Sunday, May 24, 2009

Living the Answers

For the second year in a row, the Cathedral parish I serve has received permission from our bishop to transfer the Feast Day commemorating the Martyrs of Sudan to a Sunday. We do this for many reasons, including the fact that we have a number of young Sudanese men and women who are members of our Cathedral parish (part of the Lost Boys and Girls), and also because of the relationship we are cultivating with Bishop Ezekiel Diing of the Diocese of Twich East in Sudan.

Listening this morning as our preacher recounted the terrible story of persecution, torture and death dished out by Islamic extremists to Sudanese Christians who refused to renounce Jesus as Lord and Savior by converting to Islam, I was struck by the dissonance between those horrible events and the comfortable existence most of us enjoy.

Educated and culturally sophisticated as we Episcopalians tend to be, we celebrate the freedom of "living the questions," taking pride in differentiating ourselves from all those "fundamentalists" and "simple believers" by cultivating an identity as "thinking Christians." We know enough to assume for ourselves the authority to pick and choose the doctrines and the scriptures that we deem normative, sifting the wheat from the tares of Christianity, or even embracing "progressivism" to the point of moving beyond the core tenets of the Christian faith altogether. We do it for the sake of "relevance." And we do it from the comfort and security of our armchairs, laptops, and Sunday school classrooms.

While we live the questions, the Martyrs of Sudan and the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan are examples of what it means to live the answers of the Christian faith without comfort and security. As with all the Christian martyrs, theirs is a faith whose paramount concern is not about insuring that we are "thinking Christians" or about "salvaging" or "revising" Christianity so that it's relevant to persons who don't believe in it anyway or who are outright hostile towards it. Their primary concern is being faithful to the God who proves His faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ by bearing witness in their own lives and, if need be, in their deaths, to the love, mercy, and glory of God. They remind us that being disciples of Jesus Christ is not an academic exercise or a thought-experiment. Instead, it's a way of life that entails absolute commitment to the risen Jesus as Lord and Savior in the company of other disciples. That can sometimes be risky and dangerous, and even lead to torture, death, and diaspora.

As with our nation, so too in the Church: the comforts and freedoms we enjoy are luxuries that were bought with a price (and sometimes a terrible price) by predecessors, most especially including confessors and martyrs. We are able to live the questions of faith because others suffered and died for the answers of the Christian faith. We do well to remember their examples lest we get so carried away with the permission to ask questions that we confuse our liberty with license.


plsdeacon said...

I would sumbit that it is better to live the answers than to live the questions.

I think that too many of us "live the questions" because they are afraid of the answers - they are afraid of simple faith and the commitment to surrender yourself to the One who IS the way, the truth and the life.

What many do not understand is that it is only in such surrender that we find and understand who we really are.

Phil Snyder

Christopher said...

Having been on the receiving end others living the answers and "simple faith" as Phil puts it, I'm quite wary. As Lisa points out on My Manner of Life, there is an underside to the situation in Sudan in which certain types of persons become the scapegoat for the scapegoats. Fanaticism and unquestioning faith are just as deadly as a no there-there faith; I know the dangers in my person. I have valued a tradition that affirms, even uplifts, inquiry and thought given the anti-intellectual bent of American society. I honor the faith of those in Sudan, but I will not put down inquiry.

Bryan Owen said...

I have no desire to "put down inquiry" either, Christopher. I have not renounced my Ph.D., nor do I encourage others to repress their questions. I am an Anglican Christian, after all, and an Episcopalian in particular.

Unfortunately, that identity has come to mean, for many, the license to believe anything one wants. And that comes with the blessing of the best scholars available on the shelves of Barnes and Nobles.

My concern is that there's the attitude which suggests that "living the questions" entails an endless deferral of commitment to anything or anyone in particular (other than, of course, to my own subjective preferences). While a certain kind of anti-intellectualism may be a part of American culture, so, too, is the flight from authority and commitment. The latter is no improvement over the former.

So we have a situation in which we have many relatively affluent to quite wealthy Episcopalians taking the non-committal route of "living the questions" while we also have folks like the Sudanese among us. IMO, the presence of the Sudanese quietly but consistently bears witness to another way. It doesn't have to be a way that puts down inquiry. But it is a way that bears deeper witness to the cost of discipleship than many of us (myself included) can imagine.

