Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ideal Parish Profile

Parish profiles are notorious for trying to be all things to all prospective rectors, often whitewashing the challenges and painting rosy portraits of parish life. It doesn't take long after ordination for many priests to learn that they must put on their hermeneutic lenses of suspicion with parish profiles, reading between the lines and, in consultation with others who know the parish, looking for red flags. What would it be like for a parish to just lay it all out on the table in its profile, letting the chips fall where they may?

While he doesn't cover every conceivable angle on this front, The Postulant may have outdone himself in a recent posting entitled, "Things you will never, ever see in a parish profile," at least when it comes to the topics of worship and Christian education. He's certainly hit the nail on the head for me:

"We are looking for a rector who will guide us into more traditional worship."

"Our favorite sermons offer Catholic theology with evangelical delivery."

"Adult education at Saint Ethelred's follows the C.S. Lewis rule: after reading a new book, we never allow ourselves to read another new one till we have read an old one in between."

"Our previous rector refused to devote adult education time to any study of the works of Spong, Pagels, Borg, and the like. We agree with this stance but remain disappointed that he did not also burst into derisive laughter at the very mention of their names."

I'm with The Postultant: if I read a parish profile that said things like this, it would, indeed, warm my heart.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are Non-Christians All Damned?

In an essay entitled "The Uniqueness of Christianity," Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Peter Kreeft responds to this question as follows:

No. Father Feeny was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for teaching that "outside the Church, no salvation" meant outside the visible Church.

God does not punish pagans [sic] unjustly. He does not punish them for not believing in a Jesus they never heard of, through no fault of their own (invincible ignorance). ... There are no innocent pagans, and there are no innocent Christians either. All have sinned against God and against conscience. All need a Savior. Christ is the Savior.

Kreeft continues by correcting the extremes of both Christian fundamentalism and Christian liberalism by invoking a Catholic via media:

Fundamentalists, faithful to the clear one-way teaching of Christ, often conclude from this [i.e., the teaching that Jesus is the unique Lord and Savior] that pagans, Buddhists, et cetera, cannot be saved. Liberals, who emphasize God's mercy, cannot bring themselves to believe that the mass of men [sic] are doomed to hell, and they ignore, deny, nuance, or water down Christ's own claims to uniqueness. The Church has found a third way, implied in the New Testament texts. On the one hand, no one can be saved except through Christ. On the other hand, Christ is not only the incarnate Jewish man but also the preexistent word of God "which enlightens every man who comes into the world" (Jn 1:9). So Socrates was able to know Christ as word of God, as eternal Truth; and if the fundamental option of his deepest heart was to reach out to him as Truth, in faith and hope and love, however imperfectly known this Christ was to Socrates, Socrates could have been saved by Christ too. We are not saved by knowledge but by faith. Scripture nowhere says how explicit the intellectual content of faith has to be. But it does clearly say who the one Savior is.

The Second Vatican Council took a position on comparative religions that distinguished Catholicism from both Modernist relativism and Fundamentalist exclusivism. It taught that on the one hand there is much deep wisdom and value in other religions and that the Christian should respect them and learn from them. But, on the other hand, the claims of Christ and his Church can never be lessened, compromised, or relativized. We may add to our religious education by studying other religions but never subtract from it.

Read it all.

Close Approach to Certainty

Cartesian, adj. Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum - whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum - "I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;" as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Today's Sequence Hymn

What a beauty today's sequence hymn was: #689, "I sought the Lord." The tune (Faith, by J. Harold Moyer) is gorgeous. And the words are deeply moving:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found of thee.

Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
'twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
as thou, dear Lord, on me.

I find, I walk, I love,
but oh, the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
for thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
always thou lovedst me.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sentimentality Pisses Hauerwas Off

Stanley Hauerwas is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Over the course of his academic career, Hauerwas' theological ethics has consistently highlighted the importance of virtue, character, and community for an adequate understanding of the moral life. In works such as The Peaceable Kingdom, he grasps with clarity and insight the deeply narrative character of moral agency and the Church.

In 2001, Time Magazine named Hauerwas "America's Best Theologian." According to Wikipedia, Hauerwas responded by saying, "Best is not a theological category."

I came across the following video of Hauerwas over at the blog "theoryspace." Hauerwas sums up the point he's driving at in this three-and-a-half minute outtake by saying: "The deepest enemy to Christianity is not atheism, it's sentimentality."

