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To Understand God Truly by David Kelsey


David Kelsey is Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. His article is based on his convocation address in 1996 inaugurating a new academic year in which YDS, under the leadership of its new dean, Richard Wood, set out to develop new curriculum and programs recommended by a review committee, which was chaired by Kelsey. To Know God Truly: What's Theological About a Theological School?
was published in 1992 by Westminster /John Knox Press
. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Herb and June Lowe.


7. Congregations


A theological school is a community of persons trying to understand God more truly by focusing its study of various subject matters within the horizon of questions about Christian congregations. That is the thesis we need now to refine.

Understanding God must proceed indirectly. If a community of persons sets out to understand God more truly, it is going to have to go about it by focusing on something else whose study is believed to lead to truer understanding of God. What should that be? This is a point at which the diversity of construals of the Christian thing that we noted in chapter 2 becomes decisive. In some construals of the Christian thing the answer would be, "Study of Christian scriptures (or, scriptures in tradition) is the indirect route to truer understanding of God." In other construals the advice would be, "Study religious experience" or "Reflect on liberating praxis," or "Study Christian tradition (or at least the first five centuries of it)." Each of these is an important element of the Christian thing, but only as it stands interconnected in various ways with the others. The Christian thing itself, I suggest, can be encountered concretely in and as Christian congregations; its major and most demonic distortions can also be encountered in the same place. Consequently, I propose that the answer to our questions ought to be:

"Focus study of all of the above through the lens of questions about Christian congregations in all their diversity and often appalling ambiguity."

In making this proposal I am building on a suggestion first advanced by James F. Hopewell.Growing out of years of involvement in a group exploring different ways to study congregations [1] and his own ground-breaking Congregation: Stories and Structures, [2] Hopewell wrote an essay, "A Congregational Paradigm for Theological Education." Theological educators from a variety of types of theological schools were gathered in a seminar to discuss not so much Hopewell's paper itself but the issues it raised for theological schooling. The papers for that seminar, including my own, have been published as Beyond Clericalism. [3] The papers raise a number of major objections to the general proposal I now want to explore further. The objections are serious and I agree with them. However, in thinking them through I have come to believe that they provide guidance for shaping my proposal more rigorously than it would have been otherwise and, ironically, provide strong arguments in favor of the proposal! It is enough to outline the objections here and explore their force; detailed response to them will come later.

There are three broad sorts of objections to the proposal that theological schooling focus on study of Christian congregations. The first is that it is an inherently sectarian proposal. A Christian congregation is not, for most Christians at any rate, identical with "Christian Church." To the contrary, the practices, beliefs, and history of any one congregation, as well as the proper concepts to use in describing and analyzing it, have their home in a much larger Christian tradition.[4] If a theological school wants more truly to understand God, surely it would be better -- to make a counterproposal -- to focus its study on that greater tradition than on individual congregations within it.

Moreover, for a second objection, the proposal is far too parochial. There are far greater reaches of reality than what may be found within the common life of particular congregations. [5] If a theological school wants to understand God more truly, if truth is really the issue, surely it would be better to focus study on the foundations that justify our getting involved in a congregation in the first place. Perhaps -- to make another counterproposal -- it would be wiser to focus on common human experience, or at least on distinctively religious experience of which the experience of a congregation is one variation.

The third objection is that the proposal is too complacent about Christian congregations. It is too uncritical in its assumption that by studying Christian congregations one could come more truly to understand God. That assumption is uncritical of congregations' faithlessness. They are faithless to God, faithless to what they themselves say is their mission in the world, faithless in their idolatrous captivity to society's values. Moreover, in their faithlessness, congregations become blind to social injustice and tend to reinforce and sanction the injustice. They become ideologically captive.[6] If a theological school wants to understand God more truly, surely it would be better -- to make yet another counterproposal -- to focus study on the Word of God that not only calls congregations into being and nurtures them but also judges and corrects them.

Behind these reasoned objections and giving them their power lies a deep offense. Christian congregations are occasions for offense. One need hardly be a theological educator in a seminar about theological schools to feel that. The morally earnest, the spiritually perceptive, the intellectually sophisticated, not to mention the aesthetically sensitive, are often scandalized by the actualities of Christian congregational life. And justifiably so. The phrase "the scandal of particularity" has usually been associated with Christian claims about Jesus of Nazareth. The claim that God is uniquely present among us, sharing our common human lot as this one particular first-century Jew, is offensive the way apparently arbitrary, exclusivist, and arrogant claims often are. But the phrase applies with even more cause to traditional Christian claims that congregations are, or are somehow part of, the "people of God," the "body of Christ," the "bride of Christ," that they are communities on which the Holy Spirit is particularly poured out. It is natural and appropriate to be scandalized that such claims should be made of just these all-too-well-known groups, faithless to their self-descriptions, thoroughly assimilated to the value system of the larger culture in which they live, complacent and at ease, often trivial and banal, subtly using the rhetoric of the faith to sanction their privileges and to obscure society's injustices.

So, of all unlikely candidates, why pick Christian congregations as the lens through which to focus study of scripture, experience, and tradition? The general answer lies in our maxim: The way to the generally relevant and universally true passes through the particular and concrete.

Scripture, for instance, may very well be that which both nurtures and judges congregations. But it does these things in concrete actuality only as it is used in certain ways in the common life of actual congregations. Or it may well be that it is elements, perhaps "religious" elements, of our "common human experience" that ultimately justify our becoming part of some congregation's common life. But that experience is never conceptually unformed. In order to see how it is actually formed in such a way that it warrants our taking this step, we need to see how experience is shaped by the common life of congregations in their cultural settings. So too, it may well be that congregations are largely constituted of traditional practices that are part of a much larger church tradition. But that tradition is nowhere concretely actual except as practiced in particular congregations. What one may study independently of congregations are relative abstractions from the concrete actuality of particular congregations of Christians like "the history of dogma" or "the history of liturgy" or "the history of canon law." The abstraction from concrete social reality in each case tends to create the illusion that theological ideas or practices of worship or church legal systems have ghostly lives of their own that transcend the concrete particulars of the communities that more or less believe the dogmas, practice the liturgies, and follow the rules.

