Liberty, a theme that distinguishes Disciples from Mormons

April 30, 2012

It is not possible, or, in other words, it is not in human nature, to love liberty, freedom of thought, of speech and of action, in the state, and hate it in the church; or to love it in the church and to hate it in the state (Alexander Campbell).

During the 1830s, many people on the American frontier were drawn to religious movements that sought to restore the basic characteristics of biblical religion. Among them were the Latter Day Saints led by Joseph Smith and the Disciples of Christ led by Alexander Campbell. That their appeals were in some ways similar is illustrated by the fact that a prominent Disciples preacher, Sidney Rigdon, left Campbell’s new Reformation in 1833 to join the one that looked to Smith for its inspiration.

In an earlier column, I discussed the Disciples emphasis upon Christian unity as one of the factors that kept the Campbell movement tightly connected with the historic churches while the LDS movement became increasingly separated from mainstream Christianity. I referred readers to an important essay by mid-twentieth century Thomas J. Liggett in which the emphasis upon unity over restoration is well stated.

One of my respondants proposed that the Disciples’ emphasis upon freedom was another factor that distinguished these two restorationist movements. He cited a book by Disciples historian Ronald E. Osborn (1917-1998) as a cogent exposition of liberty—both religious and political—within the context of Disciples ecclesiology. Osborn entitled his book (published in 1978) Experiment in Liberty. He claims that throughout the history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), liberty has stood along side restoration and unity as a central principle that accounts for the theological ideas and ecclesial patterns of his church. Among the emphases in Campbell’s position, Osborn points out, were these:

the freedom of the hearer to believe and obey the gospel, the liberty of Christians to hold diverse opinions on matters not revealed, the emancipation of the church from all oppressive structures of human authority whether theological or ecclesiastical. Repeatedly in presenting his position on church order he resorted to analogies with the American political system. He considered the reformation which he led and the new venture of the United States to be parallel and compatible experiments in liberty.

Although Osborn does not discuss the Mormon movement, the differences between the two became increasingly significant, and their sharply contrasting views of liberty and relationship to the American political system is one explanation.

When Osborn’s book was published, the Disciples were participating in a church union movement called the Consultation on Church Union. One of the partners in this enterprise and in other ecclesiastical activities was the United Church of Christ. Roger Hazelton, a well-regarded theologian in the United Church published a review of Osborn’s book in Mid-stream: An Ecumenical Journal, a quarterly publication of the Disciples Council on Christian Unity. A paragraph from that review summarizes Osborn’s position:

Actually the theme of the book, presented as the Forrest F. Reed Lectures for 1976, is the interweaving of two historic ventures—one concerned with guaranteeing civil liberty in the nation, the other with the ecclesial dimensions of Christian freedom grounded in faith. By and large, both Disciples and especially the Congregationalist tradition in the United Church of Christ have “believed that both ventures were consistent, that both represented the purpose of God” (page 21). To maintain this original vision and commitment without either compromise or confusion, adapting it to changing complexities in church and state alike, has not been easy. Furthermore, there are sharp questions to be raised about this “holy alliance,” as recent discussions of American civil religion have insisted. The idea that political democracy is not only implied but positively sanctioned by Christian freedom under God has been a precious part of our common heritage, yet it needs closer theological and ethical examination. Those of us who share it should at least know better just what it is that we intend to affirm.

To read all of Hazelton’s review, click Hazelton.


The book about America’s highway system I’ve been looking for!

April 27, 2012

Big Roads, by Earl Swift

Whether it be in the Middle West where I lived for half of my career as aggressive cyclist or the West where I am filling out the second half, I love the old roads, the easy-going, paved ribbons that connect the cultures of ordinary Americans.

They follow the terrain along the streams and around mountains, pass by farms and factories, and march straightforwardly through the center of villages and towns. Along these roads cyclists can find the eateries and hostelries that give juice to their travels. They hear the many accents of American speech and see the colors of American people.

