Friday, January 30, 2009

Planning for the MS Church Music & Liturgy Conference

We just wrapped up two days of planning for this summer's 34th annual Mississippi Conference on Church Music and Liturgy. It is my joy to once again serve as the Conference chaplain.

As I write, the theme is not yet posted on the Conference website, but I am excited that we will spend most of our time focusing on one of the most complex, misunderstood, and oftentimes neglected or even eclipsed seasons of the Church calendar year: Advent. We came up with some really wonderful ideas for music and liturgy to enrich worship and Christian formation during that season.

On the faculty for this summer's Conference we have Joel Martinson (Director of Music Ministries and Organist at The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, TX), Monte Mason (Organist/Choirmaster and Youth Arts Program Director at St. Martin's by-the-Lake Episcopal Church in Minnetonka Beach, MN), and the Very Rev. Joy Rogers (Dean of St. James' Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago, IL).

The Conference is held at the Duncan M. Gray Center in Canton, MS and runs from Tuesday, July 28 thru Sunday, August 2. Make plans to join us for a wonderful continuing education experience. Registration information is available on the Conference website.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thomas Aquinas: A Radical Theologian

Today is the Feast Day of Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of the Western Church and, arguably, one of the greatest thinkers of all time.

what James Kiefer says about Aquinas:
In the thirteenth century, when Thomas Aquinas lived, the works of Aristotle, largely forgotten in Western Europe, began to be available again, partly from Eastern European sources and partly from Moslem Arab sources in Africa and Spain. These works offered a new and exciting way of looking at the world. Many enthusiastic students of Aristotle adopted him quite frankly as as an alternative to Christianity. The response of many Christians was to denounce Aristotle as an enemy of the Christian Faith. A third approach was that of those who tried to hold both Christian and Aristotelian views side by side with no attempt to reconcile the two. Aquinas had a fourth approach. While remaining a Christian, he immersed himself in the ideas of Aristotle, and then undertook to explain Christian ideas and beliefs in language that would make sense to disciples of Aristotle. At the time, this seemed like a very dangerous and radical idea, and Aquinas spent much of his life living on the edge of ecclesiastical approval. His success can be measured by the prevalence today of the notion that of course all Christian scholars in the Middle Ages were followers of Aristotle. 
Aristotle is no longer the latest intellectual fashion, but Aquinas’s insistence that the Christian scholar must be prepared to meet other scholars on their own ground, to become familiar with their viewpoints, to argue from their premises, has been a permanent and valuable contribution to Christian thought.

Aquinas' vision of moral fulfillment as both a life of virtue and the intellectual love of God helped bridge the ancient Greek and Christian worlds in the history of Western religious and moral philosophy. In honor of Aquinas’ historic synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Augustinian theology, I offer below a section from my 1997 essay submitted for my “History of Ethics” qualifying exam at Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion. The essay is entitled, “Moral Fulfillment and the Intellectual Love of God: Thomas Aquinas’ Reoccupation of Aristotle’s Theoria.”

In turning to Aquinas’ theory of moral fulfillment, it cannot be denied that more predecessors in the history of Western ethics influenced the treatment of the final end in the Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae than Aristotle. According to Vernon J. Bourke, Aquinas turned not only to Aristotle, but also to classical philosophy and the Church Fathers in constructing his ethics.[1] Names as diverse as Plato, Epicurus, Zeno, Chrysippus, Philo, Plotinus, Porphyry, Simplicius, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, and many others inform Aquinas’ thought. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Aristotle’s work exercises a pervasive and indelible influence on the ethics of Aquinas. A cursory examination of the Summa Contra Gentiles or the Summa Theologiae reveals references to Aristotle on virtually every page. It is no accident that Aquinas reserves the title “the Philosopher” for Aristotle alone.

Here is some of the context for Aquinas’ reception of Aristotle. Aquinas lived during a period in which Aristotle was, for all practical purposes, discovered in the West. But a long history of Aristotelianism fills the temporal distance between fourth century Greece and thirteenth century Europe. Around 50 or 40 B.C., Andronicus of Rhodes published Aristotle’s works, and by the third century Porphyry wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories. Boethius made an early attempt to reconcile the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in the sixth century. In fact, he was going to translate their works into Latin during an age in which knowledge of Greek was declining, but was executed for treason before he could complete the project. He did, however, finish translations of Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation, two “logical works that became the only Aristotle known at first hand in Europe before the twelfth century.”[2] These translations insured the dominant influence of Aristotle’s logic on medieval thinkers, many of whom interpreted Aristotle under the influence of Platonism.[3] Meanwhile, Arabic translations of Aristotle’s works in Syria captivated Islamic thinkers who preserved the writings and wrote commentaries on the works. Only by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries did the rest of Aristotle’s surviving works return to Europe from the Islamic world, reappearing in Spain and Sicily in Arabic and Hebrew translations. Over one hundred years later, reliable Greek texts finally appeared in Paris and Oxford.[4]

The translation of these Greek texts into Latin prompted a philosophical “explosion of Aristotelianism.”[5] Medieval Scholasticism retrieved Aristotle for various projects in creating “an encyclopedic synthesis of doctrines” which far transcend the scope of Aristotle’s original writings.[6] Ancient and medieval proponents of Aristotelianism as diverse as Epicureans, Gnostics, Neoplatonists, Muslims, and Christians all attempted to appropriate Aristotle’s conception of the final good under various religious conceptions of salvation. Due largely to the influence of Platonism, Aristotle’s scientific inquiries served as springboards for various “‘metaphysical speculations.’”[7]

At least six factors shaped the context in which thirteenth-century European theologians read the newly available works of Aristotle. First, the “effective history” of Aristotelianism outlined above established a precedent for appropriating Aristotle’s work for religious purposes which were foreign to the cultural and religious world of ancient Greece.[8] If thirteenth century Christian theologians were to take Aristotle seriously at all, they would necessarily have to engage in the appropriation and “reoccupation” of Aristotle’s central concepts with specifically Christian theological meanings.[9]

Related to the first factor is the second: the tradition of Augustinian Christianity provided much of the theological content which guided interest in and colored readings of Aristotle. Theological concepts like sin, grace, creation, redemption, heaven, and hell provided the hermeneutic lenses for reading the ancient philosopher. In the case of Aquinas, for example, the Augustinian views that “man in the concrete has a supernatural vocation,” that revelation is necessary for knowing that genuine happiness can be found only in God, that “grace is necessary even to begin to will to love God,” and that “moral perfection consists in loving God” constituted the theological prejudgments for receiving the ancient philosopher’s writings.[10]

In addition, Alasdair MacIntyre notes that the Augustinian tradition parted from Aristotle in four additional ways: the “law of the polis” is ordered to the “law of the civitas Dei;” “the Augustinian catalogue of the virtues” expands to include “humility and charity,” both of which are alien to Aristotle’s conception of virtue; a new distinction between the good and the bad will informs the Aristotelian “psychology of reason, passion, and appetite;” and finally, the Augustinian moral cosmology strongly accents a conception of God as both “divine creator” and “divine lawgiver.”[11] Particularly when viewed in light of this Augustinian legacy, one cannot legitimately say that Aquinas’ moral theology represents only an Aristotelian ethics any more than one can hold as adequate the view that Aquinas “merely ‘baptized’ Aristotle.”[12] On this point, MacIntyre correctly argues that Aquinas’ achievement lies in reconciling two otherwise conflicting traditions of moral inquiry into a new synthetic unity which became the basis for a Thomistic tradition of moral inquiry.[13]

