Tuesday, March 31, 2009

John Donne

Today is the feast day of John Donne (1573-1631). Here’s what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about him:

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for thee.”

These words are familiar to many; their author, John Donne, though less well known, is one of the greatest of English poets. In his own time, he was the best-known preacher in the Church of England. He came to that eminence by a torturous path. Born into a wealthy and pious Roman Catholic family in 1573, he was educated at both Oxford and Cambridge, and studied law at Lincoln’s Inn. Some time later he conformed to the Established Church and embarked upon a promising political career of service to the State. The revelation of his secret marriage in 1601 to the niece of his employer, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, brought his public career to an end. In 1615, he was persuaded by King James the First and others to receive ordination.

Following several brief cures, Donne rose rapidly in popularity as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, from 1622 until his death. He drew great throngs to the Cathedral and to Paul’s Cross, a nearby open-air pulpit. His sermons reflect the wide learning of the scholar, the passionate intensity of the poet, and the profound devotion of one struggling in his own life to relate the freedom and demands of the Gospel to the concerns of a common humanity, on every level, and in all its complexities [Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (Church Publishing, 2006), p. 218].

And here’s a passage from Donne’s meditation “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1624):

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up al our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.

As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know forf whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee [quoted in
They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts, edited by J. Robert Wright (Church Hymnal Corp., 1993), pp. 69-70].

Monday, March 30, 2009

Christian and Buddhist Devotion: Mutual Respect and Appropriate Boundaries

In light of the anomie brought to light in the case of the so-called "Buddhist" bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, I thought it might be helpful to share a more balanced approach to relations between Christians and Buddhists. The following passage comes from a talk given at the House of Saints Gregory and Macrina in Oxford, England on May 20, 1983 by Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Bishop of Kurunagala in Sri Lanka. Here's a brief biographical sketch of the bishop:

Lakshman Wickremesinghe (1927-1983) was from a high-caste landowning Sinhalese family. He studied at the University of Ceylon, and subsequently at Keble College, Oxford, and Ely Theological College, followed by ordination and curacy in Poplar, London. He was Bishop of Kurunagala in Sri Lanka from 1962 until his early death in 1983, which left the churches in Asia bereft of one of their finest leaders. A distinguished contemporary described him as 'churchman, mystic, evangelist, human rights activist and reconciler, prophet, pastor, and theologian' [Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 737].

In the the following passage (first published in
Christianity Moving Eastwards), Bishop Wickremesinghe shares memories of a journey he made with Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie to a Buddhist holy site in Sri Lanka. I think it's particularly instructive to note how he mentions the ways in which they showed respect to their Buddhist hosts, but also maintained appropriate boundaries so as not to even give the appearance that they were abandoning the Christian faith or making a statement that Buddhism and Christianity are really just saying the same thing in different ways. What a striking contrast to recent forays into Buddhist territory in The Episcopal Church!

The other example relates to the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Temple of the Tooth, the central sanctuary of the Sinhala Buddhism. It has ceremonies which include both ritual acts and the chanting of scriptural texts to signify the meaning of these acts. It contains images of the Buddha, and also his tooth which is venerated as a supreme relic, and is encased in a reliquary in an inner shrine. There is no worship in Buddhism except among the superstitious. The relic, the sculpture and painting are visual aids; the placing of good before the reliquary is a manual aid, and the chanting of texts an auditory aid for the act of anamnesis. The aim is to remember the Buddha as if he were alive and present in the midst of life. Gratitude and renewed resolution to follow his path are linked. There is a numinous atmosphere, since the Buddha is viewed as the supreme example of history of the realised transcendental goal of human life.

The closest parallel in Christianity would be the ceremonies, including the ritual acts and chanting along with the use of incense, in a numinous atmosphere, before the reserved sacrament on the altar. All these are aids for the act of anamnesis, so that Jesus Christ, the supreme revelation of the transcendent Father, becomes alive and present in the midst of believers. Thanksgiving and inspired commitment to imitate the exalted Lord are linked to this anamnesis.

I took the Archbishop to visit this Buddhist sanctuary at the invitation of the custodian chief monk (who was the equivalent in status among the monks of Sri Lanka). We made certain gestures. We removed our footwear as is the custom. For us it was an act of reverence to Gautama the Buddha as a religious leader of spiritual insight and moral stature, whose relic was a continuing symbol of historic personality and acknowledged saintliness. Even Clement, when referring to the barbarian philosophers, says that 'Some too of the Indians obey the precepts of the Buddha, whom on account of his exceptional holiness, they have raised to divine honours' (Stromateis 1.15).

Following some of the early Fathers like Clement, Origen, Augustine, and Niceta, we viewed Gautama as one of the 'just persons being made perfect' who belonged to the company of those who will be included within the heavenly Jerusalem. In that sense, his shrine was a sign and vehicle to us of the God whom we worshipped, who indwelt the saintly Gautama, whatever his erroneous views; and so we paid him due reverence. We also permitted the monks to chant blessings upon us, which they wished to do out of respect and goodwill to an international religious leader. However, we did not place our folded hands in front of our breasts with bowed heads as the Buddhists among us did, because we did not accept the interpretation of this blessing in the texts they chanted. We received the blessing as from God whose presence we acknowledged there; and the Archbishop wished them God's blessing in that very place where we were received officially. Like the Samaritans who offered sacrifices through their rites and ceremonies in Mount Gerazim, the monks and the Buddhist laity sharing in these rites and ceremonies in Kandy did not know the significance of what they were doing. We knew before Whom these cultic acts were being performed, and we conveyed this understanding by our presence and the gestures we made and did not make.

We were asked whether we would place a tray of flowers before the relic; we declined. We might have done so, and not followed it by another act of holding our folded hands above our bowed heads, as Buddhists do, following the Eastern tradition. The first act would have been a mere act of reverence before a saintly person's statue. The second act, which implies supreme veneration to the highest realisation on earth of the Transcendent, we could not do under any circumstances. But we abstained from the first ritual act to avoid misunderstanding and offence. Christians in Sri Lanka also offer flowers as a ritual act, as is done before the altar in our Cathedral and elsewhere. We do this to offer thanks and adoration to the Creator, whose unfading beauty is the source of the finite beauty of the flowers we offer. But when Buddhists offer flowers before the relic with accompanying manual act, they say, 'As these flowers fade, so fade I; such is the transience of life.'

This ritual act of placing a tray of flowers as an offering has different meanings for Christians and Buddhists. Thus, to do so in the inner shrine room before the relic would have cause confusion among many. The simple Christian would have thought that the Archbishop was doing something idolatrous; the simple Buddhist would have thought that the Archbishop was acting out of insincere motives. St Paul's admonition about not offending the weaker brother and sister seemed the advice that the Archbishop and I, as Christian leaders, had to follow. That is why we abstained.

But we did not consider that the ceremonies performed at this sanctuary were being offered simply to demons, or that the sanctuary itself was simply the abode of demons. Those who performed these ceremonies did not do something intentionally maleficent, nor were they subject to maleficent influences afterwards. We recognised that whatever good was done there was acceptable to God as we know Him in Jesus Christ, and whose Presence is everywhere in degrees of hiddenness. What was erroneous or done with an evil intention or deluded mind was due to the deception of the evil one. So, we acted according to our understanding of what was and what was not idolatry. Seeing what Clement said about the Buddha, I do not know how else we would have acted in the circumstances.

Quoted in Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness
(Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 739-741.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Embracing the Cross of Christ

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent
RCL, Year B: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

I once read about an Episcopal priest who erected three large crosses on the front lawn of the church during Lent. The church was located in a residential neighborhood, so lots of people passing by on their way to work or home couldn’t help but see these towering crosses. It didn’t take long before phone calls started coming in. Some people living in the neighborhood were upset. The common complaint weaving its way through the objections was that the three crosses standing on the church lawn made the neighborhood look bad.

Another instance hit closer to home for me. It happened at the church I attended when I came home for breaks during college. The wooden cross on the lawn had rotted at the base and fallen down. I asked the pastor when we would put the cross back up. He responded: “We’re not going to do that. The cross is such a negative image for so many people. We’ll find something more positive to focus on, instead.”

In a more recent example, I saw that a priest in England ordered the removal of the crucifix outside the parish church he serves. Here’s what he told a British newspaper about the decision:

“The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn't want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying. It wasn't a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off. We’re all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross.”

