Thursday, October 23, 2008

At the Crack of Dawn

The environs were, in some ways, worlds apart from their usual and preferred meeting places, but then again, so was the time of day. They had barely sat down and ordered their food from the taciturn waitress when their usual lively dialogue began.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” the Younger exclaimed, laughing. “It’s 6:30 in the morning, and you’re already talking theology?”

The Elder paused in pouring a cup of coffee from the plastic carafe, eyebrows raised in feigned shock. “Why not? Are you suggesting you’re a shallow thinker until sometime after mid-day?”

The Younger rolled his eyes in dramatic yet silent rebuke. “Well, at least until after I’ve had some decent coffee, anyway,” he muttered darkly, “which doesn't seem likely at this fine culinary establishment.”

“Oh, hush,” chided the Elder as he filled his friend's mug. “Roadside diners are a taste of history.”

The Younger leaned forward. “Yeah, but is the food equally a taste of history?” He leaned back in his duct-tape-dependent chair. “Okay, so what early morning doctrinal mayhem do you have in mind?”

The Elder smiled as he stirred the tepid liquid in his coffee cup. “Well, don’t blame me—you’re the one who got the new job promotion with the crazy schedule. Being retired does give me a certain level of flexabilty, after all.”

Shifting his weight in the ancient chair, as the skies hinted vaguely at the possibility of sunrise, he continued, “Well, since we’re having such an early breakfast—again, in deference to your new work schedule—why don’t we have a chicken and egg discussion?”

“Which chicken and which egg?” countered the Younger, warming to the familiar rhythm of dialogue that they often enjoyed.

“Theo-chicken and theo-egg,” the Elder replied, managing to keep a straight face, although a hint of a smile teased at one corner of his mouth. “Specifically, which comes first—or dare I say, should come first—the chicken: orthodoxy, or the egg: orthopraxy?”

“Nice try, my friend,” the Younger replied with a knowing smile. “It’s early but not that early. The chicken and egg should be in tandem, and if you’ll pardon the alliteration, in tension. It’s more like having two rails under the train, really, instead of a chicken/egg distinction. The two really can’t—or shouldn’tbe separated.”

“True enough,” the Elder conceded, nodding. The Younger was a little surprised at how quickly that had gone, until he realized it was only a momentary pause as their waitress, slightly more relaxed and smelling strongly of a recent cigarette break, arrived with their breakfast specials.

“But if you had to pick a starting point,” the Elder continued, all business as the Younger prodded the contents of his plate with a wary fork, “Which would you choose? Knowing that they must be held in tension, still, is there a starting point?”

The Younger swallowed hard, whether from the slightly-congealed bit of bacon, or as a result of some quick deep reflection. “Well,” he began slowly, “you’re the one who is always on about the issues of justice and being an incarnational presence, so it seems odd that you’d want to pursue this line of thinking now. I mean, the lack of connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is one of your favorite pet peeves, isn’t it?”

The Elder nodded, smiling in agreement as he vigorously stirred the various elements on his plate into a mash before taking a mouthful. “And you, being a proper postmodern-influenced thinker, are also wondering if I’m having a flashback into binary oppositions a la Derrida, and perhaps raising the dark specter of foundationalism, as well. Well, Derrida isn’t God, and foundationalism, for all its modernistic flaws, cannot truly be called a doctrine of demons, eh?”

As the Younger remained silent, the Elder continued, raising his fork as if it were a baton, and he were a conductor. “But if we truly believe that this is all about Jesus’ story, and our part in it, doesn’t it make sense that we have a proper understanding of His Story, before we attempt to find our place in it?”

The Younger frowned as he did battle with the bacon on his plate, using the opportunity to do some thinking. “Well, I suspect you’re still going to insist on orthopraxy needing to be held as strongly as orthodoxy. And I guess if we are thinking chicken-and-egg, then starting with orthopraxy would mean that we were reinterpreting theology based on our actions.

“And in the extreme, we could run the risk of allowing our praxis to dictate what we believe more than theology or doctrine,” the Younger concluded. He lowered his fork, conceding defeat to the contents of his plate. “Honestly, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, in practice. Dry doctrinal theology doesn’t do much for anyone, as far as I can see.”

“Exactly, exactly!” the Elder exclaimed, punctuating his words with swift gestures of his fork. “And what keeps theology from becoming dry and doctrinal? Orthopraxy, plain and simple. Faith in action. St. James would be proud of us, eh?” He grinned. “And let’s be honest, using or allowing orthopraxy to dictate what we will believe is what we old-timers used to call proof-texting—making up your mind first, and then finding or making Scripture back it up.

“But at the same time, how do we know what praxis, what actions are truly what Jesus would have us do as we participate in the advancing Kingdom of God?”

Before the Younger could reply, the Elder answered his own question. “Theology Proper: the study of God. We need a chastened epistomology, yes—I’d be the first to breathe a sigh of relief to see it—but we still need epistomology. We need to know how and why we believe a thing to be true. And that means the theo-chicken of theology does come first. Our understanding of the Kingdom, our understanding of the words and works of Jesus, our understanding of our participation in His Mission—all flows out of our theology. Our praxis-eggs are completely, absolutely necessary—but I don’t believe they come first. Not for a second.”

The Elder glanced around, setting his fork-baton carefully back onto the table, belatedly realizing how animated he'd become. “Guess I got carried away with the chicken and egg metaphor, didn’t I?” he observed sheepishly. Several nearby diners subtly shifted their chairs to create some distance.

“I’m tempted to make some kind of Dr. Seuss-inspired wisecrack right about now.” The Younger smiled. “But I’d be afraid of mixing metaphors.”

And then, as both noticed that the sun had risen and time had flown, they quickly settled the bill and prepared to leave. “One last thing,” said the Younger, as he shrugged into his jacket. “Next time, I’ll pick the restaurant, agreed?”

The Elder spread his arms, nodding in acquiescence. “Can I pick the time?” he dead-panned as they headed into the street.