Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Evelyn Underhill on the Sacramental Principle

"It is true that at bottom worship is a spiritual activity; but we are not pure spirits, and therefore we cannot expect to do it in purely spiritual ways. That is the lesson of the Incarnation. Thus liturgies, music, symbols, sacraments, devotional attitudes and acts have their rightful part to play in the worshipping life; and it is both shallow and arrogant to reject them en masse and assume that there is something particularly religious in leaving out the senses when we turn to God. Through such use of the senses man can receive powerful religious suggestions, and by their help can impregnate an ever wider area of his life and consciousness with the spirit of adoration. If music is something that may awaken the awed awareness of the Holy, if pictures can tell us secrets that are beyond speech, if food and water, fragrance and lights, all bear with them a memory of sacred use - then the ordinary deeds of secular life will become more and more woven into the seamless robe that veils the Glory of God. But this will not happen unless the sacramental principle - the principle of the spiritual significance of visible deeds and things - has a definite expression in our organized religious life."

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent is a Dangerous Season

Commenting on Mark 13:24-37 (the Gospel reading assigned for this first Sunday in Advent), Matthew Skinner writes about the dangerous character of the Advent season for the Huffington Post:

Here comes Black Friday, even earlier than usual. Bell-ringers are appearing outside stores. Advertisers are shifting the consumerism-as-therapy machine into high gear. And Christians say: This is a good time to think about the world falling apart.

We're not trying to be morose. We're starting Advent.

The season of Advent (four Sundays preceding Christmas) traditionally begins, not with backward-looking remembrances of circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth, but with eerie images of cosmic mutations and grand promises of a future in which Jesus plays -- to put it mildly -- a noticeable role. Don't wear the tacky Christmas sweater just yet; track shoes and a hazmat suit may capture the mood better. ...

The impulses behind Advent should alarm those who are overly enamored with the current system (who probably number more than 1 percent), as well as any others who are overly confident in their ability to engineer what's best for the world.

Advent expresses the insistence that all is not right in our societies. That's a dangerous expression. Stoking hopes for a new world order, for justice really to be for all, usually implies that old systems, governments and loyalties aren't what they're cracked up to be.

Notice: The transformation anticipated in Mark 13:24-37 is such a monumental and all-encompassing upheaval, its description must resort to symbolism. The symbolism is unnerving, even though it was familiar to ancient audiences. It suggests that, in the face of the God's desires coming to full fruition, every other power (symbolized by sun, moon and stars) receives notice and sees its light go out. No aspect of human existence goes untransformed when God enters in for good.

The claims of Advent should rattle all who benefit from exploitative and domineering forms of power. This means a lot of us, of course.

I'm struck again this year by how quickly so many people in my neighborhood - most of whom are churchgoers - have already decorated for Christmas. The tree and ornaments go up almost as soon as the sun sets on Thanksgiving Day. And by the afternoon of Christmas Day, all of the decorations come down, with Christmas trees on every curbside waiting for the garbage pickup.

Perhaps, in light of Skinner's piece, we find Advent so disturbing and subversive that we bypass the season in our haste to get on with the good cheer of Christmas. Then again, many Christians in my neck of the woods belong to non-liturgical churches and thus may not even be familiar with the term "Advent" (much less the idea that there are twelve days of Christmas!). And even many of my fellow Episcopalians (clergy included) seem confused by this most complex of seasons, some even openly denying that Advent is a penitential season (in spite of the evidence to the contrary in the lectionary readings and collects appointed for each Sunday).