For several years I have looked for a book that tells the story of America’s roads, especially those that for the most part are quiet, with little motorized traffic, and pleasing to two-wheeled travelers like me. I’m especially interested in arterials from an earlier era, such as U.S. 40 from St. Clairesville, Ohio, through Indiana, and on to Vandalia, Illinois, or U.S. 60 from Sun City West, Arizona, through Wickenburg and then west almost to the California border.

Finally, unexpectedly, I found the book I’d been looking for in a new book display in the Kenton branch of the Multnomah County Public Library (just around the corner from the statue of Paul Bunyan that fascinated my children during our many car trips between grandmothers’ houses many years ago).

I say unexpectedly, because this book advertises itself as something very different from the book on old roads that I’ve been seeking.

The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

Looking inside, you find something far more comprehensive than this blurb on the jacket describes. Author Earl Swift has written exactly what I’ve hoped for, starting with the way that bicyclists pioneered the development of hard surfaced, all weather roads. He describes the process by which enthusiasts worked to create local roads that would serve the needs of small town America.

Then came people with a broader vision who developed routes that traveled longer distances: the Cumberland Road, the Lincoln Highway, the Sunshine Route. The author gives interesting biographical sketches of career bureaucrats, each of them a social visionary and engineer mixed together, who created the system of highways that joined the country together.

I now have some sense of the hard logic and dogged bureaucratic persistence that finally established the numbering system of the old federal highway system, even numbers for east-west roads, with the numbers getting larger from north to south, and odd numbers from east to west, with small numbers in the east. How else could it be, people might be asking today. Swift describes how hard it was for the highway engineers to win the battle.

He also explains how difficult it was to develop a course of action that apportioned decisions and financial responsibilities to the states, the federal government, and independent societies. Looking back on them now, the decisions seem as though nothing else could make sense, but during the decades of decision, passions were hot and decisions were hard to reach.

One of the most interesting aspects of Swift’s story is the way that roads change reality. They are designed to accommodate long-existing social patterns. In short order, however, the new roads allow new patterns of interaction, which often cause the new roads to be overwhelmed. They have a way of destroying communities and creating new ones.

One of the best things about this book is that it gives me facts to fuel my growing sense of alienation from big roads, humongous bridges, and the fossil-fueled way of life that Americans take for granted.

Earl Swift, historian and author, thank you for a fine book.

Mormons and the Disciples of Christ

April 23, 2012

Writers on Mormon history frequently mention the Disciples of Christ as close counterparts to Latter Day Saints during the first generation of these religious bodies. The primary point of comparison is that both movements sought to restore primitive Christianity.

Mormons and Disciples both emphasized three ideas: 1) The Bible describes the church as God intends it to be. 2) Most of the time since the period described in the New Testament has been marked by aberrations in doctrine and practice. 3) Their respective movements represent authentic restorations of “the ancient order of things.”

As a life-long member and long-time minister of the Disciples of Christ, I have been particularly attentive to this early linkage, and I have in my own mind objected to the casual comparison of these two impulses in early nineteenth Christianity.

Granted, Joseph Smith and the Mormons on the one hand and Alexander Campbell and the Disciples on the other sought to recover the purity and power of New Testament Christianity.

Why, then, did these two movements develop so differently? The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), to use the contemporary name of the one movement, have remained within the boundaries of classical Christian doctrine and practice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have become a new religious movement with strong connections to orthodox Christianity but significantly different elements in theology, churchly practice, and sacred writings.

One of the reasons why Disciples have stayed with the main Christian stream is that from earliest days, they have understood restoration to be the minor premise in their syllogism. The major premise has always been the unity of the church.

