Friday, February 29, 2008

Definition of the Bible

This definition of the Bible is worthy of inclusion in the catechism:

"The Bible is the story of God's determination to woo human beings with his heart so he can transform them with his love and partner with them in his redemptive mission in the world."

Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (Jossey-Bass, 2003), p. 81.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Christian Hope: A Balanced Perspective

After posting earlier about N. T. Wright's interview with Time Magazine - in which he says that what most Christians think about heaven or life after death is wrong - I've finally acquired a copy of his latest book. It's called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008). Besides going into greater detail with the thesis he lays out in the interview, I'm looking forward to seeing how Wright delivers on the following:

"This book addresses two questions that have often been dealt with entirely separately but that, I passionately believe, belong tightly together. First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present? And the main answer can be put like this. As long as we see Christian hope in terms of 'going to heaven,' of a salvation that is essentially away from this world, the two questions are bound to appear unrelated. Indeed, some insist angrily that to ask the second one at all is to ignore the first one, which is the really important one. This in turn makes some others get angry when people talk of resurrection, as if this might draw attention away from the really important and pressing matters of contemporary social concern. But if the Christian hope is for God's new creation, for 'new heavens and new earth,' and if that hope has already come to life in Jesus of Nazareth, then there is every reason to join the two questions together. And if that is so, we find that answering the one is also answering the other" (p. 5; Wright's emphasis).

I've often thought it was a mistake to pit (for lack of better terms) other-worldly hope against this-worldly hope. But it's a mistake that many Christians do, in fact, make - as though getting to heaven is more important than what's going on in the world right here and now, or as though a passion for social justice justifies writing off all concerns about what happens after death as just so much "pie-in-the-sky" or "head-in-the-sand" escapism. I like Wright's balanced approach that holds up other-worldly and this-worldly hope as two dimensions of one hope. That strikes me as a good example of Anglican Centrism at work. We'll see how well Wright pulls it off.

Monday, February 25, 2008

RUBRIXX Group Photo

How many Episcopal priests does it take to form a blues/rock band?

From left to right: yours truly, Alston Johnson (rector of Chapel of the Cross, Madison), Charlie Deaton (rector of St. Peter's by-the-Lake, Brandon), and Scott Lenoir (vicar of St. Mary's, Lexington).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Soft-Core Atheism

In an article for February 26, 2008 issue of The Christian Century adapted from his book God and the New Atheism (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), John F. Haught takes direct aim at the “new atheism” of Samuel Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. By comparing their work to the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, Haught finds the anti-religious diatribes of the “new atheists” to be little more than “tame stuff,” “silly,” and “pale.” He also charges that Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens endorse “an ethically and politically conservative Darwinian orthodoxy” that, by failing to confront the nihilistic implications of “the more muscular” atheism of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, fails to provide rational justification for its strong claims to truth and goodness.

Here’s how Jordan Buckley sums up the gist of Haught’s argument over at his blog "The Day Is At Hand":

“Haught makes two major criticisms of this new brand of atheist. First, they don’t realize that their belief system requires just as much faith as a religion. Their worldview is what’s called ‘scientism,’ the belief that science is competent to tell us everything there is to know about the universe. If a belief cannot be proven through the scientific method, then it cannot be true, the argument goes. However, there is a glaring flaw in this worldview: it defeats itself. The claim that science is the sole path to truth is itself a claim that has never been and can never be proven by science. The new atheists want to put every belief to the scientific test, except for their own basic assumptions. They too have a doctrinal statement which they hold by pure faith: Science alone can explain the universe. Ultimately, the new atheism is logically contradictory; it cannot even meet its own test.

“The second criticism is the reason Haught calls Dawkins, Hitchens and friends ‘soft-core atheists.’ Atheists like Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre thought through what it means for human existence if there is no God, and realized that it is a terrifying prospect. ‘God is dead,’ Nietzsche's madman wails, ‘And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?’ If there is no God, then we are adrift in a meaningless infinity; our existence has no meaning but what we create. … Without God, we lose the basis of meaning and of morality. Nietzsche was disgusted by the naivete of those who thought they could keep traditional morality intact without God …”

In short, Haught charges that Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens fail to take their atheism seriously enough:

“If you’re going to be an atheist, the most rugged version of godlessness demands complete consistency. Go all the way and think the business of atheism through to the bitter end. This means that before you get too comfortable with the godless world you long for, you will be required to pass through disorienting wilderness of nihilism. Do you have the courage to do that? You will have to adopt the tragic heroism of a Sisyphus, or realize that true freedom in the absence of God means that you are the creator of the values you live by. Don’t you realize that this will be an intolerable burden from which most people will seek an escape? Are you ready to allow simple logic to lead you to the real truth about the death of God? Before settling into a truly atheistic worldview you will have to experience the Nietzschean madman’s sensation of straying through ‘infinite nothingness.’ You will be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.”

