Friday, August 28, 2009

There Are No Atheists

"According to the Bible, humanity's basic sin is not atheism. It is idolatry. In this perspective, all people have their god. It is either a god (or gods) that they have made or others have inflicted upon them, which they command and control; or it is the God who made them, whom they are commanded to worship and obey for their own good. In this view, there are no atheists, but only idolaters."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Politicizing the Church: 2

Back in July, while General Convention was in full swing, my brother Sterling shared some observations and thoughts with me about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I have his permission to share them here.

It helps to know that Sterling received chrismation into the Greek Orthodox Church several years ago. He's a very faithful and knowledgeable Orthodox Christian. So he's looking at the Episcopal Church/Anglicanism from the outside. But it's precisely because he has both distance from all of the divisiveness plaguing the Anglican house and a grounded spiritual life in the faith of the Church that I find his comments on the politicizing of the Church so perceptive and, sadly, so accurate.

I should also add that my brother's comments were offered to me in the spirit of love and concern. And it is in that same spirit that I offer them more widely.

This may be obvious, but the tone of these discussions is overwhelmingly political. Now, certainly there is no lack of political maneuvering within the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. And again, there were moments when statements from Anglican sources clearly reflected a genuinely religious concern for the Apostolic Christian faith. I guess the difference seems to be a presupposition lurking behind the Anglican discussions that the search for a solution is obviously a purely political matter. I doubt that anyone would want to admit that, but where I sense fervor, that fervor feels political rather than religious. No one on either side, with the exceptions being Wright and Williams, has left me believing that they truly feel the awesome burden of standing in the role that the apostles once filled. If they did surely there wouldn't be room for such a lack of humility (and reverence) on all sides. I just don't sense the Holy Spirit in the midst of any of this. It feels like an entirely human endeavor that bottoms out in philosophical ethics at best, and at worst, again, in pure political rhetoric. Its a kind of cynicism that I'm not used to. ...

I'm accustomed to the Orthodox sensibility about authority, particularly with regard to bishops and archbishops, according to which obedience itself is a major virtue. It is a common matter of course for our priests to alter their doctrine and practice, without public comment, purely out of obedience to their bishop. Of course, this gets kind of tricky. There are certainly major saints who appropriately defied corrupt bishops. Nevertheless, those people were always acutely aware of the gravity that their actions carried in that regard. I guess I just don't see anyone in these Anglican debates asking themselves what place the whole concept of obedience should have in the proceedings. If they were, even if the answer turned out to be that obedience must be forsaken, that course would be taken with fear and trembling. I'm not seeing that.

I can't help but believe that a real gut-level faith in the divine/human nature of the Church would totally transfigure these proceedings. I'm used to ecclesiology, and ecclesiological devotion, being central to the concept of Christianity. All sides in the Anglican Communion, even those who feel it would be a tragedy, sound to me like they would find it far too easy to walk away.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

From Borg to Buddha

On November 30, 1999, I ordered a copy of Marcus J. Borg's book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith from

This morning, I received the following e-mail from

As someone who has purchased or rated books by Marcus J. Borg, you might like to know that Buddhist Meditation for Beginners: Four Classic Teachings from the Author Who Introduced a Generation of Americans to Insight Meditation will be released on September 1, 2009.

Apparently, a lot of Borg readers also buy Buddhist resources from

I doubt I'll receive a similar notification for having purchased N. T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, or Bishop Kallistos Ware's The Orthodox Way, or William C. Mattison's Introducting Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Christians Don't Know What They're Talking About

In the context of post-General Convention reflections on the state of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, Fr. Mark Harris offers thoughts about Jesus and salvation on his blog “Preludium”:

I have listened these past weeks to the arguments one way or another about just why salvation is found only in Jesus Christ, and I have wondered … if perhaps we Christians have about used up the right to claim that salvation is possible only through Jesus Christ. The thing is, Jesus Christ turns out to be defined by those of us who make the claim to particular and unique salvation through him. It is a very tightly circular argument and while suitable to the dog days of Summer, when dogs go mad and people are overcome with fevers, hysterias and frenzies. The claim has run its course because the followers of Jesus Christ, all of us, turn out not to know just what we are talking about.

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” than the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12).

According to Fr. Mark, this claim has run its course, not merely because (as he alleges) it is "tightly circular," but primarily because we Christians don’t really know what we are talking about when we talk about salvation and Jesus. It’s not clear if Fr. Mark means that this is true only about Christians today, or if it’s been true all along. I’m inclined to say that the charge that Christians who claim that salvation is found only in Jesus don’t really know what they’re talking about is a charge that applies to Christians in every time and place who have made such a claim.

The implications of such a charge are staggering. It means that the apostles, the Church Fathers and Mothers, the theologians of the Middle Ages, the Reformers, the classical Anglican Divines and beyond – all of them didn’t know what they were talking about when they talked about the particular and unique salvation offered to the world through Jesus. If that's true, then the New Testament, the historic creeds, the Chalcedonian definition of the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ, the liturgies of the Prayer Book tradition, and the writings and witness of Christians down through the ages up until the present cannot be trusted as reliable.

Nevertheless, Fr. Mark still makes claims about Jesus and salvation:

Maybe it’s just the moment … or the hour, but it seems to me just now that our salvation is hidden in God. Through Jesus we who follow him have the assurance of that saving grace. And we may sing of the glory of it: that Salvation is of Christ the Lord. But that’s it. But we don't get to demand that people take seriously that it is only through specific belief in Jesus Christ (as we define that) that salvation comes. Jesus may be getting it together to save people who think the Jesus advertised by Christians is a sham. Maybe for them God, in Jesus Christ, is hidden in the form of a twelve year old girl who plays a mean fiddle. Who knows?

