Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Healing Presence

A clergy colleague asked me to look at a book written by the Rev. Dr. Joanna J. Seibert entitled Healing Presence: Stories of Faith and Hope (Temenos Publishing, 2006). Seibert is a medical doctor and a deacon in the Episcopal Church. She served as director of pediatric radiology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital for 25 years and currently serves as deacon at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock, Arkansas.

In the book, Seibert shares prayers, readings, and stories of visiting the sick, the dying, and the grieving that show how she, as a minister and as a physician, found God’s presence – and offered God’s presence – in some very painful and tragic situations.

This passage struck me:

God does not give answers to Job and his companions about why all these terrible disasters happen to him, but instead God sends his presence to Job. Our experience is that in any relationship, presence is more powerful than answers. We certainly do not have answers, but God calls us to bring our presence to those who, like Job, have experienced the pain and sorrow of this life.

And here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction:

I have met our Lord, not in the church’s sanctuary, but in the garden of all places – the Garden of Gethsemane. I find the Garden not in the beauty of the outdoors, but in the homes of the sick, nursing homes, and hospitals. There I meet the aged, the wounded, cancer victims, the newborn, the young, men and women speechless and paralyzed by stroke, young and old disabled by heart disease. They are all in the Garden praying as Christ did that this cup will pass them by. And I am there praying with them that they may not need to drink from this cup. … 
What do you say to the husband who is about to lose his wife to cancer when he tells you, “I can’t lose her, she is my life”? What do you say to the young mother whose son has drowned? What do you say to the friend who is your age who has undergone every possible treatment for her cancer, but her disease is coming back with a vengeance? What do you say to the blessed man who has lived a life of serving others for over 80 years who is incontinent, can not walk, and can not remember what he had for breakfast much less your last visit? This is where I meet Christ and the suffering he endured. I do not understand why they must suffer. Some receive miraculous cures, but others don’t. They must drink from a cup we all wished had passed them by. I don’t understand this, either.

I do know, however, that the living Christ is there within and beside each of the sick and their loved ones. And sometimes I can see the angels he has sent to guard them – nurses and physicians and health professionals who go an extra mile, the ones who see their work as a ministry and not just a source of income.
If you are like myself, searching for Christ, I know a place where you can find him and I know he will dwell there until all are healed and there will no longer be any suffering and every tear wiped dry.

Marks of an Anglican Centrist

I published this piece on another blog about a year ago, borrowing from Fr. Greg Jones of "The Anglican Centrist." In order to give more descriptive content to the term "Anglican Centrism," Fr. Jones hones in on Anglican theologian Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901), who served in the post of Regius Professorship of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and later was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, serving from 1890 until his death.

Before sharing Fr. Jones' thoughts, here's an excerpt from Westcott's 1883 book entitled The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays:

The thought that the Incarnation, the union of man with God, and of creation in man, was part of the Divine purpose in Creation, opens unto us, as I believe, wider views of the wisdom of God than we commonly embrace, which must react upon life.

It presents to us the highest manifestation of Divine love as answering to the idea of man, and not as dependent upon that which lay outside the Father's Will.

It reveals to us how the Divine purpose is fulfilled in unexpected and unimaginable ways in spite of man's selfishness and sin.

It indicates, at least, how the unity to which many physical and historical researches point is not to be found in a dispersive connexion of multitudinous parts, but is summed up finally in one life.

It helps us to feel a little more, and this is the sum of all, what the Incarnation is, what it involves, what it promises, what it enforces, what it inspires; that Fact which we strive to believe, and which is ever escaping from us; that Fact which sets before us with invincible majesty Christ's 'power to subdue all things to Himself' [Phil. 3:21].

Quoted in Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 457.


A True Mark of Anglicanism

by Fr. Greg Jones

In Rowan Williams' discussion of B.F. Westcott (1825-1901) in Williams' Anglican Identities -- he identifies two strands of thinking within Anglicanism which are prevalent today.

Williams says that there are two kinds of skepticism among modern Anglicans. The two skepticisms are fundamentally different -- though they are often confused as the same.

Both skepticisms are for forms and formulas.

One kind of skepticism is the "Enlightenment suspicion of authority." This sort doubts and even deplores all structures/formulas/doctrines themselves and the processes by which they were shaped. The issue here is about power. The key question is always, "Who was in power how did they influence the structure/formulas/teaching such as to preserve or establish a status quo favorable to their interests?" We see here a penchant for the kinds of analysis offered by Marx, etc. This kind of skepticism continues and expands in a certain branch of nihilistic post-modernism.

Another kind of scepticism, says Rowan Williams, is fundamentally a scepticism "about the capacities of the human mind. It assumes that we are liable to self-deceit, that our knowledge is affected by our moral and spiritual lack." In the case of B. F. Westcott, says Williams, his passion for Scripture was deep, and like Origen, he believed very much in the Scriptures' divinity. But, he also strongly resisted the notion that anyone could ever say, "The Bible says and means this, and this only."

Whereas the former kind of skeptic insists that the Bible, and the structure and teachings of the church are merely power plays which have accrued over time by powerful self-interests -- the latter kind says, "the Bible, the church, the teachings of the church, are primarily good things limited by the same limitations which all human beings have."

B.F. Westcott, as the representative of this latter kind of skeptical Anglican, accepts, loves and indeed cherishes the 'received' elements of the Church -- Bible, Creeds, Sacraments, Orders, etc. -- not as finalized 'solutions' with fixed and exclusive values -- but as the boundaries of a roomy and sacred land in which the life of relationship to Christ is to be move and have its being.

