Friday, December 11, 2009

A Theology of Self-Emptying -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 13


Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.



A Theology of Self-Emptying for the Church
Chapter 13

Theology is, according to Philip Clayton, a mixture of God’s story and our stories. Having laid out the basic questions of Christian faith, and having set out a set of sources by which we might venture an answer, he offers a bit of his own understanding of this question. In offering his own answer, he suggests that we try to do so by looking at other offerings, other ways of answering the question. In that regard he suggests some possibilities – Roger Olson, John Cobb, Brian McLaren, and Scot McKnight – to name a few. Answering the questions requires us to consider our context – for no answer is offered in the abstract.

In offering his answer, Clayton looks to the first half of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2. This is a hymn that lifts up the self-emptying of Christ in order to become human – also known as kenosis. Although perhaps not explicit, what is present here, later Christians interpreted in Trinitarian fashion. The primary question here is: Who is Jesus – in relationship to God? What does this equality with God entail, and why did he not grasp at this, but was willing to self-empty himself? Clayton gives some detailed attention to each of these important phrases, suggesting ways in which we might live out this reflection.

A key point that Clayton makes, that I’d not thought of before in my own reflections – sermonic and otherwise – about this text, is that this self-emptying wasn’t just a matter of becoming human.

Of all the types of human he could have become; king, emperor, Mozart, Einstein – he took on the “form of a servant.” (P. 99).

Paul lifts up this truth – Jesus did not simply become human, he became human of a certain type – that of a servant. This, truth reflects something Jesus is said to have declared – that “whoever wants to be first must be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk. 9:35).

Having laid out the narrative of the first half of Paul’s hymn, choosing not to look at the second half, which speaks of exaltation, asks the question: what does this Christ narrative have to do with me? How might I tell my own story from within Christ’s story of self-emptying? In trying to retell our stories from within his, using the gospels as our guide, we can wrestle with such issues as sexism and racism theologically. As we tell this story, we don’t all have to start at the same place – indeed, for some the call to begin with self-emptying may not be wise or necessary. Considering where women have been in society, this may not be a good place to start.

In telling our stories, we need to start with the lessons that we need to learn – not what others need to learn. This is a good point. Too often, especially when it comes to issues such as sexism or race – those of us who are white males want to say – but what about . . . . And that’s not the right question.

The call to reflect on the self-emptying of Christ isn’t just an individual exercise. Congregations often need to do the same. As he notes, congregations can often be a primary location of “unjust and unhealthy social practices” (p. 105). Do we, he asks, give special attention to those members who are more prestigious? Do those who seem naturally to be accorded attention, take this for granted? Do pastors and other visible leaders get more attention than those whose responsibilities are less visible – and do we sacrifice the “priesthood of all believers” on the altar of clergy importance? What about social class? He tells the story of a woman with strong liberal tendencies, a leader in a progressive congregation, who told her daughter not to hang out with a certain person, because that person wasn’t of their class. How often, he asks, do we as the church become blind to in group/out group thinking?

Going further: are we able to hear other voices – whether those voices are different in theology, politics, or religion? Do we give place in our conversations for those who might have a different perspective? Where do we find the balance? As we pursue this question, our own proclamation or “faith-talking” becomes dialogue.

What is the message here? What I hear in this is a call to do our theology with humility. It requires that we listen to the voices of others, those who are also seeking to answer the questions, knowing that we may not all come out at the same place. But, as Christians, we do need to give “pride of place” to the narrative that is Christ’s.

With this chapter, we end the second part of the book, a section that pushed us to consider the way in which theology can help transform the church. We’ve examined the core questions and the resources that are present that can help us answer the questions. Now, it’s time to move on to look at ways in which our theologies can contribute to the transformation of society.

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