Four additional historical factors play a role in shaping the context for Aquinas’ reception of Aristotle: the cultural memories of crusades, heresies, and inquisitions, as well as papal edicts banning public lectures on the works of Aristotle. Aquinas lived from roughly 1225 to 1274. According to historians, efforts in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to “build a unified Christian commonwealth” continued into the thirteenth century.[14] Various heretical movements challenged this task, including groups like the Waldensians who were devoted to poverty and critical of the church hierarchy, and groups like the Albigensians who denied core church teachings about the sacraments and Christ’s divinity. After attempts at reconversion, Pope Innocent III decided that only a crusade against the Albigensians could effectively protect orthodox doctrine, and the infamous Papal Inquisition to root out heresy followed soon thereafter in 1231 under Pope Gregory IX.[15]

When Aristotle’s writings surfaced and began exercising an influence on the thought and teaching in the universities, the context of reception was one concerned with orthodoxy versus heresy. Many voiced concerns about Aristotle’s philosophy as not only contrary to church teachings, but as a harmful influence on those entrusted with university education. According to Vernon Bourke, beginning around 1210 “several Councils forbade the teaching, either in public or private, of the works of Aristotle on natural philosophy,” although “the personal reading of Aristotle was not expressly forbidden.”[16] And in 1231, Pope Gregory published an edict which stated that Aristotle’s “‘books of natural science which have been prohibited for a definite reason by a provincial Council may not be used at Paris, until they have been examined and all suspicion of error removed.’”[17] Even the parts of the Nicomachean Ethics currently available were viewed with wariness.[18]

Nevertheless, since the combined writings of Aristotle signaled “the greatest intellectual achievement known in the 13th Century,” they simply could not be ignored.[19] The discovery of Aristotle’s thought, and the tendency to read Aristotle’s works as a coherent system of philosophy, posed a crisis of legitimacy for medieval Christian theology. After all, if a pagan philosopher can create such an intellectually coherent system of thought without recourse to revelation, then it appears that the need for Christian revelation and doctrine for insight into truth is called into question.

Aquinas believed that if anything in Aristotle’s works can be regarded as true, it can be useful for explicating the Christian faith. But if it were used in misguided ways, its truth could prove destructive for the integrity of Christian theology. Aquinas assumed the burden of mediating the tensions between orthodoxy and tradition on the one hand, and openness to philosophical and theological inquiry on the other. As a Christian theologian, Aquinas wanted to articulate and defend Christian teaching. He did not, however, want to see Christendom turn towards a dogmatic Christianity which upholds revelation at the expense of natural reason. Coming to terms with Aristotle was thus a challenge to properly mediate between an inherited Augustinian legacy and the new horizon of possibilities for systematic thought opened up by the discovery of Aristotle.

During Aquinas’ lifetime, no one fully established the legitimacy of Aristotle in the eyes of the orthodox. Suspicions continued to abound. Indeed, Aquinas himself was accused of heresy in 1270. According to his Dominican and Franciscan accusers, Aquinas held an unorthodox view on the relationship between the dead and the living body of Christ, mainly due to an extensive reliance on Aristotle.[20] Given the fact that Aquinas’ accusers tended to side with the Pope in matters of doctrine, his theological views were read by his accusers as subverting legitimate authority. In his defense, Copleston notes that although Aquinas “did not hesitate to adopt an Aristotelian position even when this led him into conflict with traditional theories,” he also did not hesitate to reject aspects of Aristotle’s work “which were clearly incompatible with the Christian doctrine.”[21] Vernon Bourke agrees, noting that Aquinas “was fully aware of the inadequacy of Greek ethics” even as he “used whatever he could find in the works of the Greek moralists” to support and clarify a Christian conception of moral fulfillment.[22] Bourke cites Aquinas on this point:

And this is also clear: not one of the philosophers before the coming of Christ could with all his strivings, know as much about God and the things needed for eternal life, as would an old woman, by faith, after the coming of Christ.[23]

After so many centuries of reading Aquinas as the “Angelic Doctor” and the epitome of orthodox Catholic theology, it is well to remember that his turn to Aristotle was a risky move and that, as a consequence, Aquinas was a radical theologian in his day.

[1] Vernon J. Bourke, St. Thomas and the Greek Moralists (Marquette University Press, 1947), pp. 9-14.

[2] Warner Wick, “Aristotelianism,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume I, Paul Edwards, editor-in-chief (Macmillan, 1967), p. 149.

[3] Ibid., p. 150.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anthony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, Revised Second Edition (St. Martin’s Press, 1979), p. 23.

[6] Wick, Op. cit., p. 150.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The term “effective history” or “the principle of history of effect” is the English translation of German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer’s Wirkungsgeschichte. It refers to the ongoing shaping power of past texts and traditions on any given present. See Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method Second Revised Edition, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (Continuum, 1989), pp. 300ff.

[9] The term “reoccupation” is a metaphor used by Hans Blumenberg to describe the historical process of secularization in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, translated by Robert M. Wallace (MIT Press, 1983). “Reoccupation” means that historical continuity is maintained over time in intellectual discourses insofar as new answer-positions come to occupy the function of former answer-positions within the historically inherited parameters of a discourse’s set of questions and answers. New answer-positions that successfully respond to the problems posed to as well as within an inherited set of questions and answers come to occupy the place of old answer positions when they can no longer maintain their legitimacy. Old answer-positions are structurally antecedent to new answer-positions, and new answer-positions “reoccupy” the “space” left vacant by the old answer-positions. Blumenberg’s theory of reoccupation accounts for historical continuity and change in intellectual history, as opposed to theories predicated on radical disjunctions, displacements, and epochal shifts.

[10] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume II: Augustine to Scotus (Image Books, 1948), pp. 81, 83, & 84.

[11] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), pp. 162-163.

[12] Bourke, Op. cit., p. 12.

[13] MacIntyre, Op. cit., pp. 162-163.

[14] Mortimer Chambers, Raymond Grew, Barabara Hanwalt, David Herlihy, Theodore K. Rabb, and Isser Woloch, The Western Experience 4th Edition (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), p. 337.

[15] Ibid., pp. 338-340.

[16] Bourke, Op. cit., p. 4.

[17] Ibid., pp. 4-5.

[18] Ibid., p. 5.

[19] Copleston, Op. cit., p. 429.

[20] Ibid., p. 431.

[21] Ibid., p. 426.

[22] Bourke, Op. cit., p. 42.

23] Ibid.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Praying to the People

Recently I learned about an Episcopal priest who wants to do something a bit unusual with prayer. At an intergenerational meeting, this priest wants to gather all of the youth and then encourage the Church to listen to their prayers. So far so good.

But then things get nutty. After encouraging us to really listen to what our youth pray for, this priest then wants us to pray to the youth "as if they were God." The priest's rationale? Since "they are in fact the body of Christ," this is "not that much of a stretch."