Can someone who "lives the questions," who keeps his/her theological options "open" in order to be "inclusive" and a "thinking Christian" whose views are "relevant" - can such a person ever be a confessor or a martyr?

Bryan Owen said...

Another thought to add from a Christian who can hardly be accused of being anti-intellectual (I first noted this quote on a separate, but related, posting):
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

- Søren Kierkegaard, from Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard; e-book "Copyright 2007 by Plough Publishing House. Used with permission.

plsdeacon said...

I remember being in College where we asked each other questions so that we sounded smart to the others in the group. We were not asking questions to seek knowledge or wisdom, but to display our own knowledge and wisdom.

I fear that is what has been andis happening in much of Mainline Christianity. We are afraid of "simple faith." We are proud that we are not like those "fundamentalists". It seems that we have too many Episcopalians whose main reason for being Episcopalians is that we are not Southern Baptists.

The point of inquiry is to find answers. I believe there are too many people afraid of the Truth because it causes them to rethink who they are.

Paul said that we are not our own. We were bought with a price. It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives within us.

Phil Snyder

bls said...

Phil, could you possibly address the point being made, instead of setting up straw men? Christopher didn't use the word "fundamentalists"; when you have to invent statements in order to make your points, your argument is necessarily weak.

Also please consider the facts of your own "surrender," before you declaiming on others' shortcomings:

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as his own life, he can't be my disciple." That's from Luke.

"In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." Also from Luke.

Here's part of Ephrem the Syrian's Lenten Prayer: "O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brothers and sisters. For you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen."

plsdeacon said...


I am well aware of the issue of motes and beams. I am still in the process of fully surrendering to Jesus (as I suspect we all are). I was not specifically responding to Christopher, but responding to the many liberals / reappraisers / revisionists who equate "conservatives / reasserters / traditionalists with "fundamentalists." I've been called such myself.

Right now, it seems to me that much of the leadership of TEC is in the same place the Bishop in chapter 5 ov C. S. Lewis' great book "The Great Divorce" where the Bishop (who is in hell) is more interested in asking questions than in finding answers.

"Oh as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn't want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes." (C. S. Lewis, "The Great Divorce", p. 41 italics in original)

As human beings, we are not simply nice people who need to be improved. We are rebels who need to lay down their arms (Lewis in "Mere Christianity").

Refusing to listen to the answers that the whole Church provides seems to me to be more in line with rebellion than with surrender.

Phil Snyder

bls said...

"I was not specifically responding to Christopher, but responding to the many liberals / reappraisers / revisionists who equate "conservatives / reasserters / traditionalists with "fundamentalists." I've been called such myself."

So then, you prefer to ignore what Christopher is saying. That doesn't seem very helpful, either. And, BTW, you are basically doing to "liberals / reappraisers / revisionists" what you say you don't yourself, when you call them "rebels."

If you don't like being called a "fundamentalist," perhaps it would be help to return the favor? Specifically, in this case, to 1) answer a legitimate question that was raised, and 2) stop defining in your own (negative) terms other people who may be raising legitimate questions?

plsdeacon said...

I never said that we should put down or do away with inquiry. Inquiry is good and it is good to search for the Truth.

But, there are boundries to what we should inquire about. Should we be willing to change the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation? Explore them? Absolutely! Re-define them to fall into one of the old heresies? No!!! Not accept what the Church has already decided? Not without very good reason and now without a very large consensus of the Church. (Think Constantinople's response the councils between Nicea and Constantinople).

On the presenting issue of the day (human sexuality), should we inquire whether God blesses homosexual unions? Sure, why not? But let's do that inquiry in the tested method of Scripture, Tradition and Reason (being the mind of the Church, not the spirit of the age) and let's be ready to come to an anwser rather than debating ad-infinitum until the side you are against gets tired and quits (see the decline in ASA for the Episcopal Church along with the constant fractures in Anglicanism).

There is a healthy balance between "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." and "We cannot know God, therefore we are free to redefine God to our liking."

At present, TEC is too close to the second and we need to swing back more to the center of inquiry within the limits of Creedal Orthodoxy.

Phil Snyder

eric said...

