cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
As preached to the Church of the Ascension during our service of Morning Prayer, the second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 20, 2013.

Psalm 36:5-10
Isaiah 62:1-5
Canticle 11
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

This is the collect for the commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., celebrated either on April 4 or January 15:
“Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last; Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
The collect uses the term prophet to describe the Rev. Dr. King because King filled in the twentieth century the function which in ancient Israel was held by the prophets: acting as an intermediary between God and the people.

Isaiah Ben-Amoz was a Jewish prophet who preached in Judah in the eighth-century B.C.E., but the book of the Bible which bears his name was probably written by many different authors over the course of two centuries. Scholars divide the book into three main parts: the first consisting of Isaiah’s prophecies and material added by his 7th-century disciples, the second addressing the Jews of the Babylonian Captivity in the mid-sixth century.

The third portion, known as Trito-Isaiah or simply Third Isaiah, is the portion from which our first lesson and canticle were taken. It is a collection of poetry, probably itself composed by multiple authors shortly following the return from the exile of the Babylon Captivity, prophesying “the restoration of the nation of Israel and a new creation in God's glorious future kingdom” (Wikipedia) to “a Jewish community in late sixth century Judah struggling to rebuild itself” (The Inclusive Bible).

The eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem was one of hope for the Jews who had witnessed the destruction of their beloved, sacred city and its temple. It would be a chance for the sovereign authority of the Jewish God to be established once and for all and for both the righteous and the wicked to receive their just desserts. This, of course, is one of the functions of a prophet: not only to relay God’s displeasure with the inequities of the people, but also to provide them with a motivating vision of the fulfillment of God’s Will. For the Rev. Dr. King, this motivating vision was of course his “dream” of a nation where children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, a world marked by racial reconciliation, economic justice, and active peacemaking. For the Jewish prophets of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., it was the New Jerusalem.

In a Hebrew Scripture reading this morning, the biblical author(s) use the image of a bride to describe the New Jerusalem and its special relationship with God the Creator and Ruler. For us Christians, we cannot but help but view this image through the lens of our traditional understanding of the Church--one, holy, catholic, and apostolic--as the Bride of Christ. For we remember that just as in the biblical conception of marriage the spouses leave their parents to cleave to each other and become one flesh, so too has Christ, in the mystery of the Incarnation, come to us from God the Parent to cleave to humanity and become one flesh with us.

We are the Bride of Christ. We are the New Jerusalem--right here, at the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City. We are the builders of the Kin-dom of God.

It is of course true that without the amazing free gift of God’s grace, we are utterly powerless in the face of sin and death. This is simply good theology, the clear and constant teaching of the Church across the ages, from Saint Augustine of Hippo to the Protestant Reformers. But it is just as true that with the free gift of grace we are empowered to act as God’s agents in building the kindom. This, too, is the clear and constant teaching of Mother Church. Saint Augustine wrote an entire book called De Civitate Dei, or The City of God, in which he put forth both a theology of history and a challenge to human society to pursue what he called the City of Heaven.

As St. Teresa of Avila famously wrote, Ours are the eyes with which Jesus looks compassion on this world, Ours are the feet with which Jesus walks to do good, Ours are the hands, with which Jesus blesses all the world.

We are the hands and feet of Jesus because we have been mystically incorporated into the very Body of Christ through the sacrament of our baptism. Just as Jesus transformed that water into wine back at the wedding in Cana, so too has Jesus transformed us into new wine, to go out and get the world drunk on the good news that Jesus is Lord.

Because that is what the power of the Holy Spirit is like. Remember the disciples on the day of Pentecost: the crowd saw them, speaking in tongues, and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

This is a message of hope, but it is also a message of awesome responsibility. What does it mean for us who have been taught by Jesus to pray for the coming of God’s kindom, that the will of God may be done on Earth, to put our actions behind those prayers? To not only recite those words, but to live them? To heed the prophetic voices of our generations--and to be those voices for others? To work towards a world marked by peace and by justice--instead of war and division? To receive the love of Christ, our collective spouse, and to transmit it to each other?

During this time of transition, it is an especially good time for us to reflect on what, precisely, is the role the Spirit has in mind for us in the coming of the kindom of God. What is our congregational charism?

Whatever it is, I know one thing: so long as we are always seek to be motivated by love, we cannot go far wrong. As I was driving home from work this morning, I was listening to On Being on NPR and thinking to myself, “I really need to come up with a conclusion to the sermon I’m giving in two and a half hours.”

On the radio program, poet Elizabeth Alexander read from the poem she had read at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. “What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance,” she read.

And that’s pretty much what it comes down to, isn’t it? One might find Alexander’s poetry trite--I remember not being particularly impressed with it when I heard it back in 2009--but it’s impossible to disagree with the sentiment. Jesus’ resistance notwithstanding, perhaps the Blessed Virgin Mother knew what she was doing when she caused the ministry of Jesus to be initiated at that wedding in Cana, amidst a ritual focused on love and covenant. Because the reasons the image of the Bride of God has remained so powerful across the ages doesn’t have anything to do with notions of gender or sexual orientation, with headship or submission. It’s about love and covenant.

Amen.
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
I'm hard at work on my post(s) about the affinity between Wittgensteinian metaethics and progressive Christian moral theology, but in the meantime I'd like to direct you to the post From Rome to Canterbury: My Journey to Anglicanism by Thomas Bradshaw over at The Empty Nave. This past Sunday--which was, of course the Feast of Pentecost--I had the pleasure and honor of witnessing Thomas make a mature public affirmation of his faith and commitment to the responsibilities of his baptism and receive the laying on hands by the Rt. Rev. Frederick Borsch. I'm proud and pleased to have been (in his words)
an inclusive, wise lay-minister and vestry member, who would later become a good friend--that pushed me to study hard and nourished my hunger of a greater theological education than what was available for me.
I should also note that some eleven hundred miles away on that same day, another dear friend of mine--Ruth Ellen of Patron of Poets, Scholars, and Nuns--was also receiving the sacrament of confirmation.

As I witnessed the confirmation of Thomas and the rest of his confirmation class, I of course remembered my own confirmation by George Councell (our diocesan bishop) in June 2008, but was also struck by the form used for the reception of candidates who have already been confirmed in another denomination:
N., we recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless, preserve, and keep you. Amen.
I have frequently noted that one of the things I like about Anglicanism is that it is very clear as to the distinction between the Communion and the catholic Church, with the former only being a branch of the latter. Thomas was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and confirmed in the Episcopal Church; Ruth Ellen was baptized in the United Church of Christ and confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I myself received both my baptism and my confirmation in the Episcopal Church. But we are all members of the same, one Church:
There is one Body and one Spirit, just as you were called into one Hope when you were called. There is one Savior, one faith, one baptism, one God and creator of all, who is over all, who works through all and is within all. (Ephesians 4:4-5)
Pentecost is often called "the birthday of the Church." As I've mentioned before, I find this somewhat misleading, and prefer to think of it instead as a preliminary coming of age, one of many different milestones of maturation from the teachings of the prophets to the confession of Peter to the resurrection at Easter to the ascension into heaven to the outpouring of the Spirt on Pentecost to the great ecumenical councils and beyond all the way to the eventual instantiation of the Kindom of Heaven in its fullness. One of the authorized collects for the feast of Pentecost states that on that day God "opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of [the] Holy Spirit," the other that God "taught the hearts of [God's] faithful people by sending to them the light of [the] Holy Spirit."

As an Anglo-Catholic, I believe that the Church subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate, but also that the elements of truth and sanctification found outside those structures compel towards catholic unity under apostolic authority. I'm reminded of this quote from Fr. Richard P. McBrien's 101 Questions and Answers on the Church, which I previously quoted in my essay History and Christ:
[Jesus Christ] is the great sacrament of our encounter with God and God's with us. The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of our encounter with Christ and of Christ's with us. And the seven sacraments, in their turn, are sacraments of our encounter with the Church and of the Church's with us. Indeed, the other members of the Church are sacraments of encounter for us and we for them because, in the Christian scheme of things, we experience and manifest the love of God through love of neighbor.
On this past Saturday--the day before Pentecost, and the penultimate day of Easter--my family buried my paternal grandfather. One of my duties consisted of picking some of the readings to be used at his funeral mass at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church. I chose Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-3:9 as the Hebrew Scripture reading and Acts 10:34-48 as the New Testament reading. I chose the passage from Acts in part because it is traditional to read from that book in the Easter season, and part of the reason I extended it beyond the suggested reading of 10:34-43 was (beyond the fact that I needed to fiddle with it and I like long readings; my cousin-in-law, who read the Hebrew Scripture reading, which I also extended, was less than thrilled at me) because the following section seemed especially appropriate for the day before Pentecost (as the priest noted in his homily):
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
This is, of course, a story of radical inclusion. We are the Church, but the Church is God's, not ours. We don't get to set the boundaries.

cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
The first and most important need of the Church is of course to serve as a means of grace for the members of the Body of Christ and as a source of light for the world as a whole. All other needs must, if necessary, be ultimately subordinated to that central one. On the parish level, this means first and foremost performing the sacraments, serving the community (global and local) through the works of mercy and justice work, and seeing to the spiritual and corporeal needs of parishioners. Much of a priest’s attention, then, is quite properly focused on the “bread and butter” of church operations: on celebrating the Eucharist, preaching the Good News, baptising infants and converts, visiting the sick, comforting the distressed, marrying those in love, and burying the dead.

