Saturday, June 30, 2012

German Court Declares Judaism a Crime

Thus reads a recent headline at Walter Russell Mead's blog Via Meadia.  Mead writes:

Hard to believe, but that’s what the decision handed down by the regional court in Cologne, Germany means: circumcising a child under the age of consent is a crime, notwithstanding the religious beliefs of the parents. 
Many judges who loyally served the Third Reich finished their careers in perfect peace and quiet after World War Two; in some cases, they are still collecting pensions for administering Hitler’s laws. However, Germany’s moral sensibilities are so refined and so pure today that the thought of Jewish parents (or Muslims for that matter) performing an immemorial religious rite is unacceptable. 
Jews believe that the circumcision of infants is a necessary act; the command to circumcise male children at the age of eight days is the first command that God gives Abraham to mark their covenant; for thousands of years this has been a foundation of Jewish life. To ban infant circumcision is essentially to make the practice of Judaism illegal in Germany; it is now once again a crime to be a Jew in the Reich.

Here's more from the Yahoo! News article "German court rules religious circumcision on boys an assault":

Circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to grievous bodily harm, a German court ruled Tuesday in a landmark decision that the Jewish community said trampled on parents' religious rights. 
The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents", a judgement that is expected to set a legal precedent. 
"The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised," the court added. ... 
The decision caused outrage in Germany's Jewish community. 
The head of the Central Committee of Jews, Dieter Graumann, said the ruling was "an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination." 
The judgement was an "outrageous and insensitive act. Circumcision of newborn boys is a fixed part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced worldwide for centuries," added Graumann. 
"This religious right is respected in every country in the world."

I note that an Orthodox priest I'm friends with on Facebook shared Mead's blog posting with the comment: "Secularism continues its forward march.  Infant baptism could be forbidden under the reasoning of this court ruling.  Don't say, 'But that's Germany ...'"

And in response to others' comments he wrote:

... that is the nature of law.  It builds on precedent.  The invasion of the state into such a long-accepted and honored practice sets the precedent (especially in the age of discretion thing) for an invasion into Baptism.  It is a stretch.  Of course, unless we think of Baptism, we might also fail to properly appreciate the insult the state is offering to Jews in this ruling.  It is not a small thing.  My comments sound alarmist.  I am alarmed.

And he's right to be alarmed by this!

Friday, June 29, 2012

How Could an All-Good God Possibly Send People to Hell?

In the video below,  Fr. Robert Barron (a Roman Catholic priest) addresses the question, "How could an all-good God possibly send people to hell?"  I've included a transcript as well.  It's a very helpful summary of Church teaching on a topic that is a stumbling block to many people.

In the course of my work in evangelization, I often run across this objection: how could an all-good God possibly send people to hell?  How could a God who is described as infinitely good, create, sustain, and send people to a place of infinite, horrible torment?  And you find the objection from both believer and non-believers.

In fact a lot of my friends on YouTube have directed my attention to a video done by George Carlin, the comedian, many years ago.  Carlin, I suppose, was an ex-Catholic, and he was lampooning the whole idea of hell.  And he said, 'Well, you know, for some sin - usually of a sexual nature - God will send you into this place of infinite, horrible, tremendous torment.'  But then he changes and he says, 'But of course this God loves you.'  And of course the people all burst into hysterical laughter.  They can't get enough of it.

Now you have to confess, somewhere in your soul you think, well, maybe Carlin's got a point. Is there something just inconsistent about this belief in the eternity of hell?

Well, I would suggest that we should be very careful about dismissing this doctrine, which has been enunciated by all the great theologians of our tradition, and, in fact, goes back to Jesus himself.  On the lips of Jesus himself we find this language of Gehenna and of the everlasting fire.  And so on.

I would say this: the doctrine of hell is a corollary - a kind of a necessary consequence - of two other doctrines.  And I doubt anybody wants to deny these other two.  Namely, that God is love and that we human beings are free.  I think you can't hold those two without also holding the possibility of hell.  And here's why.

Look first at the claim that God is love.  We hold, not that God has love, or that love is one of God's attributes, or love is something God does from time to time.  Love is what God is.  The whole nature, essence, substance, life of God is love.  To will the good of the other as other: that's who God is.  Therefore, God doesn't go in and out of love, doesn't love some, hate others.  He doesn't go into emotional snits and change His mind.  God simply is love.  In Jesus' language, He's like the sun that shines on the good and the bad alike.  There's the idea of the primacy of grace and of God's love which is all through our tradition.  There's the first great teaching.

