Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Meaning and Purpose of the Incarnation

A sermon on the Prologue to the Gospel according to John

It’s almost a let down. In comparison to Luke’s account of the nativity of our Lord, the prologue to John’s Gospel doesn’t sound very Christmasy. Luke’s version is a powerful, dramatic, and even romantic story. Who can’t be drawn into the scene of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay overnight with their new born son only to find that there’s no room for them in the inn and so they have to stay in a barn and lay the child in a manger? Or what about that scene when the angels appear to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the whole night sky coming alive with blinding light and with the eruption of the heavenly host in a resounding song of praise? It would make a great movie!

In comparison, John’s “Prologue” about the Word sounds like a philosophical treatise. It seems so dry, conceptual, and abstract in comparison to the flesh-and-blood drama of Luke. And yet, it’s John who reveals to us the real inner meaning and purpose of the Incarnation. After all, the Incarnation is what Christmas Day and the Christmas season are really all about.

The birth of Jesus marks the Incarnation of the Son of God in the person of a baby Jewish boy from Nazareth. In ways that proved decisive in later centuries as the orthodox understanding of Jesus' identity was hammered out, John’s Gospel makes clear who and what we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas. John’s “Prologue” lays the groundwork for the Nicene Creed’s affirmation that Jesus Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.” Why is that important? It’s important because the reality of our salvation turns on whether or not God really became a human being.

There are two extremes that the Church has often fallen into which John’s “Prologue” allows us to steer a middle way between. One extreme is to say that Jesus is a divine being who cloaked himself in the appearance of flesh and blood, so he wasn’t really fully human. The other extreme says that Jesus is just a human being, no different than you and me. Specially favored by God, to be sure – perhaps even the adopted son of God – but not a divine being at all.

The problem with these views is that in both cases Jesus cannot be a savior. If Jesus is just a divine being, then the chasm between God and humanity created by human sin remains unbridged, and our salvation unaccomplished. As one Christian writer puts it, “salvation must reach the point of human need. Only if Christ is fully and completely a man as we are, can we … share in what he has done for us.”[1] Likewise, if Jesus is just a human being – even the best of human beings – then we remain stuck in our sins. “For, only God can save us. A prophet or teacher of righteousness cannot be the redeemer of the world.”[2]

Rejecting both of these extremes, John tells us that the same Word that was with God in the beginning and that was God “became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14 NRSV). And so Jesus Christ is fully and completely God. But Jesus Christ is also fully and completely human. In the Incarnation, the two natures of humanity and divinity are wed into one Person. And so in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ the God-Man is able to make us “children of God” (Jn. 1:12 NRSV) and “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4 RSV). That is the sacred mystery and the divine gift we celebrate during the 12 Days of Christmas.

We quite rightly place much emphasis on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross of Calvary and the glorious resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But Christmas Day reminds us of a truth we sometimes forget: that the Incarnation is central to our salvation. For in the Incarnation, in the Word made flesh, God assumes the fullness of our humanity in order to heal our fallen nature. In the Incarnation, God bridges the chasm between Himself and the world. And through the God-Man, we find a pathway on which we can walk with God and grow in the grace that transforms us more and more into the image and likeness of the One who reveals to us what true humanity really is: Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way Revised Edition (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995) , p. 73. Emphasis in text.

[2] Ibid. Emphasis in text.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What is This Word?

Here are some thoughts from N. T. Wright on the incomprehensible, intimate Christmas story as viewed through the lens of the Gospel according to John.

John is saying two things simultaneously in his prologue (two hundred things, actually, but I'll concentrate on two): First, that the Incarnation of the eternal Word was the event for which the whole of creation had been waiting all along; second, that creation and even the people God were quite unready for this event. ...

John's prologue is designed to stay in the mind and heart throughout the subsequent story. Never again in the Gospel of John is Jesus referred to as "the Word," but we are meant to look at each scene—the call of the first disciples, the changing of water into wine, the confrontation with Pilate, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection—and think to ourselves: This is what it looks like when the Word becomes flesh. Or, if you like: Look at this man of flesh and learn to see the living God. ...

... John's view of the Incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh, strikes at the very root of the liberal denial which characterized mainstream theology thirty years ago and whose long-term effects are still with us. I grew up hearing lectures and sermons declaring that the idea of God becoming human was a categorical error. No human being could be divine; Jesus must therefore have been simply a human being, albeit (here the headmaster pats the little boy on the head) a very brilliant one. Jesus points to God, but he isn't actually God. A generation later, growing straight out of that school of thought, a clergyman wrote to me saying that the church doesn't know anything for certain. Remove the enfleshed and speaking Word from the center of your theology, and gradually the whole thing unravels, until all you're left with is the theological equivalent of the grin on the Cheshire Cat: a relativism whose only moral principle is that there are no moral principles, no words of judgment (because nothing is really wrong, except saying that things are wrong), no words of mercy (because you're all right as you are, so all you need is affirmation).

That's where our society stands right now, and John's Christmas message issues a sharp and timely reminder to relearn the difference between mercy and affirmation, between a Jesus who both embodies and speaks God's word of judgment and grace and a homemade Jesus who gives us good advice about discovering who we really are. No wonder John's Gospel has been so unfashionable in many circles.