I think along these lines when I think of Hans Frei's phrase -- 'generous orthodoxy.'

This attitude is based on the 'blessed givenness of Scripture and tradition,' but also the assumption that the process of living with and cherishing Scripture and tradition is an 'interpretive conversation which no one has the right to terminate.' With Origen, and Westcott, as Rowan Williams observes, this Christ-centered interpretive conversation with Scripture and the tradition of the Church -- in eucharistic community -- is the very definition of 'holy living.'

I agree.

This is the kind of thing I mean when I use the term -- 'Anglican Centrism.'

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Types of Ecclesiology

In an interesting posting at "Inhabitatio Dei," Halden offers the following ideal types of the Church:

High Church Ecclesiology: High view of church history and tradition. Emphasizes the liturgy and above all the Eucharist. Churches are generally structured episcopally (i.e. through a hierarchy of bishops who stand in communion with each other). Emphasizes salvation as membership in the church through participation in the sacraments. Generally holds to infant baptism. Close connection between baptism and initiation into the broad community of faith.

Low Church Ecclesiology: Generally suspicious of history and tradition. Emphasizes the Bible as the church’s ultimate authority and preaching is more central then the Eucharist or the liturgy. Churches tend to be structured congregationally (i.e. governed by the local congregation itself or through one or more elders appointed by congregations). Emphasizes salvation as the subjective appropriation and confession of faith in Christ. Generally holds to believers’ baptism. Close connection between salvation, baptism, and committed discipleship in community.

Strong Ecclesiology: Holds a high view of the role of the church in the economy of salvation. Understands that the church is the means by which God is at work in the world. A strong view of the church as the ongoing embodied presence of Christ in the world. The church participates in the mission of God to redeem the world. Membership in the visible church community is indispensable to Christian life and the shape of Christian salvation.

Weak Ecclesiology: Holds a humble and limited view of God’s role for the church in his plan of salvation. The church exists to strengthen and instruct the believer and to witness to God’s work of salvation that takes place solely through God’s action. The church does not participate in God’s action, but points away from itself to God’s action outside of human effort. The emphasis is on the invisible church, the universal body of all people who believe in Christ throughout the world. All Christians are members of this church and that is what is primary. Membership in a local congregation is for edification and growth, but is not central to salvation.


High-Strong: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican Communion, Some Lutherans.

High-Weak: Episcopal Church (USA), Methodists, Independent Catholics, Some Presbyterians, Some Lutherans.

Low-Strong: Anabaptists/Mennonites, Some Baptists (esp. British), New Monasticism, Some Evangelicals, House Churches, African American Churches.

Low-Weak: Most Evangelicals, Most Baptists (esp. USA), Pentecostals, Charismatics, Holiness Movement, Nazarenes.

Read it all.

War Is ...

Below are twelve responses to the question, "What do you think about war in general?"

1. Unfortunately war is necessary and has been for thousands of years.

2. War is a tragic and hopefully unnecessary part of life. I pray that militaries may become deterrent forces only.

3. War is a necessary evil.

4. While war may appear to be the least beneficial thing to mankind and society in general, there are numerous aspects of it which further our development. Whether it be the liberation of oppressed people or simply the cooperation of two very different peoples, which results in new friendships between cultures, many positives are found amongst the tragedies.

5. War is the most effective way to get things done.

6. War is about protecting the innocent and fighting so others don’t have to.

7. Fear leads to hatred and hatred leads to war.

8. It is a horrible and necessary thing. We may as well be the best at it.

9. I believe war is a necessary evil if there is a good enough reason (e.g., World War II).

10. War is that in which humans grow most.

11. I think war is a way to strengthen our country. It shows other countries that our country will not be stepped on and we will defend our country.

12. War is a failure of diplomacy.

The persons responding to these questions are all cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and members of the West Point Canterbury Club.

Read it all.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Five Things to Know About the Episcopal Church

In dialogue with the Rev. Patton Boyle, rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Wenatchee, Washington, this article lays out five things to know about being an Episcopalian (the parts in quotation marks are from Fr. Boyle):

1. Worship is at the core of the Episcopal Church
Episcopalians are united by their worship. The service is done in nearly the same way every week. If you're the kind of person who wants a lot of variations in the service, then there are other churches that might suit your needs better. "The central and organizing function for the Episcopalian Church is going to worship. Episcopalians tend to get spiritual needs fulfilled in the traditional Episcopalian worship." All churches use the Book of Common Prayer in worship services, and in most churches, communion is performed every Sunday as a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. Morning prayer is common across Episcopal churches.

2. Worshipers don't follow a strict code
The Episcopal Church approaches the faith from three basic standpoints: Scripture, reason and tradition. Episcopalians aren't expected to accept everything they are told or always agree with the priest or other leaders. "They take what is of value and use it. I expect them to disagree with me at times. ... The church expects people to make their own moral and ethical decisions." Parishioners are asked to explore issues thoughtfully and prayerfully and to come to their own decisions. The approach is more like, "I respect your opinion, and I will think deeply about that, but that may not be, in the end, what I decide is right for me." Parishioners make decisions based on thorough study, reason, prayer and examining one's own conscience rather than having them prescribed to them.

3. Parishioners encompass a wide range of views
Episcopalians think differently about a wide range of issues, policy and politics. "We disagree often, politically and doctrinally. ... But we have a sense of unity. We respect the fact that we don't agree. Some people wish we would agree. I, personally, don't want a church where everyone agrees. I'm not looking for a church where everyone sees things the same way I do."

