Friday, June 29, 2007

Orthodoxy Defined

St. Gregory of Sinai lived during the late 13th to early 14th Century. He lived on Mount Athos as a monk for 25 years in a secluded hermitage. And he wrote numerous treatises on Christian theology and spiritual practice.

Here's St. Gregory's succinct definition of Christian Orthodoxy:

"Orthodoxy may be defined as the clear perception and grasp of the two dogmas of the faith, namely, the Trinity and the Duality. It is to know and contemplate the three Persons of the Trinity as distinctively and indivisibly constituting the one God, and the divine and human natures of Christ as united in His single Person - that is to say, to know and profess that the single Son, both prior and subsequent to the Incarnation, is to be glorified in two natures, divine and human, and in two wills, divine and human, the one distinct from the other."

St. Gregory of Sinai, quoted in The Philokalia, Volume IV, compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, translated and edited by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 217.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Failure of Belief

It's been posted for almost a year, but this piece from "The Anglican Centrist" is worth looking at again. Here's a teaser:

... while the Universal Church in general, and many Anglican churches in specific, are growing worldwide, our provincial house is not in order. The place where we spend our lives in the One Body is in trouble. The Episcopal Church is in a crisis unlike any it’s faced before – and it has almost nothing to do with homosexuality or homosexual persons.

No, while the Good News remains vital in this culture and age, as always and everywhere, our provincial church institution is in decline. That we are in decline in an age defined by the widespread interest in spirituality and Christianity, in a society with a growing population, is unacceptable. As a missionary society on a provincial scale, we are a flop.

Our primary problem is a failure of belief.

Read it all.

How to Keep People from Discovering Your Church

10 Ways to Keep People from Discovering Your Church

Here are the first five:

  1. Don't have a website.
  2. Be completely inactive in the community.
  3. Don't answer your phone.
  4. Allow misinformation.
  5. Lack clear signage.

Read the rest here.

Then check this out:

10 Ways to Avoid Building Community Within the Church

Here are the first five:

  1. Keep conversations short.
  2. Always sit in your "assigned" seat.
  3. Avoid new people.
  4. Come in late.
  5. Leave immediately after the service (or early).

Read the rest here.

Most of us have probably attended churches that excel in several of these practical tips for undermining evangelism and community formation - or have even served (or currently do serve) as clergy in one.

I've written elsewhere about how we in the Episcopal Church often do a poor job of evangelism and formation. Unfortunately, given some of what I've experienced in the Episcopal Church, these two lists only add an extra dimension of truth to those observations.

It may not be pretty, but there's much to take to heart here. And hopefully do something about ...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

5 Forbidden Sentences

There's some interesting stuff posted over at "Theology of the Body." This caught my eye:

These five apologetic responses point out the self-refutation of modern relativism.

1. Everything is Relative

But this statement presumes that its proposition is right, and that to disagree with it would be wrong. This statement presumes that "everything is relative" except the assertion that everything is relative. So obviously not everything is relative.

2. There are no absolutes

This statement itself poses the absolute proposition that there are no absolutes.

3. Who’s to say?

This question presumes the elitism of private judgment. The same question can be turned around: who’s to ask? ...The most reasonable solution is that it’s the person with the best arguments who gets to make assertions and pose challenges. Then you can have a real conversation.

4. There is no such thing as right/wrong

Again, this statement makes a proposition that the speaker presumes is right, such that an opponent would be wrong to disagree with it. It defeats itself.

5. Everything is determined by the laws of nature

Including this opinion?

Read it all.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Model for Inquiring and Believing

For those interested in the ways in which critical inquiry and Christian believing are compatible (and even mutually nurturing and sustaining), it's hard to commend a better resource than Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006).

At the time of his death, Pelikan was the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University. Considered by many to be the Church historian's historian, Pelikan is well-known for works such as Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (Yale University Press, 1985) and for his 5-volume history of the development of doctrine entitled The Christian Tradition (Yale University Press, 1971-1989).

Just a few years before his death, Pelikan helped complete the massive project of compiling and editing all of the known creeds and confessions of the Christian tradition from the early Church until the end of the 20th Century. Its initial stand-alone volume is Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (Yale University Press, 2003). It is a magnificent and impressive book, showcasing the talents of a scholar at the top of his field. [You can get a feel for the breadth and depth of Credo in William Placher's review for The Christian Century entitled, "Why Creeds Matter."]

