Credo: A Theopoetic Ecclesiology
(In this final part to a three-part paper (find the first part here and the second part here), I discuss my ecclesiology through a theopoetic lens. I dive deep into the practical structures which emerges from my ecclesiology. As your late ass arrives to reading this paper, try to be inconspicuous as you sit in the back of my ecclesiology.)
As Christians, we are called into community in Christ. The linguistic irony of Christians being called into community in Christ, is the word church in Konie Greek is ekklesia, which literally means “called out ones.” Therefore, Christians are called into community as the ones called out. As the called into/out ones in Christ, theopoetics offers itself to inform my ecclesiology in its identity and form.
Before discussing my theopoetic ecclesiology of the church’s form, with theopoetics focusing on one’s embodied experience as the source of theological reflection, self-reflection is necessary for a critical, transformative, and beautiful theology. Thus, the church, too, is thoepoetic in its necessary but arduous reflection upon who She is, because as Clark Williamson says, “thinking about the church is thinking about ourselves.” Thus, “we are both the subjects doing the thinking and the objects about which we are thinking.” When objectively reflecting upon the church, one of the most salient aspects of the church that has always shaped Her is the delicate balance between the particularity and universality of the church or as Williamson puts it, “[h]ow can the churches be open without loss of identity[?]” In one sense the church ought to be particular. It ought to develop doctrines and practices without regard to that which is outside of the church. With that sense taken to its telos, the church would become an irreversibly insular community. On the other hand, the church ought to be universal–meaning that it adopts most of or even all that which historically remained outside of the church. If the church were to be fully universal, doctrines and practices from other religions ought to be adopted into or even synthesized into Her. Yet, this all assumes the particular and universal exist as binaries at odds with one another. Within theopoetics, the particular and universal are not at odds with one another but can be in a mutual relationship with one another. By the church becoming more particular, She simultaneously becomes more universal, for it is at the core of the particular that the universal can be revealed. Biblically, it was the Word (universal) becoming Flesh (particular) that God was revealed. Therefore, the church must lean into Her particularity, or as Paul Tillich says, “the courage to be itself,” for in having the courage to be itself, She finds herself closer to the heart of universality. It is “[a] church that knows its heart–the gospel of Jesus Christ–[that] will neither dissipate into the culture at large nor close itself off from its context.” Therefore, theopoetics offer a vision of the church where by becoming more particular, She also becomes more universal.
With that said, my ecclesiology is informed largely by Catherine Keller. In On the Mystery, Keller offers this poetic plea by Ivone Gebara, “It is the song of one who seeks to rediscover arms and embraces, love poems, and reasons for beginning to hope once again. It is the song that is born of the body, and born of the earth...” It is Gebara’s plea that Keller, and I as well, suggest to be a re-vision for Paul’s understanding of church. The song of rediscovering arms, embraces, poems, hope, being born of a body and earth is the church. It is as the church that we become “members one of another.” Yet, I agree with Keller’s warning that the church does not become members one of another as an institution, for the church is a far too alive body to suffocate beneath the weight of a harden institution. Rather, we become “part of each other in the interdependence of the body.” It is this very interdependence that gives rise to the particular/universal identity of the church–for it is not of the identity of the church for its members to give up on its passions and spirits for the sake of a conformed church. On the contrary, the church is to revel in the particularities of each of its members; it is by doing so that the church more closely discovers the beating pulse of the universal. But as noted before, the reveling in the particularities does not necessitate a free-for-all. As Keller points out, even in the “smallest communities, the many desires come into contradiction.” Therefore, embedded in a theopoetic ecclesiology is a commitment to ecclesial structures always widening and evolving. Structures can become too rigid but no structures will kill off “the flow of life,” for they “allow us to negotiate our differences, to contest and to coordinate our desires.” Ergo, ecclesial structures are necessary, “offering enough rock,” but not transcendent; they can, will, and must “be in a process of adjustment, of social evolution.” Thus, an ecclesia-poetic identity is institutionalized/insurrectionist in that institutions provide “enough Petrine stability, for the growth of more complex interrelations,” while remaining “flexible…against the injustice to which every self-perpetuating organization is tempted.”
Perhaps more important to my ecclesiology, and of great value to theopoetics, is form. A church’s form, in its liturgical structure and more broadly, its ecclesial structure, most truly reveals a church’s identity and purpose. Therefore, in this section I will discuss a form of theopoetic liturgical structure, a form of theopoetic preaching, and a form of how arts can be integrated into an ecclesial structure.