4. It has elements of Catholic and Protestant traditions
The Episcopalian church split off from the Catholic Church in the 16th century as part of the Protestant Reformation. In structure and worship, the Episcopal Church continues to be similar to the Catholic Church in many ways, but there's no Episcopal equivalent to a pope or a cardinal. Also, clergy can marry and women clergy are accepted. Even the U.S. presiding bishop is a woman. Private confession is an option, but not required in the church.

5. Episcopalians are part of the Anglican Communion
The Anglican Communion began with the Church of England separating from the Roman Catholic Church in the middle of the 16th century as part of the Reformation. It is now found in 160 countries throughout the world. The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Although Anglicans share in a fairly similar form of liturgical worship, not all Anglicans think alike. "There are vast cultural and theological differences within the church. ... To us it's normal to have differences of opinion. For us, our unity isn't found in thinking alike. It is found in our common worship."

There are some errors of fact here (for example, the concept of an "Anglican communion" is relatively recent and not a term used in the 16th Century), but there is some truth to Episcopal Cafe's portrayal of this piece as reading "almost like a rebuttal to media portrayals of the Episcopal church."

Even so, the article gives me the impression that, in the Episcopal Church, what one believes is pretty much up for grabs. When it comes to theology and ethics, the individual Episcopalian gets to decide for him or herself. And that's okay, because what really matters is not the content of our beliefs, but that we worship together.

Is that a faithful depiction of who we are as a Church? Should it be?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Hermeneutic of Charity

Here's a fascinating passage on biblical interpretation from St. Augustine (354-430):

Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way. Lying involves the will to speak falsely; thus we find many who wish to lie, but no one who wishes to be deceived. Since a man lies knowingly but suffers deception unwittingly, it is obvious that in a given instance a man who is deceived is better than a man who lies, because it is better to suffer iniquity than to perform it. Everyone who lies commits iniquity, and if anyone thinks a lie may sometimes be useful, he must think that iniquity is sometimes useful also. But no on who lies keeps faith concerning that about which he lies. For he wishes that the person to whom he lies should have that faith in him which he does not himself keep when he lies. But every violator of faith is iniquitous. Either iniquity is sometimes useful, which is impossible, or a lie is always useless.

But anyone who understands in the Scriptures something other than that intended by them is deceived, although they do not lie. However, as I began to explain, if he is deceived in an interpretation which builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads. But he is to be corrected and shown that it is more useful not to leave the road, lest the habit of deviating force him to take a crossroad or a perverse way.

On Christian Doctrine, I.xxxvi

Saturday, May 24, 2008

How to Unify the Anglican Communion

As we look towards the upcoming Lambeth Conference, here's my vote for SpongeBob SquarePants as the 5th Instrument of Unity. If he can't do it, no one can.

Everybody sing along!

What Anglicans Do Best

In the context of reflections on the upcoming Lambeth Conference, Andrew Gerns offers this list of what Anglicans do best:

We worship. We know how to find God in beauty and in the rhythm of day, week, and year. We meet Jesus in word, sacrament.

We are comprehensive. We are tolerant of a certain variety of approaches. We experience the personal costs and spiritual power that being comprehensive brings.

We think. Prayer Book spirituality requires us to be thoughtful because it is not given to handing out snappy answers to complex questions.

We are incarnational. We know that God's whole self in found in the whole person Jesus, and that he lives, and we take seriously the images of being the vine of Christ, the body of Christ and take seriously being ambassadors of reconciliation.

We are mission oriented. The other thing that Anglicans do well besides worship is that we work. We are very effective at organizing and raising money to address real problems ranging from AIDS to alcoholism to homeless to hunger to disaster relief.

We create partnerships. Even with all the division, invasions and upset, there have never been more Anglican partnerships between dioceses than there are today.

We are Biblical. We are not Biblicists, but we delve deeply into what God teaches us in Scripture and we attempt to live that out.

We are traditional. We know that we stand on a past that has been both rich and imperfect, both a blessing and sinful. In bringing forward what the Church has taught and experienced, and in attempting to make that tradition live in the present, we bring forward the teachings of Christ and his redeeming to the present and into the future.

Without whitewashing the seriousness of the disagreements and divisions that exist within the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, I think that Gerns is right to emphasize the core of what we do well and share in common.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Church is About Salvation

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece here and over at the Anglican Centrist entitled "What is Necessary for Salvation?" A clergy colleague and I see the questions we're raising in that posting as perhaps going to the heart of our disagreements and divisions within the Episcopal Church (and Anglicanism more broadly). We're also concerned that our inability as Episcopalians to provide articulate responses to those questions, or to even understand them, or to even be willing to engage them, signals a growing identity crisis within the Episcopal Church. To be sure, we know who and what we are not (e.g., Baptists, etc.). But we're really not all that sure who and what we are.

So I found a recent posting over at Scott Gun's blog "Seven Whole Days" interesting because, in response to a recent Episcopal Church ad ("Get closer to God. Slice carrots."), he touches on the salvation question. And he does so in a way that I think puts into perspective why some of us are just not satisfied with the response that says, "Salvation is about loving God and your neighbor as yourself." After all, you don't need Jesus or the Church to do that.

Here's what Scott writes:

... many people who are not in church have no problem with Jesus. So why don’t we talk about Jesus or, I don’t know, God? If we’re trying to compete based on good works, I’m afraid we’re doomed. The Red Cross or any number of other entities is much more effective at “getting things done” than we are.