Regardless, when it comes to the dangerous season of Advent (as with so many other aspects of Christian faith and practice), the Church has lost and the secular culture has won. Rather than serving as an occasion for lament, perhaps the increasing marginalization of things like Advent offers an opportunity for Christians who inhabit liturgical traditions to bear renewed witness to the Light in the darkness of this world. One thing is for sure: doing so means standing out from the crowd's celebration of our consumer culture’s Advent-trumping version of Christmas.

h/t to BC at Catholicity and Covenant for bringing Skinner's article to my attention.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Reducing Christian Faith to Contemporary Secular Assumptions

In an article entitled "Shrinking Jesus and Betraying the Faith," the Rt. Rev. C. FitzSimons Allison (retired bishop of South Carolina) takes aim at two biblical scholars whose work finds a welcome home within many "mainline" churches:

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan are two remarkably popular theologians who teach a version of Christianity that reduces the Christian faith to contemporary secular assumptions. For Crossan, Jesus was an illiterate Jewish cynic. No Incarnation, no Resurrection. The Easter story is “fictional mythology” (p. 161, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography). Borg claims that Jesus was only divine in the sense that Martin Luther King and Gandhi were divine. Borg dismisses the creeds (p.10, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time) Jesus was a “spirit person,” “a mediator of the sacred,” “a shaman,” one of those persons like Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, et al. (p. 32)

Recently Borg and Crossan have collaborated on a book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem. Their Jesus is a semi-revolutionary leader of peasants and outcasts against the priestly elite and those who accommodate to the dominant system of Roman coercive authority. It was not our sinful condition that demanded his crucifixion but this elite. Borg and Crossan’s Jesus does not come from God to take away sin but arose from among the innocent to teach us how not to be a part of the dominant systems. They fail to understand the depth of sin in all of us at all times, including peasants, as well as the elite. More importantly they lose the assurance of ultimate mercy and forgiveness.

Speaking of elites these two “scholarly authorities” purport to tell us, “What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus.” They pander to an increasingly secular culture and to the human itch to find some undemanding simplicity that now finally explains everything. And they do this while ignoring, and without reference to, the multitude of superior contemporary scholars such as Richard Bauckham, Raymond Brown, Luke Timothy Johnson, N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, Leander Keck, Christopher Bryan, and scores of others whose works reflect the faith of scripture and the creeds.

Citing a blog posting by a clergy colleague in another diocese, I've offered criticism of Borg and Crossan (as well as Elaine Pagels and Bishop Spong) on this blog. And I've added to the mix Fleming Rutledge's recent critical response to Borg, as well.

I cannot agree with everything Bishop Allison says in his article. And sifting wheat from tares in what I've read by each of them, there are helpful nuggets of wisdom to be found in the work of Borg and Crossan, in spite of their affiliation with the Jesus Seminar (I note that Borg's work was an important resource for a sermon I preached on Mark 1:40-45).

Nevertheless, I've always found it odd when folks who find the overall agenda of scholars like Borg and Crossan persuasive also want to worship in churches whose liturgies affirm the very doctrinal content of the Christian faith this scholarship ultimately denies. Embracing paradox is one thing (after all, Christian orthodoxy affirms the paradoxical nature of the Christian faith). But embracing contradiction is something else.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

On this Thanksgiving Day I am grateful for family and friends, life and health, the gifts that God so freely gives and the call to serve with those gifts that comes to each of us every day. I give thanks for those who regularly read this blog (including those who are critical of the things I write and quote), and I wish all of you every blessing. And I am struck anew by the wonderful "General Thanksgiving" in The Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Thanks be to God for the gift of the Prayer Book, whose liturgies, collects and prayers train us how to pray when our own words fail us.

Thanks be to God for the gift of Holy Scripture, which contains all things necessary to salvation and which, as we read and study and prayerfully engage this gift, trains us to embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.

Thanks be to God for the gift of the catholic creeds that succinctly summarize the story and preserve the mystery of the Church's faith.

Thanks be to God for the gift of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he was willing to give everything for our sakes, including his life.

And thanks be to God for the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery, the mystical body of Christ into whose risen life our lives are forever joined in the sacrament of Holy Baptism and who reminds us that we are graciously accepted as living members of Christ's body in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist.

William Law sums it up best:

"Receive every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with such sentiments of God's goodness, as if you had seen it, and all things, new-created upon your account; and under the sense of so great a blessing, let your joyful heart praise and magnify so good and glorious a Creator."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Union with the Living Christ

Redemption occurs not through assent to doctrine but through union with the living Christ by faith. This life could not occur with a dead Christ. The engendering power of Christianity could not be proclaimed if Christianity spoke only of a person who was but no longer is. If he ceased to be alive, he could not have an effect on our present life with God.

