Tuesday, June 28, 2011
"Our culture has functioned too long with reasonable explanations and without holy stories or wondrous mythologies. We now assume that we made it through another day because our bodies were still working, there was food in the refrigerator, and we had enough money to pay most of our bills. But all of these explanations appeal only to the other ordinary phenomena and make no reference to the ideals or the beauty that lie behind them. As G. K. Chesterton has reminded us, the sun rises every morning not only because of the natural laws of science, but because like a small child, God squeals with delight over routine and tells the sun to 'do it again.' That is what the soul needs to hear in order to find any delight for itself in the routines of another new day.
"Ironically, it's a vision of the mystery beneath the rational that keeps us reasonable. This is why Chesterton also claimed, 'Poets do not go mad; but chess players do. ... Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion.' Chesterton's point is that everything can be understood by what is not understood. It is also the point of mysticism, spirituality, theology, the Bible, and even Archimedes. We are able to make sense of what we see only by finding our way to something that is just beyond the world that is known. Poets believe this, but most people were trained to see the world as a chess game in which the goal is to make all the right strategic moves with the hopes of winning, whatever that may mean. ...
"As with all poetry, through prayer the truth is out, and it has set us free. We have confessed that no matter how strategic we are, we are not winning the chess game. If there is a gospel for us, it is going to have to sweep up all the pieces of life, especially the small pawns, into a far more dramatic adventure. In this better drama it's not the reasoned strategies that save us, but the confession that we are filled with yearning to be fully alive."
Monday, June 27, 2011
Dear Geneva George,
I’m sorry I offended you by quoting from the Pope. I really had no idea that you would find it so disturbing and I do apologize. If it helps, just pretend the quotation came from me and forget it was Benedict XVI.
Thanks for giving me Terry Johnson’s little book Reformed Worship, published by Reformed Academic Press. I can’t say I was as impressed by it as you were. Indeed, far from undermining what I wrote in the previous three letters, I think it confirm many of my concerns, especially about rationalism and Gnosticism.
One of the things I found most interesting was his exposition of John 4:21-24 where Jesus said to the Samaritan woman:
Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and Truth.
Johnson takes Jesus’ words to mean that “True worship is not a matter of sacred places but the spiritual condition of the heart.” He goes on to contrast the external, formal and symbolic worship of the Old Testament with the heartfelt, internal worship of the New Testament. Yet as Stuart Bryan reminds us in his discussion of this approach to John 4:21-24:
The difficulty faced by advocates of this approach is not the insistence that worship is to be heartfelt and genuine. That is most certainly true. The difficulty is that this was no less true in the Old Testament than in the New. ‘Sacrifice and burnt offering you did not desire,’ David declares. ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken and contrite spirit.’ Heartfelt, genuine worship was to characterize the Old Testament no less than the new?
So what then is the change in worship that Jesus was anticipating in his conversation with the Samaritan woman? Again, allow me to quote a rather lengthy passage from Stuart Bryan’s discussion of these verses:
First, Jesus insists that the corporate worship of the people of God would be decentralized. No longer on Mount Gerizim in Samaria nor on Mount Zion in Jerusalem would corporate worship be confined – rather corporate worship would be spread throughout the earth. Note that he is addressing corporate worship, for that was what happened in Jerusalem and, idolatrously, on Mt. Gerizim. Jesus is announcing that wherever the servants of God gather together in the Name of Christ and lift His Name on high, there is Mount Zion, there is the City of our God, there is the place of corporate worship. Jerusalem in Israel is no longer the center of God’s dealings with man; the heavenly Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the Church is the center.
Second, Jesus informs us that not only would corporate worship be decentralized, it would be explicitly Trinitarian. When Jesus rose from the dead and sent forth His Spirit, the worship of God’s people was forever transformed. It became explicitly Trinitarian – worshiping the Father in Spirit – the very Spirit whom Jesus promised would come and lead His people into all righteousness – and in Truth – the very Truth who took on human flesh and declared to His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me.” …
Worshiping the Father in Spirit and Truth is not an exhortation to heartfelt, genuine worship – that exhortation had been given throughout the Old Testament. … It means that…as we gather together to worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth, as we gather to worship the Triune God, we are entering into the presence of God Himself. Brothers and sisters, the roof has been ripped off and we have been ushered into the presence of the Most High.
If it is true that God’s presence dwells with His people when they gather corporately to worship Him, then it is appropriate that the places where this meeting of heaven and earth occurs should be treated with extra respect and honor, just as we give the Bible more honor and respect than a normal book since it is the very words of God. Thus, there is an appropriate sense in which church buildings are set apart from ordinary functional buildings. Yet Terry Johnson seems to eschew this. In Reformed Worship he writes with approval of when the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah dedicated a new church building in 1891 and deliberately refrained from calling it a ‘sanctuary.’ Instead they called it a ‘church building’ or ‘church house.’ Johnson comments, “God’s presence is in heaven. There are no holy buildings, holy places, or holy things through which God’s blessing is uniquely mediated…. This seemed to be better understood a hundred years ago than it is today. The point for us is that worship can never be a matter of getting our bodies in the right building at the right time for the right ritual.”