Here’s how Haught concludes the essay:

“Belief in God or the practice of religion is not necessary in order for people to be highly moral beings. We can agree with soft-core atheists on this point. But the real question, which comes not from me but from the hard-core atheists, is: Can you rationally justify your unconditional adherence to timeless values without implicitly invoking the existence of God?”

(You can read Haught's entire essay here.)

I applaud Haught’s willingness to take on the so-called “soft-core” atheists. Based upon what I’ve read by them, they do tend to peddle in stereotypes and misinformation that really makes one wonder how much they actually know about religion in its rich depth and variety. (Note, for example, William Placher’s stinging review of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great.) Given their intolerance for everything religious, I’m all for sophisticated theologians and philosophers of religion taking the gloves off with these guys.

At the same time, I think that Haught’s take on the epistemic and ethical implications of atheism are overstated. I don't think it's fair to say that anyone who claims to be an atheist yet fails to take nihilism seriously is, in effect, a coward. Nor am I fully persuaded by his argument that rejecting a theistic notion of God as the grounding for morality collapses into irrationality and relativism. He says that “In order to make … value judgments one must assume … that there exists somewhere, in some mode of being, a realm of rightness that does not owe its existence completely to human invention.” Philosophers like John Dewey, Richard J. Bernstein, or Jeffrey Stout might respond by asking, “Why? Do we really need to believe in a Platonic heaven to justify the values that make life in a democratic society worth living?” Such philosophers are certainly critical of classical theism, but they do not jettison religion wholesale as the “soft-core” atheists do. Nor do their writings suggest that they are teeter-tottering on the edge of madness a la Nietzsche. On the contrary, their work argues for pragmatic reasons for adhering to moral values that don't require overtly appealing to anything religious.

Even so, it's interesting to ponder the question: do claims to truth and goodness entail religious or metaphysical implications that may not be evident to the person(s) making the claims?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

An Anglican Approach to Evangelism

I came across this article by the Rev. Dr. Neal Michell, Canon Missioner for Strategic Development with the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, a couple of years ago. Reading it again, this essay's main points strike me as both practical and theologically sound.


An Anglican Approach to Evangelism

by Canon Neal Michell

A fellow priest asked me the other day, "When are we going to get our parishioners to evangelize?" I responded, "When we help them to understand the Anglican approach to evangelism—and when we get our clergy to understand and live into it as well."

We have many folks in our churches who come to the Episcopal Church from other denominations. We often hear, "I left such-and-such church to get away from that kind of stuff." Although we may interpret those comments to say that people have come to the Episcopal Church to get away from evangelism, I believe that many of them left what they viewed as an unhealthy understanding of evangelism to a healthier Anglican approach to evangelism.

What did I mean? Here is my understanding of an Episcopal-style—best case scenario—approach to evangelism.

We need to understand what I believe is an Anglican approach to evangelism. Once we fully embrace this approach, we will reach many more people for Christ. Anglican evangelism has two foundational principles.

First, as Anglicans we believe that evangelism best takes place in the context of the gathered Christian community. That is, being a Christian and becoming a Christian is not an individualistic and a solitary event. I am not a Christian simply by myself. Rather, to be a Christian is to be a part of a Christian community. The Episcopalian would say, "So, you want to be a Christian? Come experience the Christian community and come be a part of us."

For example, that is why in our church the priest cannot celebrate Holy Communion by himself or herself. The Holy Eucharist is a community event, not a private act of personal piety.

Thus, put positively, when we speak of evangelism, we mean inviting people to encounter and experience Christian community, and having experienced Christian community, people will want to become a part of that community and become a Christian.

On the negative side, many Episcopalians defer to the church and to the clergy the responsibility to evangelize. The thinking goes like this, "I’m no expert in this church stuff and theology, so I’ll leave it to the experts, that is, to the church and her clergy." It is this kind of thinking that has produced the statistic that the average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 28 years.

A second principle of Anglican evangelism is that evangelism is more of a process than an event. Many Anglicans cannot tell you the exact moment that they became a Christian (although Good Friday or Easter is probably the best answer). "We grew up in the church and somehow it has taken hold."

