Big Table Christianity.
I’ve been invited to participate in a sychroblog to help stir some discussion about the upcoming “Big Tent Christianity” event in Raleigh, North Carolina next month. The prompting I received was to begin to imagine what “big tent Christianity” might look like in the future and in my own context. I’m sort of intrigued by the idea of the whole conference for a couple of reasons.
First, it seems to fall pretty neatly into the recent efforts of Transforming Theology, who is putting the event on, to make progressive theology the popular theology in American Christendom. Philip Clayton and Tripp Fuller, in particular, adamantly argue for just this in their recent book, Transforming Theology, and all over the internet hither and thither. In Transforming Theology, Clayton writes,
There are increasing signs that the rigid opposition between these two sides [conservative and liberal] is beginning to abate. Younger Christians across the spectrum of churches are no longer willing to be pigeonholed into one of the two camps. . . . These are signs of an exciting return to “big tent” Christianity. No one is urging that we create one mega-denomination or write a creed that all are expected to sign. But it’s getting easier to recognize once again our common features as followers of Jesus Christ. While we may follow the one we call Teacher and Lord in different ways, with different language and emphases, depending on our age, location, and social world, we’re all under a single tent. Together we constitute the same body of Christ. (p. 65).
The idea is to boil Christianity down to a few “common features” and, for the sake of unity, to focus on commonality and to all get along. Diversity is encouraged and cherished. Differences are opportunities to work through the details of contextualized and contingent theologies with patience and, implicitly, without the subjectivity required to make claims on validity. This is Clayton’s “progressivism,” which is not necessarily melioristic but is certainly concerned with innovation and change in the future of the church. Clayton writes, “Being progressive does not mean that you wish to reject the past. But it does suggest a greater emphasis on innovation, on openness to change, on learning new things from new contexts, and on finding new forms through which the church and her action in the world may be manifested” (p. 122).
Along with Clayton’s progressivist agenda, I’m intrigued by the involvement of so many “emergents” with the entire project. Emergents are typically known for their affinity for “postmodernism,” albeit a postmodernism that sounds a whole lot like liberalism. What fascinates me about the involvement of emergents with this conference is that there seems to be some understanding of postmodern thought as the great “both/and” of our current philosophical milieu. I suppose the thinking goes something like this: If all truth claims are contingent, then truth is difficult to discern and all attempts at it should be treated with equal suspicion, validating all attempts at theological discourse. The problem that I have with this in regards to its claims as being “postmodern” is that most of the frequently quoted philosophers in these descriptions don’t seem to be saying just that. In my limited experience, they seem to say something much more like this:
All truth claims are contingent as signs of someThing that is assumed to be beyond the truth claim itself, this Thing being the Truth. The signs themselves are never actually the Thing, but representations of the Thing. Descriptions of the Thing are further signs of the sign of the Thing, in one direction; while the purest experience of the Thing is a sign for the Thing, constantly deferring the actual presence of the Thing. If the Thing is only spoken of in signs, and the signs are pointing to more signs of the Thing, then perhaps there is no Thing at all.
If there is no Thing, no Big Secret, then what good is tolerant discussion of various truth claims? Does it do anything to preserve something “good” about Christianity? Or does it nullify it? If all of our differences are equally tolerable, aren’t they all bullshit? And is it even possible to do so? Would we want to? Could one join all the various Christians under one roof and affirm their right to make definitive claims about what it means to be the church? Would Clayton or the emergents want to affirm the “God-fearing” members of violently hateful groups who act in the name of their own faith?
So, I can’t help but wonder how we are in the midst of a “return to ‘big tent’ Christianity.” It seems to me that there is no tent. All the talk of the big top is a strange insistence to return to something that never was and could never possibly be reclaimed. The past can never be recovered because it can never be fully known. This is precisely because of our own contingency here and now that struggles to discover what it might mean to be “faith-ful” and the contingency of the past that we assume to re-establish. In a history of signs, there simply no pure Christianity to rediscover. Throughout history, Every Christian attempt at faithfulness has been a struggle with contextual factors and an inherited heritage of shifting interpretation. Again, there is not–and never has been–a big tent.
But if we want to speak of Christianity, there is a Table. It’s a Table established by the Incarnated God, who seemed to think that becoming something as simple as a human being was not enough. This God became present in bread and wine, remembered as broken and poured out. Like the crucifixion, the continual breaking of bread as the body and spilling of wine as blood is the institution that undoes institutions. God undoes God’s own Godness in the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is undone in the crucifixion and, I would suggest, the breaking of bread. In further reversals, the crucified God is resurrected, and the bread and wine provide life for the Church. Rather than a big tent under which we can all gather in the name of congeniality, there is a Table we gather around in shock and in horror as the notion of God is provocatively put to death and consumed. Around this Table, surrounded by God knows who, we realized that not only is there no tent, but there is no “Christianity.”