One of the clearest and useful statements of the Disciples’ preference for unity is a paper written by Thomas J. Liggett, who spent his career as missionary, church administrator, and leader in theological education. President Liggett, who died March 27, 2012, and is being honored in memorial celebrations around the country, prepared these remarks for the School of Theology for the Laity at East Dallas Christian Church in Texas, June 22, 1979. The paper was later published in Mid-stream: An Ecumenical Journal.

Although this paper does not discuss the 1830s’ similarities of Mormons and Disciples, it does offer six reasons why Disciples consistently chose unity over restoration. This consistent choice is one of the reasons why the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have remained within the sphere of classic Protestant Christianity.

The concluding paragraphs of Liggett’s paper state his conclusion forthrightly:

Our movement began with the dual emphasis of Christian Unity and Restoration. These two ideas, compatible and complementary in the beginning, eventually were perceived as existing in tension with one another. As this tension grew, we were led to make value judgments and to choose between them. The Churches of Christ and the independent Christian Churches, while exhibiting significant differences of interpretation of restoration, seem to have chosen “restoration” as the primary value. Each movement, in its own way continues to seek to restore the New Testament Church. Neither participates in the formal manifestations of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century.

The Disciples of Christ, on the other hand, have chosen “Christian unity” as the primary commitment and value. We have participated from the beginning in local, regional, national and world ecumenical bodies. We have encouraged “mission churches” to enter united churches, we are participants in the Consultation on Church Union and we have engaged in union conversations. We believe that this commitment to Christian unity is based solidly on Biblical and theological grounds. We believe that it constituted a major commitment of Thomas Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and became a major commitment for Alexander Campbell in his mature years. We frankly admit to having given priority to Christian unity rather than to Restoration, particularly in any legalistic sense. There have been solid reasons for this decision, some of which are identified above. The choice has been made and the direction has been set. The full expression of our commitment to the one, universal church continues to be our task.

With the support of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I have prepared T. J. Liggett’s paper for republication in an electronic version. To read the entire paper, click  Why the Disciples Chose Unity.

50 ways the new bike culture can change your life

April 19, 2012

The burb on the back of the book says that “On Bicycles has something for everyone who has ever ridden a bike.” Since this 370-page book contains fifty chapters, each one written by Amy Walker, its editor, or one of “a wide-ranging group of cycling writers,” whom she has recruited, the claim may actually come close to being true.

It is clear from photos and drawings, with which the book is profusely illustrated, that the book is designed primarily for people who use bikes to get around town while doing ordinary activities of ordinary life. They wear everyday clothes instead of bike-specific outfits, ride decent enough bikes rather than high tech, expensive, performance oriented equipment, and cycle at a pace that is likely not to raise a sweat.

In other words, this book is designed for a high percentage of cyclists I see every time I ride around the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area where I live. During my working years, when I commuted three miles to a teaching job in Indianapolis, wearing suit and tie, and in all kinds of weather, I might have been that kind of cyclist on those short trips. And there are times now when I ride this way.

Most of the time, however, I ride too hard to judge the adequacy of these essays, but I have read selectively through the book and can report that some of the chapters do discuss topics in ways that I—aggressive cyclist in spandex and wool and always working up a sweat—find to be constructive and provocative. Here are notes on three of them.

Cycles and Relocalizing by Amy Walker: The attitude toward personal life and technology in this chapter is one that a growing number of people affirm and, as Walker asserts later in the essay, getting around by bicycle is an important way to live consistently with this attitude.

Where globalization capitalizes on cheap fuel and cheap labor to manufacture cheap goods, localization encourages self-sustaining and secure systems of trade and fulfillment. Localization is a systemic economic strategy to create resilience by removing dependence on fossil fuels and imported goods. Though there are good reasons to encourage diverse, globalized media and communication technologies, in the case of food and most consumer goods, relocalization seems to benefit individuals and communities better than globalization by recirculating energy and resources within their own ecosystem.