It is in the common life of congregations that all these factors of the Christian thing come together to transform and empower persons' lives. The Christian thing can be concretely encountered in and as Christian congregations. Indeed, it is by comparative study of congregations that one can see how different construals of the Christian thing make real differences in the ways persons' lives are shaped and empowered. If it is believed that study of some or all of these construals of "the content of the Christian thing" yields truer understanding of God then, the proposal goes, it is best to study them as concretely as possible. One place in North American societies where they are most concretely available is the common life of Christian congregations. The Christian thing may, to be sure, be encountered elsewhere, say in the lives of exemplary persons, but no other place so insistently claims for itself that it instantiates and enacts the Christian thing as does the Christian congregation.

The way to the generally relevant and universally true passes through the particular and concrete. That is the reason for urging that study of all the subject matters to which theological schools attend, in the hope of understanding God more truly, be focused through the lens of questions about particular Christian congregations. However, it does not by itself answer any of the major objections to giving congregations this kind of systematic importance. I believe those objections can be answered. However, the answers must tie in the details of the way this proposal is worked out. Consequently, responses to the objections will need to be scattered through the rest of this chapter as the proposal is elaborated and developed.

A WORKING DESCRIPTION

Then how do we identify a congregation when we see one? What is going to count as a "Christian congregation"? We need to identify criteria by which to judge which groups belong within the circle of Christian congregations so that we can tell concretely just what it is that we recommend theological schools select to focus their studies. We need to identify the criteria to which congregations hold themselves accountable. We need to identify ways in which, for all their differences from one another, Christian congregations are nonetheless somehow "one" with one another in a more embracing "whole." We need to specify how congregations are not only located within but are somehow integral to larger social and cultural systems. We need to identify the methods of inquiry that should be used in the study of congregations. Only when we can identify these matters will we be in a position to respond to objections to the very suggestion that a theological school focus on the study of congregations.

To do all this we need an appropriate language. I propose to use the language of "actions" and "practices" sketched in the last chapter. I propose we think of Christian congregations as comprised of complex networks of interrelated practices. The public worship of God is, I suggest, the central practice of the set of practices that comprise a Christian congregation. There are, of course, an indefinitely large number of other practices that are part of the common life of Christian congregations: pastoral care of the ill, the troubled, and the grieving; nurture and education of children and adults; management of property; raising of funds; maintenance of institutions; and so forth. They are all ordered, however, to the practice whose end is to worship God.

It must be stressed that the practice of worship is a response to the odd presence of God. Historically, for Christians and Jews, the ways in which God is present have been understood to be unpredictable, unmanageable, and thoroughly peculiar: in dreams and a burning bush; in an Egyptian slave insurrection; in a crucified Jew. More exactly, it has been God's presence in memories of these occasions, remembered as promises of God's presence on equally unpredictable and peculiar occasions in the future. The response of worship has mostly been a response in the meantime, between memory and fulfilled promise. For Christians, almost by definition, the normative and decisive presence of God is in the life story of Jesus' ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection appearances. Christian worship is a response in joy, awe, and gratitude for the memory and promise of the sheer fact of God's presence in Jesus of Nazareth.

Consequently, this practice's end is internal to itself. That is, worship of God is not done to any further end. Rather, this practice is a celebration of God's presence for its own sake. Accordingly, it is misleading to characterize a congregation as "a redemptive community." It may be that on occasion the community is redemptive. However, to characterize the community that way suggests that the community's central practice is to "redeem" people. Rather, at very best, its practices are ordered only to being a context in which redemption may take place. If anything is redemptive it is God's own peculiar ways of being present in history, and congregations are constituted by the practices in which they respond to that redemptive presence.

When Christians' worship is understood in this fashion as a "practice" (in the somewhat technical sense of "practice" we have adopted), then James Hopewell's description of a congregation turns out to be unusually fruitful: "A congregation is a group that possesses a special name and recognized members who assemble regularly to celebrate a more universally practiced worship but who communicate with each other sufficiently to develop intrinsic patterns of conduct, outlook, and story." [7] To bring out its fruitfulness I shall first suggest an expansion of our working description of "Christian congregation" and then elaborate it piecemeal, drawing attention to its implications for theological study and the responses it implies to objections to focusing theological schooling on study on congregations.

What is a Christian congregation? As a working description I will adopt the following expansion of Hopewell's description:

"A Christian congregation is a group of persons that gathers together to enact publicly a much more broadly practiced worship of God in Jesus' name, regularly enough over an indefinite period of time to have a common life in which develop intrinsic patterns of conduct, outlook, and story, and that holds its conduct, outlook, and story accountable as to its faithfulness to biblical stories of Jesus' mission and God's mission in Jesus." [8]

IDENTIFYING CONGREGATIONS

Our working definition provides an answer to the question, "How do we tell which groups belong within the circle 'Christian congregations'?" After all, the proposal that a theological school focus study by attention to Christian congregations is useless unless we can identify which groups should and which should not be considered candidates for study. The working description provides a very permissive answer: The phrase "in Jesus' name" is definitive. Let groups describe themselves into or out of the circle. Any group of persons who gather to worship God regularly enough for an indefinite period of time to have developed a common life in which arise intrinsic patterns of conduct, outlook, and story and explicitly do so "in Jesus' name" as a deliberate act of self-identification should be considered a Christian congregation for our purposes.

"Jn Jesus' name" functions at once descriptively and normatively. It requires us to draw two distinctions where only one grew before: Christian vs. non-Christian, and faithful vs. sinful.

The original question concerned description: Descriptively speaking, which groups count as "Christian congregations"? The answer given here is: Let each group's self-description stand. If a group characterizes itself as one that meets in Jesus' name, let it be counted a Christian congregation. We will let "in Jesus' name" be a necessary condition of a congregation's "Christianness."

This has implications concerning the subject matter of theological schooling. It is a matter of theological controversy, of course, whether "in Jesus' name" is a sufficient condition of a congregation's "Christianness." More controversy turns on what further conditions a congregation would have to meet if the self-description "in Jesus' name" is not sufficient. Those controversies ought to be left open by a theological school so that the structure and merits of arguments on both sides can be rigorously tested. Indeed, it is precisely by raising these controversies in the process of studying actual congregations that the meaning and importance of contested theological views are best understood.