“Our salvation is hidden in God.” “Through Jesus we who follow him have the assurance of that saving grace.” “Salvation is of Christ the Lord.” What warrants holding such beliefs about salvation and its relationship to Jesus if the entire sweep of Christian tradition is unreliable? What do such claims even mean if, as Fr. Mark insists, "all of us [which necessarily includes Fr. Mark] ... turn out not to know just what we are talking about"?

In condensed form, the rest of this second paragraph from Fr. Mark's posting sounds similar to the way in which the Presiding Bishop collapses special revelation into general revelation in her answer to the question, “Is the only way to God through Jesus?” Just as the Presiding Bishop says that because the whole world has access to God she’s not concerned about “the mechanism” by which we are saved, and that she’s agnostic about how God saves anybody, Fr. Mark briefly speculates about the possibilities only to say, “Who knows?”

As I see it, here's where we end up with all of this. When it comes to Jesus and salvation, Christians who embrace the Church’s faith that there is no other name by which we must be saved than the name of Jesus are persons who don’t know what they’re talking about. But some more progressive-minded Christians do know what they're talking about. They know that we really don’t know about Jesus and salvation. So if someone says “salvation is of Christ the Lord,” we can’t really know what that means. But we can be certain that those who say there is particular and unique salvation through Jesus don’t know what they're talking about.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ways of the World vs. the Way of Jesus

Today's meditation from Forward Day by Day dovetails very nicely with my reflections on politicizing the Church.

Ephesians 6:10-20. Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.

Jesus never promised the life of discipleship would be easy. He repeatedly warned those who would follow him that his way, his truth, his life would incur the wrath of the way, truth, and life of the world. By "world" he did not mean God's creation, but rather the ways of a fallen humanity. The ways of the world are many and varied, but they are all expressions of idolatry. The ways of the world always seek to put something, or someone, in the place of God: money, power, prestige, possessions, nation, self, even religion.

As Christians we are called to follow the way of Jesus, which is the way of the cross. The way of the cross is not about the causes or issues I choose to support, worthy as they may be. It is about following Jesus no matter what. It is about living a sacrificial life of love, compassion, healing, truth-telling, and devotion to God and God's will for all creation. It will take strength, and only the strength that comes from the Lord will suffice.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Politicizing the Church

The Anglican Curmudgeon recently shared some excerpts from Peter Kreeft's book How to Win the Culture War in which Satan addresses his minions as follows:

Even if [Christians] stop hating each other, even if their hearts reunite, their heads can't. Their divisions are eternal. In fact, they are doomed to divide forever, until eventually there are as many Christian churches as there are Christians. And that's the religion where the more sincere you are, the fewer converts you make: the worship of yourself. ...

But it gets even better. The division between churches is only one of three great divisions we've fomented. A second is the division within each church between the faithful and the "dissenters." (Back when they still believed in truth, they called them "heretics." People who call moral laws "values" call heretics "dissenters.") ...

And there's a third division. We have set their two absolutes against each other: truth and love, justice and compassion. ... And we have done that by politicizing their religion into Left versus Right, or liberal versus conservative. ...

In the past, we religionized their politics, and that got us some nice mileage, like persecutions and religious wars. But our current policy of politicizing their religion is proving even more successful. We've gotten most of them to classify themselves as liberal or conservative and then use these political categories to classify their faith, instead of vice versa. They now use the world's categories to judge the Church instead of using the Church's categories to judge the world.

I see evidence of the politicization of the Episcopal Church virtually everywhere I look. It almost defines the Episcopal/Anglican blogosphere. It happens every time a group of "progressives" or a group of "traditionalists" gather to strategize how they can advance their agenda. It happens when laity, deacons, or priests dismiss the authority of a bishop simply because they disagree with his/her theological views. And it happens when we think we can resolve our problems by signing petitions or passing legislation at diocesan or national convention. Sometimes trying to resolve deeply rooted theological problems by legislative means is rather like trying to heal a broken marriage by using a Black and Decker power tool. Using the world's categories to judge (much less "fix") the Church often ends up look more like Republicans and Democrats slugging it out in Congress than Christians. Most people I know are weary of such political fights and the rhetoric that accompanies them. Little wonder, then, if we turn off those whom we are called to serve and incorporate into the Body of Christ when (however well-intentioned) we use such political means.

In a politicized Church, the Christian means for entering into conflict and addressing division sounds naïve and remains as unpopular as it is faithful to the Gospel. It is the way of the cross. The driving question along that way is not, "How can we win?" but rather, "How much are we willing to suffer?"

As I watch events continue unfolding in the Episcopal Church and around the Anglican Communion, and as I hear persons across the theological spectrum say, "We've got to do something!", I'm reminded of these words from Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418):

Jesus has always many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross. He has many who desire consolation, but few who care for trial. He finds many to share His table, but few to take part in His fasting. All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the chalice of His passion. Many revere His miracles; few approach the shame of the Cross.

Our Lord's call to pick up the cross and follow him is a standing invitation. What might be different in the Church if more of us were to accept it?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Three Things Necessary for Salvation

"There are three things necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do."

St. Thomas Aquinas, Two Precepts of Charity (1273)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Anglican Fudge or Anglican Goo?

Fr. Thomas (aka "The Postulant") recently preached an excellent sermon in which he distinguishes between "Anglican fudge" and "Anglican goo."