The Case for Internally Geared Bicycle Hubs by Aaron Goss: The writer, who owns a bicycle repair shop in West Seattle, Washington, lists several advantages of hubs that contain a bicycle’s gears: simplicity, durability and ease of maintenance, chain-case compatibility, stationary shifting, and low operating costs. Although I agree with much of his discussion, my experience with derailleur-geared bikes is contrary to some of his claims. His experience in the bicycle repair business, however, gives Goss a significant database. Maybe he’s right in his evaluation of the higher cost of derailleur systems in comparison with internal hubs.

Goss addresses the objections that often are raised to the use of these hubs: lower efficiency, limited gear range, and weight. His basic response is that “in the real world, riding your bike in normal clothes to work, you won’t notice any power loss or extra weight.” He’s probably right. Despite my commitment to aggressive cycling, the idea of using an internal hub attracts me enough that I may, in time, convert my every day bike to this kind of system.

Cycling for All Abilities and Needs by Ron Richings: Although I am still able to ride a conventional bicycle in virtually all kinds of cycling situations, I often think about the fact that much of this could change because of aging, disabling illness, or accident. On my rides, I meet people who have adjusted to these conditions with specially designed bikes and trikes. I’m ready, at least in principle, to use a specialty cycle should I come to the time when I can no longer use my upright bike.

What I have not thought about, however, is the topic which Ron Richings discusses in this chapter: the fact that bicycle advocates and governments at all levels have fallen short in developing the infrastructure that will serve people who use these specially designed human powered cycles. He concludes his essay with the sentiment that every cyclist needs to honor: “And this is not just an exercise in altruism. In the long term the beneficiaries of our efforts are not ‘them’—they are us.”

The blurb is probably right. Everyone interested in bicycles will find something in this book worth reading. On Bicycles is widely available in public libraries, bookstores, and online. It was published by New World Library, Novato, California, in 2011.

T. J. Liggett: “A Profile of the Disciples of Christ”

April 17, 2012

T. J. Liggett–An Ideas-Driven Leader

Most of T. J. Liggett’s years as president of Christian Theological Seminary took place before personal computers had become ubiquitous, but T. J. was a master in using a typewriter for his communications with staff, faculty, and professional colleagues. People who worked with him quickly became accustomed to receiving the notes and memos that he whacked out on the portable typewriter that sat on the credenza behind the swivel chair at his office desk.

T. J. also used his typewriter to work up his ideas on the important matters of seminary, church, and public affairs. He had great skill in getting his thoughts down in logical order, thus demonstrating his analytical power and revealing one of the reasons why he was so persuasive in his relations with faculty, trustees, church members, ecclesiastical leaders, and people in business and politics.

Of course, T. J.’s ideas were much more important than his typing skills. His educational background, including completing residence for the Ph.D. degree, his years of missionary service and executive leadership, and his work as theological educator were driven by his strong theological understanding and his passion for the Gospel. T. J. was an ideas-driven leader.

When an agreement was reached for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to enter into a series of bi-lateral conversations with the Roman Catholic Church, T. J. Liggett was a natural choice to be the person who could explain the Disciples to the Roman Catholic delegation, most of whom would know very little about this minor body within the Reformed Tradition. T. J. had worked in Catholic cultures and with Catholics. He moved easily among people of power, whether that power was exercised in church, business, or government.

Furthermore, he had his own way of understanding his church, the predominately English-speaking body that in North America has been known in recent times as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

At the first convocation of the Disciples-Roman Catholic Bi-lateral, T. J. made his presentation. The version later published in Mid-stream (the quarterly journal of the Council on Christian Unity) bears the marks of T. J.’s “typed by hand” notes. More important, however, is the fact that this paper show his incisive ability to describe the essence of things. He begins with a simple disclaimer:

This profile is excessively brief and utilizes generalities which are not universally valid, nor do they represent the consensus of Disciples leadership. It is, rather, the summary of one person’s evaluation of the present status of the Disciples of Christ. Hopefully, it will serve the purpose of stimulating the dialogue which we are initiating and which will provide multiple opportunities for assessing the accuracy of these generalizations and the relative importance of the salient features of the profile.