No doubt about it, the cross – and especially crosses with the crucified body of Jesus – can make us feel uncomfortable. We don’t like to look into the face of suffering. Even the early Christians shied away from depicting the cross. According to one scholar, “There is no cross symbol nor any equivalent” in the early Church, and: “The suffering Christ on a cross first appeared in the fifth century, and then not very convincingly.”[1] The shame and degradation, the scandal and horror of the cross were just too much.

And yet, our faith as Christians tells us that we cannot avoid the cross of Christ. We cannot bypass the crucified Jesus. For the path to the empty tomb of our Lord goes straight through Calvary. And so the Good News of hope and redemption that we Christians have to offer cannot be separated from the cross of Christ. For in a way that turns the values and expectations of the world on their heads, the cross of Christ is the means by which God unleashes healing and reconciliation for the world.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to John drives the point home in a striking way. The public ministry of Jesus is coming to a close and the time of his Passion draws near. And so Jesus tells his disciples: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:31-32 NRSV).

For John, Jesus nailed to the cross – broken, bleeding, and dying – is no embarrassment to be hidden away. On the contrary, Jesus nailed to the cross is something to be lifted up on high for the whole world to see. For the triumphant irony is that Jesus’ moment of greatest humiliation is also his moment of greatest exaltation. John lifts high the cross, thrusting it into our faces to challenge the moral myopia that keeps us fixated on ourselves, our pleasures, our comforts, and our respectability. And he does it because we need the public exposure of truth that only a cross with Jesus nailed to it can give us.

Looking at Jesus nailed to the cross is like looking into a mirror. It reflects back to us what we really look like and what we’ve really become. In the mirror of the cross, we see our sinfulness in all of its brutality and ugliness. We see in the crucified Jesus how our world responds with violence to the message that God loved the world so much that He sent His only begotten Son. We see our willingness to degrade and humiliate other people in order to secure our pleasures and comforts, justify our own righteousness and superiority, and maintain the illusion of control. Looking at Jesus on the cross, we see how our selfishness can turn into arrogance, and how our arrogance can turn into a hatred that requires the deaths of the innocent. We see the truth that, in spite of our social, intellectual, and technological “progress,” we are still just as captive and obedient to the forces of sin and evil which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God as we’ve ever been. Like the naked, crucified body of Jesus lifted up on high, the cross exposes our selfishness, hubris and arrogance for everyone to see. And in Jesus’ tortured, dead body, we see God’s judgment on it all.

No wonder we might prefer to put aside the cross of Christ, taking it down and hiding it away from public view!

As painful as it may be to keep the cross first and foremost in our hearts and minds, as difficult as it may be to accept the depths of God’s judgment on our sinfulness, there’s an even deeper truth at work here. For the cross of Christ reveals not only a word of judgment about human depravity. Jesus hanging on the cross also reveals God’s final word about this world. And it’s a word of transforming grace.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus reveals the lengths God is willing to go to save us from ourselves.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus gives everything that he has – including his life – for every single person who has or ever will walk the face of this earth, even and especially those who mock, scorn, and reject him.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus takes all of our fears, sins, hatred, and violence upon himself.

Nailed to the cross, Jesus transforms violence into peace, hatred into love, degradation into dignity, despair into hope, and death into life. Nailed to the cross, Jesus becomes the center point of history, the place where human suffering and evil run amuck collide head-on with God’s determination to bring justice and healing to a fallen but good creation – even though that determination costs the life of the One who is “close to the Father’s heart” (Jn 1:18 NRSV).

One Anglican theologian puts it like this:

The pain and tears of all the years were met together on Calvary. The sorrow of heaven joined with the anguish of earth; the forgiving love stored up in God’s future was poured out into the present; the voices that echo in a million human hearts, crying for justice, longing for spirituality, eager for relationship, yearning for beauty, drew themselves together into a final scream of desolation. … [And so] the death of Jesus … is the fulcrum around which world history turns. … [For] Jesus’ death was not a messy, tragic accident, but the surprising victory of God over all the forces of evil.[2]

“The surprising victory of God over all the forces of evil” – that is why the moment of Jesus’ greatest glory is precisely the moment when the Roman soldiers lift him up off the ground nailed to a cross.

From the world’s perspective, that may sound perverse. It may sound as though we Christians glory in weakness, cruelty, suffering, and death. It sure did to the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, who called the cross of Christ “the most subterranean conspiracy ever heard of,--against health, beauty, well-being, intellect, kindness of soul--against life itself.”[3]

In contrast to the Nietzsches of this world, I believe that the apostle Paul gets it right: “The message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction” (1 Cor 1:18, The Message). But for we who belong to the crucified and risen Lord, the cross is the supreme expression of “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18 NRSV). For in the crucified Jesus, we see not just the depths of our sinfulness and God’s judgment upon it. In Jesus lifted high on the cross, we see God’s “No!” to anything and everything that degrades, enslaves, and murders. In the outstretched arms of Jesus nailed to the cross, we see God’s passionate desire to draw all of broken humanity and creation to Himself for healing. In the broken body of the crucified Jesus, we see the depths of a love that takes all of the world’s suffering straight into the heart of the divine life for transformation. And in the dead Jesus hanging on the cross, we see God’s willingness to share everything with us, including desolation and death, in order that everything may be redeemed.

So we need never be ashamed of the cross of Christ. On the contrary, we can embrace it and lift it up on high for everyone to see. For by the cross of Christ, God has brought joy and life to the world.

[1] Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Mercer University Press, 1985), pp. 56, 165.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 111.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist. [1889]. Great Literature Online. 1997-2009 http://nietzsche.classicauthors.net/antichrist/antichrist62.html (24 Mar, 2009).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

To Whom Can We Go?

The Gospel reading from John appointed in the Daily Office today includes a scene that has always been deeply moving to me.

The context sets the stage. Jesus has just raised the bar of salvation by insisting that "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (Jn 6:53). As a result, "many of his disciples" say, "'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?'" (Jn 6:60). Jesus' response doesn't seem to help matters, perhaps especially when he says that no one comes to him apart from the will of the Father. That leads to apostasy: "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him" (Jn 6:66).

Then comes the Johannine version of Peter's 'good confession':

So Jesus asked the twelve, 'Do you also wish to go away?'

Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life' (Jn 6:67-68)

To whom can we go for the words of eternal life? Different people and different religious traditions answer that question (or analogous questions) in very different ways. The answers are not all saying the same thing. Even during my years of drifting away from the faith of the Church, I somehow understood that. And this passage continued to resonate for me even as I struggled with the claims upon my life and loyalties made by Jesus.

Today's meditation on John 6:60-71 from Forward Day by Day offers important points and questions for consideration:

We follow him because we are convinced he has the words of eternal life. Peter says here that we believe and know-and if we have faith and are certain that Jesus is the Son of the living God and if we hold on tightly to his word, we shall not be moved.

In this passage, some of the disciples of Jesus turned back and stopped following him. They lost the vision of following. Some had followed because they ate the bread that Jesus gave them. Others wanted to see miracles. Yet others followed because they saw people gathering. It was easy for them to fall by the wayside because their motive for following Jesus was wrong.

What about your own motive? Can you say with Peter that you believe and that you are certain that Jesus is the Son of the living God and that he has the words of eternal life? We have nowhere else to go but to Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Sometimes the question comes up, "If you weren't a Christian, what would you be? Would you be a Jew? A Buddhist? A Muslim? Something else?"

My own journey has led me to a point of clarity about such questions. For me, if it's not the Jesus we meet in the pages of the New Testament, if it's not the Jesus we encounter in the preaching and teaching of the early Church Fathers and Mothers, if it's not the Jesus of the historic creeds, if it's not the Jesus of mainstream Christian thought and practice down through the centuries, if it's not the Jesus I encounter in the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer and in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist ... then there really is nowhere else to go.

If it's not Jesus, then all bets are off.

If it's not Jesus, then it's Nietzsche's der Wille zur Macht.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Biblical Inspiration and the Rendering of Scripture

A Facebook quiz I recently took called "Which Anglican Theologian Are You?" said that I am Austin Farrer (1904-1968). Intrigued, I just read a very insightful passage from Interpretation and Belief (1976) by Farrer on the meaning of biblical inspiration that I want to share.

But first, a brief biographical sketch:

The son of Baptist parents, Austin Farrer became an Anglican as an undergraduate at Oxford, where he read Classics and Theology. After a curacy in Dewsbury he returned to Oxford in 1930, and in 1935 succeeded Kenneth Kirk as chaplain of Trinity, where he served for twenty-five years, until his final eight years as Warden of Keble. A devout Tractarian in spirituality, he was a notable philosopher of religion, an imaginative student of scripture, and one of the most brilliant preachers of his generation [Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 658].

