Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Incarnation is the Central Fact of the Christian Faith

One of the best books I've ever read about the faith of the Church is Episcopal bishop Frank E. Wilson's Faith and Practice. The blurb on the Church Publishing website sums it up well:

The Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson (1855-1944), late Bishop of Eau Claire, was perhaps the most prolific Episcopal writer of his era, authoring dozens of books geared to lay people. Over the years, his works have helped to renew the Church, encourage social and ecumenical progress, and provide guidance and insight to generations of Episcopalians.

Faith and Practice’s reaffirming message celebrates our unique Anglican way of thinking while calling us to act faithfully upon those beliefs. More than 50 years after its original publication, this timely book that explores core Christian beliefs, continues to inspire and instruct Anglicans throughout the world.

Here's some of what Bishop Wilson wrote about the Incarnation and its practical implications in Faith and Practice.

The Christian Gospel is not something which originates with man and reaches up to God. It is something which comes from God and descends upon men. If Christ were no more than a divinely inspired man, He would be only a beautiful example of what God can do with one responsive life. We would look and wonder and be helpless. But the Incarnation tells us that God became Man, that He injected a new spiritual power into human nature in which we may share by union with Christ. He is Representative Man. Through that One Man God does something for all men. ...

The Incarnation is the central fact of the Christian faith. Without it Christianity falls to the ground. That is why Christians have proclaimed it, defended it, fought and died for it since the very beginning of Christian history. In the days of the Roman empire the pagans had no particular objection to adding another god to their Pantheon, and the Christians might have escaped persecution and martyrdom if they had been willing to accept such a broad-minded invitation. But they steadfastly refused. To them Christ was God as no other could possibly be called divine. They rejected all compromises and took the consequences. After the pagan persecution was lifted , crowds of pagans flooded into the Christian fold, and it was not long before questionable teaching about the person of Christ began to appear. On this point the Church took an unequivocal position, realizing that a reduced Christ meant the eventual dissolution of the whole Christian Gospel. In four great Councils the Church declared itself on four denials of the truth of the Incarnation. The first was a denial that Christ was truly God. The second denied that He was truly human. The third attempted to divide His single personality. The fourth confused His human and divine natures. The Church's doctrine was summed up at the Council of Chalcedon in the year A.D. 451 by declaring that:

Christ is truly God;
He is perfectly Man;
He is one Person;
He has two natures.

In theological language Christ is one divine Person possessed of both divine and human natures, "truly, perfectly, indissolubly, and without confusion." Many deviations from this historic teaching have occurred since those early days, but they all fall under one or another of these heads. In other words, the Church covered the ground fifteen centuries ago and settled its convictions permanently. On that footing it has weathered the storms of the ages and still moves forward with undiluted faith in the Divine Saviour.

To some impatient souls all this may seem quite theoretical and highly speculative. What's the good of all these fine distinctions anyhow? So long as we live wholesome Christian lives, what does it matter whether or not we have any consistent doctrine of the Incarnation? The point is that faith and practice go together, and a wholesome Christian life is the fruit of a sound Christian faith. Oh, yes, I know you will occasionally find a person living a very good life who has never bothered his head about any kind of faith at all. But where did he get his standard of good living? How did he come by his Christian ideals? He has borrowed them from the Church which has preserved and proclaimed them through the loyalty of those who really did concern themselves with the underlying faith. Break down the support of sound doctrine and Christ becomes a patch-work figure meaning a thousand different things to a thousand different people, with the authenticity of His Gospel dissolved and the moral principles of the Christian life thinned into sentimental vaporings. Why should you exert yourself to live like a Christian? Is it because you like the flavor of it? Or because you consider it conventionally correct? Or because you think it the best working policy? Slippery reasons, all of them. Why should you try to live like a Christian? Because Christ said so with divine authority. There is a reason that will really stand up.

What you do not believe is a matter of no great moment. What you do believe is of supreme importance. It supplies a substantial background for your daily living. When a man says, "I don't believe in Christ but I try to live a good life," I reply, "That's worse for you than it is for Christ and puts a question mark against all of your good living." But if a man says, "I do indeed believe in Christ and try to live His way," I reply, "That's fine for both of you and gives some reality to your good living." The doctrine of the Incarnation is more than a speculative theory. What we think of Christ is truly important.

~ The Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A True Account of Jesus

" ... in order to give a true account of Jesus, it is not enough to tell his story simply as a human story. One must also tell it as a story about God. The coming of Jesus is the coming of God to be with us. The ministry of Jesus is God's taking a hand in human affairs. The dying of Jesus is God's way of loving and forgiving sinners. The triumph of Jesus is the 'happening' in which God begins his new creation. And this is precisely what the New Testament and the creeds say."