"Prayers of the People" I know, but "Prayers to the People"? We pray with other people in the liturgy (hence the Book of Common Prayer). But praying to them?

When questioned on the wisdom (much less theological integrity) of doing this sort of thing by a clergy colleague, this priest's response was basically to say: "I think one of the biggest mistakes the Church has made was when it was decided that we can only pray to God and not to the people, also."

I must have missed the Church council that made that historic decision.

To make matters more interesting, this priest also claims to have been teaching and modeling this theology of prayer for the past three years to the congregation he currently serves. And no one objects. So it must be okay, right?

Wonders never cease ...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Phillips Brooks

Today is the Feast Day of Phillips Brooks (1835-1893): priest, then bishop, and one of the nineteenth-century's greatest preachers.

Here's what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about Brooks:
Writing about Phillips Brooks in 1930, William Lawrence, who as a young man had known him, began, "Phillips Brooks was a leader of youth. ... His was the spirit of adventure, in thought, in life, and faith." To many who know him only as the author of "O little town of Bethlehem," this part of Brooks' life and influence is little known. 
Born in Boston in 1835, Phillips Brooks began his ministry in Philadelphia. His impressive personality and his eloquence immediately attracted attention. After ten years in Philadelphia, he returned to Boston as rector of Trinity Church, which was destroyed in the Boston fire three years later. It is a tribute to Brooks' preaching, character, and leadership that in four years of worshiping in temporary and bare surroundings, the congregation grew and flourished. The new Trinity Church was a daring architectural enterprise for its day, with its altar placed in the center of the chancel, "a symbol of unity; God and man and all God's creation," and was a symbol of Brooks' vision - a fitting setting for the greatest preacher of the century. 
This reputation has never been challenged. His sermons have passages that still grasp the reader, though they do not convey the warmth and vitality which so impressed his hearers. James Bryce wrote, "There was no sign of art about his preaching, no touch of self-consciousness. He spoke to his audience as a man might speak to his friend, pouring forth with swift, yet quiet and seldom impassioned earnestness, the thoughts of his singularly pure and lofty spirit." 
Brooks ministered with tenderness, understanding, and warm friendliness. He inspired men to enter the ministry, and taught many of them the art of preaching. He was conservative and orthodox in his theology; but his generosity of heart led him to be regarded as the leader of the liberal circles of the Church. 
In 1891, he was elected Bishop of Massachusetts. The force of his personality and preaching, together with his deep devotion and loyalty, provided the spiritual leadership needed for the time. His constant concern was to turn his hearers' thoughts to the revelations of God. "Whatever happens," he wrote, "always remember the mysterious richenss of human nature and the nearness of God to each one of us" [Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (Church Publishing Inc., 2006), p. 142].

Here's what a New York Times article published on February 27, 1890 and entitled "Crowded to the Doors: Phillips Brooks' Sermon at Trinity Yesterday" says (note how part of this touches on themes from my previous posting on original sin):
Long before 12 o'clock yesterday every seat was occupied in Trinity Church, and when the Rev. Phillips Brooks ascended the pulpit at five minutes after the noon hour, the space set apart for standing room was entirely preempted. For the first time in the history of the parish the public were permitted to occupy the choir stalls in the chancel, while hundreds were turned away, unable to gain admission to the church. 
The theme of the preacher was "The Power of the Leadership and Liberation of of Christ Jesus." All men, Mr. Brooks contended, may be made more courageous to undertake the battle of life by contemplating the career of the Saviour of men. Many men do not care for the Gospel, but no man lives who has not at some time felt that he was made for something better and higher than this life. All men are essentially by their nature children of God. The story of the Prodigal Son was recited and enlarged upon and applied to the condition of the human race at the present time. The Lord Jesus had declared that men could not go to God, simply because God was here always and forever. When men attain to that condition of mind and heart where they say "I will arise and go to my Father," the Son will come to them. Men may loathe sin, but the only thing that will make it absolutely hideous is the realization that it keeps them from God. 
God blesses every soul that is blessable, forgives every soul that is forgivable, and saves every soul that is savable. Men may repent them of the sins they have committed, but those sins are visited upon their children unto the third and fourth generations. Only the grace of God can remove the curse and do away the evil results of men's misdoings. The repentant man is freed through God's grace, but the sin goes on. We say that sin is necessary because men are mortal, that it is inevitable. No man ever did wrong who might not have done the right thing. No man ever committed a sin that he was absolutely compelled to commit. Man can never get his sins out of the way absolutely without the help and love of God. When he is willing to give up his sins, and to grieve over them, and seek after the great love and mercy and welcome of God, then, and only then, may he hope to come into the full measure of the Christian liberty which is in Christ Jesus.

And finally, here is an excerpt from Brooks' Beecher Lectures delivered to the Divinity School of Yale College in 1877 and published as Lectures on Preaching. In this excerpt from the first lecture entitled "The Two Elements in Preaching," Brooks expounds upon what Richard Lischer calls "the most durable of all definitions of preaching" [Theories of Preaching: Selected Readings in the Homiletical Tradition (The Labyrinth Press, 1987), p. 14]:

Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality. It must have both elements. 
This was the method by which Christ chose that His Gospel should be spread through the world. It was a method that might have been applied to the dissemination of any truth, but we can see why it was especially adapted to the truth of Christianity. For that truth is preeminently personal. However the Gospel may be capable of statement in dogmatic form, its truest statement we know is not in dogma but in personal life. Christianity is Christ; and we can easily understand how a truth which is of such peculiar character that a person can stand forth and say of it "I am the Truth," must always be best conveyed through, must indeed be almost incapable of being perfectly conveyed except through personality. 
There are two aspects of the minister's work, which we are constantly meeting in the New Testament. they are really embodied in two words, one of which is "message," and the other is "witness." "This is the message which we have heard of Him and declare unto you," says St. John in his first Epistle. "We are his witnesses of these things," says St. Peter before the Council at Jerusalem. In these two words together, I think, we have the fundamental conception of the matter of all Christian preaching. It is to be a message given to us for transmission, but yet a message which we cannot transmit until it has entered into our own experience, and we can give our own testimony of its spiritual power. The minister who keeps the word "message" always written before him, as he prepares his sermon in his study, or utters it from his pulpit, is saved from the tendency to wanton and wild speculation, and from the mere passion of originality. He who never forgets that word "witness," is saved from the unreality of repeating by rote mere forms of statement which he has learned as orthodox, but never realized as true. If you and I can always carry this double consciousness, that we are messengers, and that we are witnesses, we shall have in our preaching all the authority and independence of assured truth, and yet all the appeal and convincingness of personal belief.

[There] is an immense amount of preaching which must be called preaching about Christ as distinct from preaching Christ. There are many preachers who seem to do nothing else, always discussing Christianity as a problem instead of announcing Christianity as a message, and proclaiming Christ as a Saviour. I do not undervalue their discussions. But I think we ought always to feel that such discussions are not the type or ideal of preaching. They may be necessities of the time, but they are not the work which the great Apostolic preachers did, or which the true preacher will always most desire. Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church, when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ. To discuss the relations of Christianity and Science, Christianity and Society, Christianity and Politics, is good. To set Christ forth to men so that they shall know Him, and in gratitude and love become His, that is far better.

