Saturday, September 13, 2014

Provisional Truth

Provisional truth is something I’ve sometimes preached about, and it has always been discomforting for those (few) who were paying attention.  What they want, and what would be comforting for me also, is absolute truth.  But, to slightly reword a sentence from William James, “We must be content to regard our most assured conclusions concerning matters of fact as hypotheses liable to modification in the course of future experience.”

Scientific fact is one thing.  Theological fact is another.  Our most solid reasoning, experimentation, evidence and peer review, backs up scientific fact as irrefutable, given what we currently know, and there’s the rub.  What we currently know.  Each time we add a bit of verifiable knowledge to the pot, it changes the whole stew.  It’s what enables some people to discount scientific fact as just another opinion, no better than their own.  Well grounded theories are dismissed with “It’s just a theory, no one really knows,” as if theory and uninformed guesses are pretty much the same thing.  Operating from that set of assumptions, one can claim anything they want as their own private fact. 

Theological fact gets even more complicated.  It can rarely, if ever, be anything other than provisional.  As a Christian preacher, I believe that our provisional truths point reliably toward the absolute truths that are hidden in God, but, along with Paul, I’m doubtful that we can see them except as in a mirror and dimly.  It’s an argument unacceptable to many who demand to know now what the absolute truth is, and are willing to accept the word of anyone who claims to have it.  Some claim the absolute truth that God is a hoax because God cannot be subject to scientific verification.  Some claim the absolute truth about God they have coaxed out of scripture, which they assert to be inerrant.  The historical record of competing claims to know the absolute truth is wobbly at best.  No one view can endure for more than a few years, and each appears to be in unreconcilable competition with all others, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade their true believers.   

Lower case ‘o’ orthodox Christianity, for the most part, holds that scripture is a genuine bearer of God’s truth without having to be scientifically or historically factual in every way, which is way too fuzzy for those who want the certainty of a fifth grade arithmetic text.  Yet, it took centuries for the priests and rabbis of our paternal roots to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as Hebrew scripture.  In like manner, it took several centuries for the Church to discern which of the many writings could be trusted as scripture in what we now call the New Testament.  Unlike the sciences, theology cannot turn to the laboratory to conduct controlled experiments whose results are made public for peer review.  But that doesn’t mean that writings and teachings cannot be subject to examination and evaluation.  It’s the very task of theology.  It may be that authentic scripture, inspired by God, is still being written.  Every now and then someone says that it has.  The Koran and the Book of Mormon are two examples that have been accepted by many, but rejected by orthodox Christianity as inconsistent with what what God has revealed God’s self to be through the progressive revelation of provisional truths that we have learned can be trusted.  In like manner, the so called Gnostic Gospels have been instructive for what they say about the communities they served, but rejected as scripture because they are inconsistent with what we have learned is trustworthy about who Jesus is. 

The test of consistency is a good one, but it has serious limitations.  If every new truth had to be consistent with the old truths, we would still live on a flat earth, so to speak.  Sometimes the Church has acted as if we do.  However, the essential characteristics of the consistency of Godly revelation are change and direction of change .  It’s always changing, so the new and challenging always have to be looked for, and it reliably goes in the direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency.  Reliable scripture always speaks to the people of the time of its writing in terms they can understand given the vocabulary available to them and the cultural setting in which they lived, but it also pushes the limits of meaning in the uncomfortable direction of love, reconciliation, healing, inclusion, and transparency.  Speech that claims to speak for God but goes in the opposite direction has to be suspect.

We’ve come to accept the canon as a reliable revelation of the nature of God, humanity, and the relationship between the two.  Two thousand years of theology have informed and guided our expanding and deepening understanding within the context of the times and places we have lived, but it has always been an uncomfortable understanding that has pushed us into unfamiliar territory.  For all of that, no matter how respected a teaching has been, none has been accorded the authority of scripture.  Somehow we have recognized that it’s all provisional, but, walking in faith, we are confident that it points more or less in the right direction.