~ Richard A. Norris, Understanding the Faith of the Church (1979)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas is Just as Important as Holy Week and Easter

A clergy colleague recently shared a memory from a Christmas Eve past. After making preparations for the service, he walked outside the church. He was startled to see Roman soldiers marching down the street. They were making their way to the Protestant church a block away where the evening's program was a Passion Play. On the eve of our Lord's Nativity - the time of the year when the Church's focus is most clearly centered on the Incarnation - this church was emphasizing the suffering and crucifixion of our Lord!

It's easy to find this inappropriate and even bizarre. But the truth is that many liturgical Christians also downplay the meaning and significance of the Incarnation. After all, our salvation was accomplished on Good Friday and Easter Day, not Christmas. So the Incarnation was merely a necessary prelude to the Paschal mystery. It follows from such reasoning that Christmas is of secondary importance to those other observances.

In a Christmas Eve sermon, Fr. John D. Alexander of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island invites us to rethink the idea that Christmas isn't as important as Holy Week and Easter, and that if humanity had not fallen into sin the Incarnation would never have happened. Here's part of what he said:

... the notion that without the Fall there would have been no Incarnation is not the Christian tradition’s only or last word on the subject. In the fourth century, for example, Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote that “in the Incarnation of Christ, other things must be considered besides absolution from sin.”

Beginning in the twelfth century, medieval Western theologians began to debate whether Christ would have come into the world even if Adam had not sinned and the Fall had not happened. Some theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, answered in the negative, arguing that if there had been no Fall, there would probably have been no Incarnation either; while others, such as Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus, answered in the affirmative, arguing that even in the absence of the Fall the Incarnation would very likely still have taken place.

Far from being a stereotypical case of logical hair-splitting along the lines of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle—which, by the way, is an early modern caricature rather than anything ever seriously debated in the Middle Ages—the question is one of enormous significance. It profoundly affects how we view not only the person and work of Christ, but also the nature and destiny of all creation. Duns Scotus argued, for example, that the Incarnation was the very purpose of creation. Christ’s coming into the world was so great and glorious "that it seems unreasonable to think that God would have forgone such a work because of Adam’s good deed, if he had not sinned."

Long before Duns Scotus, the seventh-century Greek father Saint Maximus the Confessor elaborated a similar argument. The Incarnation, he wrote, should be regarded as the absolute and primary purpose of God in creation. When God created the universe, he did so precisely so that he might become incarnate in it; and so he created it with all the goodness and beauty befitting a creation in which he himself might make his dwelling. Moreover, by becoming one of us, the Son of God shares in our temporal human life, so that united with him we—and all creation with us—might come to share in his eternal divine life.

The tradition represented by such disparate figures as Maximus the Confessor and John Duns Scotus thus understands the Incarnation as integral to God’s purposes in creation. Prior to and apart from the Fall, the divine plan required the Son of God to became incarnate in order to unite creation to himself, imbue it with his glory, and gather it into the eternal life of God’s kingdom.

According to this tradition, then, if humanity had not fallen into sin, there might not have been any need for Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection; but there would still have been an Incarnation. Even without Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there would still be Christmas. Now, none of this is meant to deny the reality of human sin or of our need for redemption. The good news, however, is that when we had fallen into sin, Christ stuck to the original plan and came down from heaven anyway, to redeem us and reconcile us to God.

It follows that Christmas need not be thought of as merely a logical prerequisite to the real thing, the truly saving events of Holy Week and Easter. It’s possible and permitted to believe that the Incarnation has its own independent place in God’s plan. One of the blessings of our Anglican tradition is its characteristic emphasis on the wonder and beauty of Christ’s incarnation considered in its own right. So let’s rejoice unabashedly in the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity, and have no more talk of Christmas being secondary to Holy Week and Easter. Those feasts are indeed of central importance in the Christian year, but so is Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Greetings

"In his immeasurable love, he became what we are in order to make us what he is."

Christmas joy and blessings to you all!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Barna Group Highlights Six Megathemes of American Church Life

In an article published by The Barna Group on December 13, 2010 entitled "Six Megathemes Emerge from Barna Group Research in 2010," we get "a time-lapse portrayal of how the religious environment in the U.S. is morphing into something new." Here are the six megathemes which the article explores in greater detail:

  1. The Christian Church is becoming less theologically literate.
  2. Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach-oriented.
  3. Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of learning pragmatic solutions for life.
  4. Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is escalating.
  5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.
  6. The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.

Here are a few snippets I found particularly noteworthy (and troubling):

"What used to be basic, universally-known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans--especially young adults. ... The theological free-for-all that is encroaching in Protestant churches nationwide suggests the coming decade will be a time of unparalleled theological diversity and inconsistency."

"As young adults have children, the prospect of them seeking a Christian church is diminishing--especially given the absence of faith talk in their conversations with the people they most trust."