Now of course worship involves more than getting our bodies at the right time for the right ritual, but does it involve less? God is transcendent in heaven, but is He not also present with the saints who gather to worship Him? So much Protestant architecture hinges on this assumption that while God is everywhere generally He is nowhere in particularly, and the steeples on Protestant churches which point away from earth seem to underscore this point. I consider this nothing other than architectural Docetism.
One of Johnson’s reasons for urging that churches are not sacred spaces is because worship has nothing to do with the physical dimension in which our body exists, but is a matter of what goes on in the invisible realm of our head and spirit. As he writes:
... the worship of Reformed Protestantism is simple. We merely read, preach, pray, sing and see the Word of God… True faith comes through the word (Rom. 10:17). True worship then must be primarily (though not absolutely) non-material, non-sensual, and non-symbolic…. Everything about our worship is to be simple…Nothing is to draw attention to…the beauty…
Johnson is careful to use the word ‘primarily’ since he does recognize that the sacraments are symbols. But, he is clear to point out that this is all they are. As he says in his discussion of John 4:21-24:
… it is crucial that the symbolic, typological and temporary nature of Old Testament worship be understood. Visual pictures were given to Israel of the spiritual realities that would be fulfilled in Christ…The New Testament sacraments are symbolic presentations of the gospel as well….So what is the difference? It is a difference of emphasis and proportion. The Old Testament was loaded with symbols in anticipation of Christ. These symbols are by nature temporary. The New Testament has only two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thus the New Testament worship is ‘in spirit’ in that it does not have the emphasis on symbols and types as did Old Testament worship…. Symbols by nature are inferior to verbal revelation. This is why the church has no ‘dumb sacraments,’ as J.A. Motyer has put it. The sacraments are always accompanied by an explanatory word. They are not self-interpreting. They depend on the word in ways that the word does not depend on them. The addition of symbols beyond the two instituted by Christ are a distraction from the ordained means of grace.
He then goes on to compare the sacraments to the law, which was a ‘shadow’ and ‘not the very form of things’ (Heb. 10:1). So where does this leave us? If I understand the trajectory of Johnson’s thought, it leaves us somewhere as follows:
1) Jesus said that a day is coming when those who worship Him would do so in Spirit and Truth.
2) By this Jesus meant that there would be a cessation of the symbolic aspects of Old Covenant worship.
3) Two symbolic elements have, however, been preserved in the New Covenant, and these are the two Protestant sacraments.
4) These symbolic elements have been kept to a minimum of two in order that the primacy of the Word will not be displaced.
5) The value of the sacraments depend on them being accompanied with an explanatory interpretation, and in any other context they are ‘dumb sacraments.’
I’m sorry George, but that seems to pack an awful lot into John 4 which simply isn’t there. But moreover, consider where it leads in practice. Since the efficacy of the sacraments do not work ex opere operato but depend instead on explanatory interpretation, we can assume that all children and mentally handicapped persons should be immediately excommunication. But this is to fall prey to the type of rationalist anthropology that I addressed in my previous letters.
I wish I could say that Terry Johnson’s Reformed Worship is an anomaly, but his views on the sacraments do seem to have some resonance with the theology of the magisterial reformers. In his book Against the Protestant Gnostics, Philip Lee explores some of the ways that reformed theology has been tainted by the Gnostic tendency to undervalue the body and the material world, leading to a low sacramentalism to which even Luther and Calvin were not immune. For example, Luther commented that “the sacrament without the word can be nothing, but indeed the word without the sacrament [can], and if necessary, one can be saved without a sacrament, but not without the Word.” Elsewhere Luther made the point that the materiality of the Eucharist is unimportant because the real action is what happens in your mind: “I am able daily, indeed hourly, to have the mass; for, as often as I wish, I can set the words of Christ before me, and nourish and strengthen my faith by them. This is the true spiritual eating and drinking.”
But it wasn’t just Luther who occasionally colluded with the Zwinglian spiritualization of the Supper and the corollary devaluing of matter. As important as the Eucharist was for Calvin, it remained God’s concession to our materiality. As Calvin himself would write: “Forasmuch as we are so ignorant, so given up to earthly and carnal things and fixed upon them, so that we can neither think, understand nor conceive of anything spiritual, the merciful Lord accommodates himself in this to the crudity of our senses.” Calvin thus made himself vulnerable for later generations to suggest that left the Eucharist dangling as a kind of appendage inadequately attached to his system. At least, that is what Philip Lee argues. To quote again from his Against the Protestant Gnostics:
It is easy to see how Calvin’s suspicion of knowing God through material things would influence his sacramental theology. Although he makes every attempt to keep Word and Sacrament together, to handle them in a parallel way, there is never the slightest doubt in his mind as to which is preeminent. If necessary, the Gospel could stand by itself and indeed would do so were it for our human weakness, which makes us dependent on these more primitive means of grace. ... In maintaining a distinct dualism between spirit and flesh, he would always be on guard against awarding too much dignity to the visible Church as Church, and he would always be suspicious of the externals of religion.