The designers of the Alpha course understand this. Alpha is built upon the principle that people will join a community before they will make a cognitive decision to become a Christian. One of their promos features a man who said that he was terribly uncomfortable with what he was hearing. He didn’t like the prayer time, either. He said that he stayed away a couple of weeks but one evening found himself back in the group. Why? He replied, "Because I missed you lot." (Interpretation for Americans: "Because I missed all of you.")

He was drawn to community. Having embraced the community, he was put in a place where he could hear the claims of Christ, experience Christian community where he saw the Christian life lived out, and decided to accept Jesus Christ as his savior. The process can be expressed this way: community, then decision, then deeper community.

Given these two principles, how can we as Anglican Christians embrace evangelism in an Anglican way?

First, understand that when we invite our friends we are inviting them to experience Christian community. We might invite them to a worship service or a church picnic or a choral presentation or some such special event. Thus, helping them to connect relationally is crucial in their process of evangelism. Then, in the process of relationship, be aware of the openings you might have to share your faith.

Second, our clergy need to give people in our worship services the opportunity to respond to the claims of Christ. Although evangelism is a process, it is made up of discrete moments of surrender. Thus, in our preaching, we clergy need to give "mini invitations" to accept the challenge to follow Jesus Christ. We can use the baptismal covenant or moments of challenge or invitations to silent prayer, or invite people to be prayed for by our prayer teams if your church has them.

The most widely accepted definition of evangelism in the Anglican church first offered by William Temple (1881-1944), the 98th Archbishop of Canterbury: Evangelism is "the presentation of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in such ways that persons may be led to believe in him as Saviour, and follow Him as Lord with the fellowship of His Church."

Anglicanism is not about being a Lone Ranger Christian. Rather, as Anglicans we affirm our connection to the early Church; the apostolic succession and apostolic faith; the Ecumenical Councils; Roman, Orthodox, and Reformed expressions of the Faith; and connected in a worldwide communion through trust and common faith. To be a Christian is to be in community. Evangelism at its best, from our perspective, reflects our interconnectedness.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Orthodoxy and the Episcopal Church

An interesting article came out in the January 18, 2004 issue of The Living Church by the Rt. Rev. Christopher Epting, who serves as the Presiding Bishop's Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. I've found it a helpful summary to use for Adult Inquirers' classes and on other occasions. And I continue to believe that, in spite of our many differences and disagreements (and in spite of the aberrations which make headline news and play into the divisive strategies of the Episcopal Church's critics and enemies), the majority of Episcopalians across the theological spectrum are comfortable embracing the kind of orthodoxy Epting describes.

Orthodox: Does the Term Fit Episcopalians?

by C. Christopher Epting

As ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church, I am often asked today, either implicitly or explicitly, whether we are still “orthodox” or not. In other words, now that we have revised our liturgy (and continue to experiment with “supplemental” liturgical texts), ordained women and homosexual persons, and have acknowledged that, at least in some of our churches, same-sex unions are blessed, have we departed completely from what might be called “orthodox” Christianity?

Obviously, we are not Orthodox (with a capital O). That designation is reserved for the Eastern or so-called Oriental Orthodox churches, tracing their identities back beyond the Great Schism of 1054. By this definition, the Roman Catholics, as well as protestants and Anglicans, agree that we are all non-Orthodox. The questions is, are we orthodox (with a small O) – do we hold “the right opinions” on essential matters of the Christian faith?

Of course, much hinges on what we call “essential,” but I was much helped recently by reading this statement describing the approach of our great friends in the Armenian Church which “ … admits as essential only the dogmatic definitions of the first three Oecumenic Councils … so that every Church which accepted the dogmas of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, and of the Redemption, could, through following her own views, form a part of the Church Universal … the other points, concerning doctrine or opinion, can be admitted or rejected, whether they be the outcome of the decision of a particular council, or are based on the authority of theologians … For all these points bear a secondary character … they but bear the import of simple matters of doctrine, devoid of dogmatic force and, in consequence, are amenable to latitude in thought” (The Church in Armenia by Malachia Ormanian, St. Vartan Press, 1988).

That reminded me of a simple memory device we used in seminary to remind us of the formative nature of the early Church for Anglicanism. A similar, but not identical list is often attributed to Lancelot Andrewes. It stated that we base our faith on one God, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, and five centuries. What does that mean?

One God
Episcopalians and Anglicans believe in one God. We are monotheistic. Not only do the Articles of Religion state that “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions …” but classically our primary form of prayer, the collect, is addressed to “God” or to the “Almighty Lord,” or our “Heavenly Father,” and concluded as being offered “through Jesus Christ our Savior who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever” (or some similar configuration, see for example page 211 of the Book of Common Prayer). We are neither tri-theists nor unitarians. We are monotheistic.