I'll share the same warning here that's over at "theoryspace": some viewers may find language in this video offensive. Watch at your own risk!

Sentimentality from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Universalism and Bad Theology

I discovered a most interesting blog today. It's called "The Ladder Home" and it belongs to Ian, who describes himself as "a gay, traditionalist, high-church, evangelical, orthodox, catholic Episcopalian." I found the blog by doing a Google search with the words "Universalism Episcopal Church." That led me to Ian's posting entitled "Correcting the Error of Universalism in the Church." Here's an excerpt:

... universalism is afoot in the Episcopal Church, and it is a disease that has now become deeply rooted in the administration and governance of the Episcopal Church and is continuing to gain ground. I know that the term “disease” may be harsh, but for Christians, I believe that there is no other appropriate term. Even the label of heresy does not even begin to describe the level of error of universalism. Universalism posits that all religions are of equal value and that all paths lead to salvation. It buys in to the postmodern notion that all truth is relative. However, this view is objectively in error when compared to the principles of orthodox Christianity. The Christian Church from the time of the Apostles affirmed the uniqueness of the Christian faith and its sole and exclusive claim to the fullness of truth. In the scriptures we read “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:4-6)

Universalism would either reject this notion as “exclusivist” or “narrow-minded”. Some universalists might pervert the traditional interpretation and say that all religions belong to the one faith in God. Universalism also leads to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus Christ is not Lord, and that He was not the savior of mankind and relegates him to a prophetic, non-divine status. This assertion is in direct contradiction to the orthodox understanding of Christianity in regard to the status of the church. The Church dealt with this error in the 4th Century and declared the divinity of Christ to be an absolute principle. To be Christian is much more than simply liking Jesus or following him as a nice person. Through the years, the Church (Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) have affirmed that in order to be Christian, one must affirm the dogmas of the Church as contained in the Nicene Creed and in the Chalcedonian statement of AD 451 affirming the dual nature of Christ. Universalism finds support neither in the writ of Holy Scripture or in the sacred tradition of the Church, neither can it be reasoned from the two. ...

Universalism is but a false love of our neighbor, because in it, we allow people to remain in darkness and ignorance because we refuse to extend our hand in Christ’s behalf to them to invite them to a transformed redeemed life in Christ Jesus and to invite them to share in the blessings of the Kingdom of God.

In another posting entitled "The Do or Die Moment for the Episcopal Church," Ian has this to say about bad theology and its impact on evangelism and growth:

Our theology is the foundation of the very message that we proclaim to the world. When we begin messing with the basics of our theology and re-forming it to be less offensive or less radical or less whatever, and attempting to sanitize it for the sake of our own image, we begin to affect the very message that we send out to the rest of the world. When we begin to marginalize the very sources that make us who we are, we “[collude] with the pagan empire, deny [ourselves] the sourcebook for [our] kingdom critique of oppression” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope p. 219). In other words, we begin to dilute the power of the very message we claim to share with the world.

In the Episcopal Church, it seems that all manner of poor theological conclusions are let to fly and to carry currency. Recently, a nominee to the Episcopate authored a revision of the baptismal liturgy which removed all references to atonement and to repentance and sin. The Bishops of the Episcopal Church also recently has refused to discipline a Bishop who has openly denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and has openly denied the teachings of the creeds. These two are but an example of the doctrinal trends that are occurring that need to be stopped if the Episcopal Church is to stop its hemorrhage of membership and Sunday Attendance.

Let me make clear that I am not advocating for fundamentalism or of an extreme swing in the other direction. What I am advocating for is the generous orthodoxy that is classical Anglicanism. This Anglicanism is codified in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and in the Creeds. This form of Christianity does not dilute or eliminate central doctrines that are accepted by all Christians such as the atonement and the resurrection of Christ and that affirms that the Holy Scriptures are the ultimate rule of faith and practice for Christians. The message of Christianity it is pure form is unique and starkly differentiates it from other religious paths. Among our uniquenesses is that our salvation is dependent on our history. We are saved by what Jesus did for us and not necessarily by Jesus taught us. Doctrine is important to us because the fundamental truths of our faith (should) produce a proper understanding of justification by faith and not by works. Pastor Tim Keller said in a lecture “When someone says ‘doctrine doesn’t matter’ that is a doctrine, the doctrine of justification by works. It is salvation through advice, and not salvation through what has been done.” (What is the Gospel, The Gospel & Heart Conference, 9/2003).

