Ask a Reformed Pastor...(Response)

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The Reformed tradition is much broader and more diverse than many of us realize, and since we’ve already featured the more conservative Justin Taylor for “Ask a Calvinist…” I thought it was time to interview someone from the progressive end of the Reformed spectrum for our “Ask a…” series. And I think we found the perfect interviewee. 

The Reverend Jes Kast-Keat is a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. She currently serves as the Associate Pastor at West End Collegiate Church in Manhattan.  Jes is one of the twelve voices that writes for "The Twelve. Reformed. Done Daily" which is a collaborative project of diverse theologically Reformed voices. Her theological inspirations include John Calvin, Serene Jones, Oscar Romero, Teresa of Avila, and the countless everyday theologians who ask questions and "ponder anew what the Almighty can do". Preaching the grace of God and administering the sacraments is what gives life to Jes. You can follow her on Twitter here. 

You asked some fantastic questions, and Jes has responded with great thought and care. Enjoy! 

 

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From Jes: The grace and peace of the Triune God is yours!

Let’s rewind a few hundred years before we get to today’s questions, shall we? Imagine that it’s the year 1563 and we are living in a region of Germany called the Palatinate. The ruler of our land, Elector Frederick II, thanks to his wife, Princess Marie of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, is a new convert to the ideas of Calvin. He decides to gather a large group of ministers and commission them to write a Reformed confession in the form of 129 questions and answers that would serve the people as a devotional tool for preaching and teaching of Scripture. Little do we realize that some hundred years later this tool, called the Heidelberg Catechism, would be one of the most influential catechisms in the Reformed tradition.

Fast-forward to the year 2013 and let’s allow the Heidelberg Catechism to open up and frame our conversation for today:

Q 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Wandering pilgrim, resistant doubter, joy-filled believer – by the grace of Jesus, we belong to God. It is in that spirit that I offer my words.

 

From Ouisi:  “When you're doing pastoral care, you encounter suffering and sin in an upfront, here-and-now, personal and communal way. How does your Reformed faith impact your approach to human brokenness?”

Anytime I am in pastoral care with someone, I begin with the realization that I am sitting next to someone who is beloved of Christ. I am sitting next to someone who has the divine spark of God in them. Whatever suffering is brought into a pastoral care situations, I am reminded of Colossians 1:17, “In [Christ] all things hold together.” God is present; I am not God, but my role is to be keenly watching for where God is on the move, even (or especially) if that means God is crying with us in the immense pain that is present in our stories.

I am also not shocked by the ways things are not right.  Systematically and personally, goodness has been thwarted. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable of goodness and holiness; it just means that things are much more vulnerable than we like to realize. My job is to communicate the presence of God’s grace in the midst of things gone array. I’m constantly looking for the presence of God in unexpected moments and people.

 

RHE asks “So I guess my question is this: How do you understand election? Is it about individual salvation from hell or something else? And how is this compatible with the otherwise inclusive posture of so many progressive Reformed churches.”

Election is about mission. Election is about the type of people we are called to be in this world and not so much about the world after this. To be potentially cliché, election isn’t so much about what I’m saved from but what I’m saved for. Election is about being called to be lovers of the world. For God so loved the world, we are now to go and do likewise.

Or to directly link the two words from your question that everyone’s eyes immediately darted to (“election” and “hell”), election is about saving people from hell. But it’s not a furnace-in-the-future type of dystopia. The elect – that is, the people of God – are called to join God in working for the redemption of all things. This means quenching the thirst of those who spend every day on this earth in a hell without access to clean water and the myriad of other hell-on-earth realities that so many people are born into.

Election isn’t just Reformed fire-insurance. It’s a free gift of God’s grace for all the people of God. We don’t do anything to earn it or deserve it. But we receive it with gratitude. And it is from this gratitude, fueled by the grace of God, that we live lives as the called and chosen (but not frozen-chosen) and elect people of God in this world. 

This is why a progressive Reformed church will be so inclusive: our radical welcome is a reflection of God’s radical welcome. A God who lovingly welcomes all calls us to do the very same.

(Also, check out Nathan’s comments the first time you asked this. I don’t know who he is but his words are beautiful and accurately reflect how many of us in the Reformed tradition make sense of this!) 

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The following questions is from a colleague who I went to seminary with and is someone I recommend you all follow on twitter (@NatePyle79). He is a generous voice in the Reformed tradition.: What of the Reformed tradition do you struggle with most and how do you live with, and enter into, that struggle? What does the Reformed tradition uniquely offer the church and Christian thought?” 