In the body of the paper, T. J. provides his own summary of how the Disciples came to be. Incisively, he discusses mission strategy and the issues of culture that necessarily shape the life of any church. T. J.’s long involvement in the Disciples’ missionary enterprise helps him emphasize the international aspects of the Churches of Christ-Disciples of Christ church that he represents. His final paragraphs depict the stance that he hopes Disciples and Catholics can adopt as they move into their conversations.

In this theme of church and culture, the Protestant-Catholic dialogue could be very fruitful. Protestants seem to have been successful in contextualizing the Gospel in each culture, but we have done so at the expense of catholicity. The Roman Catholic Church has sought and achieved an expression of catholicity, but often at the expense of the indigenization of the Gospel in each place. Each of us is now striving to recover the “lost dimension,” and we could be mutually helpful.

The Disciples, born of a passion for Christian unity and acknowledging the normative character of the Church of the New Testament, with involvements in 28 nations of which only nine have identifiable “Disciples churches” (the other 19 are united churches), and with organic church union being seriously considered in three of these nine (Great Britain, New Zealand, and United States), enter into dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church not with pride in a growing denominational strength, but in the evidences of the emerging oikoumene.

T. J. Liggett, who was born in 1919, died March 27, 2012, in retirement at Pilgrim Place, Claremont, California. With the permission and support of Robert K. Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which publishes Mid-stream, I have prepared a new electronic version of T. J. Liggett’s paper “A Profile of the Disciples of Christ.”

To read the paper, click A Profile of the Disciples of Christ.





Reading up on the God question

April 11, 2012

When I was a young pastor, a colleague told me that my ministry would be more productive if I were to “get real with God.” I’m not sure what had prompted that assessment, nor did I follow up to find out what he meant. More than fifty years have elapsed since that moment and two facts about my religiosity continue almost unchanged: 1) Mystical experiences don’t come my way; 2) technical theological writing makes my head swim.

Even so, these many years I have believed in God, prayed, and talked with people about God, confident that these practices make sense and help us understand the world in a way that is truthful and life supporting.

Soon after that conversation, I did graduate studies in church history, and two of the courses pushed me into technical theology. The course on Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion helped me understand the branch of Protestantism which I affirmed. It did not, however, help me “get real” with God.

Much more influential was a course in nineteenth century German theology—Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Herrmann. As before, I found that I couldn’t stay focused on the technical detail of their systems. What inspired me was their determination to describe God in ways that made sense in the cultural and intellectual world of their time. Even though I was reading their work many years later and in a different milieu, their approach seemed right to me and I was reassured that my personal faith and pastoral practice were well founded.

My contentment with this foundation helped me avoid Karl Barth and Neo-orthodoxy and leaned me favorably toward Paul Tillich, although his abstruse prose was more than I could handle. During my years teaching Christian ritual practice, all directed toward God, of course, I responded favorably to theology often referred to as Process Thought, but the only book by Alfred North Whitehead that I read was Adventures of Ideas.

During a recent Lenten class at my church, however, I found myself wanting to revisit Friedrich Schleiermacher’s writings. Oddly enough, the class I was taking was introducing the Enneagram as a way to assist us in our prayers. One of the sessions presented the three “energy cycles” that reminded me of one of the most memorable discussions during the course on Schleiermacher I had taken so many years earlier. I checked with a friend whose doctoral studies in church history were much more recent than mine and he agreed with the connection that I had suggested.

Long ago, I gave away my books on nineteenth century, but Powell’s Bookstore in downtown Portland had a used copy of Richard Crouter’s 1988 translation of Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its cultured despisers. His one volume systematic theology, The Christian Faith, is also available. Part of my summer time reading and writing will be focused on rereading and rethinking these two books. Probably Albrecht Ritschl and Wilhelm Herrmann will follow along in due course, especially since one of my long-time theologian colleagues told me recently that many of his students who came to seminary claiming to be fundamentalists decided, after reading Ritschl, that they were liberals.