In the culture wars of the Episcopal Church and the broader Anglican Communion, the term "Anglican fudge" is typically used as a derogatory term. As such, it signifies hedging, avoiding issues, watering down truths, avoiding commitment, double-speak, etc., etc. It's what happens, for instance, when politicians are asked direct questions and, in response, they talk around the issues without actually giving any clearly defined, coherent answers to which they can be held accountable. Such, we are told by some critics, is what the Archbishop of Canterbury routinely does in his statements, or what General Convention does in any given resolution, or why Episcopalians don't have confessional statements that provide litmus tests for faith and doctrine, etc.

Fr. Thomas' sermon goes a long way towards rehabilitating the term "Anglican fudge" in the positive sense of a generous orthodoxy by contrasting it against the real problem we face: the boundaryless, norm-rejecting, subjective mess of "Anglican goo." A few excerpts make the point:

Anglican fudge means finding a way to affirm every truth you can but to make no particular theory about that truth mandatory. If you like clear boundaries and a definitive list of what doctrines are in and what doctrines are out, Anglican fudge can be absolutely maddening. But when it’s done with integrity, it allows us to maintain a middle way, as one of our collects says, “not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” ...

Is the Eucharist a memorial? Yes, it is. After all, how many times in Scripture does Jesus say “Do this for the remembrance of me”? But do we receive Jesus in the Eucharist? Yes we do. For do we not read in today’s Gospel, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”? So we had
better eat his flesh and drink his blood in the meal that he has given us. And what particular theory of how that works do we have to sign on for? None. Our Lord’s command was not “Take, theorize” or “Take, analyze.” It was “Take, eat.”

And so let’s hear those words again:

“The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them” – God in Christ is offering you himself. Take what he offers. You need not understand, you need not theorize, because Jesus calls you to the altar, not to instruct, but to feed you. Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Do you want to abide in Christ? Then take these gifts. Take them “in remembrance that Christ died for you.” Yes, this meal is a memorial, and we go to the altar to be reminded of what Christ has done for us. He says, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” and how can bread be given unless it is broken, as his flesh was broken and his blood poured out for us? We do well to remember that great sacrifice. But we should do more than just remember: “feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.” Feed on him. Jesus said, “whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Thanks to Anglican fudge, that’s all there in those words: not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth. ...

We are not called to unanimity, but to unity. And that unity is not guaranteed by any theological theories or Biblical interpretations. It is guaranteed by the one body given for us, the one bread broken for us. If we obey his commandment to “do this for the remembrance of me,” if we feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving, and then go forth into the world carrying that broken body in us and living like people in whom Jesus abides not merely as a pious memory but in very truth, strengthening our lives with his life – why then, any disagreements we might have over theories and interpretations are really beside the point, aren't they?

Wait. Any disagreements? I mean, can we really say that none of that stuff matters as long as we eat his flesh and drink his blood? Is it really all about what we
do and not at all about what we believe? Well, no, not quite. If there are no limits at all, we don’t even have fudge any more, just goo, and I’m not here to commend Anglican goo. ...

A certain priest was elected bishop in one of our dioceses. Now even though our dioceses choose their own bishops, the Church as a whole has to approve episcopal elections by a majority vote of all the diocesan bishops and a majority vote of all the diocesan Standing Committees. Usually this sort of thing proceeds without much attention being paid, but in this case, for various reasons, people started to get suspicious about this priest’s theology, and more and more people began to think that he had gone too far, even by the rather generous standards of Anglicanism. One of the turning points in the whole process came when one highly respected bishop – who is very much on the liberal side of things – wrote a public statement saying, basically, “I can’t see that this guy believes that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice, or that it accomplished something for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves, in any way whatsoever. So I can’t consent to his election.” In the end, a majority of both bishops and Standing Committees said no.

Though I grieve for the diocese that now has to go through the election process all over again, I rejoice – you have no idea how much I rejoice – that our beloved Anglican fudge was not allowed to melt into Anglican goo. After all, how can we really accept the gifts of God for the people of God – how can we feed on Jesus in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving – if we do not acknowledge in some way that Jesus gives his flesh to be broken for the life of the world?

There have to be some core elements somewhere, to keep our Anglican fudge from melting into a pile of goo. But what are they? They are the essentials of believing without which our doing makes no sense. When a theory or interpretation or theological speculation empties the meaning from our liturgy and strips our actions of their purpose and significance, then that theory or interpretation or theological speculation must be rejected. Then there can be no compromise for the sake of peace; there must be a rejection for the sake of truth.

Those essentials of belief, the ones that give meaning to our worship and prevent Anglican fudge from going all gooey on us, are stated in the creeds. To our shame, we Episcopalians haven’t always respected those boundaries – don’t ask me to explain Bishop Spong, because I can’t – but the story I’ve just told you is a heartening sign that we are returning to a proper Anglican balance of freedom, yes, but freedom within boundaries. We will not require unanimity, but we will require a unity that is enacted at the font and the altar and given shape and meaning by the creeds.

Read it all, and listen to it here.

Fr. Thomas does not locate the core of Anglicanism's "comprehension for the sake of truth" in the kind of unanimity of belief we find in more confessional traditions (overcooked or burnt fudge?). Rather, he affirms the creedal character of Anglicanism by saying that the "essentials of belief ... that give meaning to our worship and prevent Anglican fudge from going all gooey on us, are stated in the creeds."


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Making Room for Mary

Brought up in the Baptist tradition, Catherine Fox shares how the Blessed Virgin Mary has become an important part of her faith:

These days I worship at Lichfield Cathedral, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Chad, which seems a good setting for a tentative attempt at solving a theological problem like Maria. If, for example, I am happy to ask a fellow Christian to pray for me, and I take seriously the Communion of Saints, then it is not doctrinally suspect to ask one of the saints in glory, perhaps Mary, to intercede on my behalf. Is Mary simply one disciple among many, or does she have some soteriological role as the mother of God? Did she give birth “without defilement”? Can a former Baptist find a way to sing “True Theotokos, we magnify thee”?

