Denominations and Traditions: Thoughts on Differences

412634116_d888b40575_b

“To stand within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge, but makes it possible.”

Hans Georg Gadamer

Today I spent a few hours working on my Mid-Program defense for my PhD program, I will be presenting it to my committee on May 14th. This entails laying out the key questions and motivations behind my research. It also includes what I’ve studied so far, where I am headed and how I will finish up (God help me!). It’s a good exercise but it’s rather grueling and kind of works against the way I am wired. When I was editing today I came across the word “denominations” which I had written awhile back and I instantly replaced it with the phrase “faith traditions.” Shocked by my initial response, I realized that I still have an allergy to the word.

I grew up Catholic, went to mass regularly, was baptized Catholic (as far as I know) and was confirmed as an adolescent. I did my time, literally, in parochial schools up through 8th grade and was devastated when my parents decided to stop going to mass and start taking us to some small store-front Charismatic church. I was by then pretty committed to my Catholic faith. Then I was indoctrinated in the non-denominational framework, where all denominations are evil! Boo!! And will steal your soul, because everyone in them is mindless and not really passionate about their faith, they just go because that’s where their parents went, or whatever.

I stopped believing this anti-denominational doctrine once I realized the importance of being a part of something bigger than one local congregation, and the amount of support, accountability, and richness of history involved with, well, denominations. But still, I don’t like the word. I prefer instead to talk about (faith) traditions for a couple reasons.

For one, the word denomination just has a bad rap for a lot of Americans. It sounds overly paternalistic, top-down and dated. Whereas tradition, at least to me, rings of something more alive, something that is potentially more organic and flat. Anyone can participate in a tradition. For instance, think of all those interested in aspects of the monastic tradition, who adopt this or that practice, but are not themselves wholly monastic.

A friend made a great point to me on twitter saying that denominations help to name something that would otherwise remain unnamed and unnamed things are ultimately untenable as movements. I think he was right to suggest the importance of naming something, this is a process we see happening again and again in the Bible. But still, the problem lies not in the fact of naming something, but rather that often everything can be lost but the name. Consequently, the denominational name simply becomes a placeholder for something that has become largely obsolete. Rather, tradition in the way I understand it stresses the (dis)continuity between our stories, the practices we engage in as Christians, our beliefs, and points to what texts, biblical and otherwise, are important in the formation of our communities.

Finally, denomination still signals, at least to me, a preference to structure and hierarchical authority. Here “denomination” is the opposite of “movement” or “organic.” A denomination was once a movement that has become top-heavy, bogged down by its irreplaceable and non-translatable history and text. Instead, a tradition is more like a way of perceiving our contemporary world and relating to our shared history, a way of interaction with and communication about God. It can remain fluid and translatable even when people within that tradition get caught up in denominational-isms.

This is what I like so much about the Quaker Everett Cattell who worked within the denominational structures of the Friends church, he was both a college president and a superintendent, but suggested that the heart of the tradition was not found in those structures but in the community’s organic relationship to God’s mission and fellowship with one another in the Spirit, both of which he felt would actually undercut our structures and challenge them to be re-thought according to our contemporary needs. My reading of Cattell is that he believed the only way to truly be a Quaker was to betray the structures in favor of obedience to God’s call to be for the world, and in doing so, we might in fact be truly Friends.

Following Cattell, I have very little interest in Quakerism, in as much as it is an ism. These things that are the “way we’ve always done them” can actually becomes obstacles to our believing in the power of God’s Spirit. The denominational nitty gritty, when it is left to its own devices and not rooted within the life of the tradition, only sustains structures often reinforcing the church’s role as a placeholder for our belief rather than a bottom-up community of people following God’s mission in the world. I want to be a part of a community that not only tells but also lives into the stories of those we call Quaker.

Church in Mission: Post-Christendom, Effectiveness and Reshaping Ethics Pt4

Series contents | Introduction | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

According to John Howard Yoder, one aspect that distinguishes this bi-cultural faith community we call the Christian church from the world is it’s insistence upon being non-coercive. This point of view has major implications not only for the mission of the church in our culture as well as in others, but it also brings up some important points about how we read our history.

