Sunday, March 28, 2010

Questions About Jesus for Entering Holy Week

How is it plausible that two thousand years ago there lived a man born in poverty in a remote corner of the world, whose life was abruptly cut short in his early thirties, who traveled only in a small area, who held no public office, yet whose impact upon us appears greater than all others? How is it that one who died the death of a criminal could be worshiped as Lord by billions?

This is the surprising paradox of his earthly life, but even this is not its deepest mystery. Why are people willing to renounce all to follow him and even die in his service? How is it possible that centuries later his life would be avidly studied and worshipers would address their prayers to him? What accounts for this surprising relation he has with this community?

Classic Christian teaching answers without apology: what was said about him then is true now;
he actually was:
Son of God,
promised Messiah,
the one Mediator between God and humanity,
truly God,
truly human,
who liberated humanity from the power of sin by his death on the cross,
who rose from the dead to confirm his identity as the promised one.

Archbishop of Canterbury's Reflections on Holy Week

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Episcopal Cathedral Hosts Mother Grove Goddess Temple's Spring Equinox Celebration

Now this is inclusiveness and hospitality:

Members of Mother Grove Goddess Temple will celebrate at 7 p.m. Saturday with A Breath of Appalachian Spring: A Ritual in Celebration of the Spring Equinox, in the parish hall of the Episcopal Cathedral of All Souls in Biltmore Village.

Saturday's event is open to all faith traditions, said Byron Ballard, wiccan priestess and a member of the temple. Mother Grove “isn't a wiccan group, though some of us are wiccans,” she said.

“Mother Grove is an outgrowth of the work of several people in the goddess/earth religions community,” Ballard said. “Its goal is to create a permanent sanctuary, where people of all faith traditions may openly and safely celebrate the divine feminine, the goddess.”

Wicca is a modern religion built on the ancient agricultural religions of Europe, she explained. “Wiccans may also refer to themselves as witches.”

"The celebration," we're told, "will consist of raising a circle, singing, 'whistling up the wind' and flying prayers written on paper airplanes."

There's nothing quite like a nice pagan celebration, with perhaps a bit of goddess worship thrown in, to complete Lent and to get folks in the mood for Holy Week.

Read it all.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning from John Wesley

Kevin Martin, dean of St. Matthew's Episcopal Cathedral in Dallas, TX, recently offered some very interesting personal reflections on The Dean's Blog. He writes that he was not actually converted to Christ until some time after his ordination to the priesthood:

Let me be clear on this. I am not proud of the fact that I am a post theological education Christian. For example, people are surprised to know that one of my faculty advisors was Henry Nouwen. Yes, I was blessed by a number of outstanding teachers, not the least of which was Jaraslov Pelikan while at Yale. I do believe that some of them had a deep relationship with Christ. But none of these teachers ever spoke of a personal relationship with Christ as something to be desired, and most down played any sense of conversion. Conversion, if it existed at all, was a gradual process of growth. Consequently, I look back a bit jaded at my seminary experience.

I only spent one year at Sewanee, but about eight or nine years at Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Vanderbilt Graduate Department of Religion (faculty and students overlapping). Fr. Martin's observations of his theological education resonate with my experience at Vanderbilt. The focus was almost exclusively on a politically correct version of social justice. The very idea of a "deep" and "personal relationship with Christ" was the sort of stuff that fundamentalists talked about. When we weren't looking down our noses at them, we felt sorry for those kinds of folks.

After his conversion, Fr. Martin describes how reading the works (particularly the sermons) of John Wesley helped ground his post-conversion identity and integrate that experience with his theological education. "Wesley," Fr. Martin writes, "was a high church Anglican who’s 'heart was strangely warmed' in the Aldersgate experience, and who had deep commitments to the marginalized and poor of his world." And he continues by sharing a number of things he learned from Wesley:

All the head knowledge in the world cannot substitute for “knowing Christ Jesus in the power of his resurrection.”

Religious experience apart from creedal belief usually ends in shipwreck somewhere.