To most fully achieve its purpose, however, it is necessary for a parish or mission to draw on the various gifts provided by the Spirit to each and every member; a church which authentically lives out the calling the Spirit delivers to its members will (if such is God’s will) thrive and grow as a consequence, whereas one which adopts a false persona in order to attract new members will in fact alienate them by virtue of that very inauthenticity. The role of the ordained presbytery, then, is to assist congregations in thinking theologically so as to develop their own sense of their guiding principles in order to live them out in their engagement with the world as a whole, to help a congregation realize what makes them special and unique and to more fully grow into that vision which is organic to them alone--through their liturgy, through their service, and through their attempts at dialogue. Christian education opportunities need to be available for both adults and youth to “teach the conflicts” (cf. Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars ) that have divided the Church, both historical and contemporary (e.g., Eucharistic presence, the resistability of grace, the nature(s) of Christ, etc.), while making clear that all points of view are welcome in the Episcopal Church and at the Lord’s table.

Furthermore, each parish or mission must seek to build connections not only in the local community (although of course it must not stop building such connections!) but also across the diocese and across the globe. For better or worse, the era in which a parish could survive by serving a small local community bound together by their geographical condition is ending; in what Tony Jones calls “this postmodern, wiki-world,” the churches which are thriving are those urban and suburban churches which can reach across an urban city or suburban region to form connections among geographically disparate members.

For myself as a young adult in the Diocese of New Jersey, I have found myself invaluably enriched by a number of retreats and volunteer opportunities offered to young adults in the diocese, almost all organized by the Rev. Greg Bezilla (the Episcopal chaplain to Rutgers University). These diocesan events have managed to supplement what my parish offers in an area where it is particularly weak (it having relatively few young adults, and literally no other regular attenders in their late twenties) and connect me with other Episcopalian young adults in New Jersey. The age of Facebook and other social networking technologies (including this one!) makes it possible for the relationships forged at such events to endure even across distances as far as that between New Jersey and Arizona--or even across the globe itself.

The job of the priest, then, is to facilitate the building of these types of connections and to empower parishioners to take their places as not only members of a parish, but citizens of a Church which is truly Catholic, taking part in conversations and dialogues which extend beyond the limits of a brick-and-mortar church building. This ecclesiology is distinctly Episcopal in both senses of the word: locating ultimate stability not in the parish church or the inter/national organization but in the diocesan cathedral.
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
Proper 14 Year A

Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

I want to tell you a story about an Italian teenager named Chiara Offreduccio. Chiara was the oldest daughter of a wealthy nobleman, engaged to a man of wealth, destined to a life of pleasure and leisure--until she heard the teachings of a local preacher, who spoke of the need to live a life of simplicity, in voluntary poverty, and to serve the poor. She ran away from home and became an important leader in the new movement started by that local preacher.

The town was Assisi, the year was 1212, and the name of the preacher was Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, better known to us as St. Francis. We recognize the contributions of Chiara to the Church this Thursday, when we celebrate the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi.

The life of St. Clare of Assisi exists as a shining example of the Franciscan values of simplicity and care for the poor. Yet we must remember she was able to live such a life of saintly virtue only by defying those authorities which her 13th-century culture claimed to have rightful power over her: her father, her promised husband. To be accounted righteous under that culture, that Law, it would have been necessary for her to submit to those powers. But Clare knew there was a higher righteousness she was called to obey, one which made no distinction between male and female, leading her to write the first monastic rule known to have been written by a woman.

For first-century Jews, the Law by which their “righteousness” would be judged would have been theMosaic Code, the rules set down in the Torah. It’s this desire to be counted as “righteous under the Law” which leads the priest and the Levite to pass by the bloodied man in the street in Jesus’ famous parable, for touching such a man would have rendered them ritually unclean. And thus it was left to a Samaritan--a heretic!--to respond in a neighborly way and render aid.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds that Jewish culture, the culture of the priest and the Levite, that for them too, there was a higher righteousness, a righteousness of the heart, of faith. Now there are many, especially among our siblings-in-Christ of a more Calvinist persuasion, who would have us believe that all St. Paul is saying is that people who “believe in” Christ go to heaven, and people who don’t go to hell. But I think St. Paul’s message is far more beautifully challenging than that.

St. Paul writes: “if you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved.”

The heart--Greek kardia, from which our English word “cardiology” derives--was not the seat of intellectual activity for St. Paul’s audience. That would have been the mind--the psyche, from which we get “psychology.” Of course, neither was it simply an organ pumping blood through the body. Instead, it represented a person’s will: the volitional faculty that made a human being capable of self-determining, the center and seat of spiritual life. This suggests to me that “believing in one’s heart that God raised Jesus from the dead” is less about the intellectual assent to a checklist of propositions about Jesus of Nazareth than it is about allowing one’s actions to be ruled by the power and compassion of the Risen Christ, allowing ourselves to be transformed by grace--that amazing, unearned gift which is the birthright of every Christian by virtue of our baptism--to make our lives a living testimony to the compassion and power of the Lord alive in us, paving the way for our salvation here on Earth: our right relationship with God and with God’s church.

Similarly, for a Christian in St. Paul’s time to “confess with one’s lips that Jesus is the Lord” was a radical act likely to result in alienation from family and outright persecution from society at large. It was to announce oneself not answerable to the worldly powers which sought to control and oppress, but to the one Lord, Jesus Christ, and Christ’s teachings of love of God and neighbor. Such a Christian would be actively living out their principles in a powerful and dangerous way.

For us in twenty-first century America, in a world of Christian privilege and cultural hegemony where every U.S. President for as long as any of us here can remember has at least nominally been a Christian, where we probably get many of our Christian holy days off of school or work, to merely announce our self-identity as Christians falls far short of what St. Paul had in mind; indeed, in many ways it represents its very antithesis. Katharine Jefferts Schori, our Presiding Bishop here in the Episcopal Church, has spoken of what she calls “the great Western heresy - that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of all being.”

Jefferts Schori later clarified her remarks by noting, “If salvation is understood only as ‘getting right with God’ without considering ‘getting right with all our neighbors,’ then we've got a heresy on our hands.”

What it would look like for this parish of the Church of the Ascension, here in Gloucester City, to occupy as radical a place in our twenty-first century culture as did the early Church in the first and second centuries, or the community of Sts. Francis and Clare in the thirteenth? What would it look like for us to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord in a way which lives up to the true depth of St. Paul’s challenge? To proclaim a Jesus who stands in challenge to a twenty-first century “righteousness of Law” which seeks to divide us according to gender or race instead of unite us in one Body, tells us to fear the stranger instead of to love them as neighbor and as sibling, values the worth of a human being by the size of their house, their checkbook, or their pocketbook, instead of extolling the value and dignity of every human person as a beloved child of God Almighty, made in the divine image?

Mike King, a progresssive evangelical author and blogger, has written about two models of evanglelization. The first he calls believe-behave-belong: "If we can just get people to believe the gospel, they will begin behaving properly, and eventually they can belong to our churches." But King suggested that a different model exists, belong-behave-believe, where "evangelism happens quite naturally when we are entrenched in faith communities that are actively caught up in cooperating with God’s compelling work of restoration--restoration between people and God; between people and their own brokenness; between people and other people; and restoration of all creation. As our God invites us into the divine fellowship of the Trinity [King writes], so we should invite people to join us in community.”

Some of you here today are visitors to this church. Some of you have come to see me preach. Some of you have come only to hear me preach. I hope I have communicated to all of you that you are welcome here--today, next Sunday, next month, whenever. Chances are, I haven’t as well as I could have, so let me reiterate it now: the Episcopal Church welcomes you.

Whoever you are, whatever you are, wherever else you go to church, whatever you believe or don’t believe, whatever you have done or may do in the future, the Episcopal Church welcomes you. As slogans go, it’s not particularly profound or sexy, but at its heart it represents the crux of what it means to be Christian. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all.

It’s a challenge that all of us who are baptised members here at the Church of the Ascension--we who are listed in the collective, right on the front of our bulletins, as ministers in this church--need to live up to. We have been sent to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world--and, as Clare’s mentor Francis famously said, to, when necessary, use words--so that others may say of us that verse from the Book of Isaiah which St. Paul quotes: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Living our lives so as to be counted righteous under the Law is safe, comfortable, risk-free. It is not easy to go against the teachings of our parents, our culture, our worldly authorities, the logic of empire which has co-opted much of Christianity. It is tempting to want to play it safe, to not want to leave the safety of our boat. But as our gospel passage this morning demonstrates, to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear is to sink for sure. It is only by marching ever forward, leaving safety behind us and exposing ourselves to risk, embracing the truly radical option represented by the righteousness of the heart, that we will be empowered to do what the world tells us is impossible.