While thinking about these matters, I finally looked at a book I had borrowed long ago from a nephew, Does God Exist: An Answer for Today by Hans Küng. Counting notes and index, it’s 839 pages long, but the last section of the text, “Yes to the Christian God” (pp. 585-702), provides the kind of discussion I’m looking for. What’s disconcerting, however, is that Küng’s earlier book, On Being a Christian, is almost as long (720 pp.) A review of Küng’s work notes that he is more like Ritschl than like classic Catholic theologians. Thus, I find myself inclined toward reading enough of his work to satisfy my vague sense of need.

What other titles will I put on my shelf for summer reading about God? It’s hard to say, but right now I am inclined to make sure that Friedrich Heiler’s classic volume Prayer is there. This is another book I read many years ago, but this one I have kept through several downsizings of theological books since retirement. It too has come up for favorable mention in things I have read recently. The fact that it talks about God indirectly with liturgical language rather than by frontal attack with philosophical exactitude brings the book into the range that I can handle.

How will all of this affect keithwatkinshistorian? Other than keep me busy, I really don’t know.

Bicycle Pilgrimage

April 4, 2012

A contemplative journey in the land of Abe Lincoln, Robert Owen, and Paul Tillich

America’s greatest president—Abraham Lincoln, one of the twentieth century’s premier theologians—Paul Tillich, and a social reformer in the early 1800s—Robert Owen, all have strong connections with Southern Indiana. With this fact in mind, I used to conduct “religious pilgrimages on bicycles” for youth and adults through this fascinating section of the country. While other parts of the world may have more notoriety, there are few places so well suited for contemplative travel on bicycles.             

One of these pilgrimages took place June 17-23, 1979. Nine adults and a thirteen-month-old baby gathered on a summer Sunday afternoon at the Bedford Christian Camp in the hill country of southern Indiana. During the next six days, we rode bicycles over a 250-mile course of country roads and state highways, through covered bridges, past cemeteries and churches, penetrating ever more deeply the rural fastness near the place where the Wabash River flows into the Ohio.

We found lodging night by night in the churches of small towns along the way (Washington, Princeton, Poseyville, Dale, and French Lick), cleaning up in their bathrooms, cooking in their kitchens, sleeping on their floors, and praying in their sanctuaries. We took time to stop at sites that radiate religious and cultural power. This journey became a religious quest on bicycles, a spiritual pilgrimage for contemporary Christians.

The character of the week had been set in the brochure announcing the journey: “Pilgrimage travel, journeys in search of meaning!” How can we, the brochure continued, find this kind of religious life, with automobiles, motels, and franchised food outlets all around? How can we make a pilgrimage, which requires that we be cut loose from normal life patterns, exposed to the elements, subdued by deep fatigue, and invited to contemplate the centers of religion’s power?

The answer promised by the brochure was to travel by bicycle, with others in the same search, following a regimen of disciplines appropriate to the venture. On bicycles, travelers are forced to deal with terrain, weather, danger, and the frailties of flesh and spirit. They travel slowly, in a way that isolates them from motorized reality and intensifies their relations with others on the spiritual journey. Among the disciplines that the pilgrims were told to expect were daily services of worship, reflective writing, sharing in group tasks, and the daily ride of 40 to 50 miles.

The key to the pilgrimage’s success, however, was the character of the places that would be visited. From ancient times, pilgrimages have functioned this way. They have been occasions when people have traveled to places that are significantly related to the origins of their faith and culture. Visiting these sites, pilgrims experience the reviving of faith and passion for what they believe. Their personal powers are reorganized to be more consistent with the principles and disciplines of their communities of faith. Their sense of who they are as a people is renewed. Read more. . . Bicycle Pilgrimage