Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Dean of the National Cathedral: "Jesus' resurrection is not a litmus test"

On the second Sunday of Easter, the Very Reverend Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, preached a sermon in which he noted his own personal dislike of the series Downton Abbey and his aversion to "two entirely contradictory and unsatisfactory" approaches to preaching on the significance of "doubting Thomas" (one "traditionalist", the other "progressive")

Here's an excerpt from the heart of what Dean Hall says in his sermon:

Jesus's resurrection is not a litmus test of faith. It is an invitation into mystery. ...
For me, what Thomas makes the case for is God's invitation to trust our own experience of life and to ground our faith in it.  ...
God did not raise Jesus so that some people who think one way about it could use their certainty to browbeat others who think about it differently. God raised Jesus so that you and I and God’s world could give ourselves over to a new way of being with each other in the world. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is not to memorize by rote every doctrinal point in the catechism. The way to a fulfilled and creative spiritual life is to claim your true identity, as Thomas did, as someone to whom Jesus offers a relationship and a journey.
If the world is big enough to accommodate those who both love and despise Downton Abbey, the church is big enough to hold both traditionalists and progressives, the believers and the doubters. In his new risen life with the Father and with his companions, Jesus calls us to join him in a new, abundant way of living that will transform both us and the world. Only dictatorships insist on a unified narrative. One of the great strengths of our comprehensive, Anglican way of being Christian lies in our openness to multiple points of view.

There are numerous problems with this.  I'll highlight just a few.

To say that Jesus' resurrection is not a litmus test of faith but rather an invitation into mystery fails to adequately take into account the witness of Scripture and Tradition.  According to that witness, everything hinges on the reality of the resurrection.  Without the reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead (as opposed to alternative understandings that dismiss the fleshly resurrection of the dead), there's no such thing as Christian faith.  As noted in a previous posting on Bishop Budde's Easter agnosticism, the apostle Paul gets it right: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:13-14).  If the apostle Paul is right, then the resurrection is, indeed, the litmus test for authentic Christian faith.

Dean Hall goes on to say that the point of the story about Thomas in John 20:19-31 is to highlight "God's invitation to trust our own experience of life and to ground our faith in it" so that we can have "a creative and fulfilled spiritual life."  Trusting in "our own experience of life" as opposed to trusting in the objective reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead as the grounding of our faith: that sounds a lot like Bishop Budde's reduction of Christianity to subjective spiritual experience According to that reduction, "resurrection" is a symbol for a subjective phenomenon that entails enlightenment and liberation from impediments to personal fulfillment.  But as I noted in a previous posting:

Like the counsel of self-help gurus, [such a grounding for faith] may give inspiration and hope to some people for this life.  But, as the apostle Paul rightly notes, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). 

It's also a false dichotomy to pit the reality of the resurrection as the litmus test for authentic Christian faith against an invitation into mystery.  It's both a litmus test and an invitation into mystery!  As I noted in my sermon for Easter Day:

... resurrection defies everything we thought we knew about the immutable laws that govern reality. And that's because resurrection means bodily life after bodily death. And that challenges everything we think we know about the world and how it works. Just as the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun displaces humanity from the center of the universe, Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead displaces human reason as the supreme authority and sufficient arbiter of truth. 

As a result, the resurrection pushes us beyond ourselves into the mystery of God, a mystery which can never be fully grasped by human reason or experience

And while it appears that Dean Hall rejects litmus tests of faith as tyrannical ("Only dictatorships insist on a unified narrative," he writes), what else can the following statement from his sermon be but itself a litmus test of faith?

A mature, open community can live with multiple narratives.

So if, for example, someone repudiates Bishop Spong's Good Friday rejection of atonement theology - if that person is unwilling to embrace Spong's alternative narrative of who Jesus was, why he died, and what the resurrection is really all about as a viable option within the Church - then, according to Dean Hall, that person is immature and close-minded.  So either accept heterodoxy and heresy as co-equal with orthodoxy, or be branded a browbeating bigot. That sure sounds like a litmus test to me!

And finally, comparing acceptance or rejection of orthodox views of the resurrection of Jesus to whether or not persons like the PBS Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey is an absurd trivialization of the heart and soul of the Christian faith.  This comparison reduces the foundation event for the entire Christian religion to a matter of indifferenceFor in the grand scheme of things, it no more matters what anybody thinks about Downton Abbey than it does whether or not they like mint chocolate chip ice cream.  So if we follow Dean Hall's logic, it no more matters what anybody believes about the resurrection of Jesus than it does whether or not they prefer Coke to Pepsi, or prefer to watch The Walking Dead instead of Downton Abbey.

By stark contrast, the witness of the New Testament tells us that it makes all the difference in the world what one believes about the resurrection of Jesus.  For, as the apostle Paul notes, the resurrection is the beginning of "a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17).  It is the beginning of God's D-Day assault on the forces of sin, evil, and death.  And the witness of the Christian martyrs shows that acceptance of the resurrection as the inauguration of God's new creation is so important that it is worth dying for.

Dean Hall's comparison with Downton Abbey completely misses the point that something far more important is at stake than personal preferences regarding entertainment.  That something is the life-saving, creation-transforming Truth revealed in the person of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.  

In the 20th chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, Thomas got that point. And in response he cried out, "My Lord and my God!"  Such a confession of faith bears witness to the Lordship and divinity of Jesus.  And the truth of Thomas' confession is grounded in the reality of the resurrection as the foundation and litmus test of the Christian faith.  Sadly, it appears that many movers and shakers in the Episcopal Church believe otherwise.


C. Wingate said...

What is perhaps most ironic about his Downton Abbey denunciad is that it doesn't occur to him that his failure to give a persuasive rationale for disliking it reflects as well against his theological arguments. Besides that, my Thmoas sermon didn't take either of his two paths. Perha[s I shall have to post it, for his enlightenment.

BC said...

"Only dictatorships insist on a unified narrative". I suppose we could interpret this line charitably, by placing the emphasis on "insist". The Church *invites* us to enter into the Mystery of Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection through an affirmation of the Rule of Faith (a unified narrative provided by the catholic creeds).

In the absence of this rule of faith, what is it that the Church proclaims? What is the Mystery that we then invite people to enter into? The Mystery comes to us through the rule of faith.

As for Anglicanism not having a unified narrative - what exactly are the Creeds, Prayerbook, and Articles?

Bryan Owen said...

Very well stated, BC!

Equating Anglican comprehensiveness with a strongly articulated openness to theological pluralism and a weakly articulated commitment to theological norms (Creeds, Prayerbook, Articles, etc.) grows tiresome. Perhaps it's worth asking the question: what is the payoff in construing Anglicanism in that way?

C. Wingate said...

Considering the "unified narrative" insisted on concerning ECUSA polity, that's another ironic line.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you, C. Wingate. The ironies abound.

Bryan Hunter said...

So, let me see if I have this right: The good dean asserts that the church is big enough to accommodate traditionalists (I assume by that he means orthodox believers) and progressives (and by that I assume he means heterodox unitarians), but just not The Episcopal Church, which will not rest until it purges itself of all orthodox believers.

Then "A mature, open community can live with multiple narratives." This is the kind of Episcobabel that is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This is the same kind of meaningless nonsense that literally drove me out of pursuing a PhD in literature.

The Underground Pewster said...

This kind of meaningless nonsense is what I call "burying the Resurrection with words."