The title alone speaks volumes. It is a particularly Anglican thing, isn't it? Whether or not we always agree with/understand what is written in the rubrics and BCP is irrelevant - the important thing is to remain committed, and pray the words, while also praying for understanding. I have found that understanding usually comes, eventually.

Thanks for the reflections. We have a Sudanese congregation in Phoenix, and they are such good people. I'm constantly amazed by their faith, compassion and dedication.

bls said...

"On the presenting issue of the day (human sexuality), should we inquire whether God blesses homosexual unions? Sure, why not? But let's do that inquiry in the tested method of Scripture, Tradition and Reason (being the mind of the Church, not the spirit of the age) and let's be ready to come to an anwser rather than debating ad-infinitum until the side you are against gets tired and quits (see the decline in ASA for the Episcopal Church along with the constant fractures in Anglicanism)."

Phil, we are doing this via the "tested method"; if you think not, then I don't think you're very aware of what's going on. Fr. Haller has just written an entire book on the topic - and discussions about it, in the church and elsewhere, are ongoing. The "tested method" is exactly what's happening all around us right now; the question is not settled, however much you'd like it to be. "Decline in ASA" and "fractures in Anglicanism" have absolutely nothing to do with the discussion at hand.

And it has nothing to do with making people "get tired and quit," either; it has to do with truth. (One wonders why people would "quit" on an issue of such apparent magnitude, too; if "quitting" is the best that the defenders of the faith can come up with, that doesn't say much for the argument. I'd say the real problem is that the argument is in fact very weak, and people are starting to recognize this - hence the hurry to "come to an answer." It's apparently important that "majority rules" be put into effect before the truth can actually be discerned. This discussion has only just begun - and as you note, debates have in the past gone on for centuries and the Church has in fact made substantive changes to its (non-core) doctrine. Marriage was not made a Sacrament of the Church until the 11th century, for example. So the hurry you seem to be in is unwarranted and ahistorical, as well as being unjust.)

It's time the Church - including the Anglican Communion - answered the question Christopher raises: why is it utterly silent on the scapegoating that we all know is going on in many places? Why does the Church use rhetoric like this, and like this - rhetoric that can easily (and does) incite anger and scapegoating in others - towards people who are objectively doing no harm to anyone?

Is that the "tested method"? I think not. It's time these questions were answered instead of being brushed aside. The Church is in the wrong, and it's quite clear to see this in its own actions and irrational language.

plsdeacon said...


The Church did not, and has not, agreed with the theological reasoning before members (such as Fr. Haller and groups like Integrity) started acting on their preceived "new thing." This is in keeping with how reappraisers do things (as I point out here).

The method is to reflect and come to consensus before acting not during discernment. Let me repeat that. Discernment should come before we act, not after we act.

I cannot believe that you think that declines in ASA and schisms "have absolutely nothing to do with the discussion at hand." They have everything to do with it. According to the Episcopal Church's last report on the subject a lot of the decline in ASA can be directly attributed to the rancor and anger that comes from this very issue.

I know several people who have left TEC for Rome or Constantinople or Evangelicalism because they grew tired of being disrepected and put down because they wanted to continue to believe what Holy Scripture very clearly teaches.

I agree that this is about Truth. The problem is that we disagree about what the Truth is. I find Truth in the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life - Jesus Christ and I know this Jesus by what I read and understand in Holy Scripture (the Word of God, written).

So I don't take up much more of Fr. Owen's space, I would ask you to answer the questions recarding scriptural basis for blessing same sex unions that I ask at the Deacon's Slant.

Phil Snyder

bls said...

Did you read the links I provided, Phil? Is that what you mean by "discernment"? If so, please ask yourself why any rational human being would ever trust people who say things like that. (And of course there has been much, much worse - which I'm sure you must've seen yourself on many of the blogs. I know I've seen all kinds of hateful language directed at gay people by Christians. Lots of it, for decades now.)

If the church had ever been willing to talk - and listen - then I think an orderly process of "discernment" could have been achieved. But it wasn't. However, the church has finally begun to listen. Interesting coincidence, isn't it?

(BTW, how would you like it if I pointed to the rhetoric above - and some of the much, much worse language - and said, blithely, "That's the way reasserters do things"? Not very much, I suppose - so why do it other people?)

I agree it's time to stop taking up Fr. Bryan's time here. I will come to your blog, much as I don't care to.