Now for the passage from the book.

If God inspires St Paul to speak, how are we to strain out St Paul, so as to be left with the pure word of God? ... How are we to draw the line between the Apostle's oddities and the word of God?

It would save us a lot of trouble if we could find a cut-and-dried answer to that question; but cut-and-dried answers to spiritual questions are always false, and in the special matter of understanding God's word Christ rules such answers out. 'He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear', he said. We cannot hear the voice of God in Christ's words, let alone in St Paul's or Isaiah's, unless we have an ear attuned. After we have done our best to understand the words by the aid of mere honest scholarship, there is still something to be done, and that is the most important thing of all: to use our spiritual ears. If we do not believe that the same God who moved St Paul can move us to understand what he moved St Paul to say, then (once again) it isn't much use our bothering about St. Paul's writings. 'God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.'

'God is his own interpreter.' Does this mean that each of us is to take any given text to signify just what we happen to feel about it at the moment of reading? Certainly not. God is his own interpreter, but he does not interpret himself only by speaking in the single reader's mind, he interprets himself by speaking in the Church, in the whole organized body of Christian minds; we are not alone, we have the mind of Christendom, the Catholic Faith, to guide us. God is his own interpreter in another way, too: he gives us one text by which to interpret another. The God who spoke in St Paul spoke also in St John, he who inspired one page of St John also inspired the next page, and the one will cast light upon the other. And above all lights, most clear and most brilliant, is the light of Christ.

People used to talk about the verbal inspiration of Scripture, that is, the inspiration of the actual words. In one sense that is absolutely right, but in another sense it is misleading. Verbal inspiration is a misleading expression, if it means that every word is guaranteed to be free from human error or bias, so that (for example) St Luke's dates, St John's history, and St Paul's astronomy are absolutely beyond criticism. That is not so: St Paul's astronomy is (as astronomy) no good to us at all. St Luke appears to have made one or two slips in dating, and St John was often content with a very broad or general historical effect, and concentrated more on what things meant than just the way they happened. It does not matter. God can and does teach us the things necessary to our salvation in spite of these human imperfections in the texts.

But in another sense verbal inspiration is a proper expression; indeed it stands for the very thing we need to think about most. It is not true that every word is guaranteed, but it is true that the inspiration is to be found in the very words and nowhere else. What God inspired St Paul to do was to use the very words he used; just as, when God inspires you to do a good action, the action itself is what God inspires. He doesn't put some sort of vague blue-print for action into the back of your head, and leave you to carry it out according to your own ability. He inspires the action, and if we want to see Gods' spirit expressed in the lives of his rue servants, we don't look for it in any general ideas, policies, or attitudes they may have, but int he particular things they do. Every detail counts; the tone of the voice, the gesture of the hand can make the difference between social hypocrisy and Christian kindness. So too it is in the detail of expression, in the living words of divine Scripture that we hear the voice of the divine Spirit, not in any general (and therefore dead) ideas. We are listening to the voice of God, not reading a text book of theology; we must attend, therefore, to the homely phrases, the soaring poetry, the figures of speech, the changes of mood; for these are the alphabet of the divine utterance.

I take up the Bible and I read. Here are a million or so printed words, in which divine gold and human clay are mixed, and I have to take the gold and leave the clay. Is there clay everywhere mixed with the gold, does no part of the text speak with a simple and absolute authority? Indeed it does in some part, for some part of it is the voice and recorded action of Christ, and in Christ the divine does not need to be sorted from the human, the two are run into one, for here is God in human nature by personal presence. Christ is the golden heart of Scripture. Indeed, if he were not there, the rest would not concern me. Why do I read St Paul? Because he sets Christ forth. Why do I read the Old Testament? Because it is the spiritual inheritance Christ received, it is what he filled his mind with, it is the soil in which his thought grew, it is the alphabet in which he spelled, it is the body of doctrine which he took over and transformed. So whenever I am reading the Old Testament I am asking, 'What does this mean when it is transformed in Christ?' and whenever I am reading the New Testament I am asking, 'How does this set Christ forth to us?'

There is no part of the Bible which is not inspired, because there is no part that does not either illuminate, or receive light from, the figure of Christ. But obviously not all parts are equally important, and some of them are more the concern of theologians than of laymen. Begin from the most important parts; read the Gospels and Epistles, read Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah, and when you are full of those spread you net wider.

People will always ask why God gives us his truth in such a mixed form; just as they will always ask why God made the world such a mixed affair. And those who are looking for excuses to live without God will say that, until God speaks more clear, they cannot be bothered to listen; but people who care about God will listen to him here, because this is where he can be heard and because it's a matter of life and death.

What is the Bible like? Like a letter which a soldier wrote to his wife about the disposition of his affairs and the care of his children in case he should chance to be killed. And the next day he was shot, and died, and the letter was torn and stained with his blood. Her friends said to the woman: The letter is of no binding force; it is not a legal will, and it is so injured by the accidents of the writer's death you cannot even prove what it means. But she said: I know the man, and I am satisfied I can see what he means. And I shall do it because it is what he wanted me to do, and because he died next day.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Zen Christian

The Internet continues to feast on the story of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester, the so-called Buddhist bishop-elect of Northern Michigan. I just Googled the term “Buddhist bishop” and got 778,000 hits. From sites I’ve looked at, postings on this story range from support, to caution, to the charge of betrayal and deceit.

Perhaps I’m a bit slow on the draw, but I’ve just gotten around to reading the piece Forrester wrote for a diocesan publication back in 2004 entitled “Bridging the Gap: Finding a Place in East and West.” It includes the now infamous declaration:

"My soul-work entered a new stage on Pentecost, at Fortune Lake Lutheran Camp, when I, as a Christian, received Buddhist 'lay ordination' and a new name, to go along with my Christian name: Genpo (Japanese, for 'way of universal wisdom'). I now walk the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism."

Forrester has tried to explain the meaning of all this as follows:

“ … lay ordination has a different meaning in Buddhist practice than in the Christian tradition. The essence of my welcoming ceremony, which included no oaths, was a resolve to use the practice of meditation as a path to the truth of the reality of human suffering. Meditation deepens my dwelling in Christ-the-healer.”

Even if Forrester’s explanation of his “lay ordination” is accurate, his published theological statements raise serious questions about his understanding of the Christian faith and, indeed, whether or not he really subscribes to the tenets of Christianity.

Here, for example, is a passage from his 2008 Trinity Sunday sermon that goes rather far in the direction of collapsing any distinction between human beings and the Second Person of the Trinity:

"… we heard in the gospel today in Matthew that, for His community, Jesus says that all, what all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. That’s what we heard today, right? All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Well, we could slightly rephrase that and keep it, keep its true meaning, I think, if we would say: Jesus realized that all that He is, He had received from God. Jesus is the one that realized all He is, 'all I am, I have received from God.' And in response, we read in the gospels later on His response, to having received everything from God is that, 'into Your hands I commend my spirit and Thy will be done.' He receives everything from God and He returns everything to God. That is what it means that everything has been given to Jesus, all the power. His very center, the center of His heart, of His body, of His mind, is the living God. All things come from the divine source for Jesus—who He is, His self identity, His soul, that just means His understanding of who He is, He has come to realize and it’s key in that baptismal moment, that He is the very presence of the living God. That is who He is. He is one who is unified with God. ... Jesus realizes that God dwells in His very being, He is one with God, and He is one with you and me. And because He is one, He is the lifegiver. He can show us the path of life, which is the path to realizing that we are one with God. We are one with one another."

I hear this saying that we’re all just like Jesus: one with God. And that the problem is that we just don’t know it. We lack sufficient knowledge or awareness of our true identity. We are unenlightened to the unity of all that is. This reduces Jesus to little more than a sage or a teacher of wisdom, rather like Buddha (or, perhaps, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas). And that’s a far cry from what the Nicene Creed means when it says of Jesus that he is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” (BCP, p. 358). As a consequence, Forrester undermines the faith of the Church by denying the uniqueness and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Here’s another passage from the sermon:

"One of the amazing insights I have found in the interfaith dialogue is that, no matter what you name that source, from which all life comes—you can name that source God, Abba; you may name that source Yahweh; you may name that source Allah; you may name that source 'the great emptiness;' you can name that source many things, but what all the faiths in their wisdom have acknowledged in the interfaith dialogue is that, you and I, we’re not the source. We receive from the source, and what we are asked to do is give back to the source. In other words, what the interfaith dialogue has recognized is that there is a Trinitarian structure to life. That’s what I’m driving at this morning. We make the Trinity much too complex. The Trinitarian structure of life is this: is that everything that is comes from the source. And you can name the source what you want to name the source. And our response to that is with hearts of gratitude and thanksgiving, to return everything back to that source, and there’s a spirit who enables that return. Everything comes from God. We give it back to God. And the spirit gives us the heart of gratitude. That is the Trinitarian nature of life. And you can be a Buddhist, you can be a Muslim, you can be a Jew, and that makes sense."