Amen.
cjbanning: (Symposium)
[librarything.com profile] myopicbookworm at LibraryThing passed on the following article from the BBC: Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world. I find myself mostly encouraged by the ability of these Dutch churches to live out a Christianity which encourages questioning, critical reasoning, and faith-enriching doubt, but I do find myself left with a couple of criticisms.

1. Liberal historicism and the Ebionite heresy. I find myself frustrated with the Rev. Kirsten Slattenaar's quoted comments:
"I think 'Son of God' is a kind of title," she says. "I don't think he was a god or a half god. I think he was a man, but he was a special man because he was very good in living from out of love, from out of the spirit of God he found inside himself."

Mrs Slattenaar acknowledges that she's changing what the Church has said, but, she insists, not the "real meaning of Christianity".

She says that there "is not only one answer" and complains that "a lot of traditional beliefs are outside people and have grown into rigid things that you can't touch any more".
This, I think, is not only admittedly and unequivocally heretical, but falls into the sort of "liberal historism" which represents one of my main criticisms of contemporary liberal theology, as I've discussed in my posts Historicity and Faith and Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus is a Spiritual Dead End. In the latter post, I wrote:
My bias is to think that properly understood (where "properly understood" of course means "understood the way Cole wants it to be understood") Chalcedonian Christology presents us with the antidotes to both types of fundamentalism. Worship of the Word-Made-Flesh, eternally begotten from God the Mother, both fully human AND fully divine, two natures in one person: this, I think, is about as far removed from a cult of personality as it is possible to get.

Of course, there are those who would argue that my account of "Word made flesh" is implicitly docetist. I'd argue that the fact that "made flesh" is in the title automatically negates any possibility of a fall into the docetist heresy (not that I'm any advocate for orthodoxy for orthodoxy's sake, exactly), but I understand the argument that the "made flesh" is meaningless without an emphasis on the particularity of the incarnated human being within history. I understand it--but I still think it's wrong.
I much prefer the Rev. Klaas Hendrikse's approach. If you click on the image above his quote "You don't have to believe that Jesus was physically resurrected," a video will play (after a short advertisement) in which he explains the different spiritual meanings "life" and "death" can hold even if there was never an actual historical figure named Yeshua bar Yosef, from Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate. This requires a reevaluation, but not an abandonment, of Christian orthodoxy.

As one of the parishioners at Exodus Church puts it, this "is using the Bible in a metaphorical way so I can bring it to my own way of thinking, my own way of doing." I'd object to the typically Protestant, individualist emphasis on "my own way of thinking"--I think we need to always do our thinking within the context of the sacramental lives of our community, drawing on our catholic tradition--but I can't argue with the need to be open to questions and challenges.

2. Antipathy towards Tradition. After all, at its heart, that's what the Church is: constantly in conversation, questioning and challenging. Another parishioner of Exodus Church "believes traditional Christianity places God in too restricted a box," and there is of course a sense in which that has been true for the entire life of the Church of Rome. Yet Exodus Church seems to be reacting most strongly to something which is not "traditional" at all--the sort of reactionary, legalistic, conservative Protestantism which has flourished (to a degree) in the last two hundred years (and which seems to have overtaken the Church of Rome in many ways over the last two or four papacies). If we examine Christian tradition in its fullness, the questioning, critical spirit (dare I even say Spirit?) has been pushing forth the evolution of the Church since her earliest days.

At the end, challenging the tradition is the tradition.

A Linkspam

Thursday, 9 June 2011 07:49 am
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
I have a few things I'd like to share, but don't really have enough to say about to justify a post for each on its own, so I'll compile them here:
  • Ross Douthat in the NYT: Dr. Kevorkian’s Victims and Suicide and Abortion. "If we allow that the right to die exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best." Of course, if one believes, as I do--and this has been my consistent position for as long as I can remember--that there exists a universal, positive right to take one's own life (just as I believe there exists a positive right to terminate one's own pregnancy), then the logic seems both obvious and not particularly problematic. Douthat recognizes much of this himself this morning with his blogpost What's Wrong with Suicide?: "The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn’t amount to much if you don’t disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives." I'd argue the right to suicide flows naturally and inevitably from the understandings of autonomy, self-determination, and human dignity which are foundational to liberal democracy (and as such, to progressive Christianity). As such, any religiously-motivated argument against suicide should of course be considered irrelevant to our public policy. But I also don't think the so-called "Christian" argument against suicide is as well-supported as most people seem to assume. Scripture seems to be largely silent on the issue, so far as I can tell. (Then again, I don't claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, so if I'm missing a particularly salient verse or set of verses, feel free to point it/them out to me.)
  • Sarah Posner writes at Religion Dispatches that The Problem with Ayn Rand Isn’t Atheism. I'd say that the problem isn't with atheism or atheists in general--to reject someone's policy insights because they don't believe in God would of course be foolish in the extreme. But at the same time, to treat Rand like a libertarian who just happens to be an a theist as well is to misunderstand both Ayn Rand's psychology and Objectivism as a system down to their respective cores. Just as Rand's hatreds of communism and of the Church shared many distinctive features, so do her rejections of altruism and of theism ultimately stem from the same poisoned well. Richard Beck at Experimental Theology asks a similar question with Can a Christian Be a Follower of Ayn Rand?
  • Dear Reese Witherspoon: All Girls Are ‘Good Girls.’ "If we are dedicated to promoting the collective power of girls and women, we cannot police their sexuality in an attempt to make girls 'good.'" Amen.
  • Mike King, in asking How has evangelism changed in the past two or three decades? puts forth what I think are two useful models of the ecclesiology/evangelism interaction: believe-behave-belong ("If we can just get people to believe the gospel, they will begin behaving properly, and eventually they can belong to our churches") and belong-behave-believe ("Evangelism happens quite naturally when we are entrenched in faith communities that are actively caught up in cooperating with God’s compelling work of restoration").
     
cjbanning: (Trinity)
I'm a big fan of iconoclasm, when it takes the form of questioning previously unquestioned "truths." I'm a big fan of the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw for precisely that reason. Indeed, I've preached before my parish church my belief that our Christian tradition and relationship with God calls us to to exactly that sort of iconoclasm:
We must work to develop our faith lives, to question why we believe what we say we believe and why we do what we do. We cannot be afraid of the difficult questions, or be ashamed of those doubts which are a natural element of a mature faith.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We are called to challenge too-simple truths, to reject fallacious authority, to argue with our God. God does not need or want yes-men and yes-women and yes-persons: God is God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God wants and needs a family of sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ--a communion of saints.
Yet the Protestant form of iconoclasm--the literal removal of icons (i.e., images of God and of the saints) from our Christian practice--is, well, far too literal an understanding of the sort of iconoclasm we are called to practice.

Protestants argue that the use of iconography represents a sort of idolatry: something else taking the place of God. But the fact is, the more we restrict the library of images we have in relating to God, the more likely we are to react idolatrously to the few images which are allowed to remain: thus, e.g., the resistance to using anything other than masculine language to refer to God. The road towards fundamentalism and biblical literalism has already been embarked upon.

In his essay Why Evolution Should Be Taught in Church, Paul Wallace addresses the need for some Christians to restrict the understandings we are allowed to have of God, and how this falls short of our true call as the Church:
[S]ome churchgoers do not attend every Sunday in search of answers. These people understand the church not as a provider of answers but as a poser of questions. That is, for these Christians the task of the church is not to clear away mystery, but to deepen it; to teach its congregation how to bear mystery—and “the truth”—lightly. The unknowns of life may be terrifying, but this group knows that facing them squarely can be fantastically liberating.

[. . .]

The church [. . .] is passing up one of its greatest opportunities to apprehend the very God it claims to represent. This irony is due to a terrible case of what may be called “small-god-ism” and is, unfortunately, encouraged by much popular theology. This theology makes claims about scripture and church practice that reduce God to a cheerleader, or a cosmic vending machine, or some domesticated and pale image of our own confused selves. Such a god is clearly not sufficient to contain all of reality. [. . .]

If “God” is not large enough to contain this universe in all its immensity and complexity and age, then it’s just not God. God is not a thing; God does not exist like we exist, or like the moon exists. God is like nothing we can know in language or image. God transcends these things and all we can know or imagine.
cjbanning: (Default)
 What is the function of the historic episcopate in the 21st century?

One assumes that the historic episcopate holds a function and purpose beyond the simple passing of apostolic authority from one generation to the next. (Or, to put it another way, that this apostolic authority needs to be actually constitutive of something.) To reply that its function lies in the preservation of doctrine seems problematic insofar as there presently seems to be as much diversity of opinion within the historic episcopate (which after all contains both John Shelby Spong and Benedict XVI) as there is outside it.

