With my dissertation submitted and currently undergoing evaluation, I have some margin in my life to start working through the stack of “books I really want to read one day” that has accumulated over the past several years. On the top of that pile sits James McClendon’s three-volume systematic theology: Ethics, Doctrine, and Witness. Yeah, that’s right… my first foray back into leisure reading is not to head for a novel but to dive right into a set of books on theology. I’m such a nerd. Deal with it.
I’ve been wanting to read McClendon because I resonate with his story and (what little I know of) his theology. McClendon was a Baptist from the South (like me) who found himself wandering away from that theological sphere and towards the theology of the Radical Reformers, those who are also often called “anabaptists” (also like me). McClendon would later come to call himself a “small-‘b’ baptist,” instead of an anabaptist, a term which was originally used in a derogatory sense. Last year I was having a conversation with a guy who studied under McClendon. We were talking about theology and my hopes for the future of the church. He said, “You know, you remind me of a young Jim McClendon.” I thought that was a curious statement, obviously meant as a compliment, and that it would behoove me to read the man’s work. One of the practices that was most helpful during the coursework phase of my DMin was having to write a weekly blog post on the assigned reading. It forced me to synthesize what I was reading with my context. I’m going to continue that practice in this space as I work through McClendon’s trilogy. This post covers the first two chapters of Ethics, the first book in the trilogy. They serve as both an introduction to the entire series as well as an introduction to this first volume, in particular. McClendon sets about describing the task of theology, and the reason for beginning with ethics, instead of with apologetics like many other systematic theologies do.
Theology, McClendon says, “is the discovery, understanding or interpretation, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community, including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to whatever else there is” (23). He comes to this definition after describing the subjective and objective poles of theology, the assertion that theology can be (and often is) undertaken by those who are not Christian, or monotheists, or theists at all. He lands on conviction and community as the key components of understanding what theology is and how it is practiced.
Convictions are different than opinions. Opinions are formed quickly and can be changed just as quickly. Convictions, however, develop slower, root deeper, and are held to stronger than opinions. “It may take me a long time to discover my own convictions, but when I do, I have discovered . . . myself. My convictions are the gutsy beliefs that I live out–or in failing to live them out, I betray myself” (22). Theology, though, is not the same as me holding convictions. Theology requires a community within which convictions are discovered, interpreted, shared, and sometimes even changed. This is the “convictional community.”
McClendon’s convictional community are those that he calls “baptists.” This includes “Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ, Mennonites, Plymouth Brethren, Adventists, Russian Evangelicals, perhaps Quakers, certainly black Baptists (who often go by other names), the (Anderson, Indiana) Church of God, Southern and British and European and American Baptists, the Church of the Brethren, the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal bodies, assorted intentional communities not self-defined as churches, missionary affiliates of all of the above” (33-34). Though these groups don’t all share the same, exact vision, they share enough convictions to benefit from a common theological pursuit.
Regarding method, McClendon understands the task of theology as contextual, narrative-based, rational (in the sense that it is connected to, and interdependent with, other rational pursuits), and self-involving. As a starting point for exploring theology, McClendon chooses to begin with ethics, which seeks to answer the question, “How must the church live to be the church?” (46). From here, he will build to an investigation of the teaching which undergirds the common practice of the church, called doctrine. Finally, he will explore “the world that the church must maintain in order to truly be the church” (43), which he calls “witness” and which is only somewhat related to the classical apologetics.
Having described a broad view of the trajectory of the three volumes, McClendon next proceeds to describe the kind of ethics that are the aim of his pursuit in the present book. From the narrative of Scripture, in which Jesus is the center of the Great Story, McClendon identifies three motifs or strands: “(1) the sense of a God-given road or journey or way, (2) the awareness of fellow travelers on this way who need our watchful care over their own journey, and (3) the divine gift of witness to those not (yet) on the way” (49). Henceforth he calls the strands, “the way,” “watch-care,” and “witness,” respectively.