Now here's the second one: that human beings are free.  God made planets and plants and animals and insects to glorify Him simply by being themselves.  That's how they reflect the divine goodness.  But human beings He made with intelligence and will.  That means He wants us to respond His love - who He is - with our own love. He gave us that privilege of our freedom.  Now the minute you say freedom, you have to say the possibility of the abuse of freedom.  That's the nature of freedom, is I can decide 'yes' or 'no'.  I can say 'yes' to the love that God is and thereby find joy, and peace, and my own deepest purpose. Or, I can say 'no' to it.  I can resist it.

What does that cause, that resistance?  It causes suffering at the level of the soul, the deepest level.  It's like fire, it's like torment, it's like everlasting flames.  Why am I using that language?  Because it's biblical language to suggest this great spiritual suffering.

What is hell?  Hell would be that final and definitive 'no' to God's love uttered from the depth of one's soul.  That's hell.  Eternal suffering?  Yeah, because it's this eternal 'no' to the love that God is.

Now I think in light of this clarification we can see how all the language of God sending people to hell, God condemning people to hell because of their mistakes and so on, is problematic.  God doesn't so much send there; people send themselves into this state by their refusal of a divine love.  That's why C. S. Lewis said, I think wonderfully, 'the door to hell is always locked from the inside.'  It's not as though God is maliciously locking it from the outside, locking people in.  Rather it's people themselves who, by their refusal, lock themselves away from the divine love.  That's what hell would be.

Lewis also said this, and I think it's really interesting, he said, 'the love of God lights up the fires of hell.' I say, what does that mean? How counterintuitive!  But see, love is what God is, that's all God knows how to do.  The love of God is always shining on us.  But if you turn away from it, it becomes a kind of torture to you because you're meant to respond to it.  The very love in which the saint basks in joy is what the sinner suffers in.

Think of it this way.  Imagine a great party is going on - this exuberant, joyful, riotously fun party's going on.  One person is there who is completely surrendered to it.  They've given themselves over to the exuberance of the party, they're having the time of their life.  And now imagine someone at the same party - they've come into the same party, but they are turned in on themselves in a kind of reproachful self-regard, sitting sullenly in the corner.  For that person, the very exuberance of the party is a torture.  The very exuberance of the party is a source of suffering.

We shouldn't talk about God capriciously sending people to hell.  We should think of hell this way, if anyone's in it.  And by the way, the Church is not obliging anyone to believe that a human being's in hell.  We just don't know.  But if there is anyone in it, it's someone who is absolutely insistent on not attending the party.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

St. Irenaeus on the Unity of the Faith of the Church Throughout the Whole World

The Church, though dispersed through the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father "to gather all things in one" [Ephesians 1:10], and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, "every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess" [Philippians 2:10-11] to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send "spiritual wickednesses" [Ephesians 6:12], and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

~ St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.10.1 (c. 180 A.D.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Jesus is the Problem: Reflections on the Scandal of Particularity

I've recently facilitated several Bible study sessions focusing on the Gospel according to John.  I'm once again struck by how much conflict and division drives the action in that Gospel.  When Jesus shows up, performs signs, and teaches, people are pitted against each other and forced to decide for or against him.  One verse sums it up rather well: "So there was division in the crowd because of him" (John 7:43).

Evidence of this division has surfaced even in the Bible study group itself.  One person openly admitted that he could not accept Jesus' exclusionary truth claims (cf. John 6:53 and John 14:6).  People of other religions and of no religion can be good people, too.  The implicit protest here, of course, is that access to God, heaven, etc., cannot be limited to Jesus alone.  Surely our good works and intentions are sufficient!  Another person countered by saying he accepted Jesus' claims in John, and that such claims are foundational and non-negotiable for the Christian faith. And so the scandal of particularity - the claim that this particular 1st Century Palestinian Jew is God incarnate and the Savior of the world - continues to pose a challenge to faith, even for many within the Church.

Writing in Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology, Thomas C. Oden teases out important implications of the "scandal of particularity" when he writes:

If anyone might imagine that to be representative of all humanity Jesus must have done everything possible that any human being could ever have done, that status would not be ordinary humanity.  One cannot be human without being a particular human being. ... [Jesus] is more like us by living in a particular time and place.  He would have been less like us if he had spent his earthly ministry in all times and places.  This is in part what is meant by the phrase "scandal of particularity" - that God comes to us in a special time (when the hour had come) and a special place (the Holy Land) to a specific woman birthing a particular child, yet in a way that bestows significance upon all other times and places.  