"Practical to a fault, Americans consider survival in the present to be much more significant than eternal security and spiritual possibilities. Because we continue to separate our spirituality from other dimensions of life through compartmentalization, a relatively superficial approach to faith has become a central means of optimizing our life experience."

"Our biblical illiteracy and lack of spiritual confidence has caused Americans to avoid making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a Church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies. This increased leniency is made possible by the very limited accountability that occurs within the body of Christ. There are fewer and fewer issues that Christians believe churches should be dogmatic about. The idea of love has been redefined to mean the absence of conflict and confrontation, as if there are no moral absolutes that are worth fighting for. That may not be surprising in a Church in which a minority believes there are moral absolutes dictated by the scriptures."

"American culture is driven by the snap judgments and decisions that people make amidst busy schedules and incomplete information. With little time or energy available for or devoted to research and reflection, it is people’s observations of the integration of a believer’s faith into how he/she responds to life’s opportunities and challenges that most substantially shape people’s impressions of and interest in Christianity."

Read it all.

I shared this article with one of my clergy colleagues who responded: "Barna has done us an enormous service. We simply have to improve our teaching or we won't have a church to lead."

Excerpts are quoted with permission from The Barna Group (

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Virgin Mary Sings of God's Revolution

The Gospel reading appointed for the Eucharist today is Luke 1:46-56 - the Magnificat or Mary's Song of Praise. N. T. Wright calls it "the gospel before the gospel, a fierce bright shout of triumph thirty weeks before Bethlehem, thirty years before Calvary and Easter" (Luke for Everyone). I was especially struck by these verses:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

This is the stuff of revolution! In spite of the best intentions, so many human revolutions try to put all things right yet end up becoming yet another form of tyranny and oppression. But God's revolution inaugurated in Jesus enacts true, life-giving peace and justice. We await its consummation as we daily pray "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

The Magnificat's stress on God's revolution powerfully reminds us that the Gospel is not a merely "spiritual" affair. It's about whole persons. It's about politics and economics. And it's about God's desire to make all things new.

Precisely for that reason, God's revolution takes dead-aim at Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, at the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and at the sinful desires that draw persons away from the love of God. Mary sings of God's long-awaited, triumphant victory over the forces of sin, evil, and death. And we who hear and sing this song with her join in the celebration.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dismissing the Call to Unity

Over at Anglican Down Under, Peter Carrell has discovered that suggesting we need to work harder at unity within the Anglican Communion elicits objections and opposition from some "progressive" Anglicans. In a posting entitled "The end is near but what will emerge is unknown," Peter writes:

... I am deeply troubled that I cannot raise the question of Anglican unity here without response that 'unity' is 'imposition of unity' or 'institutional unity' and we do not want that. To say we are 'Anglican' yet have no shared enthusiasm across the 'Communion' for Anglican 'unity' is, frankly, a travesty in respect of New Testament teaching on the church as the body of Christ. To raise barriers to progress to unity by, say, invoking the spectre of an unholy trinity of an Anglican version of papacy, curia, and magisterium is a failure to engage with the challenge of being one Anglican Communion. To continue to assert national sovereignty of member churches of the Communion is to work with half a loaf of ecclesiology: the other half is true interdependence in the body of Christ. To claim that there is only one church of Christ (true) and then offer nothing more than 'prayer' to progress the unity of the visible expressions in our world of that one church is - I think, but I think St Paul would agree - a loss of nerve, vision, and will. My question is this: can we expect a Communion of churches to remain intact when it is both generally divided and even divided on what it means to be united? With no shared vision of our future together why would we expect to remain a Communion?

Here I am proposing that the present Anglican Communion, visibly falling apart, will continue to do so unless it finds the will to do otherwise.

In light of "progressive" dismissals of the New Testament's (and our Lord's) call to unity, I am struck by what other Christians have said about it. C. S. Lewis, for instance, wrote: "Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions towards reunion." Speaking before 200,000 people at a Mass in India, the late Pope John Paul II said: “The past and present divisions [among Christians] are a scandal to non-Christians, a glaring contradiction of the will of Christ, [and] a serious obstacle to the church’s efforts to proclaim the Gospel.” And William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who lived in the late-19th Century, put it even more succinctly when he wrote in his book The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity that “union is God’s work, and separation devil’s work.”

To be fair, it's not just folks on the left side of the Anglican spectrum who can take all the blame. Many conservative Anglicans have made more than their fair share of contributions to the "devil's work" of disunity and division over the past several years as well. And if we're honest, perhaps each and every one of us has done the same in thought, word, or deed at one time or another. Left, Right, Center, you name it - manifestations of the politicization of the Church are alive and well.