These are the elements of preaching, then - Truth and Personality. The truth is in itself a fixed and stable element; the personality is a varying and growing element. In the union of the two we have the provision for the combination of identity with variety, of stability with growth, in the preaching of the Gospel [quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 24-25]. 
[There] is an immense amount of preaching which must be called preaching about Christ as distinct from preaching Christ. There are many preachers who seem to do nothing else, always discussing Christianity as a problem instead of announcing Christianity as a message, and proclaiming Christ as a Saviour. I do not undervalue their discussions. But I think we ought always to feel that such discussions are not the type or ideal of preaching. They may be necessities of the time, but they are not the work which the great Apostolic preachers did, or which the true preacher will always most desire. Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church, when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ. To discuss the relations of Christianity and Science, Christianity and Society, Christianity and Politics, is good. To set Christ forth to men so that they shall know Him, and in gratitude and love become His, that is far better. 
These are the elements of preaching, then - Truth and Personality. The truth is in itself a fixed and stable element; the personality is a varying and growing element. In the union of the two we have the provision for the combination of identity with variety, of stability with growth, in the preaching of the Gospel [quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corporation, 1993), pp. 24-25].

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Revisiting Original Sin

In an earlier posting entitled "Original Sin: Reject or Defend?", I noted that I had begun reading a very interesting book by Alan Jacobs entitled Original Sin: A Cultural History. Having now finished the book, I highly recommend it. (If you’d like to read a bit of the introduction for a teaser, check out my previous posting.)

Jacobs covers a lot of territory in his brief cultural history of original sin. He looks briefly or at length at the following:

… and more.

That’s quite a bit of turf to cover! But Jacobs does it in a way that is scholarly, readable and highly informative.
Early in the book, Jacobs lays out what’s at stake in either accepting or rejecting a conception of original sin:

We struggle to hold together a model of human sinfulness that is universal rather than local, in which we inherit sin rather than choose it, and in which, nevertheless, we are fully, terrifyingly responsible for our condition.

So why would anyone hold to such a strange and, frankly, rather depressing idea? … Any moderately perceptive and reasonably honest observer of humanity has to acknowledge that we are remarkably prone to doing bad things – and, more disturbingly, things we acknowledge to be wrong. And when we add to this calculus the deeds we insist are justified even when the unanimous testimony of our friends and neighbors condemns us – well, the picture is anything but pretty. These are the most truistic of truisms, of course, and I can’t imagine that anyone would deny them, but they raise questions, do they not? Unde hoc malum? is how it was put long ago: Where does this wrongdoing come from? What is its wellspring, the source of its ongoing prevalence and power? The doctrine of original sin is, if nothing else an intellectually serious attempt to answer such questions (pp. xiv-xv).

Certain attempts to answer the question Unde hoc malum? reject the doctrine of original sin at the cost of begging the question. Jacobs points out one way this crops up:

For many scholars and thinkers, especially in the fields we call the humanities, the only thing we all have in common is that we don’t have anything naturally or inevitably in common. The human condition, such as it is, is to be “socially constructed,” to be formed wholly by our environments. “Socialization goes all the way down,” as the philosopher Richard Rorty used to say. But this view leaves unanswered, and usually unasked, the question of why the social construction of selves is so limited in its range, so unimaginatively and repetitively attached to making us cruel and selfish (p. xvi).

Other scholars take a different approach to rejecting original sin:

For scholars outside the humanities – the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, for example – this social-constructionist “denial of human nature” is absurd, largely because it ignores the biological determinants of human behavior, and a common genetic inheritance is something that we all certainly share. Yet although Pinker and like-minded scholars feel they can account pretty well for the prevalence of selfishness and even violence across all human cultures, they have more trouble explaining why we remain uneasy, even guilt-stricken, about our most common tendencies – why selfish and violent are pejorative terms for us (p. xvii).

In spite of the limitations of the approaches taken by Rorty and Pinker, there are two problems with Augustine’s particular articulation of the doctrine of original sin. First, Jacobs notes “Augustine’s ever more forceful insistence that unbaptized infants surely are condemned to hell” (p. 62). Even if one concedes that all persons are born with the taint or stain of original sin, it does, indeed, seem most unjust – even monstrous – to believe that God would cast unbaptized infants into hell for all eternity. And to my mind at least, it also leads to a theology of sacraments that treats them more as forms of magic than sure and certain means for receiving the mystery of God’s grace. Jacobs continues by nothing how even a positive side of this aspect of the doctrine quickly becomes problematic:

One effect of this doctrine might, however, be commended: churches led the way in pressing for the creation and enforcement of criminal statutes against infanticide. But these too are deep and troubled moral waters, because up until the eighteenth century in England and later in some other European cultures churches also enforced a rite of public shaming on unwed mothers. This meant that an unmarried woman who became pregnant could be forced to choose between infanticide – which, she was told, could damn her child to Hell as well as take its physical life – and a humiliating public exposure that, in rural areas and small towns, was likely to haunt her for the rest of her life (pp. 65-66).

A second problem is that Augustine so closely ties original sin to human sexuality and procreation that it comes dangerously close to affirming Gnostic and Manichaean views repudiated by orthodoxy. And so “the whole doctrine of original sin, in Western Christianity anyway, got inextricably tangled with revulsion toward sexuality and images of tormented infants” (p. 66). I have to wonder how many persons end up rejecting any conception of original sin – not because they buy into the views of a Rorty or a Pinker – but because they find these implications of Augustine’s particular formulation offensive.

Another objection to the doctrine of original sin is that it undermines the freedom of human moral agency and thus, by extension, the grounds for holding persons responsible for their behavior. Only a tyrannical God would hold persons responsible for behavior that they cannot help doing anyway.

It’s in the light of this objection that I was particularly intrigued by Jacobs’ discussion of Pelagius. Actually, according to Jacobs, Pelagius ‘felt that an overemphasis on human sinfulness, especially on the inherited shackles of original sin, discouraged people from the practice of holiness” (pp. 50-51). Why bother trying to be holy when you’re inevitably going to screw it up anyway? Pelagius took a different approach:

Pelagius and his followers were zealots impatient for sainthood and intolerant of spiritual mediocrity. Their biblical watchwords were John 14:15 (“If you love me, you will keep my commandments”) and Matthew 5:48 (“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”). Pelagius believed that perfect obedience to God is possible and therefore obligatory, or perhaps it would be better to say obligatory and therefore possible. Augustine’s emphasis on the corruption of our will, never fully healed in this life, was to Pelagius not just wrong but absurd. It would make no sense, he felt, for God to ask us to keep commandments that inherited sin would prevent us from keeping, and if Augustine replied that it is precisely in our weakness and failure that we learn to seek the grace of God, Pelagius countered that the grace of God may be found in our ability to keep the commandments. Grace empowers us to avoid failure, rather than consoling us after we have failed. If Augustine emphasized our utter dependence on god, our permanent status as God’s children, Pelagius replied, “Oh, grow up” (p. 51).