In the end, these are intellectual exercises. My understanding of Mary is more instinctive and visceral, coming through the experience of motherhood. My first brush with it came the Christmas after my first son was born. He was premature, and at four months old, still tiny. As the choir sang “Hush, do not wake the infant king. Soon will come sorrow with the morning, soon will come bitter grief and weeping: sing lullaby”, I found myself crying. Tears splashed on his head as I realised that for all the ferocity of maternal love, I could not protect him from bitter grief and weeping. Later, as he and then his younger brother were growing up, I could no longer bear the Passion narratives, and showed my sons up on the Good Friday March of Witness, weeping when the Gospel accounts, dulled by childhood familiarity, sprang hideously to life. Mary, at the foot of the Cross. How could she stand there? How could she stand anywhere else?

Read it all.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Divinity School Application for Liberals

Beginning term: [_] Fall [_] Spring [_] Summer ___ [_] Other?

Indoctrination: [_] Master of Divinity [_] M.Div./MA Counseling [_] M.Div./JD

[_] M.Div./MBA [_] Certificate Health and Spirituality [_] PhD [_] DMin [_] Exploratory

Personal Information

Imposed Name: ____________

Patriarchal Name: _________________

Real Name: ____________

Are you a citizen of the American Empire: ______ Why:_______________________________

Where the Federales Deliver Your Documents______________________________________

Institutions of Past Indoctrination and / or Liberation


School: ___________________________________

Location: _________________ Years Attended: _______

Degree: Yes / Not a meaningful concept. Major(s): __________________ GPA? ____

List all the good you did, including marches, protests, speeches, and sticking it to the man: _____________________________________________________

Ever suspended, dismissed, or arrested? Yes / hell yes / not yet

List all other schools through which you passed on your pilgrimage to your true self:

School: ___________________________________

Location: _________________ Years Attended: _______

School: ___________________________________

Location: _________________ Years Attended: _______

Specialized Training or Skills, especially in useful areas
(organic horticulture, interpretative dance, deconstruction of metanarratives, making tea, guitar, etc.) _________________________________________________

Demographic Information (so the government knows how much money to give you)

My ancestors were oppressed by Europeans by [_] being taken from Africa in slavery [_] Spanish colonization of the “New World” [_]colonization of Asia [_] conquest of the Pacific Islands [_] English colonization of the “New World” [_] economic exploitation of globalization OR [_] I have benefited from the exploitation of other peoples (I’m white, but overcoming)

Gender: M/F/L/G/B/T/Q [_] Other________

Political Affiliation: [_] Democratic Party [_] Green Party [_] Freedom Socialist Party [_] Labor Party [_] Peace and Freedom Party

Involvement in Church?

[_] spiritual not religious [_] worship the goddess within [_] worship the earth [_] oldline liberal [_] evangelical (I like the music and the gym) [_] Episcopal

I certify that all the information provided on this application, any attached paperwork, and the attached essays are accurate and truthful even though we all know that truth is a relative term that supports the entrenched power of elite institutions and contributes to the oppression of peoples everywhere.

Click here to read all of the application.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pulpit Fantasy

I doubt there are many clergy who have not, at one time or another, fantasized about doing something like this from the pulpit:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Postmodern Flight from Authority and Truth

What challenges face the Church when it comes to evangelism, to proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I find the following thoughts on postmodern culture’s flight from authority and truth from R. R. Reno’s The Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in An Age of Diminished Christianity (Brazos Press, 2002) a sobering way to critically assess that question, particularly insofar as proclaiming the gospel entails claims to truth and authority. If you find any of what follows intriguing, read the whole book.

… the outlook of modernity has shifted from ambition and confidence to fear and anxiety. The spirit of the age is no longer self-expressive; it is self-protective. Whether one is a Derridian, a disciple of Foucault, or a student of Heidegger, the very potencies and powers that give human life dynamism and drive are laden with danger.

Allow me to list a few postmodern truisms. Language is a vessel of power that seeks dominion. Truth claims are tinged with imperial ambition. Technology alienates us from life. Economic dynamism produces rapacious inequality.

As a consequence, the slogans of modernity may well endure; liberty, equality, and fraternity may continue to be championed, but they are so against a background of menace and not promise. Postmodern culture continues to put humanity first, but it does so in an atmosphere haunted by fear.

Because postmodern culture is essentially defensive, the challenges of evangelism have changed, and the many modern theological strategies of mediation are altogether beside the point. One need not meet the rigorous demands of modern intellectual life when the present age is running in the opposite direction. One need not tailor the gospel to fit the ambitions of freedom if the postmodern soul endeavors to shrink to a point where it will no longer be noticed. But the demise of old challenges give rise to new challenges. Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and flight from truth. Both are integral to the strange way in which postmodern culture seeks to serve humanity by saving it from any and all power, by protecting us from the ambitions and demands that lead to change.

The contemporary allergy to authority and flight from truth are certainly familiar to anyone who has sampled the air of American culture. Consider the slogan “Celebrate diversity!” This platitude is so ubiquitous that it now seems self-evident. Some people are tall, others are short. It would be absurd to require all people to be the same height. Just as people are of different heights, we reason, so also do people have different spiritual sensibilities and needs. It would be absurd, then, to require them to hold the same beliefs or conform to the same moral rules. After all, only a violent attack on individual bodies would produce a world of people the same height. So also, we infer, enforced uniformity of belief and practice requires violent assaults upon conscience, intellect, and will. Therefore we must reject all authoritative claims as acts of violence.