There is a fad in some quarters about a "theology of incarnation," meaning that our task is to discern what God is doing in the world and to do it with him. But that is only half the truth, and the wrong half to start with. John's theology of the Incarnation is about God's Word coming as light into darkness, as a hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, as a fresh word of judgment and mercy. You might as well say that an incarnational missiology is about discovering what God is saying no to today and finding out how to say it with him. That was the lesson Barth and Bonhoeffer had to teach in Germany in the 1930s, and it's all too relevant as today's world becomes simultaneously more liberal and more totalitarian. This Christmas, get real, get Johannine, and listen again to the strange words spoken by the Word made flesh.

Read it all.

Beyond Pagels to Belief

A few years ago a parishioner asked me to read Elaine Pagels’ book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003). She was concerned by the book’s attack on the Gospel according to John and orthodox Christianity, and she gave me the high compliment of asking for my take on the book. Although it’s been a while since I read it, I took careful notes and wrote out some thoughts which I have slightly revised below. I post this because I continue to be concerned that Episcopalians take this stuff seriously. Greg Jones, my colleague at “The Anglican Centrist,” puts it well: “We can do better [than read folks like Pagels] – and still fulfill our [desire for] an open-minded, inclusive, progressive and tolerant intellectual community.”

Part of the problem with Pagels’ Beyond Belief is that she offers a selective retrieval of Gnostic Christianity. She omits at least the following core Gnostic convictions:
  1. The world was created, not by the true God, but by a demiurge (the purportedly jealous, judging "god" of the Old Testament). The Church condemned this as a heresy, and for good reason: it not only rejects the goodness of creation, but also leads to rejecting the Jewish influence on Jesus and the Church, and/or it encourages a kind of anti-Semitism.

  2. Creation, the flesh, the body, etc., are at best illusory, at worst evil. Salvation is attained by transcending the body/flesh.

  3. Jesus didn’t really suffer in the crucifixion, and/or he left his body on the cross and “the real Jesus” appeared to the disciples while the nails were being driven into the body. In other words, Jesus only appeared to be a flesh and blood human being, and he only appeared to suffer on the cross. The Church rightly rejected this teaching (called “docetism”) as heresy.
I note that every time we recite The Apostles’ Creed in the Daily Office and at Baptisms, and every time we recite The Nicene Creed in the rite for Holy Eucharist, we drive a stake into the heart of these core Gnostic convictions.

Other ideas Pagels does include (however subtly) in Beyond Belief are equally troubling:

  1. The world is divided between the simple-minded (creedal Christians or “believers”) and the spiritually elite (“seekers” who alone attain salvation by transcending dogma for direct knowledge of god within). Practically speaking, this means that the private and the subjective are more important and better guides to truth than the public and the communal. The dichotomy of "believers" vs. "seekers" strikes me as so incredibly simplistic that it seems, well … beyond belief!

  2. Pagels posits a kind of works-righteousness by saying that salvation is attained through gnosis (the right knowledge). There's little room for a theology of grace here.

  3. Pagels posits a kind of predestination on the basis of intelligence. Only “the elect” with the right spiritual and mental capacities can acquire and understand the true gnosis. This paints a pretty grim picture for infants, the mentally retarded or disabled, and for those who aren’t intellectually gifted.

  4. Theology and practice are incompatible. Put another way, you can have corporate practices without the corresponding doctrine. I find this ludicrous. Liturgy (corporate practice in the Church, or common prayer), always presupposes and enacts theology that can be formulated as doctrine. At its best, the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer enact the faith of the Church as articulated in scripture and the historic creeds. Liturgy (the work or practice of the people) goes hand in glove with theology (the faith of the Church). But Pagels is so strongly anti-doctrine and anti-creed that she drives an untenable wedge between theology (doctrine) and practice (liturgy).

  5. Orthodox Christianity is not inspired by the love of God and revealed truth, but rather by a ruthless desire to maintain power and control. A similarly reductionistic approach can be found in the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud. So Pagels’ agenda is as new and “postmodern” as mid to late-nineteenth Century hermeneutics of suspicion.

  6. Orthodox Christianity reduces faith to “mere” belief and downplays action. I can’t help but wonder how anyone who has read the synoptic gospels and the epistles (including, especially, the letter of James) could possibly make such an erroneous assertion.
Pagels deserves credit for successfully popularizing an alternative to the Gospel proclaimed in the New Testament and by the Church through the ages. However, this alternative amounts to little more than a sanitized, safe, and subjective “Christianity” that fits comfortably with contemporary middle-to-upper-middle class, white, college-educated, suburban culture (the sort of stuff that, as one website puts it, “white people like”). Institutions stifle creativity and spirituality. God is within you, not “out there” somewhere. Truth is subjective. Act however you feel is okay. The important thing is to be true to yourself and to live and let live.

As Christians living in an increasingly post-Christian culture, we need to understand why alternatives like the one offered by Pagels resonate for so many people. What needs does it address that, for whatever reason (whether real or perceived), the Church is failing to meet? How can we do a better of job of communicating the faith of the Church and why it matters?

One of the strengths of the Anglican tradition in this regard is our liturgy. We are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, but our focus is pragmatic rather than dogmatic – on common prayer first, the substantive content of doctrine second. (Granted, this can become a weakness if we forget, downplay, or reject the importance of doctrine!) As a patristic maxim puts it, “Praying shapes believing.” If I were asked to summarize the Anglican Prayer Book tradition in one sentence, that would be it.