It's also true that not everyone on the "progressive" side of things outright rejects the call to unity. But sometimes the lack of an outright rejection can still entail a dismissal. For instance, some respond by saying that, in the midst of our disagreements, we can be and in many cases are united - in communion - by virtue of common mission. Unity or communion in practice takes precedence over unity or communion in belief and order. But that assumes that across our disagreements we agree on what "mission" really is (and prior to that, what the Church itself is and what her purpose is). And it also assumes that our disagreements on matters of belief and order aren't really all that important anyway. What matters is that, together, we do things like feed the hungry, etc.

Philip Turner, in his recent essay "Unity, Order and Dissent: On How to Dissent Within a Communion of Churches," makes a relevant point here:

... communion [for many within the Episcopal Church] is defined largely in moral rather than theological terms. This position follows naturally enough from the reduced role of common belief just set forth. No one wishes to underestimate the importance of shared ministry in service to the poor, but it is hard to see, when push comes to shove, why communion as TEC defines it is communion in Christ Jesus. In the end, Jesus is no more than a good example of a moral ideal than he is a savior apart from whom we can neither know nor serve God as God wills.

Pitting the gift of unity against working for unity is a false dichotomy. Salvation is a gift from God. And yet, as the apostle Paul exhorts us, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). Unity is also a gift from God. But as with salvation, so too with unity: just as we are called to "work out" what it means to be saved, we are called to "work out" what it means to be one, not just in practice (mission), but also in terms of substantive belief and how the Church is ordered. To say that all we have to do is just pray for greater unity rather than do hard, sacrificial work for unity could be the wide and easy road that leads to destruction. And if that's true, how should dismissing the call to unity with scorn and/or charges of imperialism be characterized?

Christmas is a Tough Season - Especially for Believers

So writes Ross Douthat in a recent op-ed column for the New York Times:

Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.

Read it all.

The consumer culture's version of Christmas has largely triumphed over the Church's observance of Advent. Indeed, many of us may wonder why we bother with the season of Advent anymore at all. One clergy colleague put it like this: "I know clergy who honestly have no clue that Christmas is 12 days, only beginning on the 25th of December. I've resigned myself to the de facto truth that Western Christianity has lost the battle of secular Christmas and Advent is basically non-existent for most parishioners in any meaningful sense. I still keep it in common life as best I can, but honestly, it feels like a hopeless cause." And after all of the parties during December, trying to make a big deal out of the 12 days of Christmas is pretty much a lost cause (don't most of us take down all of our decorations by the end of Christmas Day anyway?).

Perhaps this is where Douthat's perspective is again helpful:

... this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.

Rather than give in to cynicism and wistful pining for a lost past (which is almost always a highly selective and even self-serving retrieval of the past), we do well to think through what it would mean to become "a creative and attractive minority." What might that look like in practice?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Learning Jesus

"Jesus is best learned not as a result of an individual’s scholarly quest that is published in a book, but as a continuing process of personal transformation within a community of disciples. Jesus is learned through the faithful reading of the Scriptures, true, but he is learned as well through the sacraments (above all the Eucharist), the lives of saints (dead and living) and the strangers with whom the exalted Lord especially associates himself. Next to such a difficult and complex form of learning Jesus as he truly is —the life-giving Spirit who enlivens above all the assembly called the body of Christ— the investigations of historians, even at their best, seem but a drab and impoverished distraction."

~ Luke Timothy Johnson, "The Jesus Controversy"

Hat tip to Salt of the Earth

God Works Through Ordinary People

The Gospel appointed for the Eucharist on this Friday in the third week of Advent is Luke 1:5-25. In this passage, the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son: John the Baptist. Bishop N. T. Wright offers some commentary on the passage that reminds us of a central biblical truth: God's extraordinary promises and purposes are fulfilled by ordinary people.

"The story would remind any Bible reader of much older stories: Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21), Rachel bearing Jacob two sons after years of childlessness (Genesis 30; 35), and particularly the births of Samson (Judges 13) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1). This story, Luke hints, is not a strange new thing, but takes its place within a long-standing sequence of God’s purposes. ... This story, preparing us for the even more remarkable conception and birth of Jesus himself, reminds us of something important. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind. The story is about much more than Zechariah's joy at having a son at last, or Elisabeth's exultation in being freed from the scorn of the mothers in the village. It is about the great fulfillment of God’s promises and purposes. But the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people are not forgotten in this larger story, precisely because of who Israel’s God is – the God of lavish, self-giving love, as Luke will tell us in so many ways throughout his gospel. When this God acts on the large scale, he takes care of smaller human concerns as well. The drama which now takes centre stage is truly the story of God, the world, and every ordinary human being who has ever lived in it."

~ N. T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (2004)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Understanding the Senseless Destruction of the Sacred

I was saddened last week by the news that vandals hacked apart the 2,000-year-old Holy Thorn Tree in Glastonbury, England.