The book you gave me serves as a useful example of this Calvinist suspicion of the externals of religion. Not surprisingly, the author is also tainted with Puritanism, having written that “our worship is to be … liberated from the calendar and nature’s cycles.” But don’t get me started on that.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (Lk. 22:19)
Take. Bless. Break. Give. The four-fold action of the Eucharist is something that has become profoundly important to me. It is a pattern for life.
Take. The 18th century spiritual director Jean Pierre de Caussade urged his listeners to give themselves to the present moment with a radical acceptance. Trust that God is always doing the best that God can do within the limitations of creation and our own sin. Accept the present moment, he said, as the sacrament of God's presence. If we are to know God and serve God, it can only be here and now within the circumstances of the present moment. So let go of the struggle of resentment and judging, and accept what is as the context for our experience of God in our lives. Within this moment, in these circumstances, God presents us our communion with the divine.
Abandon yourself to the present moment, Caussade says, and simply intend to do one thing -- to do God's will. And what is God's will? He says it can be one of three things: Either to do some present duty, or to enjoy some present joy, or, in the dark mystery of God, occasionally it is God's will for us to suffer something for the sake of God in the spirit of Christ's cross. When we are doing God's will in the present moment, we are doing our part -- we are doing everything we can to bring near the Reign of God.
It all starts with Acceptance. "Take." Accept this moment as the crucible of the divine presence and will.
Bless. In Hebrew tradition to bless something is to give thanks for it. At a meal someone will "give the blessing." They will make a prayer of thanksgiving over the food. Whenever anything is received with thanksgiving, it is blessed; it is consecrated. Thanksgiving is the characteristic Christian stance before the world. We say in our Eucharistic Prayer, "It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks..." (BCP, p. 361) To accept this moment and to bless it in a spirit of thanksgiving to God is to consecrate the moment, to make it holy. Every moment can be holy.
Break. The word "sacrifice" literally means "to make holy" -- from sacra ("sacred rites") and facere ("to do, to perform, to make"). The bread must be broken to be shared. Offering precedes giving. Jesus shows us the path of death and resurrection. For me, the breaking is always a form of willingness. I must be willing to surrender my own self-centeredness in order to enter into something greater. That sacrifice seems always to be a breaking open into an encounter with the divine, with holiness.
Give. All of life is gift. We have been given all that we are and all that we have. How can we give ourselves, and continue the generative process?
Each moment of this day will contain a Eucharistic opportunity for us to take, bless, break and give. What is this moment about right now?
Monday, June 20, 2011
Dear Geneva George,
Thank you for sending me your sermon on justice. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy to listen to it this week, but when I do I promise to give a response.
You wrote, “The distinction you make between the cognitive approach vs. the liturgical approach neglected to take into account a third factor, namely lifestyle. Your discussion of youth being seduced by alternative models of the good life failed to consider that this is often because they do not see Christianity lived.” Thank you for bringing this up, though your description of my distinction suggests that you still may be misunderstanding my argument.
To start with, I am not making a distinction between church being really cognitive vs. church being really liturgical. To do so would be to pit two things against each other that are two sides of the same coin. Rather, I am arguing that while the cognitive element is important and must be present, it is not what comes first and foremost. It is our identity as lovers – as beings who desire – that forms a person’s center of gravity. This most fundamental part of us is reached through many things, not least through rituals aimed at the body. That is why bodily postures of adoration are so important. Bryan Owen hit the nail on the head when he observed (in his review of Aidan Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology) that “Adoration precedes assent to dogmatic propositions.”
Your point about lifestyle merely underscores this point. Many Christian parents have taught their sons and daughters all the correct doctrine, yet because the parents have not lived it out in front of their children, when they grow up they end of walking away from the faith. The parents’ hypocritical lifestyle has failed to convince the children that the faith is lovely (something worthy of adoration), and hence the youth fall prey to rival images of the good life. Sometimes a person will turn to rival images of the good life while still believing cognitively that the faith is true. But while there are many examples of youth abandoning a faith they know is true because their hearts have been lured by rival images of the good life, how many times have you heard of it working the other way round? How many young people do you know who have abandoned the worldview of Christianity without first having been enticed by a rival vision of the good life? Not very many, if any, and here’s why: our center of gravity is not the mind, but the heart. It is the heart which sends us the message, “This is the good life,” or “This is not the good life.” Now the lifestyle in the Christian home is crucial here, since our behavior in front of our children will unconsciously inscribe one of these two messages in the hearts of our children. The truth of the gospel is not an abstract or purely intellectual truth, but an engaged, embodied, and particular truth – something that must be done and not merely talked about.
Now if the lifestyle within the Christian home needs to take account of this love-shaped anthropology, then it seems that the life in the church should do so as well. But this can never happen as long as we are subscribe to the type of cognitivist anthropology that underpinned so much of your second to last letter.
I’d like to close with a quotation from Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, from his 2002 message, "The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty." It relates indirectly to some of these same themes:
Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time. …
The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: "Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true."
The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer's inspiration.
Good stuff, eh?