All of this is even more problematic in a pluralistic context in which people want to be affirming, inclusive, and tolerant of differences. The Jesus we meet in John's Gospel doesn't fare very well in such a context.  And so, in a blog posting entitled "The Scandal of Particularity: Facing Jesus in a Postmodern Age," Dan Wilt asks the question "What's the problem?" and answers it by saying, "Jesus is the problem."  He writes:

What’s The Problem?

Father Raneiro Cantalemessa, the personal teacher to Pope John Paul II, spoke to the leaders of our Vineyard movement in Rome a few years ago. We gathered in a resonant marble chapel, which to me symbolized all that which is beautiful, enduring, timeless and solid. His message? “The Battle Is Around The King.” Our entire group reeled as though intoxicated under the influence of his striking words, expressing that in the ecumenism of the day, the joy of interfaith dialogue, the quest for peace among religious leaders of the day, all is well when “God” is the topic of irenic conversation. However, in a recent gathering of Buddhists, Hindus, Catholics, Muslims and other faiths, Father Cantalamessa mentioned the name “Jesus.” Divisive stirrings began around the room.

In today’s world, “division” is the enemy of all that is good, peaceable and “tolerable.” We want to be united as people, and to see that unity born out in intercultural care, communication and consideration. We resist division, because we see the horrors it breeds in governments, faith systems and families. Tolerance says “You’re okay; I’m okay. We’re just different.” But, what if someone (you or I) is actually wrong? What if someone, or an ideology, is actually harmful, over millenia or in a moment? What if “I’m okay; you’re okay,” actually can, and does, bear the children of blood, tears and hatred as well as peaceful dialogue?

What if there is actually one way in the world? What if it’s a wide road in the coming to it, but a narrow road in the progressing on it? What if there indeed is a way of living for human beings, that one unique faith system (I include the faith systems of naturalism and evolutionism, all part of the “humanity’s best guess” club), at its essence, promulgates? What if the scandal of particularity is exactly the plan, and a way has been made that addresses hatred, death, love, goodness and the strangeness of the human condition.

Jesus Is The Problem.

Back to our topic. Jesus is the reason that Christian faith is a problem. “…No one comes to the Father but by me” is the bone of contention, and a Jesus who has been aligned with the Crusades, Inquisitions and Acquisitions of history is an unacceptable personage in the 21st century world.

What do we do with a God of love, who through His messenger Jesus, declares that a life of love is the way of God, and evidences this through real loving, healing, forgiving, restoring spiritual activity on the planet? We want everyone to be right, mainly because Derrida and others helped us to understand that many of us in charge actually have thought we were right, but to our own controlling ends. But, what if one is actually right? Then, what if that God declares his uniqueness among the faiths of all ages?

Dan Wilt continues by noting the response of some Christians to all of this: devotion to a general theism or what he calls "A Gospel of General Love Based on the Teaching of Jesus."

Many of my Christian friends around the world (both culturally and in their estimation, by chosen faith) are considering the scandal of particularity just that – a scandal that represents the worst of those with whom they no longer wish to be identified. They are both sad and happy for all the deconstruction of the faith in our age. In essence, they are seeking to ameliorate (improve) their language of “living a life of love” (accurately, the central message of the New Testament), and at the same time remedially ignoring any language of specificity or particularity related to Jesus. They don’t want to throw their vibrant history with God, or with God through the worship of Jesus, away; they just want to let it simmer on the other side of their outward confession for awhile while they figure this thing out.

To some friends, I would honestly and without judgement ask, “Have you left your faith in Jesus, your faith in his life as the Christ, his life, death and resurrection, while still trying to rationalize in your mind that you haven’t gone anywhere?” In other words, “Have you fallen back into a noble Theism, replacing any Christocentric language with ‘God language’, in order to compensate for your own internal struggle without letting others know how intensely it is raging? Is Jesus an example of yet another noble life, one which you and I simply choose to follow? Is Jesus becoming, in your heart of hearts, and option among options, to be embraced either to keep peace, or to remain socially connected, or because the jury of your heart and mind is still out. Or is he, as the earliest believers powerfully advanced post-resurrection, God incarnate?

I would ask them to be honest, as a friend, and answer that question – even in secret. So much is on the line for these wrestling friends; families, relationships and so much more, if they were to honestly answer this and live it out, that I think the psychological dance may simply need to continue for them until they die. Secret letters honestly answering that question may come out after they’re dead, but to live out their honest answer would cause too much pain and heartache for them to bear this side of death. In other words, the faith of their mind and heart must now hide behind the faith they express to the stakeholders in their lives. Once again, it seems that Jesus is as much about dividing as he is about uniting.
Have compassion on these ones, a group of people whom I have often lived on the edge with, and still do on my worst and best days. Somehow, they harbor Jesus in their heart still, but, when pressed, wrestle with the specificity of salvation experience he relegates to himself in the Gospels, and that the epistle writers expound on in the New Testament. The internal, rationalizing gymnastics are hard on them internally, but they feel that in order to be in integrity as a healthy spiritual person, and to be in integrity as a follower of Jesus, they must slightly hedge their bets on Jesus’ particularity and err on the side of a Gospel Of General Love Based On The Teaching Of Jesus. This may sound tenable, but aligning ourselves with the earliest, and historical, Christians, while falling to the side of the “less particular gospel of our own making” is an enterprise that would lack both academic and soulful integrity.