I struggle when “Reformed” is past tense rather than present tense and we forget the living God is in our midst “doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:19). My friend, Reverend Gretchen Schoon-Tanis, reminded me that our liturgy says, “I thirst for God for the living God, where shall I go?” I struggle when we forget this, when we disengage from the world, and when we forget that God is alive in our midst in places that some are quick to dismiss. The whole world is thick of the presence of the Holy.

I think we uniquely offer the marriage of the heart and head in worship, a unique liturgy and approach to scripture, and a sacramental worldview that implicitly cares for creation.

The marriage of the heart and head in worship: Reformed theology helped me realize I didn’t have to check my intellect at the door but it opened the door that all my questions/doubts/beliefs are held in grace.

Liturgy/Scripture: Our liturgical practices centralize around a rigorous engagement of Scripture. I’ve arrived to my progressive views in part because of Scripture, not in spite of it. The congregation I serve is welcoming and affirming of the LGBTQ community because of Scripture, we are involved in alleviating hunger because of Scripture, we think God calls all sorts of genders to preach because of Scripture, etc… I ask questions of the text and the text asks questions of my life; I love that.

Sacramental Worldview/Creation Care: Look, it’s the Reformed tradition where I was first introduced to a theological framework of creation care. In John Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms he writes: “It is no small honour that God for our sake has so magnificently adorned the world, in order that we may not only be spectators of this beauteous theatre, but also enjoy the multiplied abundance and variety of good things which are presented to us in it.”

Put another way, the entire earth is full of the steadfast love of God (Psalm 33). The Reformed tradition provides a theological framework for caring for ground we walk upon!

 

From Aaron: I'll pickpocket Roger Olson and ask: "Do you believe God 'designed, ordained, and governs' sin and innocent suffering for his glory?"

Essentially this question is one of theodicy: why is there suffering and evil in this world? It’s a particularly fitting question for a Reformed theologian as our tradition is one that relishes in God’s sovereignty – all things are under God’s authority. 

Simply put, no, I do not believe that God ordains suffering. So what do I do with suffering? How do we make sense of it?  

The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth reminds us not to mistake God’s providence with an omnicausality, meaning that God is the cause of evil. There are so many theories on evil that I’m not sure always benefit us; there is a difficult mystery on this topic. Here’s what I do believe: I believe God suffers with us. I believe, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Letters and Papers from Prison, “The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” A God who suffers with us is a God who is intimately connected to our personal and systematic liberation. God is not a divine puppeteer removed from creation wishing us luck. God is with us and for us. A Reformed theologian I highly respect, the Reverend Carol Howard Merrit, has a fantastic little piece on this idea of God being for us that I encourage you to check out. 

While I struggle with the brutality of the cross, I find that this is the time and place to talk about the cross. For in this horrific moment we know a God who grieves. The cross shows us a God who suffers with us when the hands of humans enact injustice. 


From William: My question: How do you cope, as a female minister in the broadly "Reformed" spectrum, with the conservative-types in your tradition who neither value nor validate you as a genuine minister or even as being genuinely "Reformed"?

I’ve been baptized. I’ve known I’ve been called to ministry since I was a child and played pastor with my stuffed animals by giving them pieces of bread and grape juice enacting the Sacrament. The greater church confirmed that inward call when I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. How do I cope? I remember my baptism and I dance in those waters of grace fiercely!

It sure as hell ain’t easy. I lean into the spiritual practice of lament, often. (Did you know that just fewer than 50% of the Psalms have lament themes in them?) Lament is a way we can honestly tell God how things are disappointing and how we long for the full reign of God in the midst of the brokenness we experience. I’m really good at honest and raw prayers (that whole “I love Jesus but I swear a little” is true in how I pray). I lament and find hope again and again each time.

When I was ordained my Pastor, the Reverend Jill Russell, charged me to remember my baptism on the days it was hard and remember I am from dust and to dust I shall return on the days my pride becomes my anthem. I live between water and dust.


From Ben: People outside the Reformed tradition often write about it as if it were synonymous with "Calvinism." (I've probably been guilty of this a time or two.) What do you wish the rest of us knew about Reformed theology that's bigger than just Calvin, Five Points, etc? (And conversely, what do you appreciate most about Calvin?)

I personally identify as a theologian and minister in the Reformed tradition and usually not just a Calvinist (though I do love much of Calvin). Why? Because there are so many voices between the Reformation and today that nuance this tradition so beautifully. I think the Reformed tradition is wide and deep. It was because of the book Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics that I first became a feminist theologian. I remember writing a paper on traditional views of atonement in light of feminist theology in seminary and thinking “I love this stuff!” (I got a 100% on that paper, still proud of that!) Imagine that, Reformed theology helped me become a feminist! I also suggest checking out Serene Jones’ book Feminist Theory and Christian Theology for a Reformed perspective. 

