Friday, July 30, 2010

Impeaching and Banishing St. Paul

In his introduction to J. B. Phillips' translation of the New Testament epistles entitled Letters to Young Churches (1947), C. S. Lewis offers thoughts on why liberal modernism pits Paul against Jesus, with the result that Paul gets impeached as an authority for Christian faith and life and banished from the progressive "canon within the canon" of scripture.

A most astonishing misconception has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St. Paul. It is to this effect: that Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the gospels) and that St. Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the epistles). This is really quite untenable. All the most terrifying texts came from the mouth of our Lord: all the texts on which we can base such warrant as we have for hoping that all men will be saved come from St. Paul. If it could be proved that St. Paul altered the teaching of his Master in any way, he altered it in exactly the opposite way to that which is popularly supposed. But there is no real evidence for a pre-Pauline doctrine different from St. Paul's.

The epistles are, for the most part, the earliest Christian documents we possess. The Gospels come later. They are not "the gospel," the statement of the Christian belief. They are written for those who had already been converted, who had already accepted "the gospel." They leave out many of the "complications" (that is, the theology) because they are intended for readers who have already been instructed in it. In that sense the epistles are more primitive and more central than the Gospels - though not, of course, than the great events which the Gospels recount. God's act (the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection) comes first: the earliest theological analysis of it comes in the epistles: then, when the generation who had known the Lord was dying out, the Gospels were composed to provide for believers a record of the great Act of some of the Lord's sayings.

The ordinary popular conception has put everything upside down. Nor is the cause far to seek. In the earlier history of every rebellion there is a stage at which you do not yet attack the King in person. You say, "The King is all right. It is his Ministers who are wrong. They misrepresent him and corrupt all his plans - which, I'm sure, are good plans if only the Ministers would let them take effect." And the first victory consists in beheading a few Ministers: only at a later stage do you go on and behead the King himself.

In the same way, the nineteenth-century attack on St. Paul was really only a stage in the revolt against Christ. Men were not ready in large numbers to attack Christ himself. They made the normal first move - that of attaching one of His principal ministers. Everything they disliked in Christianity was therefore attributed to St. Paul. It was unfortunate that their case could not impress anyone who had really read the Gospels and the Epistles with attention: but apparently few people had, and so the first victory was won. St. Paul was impeached and banished and the world went on to the next stage - the attack on the King Himself.

~ C. S. Lewis

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pagan Worship Processionals?

What messages do we communicate by not only the words we say in worship, but also by the things we do? And are those messages consistent with the Gospel?

Those questions came to mind as I watched the following processionals (hat tip to Christopher Johnson at "Bad Vestments").

First, here's the opening worship processional for the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA (be sure to wait for the giant papier-mâché Calvinist puppets of doom):

And here's a processional for a Roman Catholic mass:

In response to the first video, a Presbyterian friend of mine said, "Another clear sign that paganism has taken over and Jim Henson is the underworld overlord of mainline Presbyterianism."

So what messages do you think these processionals communicate?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Communion Gone to the Dogs

From the Toronto Star:

St. Peter’s Anglican Church has long been known as an open and inclusive place.

So open, it seems, they won’t turn anyone away. Not even a dog.

That’s how a blessed canine ended up receiving communion from interim priest Rev. Marguerite Rea during a morning service the last Sunday in June.

According to those in attendance at the historical church at 188 Carlton St. in downtown Toronto, it was a spontaneous gesture, one intended to make both the dog and its owner – a first timer at the church — feel welcomed. But at least one parishioner saw the act as an affront to the rules and regulations of the Anglican Church. He filed a complaint with the reverend and with the Anglican Diocese of Toronto about the incident – and has since left the church.

“I wrote back to the parishioner that it is not the policy of the Anglican Church to give communion to animals,” said Bishop Patrick Yu, the area bishop of York-Scarborough responsible for St. Peter’s, who received the complaint in early July. “I can see why people would be offended. It is a strange and shocking thing, and I have never heard of it happening before.