Doctrinal correctives and discipline are necessary if the Episcopal Church is to present a coherent message to the rest of the world. Again, unity is not uniformity, however there must be minimal agreement so that we can agree on what we will present to the world about us and our story as God’s people. Stories about our contribution to world relief and our commitment to environmentalism wax empty and meaningless unless backed with the message of our understanding that our redemption and transformation by Jesus is what drives us to do these things.

I couldn't agree more, Ian. And I'm pleased to discover you out there in the Episcopal blogosphere.

Swim the Tiber? I Don't Think So!

In light of the recent development on the ecumenical front in which (as Ruth Gledhill puts it) "the Holy See ... [has] set up an Apostolic Constitution to provide Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans and former Anglicans who wish to enter into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church," I'm re-posting a piece I first put up back in March 2008.

There's an interesting posting over at "The Continuum" that offers a very brief apologia for "the wisdom of the Anglican Way" directed primarily at those who, for many reasons, struggle with the possibility of leaving the Anglican/Episcopal Church for the Roman Catholic Church.

Here's how Fr. Hart summarizes the reasons for sticking with the Anglican Way rather than swimming the Tiber:

  1. An Anglican is fully Catholic by the standards of the Scriptures and the Patristic period.
  2. Our orders have been preserved without defect, with all of the charisms and power Christ has granted through his apostles to his Church.
  3. Our doctrine is better and more pure than that of Rome.
  4. Newman was not all there, and his later criticism of Anglicanism is neither accurate nor wholly rational.
  5. Newman's theory of Doctrinal Development is as dangerous as the Pentecostalist notion of "Progressive revelation."
  6. The Pope is not infallible.
  7. The Pope does not have Universal Jurisdiction.
  8. The Pope is the bishop of Peter's See, but so is the Patriarch of Antioch.
  9. The service of Holy Communion is a perfectly valid Mass or Eucharist.
  10. Our Anglican fathers were not Calvinists or Lutherans.
  11. "Protestant" is not the opposite of "Catholic."
  12. Some Catholics are Protestant Catholics.
  13. We do not need doctrines like "the merits of the saints" or a concept of Purgatory as "temporal punishment."
  14. When the Articles say that "The Romish doctrine of Purgatory is a fond thing," this does not mean that we are supposed to be fond of it.
  15. At the end of the day, if it is not in the Bible, it REALLY cannot be necessary for salvation.
  16. Point 15 is classic Catholic teaching.
  17. You should not care what the Roman See thinks of your status as a true church.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Motivational Posters for the Emerging Free-for-All

If you haven't seen these posters before, you can view them all here.

In the meantime, here are a few samples for your edification:

Christianity and the New Paganism

After recently hearing a bishop of Christ's one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church declare himself a Universalist and deny the efficacy of sacraments, the reality of Christ's miraculous feeding of the 5,000, and the substitutionary, sacrificial character of Christ's death on the cross, I'm finding Roman Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft's perspective on the "new paganism" in our culture a bit more persuasive. Here are excerpts from Kreeft's essay entitled "Comparing Christianity and the New Paganism."

The most serious challenge for Christianity today isn't one of the other great religions of the world, such as Islam or Buddhism. Nor is it simple atheism, which has no depth, no mass appeal, no staying power. Rather, it's a religion most of us think is dead. That religion is paganism — and it is very much alive. ...

The new paganism is the virtual divinization of man, the religion of man as the new God. One of its popular slogans, repeated often by Christians, is “the infinite value of the human person.” Its aim is building a heaven on earth, a secular salvation. Another word for the new paganism is humanism, the religion that will not lift up its head to the heavens but stuffs the heavens into its head. ...

The new paganism is situational and pragmatic. It says we are the makers of moral values. It not only finds the moral law written in the human heart but also by the human heart. It acknowledges no divine revelation, thus no one's values can be judged to be wrong.

The new paganism's favorite Scripture is “judge not.” The only judgment is the judgment against judging. The only thing wrong is the idea that there is a real wrong.

The only thing to feel guilty about is feeling guilty. And, since man rather than God is the origin of values, don't impose “your” values on me (another favorite line).

