Yesterday I started chipping away at this idea that I had, Church for Freaks, and suggested that I needed to spend some time unpacking it, since most of what I was able to say constructively about it was that it was something other than what I generally experience church as being today.
When I first began to think about this, I was initially of the mind that such a church, to truly be what I had in mind, would have to put theology to the side, since the goal would be to attract people to a community that wasn't laden with all the baggage that traditional mainline and evangelical churches carry with them. But, perhaps because I am a theologian by training and my mind recoils from the idea, I realized that this wouldn't do. Church, if it is to be church, needs to be rooted in some theological self-conception, but the question is: What kind of self-conception should that be?
One could go minimalist, and a few of my friends suggested that I should check out the Unitarians. Of course, I'm familiar with the Unitarian Universalist Association, and appreciate much of what they bring to the conversation, but that struck me as too minimalist. One could go maximalist, and choose a fairly elaborate set of theological doctrines that are rooted in a particular confessional tradition. Something like the Presbyterian Book of Order or the Lutheran confessions of faith. But that struck me as going too far in the other direction.
At core, the theology I'm suggesting is rooted in the principle I laid out yesterday: That the church is understood first and foremost as the community of those who follow Jesus. What that means is that the church needs to be on the one hand radically Christocentric in its theology. All thinking about God and the human condition spring from and return to Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, there is, to crib from Brian McClarran's writing on this topic, a "generous orthodoxy" in terms of how we think about the Christocentric character of faith.
A theology that begins from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, engages in reflection rooted in the history of Christian thinking about Christ, and attempts to understand its meaning in light of the present situation can arrive at multiple answers to the question of how and why the life and teaching of Jesus Christ are significant. Of course, 2,000 years of Christian thought has produces a rather massive corpus of thought on the issue, and one may find oneself landing in any number of different places along the spectrum of opinion about the matter. What I think would have to be the constant touchstone however is the idea that the church teaches that in Jesus Christ God is in some sense definitively revealed.
There may be better and worse reasons to embrace different perspectives on how God is revealed in Christ, and my own preferences definitely fall toward the traditionally orthodox end of the spectrum, as embodied in the work of thinkers like Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltamann (who are themselves very different from one another, yet have both influenced me deeply).
But there is more to theology than just the question of its starting point. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said, "nothing is more incredible than the answer to an unasked question." So if Jesus is the answer, what exactly is the question?
Here is where I think the issue of what would motivate freaks like myself to want to show up for worship at a place like the one I'm describing. The heart of Christian theology is and always must be about the grace of God. In Christ, the grace of God is revealed to us in the midst of our brokenness and woundedness. Certainly its true that there can't be grace without some sense of judgement, nevertheless it has to be the case that the preaching and theology of the church should be rooted in the idea that what is revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ is the grace and love of God.
What the mainline churches so often leave out in their preaching and teaching is the importance of a strongly articulated Christocentric theology. I have been frustrated by the degree to which mainline churches fail to root the preaching and teaching of the church within a well developed theological tradition that begins and ends with Jesus Christ. But to push it further, the main problem with the mainline church is its refusal to deal with Jesus Christ crucified. In other words, it is Christ on the cross, not simply Christ the teacher or Christ the prophet or Christ the incarnation of God, that is at the heart of the Christian message.
In Christ's crucifixion we see both the reflection of our brokenness and the consequence of our brokenness, since in our woundedness we wound in return. We as broken creatures harm those who are least worthy of harm, and bring to grief those towards whom we owe the greatest love. And in the cross, this reality is made manifest to us. At the same time, we've been wounded in our turn, and in Christ we see the reflection of a God who is with us in our woundedness, who suffers both for us and because of us, and in whom our hope therefore must rest.
But if the mainline churches have forgotten about the crucified Christ who testifies to our brokenness and to judgement, the evangelical churches have forgotten about grace. Most particularly, they have forgotten about the radical character of grace. The idea that we are accepted without remainder, in the midst of our woundedness and in spite of our propsensity to harm others. That God through Christ overlooks the worst that is in us, and sees instead the image of Christ within us.
This truth applies to every aspect of the human condition. And because of that we need not trouble ourselves too much about passing judgment on others. We are all freaks. We are all broken. The straight and the gay, the banker and the heroin addict, the politician and the prostitute. The fundamental message of the Christian faith is: You are accepted, freaks! You don't need to stop being a freak! You are welcome here! We want freaks! We need freaks! Don't fear to be a freak! Being a freak will not exclude you from the kingdom of God!
Freaks will enter first!