Adopting "in Jesus' name" as the necessary minimal condition for a counting as a "Christian congregation" for the purpose of a theological school's study does not, of course, require any particular answer to the quite different question whether God is truly known and worshiped by groups who do not worship in Jesus' name or whether God is redemptively present to them. That is a further question open for exploration in theological study.

Adopting this necessary minimal condition does mean, however, that any congregation that takes on this self-description thereby also affirms that there is a difference between Christian and non-Christian congregations and that the difference matters. What matters is the way the community's identity is shaped and the ways in which its members' personal identities are shaped. The difference it makes is a difference in who they are.

"In Jesus' name" also functions normatively. Any group that describes itself as gathering to worship God in Jesus' name thereby adopts a criterion to which it commits to hold itself accountable. Its worship is intended to be faithful to Jesus. No matter how a group may understand Jesus, he has been identified as a necessary criterion by which its conduct, outlook, and story must be assessed. This means that in addition to the distinction Christian/non-Christian congregation, there is the distinction faithful Christian/unfaithful Christian congregation. Conceptually speaking, any particular congregation might be truly "Christian," that is, deliberately assume the communal identity that goes with worshiping God in Jesus' name, and at the same time in some ways be faithless to Jesus. It can at once be "Christian" and "sinful."

This too has implications regarding the subject matter of theological schooling. These distinctions between "Christian" and "faithful" are purely formal. Whether they are accepted as distinctions in reality depends on different views of the church. It depends on controversial theological views about whether "faithfulness" should be added to "in Jesus' name" as a necessary condition of genuinely being a Christian congregation. Here too, the controversy ought to be left open for reasoned debate in a theological school. It is precisely by raising these controversies in the context of the comparative study of congregations that the full meaning and importance of contested theological views are best grasped.

One qualification of this way of identifying what counts as "Christian congregations" needs to be made. What if there were a congregation that adopted the self-description "in Jesus' name" but never, as a part of its practice of worship in that name, engaged in critical reflection on its own faithfulness to that norm? For reasons we shall discuss below, such a group should probably be excluded from the class "Christian congregations" on the grounds that it evidently did not understand what it means to describe itself that way.

SELF-CRITICAL CONGREGATIONS

According to our working description, a congregation is a group that gathers to worship God in Jesus' name and holds its conduct, outlook, and story accountable as to its faithfulness to biblical stories of Jesus' mission and God's mission in Jesus. Consider what is entailed in this. Worship, we have said, may be understood as a social practice. As we went to some length to show in chapter 6, critical self-reflection is inherent in any practice. Insofar as a congregation is constituted by a complex set of interconnected practices, critical self-reflection is inherent to the common worship life of a congregation. In our working description of congregations we have, in capsule form, the norm against which a congregation's conduct, outlook, and story are reflectively to be guided and critically to be assessed: the stories of Jesus' mission and God's mission in Jesus. Hence, a group that never engaged in critical self-reflection on its faithfulness to its own self-description "in Jesus' name" would seem not to have understood what is involved in describing itself "in Jesus' name" and should not be considered as a Christian congregation.

But how are Jesus' missions and God's mission in Jesus to be characterized? How are the norms to be stated? Once again, the differences we noted in chapter 2 among construals of the Christian thing are decisive -- and divisive. Different pictures of the significance of Jesus and of his relationship to God will yield significantly different but frequently overlapping formulations of the norms against which a congregation's life is to be assessed. One generalization may be ventured, however. In their diverse ways, all construals of the norms to which a congregation holds itself accountable tie worship of God to a commitment to truthfulness. Faithfulness to "Jesus' name" entails faithfulness to the truth. In one way or another critical self-reflection by a congregation involves not only attention to whether various features of its practices are faithful to the One to whom they are responses, but also involves attention to whether engaging in some particular practice or, indeed, to this entire set of practices is itself truthful.

There are several different sorts of untruth that constantly require critique and correction. As we have noted, practices are always historically and culturally situated and relative. One consequence of this is that practices shaped by one cultural and historical setting may become increasingly esoteric, private, and disengaged from the public realm as its host society goes through historical and cultural changes. In that case, the practices' growing unintelligibility and inappropriateness to the public realm require critique and imaginative reflection on how they should be revised.

A second consequence of a congregation's practices' social location is that they are threatened with ideological distortion. Precisely because a congregation has "material" bases and is necessarily located at some point in conflicts within a society which may tend to privilege its access to the material resources it needs, a congregation's practices are always in danger of serving to preserve the social arrangements from which they profit and of obscuring the inequalities inherent in those arrangements. When that happens the practices are filling an ideological function. They have also become idolatrous. The material interest being protected has displaced God as that to which response is being made. In that case, a congregation's practice requires a different sort of critique, and calls for creative reflection about how to avoid ideological captivity and idolatry.

Even more radically, the fact that the practice of worship of God inherently requires critical self-reflection means that it inherently requires critical examination of whether and why we should engage ourselves in the Christian thing at all, and hence in the common life of this or any congregation. Inherent in faithfulness to the One to whom worship in Jesus' name is a response is the call rigorously and critically to examine the truth of the Christian thing itself. Exactly how that is to be done is, of course, a highly controversial matter. The point is that by their own self-descriptions Christian congregations require that it be done and, therefore, doing it will be part of the work of a theological school whose study is focused through the lens of questions about congregations. This implies a response to one major objection to the entire proposal that theological schooling focus its efforts to understand God more truly through questions about congregations. The objection was that congregations are by and large far too ideologically captive to their host cultures to be suitable as the lens through which theological schooling is focused. However, the point is that given our working description of Christian congregations, theological schooling focused by study of congregations would welcome and endorse the most vigorous and detailed exposé of the cultural captivity and ideological functioning of congregations and their practices. By their very self-description as groups gathered to worship God in Jesus' name, congregations commit themselves to continuing self-critique in the light of norms that expose and judge exactly such idolatry, even though they may not do it very rigorously! Far from ignoring this idolatry, theological schooling focused by study of congregations would highlight it. In this regard theological schooling would be against a congregation..