I think this is one area where so-called “seekers” – those who so highly value “experience” (something which folks like Pagels hone in on to great advantage) – can connect with The Episcopal Church. The practice of our faith through common prayer is the primary focus. That leaves a lot of wiggle room for the finer points of doctrine, and lots of room for experiential exploration. (Again, this can become a problem if the finer points of doctrine are neglected or brushed off as unimportant.) So it’s possible that “seekers” can be converted to orthodox Christianity, not necessarily by argument, but by a personal connection with faithful Episcopalians and by regular, ongoing participation in the common prayer of our liturgy. In the process, orthodox doctrine slips in through the backdoor of liturgical practice (a historical and corporate rather than a merely immediate and subjective mode of experience) in the right way and at the right time. It happened to me, and I’ve seen it happen to others. When it does, it’s powerful stuff!

Even though she has attended worship in The Episcopal Church, Pagels doesn’t seem aware of this alternative approach to orthodoxy in her writings. Instead, her diatribes are so fixated on (oftentimes stereotypical) portraits of rigid Roman Catholicism and Bible-thumping Protestantism that there doesn’t appear to be an alternative. As reformed catholics who inhabit a middle-ground between these extremes, we Episcopalians don’t easily fit the model Pagels works with.

At its best, Anglicanism can learn from and meet the challenge posed by figures like Pagels by using what it already has: its inner resources that emphasize doing the faith of the Church (especially liturgy) as a doorway to believing the faith of the Church.

Monday, December 29, 2008

To Confess or Not to Confess

In every parish in which I have worshiped or served as a priest, from time to time the general confession has been omitted from the rite for Holy Eucharist. Typically, such times have included Christmas Eve, Easter Day (sometimes including most, if not all, of the Great 50 Days of Easter), and the Day of Pentecost. I also note that there are no rubrical provisions in the Prayer Book for using a general confession in the rites for the Great Vigil of Easter, Holy Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, the Burial of the Dead, and Ordination.

Sometimes omitting the general confession raises the question, “Why aren’t we confessing our sins before taking Communion?” After all, the Prayer Book’s catechism very clearly states that self-examination, repentance, and reconciliation are the requirements for receiving the sacrament [cf. BCP, p. 860]. Building on this concern, some critics charge that the 1979 Prayer Book’s allowance that the general confession of sin “On occasion … may be omitted” [BCP, p. 359] amounts to little more than a cover for displacing the faith of the Church with “secular humanism.” Some of these critics also impute a motive to those responsible for these revisions from the 1928 Prayer Book, charging that they were either ignorant and/or making these revisions as a means of pursuing their own personal agendas.

There’s plenty of good scholarship out there to refute these charges and alleviate these concerns.

Liturgical scholar Marion J. Hatchett’s impressive Commentary on the American Prayer Book is one such resource. In response to critics who make it sound like the 1979 Prayer Book is doing something totally new in the history of Christian liturgical practice with respect to the permissive rubric on general confession, Hatchett provides a more balanced historical perspective:

“A confession of sin on the part of the whole congregation was new to the liturgies of the Reformation period. In the early church Christians acknowledged their sinfulness by giving thanks to God, in the Eucharistic prayer, for having redeemed them. Once the litany form was introduced, the prayers of the people normally contained the Kyrie eleison as a response; the Lord’s Prayer which eventually became a regular part of the rite contained the petition ‘forgive us as we forgive.’ No absolution was included, for one of the benefits of communion was understood to be the forgiveness of sins.” [Commentary on the American Prayer Book (HarperCollins, 1995), p. 341; emphasis added].

If Hatchett is correct, then in light of almost 2,000 years of Christian history, the presence of a general confession in the liturgy is still a relatively new addition. And so one could argue that the Prayer Book’s allowance for making the general confession optional “on occasion” actually conforms to the Church’s liturgical practice for most of her history. At the very least, the absence of the general confession in a service today no more implies that The Episcopal Church doesn’t take sin and repentance seriously anymore than the absence of the general confession in pre-Reformation liturgies means that Christians didn’t take sin and repentance seriously until the 16th Century.

Building on this point, and drawing on the liturgical theology and practice of the early Church, Hatchett writes: “Confession is the obverse of thanksgiving; to give thanks for redemption is to acknowledge one’s sinfulness” [ibid., p. 342]. This corrects the erroneous claim that the only way to acknowledge one’s sinfulness (and one’s redemption) in the liturgy is by using one of the forms for the general confession.

Leonel Mitchell, another liturgical scholar in The Episcopal Church, also makes important contributions to our understanding of the liturgical role and function of the general confession. Like Hatchett, Mitchell offers a helpful historical perspective:

“People of the late middle ages were preoccupied with sinfulness and the need for absolution. That preoccupation is reflected in the liturgies of the 16th century, including, of course, the first several versions of the Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, neither that preoccupation with sin nor our avoidance of it makes the horror of sin less real. The question of how to use general confession most effectively in public worship is one of tactics, not theology” [Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse, 1985), p. 142].