True conversion leads to passionate love for the poor and to concrete steps to alleviate their poverty.

Social justice and evangelism are both mandates of scripture, to hold one without the other is to diminish Christ’s work.

Holiness of life is the goal of all disciples – we don’t want to be people who do good things - we want to become people who are Christ-like.

Simplicity of life is a Christian virtue.

Christian leaders who hold power often work to suppress Christian experience - even those who once claimed a conversion experience.

Being called a fanatic is often a compliment.

Nominal Christian life is the greatest enemy to true discipleship.

Innovation for the sake of mission and evangelism is Apostolic and needed in every age.

Extreme Calvinism quenches human freedom and is joyless.

People have free will and it is obvious that we have to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in ministry and growth.

In Christ, women are equal to men and can be effective agents of ministry.

Bishops are important, but prelacy is a sin against Christ and his Church.

And when it comes to preaching, “set yourself on fire in the pulpit and the whole world will come to see you burn.”

While I do not share Wesley's view (expressed in a letter to his brother Charles dated August 19, 1785) that "the uninterrupted succession [of bishops] I know to be a fable, which no man ever did or can prove," I resonate with pretty much all that Fr. Martin learned from Wesley.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Responses to Health Care Reform Demonstrate Christian Accommodation to Culture

I saw an interesting blog posting yesterday from the "Anglican Curmudgeon" which discusses how, as the title of his piece puts it, "Episcopalians Are Becoming Indistinguishable from the Culture." In a different way, I made a similar point this past summer in my postings entitled "Politicizing the Church" and "Politicizing the Church: 2." Here's part of what I wrote:

Using the world's categories to judge (much less "fix") the Church often ends us 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.

We Episcopalians (and other Christians) increasingly think of the Church as an extension of our lifestyle enclaves, special interest groups, and political party affiliations rather than holding her in reverence as the Body of Christ. (As an aside, do we even know what it means to practice reverence anymore? Or is Paul Woodruff right that reverence is "a forgotten virtue"?) We think of the Church as little more than a merely human institution, and thus as another arena for competing wills to power to strive for dominance using whatever means are necessary for achieving "just" and "righteous" ends.

The depths of our accommodation to an irreverent, secular culture may, in part, explain why some otherwise orthodox Christians characterize persons (including other Christians) with whom they disagree on the issues raised in the current debate over health care reform as "f***ing socialists" and then go on to express the hope that, if the results don't go to their liking, that members of Congress be killed by a cosmic catastrophe or lynched. And given last night's passage of the health care reform bill, it will come as no surprise if the zealous redouble their prayers for the President's death. (I note that, judging from the rhetoric, many "progressive" Christians and others on the opposing side of the issues do not occupy a moral high ground.)

We have enlisted our Christianity to serve our free-market libertarianism or our welfare-state liberalism.

I typically don't agree with evangelicals who invoke the specter of damnation, but under the circumstances, I find the following posting from Andrew Walker at "Mere Orthodoxy" a welcome corrective to all of this:

A wise word and by word, I mean “Tweet” from everyone’s favorite Southern Baptist sage, Dr. Russell Moore: “If your passions are more provoked today by this health care plan than they were yesterday by your neighbors going to hell: wonder why?”

History isn’t written according to quill and parchment.

Eloquent doom and gloom will abound for sure; even by those whom I agree with. Some, perhaps all, of it will be true. Today’s (likely) legislation triggers the most expansive statist progress since FDR or LBJ. The raucous around the water-cooler may hold a more harsher tone of vehemence tomorrow ... but I have profound news for you: The sun, Lord willing, will rise. The earth will continue its rotation around its axis, and Washington pundits are still promised to bow to a greater Physician yet to come.