Writing for Christianity Today, Timothy George captures just some of Pelikan's many achievements throughout his remarkable life and career:

He wrote nearly 40 books and over a dozen reference works on numerous aspects of Christian history. He taught several generations of students at Valparaiso University, Concordia Theological Seminary, the University of Chicago, and, since 1962, Yale University. He served as Dean of the Graduate School at Yale and was also President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received the Jefferson Award of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1983 and the John Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievements in the Human Sciences in 2004. He presented the Gifford Lectures at University of Aberdeen and the Gilson Lectures at the University of Toronto and was awarded honorary degrees from 42 universities around the world.

Many other accomplishments could be listed, but accomplishments alone do not reveal the deepest passion of his soul—to tell the story of the Christian tradition in all of its fullness, drama, coherence, romance, and rigor, thereby exposing the deepest textures of meaning inherent in the Christian message itself.

One of the many impressive aspects of Pelikan's life and career is that he was both a first-rate, internationally acclaimed scholar and also a committed Christian. Originally a Lutheran, Pelikan and his wife received chrismation into the Orthodox Church in America in 1998.

Pelikan's perspective on the need for creeds is insightful. Here are some windows into his thinking from a Beliefnet interview entitled "Why We Need Creeds":

Many spiritual seekers are not comfortable with very idea of creeds. Why are creeds important to Christianity--and all religions? Why do we need them?

A faith that is completely personal and subjective has its ups and downs. You can't count on having only ups. Therefore, what's needed is some kind of continuity both within the faith life of an individual from month to month and year to year, and for that individual with the community of believers from previous ages. The fluctuations of personal belief need to be protected from going off the page by some kind of assertion, a shared faith which provides a floor and a ceiling.

Your book [Credo] talks about the 'deeds and creeds' conflict--how creeds are criticized for coming at the expense of actions. You say it's agreed that dogma and ethics should be inseparable. How can the creed help guide practice?

What's that Gilbert and Sullivan line? "I have a little list." [laughs] Any consideration of Christian life and ethics must always ask "what is distinctive about the Christian life?" What's the difference between being a Christian and being a nice guy, a good neighbor, an upright citizen, or an honest businessman? We all know people to whom we will give our house keys and the combination of our safe who don't believe what Christians believe. So it's quite possible, despite what some evangelists may say, even without faith in God, to be an honest and upright citizen.

So what's the value added of being a Christian?

Part of the answer is the motivation for doing [good], and the safety net when human weakness brings about a minor or major violation of the code of conduct we profess.

What do you do with others or yourself as a sinner?

The trouble with morality is it's not self-perpetuating. You need to have some way of coping with the human propensity to hypocrisy and deception and self-deception. You could say the creed is there to motivate, on the positive side, and to heal when there is a violation. The word salvation in Greek really means healing. Without that, a code of moral conduct by itself--the Scout oath--won't sustain you. That's why St. Paul says all those things about the law without faith.

Would meditating on a certain part of the creed impel you to a certain action?

It often does. Start at the beginning: when you take the interpretation of our environmental responsibility--one that's been articulated so beautifully and powerfully by the current Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew (who's known as the 'green patriarch')--all of that comes from this old man sitting in the middle of Turkey thinking about what it means to say "maker of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible." [Read the statement.]

[It's saying] I live in a world that is a continuum from the angels to the oysters. All of it is the product of divine activity. That's what the creed says. If that's the case, in a very real sense, every creature comes from the same Father, and that makes them all brothers and sisters. Without identifying the world with God in a pantheistic way, it nevertheless provides a direct and powerful motivation for treating creatures as our fellows.

In a memorial service for Pelikan, Robert L. Wilken offered some important insights into the life and career of this important Christian scholar. It's worth sharing in full:

Throughout his life he never wavered from the conviction that it was the central orthodox tradition - orthodox with a small "o" - that was the most consequential, the most adaptable, and the most enduring. In the last generation, it has become fashionable among historians of Christian thought not only to seek to understand the Gnostics or other forms of so-called lost Christianitie, but also to step forward as their advocates and to suggest, sometimes obliquely, sometimes straightforwardly, that orthodox Christianity made its way not by argument and truth but by power and coercion. The real heroes in Christian history were the heretics, whose insights and thinking were suppressed by the imperious bishops of the great church.

