Saturday, September 27, 2008
According to one of my commentators, I appeared somewhat hostile in a recent post, and that, I suspect, centered on the phrase, “Those who are so almighty intent on being “orthodox” in every way might want to take a turn in toward Philippi and leave behind the road they’re on.” Perhaps it’s time to talk a bit about my take on the word ‘orthodox’ as presently used in North America. First, I want to exclude any sense of the word as it applies to the Orthodox Churches of the East inasmuch as they have their own disagreements about what it means for them. I’m more interested in the way it’s used among North American Protestants and especially among Anglicans.
My first observation, based on attendance at two of the more contentious national conventions of the Episcopal Church, is not so much about belief as about behavior. Those who loudly proclaimed themselves to be ‘orthodox’ did so with obvious contempt for any and all who disagreed with them in any way whatsoever. For them it seemed that there were only two camps: the ‘orthodox’ and ultra liberal heretics. If you were not one of them, then you must be among the other. They were blatant in their disregard for the agreed upon rules of decorum and debate. And their public statements were rife with anger and hostility. It was Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich politics polished with a few amens.
My second observation is that there are only a few agreed upon tenets of this ‘orthodoxy’: condemnation of homosexuality, rejection of, or at least anxiety about, ordination of women, and a fixation on one and only one way of understanding Jesus as Lord and Savior. There seems to be a lot of divergence on other issues that tend to define the so-called conservative camp: inerrancy of scripture, whether there can be salvation for non-Christians, abortion, and things like that, so that beyond these few central points there is not much coherence. On the whole, there is little in any of it that relates very much to the classical Christianity of the Western Churches, to the teachings of Jesus Christ, or to the central doctrines of the faith.
My third observation is that North American Protestants who believe they are the only orthodox believers operate in the midst of a dilemma that cannot be resolved and that they do not recognize. On the one hand, they proclaim rejection of the way of the world and adhere to the idea that they may be in the world but not of the world. On the other hand, they are culturally interwoven with a conservative political ethic that wallows in a self-serving mythic story of national identity conveniently ignoring more of history than it acknowledges. I don’t want to call that hypocrisy because I believe to be a true hypocrite you have to have some awareness of the falsehood you put forth. I think they are simply blind to exactly how deeply embedded they, and all of us, are in that which makes us North American Europeans.
One of the phrases that Protestant ‘orthodox’ like to use is “biblical world view.” Seems to me if you want to have a biblical world view it might be helpful to turn to the bible. Doing that with any serious intent has got to lead one away from the hubris of claiming a unique and exclusive orthodoxy and toward the sort of Christianity to which Paul called the people of Philippi.
Having said all of that, be cautious in your judgments. Nothing I’ve said in any way reflects poorly on the core of Evangelical practice that rejoices in an awareness of a powerful indwelling of the Holy Spirit, nor on Pentecostal practice that finds that indwelling expressed through physical outpourings of charisms in various forms.
If you want to know where I stand on all of this, it’s a little to the theological left of N.T. Wright and quite comfortable with the writings and teachings of Rowan Williams, which is not the same thing as his leadership of the Communion.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
This weekend worshipers in many churches will hear a reading from Philippians 2.1-13 that includes the so-called hymn to the incarnate Christ as well as Paul’s counsel for Christians to live up to the standards of love set by Christ. If I have this right, Paul wrote the letter to a people who were living in uncertain times in which their economic status was neither high nor secure, and where the likelihood of oppression or persecution was high.
They were encouraged to be filled with love, to do nothing from selfish ambition, to be humble in their relationships with others and to be intent on helping those in need. They were under no illusion that faith in God through Jesus Christ would somehow make life safer, more prosperous or relieved of troubles. That wasn’t the point. The point was that in Christ they could not simply endure but spiritually flourish no matter what their economic and political condition might thrust upon them. Moreover, the gift of a resurrection life of great joy was already theirs by the irrevocable grace of God through Christ.
How different that is from the huge number of modern day Christians who look to Christ to solve all their problems, patrol the road of life to remove dangers, and, in some cases, to make them prosperous, even rich. How did we get so far away from what Jesus actually taught? How did we take on the idea of Jesus as something of a supernatural fairy godfather, presuming, of course, that the believer has the right kind of faith in the right amount and offers up his or her prayers in the right way?