There are several things to say about this passage.

First, it is deeply problematic to suggest that the world’s religious traditions are basically all saying the same thing. This requires making a distinction between a common essence to all religions on the one hand, and non-essentials such as creeds, liturgies, doctrines, dogmas, ritual practices, ethical norms, etc., on the other hand. For Forrester, the essence is “the source.” Things like the dogma of the Trinity (which he says we’ve made “much too complex”) are non-essential.

In his book No Other Name?: A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions (Orbis, 1985), Paul F. Knitter notes a few of the problems with the common essence approach to religion:

In the way they stress the distinction between essence and nonessentials, followers of the common essence school give the impression that the more one enters into and becomes one with the inner core or essence of religious experience, the less one needs the nonessentials of religions. It seems, in fact, that in order to hold to the essence, one is better off discarding the nonessentials (p. 51).

Another pitfall in this same area is the way many followers of the common essence approach subtly suggest that … the nonessentials of religion are incidental, or completely arbitrary. … It seems that anything goes; any creed, code, or cult can express the mystery of the Ultimate as long as it is personally appropriated, as long as it fits the needs of many. The doctrines, the rituals, the ethical practices of all the religions are valid; they are all equally true.

What is naively forgotten is that the external forms of religion do affect the way the Ultimate is experienced and the way that experience is lived out in daily life. It is possible that some nonessentials can distort the reality of God and lead to practices that are not in harmony with the truth and goodness of the Ultimate. Also, certain “accretions,” certain beliefs and ethical norms, may provide a more adequate image of deity or a more relevant morality than other beliefs and norms (p. 52; emphasis in text).

I think that the common essence approach expresses disrespect for the genuine, substantive differences in theology and practice that exist between religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. As an example of one such substantive difference, I note that a Buddhist notion of "the great emptiness" is not what the Church means by "God."

It’s also arrogant and dismissive to tell other people, “You say that you believe in such-and-such and that your religion teaches X, Y, and Z. But I know better. I know that you really believe – and that your religion really teaches – A, B, & C. You’re just not enlightened enough to see it.”

This passage from Forrester's sermon also reduces the dogma of the Trinity to a rather vague conception of “the Trinitarian nature of life” or the “Trinitarian structure of life” in which “everything that is comes from the source” which one can call by whatever name one chooses (“the great emptiness,” “God,” etc.). It’s not difficult to see that this has little if anything to do with the Church’s understanding of God as three Persons in one Essence. Add this to collapsing the distinction between Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity and all of humanity, and Forrester effectively jettisons the dogma of the Trinity.

A final question from Knitter’s No Other Name? seems appropriate to raise about the implications of the common essence approach in Forrester’s sermon:

Does the common essence approach too easily throw out the traditional Christian belief in the uniqueness, the normativity, and finality of the revelation given in Jesus the Christ? (p. 54)

I think the answer to this question is “yes.”

For another critical take on Forrester's sermon, check out "The Anglican Centrist."

There are also problems with Forrester’s 2004 article entitled “Bridging the Gap: Finding a Place in East and West.” I’ll note just a few of them, starting with this:

"We also live in a world where not only religions, but denominations within religions, exclaim and proclaim that their way to God is the only path to salvation. The God of Abraham and Sara, of Jesus, of Mohammed, is even invoked to kill others. Fear, again, is the reason."

Pretty much everyone across the theological spectrum (excluding suicide bombers and other terrorists) condemns using the Holy as an excuse to kill others with whom we may disagree. I wonder what empirical evidence can support the blanket charge that the reason why some (most? all?) religious persons make claims to absolute truth is because they are afraid? And that this fear leads to murder? Besides being overly simplistic and reductionist, this also trivializes what’s at stake between different religious and philosophical traditions: namely, claims to truth.

Once again, this is a weakness of the common essence approach to religion, as Paul Knitter notes:

Does not such a staunch denial of any absolute religion run contrary to the nature of authentic religious experience? Does not any genuinely personal experience of the Ultimate contain a degree of absoluteness in leading one to assert that not only is this true for me but it can also be true for others? The experience of the Ultimate brings one to the natural contention, not that other religious experiences are false [although it certainly can and does do that], but that one’s own approach can also be true for them (No Other Name?, pp. 53-54).

Later in the article, Forrester writes:

"I see now a Jesus who does not raise the bar to salvation, but lowers it so far that it disappears."

I’m not sure where Forrester gets this Jesus, because such a Jesus is not portrayed in the New Testament gospels. And from what I know about the gnostic gospels, you can't find that Jesus there, either.

Then there’s Forrester’s take on sin:

"Sin has little, if anything, to do with being bad. It has everything to do, as far as I can tell, with being blind to our own goodness. And when we are blind we hurt ourselves and others – sometimes quite deeply."

Equating sin with blindness reduces the problem of sin to a matter of not being able to see. In other words, sin is a lack of enlightenment or a deficiency of proper insight. If we can just “wake up” and see things properly – including seeing our innate goodness – then everything will be okay. This fails to take seriously Christian conceptions of the nature, depths, and consequences of sin and evil.

And one more passage from Forrester:

"Zen offers a method, you might say, to see what Jesus saw in his own baptism: that we are indeed beloved by God. There is no need to cling to anything in the desperate hope that it is what will make us acceptable before God. All of creation is always already accepted by God as it is."

I’ve no quarrel with the whole “beloved by God” bit. John 3:16-17, it seems to me, provides ample justification for believing that we (and all of creation) are radically loved by God. The problem is with the parts I’ve put in italics. For in making these assertions, Forrester denies a core conviction of the New Testament: that something is deeply awry with God’s good creation, that there is a desperate need for healing and redemption that requires divine intervention. Instead, Forrester affirms that there is no need for transformation. There’s no need for intervention. There’s nothing to be saved from, a point which he makes in his Trinity Sunday sermon and which he seems to think is affirmed by the Syriac translation of the New Testament (wrongly, as I have noted elsewhere). Everything is as it should be ... if only we could just see it!

I’ve written previously of the incompatibility of the Rev. Ann Holmes Redding’s saying the shahada of Islam with her vows as a baptized and ordained Christian. And while I know more about Islam than I do about Buddhism, I’m not persuaded by what I’ve read that Forrester’s views are compatible with the Christian faith as articulated by Holy Scripture and The Book of Common Prayer.

Indeed, if what Forrester says in his 2008 Trinity Sunday sermon and in his 2004 diocesan article are representative of his theology, then I think he is unfit for having any place in the apostolic succession. I would even go so far as to say that he shouldn't be a priest. What he is affirming in these two pieces simply cannot be reconciled with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church to which clergy have vowed to conform. And it doesn't help matters if the charges are true that he drops the Nicene Creed from the Sunday liturgy and writes Eucharistic prayers for use in principal services of worship on Sundays (both of which openly violate ordination vows). And then we have to add to all of this concerns about the search and election process that led to his nomination as bishop. What a mess!

The problem here is not that Buddhist meditation techniques might be helpful for one's spiritual life. The problem is denying the dogmatic core of the Christian faith and replacing it with something else.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Beyond Criticism: Learning to Read the Bible Again

Biblical scholars Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays offer reflections and nine theses on the art of biblical interpretation in an article that first appeared in April 20, 2004 issue of The Christian Century. It's well worth reading. Here are some teasers (note that I am not including the authors' exposition for each thesis here):

A cartoon in the New Yorker shows a man making inquiry at the information counter of a large bookstore. The clerk, tapping on his keyboard and peering intently into the computer screen, and peering intently into the computer screen, replies, "The Bible? . . . That would be under self-help."

As the cartoon suggests, in postmodern culture the Bible has no definite place, and citizens in a pluralistic, secular culture have trouble knowing what to make of it. If they pay any attention to it at all, they treat it as a consumer product, one more therapeutic option for rootless selves engaged in an endless quest of self-invention and self-improvement. Not surprisingly, this approach does not yield a very satisfactory reading of the Bible, for the Bible is not, in fact, about "self-help"; it is about God’s action to rescue a lost and broken world.