Pelikan never succumbed to this temptation. In the classroom, in public lectures, and in his many books, he was an advocate of creedal Christianity, of the classical formulations of Christian doctrine. In one of his last books he cited such writers as Edward Gibbon, Adolf van Harnack, and Matthew Arnold, who believed that "creeds pass" and "no altar standeth whole." But he answered them with John Henry Newman, who said that dogma is the principle of religion, and Lionel Trilling, who wrote that "when the dogmatic principle in religion is slighted, religion goes along for a while on generalized emoti0n and ethical intention ... and then loses the force of its impulse, even the essence of its being." [Robert L. Wilken, "Tribute to Jaroslav Pelikan," Pro Ecclesia, XVI/2 (Spring 2007), p. 124]

Inquiring and believing, Jaroslav Pelikan exemplifies what it means to be both a critical thinker and a Christian. As Timothy George so eloquently writes, "[Pelikan's] legacy will shine especially bright among those who follow Jesus Christ, belong to his church, and see the world through the eyes of the Savior's love."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Countercultural Biblical Scholar

Always on the lookout for thought-provoking, challenging works in Christian theology and ethics, I find myself returning again and again to Richard B. Hays. Hays is the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

I first came across his work in The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (HarperCollins, 1996). In this book, Hays makes a compelling case that if you take the New Testament seriously as the shaping norm for the Christian moral life, then you'll end up taking moral positions that do not fit neatly and easily into the ideological agendas of either the Left or the Right.

For example, Hays takes a conservative position on abortion and homosexual practice. But he also argues passionately for pacifism and rejects Just War theory as incompatible with New Testament ethics. Hays' argument provides a warrant for the notion that biblically-grounded Christian faith and practice is deeply countercultural to those whose conservatism or liberalism (or centrism) is shaped more by post-Enlightenment, Western cultural norms and principles than by scripture and tradition.

In August 2004, Hays again caught my attention when he published this open letter to United Methodists in The Christian Century about the war in Iraq. Clearly, he believes that some moral issues carry a heavier weight and should take priority over others. And that the failure to rightly prioritize can make the churches complicit in evil.

Hays is also a fierce critic of liberal scholars who seek to jettison traditional understandings of Jesus and the New Testament. Here's a teaser from his review of The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, edited by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar (Macmillan, 1993), in the May 1994 edition of the journal First Things:

If indeed there were significant new findings, broadly accepted by leading New Testament scholars, concerning the historical facts about what Jesus taught, such findings would indeed be newsworthy. The basic questions to be asked about this project, therefore, concern not the Seminar’s voting procedures or means of communicating its findings but rather the substance of its claims. ... To what extent are these methods and results genuinely representative of informed scholarly consensus? For reasons that I shall summarize briefly here, I must conclude that the operative methodology of the Seminar is seriously flawed, that it therefore inevitably produces a skewed portrait of Jesus’ teachings, and that - contrary to the impression fostered by the book - the findings reported here represent the idiosyncratic opinions of one particular faction of critical scholars. ...

The critical study of the historical Jesus is an important task - perhaps important for reasons theological as well as historical - but The Five Gospels does not advance that task significantly, nor does it represent a fair picture of the current state of research on this problem. Some of its purported revelations are old news, and many of its novel claims are at best dubious.

13 years later, Hays' review stands the test of time.

Read it all.

(See also Bishop N. T. Wright's review of The Five Gospels.)

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Radical Creed

To this day, I can still remember returning to worship in the Church after many years on "sabbatical." At that time, the most difficult parts of Episcopal worship for me were singing the hymns (the words are so specific about belief, and that made me feel uncomfortable) and reciting the Nicene Creed.

I especially found it difficult to say that Jesus Christ is "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father." When we got to those words, I would typically remain silent, letting the rest of the gathered assembly say those words for me and carry me through the remainder of the Creed to the Prayers of the People.

It took me probably at least a year of regular worship before my Arian and Gnostic tendencies were shaped in accordance with the faith of the Church, and I was able to not only say these words, but see in them core truths of the Gospel. Such can be the power of liturgy for shaping believing.

Since that time, I have increasingly come to see the Nicene Creed less and less as a straight jacket that stifles critical thinking and kills the spirit and more and more as an opening into a whole world of meaning and purpose, and an invitation into the life of God.

As coldly analytic and rational as it may sound, the Creed is actually a mystical opening into transforming relationship with the triune God.

