Last week, I wrote that I would continue responding to a comment on one of my posts about the work of Peter Rollins, written by a commentator called Monty. I posted my first response with the headline, ‘Is Peter Rollins a Universalist?’
Helpfully, Peter Rollins commented on that post. His comment saved me from further speculation about why he decided to include ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’ in his re-working of Galatians 3:28. For those of you who may not have caught the comment, Rollins wrote, in part:
Very quickly I thought I would try and answer why I use “Christian and non-Christian” in this reflection on Galatians. Basically I am putting it to work in our present context. I am saying that Paul referred to the six basic tribal groups of his day (2 political, 2 religious, 2 biological). These defined who you could talk to, when you could talk to them, what work you did, how you saw the world etc. etc.
The point I am making is that Christianity, for Paul, was not a tribal identify but rather that which cut through tribal identities (remember his famous definition of Christians as trash – i.e. as that which is placed outside). But Christianity is now simply another tribal identity in the actually existing church (with its own worldview etc.).
As a tribal identity Christianity itself now becomes a stumbling block to the non-identity of Christ (the Crucifixion being the loss of identity – political, religious and cultural)
I don’t know if Monty – or others – would agree with Rollins’ concept of the ‘non-identity of Christ,’ as a loss of all identities. But I’m glad that the post prompted Rollins to make a fuller explanation. Thanks Pete!
Now, I turn to the next concern Monty identified in his original comment. For me, this concern revolves around:
Being ‘In Christ’
… [Rollins’] concern for anti-conversionism or doing away with the ‘us and them’ will have great difficulty coming to terms with the numerous “exclusivist passages” in the NT, not least those uttered by Christ himself. To me the NT’s position is best described as a totally inclusive-exclusivism. That is: there is universal access- regardless of all the “walls/definitions/categories” we erect or define people by – to the exclusivist position of being “in Christ”.
In a curious way I think this part of Monty’s comment comes close to sounding like Rollins. For example, when Monty says ‘there is universal access- regardless of all the “walls/definitions/categories” we erect or define people by’ it sounds similar to Rollins’ comment when he defined what sort of ‘universalist’ he considers himself to be:
Rather I am a universalist in the sense that I think Paul is saying that a universal characteristic of human being is that we transcend our identities. That we exist outside them while participating in them (a gentile while not being a gentile etc.). This creates a new inside and outside and I am all for that! What separates the people written about by Paul and others is that the former let go of their identity (holding it lightly) while others do not.
It could be debated how close Rollins’ description of people ‘letting go of their identity’ is to Monty’s point about ‘universal access.’ If I am reading Monty correctly, I think he’s saying that it doesn’t matter how human beings label, define, or identify each other – identity in Christ transcends all that. Rollins might say that ‘non-identity in Christ transcends all that,’ but now maybe I am the one playing with words!
I think the crux of the matter comes down to what it means to be ‘in Christ.’ That’s the final, and crucial, part of Monty’s sentence: to the exclusivist position of being “in Christ”.
Going back to my discussion of Galatians 3:26-27 in the previous post, and given that Rollins invoked that Scripture as the context of his rewriting of Galatians 3:28, it is plausible that being ‘in Christ’ would include the following:
‘You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’
Faith, Baptism and Clothing yourselves with Christ … how do we understand those three things?
I obviously can’t say how either Monty or Rollins would define being ‘in Christ.’ But I can offer some brief thoughts on those three matters, including my interpretation of how people in the emerging church movement are thinking around those three areas – and thus where there may be points of friction with historic expressions of Christianity.
The people who have built our historic Christian institutions have, of course, done some heavy lifting in the last 2000 years to identify the content of Christian faith. Christians don’t always agree on how to define their faith, hence the various creeds, confessions, catechisms and so forth, based on their readings of Scripture, and in some cases their interpretations of Tradition.
In this passage of Galatians, the ‘faith in Christ Jesus’ could also be read as something less cerebral and codified – the faith that John Wesley had when he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed.’
People associated with the emerging church, have challenged some of the historical definitions of faith. They have argued that creeds and the constant striving to achieve ‘right belief’ have somehow stunted Christian development in other areas.
I think it’s worth asking ourselves if that is a fair critique?
People in our historic Christian institutions have spent 2000 years baptising people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Christians don’t always agree on who should be baptized (Infants? Adults?) or how (Sprinkling? Immersion?).
For me baptism has always symbolised the change from ‘old’ to ‘new’ that is implied in becoming a Christian – an enactment of being ‘born again’, really, and therefore committing to living in a new and better way.
I don’t think emerging Christians have had much to say about baptism (unless I’ve missed it?). But they have plenty to say about living in a new and better way (see next section below).
Clothing Yourselves with Christ:
This is an interesting phrase, and I’m a social scientist – not a biblical scholar – so my reading of it is very much as a lay Christian. To me, it is a phrase about how to live, and it urges us to follow Christ’s example (whatever that means in 21st century Ireland!).
Much of the emerging church’s critique of the historical Christian denominations is that they have lost the vision of how to live like Christ, focusing instead on narrow political agendas (identifying the cause of Christ with the cause of their particular tribe or nation), withdrawing to a comfortable pietism, and ignoring the poor, the marginalised and the excluded – and the social and political structures that keep people poor, marginalised and excluded.
Again, I think that’s worth asking – is that a fair critique?
Christians who identify with the historic denominations and emerging Christians share a lot of common ground and can have a lot of fruitful conversations around those three areas, but that still doesn’t answer the questions that I suspect are behind Monty’s concern. Those questions are:
- Does Rollins’ inclusion of Christian/Non-Christian in his rewriting of Galatians 3:28 mean that Non-Christians are just as capable as Christians (the card-carrying, creed-reciting, baptized members of our institutions) of ‘clothing’ themselves with Christ?
- And if that’s the case, do we really need the churches anymore?
I realise that this post has raised more questions and provided few answers. My apologies to anyone who may have been looking for answers!
And there is still more food for thought in Monty’s comment, which I hope to explore further soon …