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Of all God’s creatures great and small, the Western Lowland Gorilla named Koko stands out as an amazing animal. Koko has learned more than 1,000 signs based on American sign-language. She’s also learned and responds to approximately 2,000 words of spoken English. And she’s even invented new signs to communicate her thoughts and feelings. In her expressive use of sign-language, it’s stunning to see how Koko is like a human person.
Perhaps even more remarkable than her language skills is Koko’s capacity for love. Koko wanted to have a cat for a pet. When the opportunity arose, she chose a gray male from a litter of abandoned kittens and named him All Ball. Koko loved, cuddled, and cared for All Ball like he was one of her own babies. A few months later, the kitten got loose and was killed by a car. When Koko’s trainer used sign language to tell her what happened, Koko signed “Bad, sad, bad,” and “Frown, cry, frown.” And her trainer reported that Koko made sounds like that of a human crying. Fortunately, Koko went on to have other pets, including two cats she named Smokey and Lipstick.
The story of Koko reminds us that regardless of where we find it, genuinely self-giving love gets our attention, commands our respect, and resists our attempts to fully comprehend.
Garrison Keillor, the host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” sums it up. “We should not think that we have figured [love] out,” he said, “because it is not a problem, it’s a mystery and always will be.”
Keillor’s point about love also applies to God, for according to Scripture, God is love. And so God is not a problem to be solved or figured out. God is the Ultimate Mystery to be worshiped and obeyed, and a presence that elicits our love in return.
The early Christians knew this. Instead of sitting around trying to figure God out, they devoted themselves to prayer, the breaking of bread, and sharing their possessions with the needy. And when it came to defining the Christian understanding of God as one Being in Trinity of Persons, there wasn’t some armchair theologian who thought up the Trinity because he thought it was cool. On the contrary, the understanding of God as Trinity emerged from the early Church’s experience of the mystery of God revealed in love, service, and worship.
Most of the early Christians were converts from Judaism. They already knew God through Torah and synagogue worship. But something extraordinary and unexpected happened when they encountered Jesus of Nazareth. When they were in Jesus’ presence, when they heard him teach, when they watched how he treated people – especially the poor, the sick, and the marginalized – they came to realize that they weren’t merely in the presence of an ordinary human being or even an exceptionally gifted Rabbi. In defiance of rational explanation, they were in the presence of God in the flesh. Jesus embodied the mystery of God’s love, a love willing to go to any lengths – including suffering and death – to rescue and heal us. Raised from the dead, Jesus was singled out as unique, and the one whose way of life and teachings had been vindicated as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And when Jesus was no longer physically present among them, the early Christians continued to experience the power of his risen life in their midst. It was the power of the Spirit sustaining and guiding them such that a small group of mostly uneducated men and women turned the world upside down.
So out of their relationship with Jesus as Teacher, Savior, and Risen Lord, out of their worship of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and out of their experience of the power of the Spirit, the early Christians began to speak of the one true God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
While we cannot fully comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, we can say that this uniquely Christian understanding of God tells us that God is not a loner. God is not a solitary being. Internal to God’s very being is relationship. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal in power and majesty. No one of them lords it over the others. In God there is no above and below, no superior and inferior, no insiders and outsiders. In relation to each other, each Person of the Trinity lives in a free society of equals. And this freedom finds its perfect expression in self-giving love.
Our lesson from Genesis reminds us that we are created male and female in the image of the Triune God. As bearers of the Divine image, God created us for relationship. God created us to live in community characterized by equality, respect, and love. God wants us to find the very purpose of our lives in just and loving relationships with one another. God wants us to be so transformed by the healing power of Jesus’ forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection that our lives shine as beacons of light in the darkness. God wants us to be Easter people in a Good Friday world. God wants our lives to mirror the life of the Trinity.
And so it turns out that, far from being a merely intellectual preoccupation for academic theologians, the mystery of God as Trinity is an ethical mandate and a call to mission for all the baptized. That’s why in the Gospel reading appointed for this Trinity Sunday we hear Jesus giving very specific instructions to his followers:
“Go and makes disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).
Go and baptize persons, making them members of Christ’s Body and reassuring them that they are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. Go and teach what Jesus lived and taught about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Go and make persons into disciples – into persons who have so fallen in love with Jesus that they look to him as their Teacher and their Guide in daily life. Go, and by your example of love and faithfulness, show the world that there really is another way, that we don’t have to be defined by a world in which violence, death, decay, and the domination of the poor and powerless by the rich and the ruthless are simply taken for granted as the way things are. Go and show the world a better way: the Jesus Way.
Speaking of this better way, Anglican bishop N. T. Wright hits the nail on the head:
“The world needs to see who God is: neither a big bully in the sky, nor the sum total of all the impulses and instincts of the world, but the Father who sent the Son to be the foot washer, the healer, the truth-speaker, the life-giver, the one whose kingdom challenges the kingdoms of the world precisely because it doesn’t use the world’s normal methods of power and death but because it uses God’s methods of service and life.”