The articles of the Creed touch on the mysteries at the heart of Christian faith. Putting mystery into words is, of course, awkward at best. Hence, I think it's a good idea for there to be a moment of silence between the recitation of the Creed and the Prayers of the People. The silence acknowledges the mystery of what we've said in the words of the Creed.

The mysteries of God cannot be contained by rational explanations. But like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed points us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost as to what is truly essential for reaching the goal of the Christian journey without it.Anglicanism agrees. Beginning with the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral in the late 19th Century and reaffirmed by subsequent Lambeth Conferences and General Conventions of the Episcopal Church during the 20th Century, Anglicanism maintains that the Nicene Creed is "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

It's worth pausing for a moment over that word "sufficient."The Nicene Creed is "enough." We don't need anything more to express the core of the Christian faith. But at the same time, we can make do with no less.This is why Anglicanism - unlike the Reformed tradition - is a creedal rather than a confessional tradition.The Anglican bishop Charles Harris put it well when he said:

"The Nicene Creed aims at promoting unity, the later confessions at justifying division; the former states only what is essential, the latter descend into detail and include a large number of disputable and highly contentious propositions" [from Creeds or No Creeds (1927), quoted by Frank E. Wilson in Faith and Practice Revised Edition (Morehouse-Barlow, 1967), p. 71].

Given the rampant subjectivism and relativism of our hypermodern culture - tendencies which reinforce conceptions of "spirituality" that entail a "drive-thru window" or "cafeteria pick-and-choose" mentality - I think that one of the most odd and countercultural things we Christians do is stand every Sunday and recite the words of a creed hammered out by two ecumenical councils in the 4th Century. It is a radical and even subversive act to not only recite the words of the Nicene Creed, but to also mean what we say.

Here, for example, is what Luke Timothy Johnson writes in an essay entitled "The Countercultural Creed":

Every Sunday millions of Christians recite the creed. Some sleepwalk through it thinking of other things, some puzzle over the strange language, some find offense in what it seems to say. Perhaps few of them fully appreciate what a remarkable thing they are doing. Would they keep on doing it if they grasped how different it made them in today's world? Would they keep on saying these words if they really knew what they implied?

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a countercultural act.

He continues this train of thought in an essay entitled "The (Politically Incorrect) Nicene Creed":

For Modernity, belief in a creed is a sign of intellectual failure. Creeds involve faith, and faith makes statements about reality that can't be tested. Everyone knows that statements can be true only when they don't really say anything about the world or when they have been empirically tested. Creeds are therefore structures of fantasy. One cannot be both a believer and a critical thinker. Creeds also express convictions held by a group of people, and for intellectual elitists, the many is always a herd, and a herd will always believe what it is told. A creed negates the need for individuals to seek truth as a quest for authenticity. To be authentic, people must own each statement they make passionately and personally, and must accept nothing on the basis of outside authority. Better to stay silent than to speak a single word that is not a personal testimony. ...

I think that the Christian creed enunciates a powerful and provocative understanding of the world, one that ought to scandalize a world that runs on the accepted truths of Modernity. There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility. At the same time, it communicates a compelling vision of the world's destiny and humanity's role that challenges the accustomed idolatries and the weary platitudes of current worldly wisdom. Christians who say these words should know what they are doing when they say them and what they are saying when they mean them. This is the precondition to their celebrating a specifically Christian conception of reality, and the presupposition for their challenging the dominant conceptions of the world.

Since bishops are called "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church," I think it's very significant that, in the ordination rite for bishops, it is the bishop-elect who leads the congregation in reciting the Nicene Creed (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 517 & 519). It is the faith expressed by the Nicene Creed which bishops are ordained to guard.

Speaking of bishops, here's a magnificent passage from Bishop Frank Wilson's Faith and Practice [Revised Edition (Morehouse-Barlowe, 1967), pp. 72-73]:

The public recitation of the Creeds often raises a question which in some instances is a matter of conscience and in other cases an alibi. How can one stand in a congregation and go on record as believing these articles of faith when some of them are beyond one's ability to understand and about which one's belief is certainly dubious? How can I say, 'I believe' when I am not sure whether I do or not?

