Review of David Fitch's "Faithful Presence"
David Fitch’s Faithful Presence sketches a vision of church oriented around the presence of God. God’s “real presence” to steal a trope from Eucharistic theology. Filled with both analysis and anecdote his work helpfully weaves a tapestry of church life that fills out a genuinely missional understanding of the church in practice, something which missional theologians have struggled to do. Among the many virtues of Faithful Presence are
-a biblical theology oriented around God’s presence,
-a vision of life in Christ rooted in radical trust in God’s actual presence in our midst leading us mediated by the Eucharist and the faithful practices of gifted koinonia, and
-a threefold differentiation of sites of ministry/mission into the close circle, the dotted circle, and the half circle.
Within this overall profile Fitch offers seven disciplines that train and position Christians in their churches to grow toward the vision he sketches. The seven disciplines – the Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, being with the “least of these,” being with children, the fivefold gifting, and kingdom prayer.
I have been working on a proposal for biblical theology (marginalchristianity.blogspot.com 8/13/16) for a while now that centers on the temple and the theme of divine presence with kingdom and covenant as its chief carriers). I was gratified to see Fitch working along similar lines.
He proposes that God’s presence with his people is “the” point God is working towards and intends from all eternity. He notices that “with,” “in the midst,” “present,” and “dwelling” are key words signaling this intent. “God’s presence is so viscerally real that they must all know how to approach God” (22) is his assessment for Israel. Jesus Christ is the restoration and fulfilment of God’s presence with his people and world. God’s presence will fill the while world in his new creation (Rev.21-22).
Fitch proposes that God changes the world by establishing a people in a place and inviting others to join them. A people with God alive in their midst. His presence in their presence in their world creates currents of justice, reconciliation, renewal, and healing. This is God’s strategy for fulfilling his purposes.
I notice many similarities between Fitch’s thought and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s in his proposal. This, for me, is a real strength. Perhaps nothing is more radical and renewing than this. In both Bonhoeffer and Fitch this point gets to the heart of the matter. Is God alive and active in and through his people or is he not?
“For most Christians in the West, God is an individual belief, a personal relationship, a private experience, something we fit in between all the other things in our lives. The notion that we can be present to God and he to us, is not on the horizon of our awareness. We do not imagine that God is present outside of me or between me and the other person I’m with, that he will confront me in the middle of my world if I will open myself to him.” (20)
This really is where the rubber hits the road! Apart from an embrace and nurturing of God’s present reality, there is little point in the rest of it. Fitch repeatedly points out the consequence of not doing this: the church lapses into maintenance mode. The church becomes preoccupied with serving its members and procuring its survival. This is the church we have known in American for quite some time.
In the disciplines and particularly the Eucharist (“the ground zero of faithful presence,” 67) we have the opportunity to nurture our sense of God’s presence with us. The latter is especially the discipline of presence. Presence to Christ and to one another. “If we can recognize his presence at work around the table,” writes Fitch, “we will be able to recognize his work in the rest of the world as well.” (51). Again, I concur with this (see my blog post for 8/19/16). I believe Fitch is on to something crucial here.
Each of the other disciplines discussed rely on the conviction that God is present in, with, among, and through the people involved. In essence, every relationship we enter is a three-member relationship. Me, the other person, and God. This reflects Bonhoeffer’s Christological anthropology which sees Christ at the center of all our relationships, standing at the boundary between us which turns out to be the center between us. Fitch deploys this kind of understanding to great effect. An understanding most individualistic North American Christians need to learn and experience.
Bonhoeffer’s last writings from prison emphasize Jesus as the “man for others” and the church as the “church for others.” Fitch draws out this emphasis in a practical and fascinating way. Fitch proposes we imagine three circles, the close circle, the dotted circle, and the half circle.
-the close circle is gathered community of the committed. Perhaps this would be Bonhoeffer’s “arcane discipline,” his term for the worship of the church in a world-come-of-age. Note Fitch does not say a “closed” circle. He focuses on the quality of relationship in the group rather than its boundaries.
-the dotted circle is a place in the neighborhood where Christians host others beyond the close circle. Perhaps it’s a home gathering, or perhaps a gathering in some other place where Christians offer others the chance to see and experience what goes on in the circle.
-the half circle encompasses the places of hurt and brokenness we encounter. Here the Christian is a guest who extends the presence of Christ into a situation where it may or may not be accepted.
All three of these “sites” (perhaps we could call them “Jerusalem,” “Judea,” and “the ends of the earth” following Acts 1:8) are part of what Fitch calls a church “on the move” (41). The question for such a church is always about discerning Christ’s presence wherever we go and the character of the witness to his presence we bear.
These three “sites” provide a faithful way for us to envision being Bonhoeffer’s “church for others.” Faithful because it is driven by the central dynamic of “mutual submission.” Mutual submission, in turn, is a correlate of the kingdom of God. The latter bears God’s presence and that presence is embodied in the seven disciplines which function in terms of mutual submission. Fitch describes it like this:
“The disciplines gather people together in a circle of submission to his reign. Submission to the king defines each subject, and the kingdom is composed of the king’s subjects. Each discipline then creates a space for surrendering our control. Each works against the impulse to take control and impose my will on a situation. In this process a marv- elous space is opened for Jesus to become Lord. We can then tend to Christ’s presence among us.” (37)
Mutual submission, I take it, is the practice that attends the radical trust in God’s/Christ’s “real” presence guiding and ruling the people mentioned earlier. This “founding principle” of God’s kingdom (38) roots the life of God’s people and, indeed, creation itself in a peaceable, nonviolent order. Mutual submission, then, is the central feature of God’s own life reflected in all he makes.
Fitch makes the point, but it needs to be strongly reiterated, that mutual submission must be aware of the power dynamics of each particular situation so that it not become a hidden pattern of abuse toward powerless and voiceless “others” in that situation. God’s presence exposes these patterns and calls on us to put processes and protocols in place to resist and defeat them.
Though I will not discuss the disciplines in detail here, the heart of these practices is opening up a space through mutual submission where Christ’s redeeming and reconciling presence can do its work. When the “church on the move” loses this reality of God’s presence as its animating center it lapses into maintenance mode, tending to its own member
s and focusing on its own survival. This means, in effect, the loss of that community’s capacity to be a bearer of God’s presence in its time and place. And that’s a tragedy we know all too well in North America.
Faithful Presence is a timely and provocative volume. It takes the road less travelled in developing an ecclesiology that I have suggested stands in the trajectory toward which Bonhoeffer pointed in his prison letters. While his descriptions of the disciplines can certainly use extension and refinement, it is a great start in the right direction in my judgment.
In many respects Fitch’s book furthers the work of his mentor in Anabaptism John Howard Yoder. The latter’s book Body Politics is a similar kind of exercise in describing some “social sacraments” that make the church the church. Fitch’s treatment of these repeatable disciplines (that’s why baptism and marriage aren’t included) also aim to explore the practices that make and keep the church the church. Faithful Presence is a worthy companion to Yoder’s Body Politics.
Much more could and should be said about this book. But it needs to happen in churches, study groups, small groups, etc. Not in a more extended book review. I hope this review whets the reader’s appetite to dive into for themselves. Faithful Presence is a faithful presentation of the way forward toward a renewed church in North America. It is not the last word (no such thing exists) but it is more than a first word. May it please God that it find open hearts and ears to hear its message!