Believers are joined to the Lord in a spiritual union and fellowship with each other that is sustained by their relation to this living Person. The continuing life of Christ includes our life. In this union Christ shares empathetically in our struggle even now, and we share in the fullness of his life with God the Father.

There is hardly a point in Christian teaching at which we seem to be further distanced from modern consciousness than the exaltation of Jesus. When we look toward him with jaded modern eyes, we tend to reduce him to something manageable. So modernity struggles to identify experientially how his consciousness has affected our modern forms of consciousness. The only conception of a living Christ that is allowable under the constraints of modern naturalism is that his influence lives in the memory and actions of others, analogous to the way heroes exert continuing influence. But the worshiping community celebrates that he acts upon us as one who himself is personally alive. The missing element in such an analysis is his own continuing personal life.

The ancient ecumenical testimony is that Jesus now lives so as to engender life in us. His living presence is the real energy and force and power of historic Christianity and present Christian life. Detached from the living Christ, the branch withers, the flower fades.

~ Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (2009)

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Church is Beyond the Times

"The Church always seems to be behind the times, when it is really beyond the times; it is waiting till the last fad shall have seen its last summer. It keeps the key of a permanent virtue."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bishop Budde vs. Bishop Wright

There's an interesting piece on The American Spectator's website entitled "Spiritual Decay." It's about Mariann Budde, the new bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. It talks about Bishop Budde's candid acknowledgement of the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room (good for her!), even as the piece is critical of her ideas for how to address the problem. I was struck by the following statement by Bishop Budde:

"I'm pretty confident that the gospel is clear on this in terms of our accepting people as we are created by God to be and not asking people to change to conform to some uniform standard of human expression."

This statement brings to my mind a passage from Simply Christian in which N. T. Wright addresses the practical implications of Baptism (you can read the passage here). I was struck by the following statement by Bishop Wright:

"We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire."

Perhaps a comparison of these two statements by Anglican bishops gives us a feel for the depth of the chasm that divides us.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Musical Interlude with Bruce Cockburn

I recently rediscovered the music of Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn. The spiritual depth of his lyrics and the accompanying music are quite powerful. Below are some of the gems I've come across on YouTube with some lyric samples, closing with a gorgeous instrumental piece.

"There's roads and there's roads and they call, can't you hear it?
Roads of the earth and roads of the spirit.
The best roads of all are the ones that aren't certain.
One of those is where you'll find me till they drop the big curtain."

"Somebody touched me deep in my bones
Turned a key in the hole there was somebody home
Some would say that I'm dreaming but I swear that it's true
Somebody touched me I know it was you"

"I'm blown like smoke and blind as wind
Except for when your love breaks in
Maybe to those who love is given sight
To pierce the wall of seeming night
And know it pure beyond all imagining"

"When you know even for a moment that it's your time
Then you can walk with the power of a thousand generations"

The Source of False Religion

The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy, they become demonic, the deepest distortion of any religious experience. A religion of fear. Religion of pseudo-humility. Religion of guilt: They are all temptations, traps – very strong indeed, not only in the world, but inside the Church. Somehow “religious” people often look on joy with suspicion.

The first, the main source of everything is “my soul rejoices in the Lord…” The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves. A feeling of guilt or moralism does not liberate from the world and its temptations. Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull – or rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to Joy? How, when and why, instead of freeing suffering people, did the Church come to sadistically intimidate and frighten them?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Anglicanism Has Doctrinal Content

Drawing on Philip Turner, Sublunary Sublime reminds us that Anglicanism does, indeed, have doctrinal content:

Contrary to Maurice Wiles’ opinion that Anglicanism has no identifiable content, Philip Turner states that, “the doctrinal content Anglicans share is embedded primarily in liturgical practices the purpose of which is to form the character of a communion of believers. Its liturgical and formational setting means that the doctrinal content of Anglicanism is, as it were, scattered through a complex of practices rather than focused in a specifically theological document.” 
Turner is careful here, noting that if one says that the primary focus of Anglicanism is “liturgical practices,” then one is also saying in the same breathe that the heart of Anglican theology is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. For at the center of the Book of Common Prayer is the “prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit.”

