Our Future Lies In Fearless Non-Identity
The decay of faith and its identity, through a decline into unbelief and a different identity, forms an exact parallel to their decay through a decline into a fearful and defensive faith. Faith is fearful and defensive when it begins to die inwardly, struggling to maintain itself and reaching out for security and guarantees. In so doing, it removes itself from the hand of the one who has promised to maintain it, and its onw manipulations bring it to ruin. This pusillanimous faith usually occurs in the form of an orthodoxy which feels threatened and is therefore more rigid and ever. It occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaces by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality, and by penal law. He who is of little faith looks for support and protection for his faith, because it is preyed upon by fear. Such a faith tries to protect its “most sacred things”, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves. When the religion of fear” finds its way into the Christian church, those who regard themselves as the most vigilant guardians of the faith do violence to faith and smother it. Instead of confidence and freedom, fearfulness and apathy are found everywhere. This has considerable consequences for the attitudes of the church, faith, and theology to the new problems posed by history. “Why did the church cut itself off from cultural development?” asks R. Rothe, whose messianic passion in the face of the modern age can speak for itself here: I blush to write it down: because it si afraid for faith in Christ. To me, it is not faith in Christ if it can be afraid for itself and for its Christ! To me, this is not to have faith, but to be of little faith. This, however, is the consequence of a lack of faith that the Saviour is the real and effective ruler of the world; and only when this faith is lacking is such fear psychologically possible. – Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, pp.19-20
Of all Moltmann’s enormous work, it is in The Crucified God where we come up against something that so much theology lacks: the reality that ours is not a faith in doctrines or practices; it is not rooted in our traditions or even in the Bible. Our faith looks past these to their true source, the event of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible is witness to this event. Our traditions and doctrines continue to try and make some kind of sense of this event. Our worship only exists because it celebrates this horrific, bloody event and its aftermath. While we all gather on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the beginning of the final victory over death, it is always and only ever the resurrection of the crucified Jesus or it is no Easter event at all. All faith, all doctrine, all theology, all worship, all mission, all our history, all of the Bible must be able not only to stand before the bloody dying Christ on the cross; it must be willing to make this journey with Jesus, the abandoned, tortured, humiliated Jesus who discovered that even the One he called Father had forsaken him in this his most terrible moment. If we are not willing, as a people, to say “Yes” to the Cross of Jesus Christ, then all our other “Yes’s” are meaningless.
Which is why I find so much of the appeal to doctrine in our current discussions in the United Methodist Church both fascinating and self-defeating. The various appeals – to doctrine, to our history, to our unique Wesleyan emphases – are certainly important. Not, however, as ends in themselves. Unless they are in service to the very real living Lord who died on the cross and rose on Easter Sunday, they are little more than the fearful, ultimately fruitless attempts to shore up the collapsing walls of our church. Unless we return to the most fundamental reality of faith – that our faith is in the God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who entered so far in to human reality as to embrace death so that it would be overcome, so that creation would no longer fear our endings – all we’re doing is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
When The United Methodist Church is willing to risk non-identity, that self-emptying that St. Paul celebrates in Philippians 2 not only as the Christ-event, but as how we must imitate Christ, then and only then will we begin to be the Church of Jesus Christ called United Methodist. Only when we are willing to say that our distinctive emphases are the practice of Christ on the Cross – the self-giving love that experiences abandonment and death as the real mark of the human condition under sin, therefore that which we must embrace in faith so that true faith, true humanity, true ministry, true doctrine can be. Unless we are willing to plant that bloody Roman execution device at the center of our Bibles, they are little more than old books written a long time ago with no more meaning for us than any other ancient curiosity.
Our faith rests on real things, indeed on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon to a German congregation he served in Spain, said was not only the only truly historical event, but also the event that gave the rest of history its meaning. None of this is to deny the importance of doctrine, of the history of the faith or our unique, Wesleyan contribution to it. None of this is to deny the reality that we always face the choice of good and evil in our actions in this world. None of this is to belittle our communal worship. It is only to remind us all that all of this, this edifice we call The United Methodist Church, only stands if it stands underneath the cross of the Christ who will rise. If it can stand there, if we can stand there, willing to bear the pain and shame of the abandonment of the Son of God as our pain and shame and abandonment; only if as a church we are willing to enter in to the world knowing this cross defines “the world” that God loves and that we are to serve, willing even to go to the point of non-identity that is death and denial; only then will we be worthy to salvage ourselves, to be the Church we can be.
Let us not be pusillanimous in our faith. Let us, rather, be bold and unafraid, knowing that in fact the Christ raised from this death reigns already. Let us live without fear of the threat of abandonment, of non-identity, even death because we believe these have been taken up on that bloody cross outside the city gates and entered in to the new life in God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from this death.
Thus it is that our hope as United Methodists lies where it always has: in Christ. Not as a theological principle, but a living Lord who will never die so that we might not fear death, but live the life to which God is calling all creation.