If Mitchell is correct, then Christians prior to the late middle ages were not “preoccupied with sinfulness and the need for absolution.” If that’s true, were Christians up to that point wrong for not being so preoccupied? Was there something fundamentally defective and flawed about their liturgical and sacramental practices for almost 1,500 years? And does taking sin seriously necessarily mean being preoccupied with it? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then there’s little reason to buy the charge that the Prayer Book’s allowance for omitting the general confession “on occasion” somehow sneaks “secular humanism” in through the back door of the Church.

In speaking to the issue of both personal and corporate sinfulness, Mitchell also clarifies another important function of the general confession:

“Each Christian is expected to come to the eucharist having made this self-examination and confession to God. The confession of sin in corporate worship is the verbalization of that private, personal confession and the recognition of our participation in the corporate sinfulness of the society of which we are a part. Sin is seldom an individual undertaking, and in the general confession we acknowledge not only our individual sin but our solidarity in corporate sinfulness” [ibid., p. 139].

The personal dimension of our sinfulness is preparatory, i.e., something we address before attending the service for Holy Eucharist. Saying the general confession is meant to verbalize something that has happened prior to the liturgy, namely, self-examination, repentance, and reconciliation. It is not a substitute for this prior work.

This raises an important point: the act of reciting the general confession in the liturgy is not the same thing as preparing to receive Communion. Just as there is no guarantee that there is genuine penitence and contrition because somebody says the general confession in the liturgy, so, too, there is no guarantee that because the general confession has been omitted from the liturgy those participating in the service have not adequately prepared to receive the Eucharist. In other words, the presence or absence of the general confession in the liturgy is not a sufficient basis for knowing whether or not persons are ready to receive communion.

Mitchell offers additional thoughts on using the general confession:

“Although there is no dispute about the importance of confession both as a preparation for communion and as a regular component of the daily prayers of Christians, it is not self-evident that reciting a simple form of general confession at every service is the best way to move the congregation to penitence, contrition and resolution to amend their lives. Nor is it necessarily the best way to assure them of the reality of God’s forgiveness. Some would argue that less frequent use of the general confession would call attention to it on those occasions when it is used and would make it more psychologically effective. This is almost certainly true for those who attend the eucharist daily, and the Prayer Book permits the confession to be omitted ‘on occasion’ (BCP: 359); it does not specify upon how many occasions it may be omitted. Except on the basis of personal inclination, it is exceedingly difficult to attempt to answer the question ‘How much is too much?’ Certainly the confession of sin is a regular, although not an invariable, part of the eucharistic celebration” [pp. 141-142].

“Regular, but not invariable”: in the light of the history of Christian liturgical practice, and with sensitivity to the liturgical calendar and the pastoral needs and concerns that may on occasion surface, this strikes me as a good rule of thumb to use with respect to the Prayer Book’s permissive rubric regarding the omission of the general confession “on occasion.”

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among all,
To make music in the heart.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas Reflections

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Rowan Williams, reflects on the meaning of Christmas.

Human beings, left to themselves, have imagined God in all sorts of shapes; but – although there were one or two instances, in Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, of gods being pictured as boys – it took Christianity to introduce the world to the idea of God in the form of a baby: in the form of complete dependence and fragility, without power or control. If you stop to think about it, it is still shocking. And it is also deeply challenging.

God chose to show himself to us in a complete human life, telling us that every stage in human existence, from conception to maturity and even death, was in principle capable of telling us something about God. Although what we learn from Jesus Christ and what his life makes possible is unique, that life still means that we look differently at every other life. There is something in us that is capable of communicating what God has to say – the image of God in each of us, which is expressed in its perfection only in Jesus.

Hence the reverence which as Christians we ought to show to human beings in every condition, at every stage of existence. This is why we cannot regard unborn children as less than members of the human family, why those with disabilities or deprivations have no less claim upon us than anyone else, why we try to makes loving sense of human life even when it is near its end and we can hardly see any signs left of freedom or thought.

And hence the concern we need to have about the welfare of children. As we look around the world, there is plenty to prompt us to far more anger and protest about what happens to children than we often seem to feel or express. In the UK this year there have been several public debates about childhood, as research has underlined the lack of emotional security felt by many children here, the high cost of divorce and family breakdown, the disproportionate effect of poverty and debt on children, and many other problems. We look forward to the publication here in the New Year of a nationwide survey about what people think is a 'good childhood' – sponsored by the Children's Society, with its long association with the Anglican Church.

Elsewhere we see far more horrendous sights – child soldiers still deployed in parts of Africa and in Sri Lanka, the burden laid on children in places where HIV and AIDS have wiped out a whole generation, leaving only the old and the young, the fate of children in areas of conflict like Congo and the Middle East and the insensitive treatment that is so often given to child refugees and asylum seekers in more prosperous countries.

'Though an infant now we view him, He shall fill his Father's throne' says the Christmas hymn. If it is true that the child of Bethlehem is the same one who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, how shall we stand before him if we have allowed his image in the children of the world to be abused and defaced? In the week I write this, the British public is trying to cope with the revelation of the shocking killing of a very small child. Recently I accompanied a number of students and British faith leaders on a pilgrimage to the extermination camps at Auschwitz, where some of the most unforgettably horrifying images have to do with the wholesale slaughter of Jewish children – their toys and clothes still on display, looted by their killers from their dead bodies.