I think John Calvin was more of a mystic than what many know of him today. He writes about our mystical union with Christ, particularly in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We are raised up to God and Christ meets us. Something mystical happens in the feast of grace. Wine and bread, these are the gifts of God for the people of God, Amen!

 

What do I hope I leave you with? 

1)    I am one voice in a large stream and do not represent the totality of progressive Reformed theology. 
2)    Bread, wine, water. Gifts of grace for you.
3)    Simply, Jesus loves you.

Thank you for your questions! I also want to thank Reverend’s Wayne Bowerman, Stacey Midge, and Jim Kast-Keat for their conversations with me in responding to your questions. I believe in the collective voice of the church! Know God is with each of you in your questions, thoughts, and beliefs. 

Joy,
Reverend Jes Kast-Keat

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Note: Kelly Youngblood is facilitating a conversation around the question, "What does it mean to be Reformed?" featuring a member of a church in the RCA, a CRC pastor, and a UMC pastor. Be sure to check that out! 

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Ask An Atheist…

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Today I'm excited to announce a new series that will give us the chance to interact with some interesting people. Each Thursday, I’ll introduce you to a guest—a Catholic, an atheist, an Orthodox Jew, a Mormon, a missionary, an artist, an activist….you get the idea.  Then you can use the comment section to ask him or her questions. We’ll pick our top five or six questions, and the guest will respond to them in an additional post the following Tuesday.

Our guest today is an atheist…and a very friendly one! Hemant Mehta graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with degrees in Mathematics and Biology. While there, he also helped establish their first secular student group, Students WithOut Religious Dogma (SWORD). He earned his Masters in Math Education at DePaul University and currently teaches high school math in the suburbs of Chicago.

He has worked with the Center for Inquiry and the Secular Coalition for America, received scholarships from American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and now serves on the board of directors forFoundation Beyond Belief (a charity organization targeting non-theistic donors) and is the former chair of the board of the Secular Student Alliance (which creates and supports college atheist groups nationwide).

Hemant has appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and his book I Sold My Soul on eBay(WaterBrook Press) was released in 2007. His blog, the winner of the 2011 Bloggie award for Best Weblog About Religion, can be read at FriendlyAtheist.com.

I really enjoy Hemant’s blog, and he and I have corresponded a bit over the past few months, so I know that he will respond to your questions with graciousness and honesty. 

....So ask away! 

[A note about questions: Obviously the point is not to proselytize or challenge, but to ask the sort of questions that will help us understand one another better. Please take advantage of the “like” feature so that we can get a sense of what questions are of most interest to readers. To see what Hemant has been writing about lately, check out his blog.]

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An Interview with Brian McLaren

What is the overarching storyline of the Bible? What does it mean to say the Bible has authority? Is God violent? Who is Jesus and why is he important? What is the gospel? What is the function of the Church? Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it? Can our view of the future actually shape it? How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other faiths? What should we do next?

If you think these are stupid questions and the answers to them no-brainers, you probably shouldn’t bother with Brian McLaren’s latest book.

But if these questions intrigue you, if they get under your skin and keep you up at night, if they challenge your faith and make you want to learn more, then you will find fodder for the imagination and companionship for the journey in A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

Now let me say ahead of time that I’m completely biased for a couple of reasons:

1) I read A New Kind of Christianity on my Kindle on the treadmill, which means I contemplated the effects of the Greco-Roman narrative on atonement theory with a heavy dose of endorphins pumping through my bloodstream. (Never hurts.)

2) I met Brian at a conference in Chattanooga a few months ago and instantly liked him. He’s since become a true friend and a generous champion of my writing.  I don’t always agree with everything Brian says, but I know that his love for the Lord and for the people of this planet puts mine to shame…and I think that should count for something.

So to help with the interview, I turned to my regular readers (via the almighty Facebook group) and asked for input.  Most of the questions arose from that collaboration. Brian was kind enough to spend part of his eleven-hour layover at London Heathrow Airport responding to our questions before heading to Africa for a few weeks. I am thankful he took time out of a busy schedule to talk:

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So tell us a little about what you will be doing in Kenya and Burundi.