“I think the reverend was overcome by what I consider a misguided gesture of welcoming.”

Rev. Rea was contacted numerous times about the incident, but did not want to comment.

"She is quite embarrassed by it," said Yu.

But congregants of the church say the act wasn't meant to be controversial.

Read it all.

I can easily imagine that this incident was one of those things that happens on the spur of the moment, something that you instinctively do with the best of intentions and then, looking back, think, "Oh my, what have I done?!" Based upon the news article, it does not appear that this priest was consciously doing something meant to be provocative. I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt even as I think what she did was wrong.

It wouldn't surprise me, however, if this is going on in other places, or if it started to happen more often. (While not going as far as communing animals, I note that there is a Roman Catholic parish in which the priest's dog attends mass with him.) When practices of reverence are on the decline in favor of a more casual atmosphere in churches, and when "inclusion"comes to mean acceptance without boundaries such that we are seriously talking about communing the unbaptized as a way of being a welcoming Church, then why stop with giving communion to unbaptized humans? Why not give it to animals, too? After all, many Episcopal parishes bless animals around the Feast Day of St. Francis each year. If they're good enough to be blessed, surely they're good enough to receive communion, right? As one person said about this incident at St. Peter's Anglican Church, "Christ would have thought it was neat."

"Do not give what is holy to dogs" (Matthew 7:6). It's rather tempting to give that verse a literal interpretation right about now!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This Cloudy Tempest of Maliciousness

"My mind leadeth me to fly and to convey myself into some corner out of sight, where I may scape from this cloudy tempest of maliciousness, whereby all parts are entered into a deadly war amongst themselves, and that little remnant of love which was, is now consumed to nothing. The only godliness we glory in, is to find out somewhat whereby we may judge others to be ungodly. Each other's faults we observe as matter of exprobation and not of grief. By these means we are grown hateful in the eyes of the heathens themselves, and (which woundeth us the more deeply) able we are not to deny but that we have deserved their hatred. With the better sort of our own our fame and credit is clean lost. The less we are to marvel if they judge vilely of us, who although we did well would hardly allow thereof. On our backs they also build that are lewd, and what we object one against another, the same they use to the utter scorn and disgrace of us all. This we have gained by our mutual home-dissensions. This we are worthily rewarded with, which are more forward to strive than becometh men of virtuous and mild disposition."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Priesthood and Service to the Whole Church

Going through times of questioning why in the world God called someone like me to be a priest in the Church, it's helpful to come across reminders of what Christian priesthood is really all about. In a sermon delivered back in June for the ordination of priests at Durham Cathedral, Bishop N. T. Wright has done just that. Here's some of what he had to say:

Jesus is the one and only Priest. If there is any other priesthood, it is found not by addition but by inclusion: not by other people being priests as well, alongside Jesus, but by other people being priests within his priesthood. Jesus is the place of atonement, the place where heaven and earth meet. That is why, straight after this great prayer, he goes out to face the consequence of bringing together the utter holiness of heaven and the utter wickedness of earth, the utter joy of heaven and the utter misery of earth. That is what priesthood is all about: standing at the painful, holy place where the great fracture in creation is healed, the great gulf bridged, where the Word has become flesh and pitched his tent in our midst, revealing God’s glory as the Father’s only Son whose very nature is love.

And that is why, of course, all those who receive him, who believe in his name, are called God’s sons and daughters – not simply those who wear dog collars. All God’s baptized and believing people are priests: a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Every single one of us is called to find our true identity within the identity of Jesus Christ, to learn to pray within his prayer, to learn holiness within his holiness, to discover in private as well as in public what it means to enter the Holy of Holies, where heaven and earth meet. The priesthood of all God’s people is a deeply biblical idea; going all the way back to the book of Exodus.

