Thursday, June 29, 2006

I've just returned from the annual Center of Theological Inquiry conference in Sedona, Arizona, and will attempt to share with you my educational experience. (I have already shared my airline experience elsewhere.)

If you don't know anything about CTI, the short, short version is that it is one of many (Lilly-funded) efforts to bridge the gap between church and academy. It takes intellectually-inclined pastors and puts them together with high-quality, church-oriented scholars; presumably this strengthens the ties between both and affords a space for useful cross-pollination. The annual meeting features presentations from those scholars, centered around whatever theme that year's focus has been.

This year's focus was "Salvation and the Church." The lectures addressed whether and how the Church functions in God's salvific plan.

First up was Robert "Jentz" Jenson.

He used our experience of embodiment as a metaphor for the experience of being Christ's Body, the church. Just as, he said, we sometimes experience ourselves as indistinguishable from our bodies, while at other times we experience ourselves as a soul/mind having a body, so also the Body of Christ sometimes experiences itself as indistinguishable from Christ's living presence and other times experiences itself as a Body directed by its head, Christ.

Unpacking that a bit . . .

Our bifurcated experience of embodiment:

Imagine a world-class athlete, swimming the race of his life in the Olympics. He is one with his body. It does exactly what he wants it to; but he doesn't have any awareness of it as separate from his essential being. His mind and soul and will are tied so intimately together with the performance of his body as a body that it does not seem to him that he has a body. He simply is himself, and his self is an embodied one.

Now imagine a world-class scientist with a physically degenerative condition. Her mind and soul and will are simply on a different track than her body. Her body is falling apart--it's not obeying her will, it's not aiding in the performance of her essential being. She is still herself, but her body seems not to be part of that self: it is "other" than herself.

Now, it's important to realize that both experiences are intrinsic to the human experience of embodiment. You are your body, and you have a body. Both statements are wholly true, at all times. But your experience may highlight first one, then the other reality; or your life may seem to include only one (at least, up until death). But neither one is more essentially true of humanity than the other, even though they seem to be contraries.

In the same way, Jensen claims, the church experiences herself, the Body of Christ, sometimes as being Christ's living presence, sometimes as being headed, directed, or even chastised by Christ as her head.

So, like the athlete whose body is in perfect continuity with his will, the Church is in perfect continuity with her head, Christ, and thus experiences herself as Christ-in-and-with-the-world. Since Christ's presence is a saving presence, the church can even experience herself as a saving presence.

But, like the scientist whose body functions (and dis-functions) apart from her will, so the Church is NOT in perfect continuity with her head. She experiences herself as broken, wayward, imperfect, and being corrected. In that case, she is herself being saved--the salvific presence is enacted upon her.

Both of these, according to Jenson, are wholly true at all times; but it is natural to our experience as the Body of Christ that one or the other seems to predominate at any one moment.

My concern with this lecture--which I found thoroughly persuasive, as far as it went--was that in trying to unite the two poles of embodied existence in such a tenuous way (in effect: well, it doesn't look it, but it's true anyway) would lead to incomprehensibility, especially for those whose own theology emphasizes one or the other pole of bodily existence or soteriology.

And, lo and behold, one of the attendees was "provoked" ("But, I mean that in a good way!") that Jenson used headship language of Christ.

Imagine that--headship language of Christ!

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