The Shape of Progressive Theology, Part 4--St. Francis and the Incarnation

The Rule and life of these brothers is this: namely, to live in obedience and chastity, and without property, and to follow the doctrine and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, who says: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me." And: "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me;" in like manner: "If any man come to Me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple."  "And everyone that hath left father or mother, brothers or sisters, or wife, or children or lands, for My sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall possess life everlasting."

--First Rule of the Friars Minor, Paragraph 1 (~1212 A.D.)

To outside observers, the notion that Christianity should have a focus on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ would seem so self-evident as to not be worth talking about.  I mean, it's in the name, right?  But the history of Christianity proves that Christians have spent a great deal of time focusing on all sorts of other elements of the Christian legacy, not necessarily the words and actions of Jesus.  But, perhaps we have lost the forest through the trees here?  To use the famous razor of William of Occam (a Franciscan, perhaps not coincidentally, as we shall see), "the simplest answer is usually the right one."  If we claim to be Christians, perhaps we should make sure our eyes are fixed on the Christ?

That was the perspective taken by the man whom I would argue is the most historically significant Christian in the post-apostolic period (except, perhaps, for Emperor Constantine, on whom we will reflect in the next post)--Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, better known as Francis of Assisi.  Prior to Francis, the theology of the Roman Catholic Church saw the early Christian community described in St. Luke's Acts of the Apostles as the eternal model for Christian life.  The Christian community as described in Acts, while not without its problems and disputes, is rather tidy--it has leaders overseeing various forms of organization and structure.  Those leaders and structure were understood to be acting in the name of and in furtherance of the mission of preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, surely.  But the proto-church of Acts is, no matter how you cut it, at least one level of remove from Jesus Himself.

Francis's great innovation was to try to cut through that level of remove.  Francis's first or "primitive" rule makes it plain--the objective is to "follow the doctrine and footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ," directly, with as few intermediaries or structures in between as possible.  This meant a focus on doing what Jesus is recorded in the Gospels to have done, as well as the words and teachings of Jesus Himself.  All of the rest of it--the proto-church of Acts, the theology of Paul and the other Epistles, the Hebrew Scriptures, the later Church Fathers--was secondary and subordinate to what Jesus did and what Jesus said.  This is what I would call the "Franciscan hermaneutic" ("hermaneutic" meaning simply "a way of reading, or a lens through which you read, a text")--the insistence on interpreting both all of the Bible and all of Christian Tradition primarily through the lens of Jesus Christ as described in the Gospels, especially the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).

Without necessarily referencing Francis specifically, the call for a Franciscan hermaneutic seems to be a thread running through contemporary progressive theology.  As in Francis's time, some of the competing ways of approaching Christianity begin from other parts of the Christian tradition, often giving minimal or lip-service to the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels.  And, like Francis, there are many folks who want to cut through those other frameworks and focus in a dedicated way on the content of the Gospels.  And, perhaps more importantly, using the content of the Gospels as the lens through which to approach all of the rest of the Christian tradition.

This Franciscan hermaneutic has several consequences.  First, it means that not all Biblical texts are entitled to the same weight.  The Franciscan hermaneutic unapologetically privileges the Gospels above the other books in the Bible.  For folks of a "high church" background, where the reading of the Gospel has pride of place in the liturgy, this seems obvious and natural, but for many evangelicals and ex-evangelicals, this represents a paradigm shift.  But high church folks can pay lip service to the privileging the Gospel while being focused on Paul's writings.  In particular, there is a way of approaching the New Testament which starts with Paul's more structured theological concepts, and then reads the Gospel stories in light of those theological concepts.  That's exactly backwards according to a Franciscan hermaneutic--you understand who Jesus is through the Gospels first, and then you dive into the more abstract reflections of Paul and filter them through the lens of who Jesus is.  Likewise, the Hebrew Bible is to be read and interpreted in the manner laid out by Jesus in the Gospels, and understood in terms of how those texts point toward Jesus.

The second consequence has to do with the vision of God.  A core claim of this approach is that, if we want to know what God is like, we look to Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels.  A Franciscan hermaneutic rejects any and all forms of the Christian "good cop, bad cop" routine, where Jesus is the nice guy that somehow balances out the violent Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible, or the angry God the Father who demands retribution for sins.  We should not be surprised that the Franciscan thoelogical tradition, by and large, rejects the transactional accounts of the atonement that I talked about in the previous post.  Tripp Fuller says it best: if we believe that the Father and Son are one, then "God has to at least be as loving as Jesus."