Of course, Christianity is inevitably caught up in the postmodern flight from authority. As the most powerful force shaping Western culture, Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves. If we are affiliated with enduring divisions of race and class, then surely Christianity must have a hand in causing this evil. If Western societies subordinate women and deny them public roles, then, again, Christianity is at the root of the problem. The list of particulars is endless, varying in focus according to the interests of critics, but the basic logic is the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.

Anxieties about the closed circuit of dogma, the exhausting weight of tradition, and the crushing force of institutional authority lead our postmodern culture to the extreme of denying the authority of truth itself. Our efforts to shield ourselves from coercive demand and its violence against individuality makes us fear that some proposition, some insight, some conclusion to a syllogism might gain control over our intellects and our souls. If any of us really believe that some proposition is true, then the diversity of our minds will fall victim to the uniformity of what is the case. Indeed I am convinced that if the Vatican were to promulgate a document advising Catholic theologians that 2 + 2 = 4 and that theologians are not to say otherwise if they wish to speak the truth, then journalists would have no difficulty finding any number of sources who would denounce the authoritarian tone of such a directive.

Such hyperbole can seem silly. Perhaps, but we should not underestimate the intensity of the postmodern horror of obedience, a horror that makes the power of truth itself a threat. “Sharing” now smothers debate. God forbid that anyone should formulate a reasoned argument; it might contradict or “marginalize” the experience of others. All sentences must begin with a compulsive ritual preface: “From my point of view …” The truth or falsity of all claims depend on one’s “perspective.” Everyone must be affirmed; the views of all must be validated.

Many of my colleagues in philosophy are convinced that this all-views-are-equally-valid approach stems from a widespread belief in relativism. We are all, these professors imagine, in the grips of a bad theory of truth, and they spend a great deal of time trying to disabuse their students of this bad theory.

The problem, however, is that this does not work. I can point out to my students that the truth of 2 + 2 = 4 does not in fact depend on anyone’s point of view. I can expand upon the objectivity of the natural sciences. I can lecture about the distinction between truth and justification. I can exhort all to recognize that the possibilities of error and prejudice do not make them inevitable.

My efforts are in vain because my students have a primitive and unreflective commitment to the proposition that all truth is relative. They hold such a view as dogma, not as theory. It is a presupposition, not a conclusion. Truth claims, they say, are relative to their cultural contexts. If I press the issue and ask them to explain how such a view is consistent with the fact that modern science is practiced in India, Japan, Russia, and the United States, and that scientists go to international conferences and seem to agree with each other about all sorts of things regardless of cultural context, they look at me and shrug. At other times they deploy sophistic tricks. A student insists that one cannot make non-mathematical claims about mathematics, and this demonstrates that all systems of thought are closed and self-referential. Therefore truth claims reduce to empty tautology. When I ask him in what sense the proposition that engineers find mathematics useful is a mathematical claim about mathematics, he just looks at me and repeats his conviction. His belief is more certain to him than anything I might say. It is a matter of faith, not evidence or inference.

These experiences in the classroom have convinced me that relativism is not a philosophical theory. It is a spiritual truth, a protective dogma designed to fend off any power that might claim our loyalty. It is a habit of mind that insulates postmodern life from the sober potency of arguments and the force of evidence, from the rightful claims of reason and the wisdom of the past. My students can look me in the eye and insist that one should never impose one’s beliefs on others and that all truth claims – including, I presume, the moral rigors of never, never imposing on others – are relative. Here our contemporary horror of obedience joins hands with solipsism in order to protect the soul from all demands, rational or otherwise. Here we are face to face with the spirit of our age.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Revised Apostles' Creed

Behold, a revision of the Apostles' Creed that we educated Episcopalians can recite without compromising our intellectual sophistication.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Churchgoers Don't Care about Anglican Schism

As long it doesn't affect me, it's really not all that important.

When it comes to the stress and strain on the bonds of affection between the Episcopal Church and much of the rest of the Anglican Communion, such is the reasoning of HE Baber, University of San Diego Philosophy Professor and Episcopalian. Here's some of what she has to say in a recent article for The Guardian:

I used to think the Anglican communion was simply a list of churches where I was officially entitled to receive communion – rather like a network of cash machines at which I could use my ATM card.

I've just googled and now know better. The Anglican communion, I discovered, is an institution. It has offices, employs executives and support staff, oversees innumerable committees, commissions and working groups, maintains an observer at the UN, runs conferences, produces reams of paperwork and maintains a website.

None of this has anything to do with me. My local Episcopal church has a priest to conduct services and do pastoral work, sextons to maintain the facilities and an organist. That is all I, and I suspect most other lay people, expect or want from the church: a building, liturgy and pastoral care if needed. I don't understand how the operations of the Anglican communion facilitate the work of parish churches or benefit their members. ...

I'm not sure what a schism in the Anglican communion will mean for me as an Episcopalian. Will I still be officially entitled to receive communion in the CofE or Anglican churches elsewhere? It hardly matters since Anglican churches don't issue communion tickets or check credentials, and I don't see any other way that the schism could affect me.

So what's all this fuss about catholicity and the Anglican Communion all about? After all, it doesn't affect me.

Presiding Bishop: "The Whole World Has Access to God"

Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was recently asked the question, "Is the only way to God through Jesus?" Here is her response:

Christians – I among them – believe that Jesus died for the whole world. Right?

At the same time, Jews don’t claim Jesus as their Messiah, most Jews don’t anyway. But as I read the Bible, God clearly made promises to the Jews that have not been broken by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God also made promises to the ancestors of people who call themselves Muslim, to Ishmael and to Hagar. Those promises we don’t believe God has broken either. So clearly the other Abrahamic faiths have access to God the Father without consciously going through Jesus.