By the same token, our working description's stress on the self-critical moment in Christian congregations' practice of worship has implications concerning the subject matter of theological schooling. A theological school's focus on the congregation in order better to understand God must involve several kinds of critical and constructive theological work. It requires what might best be called "theology of culture," theological reflection on critical implications of cultural change for congregations' practices, and it calls for envisioning possible constructive reshaping of a congregation's practices insofar as they are ways in which the congregation tells its story in and to its host culture. For example, it requires examination of the ways in which the roles and status assigned to women in a congregation reflect the ways in which they are assigned in society at large, to test whether they are in accord with what the congregation itself claims are the implications of worshiping God "in Jesus' name" in a manner "ruled" by New Testament stories about Jesus. It requires moral theology, critical normative assessment of the congregation's practices insofar as they are morally accountable conduct. It requires doctrinal theology for critical assessment of the ideological distortion and faithlessness of its practices insofar as they are statements of its outlook, and it calls for constructive proposals of preferable formulations of its outlook.

PUBLIC AND ECUMENICAL CONGREGATIONS

Our working description stresses that a Christian congregation is a group that gathers to enact publicly a much more broadly practiced worship of God in Jesus' name. The connection between "broadly practiced" and "public" is crucial if "worship" is not to be misunderstood or understood far too narrowly.

It is immensely important that "worship" not be understood narrowly. At this point we must face up to a methodological problem. Here, as in this entire discussion of the notion of "Christian congregation," no sharp line is possible between descriptive and normative remarks. Once again we encounter the consequences of the variety of ways in which the Christian thing can be and has been construed. Different comprehensive or synoptic judgments about what "the faith is all about" or what "the basic message of the Word is" or what "the point of the Christian life is" bring with them different theological norms by which to judge what is, is less, or is not at all adequate and

appropriate as worship of God in Jesus' name. One has always to make choices about the terms to use in description, and both the choices and the terms will inescapably be theologically laden, and therefore shaped by some normative commitments.

It is my hope to elaborate the concept "worship" in a way that will be compatible with the wide range of ways of understanding what is the Christian thing that we identified in chapter 2. However if in light of your construal of what Christianity is all about, this sketch of what worship is requires alteration, alter it! What is important is the proposal that theological schooling's effort more truly to understand God be focused through questions about Christian congregations whose defining practice is worship, however "worship" is understood. It will be impossible to assess the fruitfulness of that larger proposal to a particular theological school if the understanding of "worship" and of "congregation" it takes for granted is inapplicable in a particular tradition. If those descriptions need to be modified to make the larger proposal more applicable, let them be modified! If the concrete content of the proposal sketched here is irrelevant to you, test whether at any rate it might be illuminating to rethink theological schooling along analogous lines, that is, as focused through questions about the Christian community described in some other way.

Elaboration of what worship is may usefully begin with two relatively noncontroversial negative remarks and then move on to positive characterization. To begin with, as James Hopewell pointed out,[[9] worship "in Jesus' name" must not be understood as cultic worship in the strict sense. "Cultic worship" is a practice performed by a person empowered by the deity to serve as intermediary between human beings and divine powers by presiding over an esoteric ritual (usually a sacrifice) which evokes an appearance of divine power for the benefit of the worshiper.

The benefit for the worshiper might be anything from the success of an undertaking, to recovery from illness, to becoming immortal. Worship of God in Jesus' name is not cultic in this sense precisely because, as response to God's presence, definitively in the life, death, and resurrection appearances of Jesus, it does not seek to evoke God's presence but to celebrate it as an already given gift. Hence it permits no religious specialist to be intermediary between divine power and us and no esoteric ritual with the capacity to evoke divine presence. [10]

For much the same reason, worship of God in Jesus' name cannot be a practice whose defining end is to receive something from God. The fact that it is worship in Jesus' name means that the benefit which it is appropriate to seek of God is somehow predefined by "Jesus' name." It is defined as already given to us in the peculiar ways in which God has been and promises to be present, notably "in Jesus." Hence this worship of God is a practice whose defining purpose or end is nothing other than expression of joy, awe, and thanksgiving for the sheer fact of the gift of God's presence. However, in that context, petitions are made to God as part of a response in gratitude and joy. The response involves the community's total life. That means that acknowledgment of one's dependence upon God and of one's deepest yearnings (which, after all, are also part of the totality of life) is an appropriate part of the practice of worship. However, in this context petitions to God no longer define the practice of worship in a self-referencing way ("The point of worshiping God is to receive what we need"); rather petitions are themselves transformed into acts of thanksgiving as part of the practice of referring all our lives to God as a response to God's peculiar and disconcerting mode of presence.

More positively, the practice of worship of God in Jesus' name embraces everything involved in responding to God's presence. It is the practice of referring to God the entire life of the community and the world in which it lives. Perhaps the best comprehensive term for the practice of this worship as a whole is simply "discipleship." In its fullest sense, the practice of the worship of God in Jesus' name involves the shaping of the totality of persons' lives as an appropriate response to God's strange way of being present in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The tendency to understand "worship" more narrowly as limited to the "proclamation of the Word" and "the celebration of the sacraments" is understandable. It has legitimate roots in tradition. If; as discipleship, the practice of worship involves the shaping of the totality of our life as a response to God's way of being present, then discipleship needs constantly to be reminded of what it is responding to. Moreover, in order to be an appropriate response, it needs constantly to be tested and reformed by what it is responding to. That reminding, testing, and reforming is a major part of what goes on in conventionally and narrowly understood worship: the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Clearly the two are at the core of the practice of worship. However,even as the core they are only part of a larger, more complex cooperative social practice, the public worship of God. It is for this reason that Bishop J. A. T. Robinson, noting that the end toward which the service of Holy Communion is ordered is its last line, "Go out into the world" (Latin: Ite missa est = Go, it is sent, or, more colloquially, Get out! Get to work!), claimed that celebrating the Eucharist is a profoundly political act. [11]