Those who are so almighty intent on being “orthodox” in every way might want to take a turn in toward Philippi and leave behind the road they’re on.
PS One of my most intimate critics says that I don’t invite enough conversation on these posts, so consider this a very open invitation.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Sunday worship in an Episcopal Church always starts with a Collect, a particular type of prayer intended to focus one’s attention on a general theme of worship. Collects are set for each Sunday of the year and reflect the theological direction of the church as represented by their authors, who extend from far back in the Catholic tradition to today. Considering the events of the last week I was especially drawn to the wisdom of the Collect for today:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
According to one commentator, this Collect may date from the time of Pope Leo the Great in the 5th century and remembers the turmoil caused by barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire. It remains one of the most timely prayers for each era of the last 1,500 years, and never more than for us this week, not because we are in greater turmoil than ever, we are not, but because we have too easily given our allegiance to things that are passing away.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Well, it’s been quite a week hasn’t it? How’s your bank holding up? Heard anything from your retirement fund managers? If nothing else, we now ought to have a much better understanding of what global interdependence means and a far more clear picture of the connection between Wall Street, Main Street and Washington. Anger, even outrage, may be an appropriate reaction, but smugness or self-righteousness are not. Wall Street greed has had a lot to do with the mess we are in, but to be honest we have to admit that that greed also infected everyone who shopped around for the highest returns without checking the risks and ethics of it, who ran up credit cards to their max and then got more cards, who borrowed heavily for unneeded toys they really couldn’t afford, who let themselves get talked into mortgage obligations on terms that seemed too good to be true, and on and on.
Of course there are serious and very unpleasant consequences to the well being of ordinary citizens, and we cannot wish them away, but it might be a good time for Christians to become more publicly adamant about promoting a new way of life in America, one that espouses a stronger sense of stewardship, holy stewardship, of the resources that have been made available to us, and that doesn’t mean just oil. As an aside, I’ve got a friend who takes excessive pride in her simple, inexpensive life style and thinks everyone should be like her. That’s ridiculous, but it is important to be good stewards of whatever resources one has, and that means the rich are still going to be rich, but they can be good stewards of their riches.
Our community has begun to take on the idea of environmental sustainability as a serious policy option, and environment means a lot more than trees and water. It means all things that we engage on a daily basis to provide the kind of life we live. The dominant conservative political ethic was suspicious of the liberal left-wingers who initiated the movement, but even they have started to understand that, if they are to be true conservatives, they have to think about what it means to conserve the best of what we have. Maybe your community is doing something similar. It certainly takes on more credence given the current news on the financial front.
So where in scripture might we turn to begin a new path? I might suggest Psalm 73. The problem, of course, is that by next week when things look better we can be tempted to look up to heaven and say “O, never mind.”
1 Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4 For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
10 Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.
11 And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most
12 Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.
15 If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.
18 Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms.
21 When my soul was embittered,when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 Indeed, those who are far from you will perish; you put an end to those who are false to you.
28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, to tell of all your works.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Theologian Charles Taylor argues that one of the reasons it is so hard to be a classical Christian these days is that the world is no longer enchanted. Actually he uses the word orthodox but it’s such a loaded word that I’d rather use the word classical in its place. Anyway, writing from a singularly European perspective, he believes that in days of yore it was all but impossible not to have a Christian faith in God, even if that faith was imbued with all manner of pagan myths and superstitions, because the world then was enchanted. In the enchanted world the material world of the temporal now was not separated from the transcendent world of the eternal there, and spirits of all kinds roamed the earth involving themselves for good or evil in human affairs. Paganized Christianity was simply the biggest, most powerful and most trustworthy spiritual force around and belief in it provided one with the best defense against the dark forces. That world ended, says Taylor, with the advent of the Enlightenment and modern scientific method. As a result the coin has turned so that now it is all but impossible to have a Christian faith.
I wonder. If our scientific minds have so shut out all but verifiable, temporal facts, how is it that we have such a hunger for that which is enchanted? Popular entertainment is rife with programming about magic, crossing over, witches and wizards of various sorts, transcendent powers known only to certain martial arts experts, super powers come to life from comic book pages, and ghosts of every kind. Frankly, I think our claims to being non-religious, secular and fact driven are nothing more than a very thin veneer covering a deeper belief in enchantment that was never really left behind.