The complex of liturgical practices that comprise the doctrinal content of Anglicanism is, of course, found in The Book of Common Prayer. And the Catechism at the back of the 1979 Prayer Book offers "a brief summary of the [Episcopal] Church's teaching [i.e., doctrine] for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book" (p. 844). I note also that the Prayer Book describes the Catechism as "a commentary on the creeds," which underscores the normative centrality of the doctrinal content of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds for the Episcopal Church (ibid.).

So even if it's true that, as one bishop and Anglican priest have written, "The Episcopal Church does not readily think in terms of 'doctrine'," that's not because we have no identifiable doctrine. It's right there in the Prayer Book. We corporately enact it every time we gather for the liturgy. And in the Prayer Book's ordination vows, clergy have voluntarily promised "to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church" (pp. 513, 526, & 538). That would be a very strange promise to make if we had no identifiable doctrine!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Corrupting Influence of Christian Politics

The Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and co-author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, takes on the manipulation of Christian symbols and theology for the sake of getting votes and consolidating power in a column entitled "Christian politics create unholy alliances." He writes:

Politicians continue to use and abuse the language and symbols of Christian faith in order to win political support. They speak of God, Jesus, Christian faith and Christian values. They bow their heads in prayer at a million chicken dinners. Then Christian voters — perhaps flattered, perhaps reassured — think that these evocations of holy Christian symbols and terms actually mean something.

In playing the God card, politicians often deploy religion as a kind of tribal identification. ... Some conservative Christians are tempted to look for the candidate who is (or appears to be) most clearly a member of their religious-political tribe — rather than focusing on the candidate's résumé, skills, foreign policy proposals or more full domestic agenda. These voters check off the Christian box and look no further, just as some liberals check off a candidate's "pro-choice" or "pro-union" box and do the same. ...

It's not just the politicians' fault. If church leaders and rank-and-file Christians were not susceptible to these appeals, they would not work. Head fakes in the direction of Christian symbols still make many Christians swoon. Religious tribalism gets out the votes. It helps that the promise of access to power still intoxicates. ...

This version of Christian politics is inherently corrupting to Christian faith, ethics and witness. It encourages politicians to take God's name in vain, and to do so routinely. (That would be a violation of the Ten Commandments, if Christians still cared about such things.) It tempts church leaders to abuse their offices and abandon their core vocations as they entangle themselves with politics. It confuses the message of Christianity with that of the politician of the moment. It damages the moral witness of Christians in culture. It makes it harder for millions to even consider the claims of historic Christian faith. It drives many away from God altogether.

This kind of Christian politics is also corrupting of American politics. When a significant minority of the body politic votes mainly on the basis of what amounts to religious tribalism, it encourages everyone else to do the same thing. But tribal politics is toxic. It has destroyed nations from Yugoslavia to Lebanon. And it does nothing to bring to office leaders with the skills to actually solve our everyday problems. We need effective leaders, not religious symbols.

Gushee continues by issuing a challenge:

Precisely as a Christian, I call for my fellow Christians to try an experiment. For lack of a better term, let's normalize, even secularize, our approach to the next election. Ask all candidates to drop the God talk. Recognize and reject all forms of religious pandering. Punish candidates who make base appeals to religious tribalism. Evaluate candidates according to their past performance and current policy proposals related to the major challenges facing our nation. Read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for a refresher. Pastors, stay home and preach the Gospel rather than being precinct captains. If you want to engage in relevant political reflection, wrestle in your sermons with how constitutional democracy and broad Christian moral principles relate to each other.

Christian politics is corrupting both Christians and politics. Our nation is in too much trouble to endure another round of this sorry spectacle.

Let's do better.

Amen, Dr. Gushee!