But in Exodus, too, we find the humbling and glorious truth that God calls some people to be priests to the nation of priests. Some people are given the special calling to be the focal point of the nation’s priestly life; to be the means through which God enables the whole people to become what they are called to be. And this is doubly humbling. It’s humbling for the people, because they have to respect God’s call to a few to be the symbols and enablers of what they are all about. And it’s humbling for the priests, because the way they enable God’s people to be God’s people is through serving them, not lording it over them. That’s how Jesus did it; that’s how we all have to do it. Anything else turns the church into a religious club, organised according to the normal rules of the world around. And that’s why all priestly ministry is rooted, and remains rooted, in the Diaconate. The moment you stop being a servant you cut off the branch on which your priestly ministry is growing. The moment you stop being a footwasher is the moment you stop being a fruitbearer.

I appreciate Wright's way of distinguishing between the general priesthood of all baptized believers and the sacerdotal priesthood. And while he doesn't develop it in detail, I think he's right to suggest (contra arguments for direct ordination) that the ministry of the presbyterate needs to be rooted in the ministry of the diaconate. Too often, "holy order" carries connotations of standing above the laity (the "Father knows best" hierarchical model). But we do not stand above anyone. To be sure, we are set apart, but set apart for the reasons Wright notes: "to be the focal point" of the Church's priestly life and "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12). It's sometimes easy to forget this, and perhaps especially so if we priests forget that we were first ordained as deacons.

Perhaps one of the more challenging dimensions of the priesthood is the call to be "reconciled reconcilers." Here's Wright's take on that:

… you are to be people of unity: reconciled reconcilers, you are constantly to seek ways to bring God’s people together. You will be urged and tempted to join particular parties and groupings, and some such may be helpful for focus and support. But you are to be people of unity, people through whom Jesus’ prayer for his people comes true. That will be so symbolically from the moment you are ordained, and indeed one of the purposes of Holy Order is that the church may be united and seen to be so, with you as its visible and tangible signs. Only when we realise this do we realise how important the ongoing ecumenical task is, as well as the struggles for deeper unity within our own family. Work for it; pray for it; remind yourself that Jesus prayed for you to be its embodiment. Don’t settle for the cheap unity where nothing really matters as long as we vaguely get on with one another. Go for the hard one, the high one, the costing-not-less-than-everything one, that unity in holiness and truth for which Jesus prayed.

How far removed much of this seems from the agenda-driven political power plays within the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism more broadly! I think there's a tendency for many of us to identify the "true" Church with the "particular parties and groupings" we like and agree with. We have overly politicized the Church. The divisive spirit of the Ugly Party has infected the Body of Christ. And many of us among the clergy have spread the infection in our words and deeds.

For me, Wright's sermon is not merely a reminder of an essential dimension of priestly vocation; it's also a call to repentance. There's something larger and more important at stake than my personal, passionately held convictions, my parish, my diocese, or even my denomination - something our Prayer Book calls "that wonderful and sacred mystery" (BCP, p. 280). That something, of course, is the "whole Church," which the Rite-I post-communion prayer refers to as "the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people" (BCP, pp. 280, 339).

To live into the vocational identity of the priesthood means not only serving God's people at the local level, but also serving the larger whole of the Church. That service entails working for unity where there is division, and deeper communion where there is estrangement. That kind of work requires sacrifices, some of which I may not feel like making, some of which may be costly. But the call to unity and communion through the way of the cross still stands.

My prayer is that all the ordained may take seriously the call to be visible, tangible signs of unity in a time of deep and often hostile division. And I pray that I may be willing, by God's grace, to let go of my own agendas for the sake of the greater good of God's Church.