Church is about salvation. I think the reason our attendance is plummeting is that we’ve forgotten that. The related problem is that liberals got wishy-washy about salvation. Some of us let others define it. Salvation is not (repeat after me) about getting into heaven. Check out the New Testament on salvation, and if you learn that it’s about eternal life, which starts in this early pilgrimage. The Greek word (sozo) that gets translated as “salvation” is also translated as “wholeness” or “health” or “redemption.” So why can’t we talk about that?

To put it another way, we’re in the transformation biz, not the good deeds biz. Our good deeds spring from our faith. To be sure, sometimes our faith comes as we serve Jesus in the “least of these.” But mostly when we focus on good deeds, we’re repeating a mistake that Anglicans sorted out 550 years ago. Yes, my friends, I’m talking about works-righteousness. You don’t get into heaven by doing good things. You can’t get saved by doing good things. You can’t fix the church by doing good things.

So, sure, I’m OK with slicing carrots or clothing people or giving money to those who have less. We need to do all of those things. But we mustn’t confuse them with our purpose.

Amen, brother!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Conservative Self-Refutation

I see that a conservative Roman Catholic site is enjoying a go at Bishop Gene Robinson. Here’s part of what the article says:

[Bishop Robinson] told an admiring audience in Putney, in southwest London, that Anglicanism is uniquely suited to the establishment of the contradiction of homosexual Christianity.

“The Anglican tradition is uniquely capable of holding two seemingly contradictory ideas together. Its position on abortion, for example is that all human life is sacred. And, that no one has the right to tell a woman what to do with her body. Both are true,” he said.

The logical principle of non-contradiction, a basic philosophical concept identified by Aristotle, is defined as the idea that two opposed things cannot both be true. Aristotle put it that, “One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.”

It is not possible, for example, for a person to both be in a room and not in a room at the same time. This principle is regarded by philosophers as one of the three first principles of rational thought, without which no assertion of any truth is possible.

Many Christian philosophers have noted that the moral chaos in western societies has stemmed from the 20th century’s abandonment of this principle as the guiding force of politics and religion.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot and see what happens if we apply the law of non-contradiction to test the truth of the doctrine affirmed by the historic creeds and councils of the Church. What conclusion, for example, does the law of non-contradiction compel us to draw about simultaneously holding these two propositions as true?

1. Jesus Christ is fully divine.
2. Jesus Christ is fully human.

Hmmm ….

Monday, May 19, 2008

Norman Vincent Peale on Suicide

I’ll admit to not being a big fan of Norman Vincent Peale. So I was a bit skeptical when a clergy colleague shared a chapter from his book The Healing of Sorrow (1966) in the wake of a suicide that occurred in a parishioner’s family. The chapter is “When Someone Takes His Own Life.” It is deeply moving. Here is an excerpt:

In many ways, this seems the most tragic form of death. Certainly it can entail more shock and grief for those who are left behind than any other. And often the stigma of suicide is what rests most heavily on those left behind.

Suicide is often judged to be essentially a selfish act. Perhaps it is. But the Bible warns us not to judge, if we ourselves hope to escape judgment. And I believe this is one area where that Biblical command especially should be heeded.

For we do not know how many valiant battles such a person may have fought and won before he loses that one particular battle. And is it fair that all good acts and impulses of such a person should be forgotten or blotted out by his final tragic act?

I think our reaction should be one of love and pity, not of condemnation. Perhaps the person was not thinking clearly in his final moments; perhaps he was so driven by emotional whirlwinds that he was incapable of thinking at all. This is terribly sad. But surely it is understandable. All of us have moments when we lose control of ourselves, flashes of temper, of irritation, of selfishness that we later regret. Each one of us, probably, has a final breaking point – or would have if our faith did not sustain us. Life puts far more pressure on some of us than it does on others. Some people have more stamina than others. When I see in the paper, as I do all too often, that dark despair has rolled over some lonely soul, so much so that for him life seemed unendurable, my reaction is not one of condemnation. It is rather, “There but for the grace of God …”

And my heart goes out to those who are left behind, because I know that they suffer terribly. Children in particular are left under a cloud of differentness all the more terrifying because it can never be fully explained or lifted. The immediate family of the victim is left wide open to tidal waves of guilt: “What did I fail to do that I should have done? What did I do wrong?”

To such grieving persons I can only say, “Lift up your heads and your hearts. Surely you did your best. And surely the loved one who is gone did his best, for as long as he could. Remember, now, that his battles and torments are over. Do not judge him, and do not presume to fathom the mind of God where this one of His children is concerned.”

A few years ago, when a young man died by his own hand, a service for him was conducted by his pastor, the Reverend Weston Stevens. What he said that day expresses, far more eloquently than I can, the message that I’m trying to convey. Here are some of his words:

Our friend died on his own battlefield. He was killed in action fighting a civil war. He fought against adversaries that were as real to him as his casket is real to us. They were powerful adversaries. They took toll of his energies and endurance. They exhausted the last vestiges of his courage and his strength. At last these adversaries overwhelmed him. And it appeared that he lost the war. But did he? I see a host of victories that he has won!

For one thing – he has won our admiration – because even if he lost the war, we give him credit for the courage and pride and hope that he used as his weapons as long as he could. We shall remember not his death, but his daily victories gained through his kindnesses and thoughtfulness, through his love for family and friends, for animals and books and music, for all things beautiful, lovely and honorable. We shall remember not his last day of defeat, but we shall remember the many days that that he was victorious over overwhelming odds. We shall remember not the years we thought he had left, but the intensity with which he lived the years that he had.