If you would like to wade in with your own thoughts, please do so in the comments, or drop me an email.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Is Satan the reflection we see in the mirror?

I was struck by a line from Job in Morning Prayer this morning.  “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune, but it is ready for those whose feet stumble.”  Peterson puts it this way: “It’s easy for the well-to-do to point their fingers in blame, for the well-fixed to pour scorn on the strugglers.”

I wonder what it is that entices those of us who are more or less at ease to heap contempt on beggars, immigrants (illegal or otherwise), low wage workers in part time jobs with no benefits, the intellectually less competent, the intellectually more competent, the poor, anyone receiving government benefits other than the ones we receive (because we’ve earned and deserve them), and so forth.  It goes even deeper than that.  Some of us, as in the story of Job, heap contempt on the inadequate faith of others which, do doubt, has led to their failure to recover from their misfortunes.  We even dare to heap contempt on God by attributing to God our own worst impulses toward punishment and revenge.  The character of Satan in the story of Job is very much a reflection of us, which is not a very flattering revelation.  To paraphrase Pogo, “We have met Satan and he is us.”  

A few months ago I wrote about a friend who believes that anyone can lift herself or himself out of poverty and the ghetto.  He is not blind to social and racial beliefs and attitudes that effectively fence off any but the most determined and able, he’s in favor of them as tools to separate the worthy from the unworthy, with his sort as the arbiters.  Others, who are not quite as perverse as he, are just not observant and don’t see what is clearly in front of them.  Of course, it’s not all about race, class, and social barriers.  Just the ordinary events of life tend to seduce us into smugly blaming the victims of disease and injury.

It is that smugness that is so infuriating.  “I’m at ease, they are not, and it’s their own fault.”  When we are at ease, it is easy to be smug about the misfortunes of others, and yet we are horrified at the unfairness of life when misfortunes happen to us.  Even that horror is a form of smugness because we are certain that we don’t deserve the misfortunes that come to us, unlike others whose misfortunes are deserved. 

My friend, who is such a contented bigot, does what he can to help some individuals whom he deems to be be worthy, if less fortunate, as long as they bend to the task as he defines the task.  Maybe that’s a good thing, or at least better than those of us who are simply ignorant and too lazy to pay attention to our surroundings.  I’m not sure. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Invisible Wall

Not long ago I was talking with  friend who has become the pastor of a church in his small home town.  He’s been there for a few years, having been away for twenty, and has found himself among people he has known all his life.  The parish council president, for instance, is an old classmate from nursery school through high school.  Some of his elderly parishioners are his old teachers.  He knows almost everyone on Main Street, regardless of their denomination, or lack thereof.

What’s got to him, he said, is the invisible wall that has been constructed between him and all these old friends.  He goes to morning coffee and the old gang chirps up with, “Watch what you say, the preacher is here.”  That sort of thing.  Friendships that once shared confidences with ease are now guarded.  Relaxing “out of uniform” in public as become difficult, if not impossible.

The invisible wall is a price paid by almost every clergy person no matter where they serve, but I imagine it has to be especially tough when one serves in one’s home town.  Not everyone, however, experiences it as a negative.  Another acquaintance, who also serves in his home town as a locally ordained person, has found the invisible wall to be quite permeable, and the cautionary, “Watch what you say, the preacher is here,” is also an invitation for him to be comfortable as the presence of the Church over coffee or a beer.  Nevertheless, he is mindful that he is never not the pastor, even when working at his secular job.

It brings up an interesting question.  Locally ordained non stipendiary and part time clergy are becoming the norm in many small towns, and in many denominations.  The greater Church has done what it can to see that they are as theologically well educated as possible, sans three or four years away at seminary.  Is the greater Church also helping them understand what it means to be separated from the flock to become a shepherd?  It’s the separation part that I wonder about.  Being separated for ordination is an old subject of conversation among Church leaders, but it’s been mostly about seminary graduates who do not go back to their home towns, and who, for the most part, have ventured forth as professional clergy.  Locally ordained persons serving their home congregations while maintaining a secular job are in a different place.