The model by which a theopoetic liturgical structure ought to be understand is not via a linear series of events, i.e. opening hymn, confession, children’s sermon, etc. but as a spiral shape where “each element (calling, dialogue, naming anew) can take place at various points in the service.” In the very center of the spiral is “naming the world anew,” the outer edge of the spiral is “encountering God in dialogue,” and outside of the spiral is “calling on the many names of God.” In this model, God’s presence is recognized not only in the call to worship but also the Eucharistic words of institution. God responds to our speaking not only through the sermon but also the closing hymn. We rename our world not only through the offertory invitation but also in the benediction. Therefore, wherever there is liturgy sacrament happens when the loss of self for the sake of others is brought to attention. This paying attention enters worshippers into a space of listening. It is “[t]heopoetics [that] encourages the development of a practice of listening, and theopoetic worship would be the communal form of that practice in worship services.” This theopoetic model is paramount to my ecclesiology in that it “encourage[s] liturgists to feel freer to explore in a fuller way how it is that communal space and action might be employed to engage with the possibility of God.” It re-orients liturgists to not be performers of liturgy but inviters into liturgy.
With the “poetics” in theopoetics insinuating a high value of language in theology, preaching becomes a key component to a theopoetic ecclesiology. It is by preaching that “we may become the flesh of our words.” It "is the last place wherein the freedom of the Spirit of truth and love blows beyond the declamation of a dead and deadening letter.” Therefore, preaching is not a proclamation but an announcement. Preaching must resist any notion and language that the Word once became flesh, but rather, must announce the Word is becoming flesh! Melanie May points out too many sermons are delivered “as if God were not revealing God’s self afresh and anew each and every day.” Therefore, preaching is the announcement “of the Good News that is news addressed to us today.” One way of theopoetic preaching as announcement that also centers inviting worshipping participants is an alternative to traditional sermons created by Doug Pagitt. He calls this alternative “progressional dialogue.” This alternative carries many different types of ways to preach; however, there are some core components that resonate well with a theopoetic ecclesiology. Essentially, progressional dialogue necessitates participants, in real time, to create the outcome of the sermon. Progressional dialogue often looks like a sermon facilitator leading participants through a particular text or topic. The facilitator may often comment on said text or topic but always opens the conversation to the participants. As noted, theopoetic worship is a communal form of listening. A progressional dialogue is a way of “preaching” a sermon that is shaped by theopoetic worship as a communal form of listening, because progressional dialogue “means we listen to one another in such a way that what we think cannot be left unchanged.” Just as Keller suggests evolution as necessary to a theopoetic ecclesiology’s identity, progressional dialogue is a concrete way to preach that opens a church’s participants to not be left unchanged. Therefore, a theopoetic ecclesiology yearns for sermons to announce the living God through preaching via progressional dialogue in the spirit of a communal form of listening for the purpose of the community to be changed continually.
However, for a theopoetic ecclesiology to be truly theopoetic, a church must not simply understand its form as solely language-centric. For a theopoetic ecclesiology to be truly theopoetic, it must be creatively embodied! As noted in the Christ-Poetics section, theopoetics derives from embodied experience; thus, creative physicality is essential in the form of a theopoetic ecclesiology. There are many ways in which churches can invite participants into a creative embodiment in spiritual formation. One such ways is using one’s body in prayer. Physical postures such as kneeling, raising arms, opening palms, etc., allows one’s body to be a different portal in which one experiences prayer. Prayer labyrinths also physically engage participants. The labyrinth invites the body to move towards a center and back. In doing so, one may move with others and may even move past others. In addition to integrating physicality, creativity must also be included into the form of a theopoetic ecclesiology. As noted with progressional dialogue as a form of a sermon in which all participants are needed to generate the outcome creatively in real time, this way of preaching activates the creative aspect of a theopoetic ecclesiology. In addition, allowing space for participants to create their own music used during worship or for musicians to improvise during worship are other ways for creativity to frame theopoetic worship. Creating space for church participants with poetic skills to create a church’s call and response, benedictions, and other read pieces are other ways for theopoetics to be centered in an ecclesiology. Therefore, for a truly theopoetic form in a church’s ecclesiology, there are many ways in which a church can create space for its participants to express creativity and use one’s physicality.
Perhaps no person is more influential to the development of theopoetics than Rubem Alves. While he largely did not focus on ecclesiology, he wrote briefly about the church in one of his few theological proper books, I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body. In it he offers this brief parable of the church: “those who have already experienced the aperitif of a new world.” In summary, it is this parable of the church that encapsulates my theopoetic ecclesiology. God is luring a new world, but because it is in the process of becoming, it is only an aperitif to our taste buds. It does not satisfy hunger but prepares our taste buds for the food that is a new world. And it is the church that has sipped on the aperitif of a new world! Therefore, “the Church is the community in which the future takes shape, first fruits, aperitifs, caress, or the future of the Kingdom.” In conclusion, it is an ecclesia-poetic church that tastes the aperitif of a new world by tapping into the universal through the particular, remaining ever-evolving, announcing the Good News in a preaching that centers around listening, and embracing the creatively physical in spiritual formation.