Thus our working description of Christian congregations underscores two central features of the practice that constitutes them: the practice of worship is a public practice and it is a broadly shared practice. These two points imply responses to two important objections to the proposal that theological schooling be focused through questions about congregations, namely, that it is parochial and that it is sectarian. They too have implications regarding the subject matter of theological study

The practice of worship in Jesus' name is a public practice in at least two senses. It is a practice, we said, in which persons' lives are being shaped in their totality as appropriate responses to God's strange way of being present in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In the quasi-technical language we sketched in chapter 6, what is being shaped are the emotions, passions, beliefs, and intentions that enable someone to act in distinctive ways. They are acts in which persons are capacitated to engage self-critically in a distinctive social practice. What is being shaped is the life of a community of bodied persons who are agents in a public realm shared with many others, most of whom do not engage in this practice of worship. This more broadly shared public realm is an arena in which social, economic, and political power is arranged and rearranged. Discipleship in that realm inescapably involves some sort of engagement of those arrangements of power, ranging from compliance with them to direct attack on them. Public worship of God inherently involves politically significant social action..

There is a second way in which the practice of worship in Jesus' name is a public practice. Every enactment of this worship of God is located in some cultural setting. It must be done in such a way that it is understandable to any interested person in that culture. It cannot be an esoteric practice intelligible only to initiates. It must be conducted in language and expressive gestures at least some of which are already familiar to nonparticipants. Thus the cultural setting shapes the ways in which this practice is in fact celebrated in that place. The practice of worship is thus always localizable in temporally extended actions requiring particular, concrete physical and spatial location; and that constitutes a congregation.

Clearly, the inherently public character of the practice of worship implies a response to the objection that our central proposal is too parochial. The objection assumes that attention to the common life of congregations would tend to disengage theological schooling from serious attention to the broader world of the congregation's host culture and its global setting. However, if a congregation is understood to be constituted by a set of practices, and if the central practice is understood to be the worship of God in Jesus' name, and if that worship is understood to be inherently public in these two ways, then the objection seems to lose force. Attention to congregations whose practice of worship is the practice of shaping persons' identities for discipleship in the shared public arena could not be parochially limited to what de facto goes on within congregations.

They would necessarily have to attend to what is known about how persons' identities are shaped in general, and to what is known about the ways in which social, economic, and political power is arranged and could be rearranged in the public realm. So too, attention to congregations whose practice of worship is necessarily shaped by its cultural setting would not be parochially limited to what goes on "within" congregations but rather have to question the value of any sharp contrast between "inside" and "outside" and attend to what is known about the cultural settings that inescapably shape its enactments of worship.

Equally clearly, the inherently public character of the practice of worship has implications concerning the subject matter of theological study. A theological school's focus on congregations in order more truly to understand God must, if congregations constituting practice is truly public worship, involve two things. It must involve study of the "languages" in which its practice of worship will be intelligible in a truly public way. That is, it must involve study of the dominant images, symbols, and stories by which the congregation's host society tells itself who and what it is, what its vision of the "good" or "fulfilled" human life is, what its central values are. As participant in that culture, a congregation will be as deeply shaped by those "languages as is any other group in the culture. It could not avoid using those languages if it wished. Moreover, as we have seen, if it is to be true to itself, it could not wish to avoid use of those "languages." Its constituting practice of worship must necessarily be "public" in the sense of being to some degree generally comprehensible rather than esoteric. That can only be accomplished by employing the "languages" common to its host society.

At the same time, a theological school's study of these languages must be a critical study. The vision of the "good" life, the central values, even the corporate identity expressed by a congregation's host culture in its dominant languages will in various ways stand in tension with the congregation's own understanding of its own communal identity, its own picture of the good life, its own central values as they all are defined "in Jesus' name." Theological schooling will need to focus on those tensions and conflicts and the various strategies congregations employ in negotiating them when they use the host culture's languages to practice their own discipleship.

A theological school's attention to congregations will involve a second kind of study if congregations' constitutive practice is genuinely public worship of God. Worship in the full sense -- worship as discipleship - involves shaping persons as agents and thus involves action in the public realm which consists in arrangements and rearrangements of social, political, and economic power. How are persons' identities formed and changed? How are social arrangements of power rearranged? There is a good deal of well-founded knowledge about these matters, and theological study focused through questions about congregations and their constitutive practices must attend to it too. More importantly, theological study must attend to those disciplines by which to assess the truth of old and new claims about how persons' identities and societies' power arrangements are shaped and changed. It is not that theological schooling has an inherent responsibility to discover these truths. It is rather that theological schooling, if focused by attention to congregations, does have an inherent responsibility to keep in review congregations' wisdom or foolishness about how to go about enacting their central practice in such a way that persons' lives are in fact shaped appropriately as responses to God's presence in Jesus of Nazareth and review the wisdom or foolishness of the concrete ways in which congregations enact their discipleship publicly.

A congregation, according to our working definition, is constituted by the practice of the worship of God; and "worship," we warned, will be understood too narrowly if its public and its universal features are not held together. Thus far we have been exploring the content and implications of the public character of worship; now we must turn to the characterization of it as "much more broadly" practiced.

A local congregation gathers to enact "much more broadly practiced worship." It is precisely that practice whose public character we analyzed above, that is the worship of God, that is "broadly" practiced. It is the same worship that is practiced by Christian congregations globally in every type of social and cultural location. Empirically, of course, it does not look that way. It is not simply that cross-culturally the worship of Christian congregations uses vastly different "languages" shaped by different cultures. Beyond that, in a crazy-quilt pattern, enactments of the practice of worship differ profoundly cross-culturally and within the same cultures because of deeply differing construals of what the Christian thing is all about and, consequently, what the features of an appropriate response to it should be. Nonetheless, it can be argued [12] that despite all the variations, it all is a response to the same thing: the stories of Jesus' mission and of God's mission in Jesus. Those stories provide all celebrations of Christian worship with a common lexicon of images, metaphors, and parables. Moreover, the pattern of movement, the plot, as it were, of the stories about Jesus provides the basic structure of the movement of all Christian celebrations or enactments of the practice of worship.