Christmas is a good time to think again about our attitudes to children and about what happens to children in our societies. Christians who recognise the infinite and all-powerful God in the vulnerability of a newborn baby have every reason to ask hard questions about the ways in which children come to be despised, exploited, even feared in our world. We all suspect that in a time of economic crisis worldwide, it will be the most vulnerable who are left to carry most of the human cost. The Holy Child of Bethlehem demands of us that we resist this with all our strength, for the sake of the one who, though he was rich, for our sake became poor, became helpless with the helpless so that he might exalt us all through his mercy and abundant grace.

With every blessing and best wish for Christmas and the New Year.

+Rowan Cantuar

Source: Anglican Communion News Service

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Conrad and Cruelty

A friend sent me a link to a very interesting article by Chris Hedges about Joseph Conrad's observations on the cruelty of human nature. It's entitled "Man is a Cruel Animal." Here are some excerpts:

It was Joseph Conrad I thought of when I read an article in The Nation magazine this month about white vigilante groups that rose up out of the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to terrorize and murder blacks. It was Conrad I thought of when I saw the ominous statements by authorities, such as International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, warning of potential civil unrest in the United States as we funnel staggering sums of public funds upward to our bankrupt elites and leave our poor and working class destitute, hungry, without health care and locked out of their foreclosed homes. We fool ourselves into believing we are immune to the savagery and chaos of failed states. Take away the rigid social structure, let society continue to break down, and we become, like anyone else, brutes. ...

Conrad saw cruelty as an integral part of human nature. This cruelty arrives, however, in different forms. Stable, industrialized societies, awash in wealth and privilege, can construct internal systems that mask this cruelty, although it is nakedly displayed in their imperial outposts. We are lulled into the illusion in these zones of safety that human beings can be rational. The "war on terror," the virtuous rhetoric about saving the women in Afghanistan from the Taliban or the Iraqis from tyranny, is another in a series of long and sordid human campaigns of violence carried out in the name of a moral good.

Those who attempt to mend the flaws in the human species through force embrace a perverted idealism. Those who believe that history is a progressive march toward human perfectibility, and that they have the moral right to force this progress on others, no longer know what it is to be human. In the name of the noblest virtues they sink to the depths of criminality and moral depravity. This self-delusion comes to us in many forms. It can be wrapped in the language of Western civilization, democracy, religion, the master race, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the worker's paradise, the idyllic agrarian society, the new man or scientific rationalism. The jargon is varied. The dark sentiment is the same.

Conrad understood how Western civilization and technology lend themselves to inhuman exploitation. He had seen in the Congo the barbarity and disdain for human life that resulted from a belief in moral advancement. He knew humankind's violent, primeval lusts. He knew how easily we can all slip into states of extreme depravity. "Man is a cruel animal," he wrote to a friend. "His cruelty must be organized. Society is essentially criminal, - or it wouldn't exist. It is selfishness that saves everything, - absolutely everything, - verything that we abhor, everything that we love."

Conrad rejected all formulas or schemes for the moral improvement of the human condition. Political institutions, he said, "whether contrived by the wisdom of the few or the ignorance of the many, are incapable of securing the happiness of mankind."

Read it all.

To be sure, Hedges has a political axe to grind in his use of Conrad. But that doesn't mean we can safely dispense with Conrad and go on our merry way. Indeed, the basic gist of what Conrad is saying should come as no surprise to Christians who take seriously the doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin (not to mention the doctrine of Total Depravity). The world is a messed up place. Human beings can be (and often are) violent and vicious beyond imagining. And even our most noble efforts to change things on our own steam almost always seem to either fail or set unintended consequences in motion that often bear tragic fruit.

So Christians can offer qualified agreement with Conrad's understanding of human nature. I say "qualified" because as much as Christianity recognizes the cruelty of fallen human nature, it also maintains that what for Conrad is "the irredeemable corruption of humanity" has, in fact, been redeemed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. (I've written before about the dissonance that holding these two truths together - that the world is still a messed up place and that something decisive has been done about it in Jesus - can and perhaps should cause.)

Reflecting on Conrad's piety of pessimism this close to Christmas may seem odd. What does all of this gloom and doom have to do with the joy and beauty we celebrate in our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services? Why focus on the negative when it's the season to focus on the positive?

We do well to remember that just a few days after Christmas, on December 28, the Church commemorates the Massacre of the Innocents. So while it may be true that he disdained Christianity, perhaps Conrad would approve.

Reflecting on Gratitude

As move closer to the joyful season of Christmas, I commend the following reflections from Ken Myers' Advent letter to Mars Hill Audio listeners. There's much food for thought here.

There's an old joke that identifies the favorite holiday movie of agnostics as a heart-warming story called "Coincidence on 34th Street." I don't know if radical skeptics wrestle with the problem of goodness and joy as much as orthodox Christians have agonized with the problem of evil and suffering, but the weeks between Thanksgiving and Epiphany must be a trying time for them. In a season with so many inducements to be grateful - in which the testimony of conscience and Creation is amplified by songs heard on the radio or at the Mall and giving thanks seems meet and right so to do - how can those who admit no Giver avoid doubt about their doubt?

But perhaps the burden of "gratitude-without-a-proper-Benefactor" is a smug fantasy of well-meaning Christian apologists. After all, we live in a society in which people increasingly perceive of themselves most essentially as bearers of rights-claims or as consumers of commodities. Each of these identities tempts us to regard everything we receive as an entitlement or as a self-earned possession. In neither mode are we encouraged to realize that gratitude is the most fitting, the most natural posture for beings such as ourselves. Maybe our culture's biases make it easy to ignore the fact that life is a gift.