St. Augustine of Hippo once wrote: "If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”  And so we continue to be challenged by the Jesus we meet in the pages of the New Testament to forsake the less particular gospel of our own making for "the words of eternal life" that the Son of God alone offers (John 6:68).

Friday, June 22, 2012

Atheist Blogger Converts to Christianity

This has been making the rounds among many of my Facebook friends lately, and I see that Greg Griffith has posted about it on Stand Firm as well.  A self-described "geeky convert," former atheist blogger Leah writes about her conversion in a piece entitled "This is my last post for the Patheos Atheist Portal." Here's an excerpt:

I’ve heard some explanations that try to bake morality into the natural world by reaching for evolutionary psychology.  They argue that moral dispositions are evolutionarily triumphant over selfishness, or they talk about group selection, or something else.  Usually, these proposed solutions radically misunderstand a) evolution b) moral philosophy or c) both.  I didn’t think the answer was there.  My friend pressed me to stop beating up on other people’s explanations and offer one of my own. 
“I don’t know,” I said.  ”I’ve got bupkis.” 
“Your best guess.” 
“I haven’t got one.” 
“You must have some idea.” 
“I don’t know.  I’ve got nothing.  I guess Morality just loves me or something.” 
“Ok, ok, yes, I heard what I just said.  Give me a second and let me decide if I believe it.” 
It turns out I did. 
I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant.  It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth.  And there was one religion that seemed like the most promising way to reach back to that living Truth. ... 
And how am I doing?  Well, I’m baking now (cracking eggs is pretty much the least gnostic thing I can do, since it’s so, so disgusting to touch, and putting effort into food as more than the ransom my body demands for continued function is the second least gnostic).  I’ve been using the Liturgy of the Hours and St. Patrick’s Breastplate for most of my prayer attempts.  and, over all, I feel a bit like Valentine in this speech from Arcadia:  
It makes me so happy… A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.
Read it all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Love and True Doctrine

Back when I first started blogging, I posted a piece entitled "The Radical Creed." Among other points, I noted that "Christian faith entails certain non-negotiable truths that make a claim on our loyalties and our lives," "the faith of the Church as expressed in the Nicene Creed is the norm against which individual opinions and judgments are measured and found more or less adequate, or wrong" and "reciting the Nicene Creed in the context of the liturgy invites us to live more deeply ... into the mystery of a God whose being and willing we mere mortals can never fully fathom."

I also expressed my belief in both the limits and the reliability of the Nicene Creed:

The mysteries of God cannot be contained by rational explanations. But like a compass that always points north, the Nicene Creed points us in the right direction. The compass is not the destination just as the Creed is not God. But it would be much easier to get lost as to what is truly essential for reaching the goal of the Christian journey without it.

As Bishop Frank E. Wilson puts it, "The Creed is not your faith - it is an expression of your faith. Your faith is in God, not in any combination of words, however venerable they may be."

The bishop is right: the ultimate object of our faith is God, not the Creed.  It follows that the truth of orthodox doctrine is not an end in itself.  Rather, true doctrine is a means to the end of putting us in right relation to the Truth, which is the triune God. Central to this Truth, and at the core of the mystery of God's being, is love.  And that love is not a mere idea, but an activity of selfless concern for the good of others that reflects the life of the three Persons of the Trinity.  St. John the Apostle says it beautifully: "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8).  It would be difficult to sum up the purpose of true doctrine better than that!

Writing from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, Fr. Stephen Freeman amplifies these points by noting that the final goal of the Christian life is not merely the knowledge obtained from true doctrine, but the instilling of God's love in our hearts that overflows in our actions.  He writes:

True doctrine is of great importance because it reveals the nature and truth of God and the world to us. But such knowledge is not the final goal of the Christian life. Our final goal is indeed the true faith – that is – the love of God towards all the world dwelling within our hearts. ...

There is no opposition to rationality in any of this and certainly no opposition to true doctrine. But there is a recognition that the very simplist of all things – available to children and the weak minded (perhaps more truly available to them than the rest of us) – is the love of God dwelling in our hearts. Without this there is no true faith, no true salvation, no theosis, no true conformity to the image of God. ...