Only God knows what this child of His suffered in the silent skirmishes that took place in his soul. But our consolation is that God does know, and understands.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday Reflection

From Leonardo Boff - Brazilian, Franciscan, Roman Catholic priest and theologian:

"God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in reciprocal communion. They coexist from all eternity; none is before or after, or superior or inferior, to the other. Person enwraps the others; all permeate one another and live in one another. This is the reality of Trinitarian communion, so infinite and deep that the divine Three are united and are therefore one sole God. The divine unity is communitarian because each Person is in communion with the other two. ... The Persons are distinct ... not in order to be separated but to come together and to be able to give themselves to one another" [Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Orbis Books, 2000), p. 3].

Dare we imagine what the Church (much less the World) would look like if it even began to mirror this?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Tellin' It Like It Is


The Virtue of Hate

Meir Y. Soloveichik is Associate Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and an Associate Fellow at Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He published an essay entitled “The Virtue of Hate” in the February 2003 issue of the journal First Things. It is a fascinating, challenging, and, in some ways, disturbing piece that drives a nail in the coffin of the view that all religions basically boil down to the same shared set of moral values and beliefs.

Here are a few excerpts:

During my regular weekly coffees with my friend Fr. Jim White, an Episcopal priest, there was one issue to which our conversation would incessantly turn, and one on which we could never agree: Is an utterly evil man-Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden-deserving of a theist’s love? I could never stomach such a notion, while Fr. Jim would argue passionately in favor of the proposition. Judaism, I would argue, does demand love for our fellow human beings, but only to an extent. “Hate” is not always synonymous with the terribly sinful. While Moses commanded us “not to hate our brother in our hearts,” a man’s immoral actions can serve to sever the bonds of brotherhood between himself and humanity. Regarding a rasha, a Hebrew term for the hopelessly wicked, the Talmud clearly states: mitzvah lisnoso-one is obligated to hate him. …

… a theological chasm remains between the Jewish and Christian viewpoints on the matter. As we can see from Samson’s rage, Judaism believes that while forgiveness is often a virtue, hate can be virtuous when one is dealing with the frightfully wicked. Rather than forgive, we can wish ill; rather than hope for repentance, we can instead hope that our enemies experience the wrath of God.

There is, in fact, no minimizing the difference between Judaism and Christianity on whether hate can be virtuous. Indeed, Christianity’s founder acknowledged his break with Jewish tradition on this matter from the very outset: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” God, Jesus argues, loves the wicked, and so must we. In disagreeing, Judaism does not deny the importance of imitating God; Jews hate the wicked because they believe that God despises the wicked as well. …

The notion that someone may be eternally damned, [C. S.] Lewis writes, is one that he “detests” with all his heart; yet anyone who refuses to submit to salvation cannot ultimately be saved. Despite this, Lewis adds that even these wretches must be in our prayers. “Christian charity,” he stresses, “counsels us to make every effort for the conversion of such a man: to prefer his conversion, at the peril of our own lives, perhaps of our own souls, to his punishment; to prefer it infinitely.”

Here Judaism strongly disagrees. For Jews deny that there ever was a “divine labor” to redeem the world; rather, God gave humanity the means for its own redemption, and its members will be judged by the choices they make. Christians may maintain that no human being is unloved by the God who died on his or her behalf, but Jews insist that while no human being is denied the chance to become worthy of God’s love, not every human being engages in actions so as to be worthy of that love, and those unworthy of divine love do not deserve our love either.

Read it all.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Gospel According to Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams summarizes his response to the question, "What is the gospel story in your own words?" like this: "Trust Jesus when he tells you what God is like." There's no mention of Jesus’ teachings and deeds, little emphasis placed on the crucifixion, and only the most oblique reference to the resurrection. And along the way, when Williams notes the difficulties faced by the first disciples, he says: "How do you trust Jesus when he appears to fail and when he appears to die?"

"Appears to die"? I’ll give the Archbishop of Canterbury the benefit of the doubt by saying that he did not intentionally set out to say something that contradicts the New Testament and the historic creeds. But still, on the whole, this is not two minutes of Rowan Williams at his best.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Strange, New World of Liturgy

Over at Christianity Today, Mark Galli offers some interesting thoughts on why liturgy is becoming more attractive to many evangelicals when, on the surface, it appears to not pass the test of "relevance." Compared to what a lot of megachurches are doing, liturgical worship appears to be anything but relevant:

The worship leaders wear medieval robes and guide the congregation through a ritual that is anything but spontaneous; they lead music that is hundreds of years old; they say prayers that are scripted and formal; the homily is based on a 2,000-year-old book; and the high point of the service is taken up with eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a Rabbi executed in Israel when it was under Roman occupation.

And yet ...

A closer look suggests that something more profound and paradoxical is going on in liturgy than the search for contemporary relevance. "The liturgy begins … as a real separation from the world," writes Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann. He continues by saying that in the attempt to "make Christianity understandable to this mythical 'modern' man on the street," we have forgotten this necessary separation.

It is precisely the point of the liturgy to take people out of their worlds and usher them into a strange, new world—to show them that, despite appearances, the last thing in the world they need is more of the world out of which they've come. The world the liturgy reveals does not seem relevant at first glance, but it turns out that the world it reveals is more real than the one we inhabit day by day.

Read it all.

Hat tip: The Eternal Pursuit.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Neural Buddhism

New York Times editorialist David Brooks has written a fascinating piece entitled "The Neural Buddhists" about the religious implications of neuroscientific research. According to Brooks, this research transcends the atheism-vs.-theism log jam that's recently gained renewed popularity through the writings of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Instead, if Brooks is right, recent neuroscientific research entails a religious worldview that's not opposed to belief in God per se, but that does pose a challenge to theism as traditionally understood by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Here's an excerpt from Brooks' article:

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real. 
This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.