Christian people regularly give thanks for the free gift of our salvation and for the blessings that accompany the redemption Christ has accomplished. But we also can find it all too easy to forget that all of Creation is a gift. The free gift of life in Christ is an echo of the free gift of life in Creation - a life that was forfeited when God's beloved creatures chose (in Oliver O'Donovan's phrase) to uncreate themselves and thereby to uncreate the rest of Creation.

Many devout Christians - under the influence of Gnosticism ancient and modern - fail to recognize the quality of Creation as gift and epiphany. Alexander Schmemann - in his book For the Life of the World - argues that sin always involves a failure to perceive and receive aspects of Creation as the things God has made them to be. Eve convinces herself that the fruit is what she wants it to be, not what God has said it is (and what it really is). That fateful disobedience establishes a trajectory of confusion, so that the identity and purpose of all things come to be denied.

The story of the Gospel begins with an account of the meaning of all things. "All that exists is God's gift to man," Schmemann writes, "and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: 'O taste and see that the Lord is good.'"

Schmemann argues that a secularized view of Creation has deadly consequences: "When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the 'sacrament' of God's presence. Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world."

The deadly practices of what John Paul II called the "culture of death" have their origins in a conceptual failure, in the assumption that nature has no meaning and elicits no necessary gratitude. So for the Church to be a culture of life, it needs more than good beliefs. It needs practices that sustain the posture of gratitude. Rather than sensing ourselves as sovereign consumers of religious products - whether ideas or experiences - we need to be recalled to the posture of humble recipients. "What do you have that you did not receive?" is the perpetual reminder we need. "Let it be unto me according to your word" is the grateful and receptive response we should strive to make habitual.

In a season of gift-giving, it may be helpful to remember that it's easier to be generous than it is to be grateful. Robert C. Roberts - author of Spiritual Emotions and a guest on volume 93 of the Journal - observes:

"Our generosity is often directed less at the benefit of the one on whom we bestow it than on the expression of our own importance. We enjoy the role of giver because of the way it ranks us vis-à-vis
our recipient. And we sometimes feel a certain discomfort with being put in the role of recipient because of the way that ranks us vis-à-vis our benefactor."

Like Eve, we still want to take things on our own terms rather than to receive them (or, in the case of forbidden things, avoid them) on God's terms. Being grateful for what we have also requires a contentment with not having what we haven't been given. A cartoon in the New Yorker a year or so ago depicted a man confessing to his therapist: "I do count my blessings but then I end up counting those of others who have more and better blessings, and that pisses me off." Gratitude, it seems, is not well understood by an accounting mentality; it involves a qualitative assessment, not a quantitative reckoning. "All that exists is God's gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God."

Baptism Cannonball

Wait for the second kid in this video. He's very excited about getting baptized!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Generous Orthodoxy

The term “Generous Orthodoxy” is sometimes slighted by Christians as though it’s an oxymoron or (if the critics in question happen to be Episcopalians/Anglicans) an instance of “Anglican fudge.” The way I've seen the term disparaged on conservative blogs, critics seem to think that proponents of Generous Orthodoxy are too wishy-washy to take a clear stand on any biblical, theological, or moral principles. It's as though they are equating the term "generous," not merely with "liberal," but with "relativism." And clearly, relativism and orthodoxy mix about as well as oil and water.

Speaking as a proponent for an Anglican form of Generous Orthodoxy, I think this critique is a caricature. Here are just a few sketchy thoughts as to why I think so.

Borrowing the language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, I am committed to:

  1. The sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary to salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
  2. The Apostles’ Creed as the Baptismal Symbol and the Nicene Creed as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
  3. The two Dominical Sacraments – Baptism and Eucharist – ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by him.
  4. The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.

I believe that a commitment to these four aspects of the "sacred deposit" of the Church makes one orthodox (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877).

Some might object to the minimalism of this Anglican understanding of orthodoxy (I'm thinking in particular of friends speaking on behalf of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions). But I believe that this minimalism is a strength, not a weakness. Luke Timothy Johnson's take on the "blessed simplicity of profession" offered by the historic creeds may also be applied to the orthodoxy outlined above. He writes:

"As with friends, so with beliefs: the fewer the better. The ancient philosophers well understood that in friendship there is an inverse proportion of number and quality. More is demanded of friends in trust, loyalty, and depth of commitment than can be asked from casual acquaintances. So also, faith demands selectivity. People who claim to believe many things equally cannot possibly be deeply committed to them all. They inadvertently identify themselves as superficial acquaintances of faith rather than friends with God (James 4:4)" [The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 320].

At the same time, a willingness to sympathetically engage a wide range of secular and theological views, trying to understand those views before deciding whether or not to reject or learn from them, makes one generous. (I'm borrowing language here from a nice piece in the December 30 issue of The Christian Century on the death of William Placher.)