That commitment presents challenges when we turn to the many "texts of terror" we find in especially the Hebrew Bible, but also in the New Testament.  It is true that the words of Jesus are not uniformly sweetness and light ("I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!"--Luke 12:49-51).  Nevertheless, there is, to pick the most clear example, a legitimate and unavoidable conflict between Jesus's command to turn the other cheek and the seeming command of God to slaughter entire tribes of people in books such as Joshua.  If you read the Scriptures through a Franciscan hermaneutic, God is a God of peace, not of genocide, and so Joshua must be relativized.  Likely, the author of the Book of Joshua comes to be seen as an unreliable narrator of God's intentions and desires.  This makes more conservative Christians, but especially those committed to some account of Biblical "inerrancy," either extremely nervous or entirely off the reservation.  But that's the cost of a Franciscan hermaneutic--if Jesus is the only truly reliable narrator of who God is, then other narrators are reliable only insofar as they line up with what Jesus said and did.

The third consequence has to do with how morality is approached.  If your primary locus for understanding what Christianity is about is found in Paul and/or in the Hebrew Bible in places like Leviticus, you will get one basket of concerns as being the core of Christian morality.  But, if the Gospels are primary, then the primary moral statement of the Christian faith becomes the Sermon on the Mount, which has a focus and a set of concerns that are different from those that Paul and Leviticus focus on.  That's not to say that the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of Jesus's teaching have no parallels with other parts of the Bible--it's hard not to see the links between Jesus and His predecessor Prophets in particular.  But the differences in focus between Jesus's vision of the moral life as laid out in the Gospels and the sorts of things Paul seems to be concerned about are real, and a Franciscan hermaneutic picks Jesus over Paul.

As a result, said very crudely, a Franciscan hermaneutic makes Christianity a religion with a gravitational pull toward the political left (especially in our current political environment), whereas the more Pauline or Levitical vision can have a gravitational pull toward the political right.  Jesus seems very concerned about the poor and the marginalized, and not particularly concerned about sexual behavior or social propriety, whereas Paul is more concerned with those things.  This is on some level a caricature, as it is not true that Jesus says nothing about sex or Paul says nothing about the marginalized.  But the locus of emphasis is different, and that emphasis informs the way a believer lines up the multifaceted and complicated issues he or she must navigate in the realm of politics.  The key, and this is important, is that the political commitments of folks in the progressive Christian space are not simply political commitments for their own sake, but products of their theological system and approach.

Finally, a focus on Jesus as seen in the Gospels places an emphasis on Jesus as a human being.  This does not mean that progressive Christians don't believe that Jesus was also divine (Francis certainly didn't!), but that Jesus's humanity is an essential part of the story.  Francis is responsible for introducing two major devotional practices into Christian life--the manger scene with the baby Jesus during Christmas, and the Stations of the Cross.  Both of them are meditations on Jesus's humanity, bookmarking both the beginning and the end of his earthly life.  Likewise, a Franciscan approach makes the Incarnation a major theological category and touchstone.  Certainly people talked about and reflected on the Incarnation prior to Francis, but the Franciscan tradition has always emphasized that God taking on human form and living among us as an sign of God's love for, and solidarity with, the human beings God created is at the very heart of the Christian story.

This focus on the Incarnation has several spin-offs.  First, it leads to a much more positive view of the created world than other tracks of Christianity.  Francis praised the animals and the natural world because they were products of a world that was fundamentally good, a goodness stemming from their status as loved into being by God.  The through-line in Christianity which sees the created world as fundamentally bad or fallen is incongruous to the Franciscan vision--if the created world is so bad, why would God take it on to save it?

And what applies to the natural world also applies to our own embodiedness and physicality as well.  The Franciscan tradition is more resistant to the dualism of body and spirit.  That's not to say that there is no account of sin, but there is a resistance or rejection of the idea that our embodiedness is inherently sinful or wicked.  If our embodiedness is not inherently sinful, then "evacuation theologies," which make getting out of our embodiedness and on to Heaven, don't make much sense either.  Christianity is about what happens after death, sure, but it also is very much about what is going on here and now in this world as well, and not simply as some sort of prelude to the "real deal" later.

Where you start the story in large measure determines where you end up.  Progressive Christians, following the lead of Francis of Assisi, seem united around the idea that we need to start with Jesus and what He did and said.  That leads you to a different sort of Christianity than if you start in other places.         

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