The difficulty here lies in a misconception of the purpose of the Creed. It is not a contract especially drawn up for each individual worshiper. It is a statement of the Church's faith in which the individual shares as a member of the Body of Christ. To hesitate over it is like a man questioning his family relationship because he cannot understand some of his father's peculiarities. No one can say he completely understands every item mentioned in the Creed, but that need not prevent him from reciting it in unison with his fellow-worshippers.

There are plenty of things about the human body which a physician does not understand. Yet he does not wait until he is sure about everything before treating his patient. He must treat his patient as a whole person even though some parts of him he may not understand. Those unanswered questions he holds in suspension while he goes about his healing business.

So the individual Christian may have questions in his mind which he cannot resolve, but he holds them in suspension while he says the Creed with the rest of the Church. He is not announcing to the wide world that he knows all about it. He is pledging his allegiance to Christ and stating his adherence to the Church which teaches that faith.

And here are a few concluding thoughts of my own about the Nicene Creed:
  • As "the sufficient statement of the Christian faith," the Nicene Creed underscores that there are boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith and that differentiate it from other possible faiths. Christianity is not a recipe for relativism, nor does it affirm subjectivism. It's interesting in this regard to note that the English word "heresy" derives from the Greek hairein, meaning "to choose." The Creed reminds us that Christianity is not an individualistic, "pick and choose what you like and discard the rest" faith.
  • Christian faith entails certain non-negotiable truths that make a claim on our loyalties and our lives.
  • Contra the gnostic elitism cooked up by the Dan Brown school of theology and Church history, the essentials of the Christian faith are not hidden away and accessible only to the intellectually elite. They are publicly available for all to inspect and explore.
  • The faith of the Church as expressed in the Nicene Creed is the norm against which individual opinions and judgments are measured and found more or less adequate, or wrong.
  • The Nicene Creed does not provide answers to every theological or ethical question. You cannot resolve a moral dilemma by consulting it, and it doesn’t prescribe a particular theory of the atonement as the correct one. But the Creed does provide content and boundaries for ongoing inquiry that stays connected to the faith of the Church. And it allows for a diversity of views on matters it does not address.
  • Reciting the Nicene Creed in the context of the liturgy invites us to live more deeply - with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength - into the mystery of a God whose being and willing we mere mortals can never fully fathom.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Other Quadrilateral

Anglicanism affirms a four-fold basis for visible Christian unity and for the fullness of the Church as the Body of Christ. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral lays out the essential boundaries of Anglicanism quite well.

The four principles of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral are Scripture, Creeds, Sacraments, and the Historic Episcopate. These four principles have roots that reach all the way back to the ancient, undivided Church.

During the 20th Century, successive meetings of the Lambeth Conference of Bishops and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church have reaffirmed their importance.

For we who inhabit the Anglican/Episcopal way of being Christian, these principles define the minimum requirements for being a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.And so the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral crystallizes centuries of Christian thought into a concise statement of principles that provide the basis for both our core identity and for ecumenical dialogue.

But there is a complementary way to express the essentials of the Anglican Via Media.

In his essay "The Other Quadrilateral," James Packer offers four other markers of Anglicanism that complement the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. In particular, he talks about Anglicanism in the following four ways:
  1. catholic Christianity;
  2. canonical Christianity;
  3. creedal Christianity; and
  4. comprehensive Christianity

Read it all.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Great Wisdom?

Surfing the internet the other day, I came across a comment that "the tendency to see the refusal to make any theological commitments as evidence of great wisdom" has become a problem in The Episcopal Church.

Sadly, I think there's much truth to this observation.

Too many Episcopalians don't want to be pinned down to anything in particular, lest we then be held accountable to something or someone beyond our own subjective preferences. We want to keep our options open in case some better idea or practice comes along.

Perhaps we resonant more deeply with these words:

"No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it" [Ralph Waldo Emerson from "Self-Reliance" (1841)].

than with these:

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).

or these:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

or these:

"We believe in one God ... [and] in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God" (The Nicene Creed).

Ironically, the refusal to make theological commitments itself entails a strong commitment - namely, a commitment to subjectivism and relativism as more privileged ways of knowing "truth" (whatever that might mean given such a commitment) than anything offered by a tradition embodied in an institution we call "Church."

Our common prayer as Episcopalians unambiguously commits us to truths that transcend our subjective preferences and make a fundamental claim on our lives and loyalties. These are truth claims we affirm everytime we renew our Baptismal Covenant vow to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304).

