[Editor’s note: this is the introduction of the first iteration of the blog, from June 2014]

Welcome to our blog!

This blog is about the joy of Christ, the offense of Christ, and the unexpectedness of Christ. It’s about being, and hopefully staying, Christian in the twenty-first century. It’s part theological reflection, part assessment of the present and future of Christianity, and part sharing of our personal struggles. It aims to provide a forum for the creative re-thinking and re-imagining of what it is to be Christian today.

This blog is our ongoing conversation, and we hope that you will join it.

Who are we?

David is a church historian and a former professor; Maria is a Ph.D. student in theology with a background in New Testament; Tim is a scholar in Old Testament and also a former professor. We all have seminary degrees and are familiar with both the Eastern and the Western traditions of Christianity. We have spent most of our adult lives in Eastern Orthodox churches.

(For more details, please see Authors)

Why did we decide to write this blog?

This blog engages two issues:

  • the need to develop new ways of speaking about who Christ is, what he has done, and why anyone should care today;
  • the need to maintain a space for self-critical, open, and completely honest discussion about what it means to be Christian, what the church is (and isn’t), and what the church is (or isn’t) doing.

These concerns are, of course, perennial. They have long been debated in the theological academy and addressed by ecclesial leaders. Yet we see a need for engaging them in a more informal setting. We do not occupy positions of authority. We are not getting paid to write this. We do not have a vested interest in a particular “party line.” We do, however, share a sense of concern, and even alarm, about several aspects of contemporary Christianity. We think that time is ripe for frank, informed, non-partisan discussion about who we are and where we are going.

How is this all going to work?

We come from different backgrounds and have different emphases and interests. David senses the need for a root-and-branch reform of fundamental ecclesial teachings and structures. Maria searches for non-traditional ways to speak about Christ that remain true to both the offense and joy of his gospel. Tim wants to look critically at how contemporary churches engage with the world and with politics.

We do not agree on everything. Our personal “corners” reflect this diversity of substance and style. But we do share a few key “imperatives” that inform and guide our discussion:

Christ’s cross, resurrection, and good news of salvation are at the heart of Christianity. Yet we often lose, ignore, and even resist the radical nature and implications of this core faith.

Christians believe that an obscure Jewish man, executed as a criminal two thousand years ago, rose from the dead. We believe that this crucified and risen man is God, who loves us and wants to be with us. And we believe that, through his cross and resurrection, Christ freely forgives all sin and freely gives life to all of us – without any regard for our acceptance, action, repentance, understanding, or worthiness.

We forget how foolish and scandalous this really is. It should completely offend our sense of dignity, our sense of justice, and our sense of the reasonable.

Yet the joyful, unexpected good news of salvation remains: Christ simply refuses to let anything – even ourselves – separate us from him.

Christians must keep this radical and scandalous message central. It is the only criterion for our theology, our action, and our structures.

Mainstream Christianity, both Eastern and Western, is underpinned by a socio-cultural synthesis produced by the Greco-Roman world, particularly during the Late Roman period (~ 4th – 6th c. CE).

The influence of this “imperial synthesis” is extraordinary. It has largely determined the shape of Christian doctrinal and ethical discourse, the hierarchical and clerical system, monasticism, ascetic theology, liturgy, church law, and the framing of church-state relationships. It is particularly near the surface in the more “traditional” churches, such as Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox.

We believe, however, that this synthesis is mostly exhausted and needs to make space for new expressions of Christian life, especially as the last remnants of various empires vanish in our society.

We do not think that “the imperial synthesis” was bad. It did offer a comprehensive way of living in Christ for people of earlier times and cultures. Undoubtedly, elements of it will continue to convey the gospel to many people for generations to come. But as a whole, it does seem to be over. Its language, forms, and structures no longer fulfill their intended functions. To hold on to this synthesis, to try to re-create and re-animate it, is futile and even dangerous. Christians today must instead face the tremendous challenge of discerning which of its features can be preserved, which can (and, in some cases, must) disappear, and where we are to go from here.

Historically, Christians have valorized “keeping up appearances.” They have been deeply anxious to conform to – and be seen to conform to – strict dogmatic formulas, detailed codes of behavior, and even certain physical mannerisms. This grew out of the ancient understanding of a well-ordered society and out of the popular philosophical practice of imitation/mimesis. For most Christians, this was simply “the stuff of life.”

