Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What's in a Resolution?

In an earlier posting I cited a proposed resolution for the Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi and talked about how that resolution suggests that the liturgies, prayers, and creeds of The Book of Common Prayer are (for some) no longer a sufficient basis for affirming the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ. Something more is needed. And perhaps, for some, that something more starts with affirming the text (and perhaps also the subtext) of this resolution:

2008 – 1: Affirmation of Uniqueness and Lordship of Jesus Christ

Submitted by: The Rev. Chris Colby, The Rev. Alston Johnson, and The Rev. George F. Woodliff III.

Be it resolved that the 181st Annual Council of the Diocese of Mississippi reaffirms the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ in this diocese and "that Jesus is the only perfect image of the Father, and shows us the nature of God" {BCP, p. 849} and that "Holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved." [BCP, p. 871]

Explanation: In previous times such a resolution would have been unnecessary. However, a perceived drift toward universalism in the Episcopal Church is leading us away from the historical Faith we have received. It is, therefore, necessary at this time to reaffirm the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ and the scandal of particularity of the cross. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means to turn to him "and accept him as your Savior." It means "to put your whole trust in his grace and love." It means to "promise to follow and obey him as your Lord." [BCP, pp.302-303] This is our faith, and sometimes it is necessary to be reminded "whose we are." [cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20] In the words of Bishop Gray, "I cannot deny the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and it is him alone that I call the Lord of my life." [Bishop's Address to the 178th Annual Council.]

There are some problems with the wording of this resolution which I want to briefly note, problems that undermine the purported intention of putting forth the resolution in the first place.

For starters, the resolution calls on Council to reaffirm the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ “in this diocese.” Note that this wording limits the reaffirmation of Jesus’ uniqueness and lordship within diocesan boundaries. As a consequence, this resolution carries a henotheistic connotation. Drawing on the work of H. Richard Niebuhr, theologian Lonnie Kliever describes henotheism as a form of faith in which “some social unit (family, nation, church, civilization, or even humanity) fulfills the function of god by conveying value to and requiring service of its members” [H. Richard Niebuhr (Hendrickson Publishers, 1977), p. 88]. The henotheistic connotation of this wording subtly subordinates the universality of Jesus’ lordship to the ecclesial social unit of the Diocese of Mississippi.

As a consequence, this resolution performatively contradicts itself. In the very act of asking Council to reaffirm the lordship of Jesus Christ, it henotheistically denies the lordship of Jesus Christ. In other words, the wording of this resolution reduces Jesus’ lordship to one among many possible lordships by construing Jesus’ lordship as normative only within the boundaries of the diocese of Mississippi. It tacitly acknowledges the possibility of other lords in other dioceses. An evangelical saying provides an orthodox counterbalance to this resolution’s henotheistic connotation: “Jesus Christ is either Lord of all, or he’s not Lord at all.”

Even if the wording of this particular part of the resolution is changed to affirm the universal lordship of Jesus Christ, there are still serious problems. For example, the explanation for this resolution cites “a perceived drift towards universalism in the Episcopal Church.” The popular motto notwithstanding, perception is not necessarily reality. It would be helpful for the resolution to cite empirical evidence that establishes that this drift is more than a mere perception and is, indeed, a verifiable reality. Lacking such empirical support, this resolution falls into the fallacy of converse accident, which is “the fallacy of considering certain exceptional cases and generalizing to a rule that fits them alone.”

Here are some examples of this fallacy:

“I interviewed ten people on Main Street in Greenwood on Friday night, and they all stated they would rather be there than watching TV. I conclude that the folks in Greenwood don’t like to watch TV on Friday night.”

“The USDA policies for farmers are worthless. Why I know a guy who collects thousands of dollars for not planting wheat and spends his spare time at the race track.”

“As I drove to work this morning, not one car which was turning had its turn signal on. I conclude that drivers in Jackson are not trained to drive very well.”

The following could serve as an example of this fallacy at work in the Episcopal Church:

“In his books and lectures, Bishop Spong has repeatedly denied the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And in an interview with Time Magazine, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori denied the biblical affirmation that Jesus is uniquely the way to God. It’s clear that the Episcopal Church rejects core tenets of the Christian faith.”

To be sure, it is troubling when church leaders either explicitly or perhaps more subtly deny core tenets of Christian faith. That’s particularly so with respect to clergy. Considering the vows clergy make to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church, there should be accountability for openly, consciously, and repeatedly violating that vow. However, lacking overwhelming empirical evidence that conclusively demonstrates that such non-conformist views are shared by the majority of Episcopalians, it is fallacious to use these instances as representative of the entire Episcopal Church. (Let me hasten to add that if anyone has done the empirical research that conclusively demonstrates the contrary, I would very much like to see it.)