Read it all.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Episcopal Bishop Tried, Convicted, and Deposed for Heresy

The recent issue of the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin contains a fascinating article. Entitled "The Red Bishop," it's about the Rt. Rev. William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937). Brown was the bishop of Arkansas from 1899-1912, during which time he became a Communist and openly rejected core teachings of the Christian faith. According to one source, Brown "is best remembered as the first Anglican Bishop to be tried for heresy since the Reformation, and the first of any creed in America to be deposed for heretical teachings." He ended up accepting an offer to be a bishop in the Old Catholic Church (and, incredibly, one source says that the Russian Orthodox Church offered to take him in!).

Here's some of what the article says:

Some called him the Red Bishop, others the Bad Bishop, or even the Mad Bishop. But no one called Episcopalian William Montgomery Brown a boring bishop

A Gilded-Age Ohioan educated at Kenyon's Bexley Hall seminary, Brown cut a broad swath through life, a man of God who morphed into a man of Marx-and Darwin, too. He was the first Episcopalian bishop, and only one so far, to be tried for heresy.

Bexley Hall, a fixture at Kenyon until 1968, holds few stories as fascinating as Brown's. His career-part Willy Loman meets Elmer Gantry, with touches of Horatio Alger Jr. and Jay Gatsby-reflects both the meandering path of an individual life and the winds of social change that swept across the land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Above all, Brown strove to hold sway among those around him. "It's a constant in his life, this business of wanting to be somebody," said historian Ronald M. Carden, author of William Montgomery Brown (1855-1937): The Southern Episcopal Bishop Who Became a Communist. ...

Bishop Brown had a rocky career in Arkansas. Internal church politics made his election controversial. His sometimes autocratic style and ongoing local church disputes worked against him. So did his annual stays in Galion, far from the diocese.

He tried to shore up his standing-to "mend his political fences," as Carden put it-by embracing southern attitudes toward race. In a book called The Crucial Race Question, Brown proposed strict segregation for the Episcopal Church: one autonomous but separate church for blacks, another for whites.

"Amalgamation is a ruinous crime," he wrote. Cain's murder of Abel, by comparison, was "a crime that was venial compared with that of miscegenation." ...

Seeking to wield influence, drawn to ideas on a grand scale, Brown continued to cobble together visions of Christianity and political philosophy. The Ohio seminarian turned Arkansas racist now developed a scheme for a sort of church egalitarianism.

In a 1910 book, he unveiled a plan for "leveling." The idea was that members of all Protestant denominations would select their own bishops and all would come together under the umbrella of Episcopalianism. As part of the project, Brown dropped some elements his church held dear, such as apostolic succession and a priestly class.

Brown campaigned for his plan nationally. But Episcopalians, both lay and clerical, shunned his ideas. Some bishops burned the book; churchmen even talked of heresy, according to Brown's autobiography. He ignored the routine duties of his diocese while campaigning for his plan, further alienating local congregants. ...

In Galion, Brown's physician, apparently looking for ways to reinvigorate the bishop intellectually, suggested he read Darwin. With time to read and contemplate, Brown began to change his views.

And the change was big. "I no longer believed in a personal God, nor in a six-day creation, nor in a literal heaven and hell," Brown wrote. No fall of man, nor a redemption through the blood of Christ, either. Creeds, he decided, were symbolical, nothing more.

Others guided him towards socialism, and he began reading Marx, too. "That was another revelation," Brown wrote. "Darwin was now my Old Testament, Marx my New." ...

In 1920, Brown summarized his new philosophy in Communism and Christianism, a 247-page book urgingreaders to "Banish the Gods from the Skies and Capitalists from the Earth."

Brown wrote that capitalism had failed, that "millions are insufficiently fed, clothed, housed and warmed, and are doomed to a perpetual and exhaustive drudgery which leaves neither leisure nor energy for the cultivation of their soul life."

He called for "economic levelism," a spreading out of wealth and new respect for the worker. "Communism is for me the one comprehensive term which is a synonym at once of morality, religion and Christianity," he wrote.

Some church leaders thought him daft. Ignore him and he'll go away, said others. Still others called him a heretic who must be brought to account.

Church officials pondered their options. Eventually, three bishops, the minimum required, charged Brown with heresy. Eight like-minded bishops gathered in 1924 for a trial in Cleveland. They served as judges and jurors. And they quickly convicted him.