What happens when we try to “keep up appearances” today?

Instead of living our life in Christ, we endlessly strive for some “ideal” Christian existence. We routinely hide our real issues, joys, and sorrows behind accepted forms and formulas. We rarely ask honest questions. We are afraid and ashamed to present the “messiness” of our lives to one another, while the churches are often not able to deal with this messiness.

In the end, Christianity becomes pervaded by an atmosphere of the fake, the artificial, the contrived – and even the false or deceptive. Christianity becomes an exercise in play-acting. And we become deeply isolated from one another.

We often believe that preserving particular forms and formulas is a mark of Christian humility and virtue. Perhaps we want to reverently conform to “the traditions of the fathers” – Eastern or Western, Catholic or Protestant. Or perhaps we want to train towards a “better us.”

But by doing so, we place an undue emphasis on ourselves: on the way we dress and talk, on the way we construct buildings and run societies. Ironically, the more we are preoccupied with looking and speaking “like” Christians, the more we ignore Christ and the Spirit working in us.

Yet Christ calls us to be like children – to trust him, to shed all facades and come to him as we are. Being humble means being honest, self-critical, open. Being humble means learning to live in Christ as our real selves – not our “ideal” traditions.

Today we face the same problems as the early church. Must everyone observe “traditional” forms of worship, daily life, and theological discourse in order to be Christian? Do we have to share the same traditions? And, if so, to what degree?

In the early church, both the ancient Jewish customs and the developing Gentile forms were recognized as valid expressions of the same Christian gospel. Over the years, however, the descendants of the Gentile churches – that is, us, all modern Christians – have gradually come to see their structures and traditions as indispensable.

But is it possible that, just as the Jewish Christians had to allow the Gentile churches to emerge, so the established modern churches must make room for even newer forms of Christianity? Must those who hear the gospel for the first time accept a particular Christian “tradition”? Or is it possible that new Christians can adopt the gospel, but not some particular “ecclesial law” – and yet still take a legitimate place alongside older expressions? Most importantly, can different forms of Christianity recognize one another as members of the body of Christ and share the same bread and cup in peace and love?

These are difficult questions, but we are convinced that the church is increasingly called to a kind of careful chaos: under the gospel, different forms of institution and community, different styles of leadership, different doctrinal emphases, different forms of worship – variety – should neither be feared nor resisted. This does not mean that the older forms of Christianity should be dissolved – far from it. But they must allow the new forms to emerge. Similarly, new forms must allow the old to continue. Any emphasis on coercive homogeneity is neither healthy nor productive. Beyond the gospel itself, heterogeneity is once again the norm.

As Christians, we are called to witness to the gospel. Engagement with the world, including the world of politics and the public sphere, is therefore a vital part of Christian life. Throughout history, this imperative has often been enacted through seeking political privilege and imposing “Christian” behavioral structures on the broad population. Yet we must ask whether this way of approaching the task of witness is faithful to the gospel of Christ.

Christ does not compel the world to come to him, but offers a promise of forgiveness and mercy that may be accepted or not. Christians must acknowledge that any conversion of this promise into direct displays of political power, especially when accompanied by coercion or compulsion, is simply antithetical to the gospel.

Moreover, we must realize that our active witness to Christ does not entail one universal code of behavior. Rather, it relies on a basic set of principles – summarized in the two “imperatives” of loving God and our neighbor – and requires an ongoing engagement with the realities of lived human experience. The forms of Christian witness vary. Indeed, standards of conduct and social relationships that are fully acceptable, and even desirable, to Christians of one time and place may be anathema to the gospel as experienced in a different cultural context.

This radical adaptability of Christian witness is often disconcerting for Christians who want simple answers. However, this malleability is also “good news” for the modern churches. The processes through which local policies shape the global community are complex. The realities of instant communication and easy mobility present new challenges. In this context, true Christian witness requires not a new set of social, economic, and political prescriptions or ideologies – whether “right” or “left” – but honest reflection on the broad parameters of Christian social and political involvement, whether ecclesial or personal. As we engage in this reflection, however, we must remember not to replace the gospel of Christ – the promise of salvation because of what Christ has done – with what we do, with the various ways we witness to and apply his gospel.