My friends, in our baptisms every one of us has been commissioned to show the world who God is. Baptism commissions us to model in our relationships with family and friends, strangers and enemies, the same kind of respectful, just, and loving relationships that animate the life of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do that when we seek to reconcile broken relationships. We do it when we faithfully keep our promises. It happens when we place more value on things eternal than on money and possessions. We bear witness to the mystery of God revealed in Jesus when we reject judgmentalism’s condemnation of people in favor of loving guidance and correction, when we let go of resentments and the desire for revenge by doing good and praying for our enemies, and when we treat all persons – especially the least of these who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and in prison – as though we are responding to the Lord himself. In short, we show the world who God is when we put the teachings of Jesus Christ into practice in our daily lives.
The commission we receive from our Lord Jesus Christ is clear. He says to us: “Don’t keep the wonderful mystery of God’s love all to yourselves. Give it away. Go out there and share it. Model the Good News by living my teachings in your daily lives. Invite everybody to come in and be a part of God’s family. Let everybody know that God loves them and wants them to know the love and joy that unites the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Bring all nations into God’s fold, transforming a divided world into one Beloved Community.” And, my friends, when we feel discouraged, when we wonder if any of this makes any difference, remember: we follow the One who has overcome this world by the victory of resurrection. And we are never alone. For the risen Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age.
Friday, June 17, 2011
- Thou hast need.
- God commands thee.
- Of God's promises.
- Pray in faith of God's promise.
- Ask all things in Christ's name.
- Ask worldly and temporal things conditionally.
- Appoint God no time but abide his pleasure.
- In any wise pray in charity.
- Ask things pertaining to thy salvation, remission of sin and life everlasting, without condition.
From the 1553 "Primer" of daily prayers for the laity as published in Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Dear Geneva George,
Thank you for your feedback. I can tell from your response that I didn’t communicate as clearly as I had hoped. But I am glad I perked your interest in reading James Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. I think that book will go a long ways towards clearing up some of the misunderstandings about what I meant.
You said you couldn’t grasp my point about the relationship between anthropology and worship. Let me try to explain it like this. If we have a cognitivist anthropology of the human person, then we will see the job of the minister as being first and foremost to educate a person’s mind in correct doctrines. What results is that church begins to have a whole feel about it which is more like attending lecture than ascending into the heavenlies. If we emphasize, even implicitly, that attending church is first and foremost about the teaching that is imparted and received, then this is probably because we have unconsciously imbibed an anthropology which assumes that our fundamental identity is cognitive. Such an anthropology cannot help but lead to an unbiblical ecclesiology, a subtle deemphasizing of the sacraments, and an inflated premium on doctrinal categories. (It seems that this has happened in much of the Calvinist tradition, despite “officially” keeping Word and Sacrament parallel.)
The alternative is to aim deeper than our minds at our heart, by nurturing a vision of the good life that seeps into our very gut. But this occurs by appealing first to our imaginations and aesthetic sensibilities through the habit forming rituals that are the fulcrum of desire. Many of the rhythms and rituals of the catholic tradition do just that. Practices like genuflecting, crossing ourselves and kneeling to receive the blessed Eucharist, are more than merely accessories to the really important business of preaching the Word, but are part of a communal expression of the good life that seeks to aim our desires through habit forming rituals involving our body. That is why practices like this can so deeply inscribe a certain vision of the world in our hearts, as James Smith suggests in this short video. Such practices get into our bones and prime us to a certain picture of human flourishing that penetrates deeper than cognition. To quote again from Smith:
Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses…The senses are portals to the heart, and thus the body is a channel to our core dispositions and identity. Over time, rituals and practices – often in tandem with aesthetic phenomena like pictures and stories – mold and shape our precognitive dispositions to the world by training our desires. It’s as if our appendages function as a conduit to our adaptive unconscious: the motions and rhythms of embodied routines train our minds and hearts so that we develop habits – sort of attitudinal reflexes – that make us tend to act in certain ways toward certain ends.
You suggested in your last letter that I was guilty of creating a false dilemma. I agree that if I am positing a choice between being thinking people vs. being people who love, then it was indeed a false dilemma. But that is not what I have been suggesting, nor is it what Jamie Smith has argued, as you will see when you get his book. Rather, the question is which precedes which and which is more fundamental to our identity. Human beings brush their teeth, but our lives do not revolve around tooth-brushing. Similarly, human beings are thinking beings, yet this is not the fundamental locus of our identity. We are what we love because it is what we love and desire that shapes our actions and thoughts on a precognitive level. Yet your discussion of worship makes it seem as if the human person is first and foremost defined by what he thinks. Thus, I suspect that our differences about ecclesiology are at root disagreements about anthropology.
Even on a purely historical level, the way you order things gets it wrong. The early Christians were worshiping Jesus long before their Christological theology was formalized. When they did come to articulate a formal theology, their conclusions were drawn largely from their worship practices, not the other way round. For example, the church recognized that it had been worshiping Jesus and therefore Jesus cannot have be a created being since nothing that is created can be worthy of worship. As Bryan Owen put it in his review of Aidan Kavanagh’s On Liturgical Theology:
It is not the case that the disciples first engaged in theological reflection on the resurrection as a means of reaching the conclusion that “Jesus is Lord.” On the contrary, Kavanagh would insist on just the opposite scenario: the disciples responded to the resurrection by proclaiming in worshipful adoration that “Jesus is Lord.” Only subsequently were the theological implications spelled out in doctrines and creeds. Liturgical response to God in Christ preceded theological articulation of the doctrinal meaning of God in Christ.
