Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Taking on the "Spiritual but Not Religious" Mindset

The Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel is the senior minister of the First Congregational Church (UCC) in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. In a recent reflection entitled "Spiritual but Not Religious? Stop Boring Me," Daniel takes on the flight from commitment to anything or anyone in particular other than one's own subjective preferences and desires that passes for "spirituality" among many in our culture. My response is to exclaim: "Hammer hits nail on head!"

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community? Because when this flight gets choppy, that's who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Rowan Williams: "We Need the Creeds"

In response to the question, "Can finite human beings say true things about an infinite God?", Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams offers a nuanced response that correctly notes the limits of human reason and language while faithfully upholding the doctrinal content and normative boundaries of the Christian faith.

How refreshing it is to hear the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion strongly affirm "we need the creeds and we need to have a place to stand" and, with reference to the Nicene Creed, state that "we can say, yes, this is how God has shown Himself and not be embarrassed about that." And how heartening it is to hear him clearly and unequivocally state "when I say that the Savior is of one substance with the Father, I mean exactly what I say, and I believe it to be true and I believe my life depends on it."

Listen to the Archbishop's response and read a transcript of his answer below.

"Can finite human beings say true things about an infinite God?"

It’s a really interesting question. And I find it fascinating that in the early church in exactly the same era when people are beginning to shape creeds and formulae, they’re also beginning to say quite extravagant things about how little we know about God. So it’s not entirely a new tension. But I would say it’s a tension not a contradiction. When I say the Creed, when I say the Nicene Creed – and I say “of one one substance with the Father,” “the Holy Ghost who proceeds from the Father” or “from the Father and Son” and so on – I believe I’m speaking the truth. I believe I’m telling the truth about God, that what God has shown us of Himself is best, is truthfully, expressed in those words.

And at the same time I know that whatever has been said is not adequate, it’s not the whole story. So I think in very simple terms true as far as it goes is what I’d have to say. Which doesn’t mean that it’s ever going to be shown to be untrue, you need to revise it or say, “Well, I’m not so sure about that.” On the contrary, when I say that the Savior is of one substance with the Father, I mean exactly what I say, and I believe it to be true and I believe my life depends on it. And if you press me and say “So what exactly does that mean?”, I say, well, God knows exactly what it means. But, to use a formula I’ve sometimes found helpful here, that’s the least silly thing I can think of saying about this, it’s the least inadequate way of talking about it. It will take me a huge step forward in understanding the truth and it will project me further on that journey into the fullness of the truth.

So I think we need the creeds and we need to have a place to stand. And we can say, yes, this is how God has shown Himself and not be embarrassed about that. But the worst thing is when we think that the creeds or any other formulation just lot got up and say, done that, we’ve understood that, and now we move on.

It’s a bit like saying well, you see the footprint of a large animal in the forest. It’s a real mark, it’s made a real difference, you can tell a great deal of truth from that, there it is when you’ve said that you’ve said something true and accurate. But you haven’t seen the whole animal. We at least have an advantage there, we have seen the face of God in Jesus Christ.

All our Christian language is an attempt to say something quite new, quite unexpected, gratuitous has happened. We couldn’t have predicted it, it didn’t come from us. And we’re feeling our way around that great mystery that’s been put down in the middle of us.

~ Rowan Williams

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Chief Premise of Christian Teaching

"That Christ is now alive remains the chief premise of Christian teaching. Lacking that premise, Christianity is easily turned into tedious moral obligations, pretentious sounding historical research, unsufferably vague speculative philosophy, or desperate self-help psychology."

~ Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (2009)

Friday, August 26, 2011

One Proper Anxiety for Christians

"Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus Christ that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more" (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

There is only one calamity for a Christian, this being disobedience to God. All the other things, such as loss of property, exile, peril of life, Paul does not even consider a grievance at all. And that which all dread, departure from this life to the other world – this is to him sweeter than life itself. For as when one has climbed to the top of a cliff and gazes on the sea and those who are sailing upon it, he sees some being washed by the waves, others running upon hidden rocks, some hurrying in one direction, others being driven in another, like prisoners, by the force of the gale. Many are actually in the water, some of them using their hands only in the place of a boat and a rudder, and many drifting along upon a single plank or some fragment of the vessel, others floating dead. He witnesses a scene of manifold and various disasters. Even so he who is engaged in the service of Christ draws himself out of the turmoil and stormy billows of life and takes his seat upon secure and lofty ground. For what position can be loftier or more secure than that in which a man has only one anxiety, “How he ought to please God?”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Are Bishops Really Necessary?