It's this generous spirit that allows Anglicanism to take seriously rather than shun the findings of the natural and social sciences; to engage other Christian denominations in ecumenical dialogue and to seek closer relationships with them in worship and ministry; to listen to and learn from other religious traditions without sacrificing the dogmatic core of the Church's faith; to take the concerns and the convictions of conservatives, centrists, and progressives seriously without kowtowing to their ideological agendas; and to regard predecessors as diverse as the Church Fathers and Mothers, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, John Wesley, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Karl Barth, William Stringfellow, and Paul Tillich (among many others) as theologians from whom we have important things to learn.

Does The Episcopal Church always do these things perfectly? Of course not. We often fall short. Sometimes we fail miserably. But our failures only underscore the fact that these ideals of the generous spirit of Anglicanism are ones we aspire to faithfully live out in our mission and ministry.

The late James E. Griffiss succinctly sums up the core of Generous Orthodoxy in his book The Anglican Vision (Cowley Publications, 1997) when he writes:

"I believe … that our history and foundations [as Anglicans] demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change – continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require” (p. 101).

This via media between continuity and change, and between the Monolithic Church type and the Over-Personalized Church type, is not always an easy one to walk. But it's central to who we are as heirs of the Anglican tradition.

Generous Orthodoxy.

It's not an oxymoron.

It's not Anglican fudge.

Quite the contrary, Generous Orthodoxy is Anglicanism at its best.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What's the Difference Between Studying and Reading the Bible?

Eugene Peterson - author of numerous books (including The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way) and the contemporary paraphrase of the Bible called The Message, and retired Presbyterian pastor (he served Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland for 29 years) - briefly touches on the difference between studying and reading the Bible:

Here he shares more of the motivation for The Message:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Happens After We Die?

Bishop N. T. Wright gives a brief answer:

And what does heaven look like?

So what does the crucified Jesus mean when he says to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43)?

But what if all of this doesn't sound like what I was taught in Sunday School?

For more, read Wright's book Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Advent Reflections from the Archbishop of Canterbury

A complete transcript is available here.

D-Day to V-Day

A central claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus' death and resurrection has dealt a decisive blow to the powers of sin, evil, and death. Anglican bishop N. T. Wright puts it well:

Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God's future has arrived in the present [Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 116].

A common and understandable objection is to point out the dissonance between the claim that "the world is a different place" because "God's future has arrived in the present" through the resurrection of Jesus on the one hand, and the fact that evil still runs amok on the other hand. In the face of the massive suffering and injustice rocking our world, how can we make sense of the Christian claim?

Reformed theologian Shirley C. Guthrie offers an interesting perspective on this issue. I don't always find military metaphors/analogies helpful or appropriate for thinking about the Christian faith, but this one works for me.

When the Allied forces landed in Normandy, the decisive battle of the whole war was fought. After that it was certain that Nazi Germany was going to lose. Between D-Day (the day of the invasion) and V-Day (the day the Allies’ victory was finally declared) the Germans fought a number of desperate fall-back battles across Europe. Many lives were lost and much damage done before they finally surrendered. But after the decisive battle in Normandy, it was clear how the war was going to turn out. The war was already won even if it was not yet over.

The decisive battle of all human history was fought when in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God "invaded" a world ruled and tormented by the dark powers of evil. But the final victory of God over them will come only with the final triumph of the risen Christ at the end of history. "Between the times" (between Easter and the end), the deadly battle between God and the powers of darkness still goes on, but the victory of Christ that has been won is the guarantee of the final victory that is surely on the way [Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine Revised Edition (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 284].

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Beast

A.K.A. Bailey - a big hearted, fried chicken loving, loyal companion and friend through many years, including the writing of a dissertation, the birth of two children, discernment for Holy Orders, seminary, and over seven years of ordained ministry.


Endings and Beginnings

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent
RCL, Year B: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a, 18; Mark 1:1-8

We are living in a season of endings and beginnings. By marking the ending of one liturgical calendar year and the beginning of another one, Advent pushes us to look forward not only to Christmas, but also to the end or fulfillment of history with Christ’s return and the beginning of God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven. In Advent we also look back to mark the end or fulfillment of the Old Covenant with the coming of John the Baptist and the beginning of a New Covenant with the coming of Jesus Christ.

Endings and beginnings …

On the one hand, there’s excitement and expectation about what lies ahead. But at the same time, there may be fear and anxiety about the unknown and grief over what gets left behind. These feelings can be quite intense, and especially when we go through endings and beginnings that challenge our identity or upset our faith in God.

Our Jewish ancestors knew this all too well. The 40th chapter of Isaiah – of which we hear an excerpt this morning – marks one of the most pivotal times of ending and beginning in the history of Israel. After 70 years, the exile in Babylon is almost over.

You may recall the tragic story.

The year was 587 B.C. when King Nebucadnezzar’s armies marched into Jerusalem, killed scores of people, burned down the city, razed the Temple to the ground, and carried off Israel’s best and brightest into pagan exile. By destroying the primary carriers of cultural and religious identity, the exile threatened to annihilate Judaism from the face of the earth. And so the exile hammered a stake into the heart of Jewish faith and identity.

God promised that the Davidic king would reign for ever. Now he was languishing in a Babylonian prison. Living in the Promised Land had always been the sign that God’s favor rested on His people. Now the land belonged to pagan idolaters. The Jerusalem Temple was the focal point of Jewish religious life. It was the outward and visible sign of God’s presence with His people. It was where the priests offered sacrifices to atone for the people’s sins. It housed the Ark of the Covenant containing the two tablets of the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Now the Temple was a pile of rubble.