Lately, I sometimes wonder if I'm really up to this task. Please pray for me, a sinner.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Proper 10, Year C: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

While traveling in the West, the young Mark Twain was often in debt. Writing to a creditor, Twain quoted Benjamin Franklin’s proverb, “Time is money.” He then applied this proverb to his own situation by saying: “Now, I haven’t got any money, but, as regards time, I am in affluent circumstances, and if you will receipt that bill, I will give you a check for as much time as you think equivalent, and throw you in a couple of hours for your trouble.”[1]

Most of us would not envy Twain’s debt. But when it comes to our time, who among us wouldn’t want to be able to boast of “affluent circumstances?” In spite of our technological sophistication and the proliferation of countless “labor-saving” devices, most of us suffer from time deprivation. We just don’t have enough time. We feel hurried and harassed by the incessant ticking of the clock and the tight schedules on our calendars. And so we find ourselves living in what some researchers call a “time famine.”

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan illustrates a connection between how we use our time and our capacity to love God and our neighbor.

For most of us, the details of this parable are quite familiar. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho gets assaulted, beaten, and left for dead on the road. Two religious professionals – a Temple priest and a Levite – see the man and pass him by. A Samaritan comes along, and when he sees the man he’s “moved with pity.” He goes to the man’s aid, tends his wounds, takes him to the safety of an inn, and pays for any further expenses. When we recall that Samaritans were despised by orthodox Jews as both ethnically inferior and as religious heretics, it’s easy to see how Jesus’ hearers might have been shocked by this story. Of all the people in the world, a Samaritan shows the kind of compassion that fulfills the law’s requirement to love our neighbors as ourselves!

But what about that priest and that Levite? Why did they turn a blind eye? Why did they ignore the suffering and the need that was right there in front of their faces?

Part of what makes Jesus’ parables so rich is that he doesn’t answer all of our questions. Jesus doesn’t tell us why these two pious Jews keep on walking. And while there’s no definitive answer to the question, there is one possible explanation that connects with our experience of time. Recall that the priest and the Levite were religious functionaries. Quite possibly, they were in a hurry to get to the Temple to fulfill their religious duties. So it’s not necessarily that they were bad people who didn’t feel compassion when they saw the man lying on the side of the road. On the contrary, given their positions, it’s more reasonable to suppose that they were sincerely religious and moral persons. They just didn’t have time to stop and help.

I’m reminded of an experiment a seminary professor conducted a few years ago for the purpose of ascertaining the factors that enable people to act with compassion and those that hinder acting with compassion.[2]

The professor recruited 15 volunteers. Gathering at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, he gave them sealed instructions. Five of them received instructions to go across campus without delay. Their instructions said: “You have 15 minutes to reach your destination. There’s no time to spare. Do not loiter or do anything else, or your grade will be docked.” This group was called “The High Hurry Group.”

Another five were given instructions to make their way across campus within 45 minutes. They were told: “You have plenty of time, but don’t be too slow.” This was “The Medium Hurry Group.”

The remaining five were told to arrive at their destination anytime before 5 o’clock that afternoon. They had about 3 hours. This was “The Low Hurry Group.”

Unbeknownst to the seminary students, their professor had asked a number of drama majors to position themselves along the path to the appointed campus destination. One was sitting on a bench, his head in his hands, crying so loudly that passers-by could not help but notice. Another student was lying face down on the ground, as though unconscious. Yet another was shaking violently, as though dreadfully ill. All 15 seminary students would have to pass by these obviously needy persons.

So how did they respond?

Well, not a single one of “The High Hurry Group” stopped to help, even though all of them aspired to be ordained as Christian pastors. Two of “The Medium Hurry Group” stopped to assist. And all five of “The Low Hurry Group” responded.

Commenting on this study, Episcopal priest John Claypool writes: “Pressure is a moral category. Any time we get ourselves over-booked or have too many irons in the fire, it affects our ability to respond to the unanticipated. No matter how lofty our idealism, when our date book is filled to the hilt, it shapes what we are moved to do.”[3]

I’m confident that the priest and the Levite, being good Jews, believed fervently in the double-commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. But when pressed for time – even in the face of urgent need – they failed to act on their best convictions.

