NuDunkers, Theology

God-talk and dancing

NuDunkers are gearing up for another conversation, this time about how Church of the Brethren folk do our God-talk. The brothers and sister who have so far commented on this have written beautiful and impassioned and historical statements about the Church of the Brethren’s mode of doing most of our God-talk and God-knowing with our bodies — through our service, our witness, our rituals. There are solid historical and theological (and even cultural) reasons for this, many of which are explored in other places and more of which will be explored in the conversation on Thursday (more information here about how to be involved).

This aspect of our tradition is one of my very favorites — we know our theology in our bones before we can articulate it (and in ways we could never articulate). Because of our depth of practice, our theology springs forth like streams of living water from within our common experience.

And yet… I want to provide “the other side,” perhaps more of a vision and hope than a description of what currently is. In the Church of the Brethren, I believe we are now being called to do more thinking, writing, and speaking of our God-talk. I believe that (as evidenced by the NuDunker conversations themselves) God is inspiring in Church of the Brethren members a move toward being able to articulate our beloved traditions in service to the denomination and broader church.

May it never be that we replace our practices with theologizing. May it never be that we flatten our rituals by explaining the life out of them. May it never be that God-talk becomes something that some people do and others do not, rather than being shared by all. And, God help us, may our theology never keep us from loving or being fully in the world, from encountering the mystery of God and the beauty of the daily.

But my experience is that, far from shutting down mystery, beauty, ritual, and discipleship, God-talk that follows joy and awe continually finds itself opening and stretching toward God.

People from the outside are increasingly looking to this ritually-rich tradition, and first we must say “come and see!” but we must also be ready to account for the hope that is within us — ready to uncover together the stirrings of mind (as well as heart, soul, and strength) that are present within the tradition and to seek together the Spirit’s “new thing” among us.

If we are in danger of losing our ritual, it is at least in part because we have not done the theological dance of interpretation that can be an opening for the Spirit to breathe new life into the church. I hear often that study easily becomes stale and keeps us from moving forward. This can be true, certainly of study that is disconnected from devotion and life. But equally, brothers and sisters, practice that is done “just because we do it” can become stale and can keep us from moving forward. Who among us has not heard a brother or sister say “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as a way of closing a door on new possibilities?

Theology and practice are inextricably linked, and either one becomes anemic without the other.

To most of the broader church I would say, put down your theology texts for a while and just live into the ritual and communal life. Let your body do your thinking for a while — seek to experience faith like a master carpenter knows the wood, like music lives in the body of a passionate pianist.

To the Church of the Brethren I say, let’s talk about what’s meaningful to us in what we do. Let’s think about where and how God is in our midst in and through our practices. And, more than that, let’s open a little more room to experience study, learning, and God-talk as devotion and as a dance with mystery.

I read a quote this week that resonated deeply with me — from Serena Jones (a systematic and constructive theologian) a description of how she senses her work in theology in relation to faith:

“In those moments when I am most thoroughly immersed in teaching such things, it feels more like I’m dancing or story-telling or even playing a vigorous game of soccer or poker than engaging in something disembodied and abstract. What is very clear to me, in the midst of it all, is that doing systematic theology is itself a practice — a form of engaged knowing, a disciplined habit of body and mind, a patterned action, a way of embracing the world that is as embodied and ritualized and traditioned and improvisational as any of the other forms of ‘practical know-how’ more typically associated with practical theology.” (For Life Abundant, eds. Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass)

We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are called to gather the gifts of the people of God, affirming the worth of all members of the body and encouraging the gifts of all members for the building up of the body. To marginalize a study or articulation of theology, in my mind, can easily perpetuate the same excess (just in the other direction) as ivory tower elitists marginalizing congregational practice.

In truth, all our seeking to know God, all our devotion, all our lives and practices can be caught up in the divine dance of the Trinity. By the grace of God and with the use of the very best of our gifts, this, over all, is what we should seek and continually open ourselves toward experiencing.