Jacobs continues:

This we can all achieve, thought Pelagius, because each of us possesses a perfectly free will. At any moment we can simply choose to obey God. As Pelagius’ friend and devoted disciple Caelestius wrote, “It is the easiest thing in the world to change our will by an act of will.” We live under no inherited curse that constrains and breaks us; that’s just making excuses. In fact, he claimed, many people have lived without sinning at all, including people before Christ (p. 52).

Living as we do in an individualistic, can-do culture, it’s easy to see how Pelagius’ theology might appear more attractive than Augustine’s. As Jacobs says, “Pelagius seems to have been something like the Tony Robbins of his time, full of exhortation and encouragement: ‘You can do it! You can be like Christ!’” (p. 51).

So what’s the down side of Pelagius’ motivational theology? Jacobs puts it this way:

The Pelagian good news is that at every moment you are free to obey; the (unstated, hidden) bad news is that at every moment you are equally free to sin, and at the instant of choice a lifetime of strict spiritual discipline will avail you nothing. And every choice is unimaginably momentous: the clear implication of the claim that perfection is both possible and obligatory is that those who fail to obey – at any point – are in danger of eternal damnation. … [Pelagius’] original word of encouragement (“You can do it!”) immediately yields to the self-doubting question: “But am I doing it?” It makes rigorous asceticism the only true Christian life … and condemns even the most determined ascetic to constant self-scrutiny, a kind of self-scrutiny that can never yield a clear acquittal. You might have missed something; and in any case you could sin in the next five minutes and watch your whole house of cards crash down (pp. 52, 53).

So if that’s what Pelagianism offers, what’s so much better about the Augustinian view? Jacobs puts it like this:

By contrast, Augustine’s emphasis on the universal depravity of human nature – seen by so many then and now as an insult to human dignity – is curiously liberating. I once heard a preacher encourage his listeners to begin a prayer with the following words: “Lord, I am the failure that you always knew I would be.” It is the true Augustinian note. Pelagianism is a creed for heroes, but Augustine’s emphasis on original sin and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel. We’re all in the same boat as Mister Holier-than-Thou over there, saved only by the grace that comes to us in Holy Baptism. Peter Brown once more: “Paradoxically, therefore, it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings” (pp. 53-54).

And then there's this concluding point for those who minimize or reject the doctrine of original sin:

... the theologian who wishes to minimize the effects of original sin - who wishes to deny that our power to do good has been impeded or diminished by our inheritance from Adam - must reckon with what seems to be the obvious fact that we don't do nearly as much good as [Pelagius'] theory says we can, that we consistently fail to keep (most? all?) of the commandments of Scripture (pp. 114-115).
There’s so much more in Jacobs’ book, so if you find any of what I’ve shared intriguing, do yourself a favor: get a copy and read it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Universalism Repudiated by the Prayer Book

A charge sometimes leveled against The Episcopal Church these days is that we are falling off the cliff into the heresy of universalism. It’s not always clear what, exactly, these critics mean by the term “universalism,” but I take it that more often than not the term is meant to signify the belief that all persons will be saved, regardless of how they have lived their lives and regardless of whether or not they have accepted the saving grace offered in Jesus Christ. (If, on the other hand, by “universalism” one means God’s desire that all may be saved … well that’s another matter entirely.)

It may be true that some individual Episcopalians have endorsed a theology of universalism contrary to the historic Christian faith. But, as my clergy colleague and fellow blogger Tobias Haller has recently pointed out:

“ … the alleged ‘changes’ in TEC mostly consist in comments or opinions expressed by certain leaders. So, officially, the teaching has not changed. It is not up to the PB [Presiding Bishop], or Jack Iker, or Robert Duncan, or Jack Spong, to determine the doctrine of the church on their own, and their individual comments stand or fall on their own merit. You will find off the wall comments from Roman, Methodist, and even Baptist clergy if you look around – yet the doctrinal formularies state the content of the Faith.”

The doctrinal formularies do, indeed, state the content of the Faith. So, just for fun, I thought I’d share the results of my brief look at how the 1979 Prayer Book repudiates the heretical kind of universalism defined above.

In posting this, I am assuming that the words of The Book of Common Prayer actually mean something and that this meaning is normative for all baptized persons who have vowed “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” (BCP, p. 304), and to all ordained persons who have vowed to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (BCP, p. 526).

Here we go:

Suffrage B in Evening Prayer Rite II: “That we may depart this life in your faith and fear, and not be condemned before the great judgment seat of Christ” (BCP, p. 122). This petition not only affirms a final judgment, but also leaves open the possibility of condemnation at that judgment.

The Great Litany
1. “Spare us … from everlasting damnation” (BCP, p. 148). This suggests that everlasting damnation is possible, else why petition God to be spared from it?
2. “That it may please thee to grant that … we may attain to thy heavenly kingdom” (BCP, p. 152). This suggests that it’s possible we may not attain it.

Collect for the First Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 211) – Affirms that we need God’s grace to “cast away the works of darkness” lest, when the final judgment comes, we be unable to “rise to the life immortal.” This is an unnecessary petition if it is not possible for us to miss out on “the life immortal” due to embracing “the works of darkness.”

Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent (BCP, p. 211) – Suggests that if we do not heed the warnings of the prophets and forsake our sins, we will not be able to greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ.

Collect for Ash Wednesday (BCP, p. 217) – Suggests that we must worthily lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness to obtain “perfect remission and forgiveness.” This is an unnecessary prayer if repentance is unnecessary for receiving remission and forgiveness.

Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent (BCP, p. 218) – We pray God to “be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son.” Suggests that it’s possible to stray from God’s ways and that this is so serious that we need to pray for God’s grace and mercy for such persons that they may return. What’s the point if such straying is no big deal?

Collect for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday (BCP, p. 219) – Asks God’s mercy to “walk in the way of [Jesus’] suffering” that we may “also share in his resurrection,” suggesting that without the former, one cannot attain the latter.

First Collect for Easter Day (BCP, p. 222) – Suggests that daily death to sin is prerequisite to “evermore liv[ing] with him in the joy of his resurrection.”

Collect for Tuesday in Easter Week (BCP, p. 223) – Acknowledges that we “have been raised with him,” and then petitions God to grant that we “may abide in his presence,” suggesting the possibility that, in spite of having been raised, some may nevertheless not abide.

Collect for Saturday in Easter Week (BCP, p. 224) – Thanks God for delivering us from “the dominion of sin and death” and for bringing us “into the kingdom,” but then petitions God that, just as Jesus’ death “recalled us to life,” so may his love “raise us to eternal joys.” Surely this is an unnecessary petition if it’s not possible for some to not be raised to eternal joys.

Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (BCP, p. 225) – Affirms that following “steadfastly” in Jesus’ “steps” is “the way that lead to eternal life,” suggesting that not following in Jesus’ steps leads to a different end.

Collect for the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday (BCP, p. 228) – Suggests that steadfastness in the “faith and worship” of the “true faith” as articulated in the doctrine of the Trinity is necessary for seeing God in his [sic] “one and eternal glory.” One may legitimately read this as affirming a correlation between salvation (Beatific Vision), orthodoxy (right doctrine), and orthopraxy (here, right worship). This is very traditional stuff!