I also look around at people from other faith traditions, and there are some great examples out there like Mahatma Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama, who … or Thich Nhat Hanh, who show us what look like fruits of the Spirit, who show us in their lives what we see as godly behavior. If I deny that that person has some access to God because of the evidence I see, I think I’m doing something pretty close to the sin against the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know how God does that. It’s not my job to figure that out, it’s God’s job. My job is to be the best Christian I can be, to share my understanding of good news and my experience of Jesus, and to live a life that shows that to the world and to let God figure out who’s going to be in the kingdom at the end of all time.

I believe that the whole world has access to God. I’m just not too worried about the mechanism. And yes, that does drive some Christians nuts. It does. It does, because, in some parts of Christianity, we have turned salvation into a work, that you have to say, “I claim Jesus as my Lord and Savior” in order to be saved. That turns it into a work. It denies the possibility of grace.

Crowd applauds.

Watch it here:

I find this response problematic.

The issue isn't about whether or not non-Christians have access to God. With some exceptions, the mainstream of the Christian tradition affirms the reality of general revelation as "the self-disclosure of God that all people can perceive by contemplating evidences of God's presence in the world of nature, history, and human life in general" [Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine Revised Edition, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), p. 40]. This is sometimes called the natural knowledge of God.

At the same time, the mainstream of the Christian tradition also acknowledges that general revelation can only get us so far. There are things about God and what is necessary for salvation that we cannot ascertain by reason alone. And so the Church affirms the reality of special revelation as "the unique self-revelation of God through God's word and action (1) in the history of Israel and above all in Jesus Christ, (2) through the Bible, which tells us of the God who came to us in this way, and (3) through the Christian church, which preserves and interprets the biblical witness" [ibid.]. This is sometimes called the revealed knowledge of God.

So the issue isn't whether or not non-Christians have access to God. Christian tradition affirms that they do. The issue is whether or not such access is sufficient for salvation.

By invoking the examples of non-Christians like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Presiding Bishop appears to be saying that general revelation - the natural knowledge of God - is, indeed, a sufficient basis for salvation. In light of their exemplary conduct of life, special revelation is not necessary, since such non-Christians do not accept the substantive content of what Christianity claims to be the revealed knowledge of God (assuming that they know this content to begin with). And so the Presiding Bishop equates access to God via general revelation with salvation, thereby rendering special revelation superfluous.

Such a claim may be at odds with a solemn promise made by every person ordained in the Episcopal Church when each of us affirms before God, the bishop, and the gathered assembly 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" [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 526; emphasis added]. If all things necessary to salvation are available through general revelation such that special revelation is ... well, not so special, then the Prayer Book is making quite an unnecessary fuss about the uniqueness of Holy Scripture. For in truth, there are many other equally valid means of access to God's unique self-revelation apart from scripture, the history of Israel, holy tradition, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And finally, there's the Presiding Bishop's claim that requiring a confession of faith in Jesus - or, perhaps more accurately, responding to the gift of salvation in Jesus (which also takes the form of receiving the sacrament of baptism) - turns salvation into a work, thereby denying the possibility of grace.

This reminds me of a scene in the story of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas in Acts chapter 16. After their miraculous release, the jailer asks them, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas respond: "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16:30-31). If the Presiding Bishop is correct, however, Paul and Silas' response to the jailer turns salvation into a work (in this instance, the work of believing), thereby denying the possibility of grace.

There's also Jesus' proclamation to "repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). Unlike Paul and Silas, Jesus is telling people to do two things instead of just one, thereby (if the Presiding Bishop is correct) doubly denying the possibility of grace.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul also exhorts persons to do two things when he affirms that "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). Did Paul not understand the meaning of grace?

If the Presiding Bishop is right, then the answer to the question, "What must I do to be saved?" would have to be, "You need do nothing, no response of any kind is necessary, for grace abounds." It's unclear if this means that everybody is already saved whether or not they accept the gift of salvation in Jesus, or whether they must also live good lives like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, or Thich Nhat Hanh. If the latter, then the Presiding Bishop performatively contradicts herself by making a work (living a life that shows the fruits of the Spirit) an integral part of salvation.

As I read it, the Presiding Bishop's response to the question, "Is the only way to God through Jesus?" is, "No, Jesus isn't the only way. Jesus is one of many valid ways to God. You have your way. We Christians have our way." (In an earlier posting, I noted the problematic character of affirming this kind of pluralism and the common-essence approach to religion it sometimes implies in the case of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester, the former bishop-elect of Northern MI.)

Since the whole world already has access to God anyway, the Presiding Bishop concludes that special revelation is not so special, Jesus is not unique or necessary for salvation, and persons don't have to respond to the Gospel to be saved. Pushed to its limit, this line of reasoning denies the necessity of the Church itself in the economy of salvation. Even bearing in mind the fact that no mere mortal can ascertain with absolute certainty the eternal destiny of any particular person, the theological implications of this response signal a bold departure from the faith of the Church.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wordle Creed

The Nicene Creed via Wordle:

Wordle: Nicene Creed

And here's some of Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary on the significance of the Creed:

Wordle: Luke Timothy Johnson on the Nicene Creed

I think I'm hooked on Wordle. And it's all The Postulant's fault!

Two Visions

On this Feast Day of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the meditation from Forward Day by Day notes the dissonance of two strikingly different visions.