According to legend, Saint Joseph travelled to the spot after Christ was crucified, taking with him the Holy Grail of Arthurian folklore.

He is said to have stuck his wooden staff – which had belonged to Jesus – into the ground on Wearyall Hill before he went to sleep. When he awoke it had sprouted into a thorn tree, which became a natural shrine for Christians across Europe.

To add to its sacred status, the tree ‘miraculously’ flowered twice a year – once at Christmas and once at Easter.

Read more.

It doesn't matter to me whether or not the legend of the Holy Thorn Tree is literally true, for objects and sites like this are hallowed by tradition and the prayers of untold thousands of pilgrims down through the centuries. As T. S. Eliot wrote in "Little Gidding":

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

And so I couldn't help but feel angry over this senseless act of destruction. Why in the world would anybody do something like this?

In the meantime, I've come across a very interesting article by Joseph Laycock that helps make sense out of the otherwise senseless destruction of holy objects and sites. It's entitled, "Why Did Vandals Try to Destroy a Holy Tree? Senseless Destruction and the Search for Lost Intimacy." Citing other similar incidents, Laycock writes:

Individually each of these acts might be an anomaly, but together they form a pattern. One might call them, “crimes against creation.” Unlike normal environmental damage they are motivated not by greed but by sadism. The apparent goal is to spite humanity by destroying something that can never be replaced. Natural wonders also possess sacred significance and, because of they are completely irreplaceable, their destruction is the closest a single person can come to attacking God.

Even if the perpetrators were caught it’s unlikely that they’d be able to articulate their motivations to anyone’s satisfaction. In the absence of a rational motive, it is often said that these vandals were driven by “evil.” This label may be valid, but it has no explanatory power. However misguided, the perpetrators of these crimes were people, not demons, and the feelings that motivated them were human feelings. It may be unpleasant to contemplate but the occasional desire to destroy creation and spite humanity is not reserved for the criminally insane. One recalls the narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, “I was in the mood to destroy something beautiful.”

Terry Eagleton argues that evil originates in a twisted yearning for the transcendent. Evildoers, he argues, are motivated by an ideal of perfection compared to which the mundane world seems not only worthless but also intolerable. In Eagleton’s words, “Evil is a kind of cosmic sulking.” Because destroying the world is not possible, the evildoer attempts to spread their malaise by making the rest of us as miserable as they are.

This relationship between destruction and transcendence is further explored in the work of Georges Bataille. Bataille described human experience as divided between “the order of intimacy” and “the order of things.” The order of intimacy, which he identified with the sacred, is an experience of primal oneness where individuals and objects simply exist without differentiation. Civilization, however, has given rise to the order of things, a profane world defined by discontinuity and individuation into subject and object. The order of things is inherently unsatisfying because nothing is allowed to simply exist; everything is dissected and reduced to its social or monetary value.

For Bataille, religion is “a search for lost intimacy,” an attempt to commune with a transcendent otherness that defies the distinctions of ordinary reality. In fact, this search for lost intimacy is precisely what makes the targets of these attacks—ancient trees and rock formations—precious in the first place. They have no purpose or intrinsic value, they simply are. This imbues them with a kind of sacrality. They are precious in part because they remind us that another reality exists beyond the one constructed by man.

Read it all.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Biblical View of Eternal Life

The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, offers thoughts on the biblical view of eternal life and why it cannot be reduced to belief in the "immortality of the soul."

People are sometimes rather shocked if you say that Christianity does not believe in the immortality of the soul; but in fact, while the Bible and the tradition talk about 'immortal' life, they don't assume that this deathless existence is something reserved for a part of us only, as if there were a bit of us that didn't have a future and a bit that did, the solid lumpy bit and the hazy spiritual bit. We have a future with God as persons, no less. The life that is given us by God in our mortal and material relationships takes in all of that, and on the further side of death (which be definition we can't imagine) nothing is lost.

Our hope has nothing to do with some natural feature of our existence, a soul that has natural immortality. Although this came to be taken for granted in the early centuries of the Church and deeply affected much of what we are used to hearing on the subject, the hope described in the Bible is connected not to any aspect of our lives but to God's faithful commitment to the whole of what he has made. And, to be fair to earlier Christian generations, while they usually did assume the immortality of the soul, they never lost hold of the larger promise of resurrection. In the Middle Ages, you will find writers describing the frustration of the soul after death as it waits for the Last Judgment when it can be reunited to the body. We don't have to accept the rather convoluted theories they worked out in order to tidy this up; but we can recognize that they understood the hope of eternal life as hope for persons not ghosts.