As evidenced by the unbridled passion and disrespect for the dignity of other persons in response to public policy debates like the one over health care reform, many of us Christians are indistinguishable from the irreverent, secular culture in which we live. What does that tell us about who or what is the true object of our faith? Who do we really believe is Lord?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ethical Implications of a Post-Christian World

"If there is a God of infinite love and goodness, of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, those conclusions have no meaning. Many cultures, after all, have thrived quite well without ever adopting our 'humanistic' prejudices; there is no reason we should not come more to resemble them than they us. ... Nietzsche was a prophetic figure precisely because he, almost alone among Christianity's enemies, understood the implications of Christianity's withdrawal from the culture it had haunted for so many centuries. He understood that the effort to cast off Christian faith while retaining the best and most beloved elements of Christian morality was doomed to defeat, and that even our cherished 'Enlightenment' virtues may in the end prove to have been only parasitic upon inherited, but fading, cultural predilections, and so prove also to be destined for oblivion."

Thus writes David Bentley Hart in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009 - p. 238).

In offering a rebuttal to core claims about "religion" and Christianity offered by New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (among others), Hart shows how the gradual spread and acceptance of Christianity in the early centuries of the common era constituted nothing less than a revolution in how we understand what it means to be human and what that understanding entails ethically. It fundamentally altered the moral psychology of humanity, making possible all sorts of things which simply could never have crossed the mental radar of persons living in pre-Christian, pagan society (including, eventually, the abolition of slavery and the grounding of concepts such as universal human rights in liberal democratic institutions and practices). It was, to borrow again from Nietzsche, nothing less than a "transvaluation of all values" from which it became possible to regard every individual human being as a person of infinite worth and dignity.

For Hart, one of the ironies of the New Atheists is that, in caricaturing, attacking, and rejecting this legacy from our Christian past, many of them still seek to retain some of the moral values which this legacy bequeathed to future generations. They want to fashion a more rational and humane world, free from violence and tyranny (which, they wrongly argue, are almost solely caused by religion). But, as the quote from Hart's book at the opening of this post suggests, that project may prove to be a failure. In the end, it might be an "old" atheist like Nietzsche who turns out right.

Instead of placing faith in God, the New Atheists put their faith in the omnicompetence of secular reason and its capacity to make the world a better place than the one birthed and sustained by the Christian moral vision. On this point, Hart is worth quoting at length:

Can one really believe - as the New Atheists seem to do - that secular reason, if finally allowed to move forward, will naturally make society more just, more humane, and more rational than it has been in the past? What evidence supports such an expectation? It is rather difficult, placing everything in the scales, to vest a great deal of hope in modernity, however radiantly enchanting its promises, when one considers how many innocent lives have already been swallowed up in the flames of modern "progress." At the end of the twentieth century - the century when secularization became an explicit political and cultural project throughout the world - the forces of progressive ideology could boast an unprecedentedly vast collection of corpses, but not much in the way of new moral concepts. At least, not any we should be especially proud of. The best ideals to which we moderns continue to cling long antedate modernity; for the most part, all we can claim as truly, distinctively our own are our atrocities. ...

... it is hard not to conclude that the chief inner dynamism of secularization has always been the modern state's great struggle to free itself from those institutional, moral, and sacramental allegiances that still held it even partially in check, so that it could now get on with all those mighty tasks - nationalist wars, colonial empires, universal conscription, mass extermination of civilians, and so on - that would constitute its special contribution to the human experience. In purely arithmetic terms, one cannot dispute the results. The old order could generally reckon its victims only in the thousands. But in the new order, the secular state, with all its hitherto unimagined capacities, could pursue its purely earthly ideals and ambitions only if it enjoyed the liberty to kill by the millions. How else could it spread its wings (pp. 222, 223)?

The shift towards an increasingly post-Christian society is well under way, and the signs that this shift entails an erosion of the "'humanistic' prejudices" articulated and sustained by the Christian moral vision are also in evidence. In particular, Hart cites the fact that "a number of respected philosophers, scientists, medical lecturers, and other 'bioethicists' in the academic world not only continue to argue the case for eugenics, but do so in such robustly merciless terms" (p. 234). Hart cites, for instance, the work of Joseph Fletcher, who "openly complained that modern medicine continues to contaminate our gene pool by preserving inferior genetic types, and advocated using legal coercion - including forced abortions - to improve the quality of the race" (p. 234).

