An Alternative Question

The question of alternative is becoming more and more pressing for me theologically. With the return or unveiling of universalism manifest in our global economic structure I have begun to wonder whether it is still possible to speak of alternatives with any integrity. To what extent are socially, economically, and environmentally responsible alternatives simply a practice of personal therapy or self-soothing?

One of the reasons I have stayed in the Mennonite church is because I believe it carries a history of alternatives. It has often been called a ‘third way,’ a mode of ecclesial life that does not conform to the binary pressures of Protestant and Catholic (apologies to the Orthodox). It also has a strong tradition of social, economic and environmental responsibility long before it became a trendy or urgent cause. I could offer anecdotal evidence out the yin-yang of average folk in congregations I have been in that practised the most beautiful expressions of care and service that flowed with ease from their basic approach to and understanding of faith. I won’t even start with the Amish and Old Order expressions. But are these any longer true alternatives? Is there any way of living in western/affluent societies in which we actually give more than we take; heal more than we destroy? Framing the question in this way raises a sort of fatalism within me; suicide as our most ethically responsible choice.  This is the sort of all or nothing that the notion of alternative drives home in me.  It creates the assumption that we are complete and definable, able to transfer ourselves neatly from one paradigm to another.  I am thinking this is a dead end (pun partially intended).

For some time I have been exploring the expression of holiness and priesthood as it develops within the Pentateuch.  Holiness in this context is entirely divorced from any modern concept of piety.  Holiness reflects a complex web of relations that is navigated by appropriate boundaries.  Holiness breaks out and what is unclean can transgress and defile what is holy.  What attracts me to Torah’s concept of holiness is first that it is still a largely un-mined resource for contemporary theology, ecclesiology and ethics.  Samuel Balentine notes that the rise of Protestant historical-criticism disdained priestly liturgy and writings as a low-point in hebraic thought which verged at times on being anti-Jewish.  The larger theological thrust of Protestant anti-ritualism also led to the neglect of further study and reflection on these texts.  But I am not interested in these texts simply as a historically neglected curiosity rather I find the paradigm of holiness an embrace of all of life; personal/ethical/religious (maintaining right relationship with neighbour and God; the golden rule is found in Leviticus), biological (the breaching of semen and blood are to be accounted for), social/relational (the stranger within your land is to be treated appropriately), geographical/political (borders and their maintenance are tremendously important), structural (needless to say the Tabernacle functions significantly as an overall paradigm) animate and inanimate objects (mold breaking out on a house needs to be addressed).  It is a complete, a universal model that does not seek a utopia (as the Conquest can be greatly misunderstood) but navigates the daily threat towards and blessing of holiness.  It does not create an alternative but  creates instead a sense or a posture of how to engage a world full of objects and relations that can be otherwise than they are (that are otherwise than they are . . . if that makes sense).  This is a model of creating, maintaining, restoring, and experiencing boundaries that do not violate and do not insulate but rather facilitate right relationships between people and God.

After recently reviewing The Gift of Difference (CMU Press) I found my thinking resonating with Peter Dula’s article “Fugitive Ecclesia.”  Dula’s article explored the extent to which many contemporary theologians appear to have despaired over the possibility of the contemporary western church as constituting any alternative or challenge to the larger economic forces.  To what extent can the church exist ‘outside’ the spaces structured by economic forces?  While Dula offers many possible ways of addressing this situation what I want to take from his articulation is the possibility that the church can still exist as the church even when it is not the church.

[F]ugitive ecclesia could also create the space for a renewed attention to friendship.  If the church is as rare as these theologians think, then all their reflections on the church, while important, also make room for greater attention to pairs instead of communities.  We may even want to revive the long discredited epithet ‘organized religion.’  It may suggest all we can hope for is the occasional intimacy of two or three (127).

With respect to the priesthood this reminds me of the significance of the cloud of presence and the maintenance of the fire lit by God that is to continue burning.  The sacred can become profane but that does not negate the priesthood.  That in fact is what the priesthood is called to which is an exploration of what it means to consecrate.  We do not create or establish a complete alternative, again questioning the possibility of clear and distinct paradigms, but instead we remain at work in the world possible which is the world of objects and relations which can be holy and clean but they can also be profane and unclean.

Over the coming months I hope to return and review earlier work that I have done in this area and review and revise it for contemporary expression.  In this way I hope to develop new resources for a contemporary expression of the priesthood of all believers.


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