I plan to return to the lectionary next week, but until then here’s another interview from Face to Face. If you’d prefer, here’s a link to the interview archived at IsaacsPress.com.
An Interview with Dr. Rebecca S. Chopp
Editor Richard Brown interviewed Dr. Chopp during the Theology Colloquy in February 2003. Rebecca Chopp is president of Colgate University. Previously she was dean of Yale Divinity School and dean of faculty, professor of theology, and vice-provost of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. She received a PhD from the University of Chicago and an M.Div. from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. She is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and has published widely in the areas of theology and culture, feminist theory, liberation theology, and theological education.
Why is “community” such an attractive topic for Christian feminist writers such as yourself?
RC: At a very deep level for women in this country, the church has been about community. I always think about the first church I served after seminary at Americus, Kansas, where the men conducted the business of the church upstairs and the women were down in the basement washing dishes or planning a wake or a quilting event—just keeping the connectedness of the church. It was the women who knew what was going on and were the community builders. At a primal level for women, the church has not been about the organization. I think they’ve cared very little about denominational structure or had access to it. They’ve enjoyed worship and liturgy and the proclamation of the Word, but the basic experience has been community. And so as feminists started writing, it was almost natural that the notion of substantive community became a dominant metaphor for the nature of Christian experience.
This isn’t anything new, though. Isn’t the original biblical definition of ekklesia (“church”) closer to community than institution or organization, especially hierarchical ones?
RC: Absolutely. You see feminist biblical scholars such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza discover this and make the case. It’s really interesting to look at biblical scholarship now. Everyone has realized that the New Testament is fundamentally about building Christian communities. But it was the feminists who were some of the first to begin to push that out of their own reading of ekklesia.
Openness and diversity are words often connected to community. Yet they’re not words that universally describe actual Christian congregations or denominations. Why?
RC: Let me step back and say that I think for many churches there has been some tolerance of diversity. I don’t think everybody has been completely conformist. I recall the little churches where I ministered, even during college. There was a negotiation of some differences around personal opinion, eccentric styles, geographic backgrounds. In my growing up there was the struggle of churches to have to accept some things, like the Presbyterian church accepting the Swedish Lutheran marrying in. I think it’s important, first, to lay claim to the fact that churches have always been a space of some kind of differences, even if they’ve been a space of exclusion, because there is a tradition there to draw on. There is a norm that says churches have done this before. They have embraced people who were “other” and tolerated some things. It’s important within a local situation that you mine the treasure of the memory of differences in that church and use that to build a bond. The second thing is that the church is a community that answers to a higher call, a more ultimate, transcendent call, which is revealed and poetically imagined in scripture. Therefore it’s important for local churches to hold on to what grounds them and what leads them forward to what is greater than they are.
Many of those local institutions have been patriarchal. As women have entered into new positions of leadership how well have they accomplished that without becoming part of it—transforming the situation rather than being co-opted by it?
RC: In my experience the church has been patriarchal but it’s never been just that. It has always been able to image a higher calling. There are scripture texts you can bring out and argue about once you get to the table. There have been women and men who’ve wanted a more inclusive church who have been able to get back to the text and ask, “What does Paul mean by this ekklesia?” Part of the transformation has come by first getting to the table. Part of the transformation has come by finding spaces where the church is not just patriarchal. And part has come by pointing to the norms that call the church to be more than what it is.
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza has used the term “resident aliens” for those feminists and others who’ve never really felt “at home” in the institutional church. They know the language and the culture, their way around, but they aren’t fully accepted. It’s an odd kind of feeling to wonder “Where is home?”
RC: From my theological perspective that’s only an advantage, an opportunity. In part, I’ve never related to those metaphors of church as home. It’s hard for me because I didn’t grow up a Christian. Even Elisabeth’s claim about being a resident alien—I love her rhetoric, especially for a woman in the Roman Catholic situation where she’ll never be a bishop or ordained. But I don’t think the gospel ever promises us we’ll be at home in the world. I’ve never read it that way, nor have I thought the church ought to be in the middle of culture. Miroslav Wolf is a theologian at Yale who is from Croatia, and he writes quite eloquently about how the church ought to run to the margins of society in order to have a voice. Given where our culture is, being a resident alien probably ought to be embraced.
So many people are marginalized in society. Is the Christian gospel more for them than the comfortable people “at home” in the center?