Separation for ordination also brings social separation that has dramatic emotional consequences, and I suspect that we don’t pay enough attention to it when preparing locally ordained persons for ministry in their home towns.  The invisible wall is  reality.  It does not have to be an emotionally damaging one, but I suspect it will be if we don’t help them prepare for it. 

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

All Sorts and Conditions

There is a prayer dating from somewhere in the late 17th century that has graced the lips of Anglicans in Morning and Evening Prayer, and sometimes in the Sunday Eucharist.  

O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate; [especially those for whom our prayers are desired]; that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.
I wonder sometimes what good it does to have been said so many times by so many people for over three hundred years, and to see it bear so little fruit.  Various members of the congregations I served before I retired would tell me how much they loved this prayer, and would we please use it more often.  I have no doubt that the sentiment was sincere, but it also seems to me that the only way for God to fulfill its petitions is for Christians to carry them out, and that seems to be the rub.
How is God to make God’s ways known unless we know what those ways are, demonstrate at least some of them in our lives, and are willing to tell others about them?  And I don’t think sending missionaries to far off lands counts when we fail to make God’s ways known to the people around us every day.
We ask God to guide and govern the Church universal, and then act like every part of that Church with which we have some small disagreement is an enemy.
We commend to God’s care those afflicted in mind, body or estate, and then oppose anything that smacks of welfare, especially for those whom we deem to be undeserving.  We ask God to give them a happy outcome, and do very little to make that possible.  
I’m not only fulminating at the usual list of hypocrites.  They are out there, and they do get under my skin.  But when I look in the mirror, around my own neighborhood, and at my friends and fellow worshipers, I see good people who too easily become complacent, self absorbed, and anxious about engaging in lavish generosity when we have been so well schooled in the fear of scarcity.  A lack of confidence in our own faith, combined with fear of not having enough, leads smoothly down the path of sincere prayer followed by precious little response, not from God, but from us.  
When confronted with this painful truth we get defensive, and our best defense is to self righteously point to all the good causes we support one way or another, and the diligent work of the greater Church undertaken with our various tithes and assessments (about which we complain just the same).  What we are less good at doing is working on public policies that would go far toward alleviating afflictions and suffering at their root, nor are we comfortable enough in our Episcopalian skins (I can’t speak for any other denomination) to share the good news of God in Christ as we understand it.  
I wonder if God doesn’t say to the assembled heavenly court something like, “Here comes that blasted prayer again.  I’ve told them what to do, come to them in person to show them the way, inspired scriptures to guide them, given them every resource they need, empowered them with my Spirit, and showered them with miracles, and what do I get in return - not much.”
It’s a good thing God is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Romans 12 and Public Policy

What would happen if domestic and foreign policies were modeled after a portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans?  What would happen if we modeled our personal lives after it?

Rom. 12:14   Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

What would the last few decades have looked like if we had opened up trade and established full diplomatic relations with Cuba, as we have, for instance, with Viet Nam?  What if Israel and Egypt had, in the face of Hamas’s rockets, jointly invaded Gaza with new roads, housing, schools, and hospitals?  The U.S. did something like that after WWII when it bent to the task of rebuilding Europe and Japan.  Not, I might add, without furious objection from powerful voices intent on revenge. 

“Oh, get real,” you say, “that only worked because they had been beaten into unconditional surrender.”  Perhaps.  The problem, as I see it, is that our first and preferred option is always in the direction of coercion, violence, and retribution.  Be first or be a loser.  Be the greatest or be a nothing.  Be the toughest or be a doormat.  Can these be the only alternatives?  At least we might give the Romans 12 approach a try.  If Paul’s letter is to be received as Holy Scripture, then it must be taken seriously.  Even if not, it’s reasonable to assume that Paul had learned something important about what kind of life leads in a godly direction, and Romans 12 illuminates that path.