Two Testaments
We learn of this one God through the two “testaments” of Hebrew and Christian scripture. Every ordinand in the Episcopal Church publicly makes and signs a promise similar to this one: “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I. N.N., chosen Bishop of the Church in N., solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church” (BCP, p. 513). “The Apocrypha is a collection of additional books written by people of the Old Covenant, and used in the Christian Church” (BCP, p. 853). Therefore Episcopal lectionaries include readings from these books, but we do not use them in the formulation of doctrine unless their truths are otherwise included in the Old or New Testaments.

Three Creeds
Summaries of such biblical doctrine are found in three ancient creeds, “The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith” (The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, BCP p. 877) and the Quicunque Vult (commonly called The Creed of Saint Athanasius). The first two are used regularly in the Episcopal Church’s Daily Office and Eucharist (BCP, p. 96 and 358) and the third, because of its fulsome Trinitarian exposition, was printed in the Church of England’s standard 1662 Book of Common Prayer and is now found in the Episcopal Church's 1979 prayer book on page 864. In what is arguably the finest restoration of the ancient baptismal rite in modern Christian liturgy, “The Baptismal Covenant” (BCP, p. 304) includes at its heart the ancient question and answer fonnat of the Apostles’ Creed, our “baptismal symbol.”

Four Councils
The Episcopal Church’s “core doctrine” is formed especially by the earliest councils of the Christian Church. In addition to the Council of Nicea’s fonnulation of the Apostles’ Creed in 325 and the Council of Constantinople’s Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381), the Episcopal Church has accepted the Council of Ephesus (431) in its condemnation of Nestorianism (which rejected the term Theotokos, God-bearer, for the Virgin Mary and taught that there were two separate persons in the incarnate Christ) and also, in the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (451) opposing the teaching of Eutyches, who seemed to confound the two natures of Christ and denied that the manhood of Jesus was “consubstantial” with ours. The “Chalcedonian Definition” of the union of the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ is printed in the Book of Common Prayer on page 864, giving Episcopalians an even fuller exposition of the creedal orthodoxy to which their church holds.

Five Centuries
The “five centuries” marker is harder to articulate in a brief article such as this. But in addition to the development of liturgies for the celebration of the sacraments, the formation of the canon of holy scripture (the Church’s decision as to what books to include in the Holy Bible), the formulation of the creeds, and the gradual development of a three-fold order of ministry (bishops, presbyters, and deacons) all of which occurred in these early centuries, Anglicans have been influenced heavily by such saints and theologians as Ignatius of Antioch (115), Irenaeus (202), the Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century (Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus), Augustine of Hippo (430), and Benedict of Nursia (540), to name but a few.

So I would want to make the claim – in the same spirit as Ormanian’s description of the Armenian perspective – that we admit as essential only those markers listed above (inclusive of four ecumenical councils rather than the Armenian three) and that many other points (liturgical revision, the recipients of the grace of holy orders, and even certain moral questions) are either “doctrine” or “opinion” and can be admitted or rejected. “For all these points bear a secondary character (and) bear the import of simple matters of doctrine, devoid of dogmatic force and, in consequence, are amenable to latitude in thought” (ibid).

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tempting God's Beloved

Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent
RCL, Year A: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

“Jesus was not Superman.”[1] Thus says Tom Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham. While Wright is right, it’s also true that many Christians do treat Jesus like Superman – as if Jesus only appears to be like us when actually, beneath the disguise of his humanity, he’s an “all-powerful,” “computer-age super-magician.”[2] As widespread as such a view may be, the Gospels present a very different portrait of Jesus. Without negating his divinity, they underscore the fullness of Jesus’ humanity, including his confrontation with the universally human experience of temptation.

We see that in today’s Gospel reading. After 40 days without food, it must have been agonizingly difficult for Jesus to resist the urge to make bread out of stones. Not only could he have fed himself; he could have fed every hungry person in Palestine. It must have sounded appealing to jumpstart his ministry with an act so sensational that it would have commanded universal attention, proving irrefutably the God-ordained character of his vocation. And it must have been almost irresistibly enticing to assume his identity as Lord of the world without having to deal with all of that messy business of suffering and dying. Who wouldn’t want an easier, softer way?

Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted as we are. And so, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, [in Jesus] we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15 TEV).

It’s reassuring to know that we aren’t alone, that our Lord endured all of the feelings and the temptations that we experience, that he’s no Superman. As fully human, Jesus was vulnerable to self-doubt and to questioning the grounds of relationship with God. And that’s precisely what the devil is targeting in today’s Gospel reading.