Pointing to the example of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says to us, “Go and do likewise.” “Regard anyone in need of whom you have knowledge as your neighbors, and seek to assist them.” That much is beyond question.

What is up for grabs is whether or not we will have the time to obey our Lord’s command.

And so today’s gospel lesson invites us to reflect on our use of time. Do we have “too many irons in the fire?” Are we so pressed for time that, in spite of our best intentions, we simply cannot be open to meeting the unanticipated? Do we have so many events crammed into our calendars that there’s literally no time left to love God and to love our neighbors?

Reflecting on these questions is not about determining whether or not we’re good or bad persons. But it is about stewardship. It’s about the stewardship of translating ideals into actions. It’s about managing our time well so that we avoid the extremes of sloth on the one hand, and over-commitment on the other. And it’s about not allowing the clock or our calendar to be our god, dictating whether or not we live our most cherished beliefs.

Time is not our god. But it is our ultimate currency. We must be careful how we spend it.

[1] Quoted in The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, edited by Alex Ayres (New York: Meridian, 1987), p. 230.

[2] As recounted in John Claypool, Stories Jesus Still Tells: The Parables (Cambridge & Boston: Cowley Publications, 2000), pp. 93-94.

[3] Ibid., p. 94.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wedding Photographer Gets Just Deserts

A wedding photographer overshadows the just-married couple only to suffer an unforeseen confrontation with a baptismal pool:

Hat tip to Scott Gunn at "Seven Whole Days."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

If Paul's Epistle to the Galatians was Published in Christianity Today

I've been enjoying the postings over at "The Sacred Sandwich." It's some of the best satire I've seen in a long while.

One piece in particular caught my eye, in part because we've recently been hearing from the Apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians in the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary. But it's also because I occasionally hear some of my clergy colleagues express their dislike and even contempt for the letters written by one of the great heroes of the Christian faith. The posting is entitled, "If Paul's Epistle to the Galatians was Published in Christianity Today." Here are some of the Letters to the Editor in response to the Apostle Paul:

Dear Christianity Today:

In response to Paul D. Apostle’s article about the Galatian church in your January issue, I have to say how appalled I am by the unchristian tone of this hit piece. Why the negativity? Has he been to the Galatian church recently? I happen to know some of the people at that church, and they are the most loving, caring people I’ve ever met.

Phyllis Snodgrass; Ann Arbor, MI

Dear Editor:

How arrogant of Mr. Apostle to think he has the right to judge these people and label them accursed. Isn’t that God’s job? Regardless of this circumcision issue, these Galatians believe in Jesus just as much as he does, and it is very Pharisaical to condemn them just because they differ on such a secondary issue. Personally, I don’t want a sharp instrument anywhere near my zipper, but that doesn’t give me the right to judge how someone else follows Christ. Can’t we just focus on our common commitment to Christ and furthering His kingdom, instead of tearing down fellow believers over petty doctrinal matters?

Ed Bilgeway; Tonganoxie, KS

Kind Editors:

I happen to be a member of First Christian Church of Galatia, and I take issue with Mr. Apostle’s article. How can he criticize a ministry that has been so blessed by God? Our church has baptized many new members and has made huge in-roads in the Jewish community with our pragmatic view on circumcision. Such a “seeker-sensitive” approach has given the Jews the respect they deserve for being God’s chosen people for thousands of years. In addition, every Gentile in our midst has felt honored to engage in the many edifying rituals of the Hebrew heritage, including circumcision, without losing their passion for Jesus. My advice to Mr. Apostle is to stick to spreading the gospel message of Christ’s unconditional love, and quit criticizing what God is clearly blessing in other churches.

Miriam “Betty” Ben-Hur; Galatia, Turkey

Read it all.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Proper 9, Year C: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

It’s happened to me several times over the years. And almost every single incident was awkward and embarrassing.