That pattern or movement in the stories about Jesus, that structure, functions something like a "depth grammar" in all enactments of the practice of the public worship of God in Jesus' name, by virtue of which all its culturally and theologically diverse instances bear family resemblances to one another. The varieties can be seen as dialects of a single language-family. They are quite different dialects often, but nonetheless recognizable as dialects of one family because they overlap enough so that some of the "grammar" that governs each of them is the same in all of them. That grammar is rooted in the basic patterns, the plot movements of the stories of Jesus' life, his ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection appearances read as stories of the peculiar way God makes Godself present to us. This is not only true of what we called the core of the practice of worship, that is, in the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. It is also true of the whole of worship in Jesus' name in what we called discipleship. It is all enacted as a response to God's presence and all seeks to be appropriate to the odd structure and movement of that presence (crucifixion and resurrection!). This is not to say that the practice of worship is always, or very often, in fact appropriate to that structure and movement. To the contrary, it is constantly faithless and in need of reform. This is only to claim that the practice constitutive of Christian congregations is a practice inherent in which are norms for its own assessment, something like a grammar common to Christian congregations.

This implies a response to the objection that the proposal to focus theological schooling through questions about congregations favors a sectarian or radically "congregationalist" view. Most Christian congregations would reject the suggestion that they are somehow identical with the church as such. No, they would say, there is "more" to the church than just our congregation. At issue is how to understand the relation between church and congregation.

Some pictures of the relation are to be rejected. Consider some possibilities: See "the church" as an abstract (theologians') ideal of which individual congregations are concrete and relatively enduring particular instances? No, because the church universal is as concretely actual as is any local congregation. See the church as an invisible reality marked by permanence, of which congregations are relatively impermanent manifestations in ecclesial "events" or "acts"? No, because congregations too are enduring realities with concrete location in physical and social space. See the church universal and local congregations related to each other as are a great commercial enterprise and its local outlets (as the Coca-Cola Company is related to local Coca-Cola bottlers and distributors worldwide)? No, because it suggests that just as no local Coca-Cola distributor is more than a small part of a greater whole, so no local congregation is more than a fragment of the universal church's reality. To the contrary, there is no reason why, were it truly faithful to its own identity, each congregation could not have and be the fullness of whatever "church" is.

Our working description of congregations provides a more fruitful way to understand the relation between particular congregations and the church. Precisely because particular congregations are constituted by their enactment of a more broadly practiced worship, theological schooling focused by questions about congregations could not be content with a sectarian attention to individual congregations. It would need to attend to the more broadly shared features of a congregation's practice of worship by comparative study of congregations in the same culture and cross-culturally (synchronically) and through history (diachronically). Attention to particular congregations, when they are understood in terms of the practice of the public and universally shared worship of God, could only be carried on by reference to the "greater church." As we have seen, the public character of congregations' practice of worship means that the practice of worship is always localizable. It always has some concrete location in space, culture, and history. Hence congregations constituted by that practice are always concretely located socially, economically, and politically. The greater church is always actual in history only insofar as it is thus located. However, the broadly shared character of congregations' practice of worship means that the practice of worship can never be localized. That is, it can never be simply and finally identified with any one local enactment of the practice. The enactments are all culturally and historically conditioned and relative; the practice cannot be flatly identified with any of them. The greater church, with which particular congregations are in some way "one," that is, the church "catholic" or "ecumenical," while always necessarily localizable, always present as particular congregations -- though not necessarily only present as local congregations (whether or not it is present in other ways can remain an open question) -- is never localized, never exhaustively present as nor simply identical with a local congregation. When the public and the broadly shared characters of the practice that constitutes congregations are held together, it is clear that the proposal to focus theological schooling through questions about congregations need not imply a sectarian view of the church.

The more broadly shared character of the practice of worship also has implications regarding the subject matter of theological study. Two are evident. If congregations are constituted by the enactment of a more broadly practiced worship, then study focused by questions about congregations must locate the congregations it studies in history. It must study them diachronically or through time. Study of any particular congregation thus inescapably is study of it in its own tradition, in its likeness to other congregations in previous historical periods who share its basic construal of what the Christian thing is all about, what it is to understand God, and so forth (see chapter 2). At the same time study of that same congregation also involves comparing it with congregations in earlier periods whose enactments of the universally practiced worship of God are markedly different

It is evident, secondly, that if congregations are constituted by sharing in more broadly practiced worship of God, study focused by questions about them must compare and contrast congregations that are contemporaneous. It must study them synchronically, or at the same time, in a cross-cultural way to probe the ways in which the broadly practiced worship may be enacted in quite different dialects. In short, focusing theological study by attending to congregations necessarily entails a globalization of the frame of reference of theological study.

CONGREGATIONS AS SOCIAL SPACES AND SOCIAL FORMS

A congregation is a group that gathers to worship God "regularly enough for an indefinite period of time to have a common life in which develop intrinsic patterns of conduct, outlook and story." The congregation is a distinctive social form that the worship of God has assumed in the history of the Christian movement. As James Hopewell points out, the distinctiveness of this social form can be seen by contrasting it with other "sorts of collectivities by which humans corporately express their religion." [13] In human history, worship has often been focused by family loyalties, honoring ancestors, and ritually celebrating major moments in a family's life cycle. But "a congregation differs from a family at prayer. The local church bears a distinctive name to indicate ... that the congregation is not synonymous with a particular bond of flesh."[14] In another social form worship can be the celebration of the common piety of political units -- a city or an empire. But, as Hopewell points out, worship in Jesus' name draws a sharp line between the congregation enacting that worship and "all bonds of compatriotism." In yet another social form, Hopewell notes, persons can gather occasionally and informally at a religious shrine, each to perform her or his own individual meritorious rituals of devotion. They may do this in support of a resident community of religious specialists, say, a congregation of monks. Or they may do it as observers of rituals actually performed by the shrine's priests and other functionaries, who guarantee ceremonial proficiency and continuity. In neither case do these worshipers communicate with each other enough to develop common patterns of outlook and story.

