Sunday, March 20, 2011

Soft on Right Belief and Sin?

In an essay entitled "What's so appealing about Orthodoxy?" in The Washington Post, Rod Dreher shares the journey that he and his wife made from the Roman Catholic Church into Eastern Orthodoxy. It makes for a fascinating read.

Coming into The Episcopal Church as a severely lapsed Methodist, Dreher's context and journey are quite different from my own. But like Dreher, I find many aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy appealing. Perhaps it's little wonder, then, that parts of Dreher's essay connect for me.

For instance, here's what Dreher observes about the fate of right belief at the parish level:

Here’s the problem: there is very little orthodoxy in the U.S. Catholic Church, and at the parish level, almost no recognition that there is a such thing as “right belief.” It wasn’t that I wanted to throw out all those who don’t live up to Catholic teaching – I would have been the first one shown the door if that had been true – but that I discerned no direction, and no real conviction that parish communities exist for any reason other than to affirm ourselves in our okayness. Though I didn’t have a term to describe it at the time, I was weary to the bone from an ersatz form of Christianity that sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

To be sure, within The Episcopal Church and across the theological spectrum within the Anglican blogosphere, there are many who take right belief very seriously (no doubt, this is true within most of the so-called "mainline" denominations). Nevertheless, I find that Dreher's observation generally holds true. I continue to be surprised by the pride some Episcopalians I encounter take in having the freedom to pick and choose whatever they want to believe. It's as though their freedom to choose is something to celebrate, no matter how far off the Christian reservation the choices may take them. Personal experience trumps special revelation.

Precisely because it contrasts so sharply with celebrations of autonomous freedom, I sometimes wonder what is going through our minds when, in reaffirming our Baptismal Covenant vows, we promise "to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304). Making this promise entails a solemn commitment to an obedience that places checks and balances on our freedom to choose personal truths and practices as though such choices could possibly take priority over the faith of the Church. But in the midst of emphasizing peace, justice, and respect for the dignity of every human being, I don't recall ever hearing this.

Another part of Dreher's essay that I found striking concerns sin:

The main reason why Orthodoxy is so attractive to converts, at least to this convert, is its seriousness about sin. I don’t mean that it’s a dour religion – it is very far from that! – but rather that Orthodoxy takes the brokenness of humankind with appropriate seriousness. Orthodoxy is not going to tell you that you’re okay. In fact, it will require you to call yourself, as St. Paul described himself, the “chief of sinners.” And Orthodoxy is going to tell you the Good News: Jesus died and returned to life so that you too might live. But in order to live, you are going to have to die to yourself, over and over again. And that will not be painless, and cannot be, or it’s not real.

Because of that, for all its dramatic beauty and rich feasting, Orthodoxy is far more austere and demanding than most American Christianity. The long liturgies, the frequent prayers, the intense fasts – all make serious demands on the believer, especially comfortable middle-class Americans like me. They call us out of ourselves, and to repentance. Orthodoxy is not interested in making you feel comfortable in your sins. It wants nothing less than for you to be a saint.

For the past 16 years in The Episcopal Church, I've heard very little about "the brokenness of humankind." On the contrary, I'm often struck at how we go out of our way to tell people that they are okay. The important thing is that all of us are affirmed in our faith journeys. The Church is here to be friendly and supportive. And so we readily proclaim the proposition: "Everyone is accepted in Christ." But we seem hesitant to add: "No one is affirmed as they are."

In a posting I published last summer entitled "The Human Problem and Full Permission Living," I wrote this:

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 believe in the sufficiency of Anglicanism. And so I believe that the Anglican tradition provides the resources we need to do the very things that Dreher found so compelling within Eastern Orthodoxy. We, too, can emphasize "right belief" in our preaching and by showing how, in our liturgies, we corporately pray the orthodox faith of the Church. And we also have the biblical and liturgical resources to appropriately address the problem of sin and brokenness in ways that open us to God's healing, transforming grace.

Upholding right belief, and naming and addressing sin, go increasingly against the grain within our cultural setting. But the resources for doing this gospel work are right at hand. Indeed, they lie at the core of who we are as heirs of the Anglican tradition. Dare we Episcopalians be so counter-cultural? Or, in the well-intentioned but misguided attempt to be "relevant," do we take the easier, softer route of optional orthodoxy?


Steve Hayes said...

Even in the Orthodox Chuch there is sometimes very little Orthodoxy at the parish level. The strange case of Vassula Ryden is a case in point. See Bad theology: Vassula Ryden and Benny Hinn | Khanya. She taught things that were anything but Orthodox, yet clergy allowed l;eaflets adver4tising her lectures to be distributede without a murmer of dissent, even though many thought there was something "off" about her.