In the third place, the explanation for this resolution claims that we are drifting away “from the historical Faith we have received.” The qualifier “historical” means “belonging to the past, not of the present” [The Concise Oxford Dictionary 7th Edition (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 472]. The qualifier "historical" thus stands in contrast to the qualifier “historic,” which connotes a connection between the faith of the past and its relevance for the present. Unfortunately, by speaking of “the historical Faith,” this resolution characterizes Christianity as a dead relic from the past.

And finally, this resolution’s explanation says that “sometimes it is necessary to be reminded ‘whose we are.’” The reality is that we are “sometimes” reminded of who Jesus is on a regular basis – every Sunday, in fact, when we hear the scriptures read, recite the Nicene Creed, and participate in the Eucharistic Prayer. And those of us who observe the discipline of Morning and Evening Prayer are “sometimes” reminded of “whose we are” by reaffirming the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus Christ on a daily basis.

Knowing and valuing the clergy who are co-sponsoring this resolution as colleagues and friends, I’m confident that they do not personally intend to propagate the theological problems and errors inherent in this resolution as worded and explained. But the wording of a resolution for a Church council matters. And this resolution’s wording entails numerous problems and errors that should disqualify it from hitting the floor of Council as written.


bls said...

Here is what KJS said, in answering the question, "Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?": "We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.."

I would say that is quite different from what you claim here.

Anyway, Jesus isn't just a guy from Nazareth, you know. Per the very same Gospel always quoted in this regard, Jesus is the Logos, the Word, the life-force who existed before time and creation. This is an equivalence in the Prologue; Jesus is this very Logos. So it is silly to claim that people who aren't Christians necessarily can't know the Logos in some other way. It could be that Christians a simply very hard-headed individuals who require the Incarnation for this point to be gotten across.

Bryan+ said...

Actually, bls, I'm not claiming anything one way or the other about what the PB said or didn't say in that interview. Rather, I'm repeating what I've heard her critics say in order to make the point that some of the characterizations of the Episcopal Church as "heretical" and "apostate" are based more upon fallacious reasoning than upon empirically verifiable facts about what the majority of Episcopalians actually believe.

bls said...

Oh, sorry, Fr. Bryan; I misunderstood. (I did sound a little snarky here, too, which I didn't really mean to direct your way, so apologies for that as well.)

But in any case, in re those critics of KJS: I also don't think it's at all worthwhile to make a big deal about the responses that religious leaders give to questions like this from the press. This question has really nothing to do with theology or religion; it's a sound-bite "gotcha" question that KJS had to deal with somehow, and I think she did so with some grace, actually.

Anyway, I agree with her; to assume that, #1, we've actually understood the Gospel correctly and then to, #2, make exclusivist claims about the mind of God based on that possibly erroneous assumption, is IMO to be embarrassingly naive and presumptuous. And even if that weren't so, the history of anti-Semitism in the Church should be enough to discourage this kind of thinking - and, one hopes, to avoid making the same mistakes it's made numerous times in the past.

I by far prefer KJS "epistemic humility" (to use the buzzword of the moment).

Bryan+ said...

Hey bls. Thanks for another perceptive comment.

I think you make an important point about "gotcha" questions. So while I did not inject my own views about KJS in this posting, I'll say just a bit now.

Maybe the Presiding Bishop feels like she's being set up for a fall when she's asked questions about Jesus. Maybe she's responding to them as "gotcha" questions and she just doesn't want to play that game. Perhaps that's why I perceive her response to such questions as vague and/or evasive. However, as one of my clergy colleagues puts it, such responses make it look like she has a "moving target Christology." And so at times, it does, indeed, sound as though she espouses a kind of theological relativism in which Jesus is just one valid norm among many other valid norms.

Even if the PB's Christology deviates from the Prayer Book, I don't think it's fair to use such examples as a warrant for characterizing the entire Episcopal Church as "apostate" or "heretic."

I think it's important to acknowledge the complexities of issues when it comes to matters as weighty as salvation. As you note, the Church's lack of "epistemic humility" has led to vicious and presumptuous actions towards others, and all in the name of purportedly "saving their souls."

I hope that as we acknowledge and repent of those sins and failures that we Episcopalians can still embrace the Prayer Book's affirmation of Jesus as Lord and Savior while also being clear that, precisely because it is Jesus who is Lord and Savior (rather than someone or something else), ultimate judgment rests in the hands of a loving and merciful God.

bls said...

Totally agree, Fr. Bryan.

Hope your Convention will be good this weekend.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks, bls. Our diocesan council went very well. Little ol' Mississippi is doing a pretty darn good job of holding things together, with clergy and laity left, right, and center all finding common ground in the midst our differences. I hope the same can be true for the larger Church.