It was necessary, [Fletcher] maintained, to do everything possible to spare society the burden of 'idiots' and 'diseased' specimens, and to discourage or prevent the genetically substandard from reproducing. Indeed, he asserted, reproduction is not a right, and the law should set a minimum standard of health that any child should be required to meet before he or she might be granted entry into the world. He also favored Linus Pauling's proposed policy of segregating genetic inferiors into an immediately recognizable caste by affixing indelible marks to their brows, and suggested society might benefit from genetically engineering a subhuman caste of slave workers to perform dangerous or degrading jobs (p. 234).

I note that, according to the Wikipedia article on Fletcher, he developed the theory of situational ethics and was an ordained Episcopal priest, but "he later identified himself as an atheist."

Hart also cites the work of moral philosopher Peter Singer, who argues in favor of "the right to infanticide for parents of defective babies," as well as James Rachels, who, like Singer, "advocates for more expansive and flexible euthanasia policies, applicable at every stage of life, unencumbered by archaic Christian mystifications about the sanctity of every life" (p. 234).

And then there are the so-called "transhumanists" like Lee Silver, who "look forward to the day when humanity will take responsibility for its own evolution, by throwing off antique moral constraints and allowing ourselves to use genetic engineering in order to transform future generations of our offspring into gods" (p. 235).

For a variety of reasons, Hart doesn't take the "transhumanists" very seriously. But he is deeply troubled by figures like Fletcher, Singer, and Rachels. The science and technology exist to do many of the things they advocate, and, as Hart notes, "a growing number of persons in the academic and medical worlds are sympathetic to their positions" (p. 235).

For perhaps a foretaste of the logic governing the brave new world opened up by liberation from the religious and moral restraints imposed by Christian "superstition," watch the following video in which Richard Dawkins interviews the atheist utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. I note, in particular, Dawkins' rejection of the concept of moral limits in favor of a moral continuum. That's a move which opens a up a whole world of possibilities which might be categorically proscribed if there are limits to what we should or should not do.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hitchens vs. Hitchens: A Christian's Response to His Atheist Brother

Turns out that the "new atheist" Christopher Hitchens has a brother who is a professing Christian. And in a recent essay, Peter Hitchens writes movingly of his lifelong squabbles with his brother and how, eventually, they have come to a kind of peace with each other.

Along the way, Peter offers thoughts on why there is such an atheistic backlash against religion in our day:

Why is there such a fury against religion now? Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. The one reliable force that restrains the hand of the man of power. In an age of power-worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power.

Writing about debates with his brother, Peter offers more important food for thought:

It is striking that in his dismissal of a need for absolute theistic morality, Christopher says in his book that 'the order to "love thy neighbour as thyself" is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed'. Humans, he says, are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves.

This is demonstrably untrue, and can be shown to be untrue, through the unshakable devotion of mothers to their children; in the uncounted cases of husbands caring for sick, incontinent and demented wives (and vice versa) at their lives' ends; through the heartrending deeds of courage on the battlefield.

I am also baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and on his cause. It unquestionably does.

Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism does today.

When its crimes were still unknown, or concealed, it attracted the support of the liberal intelligentsia who were then, and are even more now, opposed to religion.

Another favourite argument of the irreligious is that conflicts fought in the name of religion are necessarily conflicts about religion. By saying this they hope to establish that religion is of itself a cause of conflict.

This is a crude factual misunderstanding. The only general lesson that can be drawn is that Man is inclined to make war on Man when he thinks it will gain him power, wealth or land.

David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies provides important historical and theological backing for these and other observations Peter offers.

I encourage you to read all of Peter Hitchens' essay.

And a hat tip to Fr. Stephen at "Glory to God for All Things."

Monday, March 15, 2010

An Important Book

Just today I finished reading David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009).