“The way” recalls the perpetual movement of the people of God throughout the narrative of Scripture. It seems that God was always calling his people to follow, or to go somewhere. We are a people perpetually on a path. In the New Testament, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and the invitation is to follow him. His path leads through the suffering of the cross into a kingdom of justice and reconciliation. In Jesus we see both morality (how we are to live) and destiny (who we are to become).
Watch-care is how those on “the way” relate to one another. I recently saw the film, “The Way” starring Martin Sheen and directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. In it, Sheen plays a father whose son dies while attempting to walk the Camino de Santiago. Sheen flies to France to retrieve his son’s ashes and instead of returning home as he’d planned, he decides to walk the Camino with his son’s remains. He becomes an accidental pilgrim. Most intriguing to me about the film are the relationships that Sheen’s character builds with fellow pilgrims on the way. They are each broken somehow, each searching for something and carrying deep wounds, each undertaking a pilgrimage for deeply personal reasons. Along the Camino, they care for one another in surprising ways. Though they often don’t get along, they all intuitively understand that they cannot complete the pilgrimage alone. The same is true for those on “the way” marked by Christ. We cannot complete this pilgrimage alone. Watch-care is how we undertake “the way” together.
In its legal connotation, “witness” conjures up one who will testify to the guilt or innocence of another. This is not the kind of witness to which McClendon refers. In evangelistic circles, “witness” brings to mind an effort (sometimes contrived) to bring about conversion to Christianity through the sharing of one’s own story of conversion. This is not the kind of witness to which McClendon refers, either. Witness refers to how those on “the way” share in the mission of Jesus. Witness is the embodiment of a life of shalom.
McClendon will spend the rest of Ethics expanding upon these three strands. He will reclaim “the way” through the narrative of the Easter Procession, reminding us that “[t]he story that issued in Easter and Pentecost was never a private, and in that sense an interior faith” (77). He will reclaim watch-care from Catholic private penance and evangelical soul-winning by renewing an emphasis on the “Community of Care” (ibid.). Finally, he will recast witness “in the ethics of postmodern Christianity,” which he calls “Embodied Witness, [which] stresses the organic existence of the Christian community” (ibid.). He will undertake these in the reverse order, beginning with Embodied Witness, then discussing Community of Care, before finally ending with an exploration of the Easter Procession.
That concludes McClendon’s introduction to his goals for the trilogy and the trajectory of this particular volume. As for me, I’m excited to follow along with McClendon as he unfolds his vision for a convictional community. I resonate strongly with the motifs of “the way,” watch-care, and witness. I love that he is beginning with ethics, seeking to sketch out how the church must live in the world if it is to be the church, rather than starting with apologetics to establish some sort of (Kantian?) imperative upon which to build the ethical “oughts” of behavior. I’ve said this before, but I am a reflective practitioner. I seek to embody the faith in which I believe and about which I study. For me, knowledge must be embodied in practice and practice will lead to opportunities for new knowledge. I feel that McClendon would agree. What is practiced, and how, is the next thing that McClendon will explore.
I’m a sucker for epic journey stories. I love to read books and watch documentaries about people who go on quests. I’ve seen films about people who’ve climbed Everest, cycled from the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico, hiked the Appalachian Trail, run the Sahara from Senegal to Egypt, ridden motorcycles around the world. The thing that I find so compelling is the drive of the individuals who reorient their entire lives around a singular pursuit. They sacrifice jobs, money, relationships, sometimes their own health and safety, to complete a feat that most of the rest of us think is crazy.
For these individuals, it is more than just an adventure, it is a quest for identity and purpose.
I often feel like I’m missing out on some great adventure. Some great journey wherein I will find meaning and purpose. That longing, perhaps you share it as well, is the echo of a longing we all have to be on “the way.” I hope that my reading of McClendon enables me better articulate the longing I feel. I hope it will help me to find ways of practicing my faith that allow me to live into the adventure of “the way” in the company of friends as we undertake this epic journey together.