The reason for the devil’s hostility, and the key to our Lord’s resistance to the temptations, lies in Jesus’ baptism. You may recall that after Jesus rises up out of the waters of the Jordan, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17 NRSV). It’s hard to imagine a clearer affirmation of Jesus’ identity than this. He is God’s Beloved. He is the One in whom God takes unconditional joy and delight and the One who, in the words of John’s Gospel, “is close to the Father’s heart” (Jn. 1:18 NRSV). Being the Beloved of God is the core of Jesus’ identity and the unshakeable bond that unites him intimately to the creator and lover of all that is.

So it’s no accident that the first thing that happens after this powerful affirmation is that the devil tries to get Jesus to reject his identity as God’s Beloved. If the devil can do that, then God’s plan for the world’s salvation will wither before it even has a chance to put down roots. And so two times, the voice of the tempter calls Jesus’ God-proclaimed identity into question, saying, “If you are the Son of God …” It’s a subtle attempt to cast seeds of doubt in Jesus’ heart and mind. Maybe he didn’t really hear that voice from heaven after all. Or perhaps he did, but maybe his identity as God’s Beloved is conditional. Maybe Jesus has to do something special to prove that he really is the Beloved. Or maybe he has do something to prove that he’s worthy of such an identity. Maybe it’s true that there’s no such thing as unconditional love.

For Jesus, life after baptism means confronting the voice of the Tempter and the lies that call into question his identity as God’s Beloved. Life after baptism is difficult for Jesus. In the midst of opposition, conflict, and misunderstanding, it’s a journey that goes all the way to the cross.

Life after baptism is also a difficult journey for every Christian. For like Jesus, we, too, are tempted to reject our true identity. We, too, are tempted to buy the lie.

As Christians, the truth of who we are comes to us through that sacramental foundation of the Church we call Holy Baptism. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in our baptisms and marked as Christ’s own forever. Through baptism, God adopts us as sons and daughters. And as our Prayer Book so beautifully puts it: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble” (BCP, p. 298). Our baptisms tell us in no uncertain terms that we, too, are God’s Beloved. Our baptisms are outward and visible signs of the bold promise that God will never leave or forsake us, and that nothing we do can ever change or revoke the bond God makes with us.

But almost as soon as the truth of our baptisms begins to sink in, the voice of the Tempter is right there, trying to persuade us that it’s all just a big lie. After all, if it sounds too good to be true, it must be false. Sure, grace abounds, but only for those who really deserve it. Of course God loves you, but only if you’re very good. Indissoluble bond in baptism? What rubbish! God can always change His mind. If you really screw up, then God will throw you out with the trash. It’s best to face reality on reality’s terms: there’s no such thing as unconditional love.

If thoughts like these have ever crossed your mind or troubled your soul, then you’ve heard the voice of the Tempter.

The late Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen sums up the temptation we face very well. He writes:

" … the world is filled with ‘ifs.’ The world says: 'Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.' There are endless ‘ifs’ hidden in the world’s love. These ‘ifs’ enslave [us], since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional."[3]

The temptation to call what God says about us in our baptisms a lie, rejecting God’s unconditional love for the world’s conditional love, is the most insidious of all temptations. For nothing is more foundational than our relationship with God. And that relationship takes shape in one of two ways: we either trust the One in whom we live, move and have our being, or we distrust and perhaps fear or even hate Him. If we buy into the lie that we can’t trust our baptisms, if we buy into the lie that God signifies (in the words of H. Richard Niebuhr) “a power that is jealous of its rights, that is suspicious of its creation, that is as ready to deny it, to condemn it to destruction and to damn it to everlasting grief, as to affirm, maintain, and bless it,” then our posture towards ourselves, others, and the world will sour into distrust, suspicion, defensiveness, chronic anxiety, and perhaps even paranoia and neurosis.[4]

Jesus Christ shows us that life just doesn’t have to be this way. For in his rejection of the devil’s lies and in his faithfulness and loyalty to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus gives us the assurance that we, too, can trust God and the promise God makes in our baptisms.

My friends, as we journey these 40 days of Lent, don’t buy the lie. Trust the truth: we really are God’s Beloved. Like Jesus, we, too, are close to the Father’s heart. As God’s adopted sons and daughters, God takes unconditional joy and delight in us. We are precious in God’s sight. And not even our worst moments or our most heinous sins can change that.

So remember who you are. Remember your baptisms. Remember the indissoluble bond God has made with you. And remember that no matter where you find yourself – whether close to home or wandering far off the path in a distant country – the door to the Father’s house is always open.

[1] Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone 2nd Edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 42.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Image Books, 1992), p. 42; emphasis in text.

[4] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (Harper & Row, 1963), p. 119.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Christians Are Wrong About Heaven

I just came across a fascinating Time Magazine interview with N. T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham, in which he takes on the dualistic body-versus-soul view of the afterlife espoused by many Christians in favor of what I agree is a more biblically and creedally orthodox view. Here's how the interview is introduced:

N.T. "Tom" Wright is one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought. As Bishop of Durham, he is the fourth most senior cleric in the Church of England and a major player in the strife-riven global Anglican Communion; as a much-read theologian and Biblical scholar he has taught at Cambridge and is a hero to conservative Christians worldwide for his 2003 book The Resurrection of the Son of God, which argued forcefully for a literal interpretation of that event.

It therefore comes as a something of a shock that Wright doesn't believe in heaven — at least, not in the way that millions of Christians understand the term. In his new book, Surprised by Hope (HarperOne), Wright quotes a children's book by California first lady Maria Shriver called What's Heaven, which describes it as "a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk... If you're good throughout your life, then you get to go [there]... When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you heaven to be with him." That, says Wright is a good example of "what not to say." The Biblical truth, he continues, "is very, very different."

Read it all.

I note that there's a chapter in Bishop Frank E. Wilson's Faith and Practice (Morehouse, 1967) entitled "Paradise" that supports Bishop Wright's argument. According to Wilson, during the first fifteen centuries of the Church's life it was taught that there are "three stages of life - first, the probationary stage in this world; second, the waiting stage in Paradise; third, the final completion in heaven" (p. 234). "All through the writings of the early Church Fathers," he continues, "it appears again and again - an Intermediate state for waiting souls" (p. 235). Wilson argues that the Reformers strong reactions against the doctrine of Purgatory and related teachings about "a Treasury of Merits and Indulgences" helped to blur the lines between the intermediate and final stages, such that we ended up with what Wright is attacking as contrary to scripture - namely, that we go straight to heaven as disembodied souls after we die. So regardless of whether it's the influence of Greek philosophy, or the Reformers going too far, or some combination of both, Wright and Wilson are recovering a more biblically faithful theology of "the afterlife."

(You can watch a story and interview with Wright about all of this here.)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Prayer for Today

This prayer appears in every issue of the Episcopal Church publication Forward Day by Day. I've seen it attributed to the 19th Century Episcopal priest Philips Brooks, but I have not been able to confirm that. It's a powerful prayer and a great way to start any day.

O God:

Give me strength to live another day.

Let me not turn coward before its difficulties

or prove recreant to its duties.

Let me not lose faith in other people.

Keep me sweet and sound of heart, in spite of

ingratitude, treachery, or meanness.

Preserve me from minding little stings

or giving them.

Help me to keep my heart clean,

and to live so honestly and fearlessly
that no outward failure can dishearten me
or take away the joy of conscious integrity.

Open wide the eyes of my soul

that I may see good in all things.

Grant me this day some new vision of thy truth.

Inspire me with the spirit of joy and gladness,
and make me the cup of strength to suffering souls.

In the name of the strong Deliverer,

our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

An Essay On Desire

Many years ago, I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion. As a divinity school student my area of concentration was ethics, and later on as a Ph.D. candidate, I worked in the “Religion, Ethics, and Society” program (these days it's called "Ethics and Society"). Professor Howard L. Harrod was chair of the ethics program and one of the anchors of my academic life in those days.

Howard’s work was focused on the sociology of religion and Native American religions on the Northern Plains. He wrote five books during his academic career, including The Human Center: Moral Agency in the Social World (Fortress Press, 1981), Renewing the World: Plains Indian Religion and Morality (University of Arizona Press, 1987), Becoming and Remaining a People: Native American Religions on the Northern Plains (University of Arizona Press, 1995), Mission Among the Blackfeet (University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), and The Animals Came Dancing: Native American Sacred Ecology and Animal Kinship (University of Arizona Press, 2000).

I took several classes with Howard. I also worked as a graduate assistant for his “Ethics in Theological Perspective” Divinity School class. And were it not for Howard, I’m quite sure that I would never have been admitted into the Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt University.

Here's a moving essay
entitled “Spiritual Brothers: Some Friends I Wish I Had Known” by Fred, a man battling prostate cancer. Fred discovered Howard Harrod and his story and tried to make contact. But it was too late. Howard had died after a long battle with prostate cancer just three weeks earlier.