If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.
First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is. 
In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism. 
In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day.

Read it all.

Friday, May 9, 2008

What is Necessary for Salvation?

A clergy colleague and friend – the Rev. Zabron “Chip” Davis, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez, MS – sent me some reflections today which I share with his permission. (This piece is also posted at The Anglican Centrist with more comments there.)

At a recent gathering of diocesan clergy and General Convention deputies, Bishop Gray led us through a brief study of the Draft Anglican Covenant using, among other resources, the study guide prepared by the Executive Council. I must admit to hearing many of the same conversations I’ve been hearing since I was on the diocesan sexuality study committee mandated by the 1991 General Convention.

In my work as a conflict resolution consultant and consultant with vestries and other governing boards, I find that differences, misunderstandings and misconceptions about process, procedures, mission and the core governing principles of any organization are at the root of many conflicts. Often clarity around these basics will help to reduce tension and anxiety. But, try as I may, I’ve not been able to see how clarity about polity, ethics, or even basic Anglicanism has served to reduce the anxiety and tension I experience in the Church today. Something about essentials seems to be missing in our conversations. (See paragraphs 38 – 39 of Section A and paragraphs 87 – 96 Section B of The Windsor Report.)

Is it possible that we are divided by one of the (if not the) core beliefs of Christianity? After conversations with several of my most theologically educated and articulate colleagues, I am convinced that the time has come to ask a question I haven’t heard asked and that we seem unable to discuss in polite circles. My hope in asking the question is not to divide us further but to see if we have a hope for restoration to unity. Here it is: What is necessary for salvation?

Also, what is the meaning of the second sentence on p. 298 of the BCP: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble?”

My hope is that answers will include a discussion of how the norms and principles of behavior (or departures from those norms) impact salvation. In other words, what difference does it make to individual salvation and/or the “soul of the Church” that The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion (or any Christian tradition) would ‘license’ behaviors that seem to be departures from what sound like clear teachings of Holy Scripture?

Another way of asking the question may be, “What is at stake?” When I was a Southern Baptist I was clear, as one who sat in the pew at least 4 times weekly up until my 18th birthday, that my condemnation to Hell was assured if I unrepentantly committed certain well-defined, scripturally prohibited sins. Is the same true of The Episcopal Church? Anglicanism? If so, what are those sins?

Based upon my colleague’s reflections, there are three questions I’d like to put on the table:

  1. What is necessary for salvation?

  2. What is the meaning of this sentence at the top of page 298 in The Book of Common Prayer: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble”?

  3. Are there certain behaviors or sins which, if committed without repentance, can condemn a baptized Christian to hell? If so, what are those behaviors/sins?

I am especially interested in responses that reflect the theology of Anglicanism in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Truth of Christianity

In Christianity truth is not a philosophical concept nor is it a theory, a teaching, or a system, but rather, it is the living theanthropic hypostasis - the historical Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Before Christ men could only conjecture about the Truth since they did not possess it. With Christ as the incarnate divine Logos the eternally complete divine Truth enters into the world. For this reason the Gospel says: "Truth came by Jesus Christ" (John 1:17).

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Is Our Gospel Too Small?

Yes, according to Bradley Nassif in a recent article published in Christianity Today. An Eastern Orthodox theologian, Nassif is Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University. He says that, by and large, our churches don't embrace and act on a "maximal gospel ... with cosmic implications that embraces the whole of creation." Opting for easier, softer ways, we fail to take up our crosses "to fashion the old creation into the new—to seek the redemption and renewal of our fallen human nature by the power of the risen Lord." Drawing on the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he diagnoses our problem as "the poverty of love."

Here are some excerpts from his article:

The desert fathers and mothers heard Christ's call to deny themselves, take up the cross daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23) in a time similar to our own. Under Emperor Constantine, large numbers joined the church for the social privileges it bestowed. Many sought status and prosperity more than the cross. This influx of nominal Christians made the church a spiritually sick institution, and a radical illness called for a radical remedy. Ordinary men and women, most of them illiterate, heard the death-call of the gospel and responded by fleeing to the desert to live out their calling—either alone or in community. Peasants, shepherds, camel traders, former slaves, and prostitutes were the first to go.

The desert was not a place of escape as much as a place of countercultural engagement. The desert was the front line of spiritual warfare—as in the Bible, a place of testing and death. It was where the heart was purified, the passions conquered, sin destroyed, and humanity renewed.

Like the prophets of old, the desert dwellers reminded the church that the kingdom of God is not of this world. They insisted that if we confuse the gospel's values with our culture's values, it will have lethal results. They exposed the underside of a form of religion that fuels our hunger for self-centered living. Still today, their lives stand against the easy assurance of a too-inculturated gospel. They offer an alternative spiritual order, one based on Trinitarian divine love and human freedom. They offer an alternative portrait of what being human really means. And perhaps most radically, they call us to engage our external challenges by first conquering our own inner passions through the lordship of Christ.

The monastic movement was a response to the church's spiritual poverty—the poverty of love. The monks protested that knowledge wasn't the problem; the problem was love. Their perspective is all the more surprising when we compare the low literacy rate then (perhaps 4 percent) with the high literacy rate now (75 percent). There is more Bible knowledge available now than at any other time in human history. Yet we are still asking, "Is our gospel too small?"