2 Peter 1:13-21. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.

August 6 has been celebrated as the feast of Jesus' Transfiguration for centuries in the Eastern Orthodox Church but only since the Reformation in the Roman Church. It did not appear in the Anglican calendar until the American Prayer Book of 1892. It gives to Jesus' disciples, then and now, a glimpse of his eternal glory before the agony of his Passion. It also affirms his true identity as God's Messiah. It is meant to sustain us as we bear our own crosses.

August 6 marks another observance as well, the destruction of Hiroshima by the first atomic bomb. That event could arguably be seen as the most important turning point in modern history. Its aftermath, the global race for weapons of mass destruction, has darkened our world and immeasurably sapped its resources.

Two visions: one of glory, light, and promise; the other of destruction, suffering, and violence. One meant to inspire, the other to terrify. Let us hold fast to the first as we endure the second.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why This Particular Line in the Sand?

That's the question Fr. Tim Chesterton asks in a posting with the same title over at his blog.

An opponent of same-sex blessings and the ordination of partnered homosexual persons, Chesterton is concerned by the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent statement in the wake of the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. And although he deeply admires his scholarship (as I do, too), he is sharply critical of Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright's involvement in ecclesiastical politics and his scathing article about General Convention, especially inasmuch as Wright reduces the lives, hopes, and dreams of real flesh-and-blood persons to abstract issues.

It all leads Chesterton to wonder why homosexuality should prove to be the make-it-or-break-it issue when, as he notes, there are "a couple of other issues, on both of which the Bible is every bit as clear (more so in my view), and which are every bit as relevant to the struggles of people in the modern world." Those issues are war and usury. On both of these issues, Chesterton argues, the Church later changed its position from what the early Church taught and practiced and what the scriptures clearly teach. Noting the acceptance of these changes in doctrine and practice, Chesterton asks: "if we allow one 'revisionist reinterpretation' ... [then] why not another"?

He then speculates about the reasons why Anglicans who take a "traditionalist" position on sexual ethics back away from doing so on issues like war and usury:

I have a nasty suspicion about the reasons why the Communion is not going to take a stand on these two issues of war and usury. I suspect that the reason has a lot to do with the fact that taking this stand would have an enormous cost for huge numbers of us. Many Anglicans are in fact investment bankers, or stockbrokers, and many, many more take advantage of the modern capitalist system (which is based on usury through and through) to get loans to buy houses and cars and to start businesses and so on. Dissenting from this all-pervasive system would have enormous economic and social consequences for us. And in a similar way, we all depend (or at least, we think we do) on our armies to keep us safe from international rogue states and terrorists and so on. Making a decision to follow Jesus in loving our enemies and refusing to strike back against them would inevitably have deadly consequences: after all, it led Jesus to the Cross, and he assured us it would do the same for us ('take up your cross and follow me').

Sadly, for the vast majority of Anglicans the issue of homosexuality does not carry that personal price-tag. Most of us are straight; we aren't the ones who would be bearing the cross if the church as a whole agreed that same-sex unions are not a legitimate part of a life of following Jesus. Gays and lesbians are an easy target, because there aren't many of them (tho' more, perhaps, than some Christians would like to think).

Personally, I think it's a tragedy that we're drawing these lines in the sand at all. Historically, it's not been our way as Anglicans. On the (equally clear) biblical teachings about war and peace and about usury, we've allowed for a variety of biblical interpretation. Why is homosexuality so despicable that we don't make similar allowances?

Good questions and a fine posting.

Read it all.

Ordering Life's Priorities

Here's today's meditation from Forward Day by Day.

Mark 8:34-9:1. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

"Too late have I loved Thee," wrote Saint Augustine in the fifth century. He was lamenting the fact that he had ordered his life's priorities mistakenly for too long. It is tempting, and so very easy, to believe that things that have no life will give us life. We are bombarded with messages that equate a fulfilled life with possessions, power, prestige, beauty, and wealth. In the end, none of these last and, even more tragically, the unbridled pursuit of them slowly kills. All too often it takes personal misfortune, or at least a near miss, to cause us to realign our priorities.

"Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee," continued Augustine. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. He lived a life of sacrificial love for all. Such a life will not impress others on the freeway or in the board room. It will probably not turn heads on the street. On the other hand, it will sustain us eternally and give us true joy and fulfillment. The choice is always ours.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Looking at Marriage

At the recommendation of my bishop, I read a sobering article written for Time Magazine by Caitlin Flanagan entitled, "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" It paints a grim picture of what's going on in our society. Here are some excerpts:

In the past 40 years, the face of the American family has changed profoundly. As sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin observes in a landmark new book called The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, what is significant about contemporary American families, compared with those of other nations, is their combination of "frequent marriage, frequent divorce" and the high number of "short-term co-habiting relationships." Taken together, these forces "create a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else. There are more partners in the personal lives of Americans than in the lives of people of any other Western country."

An increasingly fragile construct depending less and less on notions of sacrifice and obligation than on the ephemera of romance and happiness as defined by and for its adult principals, the intact, two-parent family remains our cultural ideal, but it exists under constant assault. It is buffeted by affairs and ennui, subject to the eternal American hope for greater happiness, for changing the hand you dealt yourself. Getting married for life, having children and raising them with your partner — this is still the way most Americans are conducting adult life, but the numbers who are moving in a different direction continue to rise. Most notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May that births to unmarried women have reached an astonishing 39.7%.

How much does this matter? More than words can say. There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers' financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation's underclass.

The poor and the middle class are very different in the ways they have forsaken marriage. The poor are doing it by uncoupling parenthood from marriage, and the financially secure are doing it by blasting apart their unions if the principals aren't having fun anymore. ...

