Seeing the wood for the trees

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I have a supervision for my PhD later today, which is an opportunity for me to stand back from the reading I have been immersed in and look at what I have learned, and most importantly ask what direction and shape is my research taking.

With each book I read, there opens up so many new and alluring avenues of possible exploration. So how do I keep focused, on track, and see the wood for the trees, with something that can address the problem I am exploring, in a meaningful way?

So I thought I’d take a big step back, and see if I could blog a summary of what it is I am trying to address, and how, and as ever value your input as this research takes shape. I’m two years into a 6 year process, looking at my starting point, it’s amazing (to me at least) how far my thinking has been shaped, and at the same time, how some of the original ideas I started with remain in focus.

So here we go...

1. Problem There are so many problems the church faces, and within those I have picked one that has surfaced in my life and role as a church planter. That no matter how much we are theologically and culturally engaged as a church, people are largely unable, and unwilling to convert to Christianity (at least in a european secular consumer context).

People engage with us socially, and pastorally, they may even experience what they see as answers to prayer, yet once the moment of that experience has passed, they seem to turn back to a higher reality, of life as usual, away from a life around Jesus with others. No meaning making worship aesthetic, or experience with Christian spirituality and mission, leads to the awareness, and desire to convert, to hand over their reality for life and being to one around the mission of Jesus with his people.

That higher reality and life ordering seems to take it’s narrative from the consumer story of the ‘good life’. All relationships, time, energy and commitments, are ordered around achieving that life, and all experiences and resources of the Christian faith, are there to further those ends and needs, and realities.

At it’s crudest the real missional narrative of life seems to be, to own your own home in a beautiful location, live a long life, have regular holidays, engage in certain experiences (preferably 1001 of them before you die), to achieve the overall goal of being happy, having created the life you want to make. Some people have Oprah, or scientology or NLP, whilst Christians have Jesus to establish that life order.

In essence does this missional narrative, represent a new religious order, and reality, fueled by the resources of consumer and secular culture? And in response are we forming ecclesiologies that support this consumer and secular religion, and it’s inherent nature of spiritual formation.

If we have been worried, and rightly so, that church has become about dispensing religious goods and services, with it’s programmes and practices, have many of the new emerging ecclesiologies continued on this trajectory despite their hopes and aspirations. Has the role of church has collapsed into supporting the self creation and formation of the individual consumer, into private God spaces, social withdrawal, isolation and fragmentation?

So with the collapse of religion into the realm of the private, for consumption and self creation, is there a concomitant current movement of the church into the private, and social withdrawal from public life, that is ultimately a genetic dead end in terms of christian conversion and formation?

I wish to explore these issues, to establish if this is the case, and discover what responses might we make with regards to ecclesiology, how church might better respond to this situation to facilitate the conversion and formation of Christian identity?

2. Method: I want to approach my exploration within the resources, and the location of political theology for several reasons:

Political theology is concerned with how talk about God and humans relate to each other, and how that relationship takes shape and form in society as ‘lived’ communities. It has a particular focus on theological understandings of the social and economic arrangements of life as they relate to the relationships of God and human beings. It also has a specific concern, for how the traditioned resources of Christian history can be brought to bear on these reflections. In other words, how the Christian faith has been lived and incarnated in history, provides primary resources for understanding the nature of our current context, and how church might be ‘lived’ today. It also deals directly with may of the manifestations of the problem I have described, of how bodies, are organised in time and space.

In other words I want to think theologically about the problems I have raised, with reference to the resources of the ‘lived’ church in history, to provide a real world response that might facilitate conversion and growth in christian community. Political theology seems to offer a home for this exploration.

3. Outline of my Chapters

(1) Chapter 1: The Problem & Method Location In my first chapter, I will describe and establish in more detail the problem mentioned above, and how political theology might attend to this situation, and a description of the rest of my research outline.

(2) Chapter 2: Literature Review of the resources of Political Theology In this chapter I will provide a review of the literature from political theology that connects immediately to my problem area, that describes it, and surfaces an initial diagnosis, and description, that allows me establish a more detailed research method and any thesis I wish to pursue in response to this problem.

This will include the works of Bernd Wannewetsch, Oliver O’Donovan, Reinhard Hutter, Eric Gregory, William Cavanaugh, Michael Polayani, Max Weber, Vincent Miller.

This chapter is where I will explore some of the key symptoms of consumerism as religion, the privatization of faith, the loss of the ordinary, the collapse into worship aesthetics and experience, misplaced and misdirected desire, the idealisation of church, the loss of institutional confidence and imagination, the battle of agency and wills, and find theological correlations to this issues.

I will attempt to show how a further reading of the traditioned resources, that have informed these thinkers, of Anglican (Radical Orthodoxy), Anabaptist (Hauerwas), Reformed (Luther/Augustine), and Catholic (Catholic Social Teaching), should be read further against these identified problems.

I will suggest that the way I wish to read them is against the thesis that our theological anthropology, determines our soteriology and then our ecclesiology. In other words our understanding of the human condition, determines our understanding of how the problems of that condition are met, with the subsequent ordering of Church around that reality and process.

I want to read the key discourses that have informed these state of the art political theologies against my rubric of anthropology-soteriology-ecclessiology (A-S-E) to provide a more detailed description of my problem area, and to surface the implicit ecclesiologies within these traditions, and see whether the attend to the issues of my problem.

Chapters (3), (4), (5) & (6) In these chapters I will provide these readings of these 4 traditions, as above.

(7) Chapter 7: Synthesis In this chapter I will take all the previous work, and seek to distill and recapitulate my findings for my problem around my A-S-E thesis.

(8) Chapter 8: Baptism & Emerging Ecclesiologies I will suggest Baptism as an embodied and theological practice that enables this research to be read against my current context and practice. In other words why is baptism so absent from emerging ecclesiologies, and what possibilities does Baptism offer for understanding christian communities that lead and form Christian identity, in our consumer culture.

(9) Chapter 9: Conclusion So what are the concluding implications for ecclesiology, what are my suggestions for how church might understand itself and construct itself in relation to my problem area, so that we might see more Christian conversion and formation?

I expect to land on how church must recover itself as a genuine public, and alternative to politics and the market, that forms Christian identity through worship and mission.