrender or act of humility is called for within the human community...rather than humbled in submission they are empowered and emboldened --- sometimes even explicitly empowered for imposing their own brand of submission on others...a soldier for Christ..." (Pg. 97)

  4. I appreciate the comments of Craig and Chris.

    As always, Craig's comments are interesting and insightful. I was not aware that Joseph Smith made the statement that Craig closed with. That is a good statement, I think, but it raises the difficult questions about what the truth is and how do we know it.

    Chris' comments are much appreciated because they allow me to make an important clarification: perhaps I should have made reference to the universal lordship of Jesus--after all, the Bible does speak about some time in the future that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11)--but that is not what I was referring to in what I wrote in the posting above.

    I am sorry that it was unclear in what I wrote that I was speaking only of how the lordship of Jesus must be total for those of us who confess Jesus as Lord.

    I categorically reject all attempts to force the Lordship of Jesus on others and censure those who have sought to do that in the past.

    This matter is so important that probably I will address it in the posting following the one I am planning for Nov. 9.

  5. I wrote the above before seeing Chris' second set of comments above.

  6. Another quote from Tinker,
    "Christians who take the gospel seriously should become Jesus to the world. Stop worrying about purity of doctrine --- especially other peoples' purity of doctrine--- or newness of theology and just concentrate on living the purity of the gospel in relationship with other people. If Jesus is important, then Jesus must first of all be important in how the adherent, the Christian, lives her or his life in relationship with others. If one is justified by the love of God in Jesus Christ, then act it. Be this justifiying love to others. Be Jesus quietly and without pontificating, because it is the latter that consistently causes problems of human hegemony... any theological position that continues to think of Jesus in terms of a commodity that the Amer-european has and that unbelievers in the rest of the world need will continue to play the role of global colonizer exporting a product designed to replace goods and services that the colonized already have provided for themselves. In the interests of genuine world peace and more egalitarian world society, it is time for Euro-christians to give up their modernity-laden notions of evangelism and proclaiming of the gospel. The power and privilege invested in Whiteness (for the amer-european Christian) always seem to incarnate themselves in a sense of being God's authoritative judging and ruling Christ to the world rather than the caring and loving Jesus who confronts and resists power. Hence, our theologies always tend toward the individually prescriptive rather than the systematically responsive... will american Christians continue to act both implicitly and explicitly as religious validation for existing power structures or will they join their voices with Jesus...?"

  7. Well, both Craig and Chris have already provided challenging glosses on the meaning of "radical." I would only add that radical Christianity requires a radical ethos. Perhaps the following could be a start, with the emphasis upon the first: "live simply, love deeply, and learn continuously." I'm sure I'm borrowing that from someone, though I cannot remember from whom. Suffice it to say that I'm a sucker for alliteration.

    The live simply might be the best starting point, though, and might entail an escape from any bonds to the great whore of our economy. Or, translated further, get out of debt so you can live simply and not be tied down to a lifestyle that detracts from the radical lifestyle of loving and learning, necessary to be a practitioner of the kind of discipleship lifestyle Jesus models. Perhaps that should be the starting point. In fact, one of the most burdensome forms of oppression in North America is economic oppression, it seems to me. The haves by necessity (of competition) eliminate the have nots.

    Finally, there should be an "as you go-ness" (translating "poruthentes" as a circumstantial participle rather than an imperative in Matt 28:19) about it all. Living simply is not the thing, but facilitates the thing(s), which is loving and learning. And, we just do it as a matter of our every day way of being in the world. If churches became radical in those ways,they would breed radical lifestyles of discipleship.

  8. MPH, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I particularly like the challenge to "live simply, love deeply, and learn continuously."

    I couldn't find those words by using Google. A church in Ann Arbor, MI, had a church sign in August 2007 that said, "Live simply, Love generously, Care deeply, Speak Kindly, and Leave the rest to God!" Those are good words, too, but I prefer what you wrote--to live, love, and learn.

    Since I generally emphasize four Ls, perhaps one L could be added to your list: "live simply, love deeply, learn continuously, and laugh often."

  9. Leroy,
    Thanks for pointing us back to real issues of our Christian faith. Since none of us have perfect theology, I agree we should focus on how we live. I love the quote, "...just concentrate on living the purity of the gospel in relationship with other people."

  10. A short clarification. The quote I referenced, "Our creed is all truth," I think I remember being from "Young Joseph"--the son of Joseph Smith, Jr. He had a much different relationship to Mormonism than his father, although he did end up spending many years as head of the RLDS (1860-1914). I don't have the book I think I remember reading it in, so I tried a Google search, and found a different use from 1881, but, interestingly, one with Mormon connections. It is quite possible Smith was quoting someone else.

    And when I have more time and brains I want to respond to what Chris said. As Christians we have taken a cafeteria approach to the Old Testament. Do we need to do the same to the New?

  11. Craig,
    You know we already pick and choose from the Old and New Testaments, so nothing would change. The only challenge Chris might be giving you is releasing something you chose before.