Or, as Fr. Jonathan asks: "Can There Be a Church Without a Bishop?"

Drawing on classical Anglicanism, Fr. Jonathan answers that question like this:

Bishops are not simply a nicety but a necessity. ... The grace which saves us comes to us by Christ alone in His sacrifice upon the cross, but the way we receive that grace is through His Word preached and His sacraments celebrated. The authority to be Ministers of Word and Sacrament is left to the apostles alone, who pass it on to the bishops alone, who share it with the presbyters in a limited fashion but always with reference back to their own apostolic ministry. In the absence of bishops, the Church ceases to be the Church.

So what about Christians who do not live under the historic episcopate? Are such Christians living without grace and apart from truth? Fr. Jonathan offers this in response:

... in churches where episcopacy has been abolished or never existed in the first place, there is an absence of an essential element of the Church, that ministry through which Christ promised to provide grace to His people. This does not mean that there is no grace in those churches, but rather that the grace that is found there is given by way of concession, by the mercy of Christ, rather than through the normal means that Our Lord has established.

... if there is grace present within a church that has denied episcopacy, it is being given through extraordinary means. This is somewhat akin to the question of whether or not a person can be saved without Baptism. Sure, God can give a person that grace, through an extraordinary mercy, but that does not mean that it is ok for us to not baptize or to simply characterize Holy Baptism as a symbolic gesture and nothing more.

Read it all.

William Reed Huntington was a 19th Century Episcopal priest whose book The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity (1870) laid the groundwork for the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (which, as Fr. Jonathan notes, " remains the standard in the Anglican Communion for assessing whether or not the marks of the Church are present in any given community of Christians"). In The Church-Idea, Huntington identifies four things as "the absolutely essential features of the Anglican position" on what is necessary for the Church to be the Church:

  1. The Holy Scriptures as the Word of God,
  2. The Primitive Creeds as the Rule of Faith,
  3. The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself, and
  4. The Episcopate as the key-stone of Governmental Unity.

Huntington argues that the episcopate provides “an essential condition of oneness in the Church.” As a warrant for this claim, Huntington appeals to the principle of headship discernible in the orders of creation. From the constitution of families to nation-states to churches, headship provides the organizing principle. “Headship is God’s law,” Huntington argues, for “Double and triple-headed creatures are monsters that exist only in fiction, or, if born, are only born to die.” And he continues: “From its fountain in the bosom of the Holy Trinity,” the principle of headship “flows downward through all the ranges of created life.” Grounded in the Trinitarian life of God, the principle of headship provides theological justification for hierarchical social organization because this principle is inscribed in the very orders of creation. Based on this reasoning, every social institution requires embodiment in a central figurehead.

In addition to purported laws of nature, Huntington also defends the necessity of the episcopate by appealing to antiquity. Since the apostolic age, the principle of headship has taken form in the episcopate. This gives the episcopate “a strong historical presumption in its favor.” Huntington believes that this presumption is so central that “Anglicanism stands or falls” by it. He hammers this point home in strong language:

… if the Episcopate have no more claim on our regard than any other form of ecclesiastical polity, then the sooner Anglicans in America shut their church-doors and burn their prayer-books, the better; for they are only adding, upon insufficient grounds, one more to the sectarian divisions under which the land groans. But if they have in the Episcopate that which links them by an actual historical connection to the Church of the primitive times, then ought they to thank God and take courage, and do all they can by the removal of misapprehension and disabilities and needless partition walls of prejudice, to make their inheritance available for the enrichment of the whole scattered flock of Christ.