My intuition is that the historic episcopate acts as an extraordinary (there's a pun in there somewhere) sign to the world of the unity and catholicity of the Church of Christ. But how and why this is so I find myself, for the moment, unable to fully articulate. 

cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
“That this Synod aware of the distress caused by recent divisions within the Anglican churches of the United States of America, recognize and affirm the desire of those who have formed the Anglican church in North America (ACNA) to remain within the Anglican family; acknowledge that this aspiration, in respect both of relations with the Church of England and membership of the Anglican Communion, raises issues which the relevant authorities of each need to explore further; and invite the Archbishops to report further to the Synod in 2011.”

http://www.churchnewsireland.org/news/acna-recognized-by-church-of-england-synod/

ETA:
Simply Massing Priest analyses the resolution. "Not only does the motion not affirm ACNA as part of the Anglican Communion, the principles of law (after all, the CofE General Synod is a legislative body with powers delegated from the UK Parliament) suggest that the amended motion explicitly denies that ACNA has standing in the Anglican Communion. [. . .] So, while the resolution nicely acknowledges that the founders of ACNA want to be part of the Anglican Communion, it is actually pretty explicit that they are not." It was, of course, immediately clear to me on reading the resolution that the headline was, if not totally inaccurate, at least strongly misleading.

And Brian Lewis, who was there, characterizes the way the resolution played out as a "decision to reject the call to 'express a desire to be in Communion with ACNA'" in his account, here. "It was hardly surprising however that nobody objected to final amendment, an acknowledgement of the distress caused by recent divisions within the Anglican churches of the United States of America and Canada - indeed I had referred to it myself when calling on synod members to support those who had remained faithful to their church." So apparently CoE does have some sense that encouraging schism is not a good idea.

cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
Fr. Dan Dunlap, writing at Catholic in the Third Millenium, nicely puts his finger on the way that both conservative and liberal approaches to the historicity of Scripture manage to miss the point completely:
[A]cademic honesty compels the scholar to admit that "proving" the historicity of the mythos is impossible. But then it should be noted that disproving the historicity of the mythos is just as certainly impossible (a fact that the likes of John Shelby Spong and company disingenuously dismiss). Simply put, the mythos – the very object of the Church's faith – is not subject to historical or scientific investigation (either in proof or disproof). Rather it transcends critical inquiry, while, paradoxically, benefiting in the many new ways of understanding the Faith that may thus emerge from such investigation into the biblical milieu itself.

[. . .]

The Christian Faith is not a belief in the historicity of the resurrection (as an end in itself), but rather faith in the resurrected Christ; it is not a belief in the historicity of the virgin birth (as an end in itself), but rather faith in the Christ who was born of a Virgin.
While Fr. Dan is, in my opinion, quite too quick to expel from the big tent of Christianity those who don't adhere to the doctrines that he and I see as central (e.g., the Trinity), he has an interesting view (which I can't disagree with) on how the apostolic churches (Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, some parts of Lutheranism, etc.)  have a "unique and peculiar calling within the kingdom of God to preserve and guard what can be termed the 'Great Story' or 'True Myth' (in Lewis' sense)." I in particular agree that it's not always clear how the process of demythologization inherent in the type of liberal historicism represented by "the likes of John Shelby Spong and company" serves to achieve this aim, which in many ways is the argument I make in my post Why the Quest for the Historical Jesus is a Spiritual Dead-End. (All through college I was convinced, albeit falsely, that Protestantism simply had no place for any viewpoint other than either this sort of liberal historicism or else biblical literalism.)

Of course, a large part of why this resonates with me is my peculiar mix of a relatively low view of Scripture (without disagreeing that the Bible contains all that is necessary to salvation, whatever that means) and my relatively high ecclesiology, which makes me committed first and foremost to what Fr. Dan calls "the mythos to which the early fathers provided normative articulation in ancient creedal and doxological symbols that are with us to the present day -- preserved in the liturgies of the great apostolic churches."
cjbanning: (Trinity)
1. Godhead. The apophatic denial of God's non-existence.
2. Trinity. God is one Being in three Persons.
3. Chalcedonian Christology. Hypostatic union: Jesus Christ is two natures, one human and one divine, united into one Person.
4. Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as complementary sources of revelation.
5. The Sacraments. The seven sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, ordination, marriage, healing) are the means of sanctifying grace, rites in which God is uniquely active, visible signs of an invisible reality.
6. Ex opere operato. The seven sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves, by the very fact of the actions’ being performed, because Christ is at work in them in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.
7. Baptismal Regeneration. The salvation of baptized persons (including those baptized by blood or desire, as well as by water) is uniquely mediated through the sacrament.
8. Real Presence. Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. (Radical transignification.)
9. Perseverance of Eucharistic Presence. Real Presence is not dependent on the act of drinking or eating and continues in the consecrated hosts beyond the celebration of the Eucharist.
10. Adorableness of the Eucharist. Worship may be properly rendered to the Blessed Sacrament.
11. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church of Jesus Christ.
12. Apostolic Succession. The spiritual authority placed on the apostles by Christ is passed through history via the institutional rites of the Church, i.e. the consecration of bishops. The one Church of Christ subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate.
13. Ordained Presbyterate. God specially calls some people (of all genders, races, and sexualities) to undergo the sacrament of ordination; to represent Christ and the Church of Christ, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.
14. Free Will. God has willed that human persons remain under the control of their own decisions. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within a human being.
15. Sin. The existence of corporate evil—sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism—such that human freedom is curtailed and diminished.
16. Sola gratia. Since human freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can the Church bring the relationship between God and human beings into full flower.
17. Resistability of Grace. The free wills of human beings may cooperate with God so as to prepare and dispose themselves for the attainment of salvation; human wills can also refuse complying, if they please.
18. Universal Potential for Redemption. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are for the benefit of all humankind, not just an elect.
19. Kingdom of Heaven. Through grace, humans are called to use their free will to pray for peace, fight for justice, and build God’s Kin(g)dom on Earth.
20. Intercession of Saints. It is proper to pray to the Saints and ask for their intercessions.
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
This morning, Tony Jones embedded the following video on Christian orthodoxy tests in one of his blog posts:

(For people reading this from the Facebook crosspost, which strips out embedded video, rather than from my Dreamwidth journal, you'll want to watch it here.)

Christians who believe homosexuality is a sin are a lot more socially damaging, more obstructionist in the building of the kingdom of God so to speak, than those who believe that the Holy Spirit flows only from the First Person of the Trinity and not from the First and Second Persons, but I take the point. We--with "we" being the entire catholic Church, or at least all of Western Christianity (i.e., Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Protestantism; I don't make any claims to knowledge about Eastern Orthodoxy)--don’t talk enough anymore about the Trinity, about the Holy Eucharist, etc. (Although I think this criticism is particularly levelable against the emergent church movement, which sometimes seems to eschew high-falutin’ theology in favor of “relational dialogue.” And yes, Circle of Hope definitely falls as subject to that criticism as anyone--not that I think the Episcopal Church is any better on the macro level, and my home parish certainly isn't on the micro level.) As Christians, we need to talk about these things much more, although probably as well as rather than instead ofthe more sexy culture war issues.

I wonder how this understanding fits into Jones' anti-denominationalism, however. I mean, there’s nothing I can think of which would stop a Unitarian and a Trinitarian from breaking bread together inside an emergent church faith community (although Jones points to the relational nature of the Trinity as one of the central themes of emergent-ism in another post), and a move away from denominationalism opens up the potential for a dialogue between them which wouldn’t exist if they both stayed with home churches which each taught their own particular brand of theology. But what would a belief in transubstantiation look like outside the context of an ordained prebyterate? And what would dialogue look like between someone who accepts the authority of the deuterocanonical books of the Hebrew Scriptures and one who doesn’t?


I guess another way of asking my question is: Is there an implicit claim about normative theological authority already structured into the emergent praxis? And if so, what is it? In what ways does emergent praxis structure the content of our theological doctrine in addition to the methodology of our evangelization? Is the emergent church's particular style of "being Church" going to lead us to a different conclusion on, say, the nature of Hell, than would an alternate ecclesiology?

The larger point, of course, is that the authenticity of any person's Christianity shouldn't be called into question based on any sort of test of orthodoxy, whether it surrounds cultural/political issues or fine points of doctrine. I agree with that, and have posted to that effect before. (Of course, that's no reason we can't make a distinction between Christians we think have fallen into error and those on a better path, while still accepting our erring siblings in Christ as real, authentic members of the Body.) But it also seems to be the case that there might just be more tensions in an Anglo-Catholic understanding of emergence than just whether the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church requires the historic episcopate.
cjbanning: (Default)
I've just come across this response to the 2009 General Convention (of the Episcopal Church, if that doesn't go without saying) from someone who is (as far as I can tell from his blog) a progressive leader in the emergent church movement:
When did we come so far off the rails that the words “convention,” “legislative,” and “committees” become constitutive of our promulgation of the gospel? My favorite tweet came a couple days ago from a clergywoman (“rev” was part of her Twitter handle!) that simply read, “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGH!!!!”