Maybe what makes it difficult to be a classical Christian is that its teachings expose that kind of enchantment for the pagan superstition that it is. By that I mean that that kind of enchantment holds out the promise that we can engage spiritual powers on our own terms by learning the secrets through which we can control our own environments and destinies. Classical Christian teaching declares that to be untrue in every way, and proclaims not simply another path but another universal reality altogether, one that requires greater personal responsibility while committing one’s self more fully into God’s care and keeping. Perhaps that’s just too big a pill for some to swallow. What do you think?
Monday, September 15, 2008
In 1989 Michael Lewis published “Liar’s Poker: rising through the wreckage on Wall Street.” With some humor it chronicled his brief career with Solomon Bros., and more particularly, the avaricious greed, calculated duplicity, and arrogant incompetence of those who ran the show and made the most money. The real life he recorded was not so different from fictional works such as “Wall Street”, and “The Devil’s Advocate,” but it rang no bells of warning for anyone, and was taken more as a popular, even humorous, entertainment. But avarice is not one of the traditional deadly sins for nothing. Avarice is a cancer eating at the core of an otherwise healthy body. It is a parasite living off its host until the host is dead.
To be sure, the greediest (and richest) are losing their jobs, but not without taking millions, tens of millions and hundreds of millions with them. They may be jobless but they’re not destitute. The wreckage they leave behind includes thousands of people doing honest work for modest pay down in the bowels of their companies; people who will have little in savings, may have to declare their own bankruptcy, and who now wonder what kind of life they can rebuild from the bottom up. The wreckage they leave behind are clients who entrusted them with their financial well being through pensions funds, retirement accounts, health savings plans and modest investments that now lie in shambles. Indeed, the wreckage they leave behind jeopardizes the entire American economy in every place and every way.
I would like to think that we have learned our collective lesson, but greed is a seductive evil, and evil it is, that will undoubtedly draw a new generation into its web of deceit and destruction.
As Christians, we teach and preach the warnings of the prophets and the promises of God in Christ. We proclaim the path to a blessed life marked above all by personal and institutional integrity undergirded by confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation that can be fully experienced only through trust in God’s presence and love.
Who knows if that healing balm will ever be taken seriously where avarice makes its home. Perhaps, at least for a moment, it will. In the meantime the voice of Jeremiah rings loud in my ears.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
(Readers, please note Bruno's comment below as a correction to my ignorance)
Ubuntu was the small group process used at the recent Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops. Now it is to the be theme of the upcoming triennial convention of the Episcopal Church. This previously all but unheard of method of small group engagement to discern something or other is attributed to African practices about which I know absolutely nothing. However, ignorance has never stopped me from asking questions or forming opinions, and now and then I actually turn out to be right about something.
If ubuntu works well for discerning the will of tribal leaders, and therefore of the tribe itself, how well does it work with inter-tribal matters? Do the African tribes that have previously engaged in interminable warfare with one another find it a useful way to resolve differences and achieve peace? Did it resolve anything among the warring factions of Anglican bishops? If, as some scholars claim, America is becoming a tribalized country, will ubuntu work only within our various tribes, or can it work to build bridges between them? If the principles underlying ubuntu are valid, how about if we dump the name and diligently work with and on the principles? Because I’ll tell you this, if we don’t, ubuntu will join the long list of old cast off bumper sticker aphorisms that have been easily adopted into the language of leaders who have absolutely no intention of doing things any different than they have always done them.
Monday, September 8, 2008
OK, I’ve finished reading William Young's "The Shack", which has become the book to read around here. It took a little longer than I expected because I found his writing to be tedious in places. It seemed like he got himself in a rhetorical circle and couldn't find a way out. In any case, I believe that he did a pretty decent job of portraying an image of the Trinity that would make sense to a lot of people where the traditional language of the Church and its creeds seem to them to be just so much mumbo-jumbo.
Having said that, there were portions of the book that I found questionable. For instance, on the one hand he made it clear that the bible is not a rule book and only seeks to "paint a picture of God." On the other hand he takes the version of the creation story as found in Genesis 2.4-3.24 as literally and factually true.