I found myself unable to put the book down. I'm blown away by it. And in spite of the fact that it's Spring Break, I'm hoping to write more about the book in the next few days as I continue to process what I've been reading. We'll see what happens. Quite rightly, time with the kids (a wonderful thing!) and yard work (ugh!) have a rightful way of reorienting one's priorities.

In the meantime, I do want to say this: Atheist Delusions is, without a doubt, one of the most engrossing, insightful, inspiring, and disturbing books I've read in a long time. I'll go a step further to say that it's also one of the most important books I've ever read.

No doubt, that's a judgment that not every other reader would agree with. However, if you're at all interested in what difference the rise of Christianity in the early centuries of the "common era" made in how and why we view individual human beings as persons of infinite value and dignity, and why the so-called "New Atheists" who advocate for the abolition of "religion" per se and Christianity in particular are (at best) ill-informed and (at worst) off their moral rockers, and also what might be at stake as Western culture continues to lose the Christian moral vision, this book is a must read.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

When the Celebrant Makes Eye Contact During the Eucharistic Prayer

When I was newly ordained, I was appointed by my bishop to serve in a parish with an altar against the wall. My initial response was close to horror. I could not believe I would begin my priesthood celebrating the Eucharist facing liturgical East! But after celebrating that way in that parish for over 4 years, I not only grew comfortable with it by virtue of familiarity; I also developed an appreciation for it. I came to understand from experience that when, after facing the congregation for the opening dialogue I then turned around to lead the Eucharistic prayer, I was not turning my back on my people. On the contrary, by turning to face in the same direction as they were facing, I was aligning myself with the congregation in solidarity with them and in order to lead prayer with them.

Initially I did not understand it, but by getting myself as the celebrant "out of the way" by turning to face the altar with my congregation, I was striking a blow against clericalism and affirming the "priesthood of all believers" in one of the actions that makes the Church what it most truly is: the Great Thanksgiving in which the prayer of the entire gathered assembly remembers and makes newly present the death and resurrection of our Lord.

After 4 plus years of celebrating the Holy Eucharist facing liturgical East, it's probably not surprising that it took me a while to get used to celebrating facing the people when I moved on to my next parish. While I've subsequently grown more or less accustomed to the change, it initially felt awkward, like I was on a stage in the spotlight to perform for a room full of people who were looking at me. Perhaps the most difficult thing to adjust to was something I did not expect: what do I do with my eyes? Do I make eye contact with the people during the Eucharistic Prayer? If so, when? And why?

Of course, that's not the only question a celebrant facing the people should confront. There are numerous others, and depending on how they get answered in the celebration, they can distract the focus away from prayer and reverence in the presence of God to the person of the celebrant. A focus on God in Christ can quickly collapse into the cult of personality. "Hey, look at me and what I'm doing and how groovy and connected to you I am right now!"

I mention the issue of what to do with one's gaze because I've noticed a number of different things happening with celebrating priests over the many years I've been in the Episcopal Church. I've seen some who stay glued to the missal throughout the Eucharistic Prayer. Depending on the expectations of the congregation, they perhaps do so at the risk of coming across as cold and distant. I remember one priest who always looked up and above the congregation's heads, as though she were addressing someone near the ceiling in the back of the nave. Some make eye contact with the congregation only during certain parts of the Eucharistic Prayer (why those particular parts and not others?). Others try to make as much eye contact with the congregation as possible throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, glancing down at the missal just long enough to soak in a few of the words in order to immediately look back up and recite them while scanning the faces of the gathered assembly. Besides increasing the likelihood that the celebrant will make errors in the wording or even lose his/her place in the prayer, this approach comes across rather like watching the ball go back and forth in a tennis match. And while I don't mean to be judgmental, I also think it runs the risk of flirting with the idolatry of praying to the people.

I note that none of these things are an issue when the celebrant faces the altar in solidarity with the gathered assembly.

