Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Barbara Brown Taylor Reconsiders the Biblical Narrative

Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor said some interesting things in an interview published in the Spring 2012 issue of From the Mountain (published by The School of Theology at the University of the South).

On the topic of knowing God's will, for instance, Taylor said:

I wrote a chapter in An Altar in the World on getting lost - on not going where you meant to, or leaving the beaten path. Even in the Gospels, there is a particular word for particular people. It is not often the same word to every person. To some, the word is "Get up and walk," and to some it is, "Go into your room and pray." The word to me on the fire escape [in the memoir An Altar in the World] was "Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me." That was the word just to me. There is alarming human freedom in that - alarming!

"Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me."

I really don't mean to be harsh about this, but Taylor's claim that God gave her permission to do anything that pleases her brings to mind a quote attributed to Susan B. Anthony: "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." What's fascinating about this particular claim to private revelation is that it makes no bones about it: God's will and what pleases Taylor are one and the same. Alarming freedom, indeed!

Later in the interview, Taylor offers reasons why she has reconsidered the biblical narrative of salvation history:

I am Christian enough to think there is still a narrative. My narrative is probably not creation, fall, and redemption. It is definitely a narrative of genesis, flood, new life, and resurrection. ... I have spent enough time in other protestant traditions to grow up thinking there was something essentially, originally wrong with me. I know that I am essentially liable to do the wrong thing, but I don't think that's because there is something originally wrong with me. I think I was made in the image of God. There has to be another way to theologize about why I do the things I do, and why people do the things we do. I no longer accept some of the early explanations for that. I do not read "fall" in Genesis history. I can't see it. The words are not there. The snake is a snake. It is not the devil. Sin isn't anywhere in the chapter, so that's a later reading of a primary text.

I read that narrative more like a Jew, who would read the story of Mount Sinai as more a story of collective, communal sin, when you have been given a living God and you choose an idol instead. Every best seller on the self-help and religion shelf is about knowing the difference between good and evil. If that is a sin, Christians sure are all over it.

It strikes me that Taylor's explicit rejection of the Fall "in Genesis history" may be connected with her claim to a private revelation of God's will ("Do anything that pleases you"). For downplaying the Fall makes it easier to find in personal experience a perception of
God's unambiguous approval of our wills and affections. To quote from N. T. Wright's Simply Christian: "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."

But perhaps such is the price of "progress" in Christianity.


Peter Carrell said...

Could be so, Bryan, but BBT might, in part, be getting in touch with Eastern Orthodoxy which (I hope I am correct) does not see the 'fall' in Genesis like Augustinian Westerners do?

Tregonsee said...

"Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me."

compare with:

"Do What Thou Wilt Shall be the Whole of the Law."

The latter appears in many discussions of the principles of Satanism, magic, demonology, etc.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Peter. My understanding is that Eastern Orthodoxy accepts the Fall but has problems with the Augustinian conception of 'Original Sin.' I don't have my copy handy to cite, but I note, for example, that there is a rich discussion of the Fall in Bishop Kallistos Ware's book The Orthodox Way.

One source offers this summary:

"Eastern Orthodoxy rejects the idea that the guilt of original sin is passed down through generations. It bases its teaching in part on a passage in Exodus saying a son is not guilty of the sins of his father. The Church teaches that in addition to their conscience and tendency to do good, men and women are born with a tendency to sin due to the fallen condition of the world. It follows Maximus the Confessor and others in characterising the change in human nature as the introduction of a 'deliberative will' (θέλημα γνωμικόν) in opposition to the 'natural will (θέλημα φυσικόν) created by God which tends toward the good. Thus according to St Paul in his epistle to the Romans, non-Christians can still act according to their conscience. Nonetheless, as a consequence of Adam's sin, seen merely as the prototype (since human nature has been degraded) of all future sinners, each of whom, in repeating Adam’s sin, bears responsibility only for his own sins, humans became mortal. Adam's sin isn't comprehended only as disobedience to God's commandment, but as a change in man's hierarchy of values from theocentricism to anthropocentrism, driven by the object of his lust, outside of God, in this case the tree which was seen to be "good for food", and something 'to be desired.'"

It would be odd for BBT to reject the biblically grounded conception of the Fall per se yet be "getting in touch with Eastern Orthodoxy." I think it's more accurate to say (based upon the fact that her website links to The Center for Progressive Christianity) that she is a progressive Episcopalian for whom finding grace in the search for understanding and believing there is more value in questioning than in absolutes (see the 8 points of progressive Christianity) ultimately trumps Scripture and Tradition.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Tregonsee. I am familiar with the Law of Thelema.

Of course, the maxim "Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me" could also express a hedonist idea of striving to maximize pleasure over pain.

My point is that what exactly Taylor means by this is not clear (although it is clear enough that her comments equate that which pleases her with God's will!).