He appeared to have little respect for human imagination and ascribed to it a great deal of what has gone wrong in the human condition, but it seems to me that imagination is one of the most important ways in which we are created in the image of God and can participate with God in the ongoing acts of creation.
He also appeared to have conflicted thinking about independence. On the one hand his hero, Mack, was constantly urged to give up all of his independence to God because that was what was limiting his ability to understand God's ways, but on the other hand he was repeatedly told that he had free will and that God would never compel him to do anything. The seductive part of that is to tempt people into the illusion that if they declare they have given up their independence to God and will henceforth submit their entire lives to God’ will, then whatever happens to them, or whatever they decide to do, must be God's will, and that's scary to me (it's one reason why I find Sarah Palin so frightening).
He took a pretty heavy shot at the Church, but not without some justification. Religion and faith are not the same thing. Faith, in which I would include all that we call spiritual, is what defines one's beliefs about God and one's relationship with God. Rites and rituals are what make up the religion through which we engage in a life of faith. It may be true that Jesus did not create a church, but he did leave us with teachings and commandments that his followers put into practice as they assembled for instruction and worship, and one way or another the Church was born to be the vessel that has carried the faith through the centuries.
It's fairly common today to hear people say that they don't need a church; they can have their own communion with God without it. But I think they can say that only because the Church is there to continue the faith from generation to generation. Without the Church there would be no faith. As an aside, many theologians over the ages have talked about the visible church and the invisible church by which they have meant that the visible church is the imperfect and often erring institution that, nevertheless, enables the invisible church of God's faithful to assemble and go on. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in a Nazi prison and near the end of his life, became so depressed over the failure of the church to oppose Hitler that he wondered if we didn't need a religionless religion. In the end he reconciled himself to the reality that we need the visible church in all of its imperfections.
Young's struggle with the idea of universal salvation also mirrored the struggle of the Church that has gone on for centuries. The bible can be used to argue both for and against it. Early Church fathers such as Origen argued for it, and recent developments in the churches of the Catholic tradition have begun to agree with him. But Reformation figures such as Luther and Calvin argued against it, and the popes went even farther to say that unless you were a Roman Catholic you were damned. As a progressive Anglican I believe that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, but that is not the same thing as saying that you have to be a Christian. It simply means that there is no way to God except through God and God is the first and final judge of how that works, and we cannot limit how God does that. But it also means that we Christian are the bearers of the Good News that in Christ all things are made new, all things are reconciled with God and our eternal lives have already begun, even if only in part.
Those of us in the Catholic tradition are also confident that in the Eucharist we are continually brought into material, as well as spiritual, communion with God in Christ in a way that mysteriously and profoundly feeds and nourishes us. I doubt that any of that would make much sense to William Young because I suspect he is writing from the perspective of a particular type of evangelical Christianity that has become rather dualistic (spirit equals good and material equals bad) in its theology, and has spiritualized its faith so much that it both hungers for and cannot find the material reality of God's presence with us. But I could be wrong about that. So, now we are ready to talk.
Thursday, September 4, 2008
My previous post, “Does Jesus Still Heal?,” generated a terrific question and my response that tried to draw a strong connection between the Eucharist and God’s healing presence in the things of materialistic medical care. I want to expand a little on that here but it won’t make much sense to you unless you read the previous post, Tom’s comment and my response to it.
The natural follow-up question would likely be, “If God is Eucharistically present as you say, how come my beloved was not healed? I prayed hard enough!”
The Eucharist is about providing us with holy food and drink to sustain us through the trials ahead while, at the same time, assuring us of new and unending life with God and in God. In my analogy of medical care as Eucharist, that care becomes a carrier of the holy and bears with it the certainty of spiritual healing and the possibility of physical or emotional healing. But at it’s best, that physical or emotional healing must be temporary. All those healed by Jesus’ touch would some day again become mortally ill or injured, and so each of us must pass through the gates of death in order to enter into new and unending life in God’s presence.