Where there is no willingness to allow our common praying to shape our believing, praying commitment to these truth claims in the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer and simultaneously leaving our theological options open comes dangerously close to a public display of hypocrisy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Homosexuality and the Church: Two Views

A recent issue of Commonweal includes two very interesting essays on the topic of homosexuality by Roman Catholics.

The first contributor is Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He's a prolific writer and a respected theologian and biblical scholar. His works include Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (1996), The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (1997), Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (2000), and The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (2003).

The second contributor is Eve Tushnet, a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. You can read her blog here.

Johnson has long been one of my favorite New Testament scholars and biblical theologians. I love his book Living Jesus, and I find myself returning again and again to The Creed. I admire and applaud his respectful but firm advocacy for creedal Christianity. See, for example, this excerpt from The Creed entitled "The (Politically Incorrect) Nicene Creed." So it's interesting that, in spite of his Nicene Orthodoxy, Johnson takes what many would regard as a very liberal position on homosexuality.

Eve Tushnet's response to Johnson is my first acquaintance with her, and I find myself fascinated. She's "out" as a lesbian Catholic, but clearly is not in the leftist camp a-la-Integrity (not by a long shot!) as her willingness to submit to traditional Catholic moral teaching indicates.

But, in spite of her disagreement with Johnson, she also doesn't seem to be in the same place as many of the folks on the Episcopal Right (take, for example, those who regularly post or respond to postings on TitusOneNine or Stand Firm). Her blog says, "Conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood," but this essay makes me wonder: could she be a "Catholic Centrist"?

I particularly find Tushnet's critique of Johnson's conception and use of "experience" insightful. She rightly warns against trusting our experience too much, noting that sometimes we have "only the barest understanding of our own motives and impulses" at the time of a particular experience (sort of like the "temporary insanity" of falling in love?).

This line really struck me: "But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture."

And then there's this point: "If we seek to overcome any aspects of our culture that conflict with the gospel, I'm not sure why we would expect the gay liberation movement - slightly over a hundred years old - to be less culture-bound, and therefore a better guide to the countercultural aspects of the gospel, than the Catholic Church."

I think that this particular counter-point should give Johnson pause, because if you take the gay issue out of the equation and just focus on the boundaries and norms that define the dogmatic core of Christian faith, this is basically his own argument in The Creed. Johnson boldly upholds a 4th Century conciliar statement of faith over and against the individualistic "gnostic elitism" of post-Enlightenment liberal modernism a la Spong, Borg, Crossan, Pagels, etc. Indeed, it's precisely because it doesn't jive with personal experience that so many Christians find it difficult to subscribe to the Nicene Creed and, in some cases, find it difficult or impossible to even recite it.

I don't know if she realizes this is what she's doing, but Tushnet basically uses Johnson's reasoning in his book The Creed against him on this particular issue.

Since I struggle with these issues (not having found a place to "rest my head" on either the Left or the Right, but also wanting to affirm the rightful place of gays and lesbians in the life of the Church), I appreciate both of these essays. And I would really like to read Johnson's response to Tushnet's criticisms.

Read it all.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Trinity Sunday Sermon 2007

For many preachers, Trinity Sunday is affectionately known as “Heresy Sunday.” That’s because we preachers often attempt to take this opportunity to explain the Holy Trinity, with the result that we almost always end up affirming three gods instead of one, or affirming the unity of God by denying any distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Such “explanations” of the Trinity leave us with something other than a Christian understanding of God and maybe a headache as well.

Maybe that’s the reason why the English preacher Colin Morris once said that any preacher with good sense will call in sick on Trinity Sunday.

Since I’m clearly lacking that good sense, maybe I can get off to a decent start by citing the Protestant reformer Martin Luther who once said: “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”

In my reflections this morning, I hope to neither endanger your salvation nor your sanity.

When we Christians speak of the Trinity we’re talking about a dogma and not just a doctrine.

The dogma/doctrine distinction may seem overly subtle and academic, but it’s a very important one. A doctrine is simply a teaching. All religions abound with teachings. Actually, all arenas of inquiry – whether in theology or in the natural or human sciences – have doctrines or teachings. These are things you have to know to be on the same page with others. It’s even true in sports. We could no more live without doctrines in religion or science than we could play football or baseball without rules for the game. Over time, some of these rules of the game may be changed or even discarded. That happens in religion just as it does in sports. But there are some teachings – some rules of the game – that are so essential we could no longer claim to be playing baseball or practicing the Christian faith if we lacked them.