Which raises a larger point: this portion of an interview is being disseminated in an official publication of one of The Episcopal Church's seminaries, and yet, as published, it raises serious questions about the current grounding of Taylor's theology. At best, it portrays her as heterodox and as struggling with even being Christian at all ("I am Christian enough," she says - so how much exactly is enough to continue being a priest and wearing the collar to give lectures and interviews in seminaries?).

Why would the seminary want to officially publicize Taylor in this way?

Bryan Owen said...

I note that BC at Catholicity and Covenant has offered important reflections on how we read scripture in response to Taylor's comments. The posting is entitled "Serpent, tree, and Paschal Mystery." Read it all.

Don said...

A bit unsurprising really, given the direction she has been headed for a while. I wish I could say that this theological understanding was rare in our church, but you can hear it articulated by many, perhaps less clearly, but you hear it.

In defense of Sewanee, something I rarely feel called to do, this publication is done by a lay person, with little theological training. She is a PR person, not a theologian, and I suspect that there is little oversight or editorial management by the School of Theology. This is not to say that some of the faculty would have serious disagreement with her, but others would disagree completely. I suspect the editor/publisher has little idea about the theological implications of Taylor's statements. Nevertheless, it is troubling that it was published.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the clarification about the seminary's publication, Don. If you are right that there is little oversight or editorial management by the School of Theology for this publication, then I find that troubling!

Bryan Owen said...

Elsewhere in the interview, Taylor makes a "postmodern" move with regard to ecclesiology:

"People want to talk to me about the church. What do I think is wrong with the church and where do I think the church is going? I don't even answer those questions anymore. What church are we talking about? A little Pentecostal church in rural Alabama? Or are we talking about St. John the Divine in New York City? Are we talking about the Orthodox Church? Are we talking about the Southern Baptist Church? I don't even know. That's the postmodern response: there is not 'a church,' there is not 'the church.' Show me, where is it? Where can I go to see the church? Can I go with you to the church? I would like for you to take me to the church, but it won't be the one the person next to you takes me to, it will be another 'the church.' I have not in my experience discovered the church. I have talked about it a lot, I read about it a lot, but I have never been to the church."

And yet she continues to wear the clerical collar as an Episcopal priest who represents something she has never been to or discovered in her experience!

Peter Carrell said...

Alas, Bryan, your explanation means we are not in 'possibly orthodox, reserve judgement' territory. I begin to have a better understanding of why I found her presentation in a conference here a couple of years ago both winsome and bamboozling!

Bryan Owen said...

Alas, indeed, Peter. A number of Taylor's books, sermons, and articles have been immensely helpful to me over the years. It saddens me to see her taking such a sharp left turn off the reservation.

Bill Dilworth said...

Well, the central philosophy of Thelema comes from two quotes from Aleister Crowley's Liber AL - "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" and "Love is the law, love under will." I'm pretty sure that Crowley lifted it from, of all people, St. Augustine of Hippo, who said, "Dilige et quod vis fac" - "Love and do what thou wilt."

I'm not saying that BBT is following either Crowley or Augustine's lead, but I do suggest that there is the possibility it's not quite so heretical as it seems at first blush.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Bill. I don't know if Crowley lifted his dictum from Augustine, but I do think that dropping the Fall as a key chapter in the Biblical narrative signals a departure from Christian orthodoxy.

C. Wingate said...

The word "Thelema" and its motto come not from Augustine, at least not directly, but from the first book of Pantagruel and Gargantua by Rabelais. Chapters 52-57 describe "L'abbaye de Thélème" which inverts monastic virtues and whose motto is "Fay ce que vouldras." "Thelema" itself is supposed to come from the Greek and signifies "will". It's pretty clear that Rabelais meant to ridicule such behavior as being an exaggeration of the actual depravity of French monasteries and convents. The idea appears again over the door of the Hellfire Club and then of course in Crowley's writings; but Crowley to a very large degree is Rabelais read humorlessly. At any rate to the degree that Rabelais referred to Augustine for this motto, he plainly intended to mutilate it, not to compress it.

Bill Dilworth said...

C Wingate - Nope, not even trying to defend Crowley. I was just pointing out that something very similar had been said by Augustine. Thanks for the Rabelais citation.

Who is BBT's bishop, I wonder?

Robert F said...

I can't help but feel that this is just another example of the threadbare antinomianism that likes to dress itself up in the garb of profundity. What tells me that it is not of Christ is that there is no cross in it, because the cross is the way we are discipled by Christ. And it sounds similar to some of the words of Steve Jobst, who counseled that we should follow our own hearts or our bliss or something like that. It's really quite meaningless, like all satanic chatter, although it tries to sound like divine counsel. You can be sure that when Augustine said "Love, and do what you will," that first word, love, included the cross. Context is everything, but Crowley and his brethren want us to ignore context. I hope that Taylor is not among their party, but I have my fears.