And ... the key to this is - yet again - the belief in a trustworthy God. The pattern we have had before us all the way through these reflections, the story of a God who is totally committed to what he has made and loved and worked with, whose action and purpose are all directed towards our flourishing and healing, all of that fits completely with the vision of a God who will not let us go even on the far side of death. What he has made and, more significantly, has made his own in the loving action of Jesus, he will not abandon. Ultimately, Christians believe in eternal life not because they believe something about themselves as human (that they have an immortal element in them), but because they believe something about God. And if this belief in eternal life rests on what is made known about God, there is no special reason for Christians to be that concerned about 'evidence for survival' or psychical research. It may be very interesting in its way, it may sometimes be a sign of obsessive anxiety, it may dangerously distract from the real challenges of the gospel; but it doesn't have much to do with the biblical view of eternal life, which takes it for granted that the challenge is to respond honestly and repentantly and joyfully to the presence of God's truth in our midst here and now in the news about Jesus."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Remembering Karl Barth

As part of the last General Convention's authorization of commemorations for trial usage, today on the Episcopal Church calendar we remember 20th Century pastor and theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). (I note that the commemoration of Thomas Merton is also authorized for this day, but I'm going with Barth.)

Here's what the Holy Women, Holy Men website says about Barth:

Born in Switzerland in 1886, Barth studied at several prestigious universities including Tübingen. After completing his studies, he served as pastor in Geneva and Safenwil. The events of the First World War led Barth to critically question the dominant theology of the day, which, in Barth’s view, held a too easy peace between theology and culture. In his Commentary on Romans, published in 1918, Barth reasserted doctrines such as God’s sovereignty and human sin, central ideas which he believed were excluded and overshadowed in theological discourse at that time.

With Hitler’s rise to power, Barth joined the Confessional Church and was chiefly responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration (1934), one of its foundational documents. In it, Barth claimed that the Church’s allegiance to God in Christ gave it the moral imperative to challenge the rule and violence of Hitler. Barth was himself ultimately forced to resign his professorship at Bonn due to his refusal to swear an oath to Hitler. In 1932, Barth published the first volume of his thirteen-volume opus, the Church Dogmatics. Barth would work on the Dogmatics until his death in 1968. An exhaustive account of his theological themes and a daring reassessment of the entire Christian theological tradition, the Dogmatics gave new thought to some of the central themes first articulated in the Commentary on Romans. In the first volume, "The Doctrine of the Word of God," Barth laid out many of the theological notions which would comprise the heart of the entire work, including his understanding of God’s Word as the definitive source of revelation, the Incarnation as the bridge between God’s revelation and human sin, and the election of the creation as God’s great end.

Karl Barth was one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century. Pope Pius XII regarded him as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. This assessment speaks to the respect Barth received from both Protestant and Catholic theologians and to his influence within both theological communities.

Here are some quotes from Barth I found online (I'm not sure about the original sources for them):

"Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is himself the way."

"In the Church of Jesus Christ there can and should be no non-theologians."

"Jews have God's promise and if we Christians have it, too, then it is only as those chosen with them, as guests in their house, that we are new wood grafted onto their tree."

"Man can certainly flee from God, but he cannot escape him. He can certainly hate God and be hateful to God, but he cannot change into its opposite the eternal love of God which triumphs even in his hate."

"Faith in God's revelation has nothing to do with an ideology which glorifies the status quo."

"All sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge. And in wanting to be that, and thinking and acting accordingly, he and his whole world is in conflict with God. It is an unreconciled world, and therefore a suffering world, a world given up to destruction."

"No one can be saved - in virtue of what he can do. Everyone can be saved - in virtue of what God can do."

And here's an excerpt from Barth's Church Dogmatics:

Jesus was not in any sense a reformer championing new orders against the old ones, contesting the latter in order to replace them by the former. He did not range Himself and His disciples with any of the existing parties. One of these, and not the worst, was that of the Pharisees. But Jesus did not identify Himself with them. Nor did He set up against them an opposing party. He did not represent or defend or champion any programme - whether political, economic, moral or religious, whether conservative or progressive. He was equally suspected and disliked by the representatives of all such programmes, although He did not particularly attack any of them. Why His existence was so unsettling on every side was that He did this simply because He enjoyed and displayed, in relation to all the orders positively or negatively contested around Him, a remarkable freedom which again we can only describe as royal. He had need of none of them in the sense of an absolute authority which was vitally necessary for Him, and which He could prescribe and defend as vitally necessary for others because it was an absolute authority.