It follows that academic theology, properly understood and practiced, grows out of the liturgical action of worship….The fruits cannot take the place of the root, but rather are dependent upon the root for their very existence. Put differently, the liturgical praxis of the Christian community is the seedbed for the more cognitive and reflective aspects of belief.
You ask why this is important to me. Here’s one reason. As I watch and observe what happens to young people who fall away from the faith, it seems that quite often it isn't for any lack of correct doctrine, but because another vision of the good life has been nurtured in their gut. The vision of the good life presented in the liturgies of consumerism, or the hedonistic liturgies implicit in so much of pop culture, grab hold of our young people’s imaginations, aesthetic sensibilities and desires through an appeal to the body. These rival visions of the good life seep into our very bones and gut long before they become cognitive, and the reason they are so compelling is they do justice to our materiality.
Now what happens if church is so self-consciously non-seeker-friendly that we neglect Her role in aiming for the gut not the head? What happens is that we simply cannot compete with these other liturgies – the secular liturgies that seduce us precisely because they are pre-cognitive and are designed to have aesthetic appeal. The un-sacramental, intellectualistic model of church which says, “We gather first and foremost to hear the preaching of the Word” completely misses the mark because it neglects to capture the heart on this deeper level. Such a model sees all the cadences of worship as primarily an “expression” of our worldview, which again falsely assumes this same top-down, ideas-first anthropology.
Am I making more sense now?
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
"When this is done, the Nicene Creed shall be sung or said."
The first act of newly-ordained priests in the 1662 Ordinal is to join with the bishop and the church in proclaiming the Symbolum Nicaenum. It is a powerful statement of the calling given to the presbyter to ensure their ministry of teaching, proclamation and catechesis conforms to and flows from the Church's Trinitarian and Christological confession.
In a singular way, of course, the calling to safeguard the deposit of faith is given to the episcopate. (No better contemporary exposition of this can be found than Blessed John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum.) That said, presbyters have a share in this ministry with their bishop. It is presbyters, after all, who preach, teach, catechise, absolve, counsel and pastor in a local context. And the shape of preaching, teaching, catechesis, absolution and counsel, and pastoring is fundamentally determined by the Church's Trinitarian and Christological confession. ...
The content of the presbyter's ministry of proclamation in Word and Sacrament - "the tradition that comes from the apostles" - is given to and received by the presbyter. In joining with the bishop and the church in reciting the Creed of Nicaea, a presbyter affirms their calling to be creedal in teaching, proclamation and catechesis.
I note that in the 1979 Prayer Book, the importance of the bishop's call "to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church" is highlighted after the Examination when the bishop-elect initiates the recitation of the Nicene Creed by saying, "We believe in one God" (BCP, pp. 517, 519). The entire gathered assembly then affirms the faith of the Church by saying the Creed in unison.
The order is different in the rite for ordaining priests. As in the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy, the Nicene Creed is said or sung immediately after the Sermon and before the Examination. But the fact that the Nicene Creed is a fixed part of the ordinal goes to Catholicity and Covenant's point: presbyters are called to be creedal by sharing in the ministry of safeguarding the Church's Christological and Trinitarian confession along with the bishops.
I would go a bit further than Catholicity and Covenant to add that deacons and laypersons are also called to be creedal. Like bishops and presbyters, deacons have also promised "to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church" (BCP, p. 538). The fact that the Nicene Creed is a fixed part of the Eucharistic liturgy on Sundays and other Major Feasts places that statement of faith very clearly within the Episcopal Church's doctrine, discipline, and worship. Like bishops and presbyters, deacons are called to conform their teaching and proclamation to this creedal norm.
And as I've written before, lay Episcopalians are bound by vows, too. I note that the first half of the Baptismal Covenant is the Apostles' Creed, and the first promise we make is "to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship." In the Baptismal Covenant, all Episcopalians affirm that the faith of the Church articulated by the Apostles' Creed (and, I believe, by extension and amplification in the Nicene Creed) is the norm of belief against which our own personal, individual beliefs are measured and found more or less adequate. And we are promising to conform our believing and witness to this creedal norm.
There are no exceptions. All Episcopalians - bishops, presbyters, deacons and laypersons - are called to be creedal.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Dear Geneva George,
I agree that we should think about leaving the topic of images, yet I must say something in response to your comments about idolatry. You wrote, “Even if the use of images in worship may not always be idolatrous in the strict sense, the mere potential for idolatry to creep in is itself sufficient grounds to object to such practices.”
Certainly idolatry is always a danger whenever a good thing is embraced. However, to try to eradicate all potential for idolatry (which seems to be what motivates you to eliminate all visual aids in worship) would be to dismiss every good gift which the Lord has given us. How far are you willing to take your argument?