If we discount the story of God’s gracious action, what remains of the Bible is decidedly nontherapeutic. We are left with a curious pastiche of ancient cultural constructions that might or might not be edifying for us, in the same way that the religious myths of any other ancient culture might or might not prove interesting or useful. Indeed, some postmodern readers have come to perceive the cultural alienness of the Bible and find it dangerous and oppressive.

The difficulty of interpreting the Bible is felt not only in secular culture but also in the church at the beginning of the 21st century. Is the Bible authoritative for the faith and practice of the church? If so, in what way? What practices of reading offer the most appropriate approach to understanding the Bible? How does historical criticism illumine or obscure scripture’s message? How are premodern Christian readings to be brought into engagement with historical methodologies, as well as feminist, liberationist and postmodernist readings? The church’s lack of clarity about these issues has hindered its witness and mission, so that it fails to speak with wisdom, imagination and courage to the challenges of our time. Even where the Bible’s authority is acknowledged in principle, many churches seem to have lost the art of reading it attentively and imaginatively. ...

Nine theses on interpreting scripture

1. Scripture truthfully tells the story of God’s action of creating, judging and saving the world.

God is the primary agent revealed in the biblical narrative. The triune God whom Christians worship is the God of Israel who called a people out of bondage, gave them the Torah, and raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. This same God is still at work in the world today. God is not a projection or construct of human religious aspiration. Readers who interpret the biblical story reductively as a symbolic figuration of the human psyche, or merely as a vehicle for codifying social and political power, miss its central message. Scripture discloses the word of God, a word that calls into existence things that do not exist, judges our presuppositions and projects, and pours out grace beyond our imagining.

2. Scripture is rightly understood in light of the church’s rule of faith as a coherent dramatic narrative.

Though the Bible contains the voices of many different witnesses, the canon of scripture finds its unity in the overarching story of the work of the triune God. While the Bible contains many tensions, digressions and subplots, the biblical texts cohere because the one God acts in them and speaks through them: God is the author of scripture’s unity for the sake of the church’s faithful proclamation and action.

3. Faithful interpretation of scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative: the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New.

The Bible must be read "back to front" -- that is, understanding the plot of the whole drama in light of its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This suggests that figural reading is to be preferred over messianic proof-texting as a way of showing how the Old Testament opens toward the New. Yet the Bible must also be read "front to back" -- that is, understanding the climax of the drama, God’s revelation in Christ, in light of the long history of God’s self-revelation to Israel. Against the increasingly common contention that Christians should interpret "the Hebrew Bible" only in categories that were historically available to Israel at the time of the composition of the biblical writings, we affirm that a respectful rereading of the Old Testament in light of the New discloses figurations of the truth about the one God who acts and speaks in both, figurations whose full dimensions can be grasped only in light of the cross and resurrection. At the same time, against the assumption that Jesus can be understood exclusively in light of Christian theology’s later confessional traditions, we affirm that our interpretation of Jesus must return repeatedly to the Old Testament to situate him in direct continuity with Israel’s hopes and Israel’s understanding of God.

4. Texts of scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama.

5. The four canonical Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus.

The Gospels, read within the matrix of scripture from Genesis to Revelation, convey the truth about the identity of Jesus more faithfully than speculative reconstructions produced by modernist historical methods. The canonical narratives are normative for the church’s proclamation and practice.

6. Faithful interpretation of scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action -- the church.

Scriptural interpretation is properly an ecclesial activity whose goal is to participate in the reality of which the text speaks by bending the knee to worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ. ...

7. The saints of the church provide guidance in how to interpret and perform scripture.

8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse others outside the church.

9. We live in the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" of the kingdom of God; consequently, scripture calls the church to ongoing discernment, to continually fresh re-readings of the text in light of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work in the world.

Read it all.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Spong's Negative Certainty

Back in August 2008 I noted a fine essay on Bishop Spong's "phantom religious faith" by Eric Von Salzen over at "The Anglican Centrist." Today I've come across another critical take by "The Reformed Pastor," this time in response to Spong's March 20th "On Faith" column for The Washington Post entitled "Losing Faith in Old Traditions."

The "Reformed Pastor" quickly diagnoses the theological emptiness and absurdities at the heart of Spong's negative certainty:

Spong may not have a clue what he believes, but he is absolutely, positively certain of what he doesn’t believe: anything even remotely connected with historic, biblical Christianity. ...

So our “current faith systems” bear no resemblance whatsoever to a reality that is hopelessly beyond any of us anyway, but they shouldn’t be abandoned. They should apparently be propped up for the sake of the children of all ages who can’t stand to be without their fairy tales. I can’t think any other reason not to abandon the frauds that Spong claims all of the world’s religions are. In fact, it’s obvious that if Spong is right about the nature of God, there’s no reason to pay Him any more mind, since He hasn’t revealed Himself to us, is incapable of relationship with us, and is no more relevant to our existence than King Arthur or Elmer Fudd. ...

This is meaningless gibberish. Surely if the world’s religions, including Christianity, have nothing to tell us about “God,” whatever that is, then there is no meaningful sense in which they can be the “means through which we journey.” If they haven’t got a clue where we’re going, why should we want to walk the paths they lay out? For that matter, how can we “walk into the mystery of a God” whom we cannot know in any sense? And what does that mean, anyway?

Good questions.

Read it all.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Muslim Episcopal Priest?

In the light of recent developments in this case, I think it's worth re-posting the piece I first wrote posted in June 2007, along with the subsequent updates appended at the end of my original posting.

The blogosphere is buzzing with the story of the Rev. Dr. Ann Holmes Redding, an Episcopal priest in Washington State who, in 2006, made the profession of faith that there is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet. She claims to be both a Christian and a Muslim.

When asked how she reconciles the differences between Christianity and Islam, here's what Redding said in an article from The Seattle Times:

"People within one religion can't even agree on all the details," she said. "So why would I spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief with all of Islam? At the most basic level, I understand the two religions to be compatible. That's all I need."

(See also Redding's interview in the Diocese of Olympia's newsletter. Also, go to this site and you can follow a link to read one of her sermons.)

For the record, I do not think it is possible to be both a Christian and a Muslim. The similarities and points of overlap notwithstanding, each of these faith traditions make rival and incompatible truth claims about God and Jesus.

In short, I think the Rev. Redding's understanding is just flat wrong.

Before getting to where she goes wrong, I want to first elaborate on some of the points of overlap between Christianity and Islam.

Christians and Muslims share with our Jewish brothers and sisters a veneration of a common ancestor in Abraham. And there is ample Qur'anic testimony that is favorable towards Christianity.

Consider that the Qur'an honors Christians (and Jews) with the special status of "People of the Book" (ahl al-kitab). In earlier times under the Islamic caliphate, such a status gave protection to Jews and Christians within Islamic society, insuring that both religious groups could practice their faith unhindered [cf. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Volume I: The Classical Age of Islam (University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 199]. This is at least partly due to the view that prophets delivered the authentic message of God and scriptures to Jews and Christians.

A typical statement in this regard may be found in sura 2, 62: "Surely the believers and the Jews, Nazareans and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and whosoever does right, shall have his reward with his Lord and will neither have fear nor regret" [Al-Qur'an, translated by Ahmed Ali (Princeton University Press, 1984)].

"Nazareans" refers to Christians, and it indicates that Christians believe in the same God as Muslims and that they "will be rewarded on the Last Day" [Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an (Barnes & Noble, 1965), p. 153].

Elsewhere, the Qur'an affirms a close kinship between Islam and Christianity. A revealing sura is to be found in 5, 82: " ... the closest in love to the faithful are the people who say: 'We are the followers of Christ'." And here's sura 29, 46: " ... say to them [the 'People of the Book'], 'We believe what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one, and to Him we submit'."

Not only does the Qur'an affirm that Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in the same God, but it also holds that these three religions exist as part of the will of God. With the constraint that only the one true God is worshiped, the Qur'an affirms religious diversity:

To each of you We have given a law and a way and a pattern of life.

If God had pleased He could surely have made you one people (professing one faith).

But he wished to try and test you by that which He gave you.

So try to excel in good deeds.

To Him will you all return in the end, when He will tell you of what you were at variance (5, 48).

This is a very positive take on the relationship between the "People of the Book." I think that our differences notwithstanding, the emphasis on "excel[ling] in good deeds" is one which Christians and Muslims (and others) would do well to put into practice.