Eventually the Ecumenical Patriarch examined her teachings and excommunicated her. I wonder if the Roman Catholic Church will do the same. I can't imagine the Anglicans doing anthing like that. Perhaps she'll become an Anglican.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Steve. The case of Vassula Ryden is, indeed, strange! As for excommunication (or even censure) for teaching heresy: the examples of Bishop Pike and Bishop Spong show how far off the Christian reservation one can go in the Episcopal Church and still serve as a bishop. Then again, the recent case of Kevin Thew Forrester (who was the bishop-elect of Northern Michigan), who failed to receive the number of consents required for his consecration, shows that it is still possible for Episcopalians to say "no" to bad and heretical theology.

Joe Rawls said...

My own parish is "pretty far off the reservation" and if it were not for a few friends, both in person and on the internet, I would feel pretty much like a dinosaur. However, the "progressive" theology is not translating into more bucks, since this year's budget took a substantial hit.

There's also a hole in the west window from a bad storm we're currently having. Probably not a message from God, but who knows?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Joe. I, too, have found the internet a wonderful way of making connections with Episcopalians and other Anglicans. At the same time, the internet has opened my eyes to some of the ways in which the Episcopal Church pushes and at times transgresses the boundaries of our faith. So I guess the internet is a mixed blessing!

Fr. J said...

Dreher is a good writer and a good man. Thanks for pointing me towards this essay.

I agree that we have the tools in Anglicanism to sustain, if only we'll turn towards them. It's easy to get lost in the romance of Eastern Orthodoxy and to forget that those folks have their own problems and scandals. There's nowhere to go in the Church where sin doesn't have a deep and pervasive foothold. Nevertheless, God has not let His Church be destroyed. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. I do think Orthodoxy has the tools to stand up and witness to Christ in the midst of a hyper-individualistic western culture. But I also think Anglicanism has the tools necessary, if only we're willing to use them. The best thing for Anglicans to do, it seems to me, is to learn our faith, both in terms of what we share with most other Christians and in terms of our distinctiveness.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Fr. J. You've said it very well!

TLF+ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
British North America Freedom said...

I like some of what Rod Dreher says. I read an excerpt from his book "Crunchy Cons" (Conservatives) a few years ago. For more info. on the book and his de-centralist philosophy see:

Under the Mercy,

TLF+ said...

Gregory the Great, who is respected across several traditions, once used Noah's Ark to illustrate the church.

The large, main body of the craft holds all the animals - they are there because God is loving and saving them but it's pretty smelly and noisy and not a place of spiritual accomplishment.

Most illustrations then show some kind of upper deck; probably most of Noah's kids & their spouses, doing good work tending the animals and certainly more progressed than the critters by virtue of caring for them.

Then there's a little superstructure at the top, probably where Mr. & Mrs. Noah live. They become types of those who progress and rise the most spiritually.

The church is built like that; most of its people, loved by God and being saved in Christ, want some hay to munch and maybe someone to come and shovel the crud out for them from time to time... those who will seek theological truth and spiritual growth will always be fewer but will share in God's work of saving the others.

plsdeacon said...

The quest for a "pure" Church will lead to a congregtion of one and you won't really like that person.

All Churches have their struggles with heresy and with being captured by the culture. Satan's greatest weapon to neuter the Church is to let her become successful in evangelism. Eventually, the Church becomes coterminus with the Culture and, having captured the culture, gets captured by it and begins to see itself, not as the critiquer of culture but as its chaplain.

This has occurred several times - beginning in the 3rd century when Anthony went to the Desert because the Church has become corrupted by society!

But everytime things look bad, God will winnow the Church and raise up a faithful remnant to witness to His Truth and to call the Church back to Her first love.

Today, TEC is in the place of chaplaincy to the culture and has been captured (and is being led) by people who can't distinguish between their ideas and ideals and God's Word and Commands.

But God will raise up a Reformer to call the Church back to Himself. Of this, I am sure.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

Hi R. H. Thanks for the comment and for sharing the link.

TLF+, I appreciate the illustration from Gregory the Great. That might come in handy for a sermon sometime!

Phil, I think you're quite right - no Church is "pure" or "perfect." And the search for absolute "purity" and "perfection" in this life is bound to lead to disappointment. Even so, the struggle with bad theology and heresy is an important and worthy struggle.

Grregg8 said...

Any chance of a new Oxford Movement some time soon?

Bryan Owen said...

A good question, Grregg8. I suppose the only answer is, "Who but God knows?"

Your question reminds me of something a clergy colleague mentioned the other day. I don't have a source I can cite for this, but he mentioned a theory that someone has floated which holds that when any given movement in the Church achieves its goal, it goes into decline. So when the movement to end slavery championed by evangelicals like William Wilberforce succeeded, the evangelical movement went into decline. Much later, when the Anglo-Catholics achieved their goal with the 1979 American Prayer Book, they went into decline. Perhaps the same will happen when the "progressives" achieve their goals with the next General Conventions? If so, who will ascend to take their place when they go into decline?