It also seems that we should be cautious of the tendency to guard most tenaciously against those heresies that are generally not temptations to us, while lowering our defenses against those excesses which we really ought to be guarding against. Anglicans like myself love to talk about the dangers of dualism just as modern evangelicals love to talk about the dangers of externalism and ritualism, while fundamentalists like to focus on the dangers of liberalism. At some level, such polemics can function to obscure the idols in our own midst. Applied to the question before us, we would do well to question whether the paranoia among Calvinists against the alleged idolatry of using visual objects in worship has obscured the Gnosticism, Docetism and semi-Manichaeism in their own camp. (OK, I’m being intentionally polemical.)
You go on to write that all this stuff about an embodied faith fails to take into account the primary role of preaching the Word. “Worship” you say, “should flow out of correct doctrine. It is crucial to remember which precedes which in order to keep our liturgical practices from lapsing into empty ritual or even idolatry.”
I think this serves to highlight one of our fundamental differences. The problem with seeing worship as first and foremost an expression of worldview or doctrines is that it assumes what James K. A. Smith has described as a top-down, ideas-first anthropology. It assumes that doctrines are the gas that makes the engine go, whereas doctrines are really just like the car’s oil. The thing that gives life to the whole show – the gas that drives the engine - is our loves not our doctrines.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I refer to a rationalistic anthropology I refer to those constellations of practices and assumptions which assume that human identity is primarily cognitive, that what we think defines who we are. I am arguing, on the other hand, that it is our desires (what we love not what we think) that gives us our fundamental identity as human beings. And here’s the rub: our loves are cultivated through the embodied practices of communal ritual, through material practices that educate our desire and, in so doing, shape our identity on a level far deeper than the cognitive mind is even aware.
If you have read James K. A. Smith’s excellent book Desiring the Kingdom, you will see that I am very much tracking with him here. Referring to the rationalist model of identity which I feel you have implicitly assumed, Smith writes:
“While this model of the person as thinking thing assumed different forms throughout modernity (e.g., in Kant, Hegel), this rationalist picture was absorbed particularly by Protestant Christianity (whether liberal or conservative), which tends to operate with an overly cognitivist picture of the human person and thus tends to foster an overly intellectualist account of what it means to be or become a Christian. . . . It is just this adoption of a rationalist, cognitivist anthropology that accounts for the shape of so much Protestant worship as a heady affair fixated on messages. ... The result is a talking-head version of Christianity that is fixated on doctrines and ideas.”
Smith contrasts this cognitivist anthropology with secular liturgies, such as those which surround consumerism and nationalism. The appeal inherent in the mall, or the seductive pull of American nationalism, is that these things are advertised by those who understand that the heart is the portal to a person’s allegiance, and the body is the portal to a person’s heart. They advertise their vision of the good life by recognizing that our fundamental identity – that which drives our desires – is not first and foremost cognitive, but bodily. Smith goes on to write that
"... while the mall, Victoria's Secret, and Jerry Bruckehimer are grabbing hold of our gut (kardia) by means of our body and its senses - in stories and images, sights and sounds, and commercial versions of 'smells and bells' - the church's response is oddly rationalist. It plunks us down in a 'worship' service, the culmination of which is a forty-five minute didactic sermon, a sort of holy lecture, trying to convince us of the dangers by implanting doctrines and beliefs in our minds. While the mall paradoxically appreciates that we are liturgical, desiring animals, the (Protestant) church still tends to see us as Cartesian minds. While secular liturgies are after our hearts through our bodies, the church thinks it only has to get into our heads. While Victoria's Secret is fanning a flame in our kardia, the church is trucking water to our minds. While secular liturgies are enticing us with affective images of a good life, the church is trying to convince us otherwise by depositing ideas. ... We may have construed worship as a primarily didactic, cognitive affair and thus organized it around a message that fails to reach our embodied hearts, and thus fails to touch our desire."
I would argue, George, that you have implicitly assumed a cognitivist anthropology of the human person when you write about the job of the minister as being first and foremost to educate a person’s mind in correct doctrines. Now if your implicit operating assumption is that we are primarily defined by what we think, then we will view church as first and foremost a vehicle for preaching the Word, for giving doctrinal instruction and for equipping the saints for another week of thinking correct thoughts. On the other hand, if the anthropology I have sketched above is correct, then it makes sense to adopt a more sacramental and liturgical view of worship, one which recognizes that our loves are cultivated not primary through hearing correct doctrine but through the embodied practices of communal ritual, through material practices that educate our desires and, in so doing, shape our very identity.
Now I don't want to make a false dilemma between things that are really two sides of the same coin, but the reason this is not a false dilemma is because there can be a priority of emphasis in two things which are both true. I use the phrase “first and foremost” to emphasize that this is not an either/or situation, but a matter of what receives more emphasis and which comes first. It's a question of what is the more fundamental locus of our identity.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this.
Thursday, June 2, 2011
"Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."
"If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference."
These quotes from C. S. Lewis serve as powerful reminders that if the claims Christianity makes about Jesus are true - if Jesus really is fully human and fully divine, if Jesus' death on the cross was no accident but rather an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, and if Jesus was bodily raised from the dead - then the Gospel is not merely one truth among many other truths. For Jesus is Himself the Truth. And Jesus changes everything.