But when it comes to the dogmatic core of the Christian faith as articulated by the Nicene Creed, Islam and Christianity part ways. Big time.

For example, while it is true that the Qur'an portrays Jesus in a very positive light as one of the special prophets, even going so far as to affirm the virgin birth, his teachings and miracles, and his return to act as judge at the end of time, it is also true that the Qur'an categorically rejects the divinity of Jesus. Instead, Jesus is "only an apostle [or messenger] of God" (4, 171).

Furthermore, here is what the Qur'an says about Jesus' death:

So [the 'people of the Book] were punished for ... saying, 'We killed the Christ, Jesus, son of Mary, who was an apostle of God;' but they neither killed nor crucified him, though it so appeared to them. Those who disagree in the matter are only lost in doubt. They have no knowledge about it other than conjecture, for surely they did not kill him (4, 155 & 157).

Orthodox Islam not only rejects the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but also his death by crucifixion.

If the Qur'an is the norm, then the Christology of the Gospel of John (and the New Testament in general), the Ecumenical Councils, the early Church Fathers, and the Eucharistic Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer constitute "the one unforgivable sin in Islam," that of associating (shirk) something with the one true God [Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam (Macmillan, 1985), p. 93].

In addition, if the Qur'an is correct, then the symbol of the cross we so prominently display in our churches and wear around our necks is an empty signifier. For the belief that Jesus was crucified (a rather prominent theme in the New Testament) is false. At best, Jesus only appeared to die on a cross. It follows that when Christians recite the Nicene Creed's words that Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried," they are propagating a lie about one of God's special messengers.

When Redding notes that "what Islam does is take Jesus out of the way of her relationship with God, 'but it doesn’t drop Jesus'," she is correct. But only from an Islamic perspective. From a Christian perspective, the very idea of taking Jesus out of the way of one's relationship with God, and then denying his crucifixion and resurrection, is apostasy.

Then there's what the Qur'an says about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

Disbelievers are they surely who say: 'God is the third of the trinity;' but there is no God other than God the one. And if they do not desist from saying what they say, then indeed those among them who persist in disbelief will suffer painful punishment (sura 5, 73).

This is a strong condemnation of belief in God as Trinity as a blasphemy worthy of punishment. For just as with believing in Jesus' divinity, maintaining that God is one Being in three 'persons' is another instance of unforgivable sin.

So when the Qur'an affirms that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God, that's true - but only from an Islamic perspective.

In short, the radical monotheism of orthodox Islam rejects the dogmatic core of Christianity as blasphemy.

I think that the Rev. Redding would do well to take some time off to discern which faith - Islam or Christianity - she believes she is called to adopt and practice. This is all the more pressing in light of the "Oath of Conformity" in the ordination rite, in which those to be ordained as Episcopal clergy stand before God, the bishop, and the gathered assembly and say these words:

"... I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation [and not the Qur'an]; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church [and not Islam]" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 526).

But taking time for discernment may be unlikely given what The Seattle Times says:

Redding's bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, says he accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim, and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting.

We live in strange and sad times when it is "exciting" for a priest to make a profession of faith that repudiates the dogmatic core of Christianity - while still functioning as a priest!

UPDATE - July 6, 2007:

Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island has inhibited the Rev. Dr. Redding from functioning as a priest (Redding is still canonically resident in Rhode Island, although she has not served there in 20 years). A communication from Bishop Wolf says: "I issued a Pastoral Direction giving her the opportunity to reflect on the doctrines of the Christian faith, her vocation as a priest, and what I see as the conflicts inherent in professing both Christianity and Islam. During the next year she is not to exercise any of the responsibilities and privileges of an Episcopal priest or deacon."

You can read about it at TitusOneNine, The Anglican Centrist and The Seattle Times.

UPDATE - September 12, 2007:

Listen to this story on Ann Holmes Redding on NPR's "Day to Day" here.

UPDATE - October 10, 2008:

This is in today's Seattle Times:

In a letter mailed last week to national and local church leaders, Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, who has disciplinary authority over the Seattle priest, said a church committee had determined that Redding "abandoned the Communion of the Episcopal Church by formal admission into a religious body not in communion with the Episcopal Church."

Wolf has affirmed that determination, barring Redding from functioning as a priest for the next six months.

According to church law, unless Redding resigns her priesthood or denies being a Muslim during those six months, the bishop has a duty to defrock — or depose — her, as the process is formally known.

Read it all.

UPDATE - March 18, 2009

According to an article in last Monday's USA Today, Bishop Wolf "has told Redding that her conversion to Islam constitutes an abandonment of the Christian faith and she must recant by March 30 or lose her status as a priest." The piece also notes that March 25 marks the 25th anniversary of Redding's ordination. Read it all.

I also note that a story about Redding's case in last Sunday's edition of The Providence Journal says this about Bishop Wolf:

In Bishop Wolf’s view, the moment that Redding recited the words of the Shahada, the creed that says “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger,” she gave her allegiance to Islam and abandoned the Christian faith.

“As I understand it, Muslims do not believe in the divinity of Christ. They don’t believe in the death of Christ or that he is the Son of God, which are cornerstones of the Christian faith. Yes, there are people in every religion who try to stretch the basic tenets of a belief, but if you choose to be a priest within the Episcopal Church you are speaking for the church and its teachings. It demands a commitment.”

The article also includes this:

In a departure from traditional Islamic teaching, Redding holds that Jesus was crucified and was resurrected. She argues that the Koran doesn’t explicitly deny that Jesus was crucified but only that the Jews did not crucify him.

However, Imam Abdul Hameed of the Islamic Center of Rhode Island disputes her reading. The Koran, he says, makes clear that Jesus was not crucified or killed, but was “lifted up” to God.

“I think she is a little confused. There is no possibility for one to be both a Muslim and a Christian,” Hameed said. “If she doesn’t believe that [Jesus] is the son of God, she is not Christian. And she can’t be a Muslim if she believes Jesus died on a cross.”

As pastorally difficult as this situation may be for all persons concerned, I applaud Bishop Wolf for upholding the integrity of holy orders and requiring her clergy to be accountable to the vows they've made.

UPDATE - April 1, 2009

The Seattle Times reports today that the Rev. Redding has been defrocked:

The Episcopal Church has defrocked Ann Holmes Redding, the Seattle Episcopal priest who announced in 2007 that she is both Christian and Muslim.

Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, who has disciplinary authority over Redding, informed the priest of her decision in a letter today.

Wolf found Redding to be "a woman of utmost integrity and their conversations over the past two years have been open, honest and respectful," according to a press release from the Diocese of Rhode Island.

"However, Bishop Wolf believes that a priest of the Church cannot be both a Christian and a Muslim."

"I am very sad," Redding had said Tuesday. "I'm sad at the loss of this cherished honor of having served as a priest."

She also said she was sad at what seems to her to be a narrow vision of what the church accepts.

Redding, who had formerly served as director of faith formation at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral on Capitol Hill, announced in June 2007 that for more than a year, she had also been a Muslim — drawn to the faith after an introduction to Muslim prayers moved her profoundly.

It was an announcement that perplexed many, though Redding said she didn't feel a need to reconcile all the differences between the two faiths, believing that at the most basic level they are compatible.

Redding's defrocking — formally called deposition — comes almost 21 months after Bishop Wolf first told the priest to take a year to reflect on her beliefs.

After Redding remained firm in her belief that she was called to both faiths, Bishop Wolf said in fall 2008 that a church committee had determined that the priest "abandoned the Communion of the Episcopal Church by formal admission into a religious body not in communion with the Episcopal Church."

Wolf barred Redding from functioning as a priest for the next six months, and said that unless Redding resigned her priesthood or denied being a Muslim during that time, the bishop would have a duty to defrock her.

Since Redding has neither renounced her orders nor withdrawn from the Muslim faith, Wolf decided to depose her, effective today.

Read it all.

Which Anglican Theologian Are You?

I took the quiz "Which Anglican Theologian are You?" on Facebook. I am Austin Farrer. Here's what the result says:

The Scriptures, the Fathers, and philosophy are all important to Christian life and witness - and to your own spiritual growth. The Scriptures, however, have a special weight, although they must be read in a critically informed and imaginative fashion. Liturgy is necessary and true, and expresses all of the major tenants of the undivided catholic Church. You believe that priests have an especial responsibility in the liturgy as well as outside of it, for priests are walking sacraments. You prefer that sermons be devotional and intellectual at the same time, and you believe that a mature theology is recognizes both the dimness of its gaze, and the truthfulness of what it gazes upon. The Church is, at bottom, episcopal in its ordering. Although you have a deep love of the papacy, you also are fully convinced that the Anglican Communion does not need the pope's approval.