In Kenya I'll be part of the amahoro-africa network - a wonderful group of Africans who are imagining and seeking to embody the Christian faith of the future in their context. They'll be talking about creation and the environment ... how African Christians can be agents of God's concern for soil, air, water, and all creatures great and small. Then in Burundi, I'll be with many old friends there - especially some folks who are helping the Batwa, among the worst-treated people on the planet. I'll try to post some video (at brianmclaren.net) about my experiences there when I return

Speaking of Africa, in A New Kind of Christianity, you speak about the African word ubuntu, which conveys a profound sense of interconnectedness and community. Can you think of a time in your life…maybe even in your travels to Africa…in which you felt quite sure you experienced ubuntu, or at least a taste of it?

My experience with the Batwa began in 2004 when three Twa men gathered around me and asked me to make a vow: "We can tell that you care about us. We want to ask you to make a vow to never forget us." I've tried to keep that vow, and some beautiful things have happened because of it. Here I am, a privileged white male from the richest country in the history of history, connected to three men from the most marginal group in one of the world's poorest, violence-torn countries ... and we are finding more of our own humanity through one another. It's an amazing thing.

It happens whenever we cross a boundary that divides people - when straight folks befriend gay folks, when Republicans befriend Democrats, when Christians and Muslims become friends - not just for the purpose of mutual conversion, but for the sake of friendship.
 
The response to A New Kind of Christianity has been strong. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people love parts of it but hate others.  Why do you think the response to this book has been so emotional? Were you expecting that?

The negative response has been about what I expected. Part of the negative response is that some people actually "get" what I'm saying and they rightly realize that if I'm right, radical change is needed - theologically, socially, personally. Of course, most folks in that category think I'm wrong. Some of the negative response comes from people who don't actually understand what I'm saying, but it's not familiar to what they already know, so they're suspicious of it. Some of the negative response is from people who haven't even read the book, but are trying to be loyal members of their group by disapproving what they're told to disapprove of.

What's been surprising has been how emotional the positive response has been ... tears, long letters of gratitude, many people saying this book is helping them stay Christian, or stay in ministry, and so on. It's very gratifying and humbling, as you can imagine.

Surely the negative comments—and I mean the really hateful ones— get under your skin sometimes.  How do you deal with that, and what advice would you give readers who find themselves the target of criticism for simply reading your books? 

On the question how I deal with it, I blogged about this recently.  If people are getting criticized for simply reading one of my books, I think this should tell them something about the folks doing the criticizing. I wouldn't get in a fight with the critics, but I'd be sure to find some safe friends with whom I can think and speak freely. Paul said, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty," and when people are trying to crack down on honest questions and honest discussion, that doesn't seem like a good sign to me.
 
You organized A New Kind of Christianity around ten questions that you believe are transforming the faith. If your publisher called you up tonight and said they wanted an eleventh question for the next printing, what would it be? Is there another pivotal question you could easily add?

Here's the question: What kind of spirituality supports the kind of Christianity you're exploring in the book?It turns out that this will be the topic of my next book. So right now, I'm deep in writing about spiritual practices that are integral to a new kind of Christianity.
 
In A New Kind of Christianity, you often return to your original critique of the Greco-Roman narrative, which is found in Part One.  You have received some criticism on this front, with folks like Scot McKnight contending that you’ve created a straw man because reputable theologians do not actually operate with that narrative. Were you employing some hyperbolic license as you sketched the Zeus-like character of Theos who “"loves spirit, state, and being and hates matter, story and becoming” or do you really believe he is the God of conventional Western Christianity?

I've talked with Scot about this quite a bit. His position is a bit complex. On the one hand, he doesn't say that no reputable theologian operates in that narrative, but that none of them express it as crudely as I do. Responsible theologians nuance the narrative a good bit. (And of course, in the book, I say the same thing.) But on the other hand, Scot seems to believe that the narrative I spell out, properly nuanced, is more or less the orthodox Christian narrative. 

So if we put the hyperbolic language aside, Scot and I agree that this "soul-sort" narrative has been dominant in the Christian faith for a long time (I'd say since the fourth century, and not so much in Eastern Orthodoxy). But where Scot thinks it's true, I think it's a distortion - an example of syncretism to Greek philosophical dualism and Roman imperial politics. I think there has been a minority report in the West -- St. Patrick, St. Francis, Duns Scotus, the Anabaptists, liberation theology, black theology, feminist theology, eco-theology, postcolonial theology - and they're providing alternatives to the dominant narrative that I think is inherently dangerous.

I'm glad that Scot and others will try to rehabilitate the conventional narrative - to make it less violent, dualist, etc. But my sense is that the "three dimensional" narrative I propose has a lot more to offer long-term, even though it's harder for devotees of the dominant narrative to accept short-term.
 