"They were going to hang him up by his thumbs, no matter what," Carden said. And so Brown, once a rising star of mainstream Christianity, had become a pariah.

Read it all.

All told, it's not only a fascinating but also a sad story. And it serves as a reminder that the issue of bishops who openly reject the faith of the Church and teach things that contradict that faith hardly began with Bishop Pike or Bishop Spong. Nevertheless, unless I've missed something, Brown is the only bishop in the Episcopal Church who has ever been convicted and deposed for heresy (something which might seem unthinkable to most of us today, regardless of how far off the reservation a bishop's theology may go).

Friday, November 4, 2011

Rehabilitating Pelagius

A resolution submitted to the Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta asks the Council (in the words of George Conger) "to reverse the condemnation of the Council of Carthage upon Pelagius, and to explore whether the Fifth century heretic may inform the theology of the Episcopal Church." Here's the original resolution:

R11-17 Contribution of Pelagius

Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition, and whereas his restitution as a viable theological voice within our tradition might encourage a deeper understanding of sin, grace, free will, and the goodness of God’s creation, and whereas in as much as the history of Pelagius represents to some the struggle for theological exploration that is our birthright as Anglicans, Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta appoint a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in our tradition And be it further resolved that this committee will report their conclusions at the next Annual Council.

Submitted by the Rev. Benno D. Pattison, Rector, the Church of the Epiphany

I see from the diocesan website that the Council amended part of the resolution as follows:

Amended as follows (otherwise unchanged):

Be it resolved, that this 105th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta recommend that the bishop appoint and oversee a committee of discernment overseen by our Bishop, to consider these matters as a means to honor understand the contributions of Pelagius and reclaim his voice in to our tradition

Conger reminds us of who Pelagius was and why he was condemned by the Council of Carthage:

A British monk, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement, and justification by faith. Mankind possessed an unconditioned free will and was able to obtain his own salvation through personal betterment rather than grace, he argued. In the Letter to Demetrias, Pelagius argued that Adam’s sin was not what caused us to sin. Humans were born good, but over time became wicked through voluntary acts. “Over the years our sin gradually corrupts us, building an addiction and then holding us bound with what seems like the force of nature itself.”

The Council of Carthage in 416 [sic] condemned Pelagius’ teaching. Augustine argued that the British monk’s teaching contradicted Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13 because Pelagius located the capacity “to will and to do” what pleases God in human nature rather than in God’s grace. (On the Grace of Christ, V.6 and VI.)

(Citing Alan Jacobs' Original Sin: A History, I touched on some of the problematic aspects of Pelagius' rejection of original sin in a previous posting.)

So what have been some of the initial reactions in response to this resolution? Here's Conger again:

The proposed resolution has brought mixed responses from the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies chat room, with some ridiculing the notion that the Diocese of Atlanta believed itself capable of redefining church doctrine. However, other deputies have endorsed the resolution saying it gives a breath of Celtic Christianity to the Episcopal Church and enhances the church’s theological diversity.

One person says this on Conger's website:

I can just see the headlines in some newspapers if the Diocese of Altanta really does formally state that Pelagian views are fine as part of the diversity of TEC: “Diocese of Atlanta denies the concept of original sin.” But it does seem as though our Presiding Bishop agrees with Pelagius as described above–we’re all born good and in need of kind teachers, rather than a savior. And if people act selfishly or worse, it can be attributed to their upbringing, rather than anything inherently wrong in the human condition.

Rod Dreher responds to the resolution by simply saying: "It’s not heresy, dear, it’s enhancing diversity."

David Gibson offers quite a different response in a posting entitled "Cool News of the Day":

Great news. Why? For one thing, there is a chance that Pelagius may have got a raw deal way back when, and it would be important to revisit the issue and to learn about early Christian history, which no one seems to recall terribly well.

I'm not much of a Pelagian, or neo-Pelagian, if you couldn't tell. But I do think that it's great when Christians argue about doctrines and dogmas and things that really matter, rather than the usual arguments over whether praise music is dreck or the cantor's Latin pronunciation is off. (Both are likely true. Done.) It's too easy to slip into heresies without thinking about it.