On one of those occasions, I was walking down a busy street when this guy walked up to me, a leather-bound Bible in one hand and a fistful of pamphlets in the other. Looking me straight in the eye he asked, “Have you found Jesus?” I had no idea what to say. Taking advantage of my discomfort, this guy began berating me with all kinds of questions, none of which I knew how to answer. I just wanted to get away from him as quickly as possible.

On another occasion, it happened on my college campus. Except this guy wasn’t as nice as the first one. This guy was angry. Standing in the midst of students walking to and from class, he yelled out Bible verses at everybody passing by, threatening them with damnation, singling some of us out by the way we were dressed for special censure, and just generally calling down the fire of heaven on all of us. Alienated from the Church as I was during that period of my life, this guy didn’t exactly inspire me to return.

One of my most memorable experiences happened after I was ordained. I had come home from work early and was still wearing a black suit and clerical collar. The door bell rang, and as soon as I opened the door I realized by the way the two guys on the front porch were dressed that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. When they saw me, the look on their faces was like deer caught in headlights and there was an awkward pause that completely threw them off script. Clearly, I was not what they were expecting, and so, for a change, I wasn’t the one who felt unsure about how to respond. So I gave them my card and invited them to church!

These are some of my experiences with “evangelism.” I’ll bet that many of you have similar stories to tell. They range from the mildly uncomfortable to the humiliating. And they constitute some of the reasons why many of us in the Episcopal Church feel like crawling under a rock whenever we hear the word “evangelism.”

It’s ironic when you think about it, because the word “evangelism” quite literally means “good message.” And it’s from there that we get terms like “glad tidings,” “good news,” and “gospel.” In spite of the ways in which evangelism can sometimes be distorted and manipulated for self-serving, guilt-inducing ends, evangelism – the practice of sharing the good message or good news of what has happened and continues to happen through Jesus – lies at the very foundation of our faith as Christians, and at the heart of the Church’s mission to the world.

In stark contrast to ways we have sometimes abused the good news of Jesus, Episcopal priest and Biblical scholar William Countryman notes that there are three things necessary for good news to be genuinely Christian.[1] First, good news must be good; it must give hope for the future rather than merely creating new and unbearable burdens. Secondly, good news must be news; it must offer some element of surprise and some new way of looking at the world. And finally, good news must be Jesus-centered; it must be related to the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus as revealed to us in the New Testament.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke, we see the elements of surprise and hope in the work of the 70 commissioned by Jesus to go in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit on his way to Jerusalem. What good message, what good news or gospel, were they sent to proclaim? The 70 proclaimed a very succinct gospel: “the kingdom of God has come near.” What exactly does that mean?

Kingdom of God language was very familiar to Jews in Jesus’ day.[2] Echoing the visions of prophets like Isaiah, kingdom language pointed to the fulfillment of God’s promises in rescuing Israel from pagan oppression, the judgment and overthrow of evil, and the establishment of God’s reign of justice and peace. To talk about the kingdom was to talk about God rescuing and healing God’s people and God’s creation, all of which have been damaged, distorted, and diseased by sin and evil. The coming of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven meant God setting the world to rights. It meant a world freed from tyranny, sin, sickness, and death. It meant the dawning of a new creation, the marriage of heaven and earth, the life of the world to come.

“The kingdom of God has come near.” God’s saving, healing, just and peaceful rule has started to break into this sinful, broken world. That’s the message the 70 were sent out to proclaim. And it’s still the message our Lord wants us to hear and proclaim today.

The point of the Christian faith is not to go to heaven when we die to enjoy an eternity of disembodied bliss. Nor is the point that an angry God wants to punish everyone who doesn’t live up to arbitrarily imposed rules. The point of the Christian faith is God’s passionate desire to remake a world messed up by sin and evil, a passionate desire decisively inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is the good message of authentically Christian evangelism.

