Eccentric Christianity: Part 1, A Peculiar People

In my book The Slavery of Death I use the notion of eccentricity to describe Christian identity, the experience of finding and grounding your identity outside of the boundary of the self. I'm borrowing this notion of eccentricity from David Kelsey's two volume work Eccentric Existence. Whenever speak of eccentricity I reference David Kelsey because I'm using the hell out of this idea but I don't want people to think I coined the term or introduced the idea.

And I do owe David Kelsey, because the more and more I think about this notion of eccentricity the more and more connections I see, connections that go beyond my treatment in The Slavery of Death. I've come to think that eccentricity is a hugely potent and explanatory idea.

So what I'd like to do is share some posts about "Eccentric Christianity," showing some connections between eccentricity and other theological and biblical concepts. The ideas themselves won't be novel, what will be novel (and I hope illuminating) will be how all these disparate ideas find themselves under the umbrella of eccentricity.

But before getting to the theologically heavy stuff, let's begin this series with a comment regarding the definitional playfulness of the word "eccentric."

The word eccentric comes from the Greek combination of ek (out of) and kentron (center), with ekkentros meaning "out of center." In the late Middle Ages this term--eccentric--was mainly an astronomical term describing orbital systems where the earth was not placed at the center. Thus, Copernicus' theory was "eccentric," the earth was displaced from the center of the solar system.

So the earliest idea of eccentricity was astronomical in nature. And this is the idea at the heart of David Kelsey's analysis, the one I borrow and combine with ideas of Arthur McGill in The Slavery of Death to describe a vision of Christian identity formation. That is, using the astronomical metaphor, an eccentric identity is an identity where the focal point of the self is shifted away from the center. The ego, in a kind of Copernican Revolution, is displaced from the center and moved to the periphery. The self is displaced being the "center of the universe" so that it may orbit God.

A related notion is how eccentric describes "a location elsewhere than at the geometrical center." The notion here is less orbital and more geometrical. Eccentric is the area outside--eccentric to--the center. This is the main metaphor we'll be working with, the notion that something eccentric is "outside" the boundaries we create.

These, then, are the geometrical metaphors we'll be playing with. But the charm of the word eccentric is how it has normative and behavioral connotations as well. As we all know, people can be eccentric, a bit "off center," with the "center" being some cultural or behavioral norm. Thus the definitions of eccentric as "tending to act in strange or unusual ways," "deviating from an established or usual pattern or style," and "deviating from conventional or accepted usage or conduct."

What a delightful multivalenced way to describe the Christian life. Eccentric Christianity is a new orbit where the self is displaced and God is found at the center of life. And in this displacement the Christian begins to act in "strange and unusual ways" in relation to the norms of the world. 

We become, in the words of the King James Version, "a peculiar people."

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6 thoughts on “Eccentric Christianity: Part 1, A Peculiar People”

  1. I find this post very interesting simply because I grew up in a sectarian wing of the church in which I often heard "we are a peculiar people". Of course, as I grew older and began to look around at other denominations that had very sectarian beginnings, is was a term each one used to describe its own identity, which was usually a mixture of its own Bible interpretation and its culture. Most of these churches that were of the south overlapped in the area of culture which was appreciated and respected by one another, but kept the tribal wars going over theology.

    What I found intriguing was that most who liked to describe themselves as a "peculiar people", in separating themselves mostly from religions they considered "modernist", often became very suspicious of those whom they believed were separating from them. I heard spoken within the church, in regard to those who had become more progressive and liberal, "Oh, they really don't believe all that stuff they're saying. They just want to be different". And "making a display of yourself in being different" invited the disdain of most. I recall hearing someone in the church voice their concern of school children reading Robert Frost's poem, THE ROAD NOT TAKEN, in how they could easily misunderstand it to be a permission for rebellion.

    That said, I do so appreciate your statement, " Eccentric Christianity is a new orbit where the self is displaced and God is found at the center of life". What I have found so wonderful about this truth is that not only do we cease to be "cut outs" of society, we also are no longer stencils of the church. God replaces the ego, yet the humility that takes over uses the person that has been shaped and formed by all the joys and sorrows that the individual has experienced and endured. Thomas Merton wrote in his book, ASCENT TO TRUTH, "When men become Saints, they do not cease being men". He was speaking mainly of each person's use of their reason, but it also holds true of our individual souls. When God replaces the self, the self's need for sectarian identification dies also. But, it is a death that can be slow and painful. Which is why it is so easy to stay with the excitement of celebrating the tribe.

  2. The apostles were having such a good time on the Day of Pentecost that many in the audience thought they were drunk with sweet wine even at 9:00 a.m.

  3. "It is eccentric that a person is not self-interested; it is eccentric that he does not chide in return; it is eccentric and stupid that he forgives his enemies and is almost afraid that he is not doing enough for his enemy; it is eccentric that he is always in the wrong place, never where it shows up to advantage to be courageous, noble, unselfish - this is eccentric..."

  4. I also like the mathematical/astronomical metaphor. Now eccentricity is a measure. The closer to zero, the closer it is to a circle. At one and beyond the orbit is unbounded - we flee completely from God, only having passed by.

    The classical way to mark an ellipse is by two focal points, with a given length of string connecting them. The largest curve that can be drawn inside the string is the ellipse. I'm also imagining this as our focal points of faith and works, or community worship and individual reflection. The closer the focal points to the center, the closer the ellipse is to a circle and balance/symmetry.

  5. Looking forward to see how "center" or "normal" might be defined in this context.

  6. "I live and love in God's peculiar light." Michelangelo. I found that quote in a book of queer theology by Jay Johnson

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