This is really polytheism — many gods, many goods, many moralities. No one believes in Zeus and Apollo and Neptune any more. (I wonder why: Has science really refuted them — or is it due to total conformity to fashion, supine submission to newspapers?) But moral relativism is the equivalent of the old polytheism. Each of us has become a god or goddess, a giver of law rather than receiver. ...

The new paganism is a great triumph of wishful thinking. Without losing the thrill and patina of religion, the terror of religion is removed. The new paganism stoutly rejects “the fear of God.” Nearly all religious educators today, including many supposedly Catholic ones, are agreed that the thing the Bible calls “the beginning of wisdom” is instead the thing we must above all eradicate from the minds of the young with all the softly destructive power of the weapons of modern pop psychology — namely, the fear of the Lord.

“Perfect love casts out fear,” says St. John; but when God has become the Pillsbury Doughboy, there is no fear left to cast out. And when there is no fear to cast out, perfect love lacks its strong roots. It becomes instead mere compassion—something good but dull, or even weak: precisely the idea people have today of religion. The shock is gone. That the God of the Bible should love us is a thunderbolt; that the God of the new paganism should love us is a self-evident platitude.

The new paganism is winning not by opposing but by infiltrating the Church. It is cleverer than the old. It knows that any opposition from without, even by a vastly superior force, has never worked, for “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” When China welcomed Western missionaries, there were 2 million conversions in 60 years; when Mao and communism persecuted the Church, there were 20 million conversions in 20 years. The Church in East Germany is immensely stronger than the Church in West Germany for the same reason. The new paganism understands this, so it uses the soft, suggestive strategy of the serpent. It whispers, in the words of Scripture scholars, the very words of the serpent: “Has God really said...?” (Gen. 3:1).

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

At Clergy Conference

I'm writing from the Duncan M. Gray Conference Center where I'm attending this year's annual clergy conference for the Episcopal Diocese of MS. It's always good to see my brother and sister presbyters and deacons. This year, we have so many new clergy in the diocese that it seems like there's one person I don't know for every three or four that I do know.

This year we're joined by the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago and author of the 7th volume in the New Church's Teaching Series entitled Opening the Prayer Book.

Many of my more conservative brother and sister clergy were angered by Bishop Lee coming to be with us, in large part due to his involvement with the Chicago Consultation (the website says that this group's "principal focus is on strategies for advancing the inclusion on GLBT people in the sacramental life of the Church").

In spite of theological differences, however, I think it's safe to say that everyone in the room was impressed and moved by the talk and spiritual direction that Bishop Lee just walked us through (I certainly was). It's the first of several talks/meditations, and this one was on woundedness. Bishop Lee was very vulnerable with us as he shared his own woundedness over the premature birth of his son, and he has invited us to "show" our wounds in the expectation that our wounds are the places where we encounter the wounded Christ. Upcoming talks/meditations will focus on gifts and on healing, and on how both are connected to our woundedness.

Bishop Lee and his wife are musically gifted, and as someone who also loves and plays music, I was struck by one thing in particular that he said:

"The Christian life is a practice, not a performance."

UPDATE: October 15

After two more meditations with Bishop Lee yesterday afternoon and last night, I'm afraid I must qualify my initial enthusiasm. When he first spoke to us, he lamented the polarization of the Episcopal Church and the ways in which we reduce one another to slogans. And yet, with each successive session, he becomes increasingly bold in saying things that almost seem targeted to antagonize conservatives. And it's working.

He has an interesting way of prefacing certain things by saying, "This may sound heretical, but ..." And then he says something that does, indeed, sound somewhat heterodox if not heretical.

I didn't pick up on all of this so much in the second session (my conservative friends sure did, though), but I did during his meditation in the midst of Compline, especially when he boldly declared himself a Universalist and denied any substitutionary character to the atonement (I would have to conclude that he's not very big on Rite I). He said that the sacraments don't do or change anything, but simply reveal what is already the case: that we are loved and saved by God in Christ. And in what came across to some as a jab against orthodoxy per se, he said that we don't have to do anything right or believe anything right. Grace takes care of everything.

While I'm reconstructing this from memory and am hoping that we will get a copy of all or some of this to back up my memory, I can confidently say that I'm hearing antinomian and somewhat Gnostic overtones to some of this. Indeed, some of what Bishop Lee is saying sounds like it's in the same ballpark with the stuff I read from Kevin Thew Forrester, the former bishop-elect of Northern Michigan (my series of postings on Forrester can be read here). I'll be listening carefully this afternoon.