[. . .]

I implore [my Episcopal friends] to look beyond the gay issue. The bigger issue is that they employ a medieval form of church polity strange hybrid of medieval (bishops, dioceses, sextons) and modern (legislation, amendments, committees) polities, which will inevitably fail in this postmodern, wiki-world.
Since Circle of Hope, the church (if I'm even allowed to call it that) I attend on Sunday evenings and am associated with in a myriad of other ways, has a lot in common with the emergent church movement (including what I perceive as its fundamental conservatism), this sort of opinion isn't unfamiliar with it. And at the end of the day, I think it's just a sign of two radically different ecclesiologies held by different portions of the Body of Christ. (Unsurprisingly, I think one is right and one is wrong, and even less surprisingly, I think the one I hold is the right one.)

Admittedly I give myself a huge amount of lattitude in interpreting the Creeds (and I am an Episcopalian because I don't feel I could give myself that much lattitude while remaining intellectually honest within the context of the Roman church), but the Creeds are central to my understanding of who I am as a Christian and what my relationship to and within the mystical Body of Christ is and should be. The Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

In a time when it might seem that everything in our denomination is up for grabs (and I'm not sure that it shouldn't be!), one of the real defining fundamentals of Episcopal practice is what is known as the Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I'll pass on that Wikipedia tells us it is
a four-point articulation of Anglican identity, often cited as encapsulating the fundamentals of the Communion's doctrine and as a reference-point for ecumenical discussion with other Christian denominations. The four points are:
1. The Holy Scriptures, as containing all things necessary to salvation;
2. The Creeds (specifically, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds), as the sufficient statement of Christian faith;
3. The Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion;
4. The historic episcopate, locally adapted.
The Church is an institution. Furthermore, it is an institution which, while currently fragmented, strives for unity and catholicity--and every Episcopalian (like every Roman Catholic) prays for the eventual restoration of unity to the Church even as we recognize the deeper, more fundamental unity and catholicity of the Body of Christ can never be broken. While "the Church may have fallen into schism within itself and its several provinces or groups of provinces be out of communion with each other, each may yet be a branch of the one Church of Christ, provided that it continues to hold the faith of the original undivided Church and to maintain the Apostolic Succession of its bishops" (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, as quoted in Wikipedia). Questioning the institutionality of the Church would be, to me, something akin to questioning whether the Second Person of the Trinity is eternally begotten from the First (not that questioning anything should ever be out of bounds!). Most fundamentally, I eschew the individualist impulse of Protestantism which places the piety of the single believer above the sacramental life of the community.

For me, that comes with the whole hierarchy of bishops, priests, deacons, and lay members as a traditional organization which has not yet outlived its usefulness. The episcopate is necessary for apostolic succession (obviously). The diaconate is Biblical. And I affirm the value of the ordained presbyterate (of all races, genders, and sexualities) to act as the representative of Christ (in persona Christi) in the ex opere operato celebration of the sacraments ("magic Jesus hands," etc.).

This does not mean there is not plenty of space to do and be "a new thing" while continuing the work of the historic, institutional Church--especially as our understanding of just what it is the Church is called to do improves over time. An Episcopal parish (or any other liturgical-ish mainline congregation) can and should bear a lot of the hallmarks of an emergent church, very possibly operating out of a store front or a movie theatre, while all the time retaining the value and strength which comes from having as a resource the cathedral which houses the See of a member of the historic episcopate (or non-historic episcopate, for the Methodists relevant Protestant denominations). And of course it doesn't mean that I think the Episcopal Church--or any other church--can survive without an involved, active, and dynamic laity which takes leadership roles. (The founder of the religious order which ran my high school was, after all, the patron saint of lay ministers.) But I don't think there's anyone in any of the liturgical traditions who actually thinks that, and all the confusing voting is precisely in place to facilitate that as best it can. It's deliberately built into the very structure of the church polity in an attempt to distinguish TEC from the Church of England, where power flows (or at least flowed) from the top (the Sovereign) down.

So I think it's much too soon to conclude that TEC's "strange hybrid of medieval and modern polities [. . .] will inevitably fail in this postmodern, wiki-world." I think instead it has room within it to become an even stranger hybrid, to incorporate within itself postmodern strategies of engagement without having to throw out the medieval or the modern. (It's already incorporating those strategies in many cases.) That's what it means to be a broad church, a via media. The end result may look--no, will look--radically different than TEC does today, just as TEC looks pretty darn different than it did a hundred years, or than the C of E did three hundred years ago, or than the RCC did a thousand years ago. But it'll still contain within itself those things which are fundamental to itself as an institution.

Or to put it another way, the cathedrals aren't going anywhere.

No, we're not Congregationalists, and at some point, a beaurocracy becomes necessary. But we're not Congregationalists precisely because we don't think being the Church is something that any congregation (or even any denomination!) is capable of being on its own, or should even try doing its small part outside of communion with the whole. Beaurocracy and hierarchy are an inevitable effect of our creedal attempts to, as part of our catholic tradition, actualize the unity and catholicity and apostolicity of the Body, while being respectful of the diversity of beliefs and practices which exist within our Communion.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
In my experience, progressive Christians generally have--at best--an ambivalent relationship with St. Paul. Admittedly, often it seems as if the apostle is the source of much which, from the perspective of 21st-century progressive Christiaity, seems to be problematic about soi-disant "traditional" Christianity: oppressive gender roles, prudishness about sexuality, resistance towards secular reason, and so forth.

One way some Christians (including "Jesus followers" and others who might resist the term) have navigated the issue is to try and make a distinction between the religion of Jesus and that of Paul. N.T. Wright summarizes this "old argument," en passant to refuting it, thusly: "Paul was the real founder of Christianity, misrepresenting Jesus and inventing a theology in which a 'Christ' figure, nothing really to do with the Jesus of history, becomes central." Since St. Paul thus represents in this account a corruption of the true Christian message, the Christian is thus free to ignore him to a greater or lesser degree.

There are a number of problems with this train of thought. Firstly, it is historically uninformed insofar as it assumes that the Gospel accounts of Jesus, which postdate the Pauline epistles, provide a more reliable record of the actual ministry and teachings of the historical Jesus, largely because we like the Gospel version better (assuming there is indeed a disparity between the Gospel and Pauline understandings of Christ). Secondly, insofar as we assume (instead of or in addition to the previous assumption) that the true message of the historical Jesus, when liberated from its Pauline filter, would automatically look like 21st-century liberal progressivism (or 1960's/1970's-era hippiedom), we fairly clearly open ourselves to accusations of intellectual dishonesty.

Depending on one's Christology, the notion that the historical Jesus would have thought and acted like a 21st-century progressive isn't exactly incoherent, of course; insofar as 21st-century progressives have gotten their general account of life, the universe, and everything more right than have those who have come before us (and as a 21st-century progressive, there is certainly a sense in which I think it is true), then it would make sense that it more perfectly align with a God's-eye view of the universe. The problem is that this reasoning is that it's bad Christology, bad metaphysics, and simply isn't informed by our secular understanding of history (which requires us to assume that the historical Jesus would have thought and acted like--surprise!--a first-century Jew) and thus has to be accepted on the basis of blind, unmotivated belief (not faith, which is fundamentally experiential rather than cogitational).

Most fundamentally, I think the sort of fetishization of the historical Jesus one often sees in liberal or progressive circles ultimately falls prey to what my friend Ruth Ellen, in her sermon "the cancer sermon (no snazzy title)" places under the category of "angel worship." She's responding to St. Paul's urging in Col. 2:18-19 to
not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Ruth Ellen reminds us that
there's a deeper kind of angel worship that arises when we begin worshiping the messenger instead of living the message. When we start worshiping the Bible instead of the living Word that is Christ, when we devote our energy to preserving the edifice of the church instead of living as Christ's Body -- then we are worshiping angels instead of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the angel worship has become cancerous.

I'm 100% agreed with her that Bibliolatry is cancerous in this type of way. However, I think the "quest for the historical Jesus" also becomes the type of angelogical project that Ruth Ellen talks about, a type of "worshiping the messenger," when it represents (as I think it usually does) an attempt to avoid having to engage in Spirit-driven dialectical conversation with the Risen Christ in the context of our contemporary world and culture, here and now. By trying to determine what we would or would not hear if we were able to travel via TARDIS to the times and places at which Yeshua bar Yosef would have taught, I think we "empty out" Christianity and the empty shell which is left is little more than a cult of personality. The attempt to recover some type of uncorrupted pre-Pauline Gospel message can quickly develop into its own type of fundamentalism when it becomes little more than a search for rules and principles to follow handed down by a millenia-old source.