With respect to eye contact, my approach to celebrating facing the people has changed slightly over the last few years. Initially, I would only look at the people in the congregation during the Institution Narrative. My rationale was that this is the only place within the Eucharistic Prayer that can conceivably be construed as actually addressing the people rather than God (perhaps one could include the mystery of faith).

Lately, I don't even do that. Instead, I keep my eyes focused on the bread and then on the wine as I elevate them during the recitation of Jesus' words of institution. I try to stay centered in the meaning of the words I'm reciting. And I often find myself longing for that solidarity with the people that comes from "getting myself out of the way" that I once experienced in a liturgical setting which I might not have initially chosen as a newly ordained priest, but which I am so grateful to have experienced.

Heretical as it sounds, I sometimes find myself longing for liturgical East.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Joy and the Apostle Paul

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the apostle Paul. That’s partly because I spent time preparing a sermon for this past Sunday on Paul’s letter to the Philippians (one of my favorite Pauline epistles). And also because I’ve been reading To Live is Christ: A 40-Day Journey with Saint Paul as part of my Lenten discipline.

My take on Paul has dramatically changed over the years, moving from antagonism to deep admiration. As a younger man, I thought that Paul’s theology could not be reconciled with the Jesus portrayed in the synoptic gospels (good liberal modernist that I was at the time). And I shared Friedrich Nietzsche’s contempt for Paul as the very embodiment of ressentiment. But now I view Paul as a true hero, someone who demonstrates that it is, indeed, possible to live a Christ-like life in this world, even and especially when that life requires sacrifice and entails suffering. (I now wonder how I could possibly have taken seriously anyone – even someone as brilliant as Nietzsche – who seriously thinks that Paul was “the first Christian” and “the inventor of Christianity.” What a joke!)

I’m struck by the overall tone of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He’s imprisoned (perhaps in Rome). He doesn’t know when or if he’ll be released, whether he’ll live or be executed. At the risk of life and limb, he’s traveled around the Romans Empire, working hard for over 20 years to spread the good news of Jesus. But now it looks like it could all have been in vain. Given his Roman citizenship, along with his education and class standing within the Judaism of the day, Paul could have lived a comfortable, respectable life. Instead, he’s given it all up, choosing instead to suffer countless beatings, imprisonments, and even shipwreck.

Either Paul is crazy, or he knows something that many of us don’t know.

Maybe Paul knows something that’s true and that’s more real and important than the typical driving concerns of my white, middle-class, socially respectable life often bring to the forefront of consciousness. Maybe there’s something more important to life than struggling with whether or not I have the right clothes to wear at a gala social event, or whether or not we should use real bread or wafers for the Eucharist during Lent, or whether anybody cares about my blog or likes my preaching. Maybe there’s something or someone far more important, something or someone that renders everything else secondary at best and rubbish at worst, something or someone worth risking everything for.

Maybe so, because it’s hard to account for why, in spite of the bleak circumstances in which Paul writes to the Philippians, his letter is so calm, centered, and filled with joy. He could get his head chopped off and go down in history (if anybody remembers him, that is) as a nobody. And yet, his letter to the Philippians exudes joy. Looking failure and death in the face, Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4 NRSV).

Again, either Paul is crazy, or he knows something that many of us don’t know.

I’m convinced that Paul isn’t crazy, that his joy is genuine, and that it’s not a form of denial or a delusion. I believe that Paul’s joy is grounded in reality: the reality of Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead, the forgiveness of our sins, and an expectant hope for the world to come. It’s the joy of knowing that one’s personal well-being and the fate of the world are not determined by current circumstances. They are determined by the victory of God in Christ over the forces of sin, suffering, sickness, death, and decay. Paul’s joy is a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit. It’s the same gift all Christians receive in our baptisms. So perhaps the real question is not, “How does Paul manage to be so joyful in the midst of so much trouble?” Maybe the real question is, “What hinders us from sharing in the same joy as Paul’s?”

What holds me back from owning and living the joy that Paul knew, the joy of really knowing Jesus in the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection?

That question is my Lenten focus.