The kingdom of God has come near to us in Jesus Christ: that is the message our world so desperately needs to hear. It’s the message of freedom for those enslaved by addictions or by any other demonic or degrading power. It’s the message of healing for those suffering from heartbreak or disease. It’s the message of hope for those who have lost their trust in the goodness of life. It’s the message of justice for those whose way of life is threatened, or has been destroyed, by human error, greed, war, or ecological devastation. And it’s the message of love for those who don’t believe themselves worthy of anyone’s time, care, and attention.

As he sent out the 70, so, too, our Lord commissions us to go forth into the world, proclaiming the good news of the coming kingdom, sharing the ways in which the new life, grace, and love of the risen Jesus have touched our lives, inviting others to see and name the work of God’s grace in their lives, and working together to give glory to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in our words and deeds.

That’s a world-transforming mission and a message of hope and healing. And that’s an evangelism I can get behind.

[1] L. William Countryman, Good News of Jesus: Reintroducing the Gospel (Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 2.

[2] Cf. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), pp. 99ff.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Human Problem and Full Permission Living

One of the Epistle lessons appointed for the Daily Office this week is a famous passage from Paul's letter to the Romans. In it, Paul writes about the struggle with sin. Here's the passage in J. B. Phillips' translation:

Can it be that something that is intrinsically good could mean death to me? No, what happened was this. Sin, at the touch of the Law, was forced to expose itself as sin, and that meant death for me. The contact of the Law showed the sinful nature of sin. After all, the Law itself is really concerned with the spiritual - it is I who am carnal, and have sold my soul to sin. In practice, what happens? My own behavior baffles me. For I find myself not doing what I really want to do but doing what I really loathe. Yet surely if I do things that I really don't want to do, I am admitting that I really agree with the Law. But it cannot be said that "I" am doing them at all - it must be sin that has made its home in my nature. (And indeed, I know from experience that the carnal side of my being can scarcely be called the home of good!) I often find that I have the will to do good, but not the power. That is, I don't accomplish the good I set out to do, and the evil I don't really want to do I find I am always doing. Yet if I do things that I don't really want to do then it is not, I repeat, "I" who do them, but the sin which has made its home within me. When I come up against the Law I want to do good, but in practice I do evil. My conscious mind wholeheartedly endorses the Law, yet I observe an entirely different principle at work in my nature. This is in continual conflict with my conscious attitude, and makes me an unwilling prisoner to the law of sin and death. In my mind I am God's willing servant, but in my own nature I am bound fast, as I say, to the law of sin and death. It is an agonizing situation, and who on earth can set me free from the clutches of my own sinful nature? I thank God that there is a way out through Jesus Christ our Lord.
~ Romans 7:13-25

Commenting from an Orthodox perspective on the problem of sin and our need for salvation, Fr. Stephen writes:

It is the nature of things that Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. This is to say that the nature of our problem is not moral but existential or ontological. We have a problem that is rooted in the very nature of our existence, not in our behavior. We behave badly because of a prior problem. Good behavior will not correct the problem.

And he continues:

The nature of things is that people die - and not only do they die – but death, already at work in them from the moment of their birth, is the primary issue. The failure of humanity is not to be found or understood in a purely moral context. We are not creatures of choice and decision. How and why we choose is a very complex process that we ourselves do not understand. We can make a “decision” for Jesus only to discover that little has changed. It is also possible to find ourselves caught in a chain of decisions that bring us to the brink of despair without knowing quite how we got there. Though there are clearly problems with our choosing and deciding, the problem is far deeper.

One of the earliest Christian treatments of the human problem, hence the “nature of things,” is to be found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. He makes it quite clear that the root problem of humanity is to be found in the process of death. Not only are we all slowly moving towards some inevitable demise, the process of death (decay, corruption) is already at work in us. In Athanasius’ imagery, it is as though we are falling back towards our origins in the dust of the earth. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And thus it is that when he writes of the work of Christ it is clearly in terms of our deliverance from death (not just deliverance from the consequences of our bodily dissolution and its separation from the soul but the whole process of death itself.)