Collect for Proper 1 (BCP, p. 228) – Although we have been called to God’s service, this collect points out that we still need to be made “worthy of our calling.” This is an unnecessary petition if we’re already so worthy of our calling that nothing needs to change.

Collect for Proper 8 (BCP, p. 230) – Acknowledges that the teaching of Jesus and “the apostles and prophets” is necessary for joining us “in unity of spirit” and for making us “a holy temple acceptable to [God].” Can teachings contrary to the apostles and prophets serve the same end? This Collect suggests an answer of “no.”

Collect for Proper 12 (BCP, p. 231) – Acknowledges that without the increase and multiplication of God’s mercy, we cannot so pass through things temporal” that we lay hold of “the things eternal.” It’s an unnecessary petition if laying hold of things eternal is a foregone conclusion.

Collect for Proper 21 (BCP, p. 234) – This collect is similar to the Collect for Proper 12. It’s an unnecessary petition if becoming “partakers of [God’s] heavenly treasure” is a foregone conclusion.

Collect for Proper 26 (BCP, p. 235) – This collect is similar to the Collects for Propers 12 and 21. It’s an unnecessary petition if it’s not possible to stumble and thus fail “to obtain [God’s] heavenly promises.”

Collect for Proper 28 (BCP, p. 236) – Connects reading, hearing, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the holy Scriptures to embracing and ever holding fast to the blessed hope of everlasting life given to us in Jesus. This suggests several things: (1) Some sort of relationship with scripture is a necessary component of embracing the hope of everlasting life; (2) that lacking such a relationship, we may not be holding fast to such a hope; and (3) that as a hope, everlasting life is not a foregone conclusion. Who hopes for what one already has?

Collect for Saint John (BCP, p. 238) – A
sks that we be so illumined by the teaching of the apostle John that we “may so walk in the light of [God’s] truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life.” This is an unnecessary petition if it’s not possible to fail to attain to the fullness of eternal life.

Proper Preface for Advent (BCP, p. 378) – This collect is an unnecessary petition if it’s not possible to stand before Christ at his coming again “in power and great triumph” with shame and fear, and thus be unable to “rejoice.”

from Eucharistic Prayer D (BCP, p. 375) – “And grant that we may find our inheritance with … all the saints who have found favor with you in ages past.” This is an unnecessary petition if obtaining such an inheritance is a foregone conclusion. (There are similar petitions in the other Eucharistic prayers.)

from the “Litany at the Time of Death” (p. 463) – “We sinners beseech you to hear us, Lord Christ: That it may please you to deliver the soul of your servant from the power of evil, and from eternal death.” This is an unnecessary petition if such deliverance is a foregone conclusion. (A similar point can be made of the other petitions in this litany.)

Perhaps these words from the Prayer Book don’t really mean what they purportedly say. In which case we have to ask the question: why say them at all? Or maybe they do mean what they say and I don't believe it. Well, if I, as a priest, do not believe what the words of the Prayer Book collects and liturgies say, why would I want to stand at the altar week after week and lie before God and the gathered assembly? And why would I want to worship in a church that regularly affirms things in the liturgy which I find unbelievable or even abhorrent?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sacred Vows, Sacred Trust

Tobias Haller posted this piece written by the Very Reverend George Werner, former president of the House of Deputies, on his blog. It's a fine statement about the vows of Holy Orders and the responsibilities they entail for the stewardship of our church's resources. I think it also complements and extends some of my own thoughts on norms and anomie in The Episcopal Church.

Fifty years ago, I was accepted as a postulant for Holy Orders. When I was ordained, our vows were referred to as “Sacred Vows” committing ourselves to a calling, a vocation and not just a job. The Vows were so significant that after we recited them, the service was stopped, while we went and signed a printed copy of the vows. I pasted my copy in my prayer book hymnal. I made those vows at ordination to the Diaconate and again at my ordination to the Priesthood. I was ordained by Bishops of a Diocese but for the Episcopal Church. In later years, when I was required to establish my identity by various secular authorities, I gave the page and edition number of the Episcopal Church Annual. My authority, my “license,” my legal standing as a priest, came from the Episcopal Church. When I moved to a Diocese, the first credential was to be in good standing as a Priest in the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church welcomed me as a steward, not an owner, but a steward of ministry resources. When I was called to a parish, I was given the use of Church buildings and grounds; vestments, chalices and other altar appointments; organs, pianos, office equipment; funds for mission & ministry, endowments and designated funds for scholarships and outreach. I was responsible for working with the congregation to maintain all of the above and (see parable of the Talents) to enhance and grow those resources to the best of our ability. When it was time to leave, I turned all of the above over to my successor. I was told from day one, you are a steward not an owner and the Episcopal Church is trusting you with these resources because of your ordination to the priesthood and license within the Episcopal Church.

Bishops have a third set of vows. They are approved by the whole Episcopal Church before they may be ordained and consecrated to the Episcopate. The Diocese elects and the Episcopal Church, through a vote of Bishops holding jurisdiction over Dioceses and a majority of Diocesan Standing Committees, consents and affirms the election. When the consents are required within three months of General Convention, the House of Deputies of General Convention acts in the role of the Standing Committees. Once Consecrated, the Bishops receive the use of the resources of a Diocese as stewards not owners. When they leave, they are to turn it all over to the succeeding Bishop.

There have always been times when a Deacon, Priest or Bishop, as a matter of conscience, deems it impossible to continue in the Church which has empowered them. There are appropriate ways to declare such. Two Bishops I greatly respect, John Lipscomb formerly Bishop of Southwest Florida and Jeffrey Steenson of Rio Grande (New Mexico and part of West Texas) each have been received into the Roman Catholic Church. As Paul reminds us in Romans, we are to outdo one another in honor. These men took honor seriously.

Some are arguing that the property belongs to the current members of a Church or Institution. That requires forgetting the great contributions of the hundreds and thousands of Saints who have preceded them in those places. Trinity Cathedral is the mother Church of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and has served Western Pennsylvania for 25 decades. I had the privilege of being responsible for Trinity for two of those decades. Bp. Duncan was responsible for one. Does that mean I am twice as worthy to “own” the Cathedral? That is absolute nonsense.

Someone wrote that since the Episcopal Church has a polity of participatory democracy that the majority of current members has the right to property. ... I love our polity. While I am quick to point out its flaws, I have found it to be more helpful for me in ministry and mission for Jesus than other polities. But simply stated, we in Pittsburgh watched as the checks and balances of our polity were dismantled over the last eight years or so. At the end, we were not even permitted to have a roll call vote at Convention. I did not speak at our Convention to the issues of controversy during my six years as President of the House of Deputies, since I would have to preside over them. In November of 2006, in the two minutes I was allotted (and then only if you were near enough to the front of the line to be called on before debate was ended) I decried the fact that as someone who had served the mother parish of the Diocese for more than twenty years; as someone who had an unusual, if not unique, view of the entire Episcopal Church, that I was allowed only 120 seconds to speak to the most difficult and complex question the Diocese of Pittsburgh had faced since its founding following the war between the states.