In Christian theology, such teachings are called dogmas. A dogma is a doctrine that serves as a definitive rule of faith.

There’s room for disagreement when it comes to Christian teachings on the complex issues involving human sexuality, economic justice, abortion, or the use of violence in defense of justice. But dogmas are non-negotiable. Just as we can’t do science if we deny fundamental natural laws, and we can’t do ethics if we reject any distinctions between right and wrong, so the Church teaches that we can’t have a Christian understanding of God without the dogma of the Trinity.

This is an important reminder that there are boundaries and norms that define the Christian faith and that differentiate it from other possible faiths.

Now of course, there are many differences between rules that govern sports, laws that govern science, and dogmas that govern Christian faith. And one important difference is that a Christian dogma confronts us with a mystery that transcends human reason. To say that God is one Being in three Persons is not a scientific statement or bad math. Rather, it’s an expression of the mystery of God’s being. The dogma of the Trinity tells us that God cannot be fully grasped by reason alone. Left to our own devices, we cannot figure God out, much less manipulate God into doing our bidding. And so the dogma of the Trinity reminds us that no matter how well we may understand what the Christian faith and life are all about, we can never fully comprehend the reality we call God.

But the dogma of the Trinity doesn’t just underscore the limits of reason by pointing to the mystery of God. It’s also a practical teaching. If taken seriously, it has consequences not only for how we relate to God but also for how we should relate to each other.

For fundamental to the dogma of God as Trinity is the affirmation that God is not a solitary individual. Internal to God's very being is relationship. To speak of God as Trinity is to affirm that God is a community, a divine society whose unity does not violate or destroy the uniqueness of the constituent Persons. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal in power and majesty. No one of them lords it over the others. In God there is no above and below, no superior and inferior, no insiders and outsiders. In relation to each other, each Person of the Trinity lives in a free society of equals. And this freedom finds its perfect expression in self-giving, costly love. The kind of love we see most clearly in Jesus Christ nailed to a cross.

If we compare the Trinity to human history and experience, we see how far short we fall from the perfection of the triune God.How often have people formed societies that promise freedom and equality for all only to substitute a new tyranny for an old one?

And how many of us have experienced relationships in which power, control, and manipulation masquerade as love?

Or relationships in which we become so totally enmeshed with the other person that we no longer know who we really are?

Or relationships in which commitment is so fickle that everything ends when “someone better” comes along?These experience leave us hurt and longing for wholeness. The kind of wholeness that only God as Trinity can give us.

The relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not characterized by manipulation, domination, or coercion but by freedom and self-giving love. And while our society and our relationships often fall far short of the ideal, we are still called to emulate the freedom and love of the Trinity.

And so the dogma of the Trinity is an ethical mandate – a call to action. After all, we Christians believe that all persons are created in the image of the triune God. And made in God’s image, we are created to share the same communion of equality, the same mutual openness and self-giving love, that animates the shared life of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.Our participation in God’s triune nature starts in the Church, where we submit ourselves in love to the Lordship of Christ, seeking and serving Christ in each other, helping to carry each other’s burdens, and relinquishing claims to power and prestige.

And our participation in God’s triune life extends into the world, as we seek to create institutions and build relationships that respect the dignity of all persons, promoting freedom and equality by arming ourselves with nothing more or less than the love of Christ crucified.

That’s a risky way to live in a world that privileges the survival of the fittest.

But that’s the risk of love.

God’s love.

It’s the love that moves God the Father to create a world of infinite and unfolding beauty and complexity. It’s the love that moves God the Son to show us the way to unite the human and the divine by becoming human like us and then giving his life so that we may live. And it’s the love that moves God the Holy Spirit to draw us to the Father through the Son, empowering us to be Christ’s body, harbingers of the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

The dogma of the Trinity propels us into the mystery of God’s very being and out into the world to follow the example of Jesus. And so our worship of God as Trinity underscores a truth once expressed by Dorothy Sayers when she wrote: “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the [human] imagination – and the dogma is the drama” [Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos (1949)].

Friday, June 1, 2007

Evangelism and a Failure of Christian Formation

Recently I’ve come across a couple of articles that have caught my attention and started me thinking about the connections between evangelism and Christian formation.