On the other hand, He had no need consistently to beak any of them, to try to overthrow them altogether, to work for their replacement or amendment. He could live in these orders. He could seriously acknowledge in practice that the temple of God was in Jerusalem, and that the doctors of the Law were to be found in this temple, and that their disciples the scribes were scattered throughout the land, with the Pharisees as their most zealous rivals. He could also acknowledge that the Romans bore supreme rule even over the land and people of the divine covenant. He could grant that there were families, and rich and poor. He never said that these things ought not to be. He did not opposed other "systems" to these. He did not make common cause with the Essene reforming movement. He simply revealed the limit and frontier of all these things - the freedom of the kingdom of God. He simply existed in this freedom and summoned to it. He simply made use of this freedom to cut right across all these systems both in His own case and in that of His disciples, interpreting and accepting them in His own way and in His own sense, in the light shed upon them all from that frontier. It was just that He Himself was the light which was shed upon all these orders from that frontier. Inevitably their provisional and relative character, the ways in which they were humanly conditioned, their secret fallibility, were all occasionally disclosed - not in principle, only occasionally, but on these occasions quite unmistakeably - in His attitude toward them and His assessment of their significance.

But it was not these incidental disclosures of the freedom of God which made Him a revolutionary far more radical than any that came either before or after Him. It was the freedom itself, which could not even be classified from the standpoint of these orders. For where are these orders when He expresses both in word and deed that abasement of all that is high and exaltation of all that is low? Do they not all presuppose that the high is high and the low low? Was not the axe really laid at the root of all these trees in and by His existence?

In the last resort, it was again conformity with God Himself which constituted the secret of the character of Jesus on this side too. This is the relationship of God Himself to all the orders of life and value which, as long as there is history at all, enjoy a transitory validity in the history of every human place. This is how God gives them their times and spheres, but without being bound to any of them, without giving any of them His own divine authority, without allotting to any of them a binding validity for all men even beyond their own time and sphere, without granting that they are vitally necessary and absolutely authoritative even for their own time and sphere. In this way God Himself is their limit and frontier. An alien light is thus shed on them by God Himself as on that which He has limited. This is how He deals with them, not in principle, not in the execution of a programme, but for this reason in a way which is all the more revolutionary, as the One who breaks all bonds asunder, in new historical developments and situations each of which is for those who can see and hear - only a sign, but an unmistakable sign, of His freedom and kingdom and overruling of history. [Quoted from Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics, A Selection with Introduction by Helmut Gollwitzer, translated and edited by G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), pp. 96-98.]

Almighty God, source of justice beyond human knowledge: We thank you for inspiring Karl Barth to resist tyranny and exalt your saving grace, without which we cannot apprehend your will. Teach us, like him, to live by faith, and even in chaotic and perilous times to perceive the light of your eternal glory, Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, throughout all ages. Amen.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Prayer Attributed to St. Ambrose

Lord Jesus Christ, you are for me medicine when I am sick; you are my strength when I need help; you are life itself when I fear death; you are my way when I long for heaven; you are light when all is dark; you are my food when I need nourishment.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Two Movements Within the Anglican Communion

One of the blogs I regularly read is the Rev. Peter Carrell's Anglican Down Under. Peter describes the purpose of his blog in the phrase: "An evangelical looks for signs of one, holy, catholic and apostolic church in the Anglican Communion." He consistently fulfills that purpose by sharing thoughts and insights about events unfolding within the Anglican Communion that are always worth pondering. I've especially found his many postings on the proposed Anglican Covenant and its critics both thought-provoking and compelling.

Out of curiosity, I checked out his earliest posts from back in 2007. One of them in particular caught my eye. Entitled "Communion or Community of Communions?", it lays out two movements within the Anglican Communion that represent diametrically opposed approaches to the Christian faith. Here's how Peter puts it:

At risk of over simplification, I suggest two movements within the Anglican Communion are driving the current crisis forward to its eschaton. One movement could be described as ‘Jude 3’ since it understands ‘the faith’ as that which ‘was once for all delivered to the saints.’ In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and our ethics were more or less settled with the final writings of the New Testament at the close of the first century A.D. When proposals come forward which appear novel, such as endorsing faithful same sex partnerships through blessing or ordination, or softening the exclusivity of Jesus from ‘the way’ to ‘a way’ to God, this movement is unmoved. What has been delivered once for all does not permit such endorsement or such softening. To be sure this movement is not completely united on some matters such as the ordination of women which is novel and unacceptable to some in the movement but is a flowering of that seeded in the apostolic age and thus acceptable to others.

The other movement could be described as ‘John 16:13’ since it works on the basis that ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.’ In other words ‘the faith’ was delivered to the saints but the saints did not receive all the truth. In this movement there is complete conviction that our theology and our ethics are not yet, perhaps never will be settled. Novel proposals tend to be welcomed rather than rejected; the Spirit guiding into all truth, after all, is to be expected to catalyse such possibilities.

Whether either or both these two movements are legitimate developments of any preceding stage in Anglicanism need not detain us. These movements are entrenched in the reality of Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. Neither is going to be ruled out by denying its validity as an ‘Anglican’ phenomenon because it is (say) lacking coherency with Hooker or repugnant to the Thirty Nine Articles. Either, even both movements (‘a plague on both your houses’) might be dispossessed of membership of the Anglican Communion but that would not stop vigorous assertion of claims by each movement to be truly and thoroughly ‘Anglican’. Thus the question which will not readily go away is whether the Anglican Communion can find a way to live with both movements or whether it cannot contain what Anglicanism has become.