In the meantime, it saddened me last night to hear one of my best clergy friends say that every time "he" comes to a gathering such as this, "he" leaves feeling disheartened and more disconnected from the diocese and the Episcopal Church.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Just Wrath

Many years ago, I heard a sermon in an Episcopal Church in which the priest expounded at length on the deadly sin of anger. His basic point was that it is always sinful for Christians to feel and/or act on anger. And so anger has no place in the Christian life.

At the time, I was taken aback by the sermon on biblical grounds. After all, the gospels clearly depict Jesus as angry. And in his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul writes: "Be angry but do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26). Holy Scripture does not categorically condemn all anger. And so I continue to believe that this priest's sermon expressed an extremist view that fails to distinguish between unrighteous and righteous anger.

With this in mind, I read with great interest an article by Leon J. Podles entitled "Unhappy Fault." With reference to the child sex abuse cases within the Roman Catholic Church, Podles offers an insightful exploration and defense of the virtue of just wrath. Here's a teaser:

Any institution tends to preserve itself by avoiding conflict, whether external or internal. In addition to this universal tendency, many Christians have a false understanding of the nature and role of anger. It is seen as something negative, something that a Christian should not feel.

In the sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church, those who dealt with the bishops have consistently remarked that the bishops never expressed outrage or righteous anger, even at the most horrendous cases of abuse and sacrilege. Bishops seem to think that anger at sin is un-Christian. Gilbert Kilman, a child psychiatrist, commented, “What amazes me is the lack of outrage the church feels when its good work is being harmed. So, if there is anything the church needs to know, it needs to know how to be outraged.” ...

The emotions that are now suppressed are hatred and anger. Christians think that they ought not to feel these emotions, that it is un-Christian to feel them. They secretly suspect that Jesus was being un-Christian in his attitude to the scribes and Pharisees when he was angry at them, that he was un-Christian when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple or declared that millstones (not vacations in treatment centers) were the way to treat child abusers.

Conrad Baars noticed this emotional deformation in the clergy in the mid-twentieth century. He recognized that there had been distortions in “traditional” Catholic spirituality. It had become too focused upon individual acts rather than on growth in virtue; it had emphasized sheer naked strength of will. In forgetting that growth in virtue was the goal of the Christian’s moral life, it forgot that the emotions, all emotions, including anger and hate, are part of human nature and must be integrated into a virtuous life. ...

Wrath is a necessary and positive part of human nature: “Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul,” wrote Josef Pieper. The lack of wrath against injustice, he continued, is a deficiency: “One who does good with passion is more praiseworthy than one who is ‘not entirely’ afire for the good, even to the forces of the sensual realm.”

Aquinas, too, says that “lack of the passion of anger is also a vice” because a man who truly and forcefully rejects evil will be angry at it. The lack of anger makes the movement of the will against evil “lacking or weak.” He quotes John Chrysostom: “He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but the good to do wrong.”

Pieper observed the disappearance of the concept of just wrath in Catholic moral theology and spiritual life:

The fact, however, that Thomas assigns to [just] wrath a positive relation to the virtue of fortitude has become largely unintelligible and unacceptable to present-day Christianity and its non-Christian critics. This lack of comprehension may be explained partly by the exclusion, from Christian ethics, of the component of passion (with its inevitably physical aspect) as something alien and incongruous—an exclusion due to a kind of intellectual stoicism—and partly by the fact that the explosive activity which reveals itself in wrath is naturally repugnant to good behavior regulated by “bourgeois” standards.

Pieper’s quote from Aquinas’s commentary on John is relevant to both anger and forgiveness. Aquinas is commenting on the passage in which Jesus tells us to offer the other cheek:

Holy Scripture must be understood in the light of what Christ and the saints have actually practiced. Christ did not offer the other cheek, nor Paul either. Thus to interpret the injunction of the Sermon on the Mount literally is to misunderstand it. This injunction signifies rather the readiness of the soul to bear, if it be necessary, such things and worse, without bitterness against the attacker. This readiness our Lord showed, when He gave up His body to be crucified. That response of the Lord was useful, therefore, for our instruction.

The philosophical error that is at the root of this rejection of the passions is not stoicism so much as nominalism and a false concept of freedom which has become ingrained in Western Christianity.

Read it all.