In his sermon this past Sunday which he posted on his blog, my good friend and clergy colleague the Rev. Alston Johnson did an excellent job of addressing this topic. I share it here as a fine example of what Creedal Christian is all about: "Affirming the Faith of the Church."
Sermon for Easter 6, Year A
May 29, 2011
The Rev. Alston Johnson
“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, “A faster horse!” ~ Henry Ford
Think of how rare it is in our lives that any of us accept something that is, or becomes, an absolute game-changer, at face value. Most of the time we are prone to measure new things by old things – it’s natural and intuitive to maintain a status quo; stick with what we know.
Think of the task the Apostle Paul accepts from God. The preaching and teaching of a game-changer. In a world already full of deities, little gods, Paul is tapped not simply to bring a “faster horse,” but an entirely new mode of divine transportation.
Today we find Paul on the steps of one of the great capitals of the ancient world, the Areopagus, located near the Acropolis, in the city of Athens. Athens has already seen and digested the work of the great philosophers – Socrates in 400BC, who met his death sentence in the Areopagus. Aristotle 300BC. Epicurus 300BC. Zeno and the Stoics 300BC.
Each of these philosophers brought to Greece, and the lands they conquered, tremendous insights of what it means for human beings to live a meaningful life. Their work and their legacy are not insignificant, and that is why their work remains the bedrock of any serious philosophical reflection about the meaning and nature of the cosmos, and a human being’s place within it. As Paul stands in the Areopagus, the Acropolis in sight, Athens is basking in the afterglow of a prosperous and significant 600 year history of religion and philosophy.
However Paul, as well as the many theologians who followed him, knew both intellectually and instinctively that the Gospel, the Passion of Christ, cannot simply be tolerated as an idea among ideas. A displacement must occur. The love of God in Christ causes other philosophies of life to stumble, and will be called foolish by many.
It is one thing for Paul, a Jew, to explain and debate the Gospel in Synagogues in the company of fellow Jews. In the synagogues, Paul has a storyline, and characters, and props that are familiar to all Jews who know the scriptures. It is like preaching to the choir. In the synagogues there is a shared landscape of meaning through which Paul might make the case that Jesus is the Messiah.
Not so in the pagan metropolis’ of the ancient world, especially Greece, where there is a god, temple, guru, or philosopher on every corner and for every occasion. The ancient pagans also brought something else to the table – the glory of remaining on the journey toward truth, rather than graduating to the plateau of accepting truth. The spirit of free inquiry is certainly a noble and worthy pursuit. However in the presence of revealed Truth, the spirit of free inquiry can also become the avoidance behavior of choice for intellectuals, scholars, and eggheads both ancient and modern.
It is not so much what Paul says that I find striking – rather it is how Paul says it, and where Paul is saying it. Just as Paul might use stories about Abraham, Isaac, Elijah, or verses from Isaiah and the Psalms, to illuminate how Jesus is the Messiah in the synagogues, when Paul is in the presence of the Athenians, he picks up an idiom that is common to them; Paul plays a rhetorical instrument they can hear, and makes what I find a compelling argument – “you Greeks are wise enough to know that there might be a god that you have overlooked in this carnival you have created, and I am here to introduce this God to you. Get thee ready.”
I also find it very compelling that centuries upon centuries of some of the most profound human thought – the Classical Greek tradition – is more or less pushed to the side by this fellow from Tarsus who drops into the capital of a fading empire, and drops a small bomb called Jesus upon them. It is a game-changer, and I wonder sometimes if Paul ever grasped the significance of what he accomplished on this brief visit to Athens. In a place where they were used to looking for faster horses, but Paul brings them something altogether new.
The other day I was part of Bible study where some of us were chatting about Bucket Lists; you know, that list of things that a person wants to do before they “kick the bucket.” Someone observed that this seems selfish, arranging things according to our own wishes, as though the world is here for our benefit, rather than the other way round. But it struck me, what if one of the items on our bucket list might be to bring another person to know Christ; better yet, to find some corner of our lives where we might be like Paul at the Areopagus for a moment. Swim upstream for Christ at least once – might that redeem the bucket list?
Risk being laughed at - a fool, a simpleton for Christ. Perhaps share the love of Christ, the message of the hope of the Gospel, in at least one place where we know someone will snicker, or raise their nose and their eyebrows. For once in our lives to be like Paul in the face of the know-it-alls; speak a word of truth with love for the sake of the One who is true, and who is love.
God is faithful and will not leave us abandoned. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever; I will not leave you orphaned . . . ,” the man said.
The words of the Greek philosophers are read by thousands of students and would-be philosophers through any given year; while these words of Paul, and the words of the Gospels, are read by millions upon millions every Sunday of every year, because the One within these words is alive, and reigns with God.
The message we can take with us today, in the morning, with Paul, is that Easter is not merely a season . . . Jesus is not merely a faster horse – He is the game-changer. His promise is that if we stand, like Paul, for Him, in the times and places of our lives, He will stand with us.