[15] In each case, the collective is a set of simultaneous individual acts of worship. But worship in Jesus' name is the practice of a community with a common, communal identity, not an aggregate of individuals, because it is a response to the way God's presence in Jesus has made them a new extra-familial family of God's adopted "children," a new extra-national "people," a single "body."

It is abundantly clear from the history of the Christian movement that actual enactments of the practice of the worship of God in Jesus' name are constantly assimilated to one or more of these alternative social forms of worship. However, it is equally clear from the history of the reform of Christian worship that critical reflection reveals these assimilations to be inconsistent with the enactment of a much more broadly practiced worship of God "in Jesus' name." Unusually large gatherings in North American churches at Christmas and Easter tend to suggest that they are at least as much celebrations of loyalty to family and its tradition as they are response to God's peculiar ways of being present in Jesus of Nazareth. For most of European history from the emperor Constantine's embrace of Christianity onwards there has been a strong tendency to identify worship of God with loyalty to and reverence for the tradition and authorities that constitute the Holy Roman Empire, or its competing fragments in the Middle Ages, or their successor nation states, or one's home town and its familiar "way of life." From the time of martyrs during Roman imperial persecution, Christian worship has often taken the form of pilgrims' ritual devotions at shrines dedicated to persons deemed to be unusually holy in the hope that the saint would intercede with God to meet the pilgrim's individual needs, whereupon the pilgrim returns home. However, one theme the recurring reforms of Christian worship have in common is that none of these alternative social forms for the worship of God can be normative social forms. In one way or another as social forms they are inadequate to, or sometimes inconsistent with, the practice of worship of God "in Jesus' name."

We may generalize the point: A Christian congregation is a social form defined by its social space. What makes this social space distinctive is largely the medium by which members communicate with one another in the practice of worship and in the practices that are the effects of that communication. The communication takes place in various activities: preaching, praying, singing, action for the well-being of neighbors and society, educating, self-governing, and so forth. The medium in which these kinds of communication take place relies heavily on biblical texts and their metaphors and images. This is not to deny that both the social form and the social space of Christian congregations are also deeply shaped by social forms and cultural symbols prominent in the congregations' host cultures. To the contrary, one of the themes of this chapter is that theological schooling focused within the horizon of questions about congregations is inadequate theologically if it fails to attend as much to sociological and cultural analyses of congregations as it does to theological analyses. The point here, however, is to draw out implications of the narrower truth that a Christian congregation's social form is also shaped by its social space, which in turn is importantly and distinctively, if not exhaustively, shaped by the way biblical writings are used in the congregation's common life.

The use of these biblical materials has two types of effect. The biblical narratives and related writings are used in the activities comprising the community's common life to help shape and even transform the personal identities of the group's members. The shaping is as much a forming of their identities as agents, as embodied centers of power, albeit usually quite limited power, in a shared public realm, as it is a forming of them as patients, centers of a private inwardness or subjectivity.

At the same time, use of these biblical writings in the activities comprising the common life of the community has the effect of shaping a communal self-identity. Use of these materials helps shape relatively stable patterns of communal outlook, conduct, and narrative self-description. Among these will be relatively long-term patterns in which roles, responsibilities, authority, power, and relative status are arranged within the community's common life.

Together, these two effects mean that the social space created by the practice of the worship of God in Jesus name is moral and even political in character. Thus a congregation is a space in which individuals' personal identities are shaped in such a fashion that they are disposed to act in characteristic ways in the public realm. And a congregation is itself a social space defined and structured by certain arrangements of responsibility, power, and status. The history of Christianity exhibits quite a variety of these arrangements of responsibility, power, and status that structure congregations social space. [16] Some arrange responsibility, power, and status in rigorous ways so that persons' roles within the congregation are fixed for life hierarchically in a pattern that assigns different levels and degrees of status and authority to different people. Others arrange them so loosely and fluidly that there is near parity of status and power within the congregation and different people take on different responsibilities at different times. Between these two extremes still other congregations assign different responsibilities to different persons through a democratic process in which there is parity of status, but assign different sorts and amounts of power to different responsibilities. The point is that each of these is a different way in which congregations' social space may be structured as a concrete, if relatively small, political and moral reality. It has a particular social form.

An important consequence follows from this. It is inadequate to characterize a congregation simply by stressing its "intersubjectivity." True, it is an intersubjective community. That is, a congregation is a community of subjects in which the consciousness of each is shaped by its relations to all the others through awareness of the others' presence. This happens by way of shared experiences of love and fear and sorrow, mediated through a shared system of symbols by which to express those experiences. But it is all of that only insofar as it is constituted by a complex network of practices in which a group of human bodily agents cooperate. As we have taken pains to point out in chapter 5, practices inherently have material bases. A Christian congregation as a distinctive social space inherently is an arrangement of very material powers. They are creaturely powers and therefore good but open to corruption. Granted, the moral and political character of the type of social space characteristic of the practice of the worship of God in Jesus' name has not always been acknowledged, to say nothing of being the object of approval or rejoicing. Nonetheless, as Wayne Meeks's research in the "social world of the Apostle Paul" tends to show, even the earliest urban Christian congregations were politically and morally structured social spaces. [17]

Two things follow of importance concerning the subject matter of theological study. On one side, study focused through questions about congregations involves theological analysis of congregations as communities of discipleship, witness, and redemptive transformation of personal identities. Central to that study is analysis of how scripture is used as "Word of God" within the communities common life to evoke, nurture, and correct discipleship, witness, and new life. A crucial moment in that study is normative: Are some uses inappropriate to the texts themselves, and on what grounds? Are some uses suggested by the texts but not in fact practiced? Biblical studies oriented to theological questions about the nature and criteria of adequacy of congregations' common life are central to study of congregations as characterized by distinctive social space.

On the other side, attention to congregations involves the use of the human sciences to study them as distinctive social forms. If a Christian congregation is not only an intersubjective community but an interrelated set of practices, then it is materially rooted, as we have seen all practices are. Theological study focused on congregations is not just accidentally related to the things studied by sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and social psychologists; it inherently involves such matters.