Pitting Jude 3 Anglicans against John 16:13 Anglicans may be a bit simplistic. But there's something to it nonetheless. My experience with more conservative Anglicans/Episcopalians is that they do, indeed, appeal to unchanging norms and doctrine as they find those passed down in scripture and tradition. And I've often heard many more progressive Episcopalians justify the current trajectory of the Episcopal Church on the hot button issues du jour by appealing to a notion of "ongoing" or "progressive revelation," and often by citing John 16:13 as a biblical warrant (I recall the Presiding Bishop herself doing this on occasion).

It may be worth pondering whether or not conservatives/reasserters have always rightly interpreted and applied Jude 3, and whether or not progressives/reappraisers have always rightly interpreted and applied John 16:13.

What exactly, for instance, constitutes "the faith once delivered"? Does it include every injunction we find in scripture, or only some and not others? Is it limited, as some argue, to the articles of the historic creeds? Or does it include more than that? And if so, what exactly is essential and what is non-essential when it comes to the faith?

And as to the Spirit leading us into all truth, can the Spirit ever take us in a direction in which previous truths taught by the Church are rejected and denied? Would it be possible, for instance, for the Church to rightly discern the Spirit leading us to an understanding of Jesus more in line with the vision of the Jesus Seminar than the affirmation of Jesus as "true God from true God" such that we no longer use the Nicene Creed in worship and we adjust our Eucharistic and other prayers accordingly? (When it comes to the legislative authority of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I know clergy for whom the answer to this question is "yes.") And is it really possible, as some seem to be at least implicitly arguing, for the Spirit to say one thing to one part of the Anglican Communion while simultaneously saying the opposite to everyone else? (Joe Carter's essay "Is the Holy Spirit a Relativist or a Colonialist?" remains a thought-provoking read on this matter.)

"Between John 16:13 and Jude 3," Peter Carrell continues, "lies Philippians 2:2, ‘complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.’"

As time passes and divisions deepen, the chances of "having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" appear less and less likely. And so the question remains: is it really possible to find a via media between Jude 3 Anglicans and John 16:13 Anglicans? Is it even desirable?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Gnosticism is Alive and Well in the Church

If anyone thinks that Gnosticism is just something that you read about in dusty old Church history textbooks, Robin Phillips invites you to think again. In a blog posting from last summer entitled "8 Gnostic Myths You May Have Imbibed," Robin lays out "the number of Gnostic tendencies that the modern church has imbibed without realizing it." While he's primarily addressing the evangelical Christian community, much of what he writes about includes "mainstream" churches like the Episcopal Church, too.

Here's a teaser:

Gnostic Myth # 1: Christianity isn’t a Religion, it’s a Relationship
By relocating the nexus of religion in the private experience of each individual and self-consciously downplaying the public and corporate aspects connoted by the word “religion”, much of contemporary evangelicalism has unknowingly drunk deeply from the wells of Gnosticism. In the process, much of the modern church has lost the categories with which to think about Christendom, viewing the faith primarily through an individualistic lens.

Those interested in exploring this aspect further should consult the first essay in Stephen Perks’ Common-Law Wives and Concubines.

Gnostic Myth # 2: Salvation Means Going to Heaven When You Die
For much of the contemporary evangelical community, the doctrine of bodily resurrection of believers has been eclipsed by the innovation that salvation means living in heaven for eternity. It is revealing that many evangelicals find nothing amiss with the idea that the immortality of the soul, not the resurrection of the body, is the goal of personal salvation. Moreover, recent surveys have shown that many Christians no longer believe that their bodies will be resurrected at all.

Those interested in exploring this further should continue reading this paper or consult N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope or my blog post "Resurrection or Disembodiment? Gnosticism in Evangelical Theology."

Gnostic Myth # 3: The Material World isn’t Important
Under the influence of Gnostic myth # 2, as well as various eschatologies which teach a lack of organic continuity between what happens during this age and the future renewal, many Christians have colluded with the Gnostic notion that what happens in this world is unimportant to God.

Those interested in exploring this aspect further would do well to consult Os Guinness’ Fit Bodies Fat Minds or my article "Recovering the Protestant Affirmation of Life."

Gnostic Myth # 4: Institutional Religion is Bad
Having been suckered into embracing a number of Gnostic dualisms, many modern Christians automatically think that institutional religion is at odds with genuine heart-felt faith, and that whatever we give to the former is less we have for the latter.

Those interested in exploring this aspect further should consult DeYoung and Kluck's Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion and my article ‘Institutional Religion.'

Read about the remaining four Gnostic myths here.