I can't say that I've ever had a deep love of the papacy, although I certainly have a deep respect for it. And while I've never read any of Farrer's work, this quiz inspires me to do so. Among his many publications, I'm particularly intrigued to see that he wrote a meditation on the Creed entitled, Lord, I Believe.

'I Am Episcopalian' Satire

An Episcopal News Service article describes a recently launched church "microsite":

A communications initiative to tell the Episcopal Church's story was launched on Ash Wednesday at www.episcopalchurch.org where visitors will find a new interactive feature called "I Am Episcopalian."

The so-called "microsite" contains short videos of people "sharing their deep, personal connections to the big, wide, vibrant church that we are," said Anne Rudig, who joined the Episcopal Church Center in New York as communications director on January 5.

Not only will the videos illustrate the diversity of Episcopalians -- "all ages, all walks of life, all ethnicities," said Rudig -- but the site also will let users upload their own videos.

Uploaded videos will be monitored before being posted and should be no longer then 90 seconds, said Rudig. "I am Episcopalian" will be the website homepage throughout Lent, with a link to the rest of the Episcopal Church's web content.

It is part of a renewed communications effort "to tell our own story," Rudig noted. "We are hoping it will grow, and we hope the rest of the world will see what a dynamic church we have."

The microsite also can be reached at www.IamEpiscopalian.org.

While I have not been able to log on to the microsite (what happened to it?), I have seen a few of the videos. One of the entries really caught my attention (I don't know, however, if it ever made it on to the site). It's by Mike Byrd of Baltimore, and it's a bitingly satirical take on the "progressive" side of The Episcopal Church. This guy's got the lingo and attitude down pat:

Hat tip to Fr. John D. Alexander of Videtur Quod.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Losing Faith in the Church

I was almost dumbstruck this morning to read a piece by the Rev. Dr. Anne Brower, senior chaplain and director of the Healing Ministry at the Washington National Cathedral, and contributor to The Washington Post's "On Faith" column.

In the piece entitled "Losing Faith in Institutional Religion," Brower starts off noting the statistics which show that while many Americans view themselves as "spiritual," they are not affiliated with religious institutions like churches. For Brower, this raises the question of whether Americans are losing faith, or just losing faith in institutional religion. While many have noted this phenomenon and the questions it raises, Brower uses it to take the train off the rails. Here's what she writes:

Most Christian institutions cling to the dogma and doctrine established in 325 A.D. by a religious minority. They are not incorporating all the new facts that we have found in recent archeological digs or in recently discovered writings from the periods written about in the Bible. For instance, The Gospel of Thomas, written at the same time as the Gospel of John, yet excluded from the Bible since Thomas did not include the Passion of Jesus Christ, gives us a different insight into salvation.

Fundamentalism in Christianity, or belief in the literal translation of the Bible (or belief in Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation), while providing a safe haven for many, EXCLUDES the majority of spiritual people. Progressive believers by living a metaphorical translation of the Bible are INCLUSIVE. They acknowledge the legitimacy of all religions.

The United States is part of the whole world, economically, politically, socially and environmentally. It must be. Why should we isolate ourselves religiously? We need to be inclusive of all religions. According to Houston Smith, author of "The World Religions," they all lead to the same end.

Besides meriting some of the same criticism leveled against a Trinity Sunday sermon by the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester (the so-called "Buddhist" bishop-elect of Northern Michigan), I agree with Matt Kennedy that the substance of this piece smacks more of an acquaintance with The Da Vinci Code than with sound scholarship in New Testament and Church History.

I also think that The Reformed Pastor hits a nail on the head in response to Brower:

The Rev. Brower knows less about the formation of the Bible, church history, and Christian theology than virtually anyone in my church plant core group, and seems to have gotten some of her talking points from the “On Faith” comments columns, but that’s not really the point. The point is that if people listened to her, and took her approach to religion, there would be absolutely no reason for them to have anything to do with any religious institution. When an Episcopal priest tells you that all religions “lead to the same end,” that pretty much anything you want to call “spiritual” is fine by Whoever (or Whatever) It (or She, or He/She) Is (or Isn’t) that’s in charge (or isn’t) of the universe, why have anything to do with religious institutions at all? Me, I’d just as soon sleep late on Sunday as have anything to do with, e.g., a Cathedral that would employ a person who has such little regard for the faith that she supposedly stands for.

Brower begins by noting the loss of faith in institutional religion, but she ends up endorsing a loss of faith in the Church as the Body of Christ that makes unique claims on our lives and loyalties that cannot be reduced to the claims made by other religious traditions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

By Word and Example

A standing joke about Episcopalians is that we live in mortal fear of the "E" word: Evangelism. There's much truth to the humor (as this t-shirt underscores). Many of us don't understand what the word means and/or associate it with stereotypes and bad experiences (Scott Bader-Saye's article is a good corrective on these fronts). And quite frankly, too many Episcopalians and Episcopal parishes have been content to stay in the comfort-zone of a maintenance model of the Church.

But whether we realize it or not, every Episcopalian has made a solemn vow to be an evangelist. It's right there in the vows of the Baptismal Covenant:

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God's help.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305

What does this mean for everyday life?

David deSilva, author of Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer (InterVarsity Press, 2008), offers some helpful thoughts:

The baptismal life also involves us all in evangelism, proclaiming "by word and example the Good News of God in Christ." If Satan, the domination systems of the world and our sinful desires are busily promoting distorted views of the purpose of life and the ways to fulfill our core longings, those who are baptized are enlisted to tell the truth, and to tell it courageously. The Reverend Dr. D. T. Niles, Sri Lankan evangelist and one-time president of the World Council of Churches, penned the now-famous quotation "Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread." Evangelism need not be conceptualized as taking people down a prefabricated four-point path to salvation. It is, rather, our sharing with others what we have found in God, inviting others into our experiences of God's grace so that they, in turn, might have an opportunity to encounter more of God's grace.

We cannot make this good news known by word only, without the consistent display of attitudes and deeds that make our words credible. Neither can we make it known by example only, without the words that tell others what makes our attitudes and deeds possible and meaningful. Just as we do not pour water and lay out bread and wine without the words that make them sacraments, nor speak the words without the water, or bread and wine, that can be apprehended by our senses and bring the word into our flesh, so the witness of our lives combines word and visible sign. In this way, we live out our baptism more and more, God makes our existence into sacramental lives that give those around us a means of grace to apprehend more of God (pp. 64-65).

I think deSilva is dead-on to insist that while both word and example are necessary, neither is sufficient by itself. We need word and example to be effective, faithful bearers and communicators of the Gospel. And that requires adequate spiritual, moral, and intellectual formation (unfortunately, The Episcopal Church - and other mainline denominations - aren't always very good at this).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Evangelism as Hospitality and Witness

Always on the lookout for interesting and helpful resources on evangelism, I came across an insightful article by Dr. Scott Bader-Saye that critiques the tendency to reduce evangelism to a form of commodity exchange and examines the two-pronged nature of genuine evangelism as hospitality (inviting in) and witness (going out).

Evangelism as Hospitality and Witness
by Dr. Scott Bader-Saye

Diocesan Life
The Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, PA
Volume 16, No. 5
May 2005

In a recent online survey, 1042 Episcopalians answered the question, “What stands in the way of your engaging in evangelism? The top answer was: “I don’t want to look like a fundamentalist Bible thumper.”

Obviously, one of the obstacles that stands in the way of Episcopal evangelism is that we have seen it done so poorly.

We know we don’t want to do that (“that” meaning hard-sell apologetics and emotional manipulation), but we haven’t been able to imagine any real alternatives.

Part of the problem is that modern evangelism has offered Jesus and salvation as items in an economy of exchange. In a market economy anything can (and usually does) become a commodity, even Jesus.

Thus, Christian evangelism can come to look a lot like salesmanship. We offer salvation in the name of Jesus in exchange for some benefit that returns to us or our group: the belief, membership, or financial support of those we evangelize.

We have marketed Jesus, church, and salvation rather than offering them as the gifts they are. One of the things we must do, then, to recover evangelism in a new key, is to get beyond the economies of exchange and learn again what it means to bear Jesus to the world as gift and not commodity.

If bad evangelism is one of our primary obstacles to evangelizing, one of the motivators for evangelism would be the desire to draw others into a community life that we find so compelling that it must be shared.