(PS, here are the blogs of fellow NuDunkers on this topic:
Discipleship not Dogma by Josh Brockway
Yeoman Theology by Brian Gumm
Ritually Rich by Dana Cassell
Living Theology by Matt McKimmy

And here are a couple other posts that I’ve already written that connect with this one and give a fuller picture of my own understanding of this issue:
Paul and Practical Theology

9 thoughts on “God-talk and dancing”

  1. Yep, yep, yep! Amen sister.

    I think you are getting at the multiple audiences to which we are speaking. In one direction we are saying one thing and in the other something seemingly different. In some ways the posts of myself and others are written as though we are talking to other communities or pastors or theologians through the argument that we need a better account for theology beyond systematic dogmatization. I wonder what would happen if we wrote assuming that our audience was primarily Brethren (which interestingly I think it is to some degree). How does that change the function of our argument? I certainly would be saying “yes, more embodied theology, but we need more robust thinking about this!”


    1. Thanks, Josh. It is helpful to clarify what audience we’re talking to, especially as NuDunkers. Because I spend most of my life here explaining the Church of the Brethren to others, I find myself in this setting feeling more called to speak to a more in-house audience (although certainly not entirely so).
      Ultimately, I think, I am advocating for a careful balance — enshrining neither above the other.
      Also, I continually find myself wondering if there are ways to account for theology that still put words on it but do not fall into the traps of systematic dogmatization that stultifies rather than enlivens. In my conversations out here, I constantly find myself needing to first reframe the questions before I can get to “explaining” the theology. Perhaps that’s part of it. Perhaps part of it, too, are the ways in which people are exploring art and poetry and aesthetics as expressions.
      And perhaps part of it might be invitation to and exploration of particular practices. I love the pattern of early church mystagogy — explain just barely (just enough for an invitation), experience, and then explore. How could that pattern be brought to life more in the midst of this?
      Perhaps the NuDunker forum is intended to be that invitation…
      Looking forward to talking more about all this!

  2. I also must admit that I am ambivalent about the ability of an online, word-based forum to communicate our theology, precisely because our theology is so communally embodied. So perhaps this is part of why I find myself speaking to Church of the Brethren folk more in this because I assume that we all have communities of practice in which we can live out these values on a day to day and week to week basis. How does it affect what we are doing when we are offering this theology to people who do not have a community but are only experiencing this theology through our words?

    1. Very legitimate concerns, Laura. – I think in one of our early meetings we talked about the “virtualness” of NuDunkers and how we assumed or hoped that though our work be “virtual” in that it’s mediated by digital technology, it would compel us to deeper participation and imaginative practice in flesh-and-blood worshiping & serving communities.

      And if folks find a compelling vision of worship and discipleship as we traverse our topics of discussion, and they aren’t in communities which practice/nurture that kind of thing (I’m not!), then they might be compelled to (*gasp!*) do some church-planting! (Which is what I’m gearing up for…)

      So I guess I answer that concern very personally: I’ve found a compelling theological vision that I think has profound implications for everyday Christian life…and I’m not seeing it/experiencing it in my local rural community…so I’m in sowing/planting mode right now.

      And I see NuDunkers – my friends! – as a primo medium to do action/reflection on that work I’m up to, even if it’s not the primary topic of our conversations.

      There’s also this metaphor in the Coles/Hauerwas book I’m reading, in a chapter by Coles where he’s talking about the early Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and their practice of frequent travel to other communities, but also focusing on building capacity in the local communities. The metaphor was “roots and routes,” and it’s been a tremendously fruitful metaphor for me as I think about things like NuDunkers and what it means to local expression of discipleship to Jesus and his Way…

  3. In the Church of the Brethren, I believe we are now being called to do more thinking, writing, and speaking of our God-talk. I believe that…God is inspiring in Church of the Brethren members a move toward being able to articulate our beloved traditions in service to the denomination and broader church.

    I can’t jump and yes “Yes, amen!” to this enough…

  4. A beautiful post, Laura. Yes, theology is a way of living — and dancing — but it is also a kind of writing that recognizes the head, like the heart, is also a passionate organ. If you haven’t already, do learn to know your fellow student in the PhD program in Practical Theology at Boston, my friend Callid. His forthcoming book also addresses these concerns.

  5. Thank you for so succinctly posing the questions and their answers! NuDunkers is an exciting old/new development. Historically it reminds me of the readings where folks gathered around the table to talk what it meant to be Christian and then tried to live it out.
    Looking forward to the discussion tomorrow with high anticipation. Blessings! Bill K.

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