They were fighting in the streets over Arianism. How about an "Occupy Carthage" movement, starting in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta in the 21st century? It could be good to re-fight these battles every millennium or so, to clarify what a religion believes. But we need to know history in order to repeat it. Or not.

A couple of responses to Gibson's piece are interesting, like this:

I commend the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta for their initiative in ‘rehabilitating’ Pelagius. It seems to me that “Command and control” motivation took precedence over dialogue and truth finding as Augustine (of Hippo) provided the ecclesial sword so profoundly taken up by Constantine to establish the “imperial” church. Pelagius taught that “right ordering” of self was the key to bettering one’s relationship with God. Augustine, on the other hand, seemed to deny the intrinsic goodness of self and creation and promoted “abnegation, mortification and self-denial” - the emptying of self (does God really want an empty vessel returned to “Her”?). If there was a heretic here is is more likely Augustine, and his motives were suspect as well.

(I note that Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom goes a long way towards rebutting the whole "command and control" thesis so central to the hermeneutic of suspicion's approach to this period of Church history.)

And there's this:

There is a great tendency in modern theological circles to elevate the arch-heretics of the ancient church to the status of Fathers of the Church, though their views were repudiated by the Fathers of the Church. So, if the Episcopal Diocese of Atalanta has their way, not only Pelagius, but Origen, Severus of Antioch, Theodore of Mopsuetia, Arius, Apollinarius, Sabellius, etc. will now be added to the list of church fathers and maybe venerated as saints. ...

The Blessed Augustine erred in his insistence on grace and denying of free will. But that does not prove that Pelagius and his followers, like Julianus, were right. It is also important to note that though the eastern churches couldn’t figure out what the problem with Pelagius was, Pelagius and Julianus were still condemned by the Synod of Jerusalem in 416 (if memory serves). Pelagius was not a saint and should not be elevated to that rank nor should he be ranked as a church father. He was just as wrong (if not more so) than Augustine.

And looking at things from across the pond in the Church of Ireland, BC at Catholicity and Covenant writes:

That reference [in the resolution] to "our birthright as Anglicans" is somewhat interesting, not least in light of the words Article 9: "Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk) ...". One assumes that the Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of Atlanta is fully aware that it does not have the authority to act in a manner contrary to the church catholic and the Anglican tradition. Right?

I guess we'll find out soon enough!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Jesus Trumps the Bible"

According to the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, that's what Biblical scholar and Jesus Seminar fellow Marcus Borg said twice at a recent gathering. On her blog Generous Orthodoxy, Rutledge responds by briefly exposing the false dichotomies that prop up Borg's claim:

This is an extraordinarily irresponsible thing for a scholar and leader in the church to say. It can’t be said often enough: we have no access to knowledge of Jesus except through the Bible and its interpretation. There is no record of him outside the Bible until years after his death. The only way to understanding who he was is through the witness of the New Testament apostles. Therefore to suggest that he “trumps the Bible” is to suggest that we can cut loose from the Scriptures and construct a Jesus according to the perspectives of our own time. It has been shown over and over again that attempts to construct a “historical Jesus” or “real Jesus” apart from the faith-based witness of Scripture end in failure because such attempts are grounded, not in the text, but in the bias of those who undertake them.

Borg talks constantly of the “pre-Easter Jesus” and the “post-Easter Jesus.” Again, this often-heard distinction is based on a false assumption. We have no access to the pre-Easter Jesus. Every single word of testimony to him in the New Testament is refracted through the Resurrection. Therefore, any attempt to reconstruct a Jesus before anyone knew he would be raised from the dead are doomed to fail, because such projects, again, will always reflect the personal agenda of the interpreter.

Like it or not, therefore, we must rely upon the Scripture as our only witness to Jesus. There is no other witness.

Read it all.