If these desert dwellers were alive today, I believe they would tell us that our gospel is too small because our wills are too big. The core battleground, they argued, is the human heart. They would counsel us to declare war on the inner adversaries that hide secretly in our hearts, and to be watchful of their stealth attacks. We're wisest, they taught, when we concentrate our energies on the source of all our problems, the inner person—its selfish orientation, dark impulses, sexual preoccupations, greed, lust, anger, unforgiveness, hatred, and other "works of the flesh" (Gal. 5:19–21). Every believer still has a powerful attraction to sin. So the monks took decisive action in their reliance on God, engaging in the hard work of holiness, something they called ascesis, or spiritual training. Some monks were such great trainers, they acquired the name "athletes of God" or "soldiers of Christ."

At the heart of their training was repentance. They were convinced that their inner natures were so out of sync with the will of God that nothing but a strong dose of God's grace could fix them. Only repentance could clear away the stony rubble in the soil of their hearts so God's grace could take root and grow. The gospel was so alive in the monks because repentance was a lifestyle for them, not a single event. Even after spending a lifetime in repentance, we hear them on their deathbeds encouraging the younger ones not to give up: "I'm only a beginner," they would say. "I've just begun to repent!"

All this talk of repentance may sound neurotic, but the fathers and mothers specifically avoided the "deadly thoughts" of depression and gloom. Nor was it their habit to keep dwelling on past sins, as later medieval piety would encourage. They simply knew the depths of their own disobedience, and they took steps to deal with their hearts. The lives of the great desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd through 6th centuries show us how big our gospel can become in each of us when we obey Scripture. The more we keep company with these delightful people, the more they lead us away from relying on external remedies. They tell us that our gospel is too small not because we need to hear more sermons, or do more Bible study, or attend more church services, or create new programs. Nor is it too small because we have not followed modern theological scholars into a nearly idolatrous reliance on the intellect. The monks interpreted the Scriptures not just through study, but also by putting them into practice.

Serapion lamented, "The prophets wrote books. Then came our ancestors who lived by them. Those who came later understood them from the heart. Then came the present generation who copied them but put them on their shelves unused." I imagine that those reading this article have more Bible knowledge than they will ever put into practice in their lifetime. Yet it's not more knowledge we need; it's more love and obedience.

Read it all.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Baptism from an Orthodox Perspective

My brother is Greek Orthodox. He recently shared this piece he wrote on Baptism, which I'm publishing below. He originally wrote it to teach a fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class about Baptism at his church. I think it does a great job of succinctly expressing an Orthodox understanding of the significance of this sacrament.


by Sterling Owen

Most of us know that baptism marks our entrance into Christ’s Church, but we might not think enough about what baptism really is. Scripture and tradition tell us that baptism is our death, burial, and resurrection in union with Jesus Christ. Here is what St. Paul tells us about this mystery:

... do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (Romans 6: 3-6)

Here St. Paul tells us two things. First, by being baptized we participate in the death of Christ, and that death sets us free from bondage to sin. Too often, though, Christians stop there. There is much, much more. Christ came to do more than save us from our sin. St. Paul also tells us that baptism allows us to participate in Christ’s resurrection. He says that this will bring us “newness of life,” and by this he does not just mean that we are cleansed of our sins so that we can go to heaven. Newness of life is here and now. Through baptism we have become part of the Church, and the Church is the body of Christ. Here is what Orthodox writer Fr. Anthony Coniaris says about this:

Through baptism we are attached to the body of Christ. We become members of his body. Each baptized Christian becomes an extension of Christ. We become other Christs in the world. We become His eyes, His hands, His feet. Christ has chosen to work in the world through us - the members of his body. It is our special responsibility as baptized Christians to let Christ be present wherever we ourselves are stationed in the world as baptized Christians.

It is an amazing thing to say that we can become “other Christs” in the world. We might even wonder if we are saying something wrong or bad. After all, we aren’t God, right? But there is a special way in which we become what St. Peter calls “partakers of the divine nature.”(2 Peter 1: 4) In the Orthodox Church we call this deification. God fills us with grace, which really is His divine presence. The Fathers say that we can become by grace what Christ is by nature. That means that if we cooperate with God’s grace He can make us much more than plain human beings. Participation in the life of Christ allows a purified Christian to become like Christ. In fact, St. Athanasius said, “God became man that man might become god.”

Once again, we don’t become the one and only God. The Fathers are simply telling us that we can be filled with divine life more fully than we imagine. St. Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”(Galatians 6:20) Also, baptism is not enough to make deification happen. Baptism is a grace that gives us the potential for this life in Christ, but we can cover that grace back up with sin if we choose. Sadly, it is very few who fully live out the potential that Christ has given us. The saints are our great example of human beings who have been like other Christs in the world. If we study their lives we will see that this required a great deal of work on their part to cooperate with the grace that God gave them. We also see that human beings from all backgrounds can bless the world greatly through the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Most of us though, experience rebirth through baptism, and then our Christian life is mostly about the long, difficult struggle to purify ourselves of the desire to bury that grace beneath layer upon layer of sin. That’s ok. Whether we know it or not God is with us, meeting our willingness to change with His grace and slowly reshaping us in his likeness. This is especially true when we take communion, and Christ’s very body and blood become part of our own being. The main point is that newness of life and participation in Christ’s resurrection are part of our life here and now.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Communing the Unbaptized: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Here are some of my preliminary thoughts about giving communion to the unbaptized. Others have written more extensively about all of this than I am doing here. There’s more that can and should be said. So I may develop these points in greater detail some time in the future as I continue to think, read, and pray about this.