The words spoken by the Deacon at every liturgy when he summons us to repeat the Nicene Creed say everything: 'Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.' We may say the words for the rest of eternity – but unless and until we love one another we will not truly know or believe a word of it.

Fr. Stephen's words are critically important for all who take true doctrine seriously lest, lacking the love of God, our talk of orthodoxy become nothing more than "a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sermon for 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Proper 6, Year B: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

Last week I took two days off from work to travel to Chattanooga, TN. I lived in Chattanooga for four years as a boarding student at The McCallie School back in the 1980s. And to this day that city and that school remain important places in my spiritual journey. I didn’t go back, however, to reconnect with old friends and familiar places. Instead, I made the 400 mile journey because, just two weeks after her 43rd birthday, my brother’s ex-wife Lara unexpectedly died, leaving behind two shocked and grieving teenage children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Needless to say, it was a very tough time.

In my role as a priest, I have, of course, attended many visitations and funerals. It’s an important part of a priest’s pastoral role. But it’s never an easy thing to do. We clergy fall in love with the people we serve. That makes it hard to say goodbye and difficult to watch survivors suffer loss and grief. But even with over 10 years of ordained experience with dying and death, receiving the news about Lara stunned me. It was surreal. It was hard to believe that it had actually happened. I don’t think it really hit me until I got to the funeral home. Entering the parlor, I was confronted by a large white coffin adorned with a beautiful spray of flowers. Somehow, seeing that coffin hammered home the reality of this death. It was no longer just a hard-to-believe idea in my mind; it was a solid, unchangeable fact.

In the midst of receiving the tragic news and making the journey to the funeral, I had been following the scripture readings in the Daily Office. The Old Testament readings were from the book of Ecclesiastes. Those ancient words seemed to speak directly to my family’s situation in ways that weren’t exactly comforting. For instance, there was this:

“ … the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the day of disaster” (Eccl. 9:11-12). 

And then there was this:

“The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; … never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun” (Eccl. 9:5, 6). 

The writer of Ecclesiastes says all of this in a disarmingly calm, matter-of-fact tone. It’s just the way things are: we’re born into this world, we try to enjoy life as best we can, we suffer, eventually we die and are no more, and even our memory gets swept away into the trackless void of time’s passage. So get the most out of life today, because tomorrow it could all be over.  It’s a rather Stoic approach that has a certain common sense appeal. 

But is that really all there is to say? Are we nothing more than pawns subject to the impersonal forces of “time and chance”? Is death really the end of “all that happens under the sun”?

Such questions tap into something in the human spirit that rebels against “time and chance” having the upper hand. We want tragedy and suffering to have a purpose that gives it meaning and dignity. We want some means by which, in the end, everything that’s messed up is set right, and lives cut short achieve their potential. We yearn for life beyond the grave.

“Never again will [the dead] have any share in all that happens under the sun,” we read in Ecclesiastes. Thanks be to God, the truth of that statement has been turned on its head by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead marks the turning point of history and the sign that our deepest hopes for purpose, justice, and eternal life are grounded in reality. Jesus’ resurrection signals the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. It is the inauguration of a new creation in which not just souls, but also bodies and all of physical creation, are healed and transformed. It is the foundation for a faith that overcomes the changes and chances of this sinful, broken world (cf. 1 John 5:4). The bottom line is that if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then we who have been baptized into his death and resurrection have a different future to look forward to.

The apostle Paul spells out what this looks like in today’s epistle lesson. “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,” Paul writes, “we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). And he notes that “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). At first it may sound like Paul is condemning bodily existence. It may sound as though he’s saying we Christians long to die, leaving our bodies behind so that our souls can be in heaven with the Lord. But that’s not what he means. Paul does not long for death; he longs for resurrection. And for Paul and the other New Testament writers, resurrection doesn’t mean leaving the body behind. On the contrary, it means bodily life again after bodily death. It means the transformation and glorification of bodies such that they are no longer subject to death and decay. And more broadly, it means the renewal of all God’s creation.

Paul puts it this way: “We know that if the present mortal body is destroyed, that we have an immortal, deified body from God waiting for us. But in the meantime, we live in a broken world. We live in bodies and in a physical world that suffer the afflictions of sin, sickness, and death. We groan under the burden of this suffering, longing for our mortality to be swallowed up by new, abundant, and eternal life. And so even in the midst of present sufferings, and even though we are vulnerable to the tragic misfortunes of time and chance, we live with joyful confidence. For we who belong to Jesus know that the story of our lives does not end in death” (2 Cor. 5:1-6, paraphrased).