My bias is to think that properly understood (where "properly understood" of course means "understood the way Cole wants it to be understood") Chalcedonian Christology presents us with the antidotes to both types of fundamentalism. Worship of the Word-Made-Flesh, eternally begotten from God the Mother, both fully human AND fully divine, two natures in one person: this, I think, is about as far removed from a cult of personality as it is possible to get.

Of course, there are those who would argue that my account of "Word made flesh" is implicitly docetist. I'd argue that the fact that "made flesh" is in the title automatically negates any possibility of a fall into the docetist heresy (not that I'm any advocate for orthodoxy for orthodoxy's sake, exactly), but I understand the argument that the "made flesh" is meaningless without an emphasis on the particularity of the incarnated human being within history. I understand it--but I still think it's wrong.

Following a Chalcedonian-Christological Jesus means more than simply following the ethical principles the historical Jesus would have exemplified in his life, then (even if we did have a reliable mechanism for extrapolating those principles apart from the post-Pauline Christian tradition, which we don't). We don't just follow Jesus. We worship Christ. More importantly, we are part of Christ's Body--"Christ has no hands on Earth but ours" (St. Teresa de Avilla)--and it falls to us, the Church, with the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, to build God's Kingdom--a kingdom which is marked primarily by sexual, economic, and political liberation, because Christ IS liberation; that's the essence of the Sacred Heart.



So where does this leave St. Paul?

I've already written about my view of the role of Scripture, both in the essay History and Christ and in my Our Lenten Collage post Going Deep with Scripture. I'll briefly quote from the latter:
[T]he Bible is [. . . ] a gift from God, a tool for understanding God and seeing God and discerning God's will. As Christians, the Bible is part of our inheritance, the lens through which we understand the transcendent. It is a shared language and history which binds us together as sisters and brothers in Christ. It's the core of the basis for our entire religious symbology (with additions made here and there, sure). Its stories inform who we are, both culturally and spiritually. These are the documents which we as a Church look to as foundational.
This understanding of Scripture does not require St. Paul to be a completely reliable witness. Instead, it recognizes that within his writing there exists the potentiality for inspiration.

I adhere to the faitly common tenet of contemporary literary criticism that meaning does not inhere within a text, but rather within the dialectical engagement which exists between a reader and a text. When we engage with St. Paul, we enter into a process which opens us up for inspiration--whether or not we agree with what St. Paul has written.

As a series of Catholic (in the non-Roman sense) councils and synods presided over by the Holy Spirit, their eventual consensus as to which works are the canonical books of the Bible, eventually codified in the Vulgate version of St. Jerome and accepted at large by the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, is binding. And it includes Saint Paul.

Returning to "Going Deep with Scripture," I find that I wrote:
When I read Scripture [. . .] I can know that I am turning to the same book that billions (yes, billions) of Christians have turned to over nearly two thousand years, since befoire Scripture was even Scripture. I'm walking in the footprints of the Saints.

Our challenge today is not fundamentally different than theirs was: to use Scripture constructively, to find within it ethical solutions to the unique challenges which face us in our lives, and not to use it as an instrument of hate or war. (Obviously, at various moments in history the Church has fallen short of this challenge.) This is not a passive processs of God telling us what to do and us doing it, and to treat it that way is (I believe) a cop-out, an abdication of moral responsibility. The paradigm for our encounters with Scripture should be not Sinai, but Penuel.

I don't believe there is a "pure" or interpretation-free reading of the Bible. Our task is to, guided by the Holy Spirit and the evolving teaching of Mother Church, choose those interpretations which are most ethical, loving, and empowering to all human beings, drawing on in our discernment all the resources God has given us.
Now, the actual process of finding these "best readings" is a time-consuming process, and one I haven't really approached in any systematic way when it comes to the epistles. But that's not because I don't think the process is worthwhile.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
A. SCRIPTURE AND HISTORY

Daniel G. Bloesch admits in the introduction to his Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 1 that "[i]t is to the credit of liberals [. . .] that they were profoundly aware of the corporate nature of evil and of the social imperatives of faith. [. . .] The Gospel is in reality a world-changing message" which has been obscured by "an overemphasis on individual salvation to the neglect of community responsibility" (3).

While calling for an increased level of "prophetic insight regarding social sin" within the Church, however, Bloesch nonetheless argues that "[t]he Gospel is a spiritual message which stands above all social ideologies" (3). I think Bloesch is correct only insofar as a) what a "spiritual message" is and what spiritual message the Gospel presents remains essentially vague, and b) by "social ideologies" he means any specific, static articulated formulation which grows out of feminist thought, which grows out of anti-racist thought, which grows out of queer theoretic thought, etc. But the conservative evangelical idea that we are free from the underlying necessity to be anti-racist, feminist, queer-theoretic, etc. insofar as Biblical theology (whatever that may be) does not explicitly command it is dangerous. No articulation of ideology, be it social or theological (however one might understand the distinction) should be exempt from the dialectical processes of which truth is a function. All ideological processes should hold truth, not orthodoxy for the sake of orthodoxy, as their ultimate objective.

Bloesch recognizes this when he states that "the fundamental norm of faith (Scripture) must continually be subordinated to and interpreted by the material norm, the Gospel of reconciliation and redemption"--although he resists those specific moves that liberals have made in the service of that material norm "against" in some sense the "objective criterion" of Holy Scripture (2), in contradition to "the objective basis of faith" (5, n. 3).

If by "objective" Bloesch is demanding a realist metaphysics akin to that argued for by recent pontiffs of the Roman church, then obviously any theology, especially a postmodernist theology like mine, which denies the possible independence of truth from the dialectial process in and of history--which is to say, from the work of the Spirit--will not satisfy him.

But that is not, despite what those Roman pontiffs might assert, to affirm relativism: the dialectical processes in effect are hardly of a nature such that we can make a thing true merely by, say, wanting it to be true, or even by believing it to be true. Truth is a force much, much greater than any one of us. It is transcendent--of divine origin, a gift from God. But, like God, it is always-already revealed through history.

The Scripturalism of evangelical theology is thus at once its greatest danger and its greatest weekness; indeed, in many ways it is the source of all of its other ills. Resistance to faddishness is always exemplary, but many evangelical Christians are sorely overconfident in their ability to distinguish what is a fad from what is progress. As fallible human beings, our understanding is always-already structured by our history; this is inevitable.

To claim to have in a static text an objective critierion which can then be freed from the historical context which produced it and applied uncritically to evaluate our experience today is thus to deny the possibility of further revelation, that the Spirit is still speaking to us and that the Church still has room to grow. It is to stunt our legs before we have learned to walk, on par on arbitrarily deciding that the medieval period represented the apex of medical advancement and that we should use only leeches to treat patients.

The Church simply cannot do this and survive. Stasis is death. Nor should it--authentic discipleship does not mean the abandonment of the criticial dialectic. We need a Church which engages with the dialectic of history, not merely deigning to stand apart and claim to "learn from" it or "take what is good" but to truly give itself up to it and find itself enriched, stronger, more ready for true apostleship. This is the way the Kingdom is built.

This is not to say that we should not look to the Scriptures for guidance, of course; after all, they contain all things necessary for salvation. In many ways it is in reading and telling the stories of the Bible that we find our identity as Christians: they are our stories (although of course they are not uniquely ours, some or all of them being shared with Jews, Muslims, Bahá'ís, and others). The Bible is our inheritance as Christians, the history of our community, a textbook not of religion and morals but of our religious and moral evolution. It is a shared language and history which binds us together as sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ. It's the core of the basis for our entire religious symbology (with additions made here and there, sure). Its stories inform who we are, both culturally and spiritually. These are the documents which we as a Church look to as foundational. "God still speaks to us through the Bible," the Episcopal catechism reminds us.

The Scriptures are a gift from God, a tool for understanding God and seeing God and discerning God's will, the lens through which we understand the transcendent.

But they're not everything.

B. HISTORY AND THE CHURCH
"The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of our encounter with Christ and of Christ's with us. And the seven sacraments, in their turn, are sacraments of our encounter with the Church and of the Church's with us. Indeed, the other members of the Church are sacraments of encounter for us and we for them because, in the Christian scheme of things, we exaperience and manifest the love of Gof through love of neighbor."
Richard P. McBrien, 101 Questions and Answers on the Church, 17.
The sacraments are the means of grace, and the Church is a sacramental institution. The institutional and corporate nature of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is often downplayed within Protestantism, which chooses to focus instead on personal experience and individual salvation--but only at great risk. The Church is a thing, an ontologic entity, which is Mother to us all and Bride to Christ.

The Church stands as means of grace not because of her ability to minister from some extrahistorical pulpit but rather because of her incarnational positionality from within history, as the Body of Christ, which uses the substance of the here and now to open a way to the transcendent.

While continuing to assert the Biblical truth that what shall be bound on Earth by the Church shall be so bound in heaven, however, we cannot accept the unbridled authority which the Roman church has claimed for itself. The Church is free from being subject to the dialectic of history only insofar as she is herself synonymous with that process. The Church is thus identified not with the top-down imposition of claimed authority (whether emanating directing from the ecclesia itself or from an interpretation of Scripture) but by the bottom-up practices of debate, dialogue, and critical reasoning as motivated by the Spirit.