The primary reason I’ve heard from friends and colleagues for giving communion to the unbaptized is that, failing to do so, we create a barrier that says to the unbaptized, “You are not welcome here.” And that’s not acceptable. After all, we want to be inclusive. We want to be welcoming. It’s what Jesus did. And so we don’t want to do or say anything that would give an unbaptized person any reason for walking away from us. Yes, it’s true that the canons of the Episcopal Church explicitly forbid giving communion to the unbaptized. But the need to be inclusive and to practice radical hospitality necessitates setting the canons aside. This is a case in which the ends of welcoming and inclusion justify the means of violating Church teaching and breaking the ordination vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

As two of my previous postings attest, I am a proponent of radical hospitality and of becoming a welcoming Church. However, I do not believe that this requires setting aside or revising the Church’s theology of Baptism (much less breaking ordination vows). Indeed, I believe that setting aside or revising our theology of Baptism leaves us with a “church” which is no longer worth including anyone in because it no longer takes seriously the call to discipleship which the sacrament of Baptism entails. In effect, the new theology makes following Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior optional.

My concerns about violating Church teaching, breaking ordination vows, and making discipleship optional derive from my principal concern that this new theology moves us away from an objective understanding of Baptism to a subjective understanding. On the objective theology of Baptism, here’s what the Prayer Book succinctly says:

“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble” (BCP, p. 298).

It’s difficult to imagine a clearer affirmation that Baptism objectively makes persons full members of the Church than this. And the implications of the “indissoluble bond” created by God in Baptism are far-reaching. No matter what I do or fail to do – no matter how far away from the fold I may drift – the “yes” that God says to me in Baptism never changes to a “no.” I can always return home, where the father will come running out to meet, embrace, kiss, and welcome me back.

That’s powerful stuff. But since its core meaning derives from Baptism and not from the Eucharist, the baptismal theology of membership and of the “indissoluble bond” are put in peril by the new theology of “inclusiveness” that shifts the locus away from Baptism to the Eucharistic table.

Among other implications, the theology of communion for the unbaptized means that Baptism as the sacramental foundation of the Church gets replaced by the individual's desire to receive Communion as the 'sacramental' foundation of the Church. This signifies a virtually wholesale adoption of a 'consumerist' ecclesiology that turns the 1979 Prayer Book on its head. Instead of being primarily about what God does, the new theology is about what the individual human being does. It’s about what I choose and what I desire. Shifting the locus away from the “indissoluble bond” of Baptism to the individual subject's desires, we can no longer speak (as we do when introducing the Apostles' Creed in the burial office) of "the assurance of eternal life given at Baptism" (BCP, p. 496). The only assurance we have is what I happen to want right now. I might change my mind later and choose differently. And since I am not required to make any commitments to anything or anyone beyond myself in order to receive Holy Communion, I am perfectly free to move on to something or someone else at any time I choose.

Liturgically, this shift from the objective character of Baptism to the subject’s desire to receive Communion requires a new Prayer Book that downplays Baptism and the Baptismal Covenant in favor of liturgies that put the Eucharistic table, the desire to be "inclusive," and the individual's "spiritual journey" front and center. This means moving away from a Christ-centered to a human-centered liturgical focus. If such praying were to shape our believing, then perhaps we would have more in common with Ludwig Feuerbach than the apostle Paul.

I find it ironic that many of the proponents of this "open" and "inclusive" theology I've talked to and read pieces by are also committed to the ethical implications of the Baptismal Covenant. If I'm right, however, then they can't have it both ways. If you remove Baptism as the foundation, then you also render the Baptismal Covenant peripheral at best, and irrelevant at worst.

My friends and colleagues who embrace the theology of communing the unbaptized are good persons who want us to be a genuinely welcoming Church. They sincerely desire to be as inclusive as possible. Their motives are worthy. The ends of hospitality and inclusion they seek require our best efforts. But the means by which they seek these ends are, I believe, profoundly mistaken.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Political Significance of Jesus' Ascension

On this Ascension Day, N. T. Wright reminds us of the political significance of Jesus' ascension:

"The ascension is not a mere solution to a problem about what happens to a body of this new sort [i.e., Jesus' resurrected body]. It is, for Luke as much as for Paul, the vindication of Jesus as Israel’s representative, and the divine giving of judgment, at least implicitly, in his favour and against the pagan nations who have oppressed Israel and the current rulers who have corrupted her. … This is how the kingdom is being restored to Israel: by its representative Messiah being enthroned as the world’s true lord. … In fact, to any Roman reader of the time, and to plenty of others in the wider pagan world, the story of Jesus’ ascension would have had an immediate counter-imperial impact, cognate with what a devout Jew might have picked up from the implicit echoes of Daniel 7. [For] by Paul’s day the custom was well established of emperors being declared to be divine after their death, with the evidence produced consisting of one or two witnesses who had glimpsed the soul of the dead emperor ascending towards the heavens. Augustus heralded a convenient comet as the soul of his adopted father Julius Caesar; at Titus’ funeral, an eagle was released from the pyre to fly aloft. The parallel with the Christian story is not exact, because the point was then that the new emperor was to be hailed as ‘son of god’ on the basis of the divinization of his predecessor, whereas the early Christians reserved that title for Jesus, now himself raised and exalted. The Christian ascension stories cannot be derived from the pagan ones; but they would certainly have been heard, in the second half of the first century, as counter-imperial. Jesus was lord, and Caesar was not" [The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 655-656].

Divna Ljubojevic sings ♫ Christos Anesti ♫

My brother (who is Greek Orthodox) sent this to me. Although today is Ascension Day on the Western calendar, it's Easter week for the Orthodox. Christos Anesti!