RC: I come out of the Wesleyan tradition. Wesley went to those on the margins of society and built communities to give them the solidarity of belonging and also to create in them certain habits and virtues. I find myself more worried that we don’t give up a testimony of critical witness to those who are comfortable with a culture in which there is so much disparity. One percent of our population owns 48 percent of the wealth. The power of the very few rich is reflected in us increasingly becoming an “economic barbell society.” Because of the power of those people and the desperate unhappiness of so many, we should go to the margins—we are called to those who do not have. I also think theological education in churches ought to prepare people to go to those really wealthy communities, too. There’s a lot of suffering there, but more than that I think they ought to be called to judgment. Years ago I had a friend from Peru who pointed out to me that we North Americans love to overlook all the New Testament scriptures on judgment. We don’t preach it, we don’t study it, yet Jesus judged the wealthy—he didn’t just go to the poor. As I grow older I get more and more concerned that I spend my life not just going to the oppressed, but that my life’s work also emphasizes the rich.
The Community of Christ is creating the first Christian seminary in North America since the 1960s. Given the enormous culture paradigm shift since then, what does that mean for ministerial education?
RC: I’m at a liberal arts college where the faculty members are passionate that they’re not there just to secure their students good jobs. They’re there to form them, to shape them as citizens, to make them critical thinkers, to expand their horizons so they can experience the world in new ways. And they promise their students they will have successful careers, however that’s defined. The old liberal arts model guided much of theological education. It’s a wonderful one to try to reclaim. I think theological education ought to be about expanding students’ capacity to experience God in the world and giving them the habits and wisdom they need to contribute to communities. I really am wary of the leadership model that has overtaken so much of theological education, which turns out little Christian CEOs. That’s not what good education ever does and that’s not what Christian communities need. They need people who have wide and deep experiences of God, who can be critical about it and can form communities with the capacity to see God and to—I love this expression—“track transcendence in the world.” I had a colleague at Emory who was this wonderful historian. He always loved to tell his classes about going to walk in the north Georgia woods with his wife, a naturalist and artist. She knew the names of all the plants. When he looked around he saw just a clump of weeds, but she saw four different flowers. For him it was a boring walk in the woods but with her, she’d see a thousand different varieties. And I think that’s exactly what theological education ought to teach: how to not see the weeds but how to see the thousand different varieties of God’s presence in the world. Likewise, it should teach students how to name and describe but also to envision, to have a Christian imagination. Christianity’s power is that it sees the crucified world through the resurrection, that it sees the possible. We’re called to be utopian, to imagine new possibilities, to never give up. Theological education ought to be about seeing and experiencing. I think that’s why many students come. After teaching for twenty-five years, I probably had fewer than 10 percent who came to become professional ministers. Most were spiritually hungry. Many women came into theological education with absolutely no interest in going into the clergy. Women flocked to seminaries simply for these things—because they were wanting to see God, and see themselves, and have the capacity to lead others to do so.
RC: There are all different kinds and styles of mega-churches. There is one I would occasionally visit in Atlanta. I’d go for a month and then not for a year, then go back awhile. It had some troubling political theology to it in some of the messages of the minister. On the other hand, it was the most integrated church in Atlanta—almost evenly split between African Americans and whites. It really took poor, working class people in the way Wesley did, to shape them in the habits they needed to succeed in their careers and families. People were encouraged to learn how to save money and required to tithe. If you didn’t then a financial counselor would show up at your door to help, because there was the assumption you must be getting behind in your bills. There were programs for young mothers and teenagers and things like that. It was really a series of small communities to belong to, to form and shape you in the character needed for personal success in that society. I don’t want to say it was pure, and I was often critical of it. But that’s very, very different from the wealthy, suburban mega-churches that appear to be largely about giving a little spiritual high on a Sunday morning.
Most of these huge churches say they are successful precisely because they’re also small, with many different kinds of small groups—communities within community. Doesn’t that satisfy the desire for diversity?
RC: The question I find myself considering now, more than “mega-churches vs. small churches,” is this: How is Christianity going to think about its Christian practices in a world that is increasingly pluralistic among the other religions? Another question: How do we think about the constant kind of syncretic blending of religion in this country as authentically experienced by so many people? Diana Eck has written a lot about what’s going on in Christianity in this country. You know, we have more Muslims than Episcopalians or Presbyterians. Children are intermarrying. Many Christians find it not difficult at all to adopt a Japanese prayer bell, for instance. There’s all sorts of women where I live in Hamilton, New York, who attend the Baptist church and also go to North Hampton to do yoga on the weekend. They’re totally into the yoga, not simply as physical exercise but as Eastern meditation. I think that’s another kind of issue for the church—its boundedness, its openness, and its edges.
There’s an incredible buffet of spiritual practices out there. People try this for a while, then something else, often without guidance. What does that mean for Christian community if everybody’s doing their own thing?