As I’ve spoken with my readers, several of them have expressed interest in the sources you used while researching A New Kind of Christianity—some because they are skeptical about your scholarship, others because they liked what you said and want to learn more. What books would you recommend as good companions to A New Kind of Christianity? And to what sources did you find yourself returning most often?

On the issue of Greek dualism, there are hundreds of sources. They might start with Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith. On the issue of Roman politics, they could look at the work of John Howard Yoder, starting with The Politics of Jesus. My footnotes are pretty thorough for other sources. I'd also recommend folks look at the work of black and postcolonial theologians - Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, Rene Padilla, Leonardo Boff. My friend Richard Rohr is doing great work on the issue of dualism in general, from a Franciscan point of view. And the work of folks seeking an alternative to mind-body dualism could also be helpful - Nancey Murphy, Joel Green, and others. They might also go to the sites for Christian Nondualityand Cathlimergent.

This is a question from Stephen, one of my readers—“A rough translation of ‘In certis unitas In dubiis libertas et in omnibus caritas’ is ‘In certainties unity, in doubts liberty, and in everything charity’ What do you consider to be ‘certainties’ or fundamentals of the faith?”

This could be answered from many angles, but I'd start by saying, "Love God, love your neighbors." That to me is the most essential, most foundational. Doctrinally, I'm certainly supportive of the apostles and nicene creeds, but I'd want to be sure we put Scripture above the creeds, and I want to put Jesus at the pinnacle of the Scriptures. It's kind of sad, for example, that you can affirm the creeds and still be a racist ... which is why I want to focus on Jesus' own words rather than words of the later church, as important as they may be.

How do you respond to those who say your views are outside the realm of orthodoxy? How do you define orthodoxy?

Oddly, when Evangelicals say I'm not orthodox, they have to realize that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox might say the same about them, since apostolic succession and the primacy of the bishops aren't small matters in those traditions. Calvinists tend to think of Arminians as missing the boat, and Pentecostals are similarly excluded by others - while doing some excluding of their own. And the strictest fundamentalists say that Catholics aren't orthodox! So I'm sorry that people feel this way about me; I think they're wrong, but they're entitled to their opinion.

When you close your eyes and imagine what a new kind of Christianity would look like, what do you see? And what gives you the most hope that a new kind of Christianity is possible?

I see it all over the place. I'll see it in a few hours when I arrive in Africa, and I saw it right before I left in a group of church planters. It's pervasive ... in all denominations ... like the green tips on the branches at this time of year.
 
This is a question from Monika—“What would you say to someone who wants, really wants, to live following Jesus but has seen so much evil and brokenness in Christianity that they don't see a way to make it work anymore?"

For all the people asking questions about orthodoxy, I meet a lot more like Monika, who see people proclaiming their own orthodoxy, but doing all kinds of ugliness and damage. I was speaking to a group of pastors a few weeks ago about the new book, and the first question was, "I get the need for 'a new kind,' but I don't see why we don't just leave Christianity behind. Is it beyond repair?"

I think God's Spirit wants to heal everything that's broken - including me. That's why I'm writing and working and doing what I'm doing - to participating in God's healing work, trying to heal what's broken. The only alternative, I think, is to give up ... and that's terribly depressing. So my prayer would be that Monika would know she's seeing real problems, but that this is our opportunity to make a positive difference.
 
And now for some fun. When I interview people for the blog, I like to pretend I’m James Lipton from “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and ask the ten famous questions from the Pivot Questionnaire. (Short answers.) Here it goes: 

Pivot Question #1: What is your favorite word?

Today it's "beyond."
 
Pivot Question #2: What is your least favorite word?

Today it's "closed." 

Pivot Question #3: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Good poetry. 

Pivot Question #4: What turns you off?

Sermons that go on too long, especially my own. 

Pivot Question #5: What is your favorite curse word?

These days it's "tea party." 

Pivot Question #6: What sound or noise do you love?

Gray treefrogs singing. 

Pivot Question #7:  What sound or noise do you hate?

Flatulent mufflers in busses. 

Pivot Question #8: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

To join Jane Goodall in protecting chimps and other wildlife. 

Pivot Question #9: What profession would you not like to do?

Accounting. Tax preparation. Taking the tolls at toll booths.

Pivot Question #10 (which might have been a bit influenced by the Greco-Roman narrative): If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

I got a kick out of watching you learn and grow.

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Buy A New Kind of Christianity here.

Read Brian's Blog here.

Question for you: Which of the ten questions (stated at the beginning of the post) intrigues you the most?  Also, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on A New Kind of Christianity (but only if you've actually read it!) or post a link to your own review.

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Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.