Citing Rutledge's blog posting, C. Wingate at Tune: Kings Lynn also offers a critical perspective on Borg's claim that Jesus trumps the Bible. Along the way, Wingate exposes the unstated bias of liberal modernist approaches to Jesus and the Bible by writing:

If an unexamined life isn't worth living (an exaggeration, I would say), then unexamined scholarship is worse than worthless. It's impossible for me to read the "mainline" material and not come away with the conclusion that it's largely worthless because it begs the question. It already knows that Jesus cannot be a miracle worker, cannot be aware (somehow) of his divinity, cannot indeed be divinely born of a virgin. OK, so where's the proof of all these "cannots"? Well, Borg, at least in close proximity to the passages I've quoted, doesn't say, but one gets the sense that the scriptural God is distasteful. But like all good modernists, he fails to put his own predilections on the spot. If the problem with traditional Christianity is that it doesn't "work" for everybody (and within it's own schema, that's not a problem ), the problem with the modernists is that they won't admit that their scheme doesn't work for everyone either, and that the traditionalist scheme does work for probably the majority of Christendom. The relativism that they try to paper over this with doesn't wash: they really believe that the traditional teachings are wrong for everyone. So the big issue in this is really the whole problem of doubt, the unexamined and taken-for-granted doubt that is at the root of the modernist program. It is that doubt which is the true teaching of the moderns, and it is a teaching that does not move me, for I do not doubt, not on their terms.

Read it all.

Folks like Borg do a good job of feeding the doubt and skepticism of those who distrust orthodox Christian teaching about Jesus and Holy Scripture. And in doing so, they open space for setting aside the authority of traditional Church teaching on pretty much any subject in ways that allow for the individual's preferences to trump the Church's faith and practice. In addition to Rutledge and Wingate's criticisms of this "project" as articulated by Borg, we also do well to keep in mind something that Fr. Matt Gunter noted a while back on his blog Into the Expectation:

"Unless we are willing to doubt our doubts, our doubts are just excuses to avoid the implications of believing."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rowan Williams on the Communion of Saints

In a passage worth pondering on this All Saints' Day, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reflects on the meaning of "the communion of saints." He connects this article of the Apostles' Creed to the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. And he succinctly articulates a vision of the Church as one in which we receive the gift of new life in relationship with God and other people.

In its original Latin the Apostles' Creed announces belief in the communio sanctorum; and this could mean one of two things - or maybe both. It could be 'the sharing between holy people' or it could mean 'the sharing of holy things'. Now when the New Testament, especially St Paul, talks about 'holy people', it doesn't mean quite what we might mean by 'saint', it isn't offering a sort of verdict on a lot of spectacularly good lives. Christian people are 'holy' simply because they have been adopted by God into relationship, into that family relationship expressed in saying 'Our Father'. So the 'sharing between holy people' isn't some kind of club for the spiritually gifted; it's simply the relationship that holds together those who recognize and express their adoption by God. And so this sharing becomes tangible and visible when Christians are together just breathing the air of Christ, making real in words and actions who they are in relation to Jesus. The 'communion' that is meant here is what becomes visible when Christians are simply saying who they are.

And what does this involve? The Church is the community of those who have been 'immersed' in Jesus' life, overwhelmed by it. Those who are baptized have disappeared under the surface of Christ's love and reappeared as different people. The waters close over their heads, and then, like the old world rising out of watery chaos in the first chapter of the Bible, out comes a new world. So when the Church baptizes people, it says what it is and what sort of life its people live. Baptism is an event in which the 'sharing between holy people' comes to light and we see what the Church really is, a community in which people are constantly being brought into new life by being given a new relationship with God and each other.

It is also the community of those who are invited to eat with Jesus. Just as, in his earthly life, Jesus expressed his promise to create a new people of God by sharing meals with unlikely people, just as, after the resurrection, he shares food with his disciples as he re-calls them to their task, so it is with the whole Church. We are in the Church because we have been invited, not because we have earned our place. And so when the Church gathers to eat and drink with Jesus in Holy Communion, the Church once again says who and what it is. In baptism and Holy Communion, the nature of the Church is laid bare for us. What is the Church? It is simply those who have been immersed in, soaked in the life of Jesus, and who have been invited to eat with him and pray to the Father with him.

~ Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (2007)