I do not question the sincerity or commitment to Jesus of those with whom I may disagree. Like the late Bp. Herb Thomson said to the wardens and rector of a parish which chose to leave the Episcopal Church, “How may we help you board another ship in the fleet of Christ?” For fifty years, I have never once considered claiming ownership of property and resources entrusted to me and my colleagues. I was surprised, even shocked, when a Pittsburgh priest started talking about this twenty or more years ago. I think, like Bp. Thompson, we may work to find ways to make this painful period gracious and to give the Body of Christ in our areas the best opportunities to do ministry in Christ’s name. I still believe my vows are sacred. I still thank God for the sacred trust given me by the Episcopal Church. How blessed I have been.

George Werner
31st President of the House of Deputies

Monday, January 19, 2009

King's Letter

In remembering the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I think it's appropriate to read his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and also the "Call for Unity" issued by white Alabama clergyman that prompted King to write that letter.

Here's what one source says about Dr. King's letter:

The Letter from Birmingham Jail or Letter from Birmingham City Jail, is an open letter written on April 16, 1963, by Martin Luther King, Jr., and American civil rights leader. King wrote the letter from the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was confined after being arrested for his part in a non-violent protest conducted against segregation.

King's letter is a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, titled "A Call for Unity". The clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. King responded that without nonviolent forceful direct actions such as his, true civil rights could never be achieved. As he put it, "This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.'" He asserted that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but that "one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." ...

The letter includes the famous statement "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," as well as the words attributed to William E. Gladstone quoted by King: "[J]ustice too long delayed is justice denied."

I think it's fair to say that King's letter is one of the most important and eloquent documents of the 20th Century. And it's incredible to think that King actually wrote it in a jail cell. (It's difficult for me to not also think about another great Christian leader who wrote amazing letters from jail cells.)

Read the "Call for Unity."

Then read King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Israel, the Land, and God's Promise

A recent issue of The Christian Century featured an essay by Gary Anderson, Professor of Old Testament at Notre Dame University, entitled "Does the Promise Still Hold?: Israel and the Land." Here are some brief excerpts:

What are Christians to make of the promises God made to the Jews? Ever since World War II and the Holocaust, Christians have been anxious about the implications of the strains of anti-Judaism that survived into the 20th century. Time and again, writers have turned to Paul's epistle to the Romans to seek comfort and aid. For what we find in this epistle is a full-throated affirmation of God's promise to the Jews.

The advantage of the Jews, Paul avers, lies in the fact that they "were entrusted with the promises of God." Could their refusal to acknowledge God's Messiah be a sign that those "promises have been annulled? "By no means," Paul declares. "Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true" (Rom. 3:2, 4). Though they have become enemies for a time, "as regards election, they are [still!] beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (11:28-29).

Inspiring words, these. But what do they really mean? ...

Israel's claim to its land is to be distinguished from that of other peoples in another important way. The choice of Abraham and the people he would engender was not an end in itself. Rather, through that choice God sought to bring blessing to a troubled world. Through Abraham, the nature of God's relationship to humanity was to be made known. Thus, when God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their flagrant wickedness, he decided to bring Abraham into his confidence, and for an important reason. "For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him" (Gen. 18:19). ...

... Christians must also insist that the promises of scripture are indeed inviolable and that Israel's attachment to this land is underwritten by God's providential decree. The miraculous appearance of the Israeli state just after the darkest moment in Jewish history is hard to interpret outside of a theological framework.

Nevertheless, the acknowledgment of Israel's right to some form of sovereignty in Palestine leaves many pressing moral questions open. How is Israel to view the present moral quandary in which it finds itself? What is the relationship of Israeli Jews to the people with whom they dwell?

Read it all.

The issue also includes insightful responses to Anderson's essay by Walter Brueggemann, Marlin Jeschke, and Donald E. Wagner, followed by Anderson's reply. I strongly suggest reading all of these in addition to Anderson's essay.

The offerings of Anderson, Brueggemann, Jeschke, and Wagner provide important models of reflection and dialogue for Christians across the theological and political spectrum as we grapple with the complexities of what continues to unfold in the Holy Land.

Edited Out of Psalm 139

I'm by no means unique when it comes to treasuring Psalm 139. It's always been one of my favorites. I love its reminder of just how intimately God knows and loves us, and its ringing affirmation that no matter where we find ourselves - in the heights of heaven, in the depths of the grave, or even "in the uttermost part of the sea" (v. 8) - God's guiding and sustaining presence leads us and holds us fast.

It's precisely because I love Psalm 139 so much that I am irritated with the Prayer Book and the Revised Common Lectionaries. For both lectionaries typically edit out two of the most powerful verses in this psalm, lumping them together with verses which curse the wicked and express hatred for enemies (vv. 18-21 in The Book of Common Prayer Psalter). Here are the excised verses:

Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
try me and know my restless thoughts.

Look well whether there be any wickedness in me
and lead me in the way that is everlasting (vv. 22-23).

It's one thing to edit out verses that call for vengeance and hatred (and I say that having written before about how problematic it is to reject the expression of the full range of human feelings expressed by the Psalms as though they are unacceptable or even un-Christian). But editing out these last verses of Psalm 139 means cutting out one of the most beautiful petitions in the Psalter, and a petition that provides an ideal model for breath prayer. And so it's a real shame that we almost never hear these words in public worship.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Strong Man

Homiletic reflections from Episcopal priest, Anglican Centrist, and rock bassist Greg Jones.

I am always moved when in the Gospel of Matthew God appears to Joseph and tells him to take wife and child and run away, for Herod wants to destroy the child. As a father, I'm moved to want to protect my children – if that means running and hiding I'll do it. I know many in Gaza are feeling this way these days. Just as in Israel, the Sudan, Myanmar, Mexico, and all the places where babies depend on their parents for nurture in a world run ragged by the cruel arms of oppression.

What is more, as a believer, I am so deeply moved by the idea that God - who is infinite - has chosen to become a tiny baby in need of the protection of his parents, from the threat of folks like Herod. It still boggles my mind that our good old story of salvation is rooted in the story of the Son of God who became a baby dependent on a mommy and a daddy, so he might grow up to become the strong man on the cross.

I am also moved by the connected passage in Jeremiah where it says, "The Lord has redeemed him from hands too strong for him." Jeremiah is not just talking about the individual man who once wrestled with God, but with all persons who struggle with God. Jeremiah is also talking about the work of the fragile baby who becomes the strong man on the cross, who pries us free from hands too strong. Hands of sin, of fear, of destruction.

I am moved by this Word about a Baby going to Egypt long ago, and this prophesy about a redeemed creation. Moved because for me, it's not out there. It's not long ago. It's right here. It's now. I hear God speaking to me in these words.

Back in college I had a friend who was like a little bear. This guy was short and stocky and strong. Like strong teens often will to other boys, he'd come up and grab me sometimes – and just crush me. I tried so hard to break free, but he was just too strong. His hands and arms were too strong for me. He could have killed me with a bear hug, but instead he merely crushed me and then mocked me. He'd say, "Boy, you sure are big not to be strong."