It was widely believed at that time that every nation was protected by its patron god. Yahweh was the patron deity of Israel. It was Yahweh’s power that protected the Jews. So Nebucadnezzar’s victory could only mean that Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, was stronger than Yahweh. And if that was true, then everything the Jews believed about God, about the Covenant and the Law, and about themselves – well, maybe it was all a big lie.

This was more than a military defeat. It was more than loss of turf. The Babylonian exile was the ending of everything that gave Jewish life a sense of direction, meaning, and purpose.

Watching Jerusalem burn while being carried off in chains to a hostile land, not knowing what fate awaited them, we can just imagine the kinds of questions that tormented the minds and souls of the Jews. Is God really powerful? Is God really faithful? Is hope just a pipe dream?

Today’s reading from Isaiah starts answering these questions. Babylon’s power is coming to an end and the Persians are rising as the new superpower of the region. And in contrast to the Babylonians, the Persians had a more hospitable colonial policy. It was looking more and more like the Jews were going to return to the Promised Land. This is why Isaiah proclaims good news. Instead of words of judgment, God speaks words of comfort. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” the Lord says to Isaiah, “and cry to her that she has served her term …” (Is. 40:2).

The suffering is almost over. The dawn is about to break. And so Isaiah says, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Is. 40:11). It’s the ending of exile and a new beginning for God’s people.

And as with all endings and beginnings, nothing will ever be quite the same. The Jews will never regain all that they lost during the time of exile. But even when they thought God was absent, it turned out that God was still there. In ways not always easy to perceive, God was present, sustaining and helping His people adapt, adjust, and survive.

True, the Jews lost the provincial kingship of the Davidic dynasty. But they gained the universal kingship of God. And while they lost Temple worship and animal sacrifice, they gained Sabbath worship in synagogues and the study of Torah, two facets of Judaism that deeply shaped the faith and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and that also laid the groundwork for Christian worship.

Out of the ashes of exile, God raised His people to new life. God gave them a new identity with a renewed faith that could meet the challenges of a changing world. And raised from exile, the Jewish people helped shape the subsequent course of world history and paved the way for the coming of the Savior of the world.

This story of exile and return, of death and resurrection, endings and beginnings, is not just ancient history. It’s not just a story about God’s people long ago. It’s a story about God’s people today. And it’s a story that includes you and me.

All of us gathered here this morning are living through times of transition. Certainly, there are big changes, like markets at home and abroad in upheaval, and one presidential administration coming to an end while a new one begins. But there are also personal changes. Maybe there’s a new baby on the way, or one has already been born. Or perhaps it’s the challenge of coming to terms with a medical diagnosis or struggling to regain strength after a surgery or a prolonged illness. Maybe it’s the death of a friend or family member. Maybe the change involves losing a job or being afraid of losing a job that always seemed stable. Maybe we’re grappling with issues of faith and we’re no longer sure what to believe or why. Or maybe we find ourselves hearing God’s call to embark on a new spiritual path that will take us we know not where.

Regardless of what form the endings and beginnings take, regardless of whether we find ourselves buoyed up by excitement or sucked down into fear and anxiety, Scripture reminds us of a fundamental truth: exile, and even crucifixion, cannot extinguish the light of hope for God’s people.

By focusing on endings and beginnings, the season of Advent reassures us that “the Christian faith is a journey that starts somewhere and goes somewhere.”[1] It’s a journey that begins in the waters of baptism. And it’s a journey that ends with the peace, justice, and beauty of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. That journey will take us to places we may not always want to go. There will be gains and losses along the way. And there won’t always be easy answers or quick fixes. But for we who belong to Christ, the One who is the Alpha and the Omega, every ending is also a new beginning.

[1] Maggi Dawn, Beginnings and Endings (and What Happens in Between): Daily Bible Readings from Advent to Epiphany (no publisher: no date), p. 7.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Anti-Racism Conference

This weekend I've been attending a diocesan anti-racism conference called "Seeing the Face of God in Each Other: A Conference on Racial Reconciliation." Here's what the conference description says:

THE 2003 GENERAL CONVENTION OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH affirmed resolution A-010, which calls on the Church to continue anti-racism training and to reaffirm its "historic commitment to eradicate racial injustice in the Church and in secular society." This conference is designed not only to raise consciousness about racism, but also to offer active approaches to eliminate it in individuals, cultures, and institutions. Those encouraged to attend include clergy, vestry members, parish educators, youth workers, lay Eucharistic ministers, postulants, candidates for ordination, members of the Standing Committee, Commission on Ministry, Executive Committee, all diocesan committee members, and all who proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

I also note that the Diocese of Mississippi passed a resolution at Annual Council in 2006 reaffirming the Diocese's commitment to ending institutional and other forms of racism, and also requiring "all ordained persons, professional staff, and those elected or appointed to positions of leadership on committees, commissions, agencies and boards" to participate in this training. So it's a bit disappointing (but, frankly, not surprising) that so few people are attending.

It's difficult to summarize the experience of doing this kind of work. It's often insightful, but can also be painful (particularly when it comes to talking about white privilege).

One of the most powerful moments for me was watching the film "A Girl Like Me," and particularly the part in which the children choose between black and white dolls.

For me, this is painful and eye-opening.