The two sorts of inquiry, theological and social scientific, involve different methods. A purely sociological or anthropological study of a Christian congregation or of "the church" that purports to give a full account of what a congregation is, how and why it functions as it does, and when and why it succeeds or fails, would meet severe objections in most theological schools. All that it says may be true, but, the objection would go, its claim to give a full account of a congregation's "reality" is reductionist. It ignores the dimensions of the congregation that come to light when one thinks of its relation to God and "reduces" it to what can be studied empirically or phenomenologically. On the other hand, a purely theological study of a congregation or of "the church" that ignores its social space and social form ought to be subject to equally vigorous objection in theological schooling. A purely theological account may do full justice to those dimensions of a congregation that come to light when one considers it in its God-relatedness, but would ignore the dimensions that come to light when one considers its historical, social, and cultural location. Adequate attention to congregations necessarily involves a dialectic between the methods appropriate to both theological and social-scientific study. Neither can be "translated" into or simply identified with the other as though they were interchangeable ways of saying the same things. [18]

SUMMARY

Our proposal is that what makes a theological school theological is its overarching end of coming to understand God more truly. Because of the nature of God, however, that cannot be done directly. A variety of other matters have historically been made the direct objects of study in trust that studying them would lead indirectly to truer understanding of God. Our proposal is that what makes a theological school theological is that it seeks to understand God more truly by focusing study of these matters through questions about Christian congregations. In this chapter we have refined that proposal somewhat by exploring what constitutes a congregation. Congregations, we suggested, are constituted by enactments of a more broadly practiced public worship of God.

Exploration of how theological schooling should focus its inquiries has, in turn, highlighted subject matters that must be dealt with in theological schooling. Inasmuch as congregations are self-defining as groups gathering to worship God in Jesus' name, schooling focused by questions about them must attend to ecclesiological topics. For example, it must address such matters as whether faithfulness to that self-identification is a necessary condition for a group's counting as a Christian congregation, and whether groups that do not claim to worship in Jesus' name may nonetheless be said to know God and God's redemptive presence.

Inasmuch as congregations are constituted by a practice that is inherently self-critical, theological schooling attending to congregations must deal with both the topic of what the norms are for that critique and with the truth of the practice. To address the norms of congregational faithfulness is to do constructive dogmatic theology and moral theology. To engage in the critique itself is to do theology of culture, and to undertake "prophetic" judgment of congregations' common life.

Inasmuch as congregations are constituted by a public practice, theological schooling attending to congregations must therefore attend to "secular" wisdom about how the personal identities of persons engaged in public action are changed, and how the arrangements of power in a society are rearranged. And it must attend to the languages that are the medium of public discourse in congregations' host cultures.

Inasmuch as congregations are constituted by enactments of a more broadly practiced worship, theological schooling focused through questions about congregations must attend to their setting in time both diachronical and synchronical. That is, its attention to congregations must be both historical, placing them in the larger contexts of traditions through time, and globalized, placing them in the larger context of contemporaneous cross-cultural enactments of the same practice of worship.

Inasmuch as congregations are themselves social spaces with social forms, theological schooling focused through questions about them must attend critically to the scripture whose use creates the social space; and it must attend to the disciplines of the human sciences that provide understanding of the social forms that make congregations moral and political realities in their own right.

The proposal that has been partially elaborated in this chapter is that a theological school is a community of persons trying to understand God more truly by focusing its study of various subject matters within the horizon of questions about Christian congregations. I have suggested a way in which to understand what constitutes a Christian congregation and a way in which to identify one when it presents itself. That allowed me to show why various subject matters that ought to be studied by a theological school (e.g., Bible, Christian history, theology, psychology and sociology of religion, etc.) are best studied in their theological significance (i.e., as means to understanding God) by studying them in their relation to the common life of actual congregations. Exactly what it means to "focus study of various subject matters within the horizon of questions about Christian congregations" has not been explained and remains to be discussed in the following chapters. However, enough of what this proposal means by "Christian congregations" has been clarified now for us to return to the topic of a theological school itself. If the road to the universally relevant is through the concrete, then we must now ask what constitutes a theological school, what sort of social space and social form it may be, and how it is related to particular and equally concrete congregations. We turn to these questions in the next chapter. That will provide the context for turning finally in the last two chapters to what makes the school's curriculum a course of study rather than a clutch of courses, what it can do to and for its students, to and for congregations, and to and for traditions of academic research.

NOTES

[1] See Building Effective Ministry: Theory and Practice in the Local Church, ed. Carl S. Dudley (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).

[2] James F. Hopewell, Congregation: Stories and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).

[3] Joseph C. Hough, Jr., and Barbara G. Wheeler, eds., Beyond Clericalism.

[4] Cf. esp. John B. Cobb, Jr., "Ministry to the World: A New Professional Paradigm," in Beyond Clericalism, pp. 23-31.

5] Cf. esp. John B. Cobb, Jr., "Ministry to the World," and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, "Friends in the Family," in Beyond Clericalism, pp.23-31 and 49-61.

[6] Cf. esp. Letty Russell, "Which Congregations?." and Beverly W..Harrison, "Toward a Christian Feminist Hermeneutic for Demystifying Class Reality in Local Congregations," in Beyond Clericalism, pp.31-37 and137-151.

[7] Hopewell, Congregation, pp.12-13.

[8] This description and following discussion grew out of my contributions to Beyond Clericalism, pp.11-23, 37-49.

[9] Hopewell, Congregation, p. 14.

[10] By no means is this a peculiarly Protestant claim; cf. Karl Rahner, "Priestly Existence," in idem, Theological Investigations, vol.3 (New York: Seabury Press, 1974); and Bernard Cooke, Ministry to Word and Sacraments (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), esp. Part 5.

[11] J. A. T. Robinson, Liturgy Coming to Life (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964).

[12] See William Placher, Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation (Louisville: Westininster/John Knox Press, 1989), esp. chs. 1 and 8; George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).

[13] Hopewell, Congregation, p.14.

[14] Ibid.,p.13.

[15] Ibid.,p.15.

[16] See Cooke, Ministry to Word and Sacraments.

[17] See Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983).

[18] For the classic statement of this point, see James M. Gustafson, Treasure in Earthen Vessels (New York: Harper & Row, 1961.)

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