A Quick History of Christendom

Since the start of Christendom, when the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and Christianity became the state (re:enforced) religion, the church has struggled to take the teachings of Christ seriously on matters of violence. This is why we call the marriage between Christianity and the state is called Constantinianism. This theological, and political shift for the church, which was a move from the margins of society to the center of power, had profound effects upon the way it understood itself.

Yoder says:

The deeper shift behind it all was the loss of the identity of the Christianity community, as visible over against the world, replaced by the effort to “Christianize?? (thinly) the entire society. Once the premise that Europe is “Christendom?? has been granted, the rest follows. The church-state tie and even the Crusades can make sense (as they still do in our day, in modern forms, to a host of Americans) once the first assumption, namely, that everyone is “in,?? is made?? (104).

Continue reading Church in Mission: Post-Christendom, Effectiveness and Reshaping Ethics Pt4

Happy Birth-Month: Like a Baby In The Night

Well, we have officially entered December, month nine, and the countdown to the birth of the baby is at 24 days. We are both increasingly excited, and at this point are anxious for her arrival. We want to meet this amazing person living in Emily’s womb! But then again, we have no control over when she comes, we only have a guess, and while that guess (Dec 25) is our best guess (it is after all called the “due date”), it is no more than a guess. Approximately 2% of all babies are actually born on their due dates. So we have to keep watch and be ready, holding onto our guess, and yet at some level being completely clueless to when she plans to take the leap.

I keep thinking about the passages in the Gospel’s where Jesus talks about the importance of watching and being ready (Matt 24:36-44). Or maybe the passage in Thessalonians more fitting, since Paul makes a poignant illustration:

1Th. 5:1-5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,??? then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

When I think of these passages, I think to myself, “like a baby in the night,” because that’s how I am seeing it right now. I’ve got my cell phone on at all times, we’ve got our bags packed, we’ve visited the hospital and planned our routes (and backup routes) for getting there. There has also been a lot of preparative work being done around the house for the baby’s arrival.

Continue reading Happy Birth-Month: Like a Baby In The Night

Advent and The Gift of Life (Luke 1:57-80)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.??? They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.??? Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.??? And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become???? For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him (Luke 1:57-66).

Waiting. Waiting for an offspring. Waiting for a voice. Waiting for salvation. We all know what it is to exist in a state of waiting, but what do we expect, and how do we respond? Waiting can leads us in at least two directions: despair or hope. With despair can come the sense of entitlement; I am waiting for what is mine. Hope is situated within the context of God’s ongoing faithfulness.

Elizabeth and Zechariah have spent their lives in wait and at the birth of their son have chosen to remain hopeful – that is see their ‘blessing’ as a gift from God not something they had a ‘right’ to. One way we see their hope is in the way they go about naming their son. In this passage, we see there was an expectation that the newborn be named for the father, Zechariah. When asked the name of the child, however, Elizabeth and Zechariah dramatically relinquished their parental ‘right’ to carry on the family name and the legacy. Because Elizabeth and Zechariah were willing to view their long awaited blessing (to have an heir) within the context of God’s faithfulness, John’s life was freed to be a blessing for all Israel. Continue reading Advent and The Gift of Life (Luke 1:57-80)

Church in Mission: Translation and The Bi-Lingual Community (Pt.3)

This is the third part of the Church in Mission series where I am attempting to appropriate some of John Howard Yoder’s thinking in direct relationship to the mission of the church in our culture today.

Series contents | Introduction | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

So far we’ve look at the church in relationship to the question of how the church is to remain “relevant” to our culture, and secondly the question of how Jesus interacted with his own culture. Another way of thinking (that is complimentary to what’s been said) about the mission of the church as something over and against commodified relevancy can be seen this in Yoder’s primary missiological text, Jeremiah 29:7:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

For Yoder the Jews’ being scattered into the Babylonian empire is not a sidetrack of their history, but a new beginning. “It was rather the beginning, under a firm, fresh prophetic mandate, of a new phase of the Mosaic project” (For the Nations, 53). Dispersion is now the calling of the Jewish community of faith (52). And within this dispersion, YHWH calls the Jewish people to “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” Continue reading Church in Mission: Translation and The Bi-Lingual Community (Pt.3)

Church In Mission: The Problem With Being Relevant Pt.1

God make us relevant

Series contents | Introduction | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

A big question concerning the church in Western culture is, “how do we make the church more relevant for today’s world?” We see this question get answered in many ways: from youth pastors using the video games like Halo to evangelize their teenagers, to church buildings with Starbucks, to Jumbo trons pumping out “Christian commercials,” to building structures designed after today’s modern malls, to churches creating myspace groups or online social networks. I know I have been guilty of thinking that relevancy is the most important question the church faces, and while the best of intentions are behind this, I ultimately think it’s the wrong question.