Are bishops really necessary for the Church to be the Church in her fullness? Fr. Jonathan and William Reed Huntington stand within the mainstream of the Anglican tradition in responding to that question with an unequivocal "Yes!"

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Decisive Question

In the Gospel reading assigned for yesterday (Pentecost 10, Proper 16, Year A), Jesus asks the most important question anyone can ever answer when he says to his disciples, "But who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16:15)

How each of us answers that question is critical, for Jesus is not merely one proclaimer of truth among other proclaimers. Jesus is the Truth. And Jesus is the Game-Changer.

It's easy to answer Jesus' question by giving a version of the disciples' first response: "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (Matthew 16:14). We have versions of this response today, with figures like Spong, Ehrman, Borg, Crossan, and Pagels providing "scholarly" warrants for suspending commitment to Jesus Christ as the fully human and fully divine Lord and Savior.

But if, like Peter, we decisively answer Jesus' question by saying, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God," it will change our lives in ways we could never imagine and take us to places we might never have dreamed of going.

The passage below comes from Thomas C. Oden's Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. In it, Oden draws on the ancient ecumenical consensus concerning Jesus' identity to pose anew the challenge of the Gospel question.

When we meet the Jesus of the [biblical] text, he is constantly calling us to a decision. It is a decision about who he is. Historical scholarship wants to suspend judgment while these facts are being examined. Yet the decisive question persists in the New Testament texts: Is Jesus really the expected One?

The Jesus of the texts presses us closely: you must decide, yes or no. The decisive skandalon of the Gospel question is: Does the evidence show that Jesus indeed is the Anointed One? Only in facing this question does the critical inquiry into Jesus begin. ...

The evidence is personal - a real person embodying the Word of God to humanity: "I am the way" (John 14:6). "He who is the way does not lead us into by-paths or trackless wastes. He who is the truth does not mock us with lies. He who is the life does not betray us into delusions which are death. He himself has chosen these winning names to indicate the methods that he has appointed for our salvation. As the way, he will guide us to the truth. As the truth, he will establish us in the life" [Hilary of Poitiers].

A decision must be faced by each hearer. It must be made now. Why? There is no more time remaining before God's own coming. Since God's coming is now, all are called urgently to repent and trust in God's emergent rule. To delay is to say no.

~ Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (2009)

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Basis of True Religion

The appointed Gospel reading in the daily Eucharistic lectionary for today is Matthew 22:34-40.

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Jesus' response to the Pharisees is sometimes called the Summary of the Law or the Great Commandment. It reveals the basis of true religion.

True religion starts with loving God, not in some kind of sentimental, feel-good sort of way, but in total commitment of heart, soul, and mind. And so Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5 as the greatest and first commandment. That verse from Deuteronomy, of course, is part of the Shema, the basic creed of Judaism. "It means," notes William Barclay, "that to God we must give a total love, a love which dominates our emotions, a love which directs our thoughts, and a love which is the dynamic of our actions."

The second commandment Jesus cites is Leviticus 19:18. Only when we love our neighbor in concrete acts of justice and compassion does our love for God become real and not merely an abstract idea. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16).

In Basic Judaism, Milton Steinberg offers thoughts that are relevant for this passage from Matthew. He writes:

... basic to Judaism is a twofold affirmation concerning God on the one hand and man on the other; the former being that a man shall seek to know God, love Him, revere Him, and do His will; the latter that a man shall love his fellow men also, dealing with them in righteousness and mercy.

What is more, the duality of the attitudes as to God and man is more seeming than real. For to Judaism on love is the obverse and consequence of the other. Piety toward God is meaningless unless it induces compassion toward human beings. (Can one genuinely revere the Creator and not His creation, the Spirit but not Its manifestation?) By the same token, every act of righteousness and mercy reveals the Divinity [image of God] resident within the doer and implies the recognition of an equal Divinity [image of God] touching the person done by.

The simultaneous love of God and man: here is Judaism's first postulate and final inference, its point of departure and its destination, the root of it and its fruitage.