As a tribute to the life, work, and friendship of Howard Harrod, I’ve posted the essay to which Fred was responding below. It originally appeared in the February 19, 2003 edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association
. The publication date is a mere 14 days after Howard’s death on February 3, 2003. It's a powerful reflection on what living with terminal illness is like. And in Howard's case, it also reveals what can happen to one's sense of gender and sexual identity.

An Essay on Desire

by Howard L. Harrod

The fall and winter of 1993 were among the best times of my life. I was 62 years old and working on a book about Native American animal rituals; my wife, Annemarie, was preparing a paper in environmental sociology. Our intellectual lives were full. And since we were living in a remote area near the Canadian border and Glacier National Park, spectacular beauty surrounded us. During the fall, we laid in firewood, took long hikes, and fed our souls on the gorgeous crispness and solitude that fall on the land in anticipation of winter. After the main range of the Rocky Mountains was covered with snow, we spent long evenings reading. During that part of the day not given over to writing and research, we ventured forth on cross-country skis.

We returned to Nashville in December to spend Christmas with our children, grandchildren, and extended families. On the drive back, I experienced an urgency to urinate that would not be denied. Fortunately, a deserted cornfield just off the freeway provided me with sufficient cover and blessed relief. Reassured by previously normal PSA tests, I was certain the possibility of infection was high and made an appointment with a urologist.

Infection was not detected, but my PSA level had risen significantly. My urologist strongly suggested an ultrasound biopsy. The results: a fast-growing, probably very aggressive cancer. I spent much of January anxiously reviewing options, spending as much time as possible in the medical school library at Vanderbilt. Alternatives were murky. I gradually became more deeply aware that significant risks and uncertain benefits accompanied each therapy and that alternate paths were contested.

After reviewing research, further consultation with my physicians, long conversations with my wife, and listening to my own body, we decided that surgery was the best option for me at that time. So in early 1994 I entered Vanderbilt Medical Center and underwent surgery for the removal of my prostate. The cancer had spread to my lymph nodes but, thankfully, had not metastasized to my bones.

Hormone therapy was the recommended course of treatment, so I began monthly injections of Lupron. Every month upon entering the Vanderbilt clinic, a flood of memories swept over me as I relived aspects of the operation and despaired of what had happened to me. Finally, after a year of treatment, I decided to give up my testicles.

After the orchiectomy I was still physically able to do almost all that I wanted. But I was impotent, and despite considering all the possibilities, from penile implants to pumps, I remained in a state of despair. As a consequence of trying to sort out this complex emotional tangle, I gradually became aware of how deep my gender socialization had been. Not only had I a sense of having been mutilated, I had also lost the very capacities that were symbolically associated with manhood in American society. I no longer had a prostate, I was incapable of an erection, and I had no testicles. More fundamentally, I had lost the capacity to experience desire.

The sudden loss of libido produced forms of suffering I had not anticipated. The initial forms were stimulated by my context: I taught at a university each day; on campus and elsewhere, I encountered young people caught in the throes of raging hormones. Because I had lost the capacity to experience desire did not mean that I was not tormented by memories of desire. Surrounded by the presence of youthful Eros, expressed in forms of touching or longing looks, I began to feel a crushing weight of loss. Why was this happening? After all, mine was a mature sexuality fully integrated, I thought, into my personality.

But such experiences continued and they produced increased suffering. The sight of young males walking across the campus tormented me. I began to envy their capacities and, most fundamentally, their possession of what I had lost. I hated these feelings; and sometimes I hated myself for having them. But they were difficult to suppress, and they continued to break into ugly blooms in my experience. As I endured the suffering produced by unwanted fantasies, I finally began to see what was producing them. Like a range of mountains that appears in the distance, those structures of meaning that had formed the capacities for my erotic responses came gradually into focus.

When these meanings became clearer, I confronted an idea that I had read about in literature by feminist scholars: male sexuality was excessively genital in its focus. Confronting this idea at a deep emotional level was shattering; and allowing it to have an affective impact on my experience began to deconstruct my previously taken-for-granted expressions of erotic pleasure. As a consequence of my male socialization, how restricted these "pleasures" now appeared, and, more painfully, I began to sense how much I had missed.

All of this was not new to my wife. She had been saying many of these things for years, but I was not listening. The loss of capacities, body parts, and what I thought of as my essential maleness was less important to her than the intimacy that accompanied other forms of reciprocal communication: touching, holding, sharing feelings, and being deeply present to one another. As a consequence of these insights, a surprising disgust arose in me, and now I began to hate my previous sexual responses: how insensitive, narrow, and compulsive they had been. And, in a phrase that seemed to summarize all that I was feeling, how goatish!