“Well,” you say, “what good did it do him?  He was beheaded.  Didn’t work out so well for him, did it!”  True enough, but two thousand years later we are still working on probing the intersection between Paul, God, and truth.  Paul has endured while Nero, under whom he was beheaded, is remembered mostly as a tragic historical joke.  So why is it that nations, a large number of Christians, persons following other religions, and sometimes the Church itself, choose to follow Nero, doing so with confidence?

It baffles me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Riley's Excellent Adventure

Our daughter and family live in one of those big old houses of three floors plus a finished basement (now referred to as the lower level, thank you very much).  They have a cat who treasures the hundreds of hiding places it has to offer.  They also have a dog who doesn’t much care one way or the other as long as he gets petted, fed, and let out now and then.  He doesn’t play a role in this very short story.  

We were there for a brief visit along with Riley, our West Highland Terrier.  For him it was like a trip to Disneyland.  He’s always wanted a cat of his own to hunt down and chase  He doesn’t know that it can, and often does, work the other way round.  In any case, he could smell the cat trail the second he came into the place.  With four floors and many small spaces to explore, the day was spent racing up and down stairs, in and out of rooms, under and over furniture, and behind anything for which there was a behind to get to.  Now and then he actually found the cat, who remained cattily disinterested in a game not of her choosing.  She was more often perched somewhere high and unseen, showing only mild curiosity in the mad search going on below.  It didn’t matter.  Riley was having a great time.

It made for a long uninterrupted night of pleasant sleep for him, no doubt filled with doggie dreams of a wonderful day of hide and seek in happy expectation of another yet to come.

What, you may ask, is the point of this story?  There isn’t one, except to share my vicarious delight in Riley’s excellent adventure.  It made him happy, and I imagine that taking dog like joy in our own daily adventures can do the same for us.  Children do that sometimes.  Teenagers do but they don’t dare let anyone know.  Adults have a harder time of it.  That’s too bad.

Friday, August 15, 2014

How Important is a Personal Relationship with Jesus?

How important is a personal relationship with Jesus?  Some of my evangelical friends define Christianity as a personal relationship with Jesus.  Everything else is adiaphora, except maybe the worship leading praise band.  Even some of my Episcopalian colleagues argue that a personal relationship with Jesus should be the aim of growth in Christian faith.  My problem is that I don’t know what a personal relationship with Jesus is.  

Apparently it has a substantial, perhaps essential, emotional content, but that’s not much to go on.  I have a personal relationship with my wife, children, grandchildren, friends, acquaintances, and, if emotions count, even with writers of silly letters to the editor.  Each of them has an emotional content, but each is not  just different, each is unique.  With that in mind, is there a standard for what a personal relationship with Jesus is suppose to look or feel like?  I am unaware of one.

When asked if I have a personal relationship with Jesus, I demur.  I am, I say, a follower of Jesus whom I believe to be the Christ, the Word of God made flesh.  I am a disciple, although not a very good one.  It’s a journey of one step at a time.  I’m in frequent conversation with God, sometimes in formal prayer, and sometimes in more informal give and take, but I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about which person of the Trinity is in on the call.  From time to time God feels very close to me.  At others I realize that knowing that God is present does not require feeling it.  God can feel very absent, but I know that God is there just the same. 

I think it is a disservice to nascent Christians to require of them a manufactured personal relationship with Jesus in order to meet the requirements of membership in the club.  My guess is that some who say they have one are just parroting a formula to avoid controversy while feeling guilt at having lied about it.  And I wonder if some who do claim a personal relationship with Jesus have sentimentalized him into a personal fairy godfather who bears little similarity to the Jesus of the gospel records.  A few others seem to claim ownership, as in this is my Jesus, not your Jesus, but I might share him with you if you are worthy.  I expect there is real authenticity among yet others.  Good for them.

For my part, I want people to know Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to worship God in Christ Jesus, but having a personal relationship with Jesus is just not that important.  What’s your take?