This passage from Matthew shows us just how deeply and thoroughly Jewish Jesus was. And by laying out the basis of true religion in Jewish terms, it also serves as a powerful reminder that the roots of our faith as Christians cannot be torn from its Jewish soil without withering and dying on the vine. Judaism's first postulate and final inference ground Christian faith and mission. And by perfectly keeping these two commandments, Jesus the Jew from Nazareth embodies the point of departure and the destination of true religion. Indeed, Jesus is the incarnation of the Great Commandment.

Some final thoughts on this passage from St. Cyril of Alexandria:

Therefore the first commandment teaches every kind of godliness. For to love God with the whole heart is the cause of every good. The second commandment includes the righteous acts we do toward other people. The first commandment prepares the way for the second and in turn is established by the second. For the person who is grounded in the love of God clearly also loves his neighbor in all things himself. The kind of person who fulfills these two commandments experiences all of the commandments.

May God give us the grace to fulfill these two commandments, that we may experience the blessings of all the commandments.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

He Is Our Life

“Christianity is of course the life of Christ: and as such it is necessarily a life like Christ’s. But, speaking exactly, it is distinctly not a life like Christ’s in us, but the life of Christ in us: not a life resembling His, but Himself our life. Jesus Christ certainly stands to us in the relation of example, but even more distinctly not in that of mere example, but of source, and power, and of content and matter our life. He is our life ....”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Confirmation is Not About Membership

Even though the current Book of Common Prayer has been in use for thirty two years, one occasionally still hears Episcopalians talk about confirmation as the way to "join the church." For example, I recently came across this statement on a parish website:

"Confirmation is also the official vehicle by which a person joins the Episcopal Church."

In light of 1979 Prayer Book's theology of baptism, this is not accurate. Note, for instance, this sentence at the top of page 298 (emphasis added):

"Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church."

"Full initiation" means that nothing else is required for membership. A valid baptism is sufficient.

I note also the following statement from the Prayer Book's catechism:

"Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church ..." (p. 858, emphasis added).

It's hard to imagine a clearer statement of how one becomes a member of the Universal Church.

Moving from membership in the Universal Church to membership in the Episcopal Church, the following canon is crystal clear:

"All persons who have received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, whether in this Church or in another Christian Church, and whose Baptisms have been duly recorded in this Church, are members thereof." ~ Title I, Canon 17, Sec. 1 (a)

The Episcopal Church maintains that all persons baptized with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit are members of Christ's Body the Church. And all such persons whose baptisms are duly recorded in an Episcopal parish register are members of that one part of Christ's Body called the Episcopal Church.

So confirmation is not about membership. Instead, as the catechism puts it, "Confirmation is the rite in which we express a mature commitment to Christ, and receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop" (BCP, p. 860). Or, to put it another way, confirmation is about those who were baptized at an early age making a mature public affirmation of faith and receiving strength to take on the commitment to the responsibilities of their baptism (cf. BCP, p. 412).

This is all clearly laid out in the Prayer Book and the canons. So it's surprising when Episcopalians don't seem to know it!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Deepest Need of Humanity

"The deepest need of humanity is for salvation from sin. This is the quandary to which the gospel speaks. The church that forgets the gospel of salvation is finally not the church but its echo. The church that becomes focused upon maintaining itself instead of the gospel becomes a dead branch of the living vine. The church is imperiled when it becomes intoxicated with the spirit of its particular age, committed more to serve the gods of that age than the God of all ages."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Jeremy Taylor on Anglican Orthodoxy

In honor of his Feast Day today, here are some thoughts on Anglican Orthodoxy from Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), Bishop of Down, Connor, and Dromore.

"For its Doctrine, [the Church of England] is certain it professes the belief of all that is written in the Old and New Testament, all that which is in the three creeds, the Apostolical, the Nicene, and that of Athanasius, and whatsoever was decreed in the four general councils or in any other truly such; and whatsoever was condemned in these our church hath legally declared to be heresy. And upon these accounts above four whole ages of the church went to heaven; they baptized all their catechumens into this faith, their hopes of heaven were upon this and a good life, their saints and martyrs lived and died in this alone, they denied communion to none that professed this faith. 'This is the catholic faith,' so saith the creed of Athanasius; and unless a company of men have power to alter the faith of God, whosoever live and die in this faith are entirely catholic and Christian. So the Church of England hath the same faith without dispute that the church had for four or five hundred years, and therefore there could be nothing wanting here to saving faith if we live according to our belief."