Ouch. But it's true. Not only have I almost always been a bit stocky, and not that athletic, but I've never been able to get sin's strong arms off me either. This is why I thank God that the "Mighty Lord Become Tiny Baby Become Strong Man on The Cross" has done so for me.

This is the Gospel of course, that Christ offers strength to those who set their hearts on him. That's His message of transformation, to we Americans who are awfully big not to be strong for the Lord. That's His call to grow in spiritual strength, so that we might become strong hands for Christ.

We who have grown so filled with privilege and American overplenty, are called out of our big but weak lives into something more for the Kingdom. And it's not a guilt trip, but a journey toward service in Christ.

As I understand it, too, there's only one exercise that will transform ourselves, souls and bodies into Christly people. That exercise is the picking up of our cross.

This year, here are five ways to carry the cross and grow stronger in faith:

1. Forgive someone, even if they don't deserve it.
2. Make a sacrificial gift for the work of the Kingdom.
3. Volunteer in the name of God somewhere.
4. Read a bit of the Gospel everyday.
5. Take on daily prayer for self, neighbor and world.

We are all awfully big not to be strong. But the strong one on the cross will help us change.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders - whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

Eskimo Baptism

DESCRIPTION: Two eskimos frozen in an ice hole, others looking on dismayed CAPTION: ANOTHER ESKIMO BAPTISM GONE BAD

Copyright Gospel Communications International, Inc -

Monday, January 12, 2009

Do Episcopalians Believe in the Creeds?

In 2008 Morehouse Publishing released The Episcopal Handbook. Describing itself as "The essential field guide for all things Episcopal!", the style and format of the book echoes that of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. It combines lots of basic, good information about the Episcopal Church with occasional humor, as some of the chapter titles suggest:
  • How to Survive a Baptism
  • Do Episcopalians Leave Church Early?
  • Is Coffee Really the Third Sacrament?
  • Why (Most) Episcopalians Don't Kick Dogs
Here's what it says in response to the question, "Do Episcopalians Believe in the Creeds?"

Believe in them? We even memorize them!

Like most churches, Episcopalians have a high regard for the historic creeds of the Christian faith. You will find the Nicene Creed included in the main Sunday services at nearly every Episcopal church. The Apostles' Creed is found in the daily prayers suggested in the Book of Common Prayer, and is recited at baptismal services.

These creeds are more than 1,500 years old and are widely regarded as embodying the essentials of the Christian faith. They describe our understanding of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as the place and role of the church. When we recite them on Sundays we realize that we are not only confirming our unity with millions of other Christians around the world, but with even millions more who have preceded us in the faith.

Also included in the Book of Common Prayer is the Creed of Saint Athanasius, which is found in the back in a sectioned labeled "Historical Documents." This is not normally recited at worship, but is included as a reference alongside other writings that have shaped the Episcopal Church.

The creeds play an important role in the ongoing formation of the Episcopal Church. We continue to rely on their principles as we take our faith into the new millennium.

May we ever hold fast to those principles and embrace the theology they entail.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"In God We Trust": Is It Really That Important?

The following mass e-mail was forwarded to me today by a Greek Orthodox Christian:

Here's your chance to let the media know where the people stand on our faith in God, as a nation. NBC is presently taking a poll on "In God We Trust" to stay on our American currency. Please send this to every Christian you know so they can vote on this important subject. Please do it right away, before NBC takes this off their web page. Poll is still open so you can vote.

This is not sent for discussion. If you agree forward it, if you don't, delete it. By me forwarding it, you know how I feel. I'll bet this is going to be a surprise to NBC.

This may not have been "sent for discussion," but I'm going to open it up for discussion anyway.

I was tempted to respond to this e-mail by saying: "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's."

I don't understand why an Orthodox Christian has a dog in a fight that (as far as I can tell) is primarily being waged by conservative evangelicals. What exactly is at stake for Orthodoxy in this issue?

But at an even more basic level, I don't understand why keeping the phrase "In God We Trust" on our money is so central to the Church's mission and witness.

I'm not saying that Christians do not or should not have a stake in our common life as American citizens. Or that we should not have a public voice. I do not advocate for the banishment of Christian witness from the public square.

But putting this emphasis on the words inscribed on our currency seems to me to be at best a distraction from more pressing issues (biblical and doctrinal illiteracy within our churches, the failure of "mainline" churches to engage in credible and relevant evangelism, rising rates of teen pregnancy, war, poverty, racism, lack of affordable health insurance, the economy - and on and on we could go). At its worst, it may signal a form of nationalism using Christianity as a cover for its legitimacy.

If I'm missing something here, please help me out.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Original Sin: Reject or Defend?

I recently heard an interview on the Mars Hill Audio Journal with Alan Jacobs about his latest book Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne, 2008). I was so fascinated by the interview that I've borrowed the book from Vanderbilt Divinity School Library through their Kesler Book Lending Service (if you're ordained and don't know about this service, do yourself a favor and check it out).

The first paragraphs of the Introduction are worth sharing:

All religious beliefs prompt rejection. Souls are reincarnated? Ridiculous. The Bible is divinely inspired? Dangerous nonsense. Muhammad is the prophet of God? Poppycock. Jesus rose from the dead? Absurd. It is the common fate of doctrines to be dismissed; you'd almost think that's what they were made for. But not all beliefs are dismissed in the same way. Some get an airy wave of the hand; others, a thoughtful shake of the head, with pursed lips indicating a tinge of regret; still others, the stern wag of a hectoring finger. But of all the religious teachings I know, none - not even the belief that some are eternally damned - generates as much hostility as the Christian doctrine we call "original sin."

It is one of the most "baleful" of ideas, says one modern scholar; it is "repulsive" and "revolting," says another. I have seen it variously described as an insult to the dignity of humanity, an insult to the grace and loving-kindness of God, and an insult to God and humankind alike. And many of those who are particularly angry about the doctrine of original sin are Christians. One of the great evangelists of the nineteenth century, Charles Finney, called the doctrine "subversive of the gospel, and repulsive to the human intelligence." A hundred years earlier an English minister, John Taylor of Norwich, had cried, "What a God must he be, who can curse his innocent creatures before they have a being! Is this thy God, O Christian?"

Yet for other Christians this teaching is utterly indispensable. Taylor's outburst prompted book-length retorts from two of the great pastoral and theological minds of that era, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. Blaise Pascal believed that without this particular belief we lack any possibility of understanding ourselves. G. K. Chesterton affirmed it with equal insistence, adding the sardonic note that it is the only doctrine of the Christian faith that is empirically provable. The twentieth-century French Catholic writer George Bernanos wrote, paradoxically but sincerely, that "for men it is certainly more grave, or at least much more dangerous, to deny original sin than to deny God."

What is this belief that generates such passionate rejection and such equally passionate defense?

I'm reminded of a time when I was teaching a class in an Episcopal parish and I made reference to original sin. In response, one of the Episcopalians said with surprise, "I haven't heard the term 'original sin' in years!" Perhaps it's hard to get passionate about something that's not even on the radar screen.

Anyway, the book looks like a fascinating read.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ethics Test

Just for fun, take the ethics test to see how well you excel at distinguishing between general moral principles and other claims.

What could be a more exciting way to start a new year?