Such a communal life could be compared to a dance, not the “dancing with myself” kind of dancing that is all too common today, or even ballroom dancing with a single partner, but rather the joyous, sometimes raucous communal folk dances such as square dancing and contra dancing. In these dances there is neither exclusive partnering nor self-absorbed posturing but rather a potentially endless openness to include more and more in the dance.

In such dances we recognize that the joy grows as the dance extends. Such a vision of the life of the church leads us to want to extend the dance, to cast wide the invitation so that more and more of us might be drawn out of our fragmented loneliness and into the dance of peaceful difference.

Evangelism’s two prongs: Hospitality and Witness
If we were to become motivated in this way, we might begin to think about evangelism as having two prongs: on the one hand hospitality (inviting in), and on the other hand witness (going out).

Inviting in
Hospitality means being attentive to the ways in which we welcome, or fail to welcome, those who risk worshiping with us. Along these lines, one of the questions we will have to ask is “Whom are we ready to welcome?”

Last summer I was talking with a Methodist pastor from Florida who told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had recently visited his church wanting to do a story about them.

Apparently the Journal reporter had heard that this was a “Goth” church (not gothic but “Goth”—black clothes, makeup, piercings, tattoos). But when asked, this pastor replied that they were not a Goth church, though there were Goth youth who attended. Well, asked the reporter, do you have a special Goth service? No, the pastor replied, we don’t.

What happened, the pastor said, was that the church had a band that played music in worship. As a gift to the community, the band decided to start playing at the soup kitchen as meals were being offered. Soon word got out about this band. Goth youth started showing up at the soup kitchen to hear the band. They learned over time that the band played also at a church, so many of them decided to come check it out.

Now, here’s the crucial part—when they showed up at the door they were welcomed. So they kept coming back.

This apparently wasn’t an interesting enough story for the Wall Street Journal. The reporter left in search of a church more easily labeled. There is certainly a story here, though, for those of us concerned to reach out to those most missing from our pews, those least likely to come to us. Part of that story is a story of welcome. Without parishioners ready to integrate the tattooed and pierced alongside the suit coats and dresses, there is no story.

Who is most missing?
If we are to evangelize well, we must be aware of who is most missing from our pews.

In the Episcopal Church, as in most mainlines, it is Gen X and Millennials (teenagers through early forties) whose attendance is most in decline. One thing that is coming to light about these generations (though it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to talk about shared generational qualities) is that they tend to be very interested in spiritual matters though not very interested in church. When they are interested in church, they tend to seek out those worship experiences and spiritual practices that draw them into something mysterious, something ancient, something transcendent.

So, it should not surprise us that some Episcopal churches are creating new Rite One services geared toward younger generations. Yet it is not just the ancient that draws these ambivalent pilgrims, it is the ancient combined with a lively engagement with today’s world, an authentic connection to everyday life, a willingness to be creative and experimental with the ancient treasures we have inherited; for example, Rite One liturgy with incense and icons coupled with contemporary music and video projectors. The new via media for Anglicanism may well be that between the ancient and the future.

Going out
Personally and Corporately
Alongside the task of hospitality, “inviting in,” is the call to witness, “going out.” It hardly needs to be said that the days are over when we could sit back and wait for people to come to us.

While there continues to be much talk about faith and spirituality, the cultural assumption that people will go to church no longer holds. In the Great Commission Jesus sends us out saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and in one of our post-communion prayers we ask God to “send us now into the world in peace.”

From the beginning the calling of the church has been to go out into the world, but for many years now we have been lulled by our status as keepers of the civil religion into thinking that we can wait for the world to come to us. With the days of cultural privilege behind us, we have to learn again to go forth. No matter how faithful and dynamic our parish might be, it will not draw others to Christ if no one sees what we’re doing.

Our going out can take a form that is both personal and corporate. First of all, each of us needs to become comfortable speaking of faith, telling our stories, creating spiritual friendships with the unchurched around us. This certainly does not mean that we prostitute friendship as a way to get someone “saved.” Rather, we determine not to hide the faith that gives us life.

Going out and bearing witness ought to have a corporate aspect as well. We need to find ways to be present in our communities as a body. In a world that is saturated with God talk (Walker Percy once said that when we say, “Jesus, Jesus” we might as well be saying, “Exxon, Exxon”) our most powerful witness might come through indirect means, through enacting parables of grace.

By this I mean, again, getting beyond the world’s economies of exchange and thus coming into the world as bearers of grace, pure gift.

For instance, there is a church in Minneapolis called House of Mercy that has a ministry to the community that they call the “Art Bus.” The church drives the Art Bus to public parks, unloads easels, canvases, paints, and brushes, and invites others to come make art. There is no charge and the church members, though present and engaged, do not use this as an opportunity to “sell” their church.

They simply believe that our world needs to encounter beauty that is neither selling something nor being sold. They believe that beauty is one means by which we encounter God. So, the parabolic gift of making art is offered not as a hook to get people in but as a gift that will do its own work through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Relative-Resistant Challenge
Our going out in witness will necessarily seek to be relevant to those we encounter but at the same time will be resistant to those aspects of culture that are stifling of spirit and ultimately death dealing.

Both conservative and liberal churches for the last forty years or so have sought a kind of cultural relevance through cultural compromise, making ourselves as much like the culture as possible in order to hold onto our cultural power.

Relevance should not be a passive compromise with the world but rather, as the etymology of the word suggests, should be an act of lifting up, in this case lifting up Christ to make him visible to the world. We might even think of the Eucharistic “elevation” as our act of greatest relevance and our relevance to the world as an attempt to reenact outside of the liturgy this liturgical moment.

Relevance begins with listening and taking seriously the hopes, dreams, and fears of the world around us, knowing that in part it has been the lack of vibrant spiritual practice in the church that has led others to seek spiritual connection outside of our communities.

Alongside such relevance, we need to remember that part of what makes us attractive is that we do not simply mimic the world but in fact enact a resistance to all that is demeaning, dehumanizing, and sinful.

The incredible outpouring that we all witnessed in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s death reveals, I think, the extent to which he was both resistant and relevant, never afraid to say “No” to the world but always showing forth a more powerful and determinative “Yes.”

A few months ago I was speaking with Sam Wells, an Anglican Priest and the new Dean of Duke Chapel, when he told me about a liturgical moment in his Cambridge, England, parish that profoundly embodied both relevance and resistance.

It was soon after 9/11 and England was preparing to join America in an invasion of Afghanistan. As his parishioners arrived on Sunday morning they found a large map of Afghanistan laid out on the floor of the worship space. Each person was given a picture of an Afghan man, woman, or child.

As worship began Sam announced that he was not sure whether they would celebrate eucharist; they would have to wait on the guidance of the Spirit. He then asked them to tell the story of the person whose image they were holding and to lay that image somewhere on the map of Afghanistan.

One by one the worshipers imagined a life for the person before them, and soon the map was filled with faces that represented the real lives of real people. The congregation then prayed for this country and its people.

When I asked Sam whether they celebrated eucharist he said, “I can’t really remember. I think we did.” What stood out that day was the exercise of humanizing and praying for the enemy. This practice was both relevant to a people who were preparing for war and resistant to any easy compromise with violence.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, “At any point in its history, the Church needs both the confidence that it has a gospel to preach, and the ability to see that it cannot readily specify in advance how it will find words for preaching in particular new circumstances.”

Our recovery of evangelism will require imagination to find the right words, actions, and practices to display the gospel in our circumstances, that is, to embody the hospitality that invites the non-Christian into an ancient-future church, and to engage in witness that parabolically enacts the relevant-resistant grace of God.

Dr. Scott Bader-Saye, a parishioner at the Church of the Epiphany, Clarks Summit, teaches theology and religious studies at the University of Scranton. He is the husband of diocesan youth missioner Demery Bader-Saye.

Scott received a Ph.D. from Duke University, an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, and a B.A. from Davidson College. His teaching and research interests include political theology, economic ethics, providence and suffering, and Jewish-Christian dialogue.

His book, Church and Israel After Christendom: The Politics of Election, explores the politics of the Christian community seen through the lens of Israel's corporate election. He is currently working on a book project entitled Figuring Providence: A Theology of History, An Ethic of Risk. His articles have been published in journals such as Modern Theology, Studies in Christian Ethics, Pro Ecclesia, and Christian Century. He recently wrote the lead article for Christian Century, November 30, 2004, The Emergent Matrix: A new kind of church? He is actively involved in diocesan community ministry, plays guitar, and enjoys the music of U2.