Here’s an excerpt from the first one, in which John B. Chilton analyzes the reasons why the Episcopal Church does a rather dismal job of evangelism and why our numbers continue to decrease:

You might think that a tolerant church with modern attitudes, a willingness to experiment even with its rich tradition in order to be accepting, and an orientation to bringing about the Kingdom would appeal to those who remain unchurched in secular American society. But there’s no sign that we do appeal to the unchurched, at least not in large numbers.

Many are going to call it a cheap out, but my belief is that numbers are not the only measure of success. We are not a mass market church. We are a niche church with a rich liturgical tradition that brings some closer to God’s immanence, transcendence and longing for a relationship with God’s people. But our style doesn’t work for everyone – even if they agree with us on social issues – and that’s okay.

If it is not in numbers, what can be our measure of success? Are we doing a good job of encouraging our members to deepen their relationship with God? Christian formation is an area where I have witnessed growth and improvement in the Episcopal Church in recent decades. We’re pretty good at it (in my experience). But, in my view, we are not sufficiently demanding on this front. Evangelicals are successful in part because they create a tension with secular society. I propose that we could create more healthy tension with secular society by asking our members to grow in formation, perhaps even to adopt a rule of life. There is an aching spiritual void in secular society and adopting these kinds of standards would attract some seekers among the unchurched.

We can debate the author’s defense of our small size on the grounds that we are “a niche church.” That may be true. But it’s probably also the case that too many of the unchurched who might find a home in the Episcopal Church don’t discover us because we don’t do a good job of sharing our faith and who we are as a community.

Is it because we feel embarrassed to talk about Jesus? Are we afraid of letting others know that we take Christian faith seriously? Is it just easier to talk about Millennium Development Goals (which, by the way, are goals which I support)?

I think this problem is directly related to Christian formation.

I disagree with Mr. Chilton insofar as my experience as a priest tells me that we’re also not very good at forming persons as Christians in the Episcopal Church. I think that helps to explain why so many of us – in some cases including elderly cradle Episcopalians as well as graduating seminarians – are unable to articulate the basics of the Church’s faith, including things like sin, salvation, who Jesus is, the significance of the resurrection, etc. And it explains why we are uncomfortable talking about our faith in explicitly Christian terms. (I once asked an aspirant for Holy Orders, “Who is Jesus in your life?”, and I was later told by this person that my question had “violated” her.)

But I quite agree with Chilton that perhaps one way to fill the “aching spiritual void in secular society” would be to return to the rich spiritual and theological resources of our tradition, much of which remain untapped in many of our churches. Beyond what starts on page 355, how many Episcopalians, for example, even know what's in The Book of Common Prayer - that most ubiquitous and yet mostly under-utilized resource for Christian education and formation in the Episcopal Church?

Here’s a quote from that second article I recently read, this time from theologian and philosopher Dallas Willard:

Generally, what I find is that the ordinary people who come to church are basically running their lives on their own, utilizing ‘the arm of the flesh’—their natural abilities—to negotiate their way. They believe there is a God and they need to check in with him. But they don’t have any sense that he is an active agent in their lives. As a result, they don't become disciples of Jesus. They consume his merits and the services of the church. … Discipleship is no essential part of Christianity today.

I think Willard hits the nail on the head here. Many of us don’t have a sense of who God is in our lives or what it might mean to be a disciple of Jesus (as opposed to a churchgoer). It probably doesn’t help that only about 44% of our membership “checks in” with aesthetically beautiful worship on an average Sunday morning, and then they “check out” for the rest of the week.

Besides Holy Scripture, one of the richest resources we have to help people along the journey of knowing God in their lives within the Episcopal Church is our liturgy. But, as I’ve written before, there seems to be an increasing gap between the faith we pray in the liturgy and what we preach, teach, and offer for formation. We pray the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus, but then we deny the whole thing as beneath the dignity of educated people by pushing, instead, the deconstructionist (and, in some cases, anti-Christian) agendas of marginal scholars and religious skeptics like Spong, Borg, Crossan, and Pagels.

Little wonder if we have a hard time transforming people into disciples of Jesus.

Or that we fail to feed people with the rich fare of the Anglican tradition in a world so hungry for God that people will gorge on spiritual junk food if it's all they can find.

Or that people with small children in their 20s and 30s move on from us to attend church elsewhere, or they never darken our doors to begin with.