Continue reading Church In Mission: The Problem With Being Relevant Pt.1

Remember the Dutch! The Magic of Creation

Newborn Toes

Emily and I have been doing our birthing classes for the past three weeks preparing for birth. We are taking the Bradley Method classes because we’re both interested in having a natural birth (or at least as much of one as is possible). But that’s where we’re running into some difficulties. We’re finding that the less-than-helpful medical system of which our insurance company has thrust us into isn’t as pro-natural birth as one would hope. One problem is that we have an HMO that offers no alternative to a hospital birth. There are not separate standing natural birth centers we can go to (and be covered) and the insurance company knows of no doctors who are “friendly to natural birth.” We have a lot of friends who have had natural births but they are either PPOs or on Medicare (so far as I know). It just seems really weird that within a 30 mile radius of where we live there isn’t one place covered by our HMO that is on board with this stuff. I mean it’s not like we live in the boondocks. And how does a healthcare group really not know if any of their doctors do take natural childbirth seriously?

Secondly, when (in our very limited experience) asking a doctor if they are “friendly to natural birth” gets you a strange look and a less than satisfying answer, you start to get a little scared. Why is it that in our society we are obsessed with the over medicalization of everything? The current doctor we’ve been seeing (our second so far) said she is “sort of friendly” to natural birthing methods, but when it comes down to it, she’s actually not into it at all. For instance, we learned yesterday that the doctor has a c-section rate of over 30% in line with the rest of LA and its everything pristine, Hollywood mentality.

In the LA Times recently a woman said:

Too many caesareans are literally medical overkill. Yet some U.S. hospitals are now delivering half of all babies surgically. Across the nation, 1 in 4 low-risk first-time mothers will give birth via caesarean, and if they have more children, 95% will be born by repeat surgery. In many cases, women have no choice in the matter. Though vaginal birth after caesarean is a low-risk event, hundreds of institutions have banned it, and many doctors will no longer attend it because of malpractice liability.

Not only is a C-section arguably more risky but it’s just not necessary most of the time. This website points out that for patients of natural birthing methods, those who are well practiced and prepared for birth, their c-section rate is closer to 4% (a majority being to due to complications). It says:

Of 11,814 women admitted for labor and delivery and attended by midwives to 84 free standing birth centers in the US, 15.8% were transferred to the hospital and 4.4% had a cesarean section. Although the women were lower than average risk of a poor pregnancy outcome, their cesarean rate is one-fifth of the national average.

For us it’s hardly about just c-sections, though I find the study of its growing popularity fascinating from a cultural standpoint. The bigger problem is that we want to feel like we have the freedom to have a baby naturally without being pressured otherwise. Overall, this doctor has requested some things of us, done or made suggestions that have made us feel rather anxious about having her as the doctor who will see the birth of our baby through. Will she push unnecessary medicine on Emily in the heat of the moment? Will she demand inducing birth if the baby doesn’t come “on time” (she already told us she will)? Will we be able to keep the baby after birth? Will she respect any of our wishes when push comes to shove (no pun intended)?

I am realizing these are important issues for all of us to think through. As the church we’re called to be a contrast society in the world, that can at times mean asking uncomfortable questions and being irritating to the “professionals” of the world. But if it means that we can be honest about how our faith and choices work together (and sometimes don’t) and ride against the powers of our culture then it seems worth it to us. Having a first child is really exciting but we’re finding it’s also really scary. We want our daughter to be born in a way that is safe and healthy, as well as not over medicated or unnecessarily unnatural. I don’t believe these two things don’t have to work against either. Let creation work its magic. Do we really need intervene when it’s not necessary?

We heard while we were in the UK that Holland doesn’t offer any kind of anesthesia or any other drugs during birth unless it is medically an absolute necessity. They recognize that women have been giving birth since the beginning of time, and that maybe our interfering has negative repercussions we don’t see. So we’ve adopted the saying “remember the Dutch” as a way to remind us of this simple, yet important point: creation has a powerful magic of its own.