This is frequently the language of the New Testament as well. St. Paul will write: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life that I now live I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or even on a more “moral” note he will caution us to “put to death the deeds of the body.”

The importance of these distinctions (moral versus existential) is in how we treat our present predicament. If the problem is primarily moral then it makes sense to live life in the hortatory mode, constantly urging others to be good, to “take the pledge,” or make good choices. If, on the other hand, our problem is rooted in the very nature of our existence then it is that existence that has to be addressed.

Read it all.

In comparison to the Apostle Paul and Fr. Stephen, I'm struck by how little I hear in the Episcopal Church about the human problem and the seriousness of sin. That's odd given the fact that the Renunciations in the Prayer Book's Baptismal rite underscore the pervasiveness of sin and evil at the cosmic, systemic, and personal levels of existence, and that, in the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to persevere against evil and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 302 & 304).

Then again, we live in a culture in which theological ideas like sin and the Fall no longer resonate, a culture in which the very idea of an ontological problem with human nature is repressive nonsense, and a culture in which the only problem is failing to maximize one's pleasure and fulfill one's "authentic" self. I think the description for a blog entitled "Full Permission Living" sums up this cultural mindset quite well:

Full Permission Living ... is an approach to living life as it is naturally meant to be lived. Full Permission Living is based on the understanding that human beings are, by first nature, sane, loving, cooperative, creative, humorous, intelligent, productive and naturally self-regulating. Full Permission Living rests on the foundation of truth that all people are entitled to live pleasure-filled, spontaneous lives without guilt, shame or oppressive inner rules and prohibitions. Indeed, we are meant to live with full inner permission to follow our natural inner guidance and our inborn pleasure instinct to seek out gratification in all of our actions and endeavors, and that such a way of living always benefits those around us and those that we love.

In the 7th chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul shares what he discovered when he took a look at the "natural inner guidance" driving his "authentic" self. It wasn't pretty. And so it's difficult to imagine a starker contrast. For what one blogger calls "Full Permission Living," the Apostle Paul would call "Fully Imprisoned Living."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Church of the Ugly Party

Michael Gerson has written a very insightful piece about current political rhetoric and methodology. "One of the most significant divisions in American public life," he notes, "is not between the Democrats and the Republicans; it is between the Ugly Party and the Grown-Up Party." He continues:

The rhetoric of the Ugly Party shares some common themes: urging the death or sexual humiliation of opponents or comparing a political enemy to vermin or diseases. It is not merely an adolescent form of political discourse; it encourages a certain political philosophy -- a belief that rivals are somehow less than human, which undermines the idea of equality and the possibility of common purposes.

Such sentiments have always existed. But the unfiltered media -- particularly the Internet -- have provided both stage and spotlight. Now everyone can be Richard Nixon, threatening opponents and composing enemies lists.

Read it all.

It's precisely these kinds of dismissive, ad hominem, throw-your-opponent-under-the-bus rhetorical assaults on human dignity that the Church should stand against. But sadly, we Christians drink so deeply from the poisoned wells of our culture that we often form ecclesial versions of the Ugly Party.

Consider, for example, the characterization of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church as "a damn fool elected by homosexuals to destroy a once great church." Or this accusation: "This broken heretic's crooked mouth is nothing more than an endless font of theological sewage, in which the majority of TEC continues to bathe." (Read more here, if you have the stomach.)

Things aren't much better on the Left end of the spectrum. The rhetoric swirling around the Anglican Covenant, for instance, is rather telling, as when one priest charges that the Covenant is "a product of as Stalinist a process as could possibly be imagined." Or what about the comment that the Covenant is "an unmitigated evil"? Or the recent posting over at Episcopal Café which describes the Covenant as "a homophobic power grab"? Or one person's characterization of the Archbishop of Canterbury as "a criminal"?

A wise man once wrote: "If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other" (Galatians 5:15). He'd probably have plenty to say to all of us if he were alive today.