My friends, our present lives are filled with happiness and joy, but also with uncertainty, suffering, loss and grief, and yes, the looming shadow of death. But looking to the future, our faith in Christ shows us a completely different picture. The future is one in which our daily petition “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is finally and decisively answered. That future fulfillment means that resurrection, glory, new and incorruptible bodies, and God’s setting all things right triumph over the forces of sin, sickness, death, and decay.

 And so, as the apostle Paul says, “we are always confident” (2 Cor. 5:6). Sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever, we have the ultimate reassurance – God’s reassurance – that no matter what time and chance may throw our way, not even death itself can thwart the new creation launched in the resurrection of Jesus. God’s gracious will shall prevail. For the mystery of faith we proclaim every time we gather at the altar of our Lord is the truth that gives our lives its ultimate meaning and purpose: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Christ defines our past, our present, and our future. And because he lives, we, too, shall live (cf. John 14:19).

Saturday, June 16, 2012

What is orthodox Anglicanism?

That's a question the Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu addresses in a reply to an Eastern Orthodox friend at VirtueOnline. He writes:

The Eastern Orthodox churches can attach positive meaning to the word "orthodox". It refers to a distinct body of scriptures, canons, liturgical texts and traditions. Today the Western churches, by contrast, use the word "orthodox" mainly in a negative sense. "Orthodoxy" is not identified primarily by what it affirms or accepts. Even when it is, there is always an implied contrast with that which it rejects. The word "orthodox" is used very much like the word "conservative".  
Among Anglicans the word has diverse and contradictory meanings. When "orthodox" means Anglo-Catholic, it often means that one rejects women in the priesthood and episcopate. Or else one emphasizes a supernatural doctrine of the sacraments in marked contrast with the "protestant" tendency to view them as mere signs. Some orthodox Anglicans are like "born again" evangelicals in their strong commitment to the inspiration of the Bible -- but always in ready contrast with "liberals" or "revisionists" who treat the Bible as a human document of limited value. 
Many orthodox Anglicans question the orthodoxy of others. As mentioned above, the rejection of female clerics is sometimes taken as the mark of orthodoxy. And yet there are female clerics who are biblically conservative or who hold a "high" view of the sacraments, and these are quick to distance themselves from the "single issue" feminists who have flooded the ranks of ordinands in recent decades. ... 
Perhaps the word "preference" is what most defines the crisis of contemporary Anglicanism and that of all the churches of the Reformation. It is a crisis of authority. Rome has its magisterium, presided over by the Pope. The Reformation churches have the Bible and the enthroned individual. Hence all the references by orthodox bloggers to what they personally "like", "accept", or "feel", along with their thunderbolt condemnations of liberals and other orthodox who stray past a point they have personally certified for the orthodox interpretion of the scriptures. Protestants (and here I include all Anglicans) are much too comfortable in making magisterial pronouncements regarding divine truth. That is the heart of the authority issue. That very impulse is the antithesis of Christian orthodoxy. 
Anglicanism is the most elegantly appointed buffet table in Christendom. This is its greatness but also its despair. There is no authority that supersedes the individual and his preferences and choices. If truth comes down to a matter of individual discretion, then call it what you like, but it is not orthodox. This is the heart of the crisis of Anglican identity. ...  
If orthodoxy comes down to a matter of personal preference or taste, then the liberals were right all along. There is room at the table for Christ and Belial after all.

Canon L'Hommedieu is right: if there is no authority above individual preferences and choices, and if truth is nothing more than a matter of private judgment, there can be no orthodoxy.  This once again raises the question, "What is orthodox Anglicanism?"  And by extension: how do we know that our response to that question isn't anything more than an expression of personal preference and taste, and thus the antithesis of orthodoxy?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Metropolitan Jonah Notes A Coming Realignment Within Christianity

In a recent address to the assembly of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) offered his thoughts on "a coming realignment within Christianity." In particular, he notes "a radical shift away from traditional Christianity" to a form of secularism that evacuates the core content of the Christian faith and replaces it with something "unrecognizable" while perhaps, at times, trying to pass it off as the real thing (sort of like dressing heterodoxy or heresy up in a chasuble while chanting and burning lots of incense).  Here's part of what he said:

 ... there is a coming realignment within Christianity, one which we can already see the strains of.  Whenever schisms happen within the Church, they are generally because certain individuals lead a group out of the Church, being disobedient to the Faith and Doctrine, and refusing to submit to the authority of the hierarchy, which is trying to discipline them and call them to repentance.  
What is happening now is somewhat different: a split between those who hold to traditional, biblical faith as interpreted by the Fathers of the Church and the ecumenical councils; and those who espouse a secularized belief, subject to the rationalizations of the scholars according to contemporary philosophy, who dismiss the Fathers and the Councils as no longer relevant, who dismiss the moral teachings of the Scriptures and Fathers as culturally relative. This could be called, by one side, a break between traditional Christianity and post-modern worldly philosophy. Or it might be labeled as the freeing of people from fundamentalist oppression to the light of their own reason. 
This is not the protestant/catholic divide; it is not the evangelical-charismatic vs. mainline divide. It cuts across all communities in the West, even affecting the Orthodox and Roman Churches in some degree. ... 
There is a radical cultural shift away from traditional Christianity, toward something unrecognizable.   The “Secularists” (for lack of a better, non-pejorative term) reject the virgin birth of Christ, the resurrection, even His Divinity; that His words are recorded in the Scriptures and that the Scriptures are even relevant to our days; rather they are oppressive and keep humans in darkness.  Another Episcopalian bishop, a certain Mr. Spong, wrote that “Christianity must change or die,” referring to traditional orthodoxy, espousing the radical secularization of the Episcopal Church and all Christianity.   It is my prediction that it is not the Orthodox Churches that will die. 

Read it all.

Some will deny that there's any truth to Metropolitan Jonah's assessment.  He's either misreading the facts on the ground in churches like the Episcopal Church, or he has an axe to grind and is deliberately misrepresenting the truth.  

Others might disagree, saying that Metropolitan Jonah is right.  And that's a good thing!  We need a relevant, meaningful Christianity that speaks to people today.  All of that "traditional" stuff is so out of touch with reality in the 21st Century.  Such a stance might be taken, for example, by those who promote the curriculum Living the Questions.  I note the following description on the LTQ homepage under the heading of "Resourcing Progressive Christians" which says:

People know that at its core, Christianity has something good to offer humanity. At the same time, many have a sense that they are alone in being a "thinking" Christian and that "salvaging" Christianity is a hopeless task. What is needed is a safe environment where people have permission to ask the questions they've always wanted to ask but have been afraid to voice for fear of being thought a heretic.    
Living the Questions is a source of curriculum and media for both seekers and "church alumni/ae" convinced that Christianity still has relevance in the 21st Century. Providing a variety of flexible resources, Living the Questions can help people explore the future of Christianity and what a meaningful faith can look like in today's world.

Of course, rival understandings of what exactly constitutes the "core" of Christianity is itself part of the division and realignment that Metropolitan Jonah addresses.

Metropolitan Jonah is at least right about this: things are shifting.  And in the Episcopal Church, they aren't shifting in the direction of greater clarity about and accountability to the orthodox Christian faith as received within Anglicanism.  In the name of "relevance," we do seem to be willing to jettison traditional understandings of the Christian faith (note, for instance, the tendency to define "orthodoxy" as right worship vs. right belief, playing fast and loose with Prayer Book liturgies, dropping the Nicene Creed from the Sunday Eucharist, and recent debates over allowing the unbaptized to receive communion, among other deviations from orthodox norms).  Perhaps only time will tell how far away from orthodoxy this shift takes us.  And at what cost.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Debunking the Claim that Orthodoxy is Not About Right Belief

The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is an Orthodox priest who blogs at Roads from Emmaus.  He's recently launched a new blog called Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy to which he and other Orthodox Christians will contribute articles.

The first posting is entitled "Doctrine Matters."  Here's some of what Fr. Andrew writes:

It could be argued that we are now more educated than ever before, that our scientific progress is the furthest that history has ever seen. Literacy levels in our culture are probably the highest in history. And yet, somehow, even among church people, people who say they love God and want to know Him, questions about theology are almost entirely unknown. Even in the inter-religious groups of clergy I’ve taken part in, we curiously almost never discuss theology. ...

Why? It’s because of a movement from the Protestant Reformation called pietism, whose most pervasive inheritance to us Christians is the feeling that doctrine doesn’t really matter, that a serious Christian is marked not so much by what he believes but by how sincerely he feels about God and by his moral behavior. Pietism has spread far beyond the churches of the Reformation and their numerous children, and it affects Christians of every communion, including Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics.

Ironically, though, even though most Christians no longer care about doctrine, they still believe in it, though more often at a subconscious level. But even beyond the question of belief is the effect that doctrine has on their worship, their morality, and their sense of how to bring the Gospel to other people. Here are a few examples: If you do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, you probably will not have communion often, and when you do, you may well give it to just anyone. If you believe in “once saved, always saved,” logically, you can spend your life in sin, being comfortable in the knowledge that you have your irrevocable ticket to Heaven. If you do not believe that any one church is the true Church, then you will probably not care about heresy and you will not care that people who believe something radically different from what you do could be heading in a different spiritual direction than you are; you may even begin to say that all religions are “true” paths.

Whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, doctrine really does matter. It matters even for atheists. What you believe about the nature of the universe, whether or not there is a God or gods, whether or not a divine being would become a man, and what all that means will have a profound effect on how you live your life, both for yourself and in community (or lack thereof) with others. ...

... theology isn’t just a bunch of spiritual opinions. Theology is not just life and death, but eternal life and death. We have to get it right not just so we can belong to the right churchy club, but so we can grab hold of sanity in an insane world, so we can seek out the profound while surrounded by triviality, so we can pursue beauty in the midst of ugliness. 

There is quite a contrast between what Fr. Andrew has written and what many say within the Episcopal Church. John Westerhoff, writing in A People Called Episcopalians, offers a view I've heard many times: "Orthodoxy for us is right worship and not right belief."  Westerhoff continues driving a wedge between worship and doctrine when he writes: "Our primary identity is as a community of practice."  In other words, "we are bound together by our liturgy rather than doctrinal emphasis."  And so doing (practices of piety, common prayer, liturgy) takes virtually exclusionary precedence over believing (right doctrine, creeds).

Part of what we do, of course, is gather Sunday after Sunday for the Eucharist.  So Westerhoff's claim is that common prayer and the common cup rather than common belief provide the basis of Anglican identity.  It's almost as though sacraments and liturgy are empty vessels which each of us can fill with whatever meaning we like because they lack the integrity of a doctrinal content that could challenge our subjective preferences.  The important thing is to gather for common prayer.  You can believe anything you like, even if it contradicts what the liturgy affirms.  The important thing is to gather as a community for worship.  

In his blog posting Fr. Andrew notes that "Orthodoxy means true glory," and he goes on to write: "Doctrine ('teaching') includes not just dogma, but every teaching and true tradition pertaining to union with the Holy Trinity—worship, asceticism, hierarchy, canonical tradition, and so forth."  From what I know of Anglicanism, the idea that doctrine or teaching includes not just dogma but also worship makes perfect sense. And if prayer really does shape believing, that can only be because prayer entails substantive doctrinal content. Right worship and right belief are not adversaries, but rather flip sides of the same coin. Westerhoff is wrong: orthodoxy is both right worship and right belief!

In light of the downplaying or rejection of right belief by some Episcopalians, I'm again reminded of Leander S. Harding and Christopher Wells' 2010 call for the Episcopal Church to proactively focus on studying, preaching, and teaching basic doctrine:

The Episcopal Church needs a movement among a critical mass of leaders, especially priests and bishops of the church, to place the teaching and preaching of basic Christian doctrines about the person and work of Christ at the center of their ministry. ... Such a movement would per force refocus the life of our church on that which is truly central, and help to frame a way forward in Christ with respect to our continued disagreements. The center of the Church is not the midpoint between extremes but the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, the Messiah of God. 

Most of the published responses to this call to return to basic doctrine were less than enthusiastic.  Ian Douglas and Jo Bailey Wells, for example, contend that since "the Episcopal Church is not a church that readily thinks in terms of 'doctrine'" we should focus instead on narrative, liturgy, and mission (as though such things don't presuppose, enact, and entail doctrine).  And Bishop Shannon Johnston and Ian Markham caution against a return to basic doctrine "lead[ing] to the persecution or vilification of those who are seeking to engage imaginatively with modernity." But what if those "seeking to engage imaginatively with modernity" do so in ways that carry us off the Christian reservation?  Is it persecuting or vilifying them to uphold the normative boundaries of the historic Christian faith?  Is it persecution and vilification to say "no" to imaginative revisioning of doctrine that changes its core meaning?

Missing here is any sense that right doctrine has anything to do with (in the words of Fr. Andrew) "eternal life and death."  If we follow folks like Westerhoff, there's a disconnect between how we think and act on the one hand and the language of our Prayer Book liturgies on the other hand.  The dissonance this creates comes out clearly when, following the calendar of the Church year, we remember persons who suffered as confessors and martyrs for the basics of the Christian faith. For them, the truth of right doctrine was about "eternal life and death." It mattered so much that they were willing to suffer and die for it. If only they had known that orthodoxy is not about right belief, it might have saved them a lot of trouble!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

N. T. Wright: "We Are Wrong About Jesus"

Bishop N. T. Wright talks briefly about how Christians have domesticated, diminished, and overspiritualized Jesus, why we resist God's rule, and what Jesus was really all about: