Faithful Presence is a book about the church and how it can be “the church” in meaningful, practical, contextual ways. Fitch sees the same world we all see: dwindling congregations, fragmented sense of community, isolated and inauthentic discipleship. His response is embodied in his operative concept: “Faithful Presence.” For Fitch, the presence of people participates in, mediates, and reveals the presence of God. The church can be “the church” when it learns to be present with God and one another.
It may be a scandalous thing to say in this day and age, but becoming something is not a matter of anything that can be accomplished quickly or by simply saying so. I can say I am a great basketball player all day long; I can even put on the correct apparel, dribble and shoot the ball in the direction of the net without too much time spent, but anyone with any familiarity with basketball who watches me play will not mistake me for anything that even resembles such a proclamation. Eugene Peterson’s title suggests that this logic is also true of faith.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of a mind,” Noll writes in his opening sentence. That is a controversial umbrella statement, of course, but the evidence is there. Written in 1994, Noll provides ample evidence at the outset of his book that the “life of the mind” is not a prized virtue among modern North American evangelicals (broadly defined). Those of us who have spent time with this particularly broad group of Christians probably already know this. Noll’s book asks why this is the state of things.
Sometime in the 70’s people began to suspect that Paul was a Jew. Scholars like E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, and James D. G. Dunn have since championed a particular way of understanding what Paul has to say principally in reference to his Jewish upbringing, context, and interlocutors. The strange thing is that it does not appear that modern day Jews took this very seriously. If he was a Jew, then he was a very marginal and disloyal one. This silence is perhaps what makes Daniel Boyarin’s book, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity such an interesting and fresh way of looking at Paul. For Boyarin, Paul is not a marginal Jew, he is a radical Jew.
There is an important sense in which this small book—at only 105 pages with larger than average print—is a kind of summary of what Balthasar has written at length and in great detail elsewhere. In my personal opinion this book is a near-perfect representation of good theology. It blends technical precision with strong rhetorical expression while bringing these two together in an uncommon simplicity of expression. Anyone can read this book. But above all this book moves seamlessly between theological exposition and spiritual and even mystical communication. Balthasar holds all these vital pieces together, allowing the Apostles’ Creed to frame what Christianity and the Christian life means for him.
Yet why should the Church not be the best and most ideal environment for good theology? Yes, ministry is a busy life. Between pastoral visits, emergencies, funerals, weddings, prep for sermons and classes, handling some administrative duties, and the inevitable arrival of unexpected visitors it seems like one has little time left to sit down at the desk and read, study, research, and write. And yet all of these tasks are the fertile grounds on which good theology is done. They are the lifeblood of the Church in which the Spirit moves invisibly and sometimes visibly. The question is not whether good theology can come from the Church. It is why hasn’t more come out of the church!
As I’ve suggested in some earlier book sketches, I think Protestants like myself have a lot to gain by learning from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the ways I’ve grown the most by listening to the Orthodox voice is the way I think about salvation. The way I typically heard the story growing up made salvation a matter of alignment, like applying for membership in the right club, and then a lifetime’s work trying not to get kicked out. And salvation was taught this way because of our underlying theological assumptions. Now, I’m not saying this is completely wrong, but I do think there’s some serious gaps and even errors in that way of thinking.
Last week we faced a set of issues that seem to require us to think along the same lines. Is a deep, radical love compatible with an (albeit partially) socialized healthcare system? Is a deep, radical love compatible with a heritage haunted by racism and slavery? Is a deep, radical love compatible with embracing or excluding homosexual marriage—or indeed, homosexuals in the Church? I offer no answers here, and I’m not interested in hosting or sparking political debates. What I do suggest is that this book offers a great methodological starting-point for thinking through these questions. My suspicion is that, if we follow Jackson’s example of charitable thought, that our answers will resemble love in better and truer ways than they did before–no matter which side one lands on any given issue.