"Every Minister ought to be careful that he never expound Scriptures in publick contrary to the known sence of the Catholick Church, and particularly of the Churches of England and Ireland, nor introduce any Doctrine against any of the four first General Councils; for these, as they are measures of truth, so also of necessity; that is, as they are safe, so they are sufficient; and besides what is taught by these, no matter of belief is necessary to salvation ..."

Hat tip to Catholicity and Covenant for the second quote.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Flawed Creed

Recently, in a service of Morning Prayer, the following "Affirmation of Faith" was used in place of the Apostles' Creed:

We believe in God,
the creator of all life and beauty,
who blesses our journey.

We believe in Jesus Christ,
who lived as a friend and savior to all he met
as he traveled the countryside,
who ate and laughed,
wept and celebrated with people in all walks of life.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who rides on the breeze in the country
touching all with gentleness and love,
who strengthens our commitment,
who offers us eternal hope.

We believe in the church,
which stands open to all travelers
and bears witness to the everlasting love of God.

I don't know who actually wrote this "creed," but it comes from Kate Wyles' book From Shore to Shore: Liturgies, Litanies and Prayers from Around the World. I find it deeply flawed. I'll touch on just a few of the reasons why.

Affirming belief in a God "who blesses our journey" makes God sound more like a life coach than the God revealed in scripture. And this creed also assumes that our journey is, in fact, worth blessing. The Church cannot and should not affirm all viewpoints and interests, and God does not bless everybody's journey.

The section about Jesus reveals the most about this "Affirmation of Faith" precisely by what it does not affirm. For starters, it speaks of Jesus only in the past tense. That makes sense, because there's nothing here about the Resurrection (not even in a watered-down, "spiritual" sense). Also missing are any affirmations of the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, the Second Coming, and the Final Judgment. All of which begs the question: why Jesus and not some other prophetic figure from the past?

The Jesus of this "Affirmation of Faith" sounds like a really great guy. But he is not affirmed as a living Lord. Luke Timothy Johnson gets it right: "To consider Jesus simply as a figure of the past means to consider Jesus not from the perspective of a Christian but from that of one who stands outside Christian conviction."

I also note that in this "Affirmation of Faith" the Holy Spirit has been "niceified," allowed only to be gentle and loving without convicting anyone of sin. But since there's no affirmation of the forgiveness of sins here (and thus an acknowledgment of a serious problem with human nature for which we need forgiveness and healing), that omission makes perfect sense. We're okay just as we are.

It's good to state that the Church is "open to all travelers." We certainly want to be inviting and welcoming. But as with the opening part about a God who indiscriminately "blesses our journey," this "Affirmation of Faith" embraces a half-truth. Yes, it's true that everyone is accepted in Christ. But it's also true that no one is affirmed as they are.

I think this "Affirmation of Faith" goes well beyond what H. Richard Niebuhr described as liberal Protestantism's devotion to "a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom with judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Indeed, it strikes me as post-Christian. So why would anybody want to use it in Christian worship?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Christian Hope as Faith in the Divine Sovereignty of Sacrificial Love

"As Christ is past, present and future, so also is the Church as it rejoices in the anticipation of the goal. 'It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that we shall see him as he is.' Thus the Church lives in hope, and Christian hope rests not upon signs that things seem to be going well, but upon its faith in the divine sovereignty of sacrificial love. So we live in hope both of the goal of heaven and of the coming of the Kingdom of God in this world, and hope is stirred by the presence of the Holy Spirit who is in the Pauline teaching both the first fruits of the heavenly harvest and the promise of the heavenly treasure. So sharing in the grief of Jesus, the Church may also share in his joy. There is the joy of living in the awareness of another world, as we look to the things that are unseen. There is joy too in the present experience of the transfiguring of suffering .... When our grief becomes not ours alone but a grief shared with Jesus, then the joy of Jesus becomes ours."