What I had not yet realized was the deeper significance of testosterone deprivation. It was clear that this manipulation of my body had probably postponed my death, and for that I was grateful. While I did not fully grasp what it would mean to live in a male body without potency, I had not begun to contemplate the meaning of continuing to live without the experience of desire. Desires are always directed toward a subject or an object, and erotic desires are no different. But when desire is radically extinguished, then the way it had been shaped as well as the objects and subjects of its focus still remained as memories. Without the urgency of desire, these memories stood out in ways that were both painful and instructive.

Male socialization had taught me to imagine the female body in a certain manner, to focus my erotic attention on particular body parts, to objectify and depersonalize these body parts, and to understand sexual pleasure as focused almost entirely on orgasm. These structures of the embodied imagination had shaped my experience of desire. The practices, language, and example of other males in my environment powerfully enforced them. I had been so deeply formed by that world that there was virtually no transcendence of it in my experience. Again, I was plunged into despair and, finally, into hatred of the structure of desire that was still alive in my memory and projected in my imagination.

I still struggle with these issues, but at least some feelings of acceptance and consent to my condition are beginning to be stronger than the more negative and destructive responses. At the same time, I am increasingly aware of several things that I consider invaluable. I have learned, first, that women are embodied in much more complicated ways than I had ever imagined. Second, relationships between men and women are complicated -- inevitably so -- by Eros. But for me, there is a sense of transcendence and peace in being able to experience persons as the complex beings they are without being so completely captured by the undercurrent of desire. Third, there is richness and creative playfulness in human relationships that is distorted by patterns of male socialization. Fourth, the terrain of manhood is much richer and fuller of possibilities than I had ever imagined.

I have survived and, in many ways, flourished for almost 10 years. Six of these years have been characterized by excellent quality of life on many levels. But there have been other losses and some deepened suffering connected with aggressive treatment. In the fall of 2000, for example, when I was again on leave in Montana, I experienced kidney failure as a consequence of lymph node swelling that blocked my ureters. I now have two nephrostomy tubes that require care but that are partially internal so that I urinate "normally." It became clear, however, that if my quality of life were to be sustained I would have to undergo further treatment.

After consultation with my oncologist, I endured 6 months of chemotherapy with Taxol, which gave me about 4 additional months of satisfactory quality of life. Then in the spring of 2002, I was diagnosed with cancer progression in my right femur and some involvement in my left hip. I underwent surgery and a pin was placed from the top of my femur to my knee. My left hip was radiated at the same time. My recovery was successful, and I went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane and then to full mobility.

With the blessings of my surgeon and my oncologist, my wife and I left in July 2002 for another research trip to Montana. But after less than 2 weeks I lost bladder control as well as my ability to walk. An MRI revealed serious spinal cord compression, and we were immediately flown back to Nashville where I endured another surgery to decompress the spinal cord. This surgery was apparently successful and I am now proceeding from the wheelchair to the walker; my hope is for full mobility.

These surgeries were defined as "palliative," but the last one had real authority. The pain was significant, and recovery has been slower than I would like. My condition is different now, and the sense of loss has a different quality and weight. I clearly anticipate the loss of my world. But I am not simply contemplating this possibility; it is a powerful sensibility that arises within me daily. Nurtured by a supportive network of friends, family, and groups like Gilda's Club and Alive Hospice in Nashville, I feel a strange peace descend on me. My life seems to have come full circle as meaning folds back upon itself and deepens in a manner that makes more and more sense.

Certainly my experience will not characterize all who read this description. In part, the quality of my experience is dependent on having had sufficient time to assimilate the meaning of what has happened to me. First I lost desire. Now I am gradually losing my body, and I will soon lose my life, my wife, my family, my friends, and the whole beautiful world. I hope that other readers in my situation will have sufficient time to integrate their experiences as I have, and I hope these reflections are helpful for their respective journeys.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

RUBRIXX Rocks MS Diocesan Annual Council

Yep, it's true - my band of four Episcopal priests brought the house down at our Annual Diocesan Council meeting last weekend in Natchez, MS. And there are photographs to prove it. For example:

Harpman Scott Lenoir gets down and dirty.

Guitarman Charlie Deaton in an over-the-shoulder shot.

Drummerman Alston Johnson keeps the beat.

Bassman Bryan Owen holds up the bottom end and even sings while simultaneously playing bass guitar (it's a bit more complicated than chewing gum and walking at the same time).

And the crowd goes wild (the ladies love us - and perhaps a few guys as well)!

Plus, there's a video here.