Those who are Eucharistically fed are never without the eternal holy coursing through their veins. The promise of renewed and eternal health that cannot be fully ours in this life, is nevertheless present in theirs in some measure. It is the well known already but not yet. That Eucharistic feeding is most clearly apprehended as we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and even then it is a mystery that cannot be comprehended. But I think that Eucharistic feeding can be present in other forms also, and among them is materialistic medical care that is infused with prayer.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Modern medicine is no less a miracle than the healing hand of Jesus reaching out to a leper, blind man or bleeding woman. Not for the first time, it has saved my life. What is now considered a rather simple solution to a rather simple problem did not exist twenty years ago, and without it I would not be here writing this blog note. In spite of being in good overall health, not overweight, having no threatening personal habits and habitually eating a heart healthy diet, I got felled by an occluded coronary artery in which was lodged an unstable blood clot. From the ER on a Monday a week ago to back home on Wednesday two days later with a stent and bucketful of new meds - you have to admit that’s pretty amazing. What’s more amazing is that mine has become a common place story, and though for my family it was a life threatening, anxiety producing, moment of sheer terror, it is, for most others, little more than a ho-hum tale and no cause for concern. That may be, but, in combination with my experiences as a pastor and fire department chaplain, I see it as something of a sacrament with Christ in, with and under all of it in all the real presence of the Eucharist.
Monday, September 1, 2008
This is an unusually long post for me, and if I were you I’d skip it. It’s just something I needed to get down in writing.
Every once in a while I’ll pick up a P.D. James book just to get away from theology and immerse myself in a good British murder mystery, and what do I get? Theology!
A sub-theme that runs through many of her books explores the struggles of contemporary British religion in which the C of E is regarded, mostly, as a moderately charming, anachronistic and quite minor adornment to the upper-class pomp and circumstances of British society that have become the mainstays of its tourist industry. Modern Brits who actually have to live in that society must work in an around all of that with a certain respect for what it offers to the economy, and some residual pride in it as well, but they don’t have to take it seriously, and, as far as the C of E is concerned, they are unable to connect whatever it has to offer with the ultimate questions of life that trouble their minds and souls.
Other denominations, if mentioned at all, are perceived as having retained the dead faith of the C of E without keeping the only thing of value it had to offer, its rites and rituals. They are like sails full of wind with no ship beneath them.
Nevertheless, her books are populated by characters who know they are missing something of great value, who constantly struggle with, even battle, the God in whom they don’t believe, and who have a nagging suspicion that maybe the Church actually does hold the key to the most important mystery of all. The fact is that she does a terrific job of describing the contemporary agnostic and atheistic mind sets, and maybe we should pay a little more attention to that if we are to become better evangelists.
Of course we are Americans, not Brits, and Americans believe in God don’t they? All the surveys say they do. So, as evangelists, all we have to do is explain to people who already believe in God why it is that they should do that in our churches and according to our doctrines, rites and rituals. Right?
I’m more inclined to think that we have our own version of the C of E and it’s not the Episcopal Church. It’s Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism may not be a denomination, or even all that easy to define, but it seems to me to be an adornment to America’s own version of tradition. In it’s current form it does that through five tenets of beliefe. It affirms a certain romance connected with the right to bear arms as an icon of our independence by being staunchly protective of the Second Amendment, excluding all others, as if it was one of the Ten Commandments. It gives the impression that once one has said the “Sinner’s Prayer” and accepted Jesus as one’s personal savior, one must turn one’s full attention to condemning homosexuality, endorsing creationism, and becoming rigidly anti-abortion, all in the name of family or traditional American values.
The media portray it not as a lifeless but charming icon such as the C of E, but as part of the life force of America, and to a certain extent they are right. But I think the great, oh what is that term? Ah, yes, the great silent majority, are more inclined to see Evangelicalism, however defined, as an anachronistic entertainment not so much different from Civil War reenactments and preserved colonial villages. Evangelicalism has become a symbol of something that defines America to the world, but in which most contemporary Americans don’t actually live or participate. As a result, Evangelicalism is not likely to draw the questioning unbeliever toward God in Christ, but keep them away.
Nevertheless, like the agnostics and atheists in James’ novels, their questions persist about the ultimate meaning of life, and there is always a nagging sense that, perhaps buried somewhere in American Evangelicalism, is the key to the answers. I think that they are right. The key that is so deeply buried is the truth of God in Christ that is at the very heart of what we Episcopalians and other mainline denominations (including Roman Catholics) are most able to unearth and hand over. To do that we must become bold evangelists, and that’s the subject for another essay.