In the Episcopal Church, my own denomination, this essential dialogic character is reflected in its very governance, which holds according to liberal democratic principles, the Church subject to the faithful, and not the other way around. The end effect is messy, as anyone who has been paying attention to the news (or has attended a diocesan convention!) knows--but it is also authentic.

The role of the Church on planet Earth is to build the Kin(g)dom. The Episcopal catechism states that it is the ministry of the laity "to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world" and of all Christians "to work [. . .] for the spread of the Kingdom of God." The Church is not, contrary to the teaching of some Protestants, called to exile. We return, then, to a Christian commission for the work of social justice. While not discounting what Bloesch calls "the realism of the Reformation which took seriously the lust for power embedded in the very being of [the human person] that so easily corrupts every human dream and achievement and whose most virulent manifestation is the collective pride of races and nations" (200), so too do we take seriously the transformative power of accepted grace. The pessimism of evangelical Protestantism, rooted as it is in the Reformation doctrine of total depravity, lies in contradiction to our catholic understanding that
the world is essentially good, although fallen, because it comes from the creative hand of God, has been redeemed by Jesus Christ, and has been renewed by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Human existence is graced existence. The history of the world is, at the same time, the history of salvation. (McBrien 17)
C. HISTORY AND THE SPIRIT

It is impossible to speak of history within a Christian context without mentioning the Holy Spirit. History for the Trinitarian Christian is always-already pneumatological in character; creation is breathed from the Breath of God, and all of human history is a testimony to the Works of the Spirit, who, according to the Episcopal catechism, "is revealed in the Old Covenant as the giver of life, the One who speaks through the prophets" and in the New "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ." Hegel famously spoke of a Spirit, or Geist, in history: obviously the Hegelian notion of Spirit and the Trinitarian Christian one will have deep similarities and even deeper dissimilarities, but the underlying notion of a spirit working in and through history is common to both.

Looking to all of history as salvation history, then, we see always the effects and presence of the Spirit. The deuterocanonical book known as the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that God's "Wisdom guided Her disciples safely though all the tribulations" (11:9); "She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest" (11:17).

To the secular materialist human history, like cosmic history, is purposeless, unthinking, subject only to causal necessities totally indifferent to us--"one fucking thing after another" as the eponymous teenagers in Alan Bennet's The History Boys are fond of saying. Any notion of "progress" is a myth in the pejorative sense: things do not get better, only different.

The Christian, on the other hand, looks at history and sees a Plan: a single narrative which speaks of redemption and reconciliation between the peoples of the world and their Creator. The Christian (although of course not only the Christian) is given by the Spirit the virtuous gift of hope, and the expectation of God's Kin(g)dom. To the Church, history is a testament to this hope, not only in Scripture but through all of human activity: while it is not always a straight line--in our human fallibility we are cursed with backsliding, as we reject the Spirit's gifts, not only as individual but also (and especially) as communities, as nations, as a planet--but in its whole it represents a progression from worse to better.

It is of course true, as Richard Rorty notes, that this "justification is not by reference to a criterion, but by various detailed practical advantages. It is circular only in tha the terms of praise used to describe liberal societies will be drawn from the vocabulary of the liberal societies themselves. Such praise has to be in some vocabulary, after all" (581). In other words, the teleological character of pneumatic history is not metaphysical in character; there is "no ahistorical standpoint from which to endorse the habits" which we wish to praise and to condemn the habits we dislike. To those who feel that the sort of realist metaphysics embraced (for example) by the Roman church is philosophically untenable, this is a point in this account's favor, not an objection against it.

The Spirit is not some principle which intervenes in human history from some position outside of it. On the contrary, it is the inevitable logic of who and what we are--the imago dei, the images of God.

At the same time, however, one would of course not wish to deny the transcendent character of the Holy Spirit. Human history is a signifier of a transcendental signified greater than itself. Its dialectical processes are, or should be, what Immanuel Kant called a "transcendental dialectic": something which takes us beyond the rational to an apprehension of ultimate reality. All three Persons of the Trinity are transcendent as well as immanent, but this transcendence will always be and can only be the subject of the deepest and most profound mysticism. As the Creed of St. Athanasius states: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. And yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible."

3rd Easter

Sunday, 18 April 2010 09:45 pm
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

"And one was a doctor," goes the hymn, (#293 in the 1982 Hymnal, full lyrics) "and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green; [. . .] And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast." There are many different Saints in today's readings, too, and in many ways they are as different from each other as the Saints in the hymn.

There's Saint Paul, who started out as Saul of Tarsus, persecuting Christians, but was transformed when Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus to become not only the writer of the largest chunk of the canonical Christian Scriptures, but to make voyage after voyage planting new churches and uniting the existing ones in the message of the Good News of Christ.

There's Peter, the Rock of the Church, who dropped everything when he saw Christ, put on his clothes--because he wanted to look his best for the Risen Christ--and swam to Jesus. Today's Gospel reminds us that Peter was called to martyrdom, hung on an upside-down cross, that it was an essential part of his vocation as the Rock of the Church to be at odds with the powerful in his society

There's Nathaniel, whom you have to feel sorry for. Who here can tell me anything about Nathaniel? (Wikipedia tells me he is identified with Bartholomew, one of the Twelve who is, really, not really any less forgettable.) I'll have forgotten he was even in this story by next week. I have the deepest respect and admiration for the Nathaniels of the world, those people who do the hard work of just being where they are called to be, doing the hard work, and getting none of the glory.

There are the sons of Zebedee and the other disciples, who are not even given names.

Once again this week, I find that I am a Thomas.

Thomas looks around at what he has on hand; he finds himself in a fishing boat. Rather than viewing the fishing boat as a distraction to the path in Christ he is called to follow, he uses the boat to bring himself to Christ--and he brings with him fish to eat, given to him through Jesus' power, so that he and Nathaniel and Peter can share a meal with Jesus, to break bread and share this time together as a Church, and to partake in the goodness of creation.

Last week, Thomas insisted on being able to see and touch the physical body of the Risen Christ. This week, he brings Jesus fish to eat. For Thomas, the Risen Christ is a not a spiritual ruler of a distant land, but someone who is always and already deeply enmeshed in the physical world of Creation. Tradition tells us that Thomas was a builder by trade; he was a man for whom the physical was never unimportant, who would have known intimately about the goodness of creation.

Tradition tells us that Thomas, like Peter, was also martyred, dying as he lived, immersed in that physicality.

Scripture does not adjudicate between these approaches. It is a good and rightful thing for St. Peter to put his clothes on and swim to Jesus; it is a good and rightful thing for Sts. Thomas and Nathaniel and the others to take the boat to Jesus and bring the fish with them. The Church in its earliest beginnings has thus been called to be a Broad Church, to encourage a diversity of worship and a diversity of mission. There is room in the Church for Pauls and Peters and Nathaniels and Thomases, for both Marys and Marthas.

It takes all types to make a Church.

The Church takes all of these approaches and fashions them into something greater than any of them individually: something which is, in its unity, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Think of the image from the Revelation to St. John the Divine: millions and myriads singing together for the greater glory of God. I don't imagine they all would take the melody line. That would be a weak sort of song for so many voices--sort of like singing "If You're Happy and You Know It" when you have the resources for Handel's "Alleluia Chorus"--or rather for something which would be to the Handel as the Handel is to "If You're Happy and You Know It." No, that level of beauty requires harmony, difference complementing itself. Harmonies within harmonies, even, exploiting the fact that we are all different: we are sopranos and mezzo-sopranos and contraltos, tenors and baritones and basses.

Jesus' command to Peter is, "Feed My Sheep." Jesus' command to Nathaniel and Thomas and the unnamed disciples is, "Bring some of the fish that you have caught, and come and have breakfast." Jesus' command to Saul is "Get up and enter the city." Jesus' command to Ananias is, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. Go in and lay your hands on him so that he might regain his sight."

What is Jesus' command to us? How do we discern where we, individually, fit in within the Church?

We know that any command we might receive will only be a futher refinement and elaboration of the two greatest commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." So we must ask ourselves how, given our unique skills and abilities, our own unique temperaments and interests, our own unique connections to the world around us, how best we are able to live out a love for God and for each other and for ourselves. What is it that we love to do? What are we good at? What do we care about?

Of course, sometimes we are called to things we are not very good at--so that we may become better, or that we may learn humility, or just because somebody needs to do it and there is no one else. Often we are called to do things which we don't necessarily want to do, exactly, as Ananias at first did not want to heal Saul. But we recognize, at those times, that there exists a need, and that God has put us there,

What needs do you see in the world around you? How can you work with your sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ to fill those needs?

