Remembering Rubem Alves (1933-2014)

Rubem AlvesRubem Alves, the Brazilian writer and theologian, died last week at the age of 80. I had the privilege to get to know him during one of his visits to the United States in the early 1980’s. He came to Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor, Maine, where I was the chaplain at the time. One of my unofficial duties was showing hospitality to visiting scholars, and so over the course of a week or so, I shared several meals with him and  drove him around town to see the sights. I remember I took him shopping for his family at T. J. Maxx. He had a shopping list from his wife, and was very methodical about what to bring home to Brazil.

He was one of the most intellectually curious people I have ever met. A professor of philosophy, he was interested in literature, music (he wrote eloquently about Vivaldi), education and psychoanalysis (in which he was trained.) He was such great company, full of ideas and ready to discuss a world of topics. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a great laugh

He loved poetry and his 2002 book, The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet (SCM Classics) is an important work in the field of theopoetics.  He went on to publish over 40 books on a wide variety of subjects.  A popular lecturer and speaker he was also a columnist for his local newspaper.

He is often credited as one of the founders of liberation theology and his dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary was later published under the title A Theology of Human Hope (Corpus Books, 1969) with a foreword by Harvey Cox. It was an important early work in English on the subject.

I just learned of his death from a tweet from the World Council of Churches, memorializing his many contributions to the ecumenical movement. The remembrance of him from the WCC can be found here.

I recall him with great affection and give thanks to God for him.

Here is a quote of his:

“Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. . . . Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.” (From There is A Season by Joan Chittister)


Should the church ever hitch its wagon to one political party?

My post on Monday, “Pastors aren’t Prophets: Some Unsolicited Advice for Newly-Minted Ministers,” got some good discussion going, both on my site, and particularly on Jason Goroncy’s always lively blog site “Per Crucem Ad Lucem.”  I also received quite a lot of e-mails about it.

But there were concerns.  One concern about my post was that I was arguing on behalf of a Constantinian church in a post-Constantianian age. That may be partly right.  I am not one of those people who think the Constantinian church was an unmitigated evil (stand in Chartres Cathedral sometime and think about it), but I do concede that it is now gone in many places, and fading fast in most others.  So we do need new models, and the emerging church, while interesting, isn’t it.

When I left seminary (in 1975) I served one congregation (I had two) that was the only religious institution of any kind in this little town of 400 souls.  It was, by necessity, a chapel to its community, and it felt a real mission to that community’s well-being and to every member in it of any persuasion or none.  When I went to the hospital I asked at the desk for the town census and not the church’s to make my visits, and was expected to.

I think that there is a lot of truth to the slogan “let the church be the church” and not to have the church running around doing errands for the society.  But Christians do live in societies, and in addition to being signs of the kingdom of God, albeit imperfect ones,  our congregations have responsibilities to them.   I don’t think it is our Lord’s intention that we let them fall apart around our ears.

At the same time I think the idea of a Christian nation, popular here in America in some quarters, is a really bad idea.  In fact, it scares me to death, because I am not sure that their definition of “Christian” would include me or most of the church people I know. And I have lived in Europe for long enough to know that state churches are a millstone around the neck of the Gospel.

Most small town and village congregations I know have an authentic Christian ministry within their communities, and I want to affirm that.  I have been as critical of “Culture Protestantism” as anyone, but ecclesiology, like most of life, is complicated.  The hill-town churches haven’t got the memo yet that the  Constantianian era is over, and most of them are not reading Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank.

Another second critical concern about my post was that I was saying that the church should not be prophetic, which would shock those who have known me for any length of time.  What I was warning about is the romantic idea of the pastor as the solo, heroic prophet. I was worrying that new ministers might think this is their primary role, and as I think I made clear, I don’t believe it is.  But that doesn’t mean that pastors have no prophetic role at all, or that the congregation doesn’t have one as well.

The prophetic role is part of Jesus Christ’s vocation, and by extension, the congregation’s.  The pastor’s role is to equip the saints for their ministry, which includes the prophetic one.  And any faithful preacher who is breaking open the Word of God from Scripture each Sunday is inevitably inviting many questions that have profound political implications.

But you must realize that the context out of which I am writing is a politically polarized America where both parties tend to claim that God is on their side. And so, most conservative Christians are Republicans, and most mainline Christians are Democrats.

I think this is bad for the church.  My ideal congregation contains steadfast ideological foes who disagree on hot-button issues, but, because they are baptized and must walk to the table together to share the bread and cup, have to deal with each’s other’s humanity as well as their own on a regular basis.  And maybe deal as well with their own spiritual blindness and sin.

But that isn’t happening very much, at least not here.  More likely we gather up the like-minded who then congratulate ourselves for not being like those other benighted Christians.   And the continuing trend of denominations to find ideological niches as their primary identity is a scandal.  Our primary identity is found in Jesus Christ, and only there.

I notice that more and more websites of congregations in my own denomination have dropped the first sentence of our preamble, “Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church,” for  the more  user-friendly “Everybody is welcome here.”  I like the fact that everybody is welcome in our churches,  and can think of no other way to be the church.  But that is a fruit and not a root.  The root is that “Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church,” which is why everybody is welcome here.

A church that defines its identity by fruits and not by roots is cutting itself off at the source and will eventually wither and die. Or else survive as a kind of social club.  So I worry that our marketing strategies just might kill us as a church.

I got ruminating about this, and went back and found a paper I wrote in 1989 on the Ecclesiology of P.T. Forsyth, who has shaped me profoundly.  His church was almost completely aligned with one party, and he warned them about it.

I found the following nugget, which if nothing else, confirms my opinion that, as the French say, “the more things change the more they stay the same,” although they say it in French so it sounds better.

Take careful notice of the last sentence at the end of the page. I wrote:

“What is the relationship between a church whose source and goal is redemption and the society in which it finds itself?” Forsyth refuses to identify the church with any particular form of society. The church outlasted feudalism and Forsyth expects it to outlast democracy.  “Christianity is not bound up with any particular scheme, dream, or programme of social order.  Its essence is redemption as forgiveness or eternal life, and the Kingdom of God as flowing from these.  And the eternal life can be led under almost any form of government.”  (Forsyth, Socialism, the Church, and the Poor,  p. 6)

 Forsyth is not in favor of the church identifying itself as church with a particular political party or ideology, although individual Christians can and should be involved in political life.  But when Christianity gets involved with ideologies it is not as a passive recipient or an uncritical cheerleader, but as that which has its own charter and goal, its own life and energy given by God in the act of redemption in the cross of Jesus Christ.  Forsyth writes,

‘Discuss Socialism by all means on its economic side.  Let Christian people descend from their impatient idealism, and harness their resentful pity to discuss the economics of the position more and more.  But do not forget that Christianity has the right of moral criticism on every scheme of economics or fraternity, because it represents the greatest moral, fraternal, and international force that has entered history as yet.  Fraternity means the unity of the race, and the race is one only in God, and in His Christ.  The Church is not committed to any theories or classes of Society which do not rest on that.  And it is not to be sneered at if it refuses to place itself wholly on one side or the other of a mere economic, social, or political question and stake its Lord’s fortunes there.  It is bad for a Church, and it might be fatal, to be only on one side in a civil war . Forsyth, “Socialism, the Church, and the Poor,” p. 33.

 ( Excerpt from Richard L. Floyd.  The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth. Andover Newton Review, Volume 3, Number 1,1992.)

(Photo:  A Bridge to Cross, Windham, Maine)