America's obsession with high-profile marriage flameouts ... reflects a collective ambivalence toward the institution: our wish that we could land ourselves in a lasting union, mixed with our feeling of vindication, or even relief, when a standard bearer for the "traditional family" fails to pull it off. This is ultimately self-defeating. It is time instead to come to terms with both our unrealistic expectations for a happy marriage and our equally unrealistic beliefs about the consequences of walking away from the families we build.

The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it — given the game-changing realities of birth control, female equality and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized — simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now: there probably aren't many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good times consists of being yoked to the same romantic partner, through bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually dies in harness.

Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function — to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation's own safe passage into adulthood? Think of it this way: the current generation of children, the one watching commitments between adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply can't be bothered to marry each other and who hence drift in and out of their children's lives — that's the generation who will be taking care of us when we are old. ...

What we teach about the true meaning of marriage will determine a great deal about our fate.

Read it all.

Reading this article, I found myself wondering what role the Church plays in challenging or aiding and abetting our "collective ambivalence" about the institution of marriage.

Many questions come to mind. For instance, do we in the Church, perhaps unwittingly, support the reduction of marriage to yet another consumer venture ("We don't belong to any church, but we want to be married in your church because it is so beautiful!")? By not adequately dealing with the pervasive issue of divorce, do we tacitly bless the cultural norm of serial monogamy and the broken relationships that norm entails?

In response to such questions, some might say that making it easier to get married in the Church provides opportunities for evangelism. Perhaps that's true in some cases. But in my experience, it rarely works out that way. If the couple was not very involved in the life of the parish before the wedding, they tend to not be very involved afterwards. And the couples who aren't very involved tend to make the most demands about what they want with their wedding, even if what they want happens to be completely out of bounds when it comes to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. (For example, I was recently asked: "Can we write our own marriage vows? It would mean so much to us if we can do that!")

More questions: is it really helpful to think of marriage as a right? Does construing marriage in terms of "rights" - as something to which I am entitled by virtue of baptism, or because it is something I desire, or simply because I am a human being - provide an adequate framework for understanding what the Church means by calling marriage a sacrament?

I sometimes think that perhaps a better way to think about marriage from a Christian perspective is to think of it as analogous to making monastic or ordination vows. It's more about self-sacrifice and discipleship than about personal fulfillment or satisfying my "rights." It's a spiritual discipline for transformation into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. It's a "school" for cultivating the virtues. And if that's the case, then marriage understood in a Christian sense is a way of life that's more about making us holy than making us happy (as least in terms of how our culture generally understands "happiness").

Here's how Gary Thomas talks about it in his book Sacred Marriage (Zondervan, 2000):

For the Christian, marriage is a penultimate rather than an ultimate reality. Because of this, both of us can find even more meaning by pursuing God together and by recognizing that he is the one who alone can fill the spiritual ache in our souls. … If that relationship [with God] is right, we won’t make such severe demands on our marriage, asking each other, expecting each other, to compensate for spiritual emptiness. ...

Just as celibates use abstinence and religious hermits use isolation, so we can use marriage for the same purpose – to grow in our service, obedience, character, pursuit, and love of God. ...

I believe it is possible to enter marriage with a view to being cleansed spiritually, if, that is, we do so with a willingness to embrace marriage as a spiritual discipline. To do this, we must not enter marriage predominately to be fulfilled, emotionally satisfied, or romantically charged, but rather to become more like Jesus Christ. We must embrace the reality of having our flaws exposed to our partner, and thereby having them exposed to us as well. Sin never seems quite as shocking when it is known only to us; when we see how it looks or sounds to another, it is magnified ten times over. The celibate can “hide” frustration by removing himself from the situation, but the married man or woman has no true refuge. It is hard to hide when you share the same bed.

In comparison to the attitudes towards marriage described in Caitlin Flanagan's article (especially attitudes among the affluent), Thomas' perspective is deeply counter cultural. That may explain why, when I've talked about this sort of thing with couples in premarital counseling, I often get blank stares. Regardless of their membership status in the Episcopal Church, most of the time they haven't a clue as to what I'm talking about.

I sometimes wonder: should the Church simply get out of the marriage business? Should we tell people to get civil marriages, and then, if they feel called to what the sacrament of Holy Matrimony means, undergo a time of discernment (akin to discerning for monastic or holy orders) which may or may not lead to the blessing of their civil marriage? Would that be a more faithful way to live into the Christian meaning of marriage than allowing anyone to marry who desires it because, by virtue of their baptisms, they have a "right" to it?

Postscript: There are a number of interesting articles up at The Washingon Post website in response to the questions: "What is marriage? Is it a sacred rite or a civil right? What role, if any, should religious institutions, traditions or beliefs have in the legal act of marriage?" Read them all.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Church is Catholic

The Church is catholic because by word and life it maintains and bears witness to the fullness of the faith, and because people of all nations and conditions are called to participate in it. Catholicity stands in contrast to schism and heresy. If Christians cease to love each other or to respect church order they are in danger of schism. If they depart from the essentials of the apostolic faith they become guilty of heresy. The catholicity of the Church is shown in the multiplicity of particular local churches, each of which, being in eucharistic communion with all the other local churches, manifests in its own place and time the one catholic Church. These local churches, in faithful response to their own particular missionary situation, have developed a wide diversity in their life. As long as their witness to the one faith remains unimpaired, such diversity is to be seen, not as a deficiency or cause for division, but as a mark of the fullness of one Spirit who distributes to each according to his will (1 Cor. 12.11).

At each local Eucharist, celebrated within the catholic Church, Christ is present in his wholeness, and so each local celebration actualizes and gives visible expression to the Church's catholicity. Communion in the Eucharist is also the outward manifestation of the common faith and the Christian love which binds together all the local churches in the one catholic Church.