RC: Part of it is for us to become more focused on Christian practices. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity. You see Christian theologians right now emphasizing practices such as the disciplines of hospitality, of testimony, so that people know the kind of Christian spirituality that makes it Christian. There are practices in the extreme, but the main spirituality is pretty “every day.” You practice it on a daily basis. It’s not esoteric. In that sense it’s—to use a theological term—sanctification. To form people in that is very important. I would challenge Christians to get engaged in conversations with some of these forms of spirituality, to not be threatened by them. Christianity has always been a fairly plastic religion. Ten years ago I thought “New Age spirituality” was about the worst thing in the world. Now, after more and more people have found it sustaining, I think we should be willing to engage it and thus be willing to be critical of it and possibly incorporate elements of it.
There are powerful voices in U.S. Christianity opposed to anything labeled “New Age.” For them, it’s clearly black and white: you’re either “with Jesus” or “with the devil.” Doesn’t that make it a lot harder to value or experience diversity and pluralism?
RC: There’s always been a tension in Christianity between openness and purity, which is related to the claim of being the “only church” with some kind of leg up on God. But then, on the other hand, there’s also the radical, bold claim of faith that sends believers out to engage the world and be completely open. The church has to, quite rightly, swing between both positions. Another way of saying that is that communities have to build something in common, whether it’s serving the poor, or following Jesus Christ, so there is a common vision. Communities have boundaries, but if those boundaries become rigid walls, the communities implode and fold in upon themselves, becoming very sick and dysfunctional. Yet if the communities become so watered down, there won’t be anything in common.
Often the spiritual strength of individuals and communities is tested in a crisis. We tend to think crises are bad things, but can they also help us find our way?
RC: So much of the mainline churches’ problem right now is that they don’t have a good crisis. Many Protestant churches have become so watered down that they’ve lost a strong identity and don’t know how to find their mission and purpose. Unfortunately, every time they grasp for that purpose, they do it by asserting denominational control. I’ve been in so many conversations with people in my own tradition, the United Methodist Church, who want us to become a confessional church, to have a particular creed to confess. But that’s completely against our tradition. It’s ironic: Mainline Protestant denominations become institutionally, rationally, ethnologically, ideologically part of the dominant culture—and end up without passion. There was a great book by Jurgen Moltmann written many, many years ago called Passion for the Church. It’s a collection of speeches he gave to lay people, and it was reissued under the title, The Open Church. That’s a fine title, but I really love the original one.
The word “transformation” has been used and perhaps sometimes overused a good deal in the last few years. What does that word mean to you as a feminist, a theologian, a Christian educator, an ordained minister, as someone who values community?
RC: Occasionally I have to do panels on things like “Women and Leadership,” because everybody wants to know what women bring that is different. In actual fact, women haven’t brought that much that’s really different. Usually they’ve just been fitted into slots in the structure. Now, I think women have made differences around the edges. In general, women tend to be better community builders and networkers. Sometimes they tend to be more holistic—related to left brain/right brain thinking. But that’s not transformation; it’s just tipping the scales a bit. Still, I think there is a transformation going on—a sideways transformation that has to do with pluralism and globalism. As Diana Eck says, we’ve gone from the melting pot to the collage to “marbelization.” That’s a good metaphor. I think this kind of ordering—be it logical ordering, framework analysis, the way our institutions are structured—is radically being transformed. I became convinced years ago that higher education in this country has been structured much like a jigsaw puzzle: all these separate department structures that somehow mysteriously fit together to make up the whole. I think there’s a real revolution going on in this country, but it’s not the kind of revolution we imagined in the sixties that’s going to be a revolution that spearheads a forward movement—like the Medieval period changing into the Enlightenment. Instead it’s a sideways movement. If I were to suddenly wake up today from the moment in 1973 when I graduated from Saint Paul seminary, I would say the theological changes are absolutely dramatic, but they still are in the edges of the seminary now. It’s all about building community today—nobody talked about that thirty years ago—and we in our denominations ought to be concerned about this.
Is the future with individual communities or ones that are active parts of identifiable denominations?
RC: Lots of really great clergy have stopped thinking in terms of denominations. When I was dean at Yale Divinity School, I went out to raise money and I talked with lots of pastors—Methodist, Presbyterian, Free Church, this and that. They couldn’t care less about their denomination. I had ministers who were pointed out to me as the best ministers in their denomination, and they would tell me, “I care about my local congregation—and that’s all I care about right now.” I recall one guy in particular who said, “I’ll get with four or five clergy whose churches share the mission with my church and we’ll form an association. We’ll share materials.” All of the church presses are affected by this—the poor little Methodist press, the Presbyterian press. Because what’s happening is that twenty clergy get together and write vacation Bible school materials on the Web. There is this really interesting transformation going on. And maybe what your denomination has to learn is to rethink the definition of being a denomination. Maybe there’s a different way to think about yourself organizationally. Perhaps, then, in thinking about theological education, instead of saying, “This is a seminary of the XYZ denomination,” that it will be a seminary that will teach how to build justice-oriented churches that have strong community, that can allow everyone to learn how to give a testimony of powerful spiritual experiences.