If we each live out our lives in full response to the answers to these questions, answers which will in all likelihood be different for each and every one of us, then the Church's mission will be complete--not complete in the sense of finished, not yet, but in the sense of being full, having no lack in its present-day efforts to build a just and peaceful Kingdom. This is not a fairy-book fantasy: with the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, with God's prevenient grace, it is not only possible, but imperative. It is the mission of the Church, and each of our own individual vocations acts to support it.

And so, my dear sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, I return to the words of our hymn: The Saints loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and Christ's love made them strong; and they followed the right for Jesus' sake the whole of their good lives long. And there's not any reason--no, not the least--why we shouldn't be saints, too.

Alleluia.

1st Easter

Sunday, 4 April 2010 07:44 am
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
Elizabeth is going back and writing her unpreached sermons for all the Sunday's she's missed ever since we both fell off the ball back in Advent. I'm not quite that ambitious, but I do want to get back into the habit, even if this sermon is only about 2/3 of the length I wanted it to be. :(

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Luke 24:1-12

1st Easter

We are a resurrection people.

Note the plural, and just as importantly the collective form: we are not resurrection persons, a "resurrection me" plus a "resurrection you" plus a "resurrection her." It is only communally, in the collective, in the unity of our identity as the Body of Christ, that we are able to fully respond to the resurrection of the Head.

The Scripture passages today speak to this truth. The Easter story is, at least superficially, of course a story about Jesus Christ, about Christ's resurrection. Yet it is a curious fact that, post-Crucifixion, the Gospels spend relatively little time on Jesus Christself. Jesus has already done the job which the Christ was sent to do. It is the Church's job now to continue the work Jesus has already put into motion.

The focus of the Gospel narratives thus shifts dramatically to the experience of the disciples. In today's Gospel passage, we receive the reaction of the women to the empty tomb, experience their confusement, their bedazzlement, and their ultimate understanding, as we relate to them and, later, to the male disciples as the stories' new protagonists.

During the Easter season, we read from the Acts of the Apostles, the only book in the Bible aside from the Gospels and Revelation to actually include Jesus as an explicitly present character. I know that come the Easter season, I always experience a moment of cognitive dissonance when I hear a lay reader read "And Jesus said. . ." from the pulpit. Isn't that the sort of thing which gets read by the priest, from the pulpit or after a Gospel procession? I forget that the Risen Christ has a story to be told, too, and--appropriately enough--the Risen Christ speaks through everyone.

Yet in the passage from Acts assigned to this Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian year, Jesus does not speak. It is St. Peter, the rock upon which the Church--one, holy, catholic, and apostolic--was established, who speaks. We've jumped ahead to a point past the Ascension, past Pentecost, as St. Peter reaffirms the commision of the Church. Once again, the important part of the Easter story isn't what Jesus is doing, but what Christ's Church is doing.

Pentecost is often called the "birthday" of the Church. The truth is that the building of Christ's Church is a process which spans all of human history and which still has not come to its fullest fruition. Pentecost is an important milestone in the history of this community--more of a coming into adulthood than a birth--but it is laughably obvious that Easter is, too. Easter transformed the Church from simply being the disciples of a man, each with her or his own individual loyalties to Jesus, called by Jesus one or two at a time, to a single community united in joint celebration.

And so we gather here today. Like the disciples who hurried back to Jerusalem after meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus, we gather together with our sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ to proclaim the Easter promise.

This is Easter: this gathering, this congregation (remember "congregation" is merely a noun form of the verb "to congregate"), this reunion of friends, this in-coming of family.

This is the paschal mystery: that having suffered a painful death on the Cross and descended into hell, Christ is risen and present with us here and now, and every day and everywhere, wherever two or more disciples are gathered in Jesus' name.

Three years ago--Easter Even 2007, to be exact--I was baptized into the Christian faith, in this church [or: in a church like this one], before this congregation [or: before a congregation like this one]. Obviously, it was a momentous occasion in my personal faith journey, but it was also a momentous occasion in the life of the Church, as the Body of Christ grew by--well, by more than just more one new member, as across the world new Christians were being welcomed into the Church through the sacrament of Baptism at Easter Vigil services, following the traditions of the early Church in the second and third centuries of the common era. Last night the process was repeated across the world.

"Through baptism on Easter," the Reformed writer Harvey Smit writes, "the new convert participated in the consummation of the Lord's passion and entered into the new life as a Christian sealed in Jesus' resurrection." Let me say that again: "participated in the consummation of the passion." Easter is not a passive day, something which happens simply because the Sunday following the full moon following the first day of spring has finally rolled around on our calendar. Easter is our active engagement and full participation in the life of the Body of the Christ. It is coming to church, reading and listening to holy scripture, receiving and being sustained by the Body and Blood of Christ. It's having a conversation with other members of our parish family in the coffee hour afterwards, and welcoming newcomers and visitors. It is reconciling oneself with God and one's neighbor. It is loving others as oneself. It is working for peace, and for justice. Outside of this context, the story of the Resurrection of Jesus becomes simply, to use the controversial words of Bishop David Edward Jenkins, "just a conjuring trick with bones."

If that were the case, we would indeed be (to use St. Paul's words from today's Epistle reading) "the most pitiable of the human race" indeed! But, St. Paul tells us, "in Christ all will come to life again": we who have been crucified with Christ share equally in Christ's resurrection.

And so, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, with St. Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, St. Paul, the evangelists, and all the saints; with the matriarchs and patriarchs, angels and archangels, and the entire company of heaven, we proclaim, as one Church and with one voice: "Alleluia! Christ is risen." [Congregation, if they're paying attention: ""The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."]

Alleluia.

On Real Christians

Thursday, 24 September 2009 10:16 pm
cjbanning: (Default)
Melissa McEwan has a great post, On "Real" Christians and Christian Privilege, at shakesville. The whole post is fantastic, but here's one of my favorite paragraphs:
Christianity has a 2,000-year history that has seen countless iterations of the religion based on countless interpretation of the text and shaped to fit countless times and spaces and needs in disparate cultures all around the world. Christians have done great things, and not-so-great things—and anyone who makes the personal choice to carry the Christian mantle associates themselves with a history that includes all the good stuff and all the shitty stuff, too. One can't say, "I only associate with the good Christianity—not the inquisitions and the genocides and the warmongering and the colonialism and the institutional misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, anti-Semitism…"
Part of McEwan's reasoning is that she herself is an atheist: "I don't want the responsibility of deciding who's Christian and who isn't—and I can't imagine why any Christian would want to give that responsibility to an atheist in the first place. Yes, I have personal opinions about how closely self-identified Christians of all stripes hew to their own religious text, but it's flatly not my place to kick someone out of the Christian community, even semantically." But she goes on to argue that the process of delineating between "real" and "fake" Christians is a disingenuous one even for the Christian: "Christianity is about culture as much as it is scripture no matter on what part of the Christian spectrum one falls."

Some of my agreement with McEwan's post no doubt stems from my own position as a Christian who knowingly holds a number of heterodox positions (alongside a number of orthodox ones; most of the theological discussions I'm in anymore fall more along Protestant/Catholic lines than conservative/liberal ones). I'm much more worried about the accusations of "not a real Christian" that may be lobbed from the conservative theological camp than from the liberal one.

But my concern runs deeper than just that. McEwan's position stems from a pragmatic approach to linguistics--and since language is not a transcendent phenomenon (okay, there's a very important sense in which it is--the limits of my language are the limits of my world--but that's not a can of worms we want to open right now), talk of "real" Christians just inserts bad metaphysics into the dialectic, and that doesn't help anyone. It's an ideologically-loaded statement masquerading as an ideologically-neutral one, playing dirty pool by trying to obscure the fact that the premises by which one is framing the debate are ones which are themselves controversial. It begs the question.

Not all Christians are, say, trinitarians. (I am.) Not all Christians are monotheists--hell, not all Christians are theists, even. (Do you have a week?) Indeed, there is no position which is held universally by all Christians--except maybe for "identifies as Christian." There are trends, sure; generalizations can be made, and I'm not arguing that it's always bad to make them. (I'm not arguing that it's not, either, for the record.) But that's no excuse for throwing the random Christian who doesn't fit the generalization out of the tent. As McEwan notes, "They might not be the same kind of Christian as you are, but they are nonetheless Christians." Otherwise one is just playing power games with languages. It's a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy. Ziztur explains:
So, the No True Scotsman fallacy is employed when people are debating as to whether trait X is a necessary condition of belonging to group Y, and the person committing the No True Scotsman fallacy simply defines group Y as one in which membership requires trait X. Ones does not win such a debate in this way, as whether or not trait X is required for membership in group Y is the very matter under debate. So essentially, the No True Scotsman fallacy is a fallacy in which certain traits X are defined as essential to belonging to group Y before it has been established that this is the case.
After all, it is not as if one needs to steep to making arguments about the reality of one's Christianity in order to make normative arguments about how Christians should act, after all. There are other axes upon which to make such arguments: namely, there's the axis of good/bad. One can still be a real Christian while being a really bad Christian, and we can all happily disagree on just what it is that makes a good Christian good.
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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