cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Or, as my friend Ruth Ellen and I like to joke, should the plural of Jesus be Jesi?

Anyway, it's been several months since I've posted to this blog, in large part because I've been working full-time and going to school full-time and that combination unfortunately doesn't leave very much time for blogging. I certainly have a number of topics queued up that I'd like to talk about, including but certainly not limited to completing my series on what I want from an Atonement theology.

Tonight, however, this "Do you believe in a red state Jesus or a blue state Jesus?" quiz I've seen passed around a little on Facebook has caught my attention. I've only been able to answer about roughly half the questions, and many of those only by making major mental caveats. I thought that, in a rare moment of free time, in might be worthwhile spending some time deconstructing the questions I couldn't answer.

Do you believe Jesus was crucified because he was the Son of God who took upon himself the sins of mankind to save the world from God's wrath? Or do you believe Jesus was crucified because he preached radical social change that threatened the powerful and the wealthy?

I believe that Jesus was and is God's Only Begotten who took upon Christself the sins of humankind to save the world. But Scripture is clear that the thing Jesus was saving the world from was death, not God's wrath.

I think that Scripture is also pretty clear that those powerful figures directly responsible for crucifying Jesus felt threatened by Jesus.

Do you believe Jesus was a healer who provided free universal health care to "the least of these," and so should our government? Or do you believe Jesus' statement, "My kingdom is not of this world," means Scripture can't be used to justify universal government health care?

This one was the easiest to answer, because that's not what John 18:6 actually means. Here's the Bishop of Liverpool:
Not only is it impossible to square this with the teaching and activity of Jesus as set out in the Nazareth Manifesto in Luke chapter 4 about healing the sick and liberating the oppressed, these rendered words of Jesus misrepresent what he actually said. The original Greek text has Jesus saying something very different: “My Kingdom is not FROM this world”. In other words, faced with the power and authority of Pontius Pilate Jesus was telling him and the world that his own authority to rule came from God.

Everything Jesus did and taught was about extending the rule of God on earth. It’s there explicitly in the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus calls us to pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom and the doing of God’s will on earth as it is done in Heaven.
So, yeah, universal healthcare is a Christian imperative.

Do you believe that "salvation is found in no one else" besides Jesus? Or do you believe that "God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus" and that Jesus embodies one of many paths to God?

I don't know what "God is defined by Jesus but not confined to Jesus" is supposed to mean, so I can't know whether I believe it or not.

In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus says
I myself am the Way--
I am Truth, and I am Life.
No one comes to the Divine Parent
but through me.
If you really knew me,
you would know the Divine Parent also.
From this point on,
you know the Divine Parent,
and you have seen God.
All who are saved are saved through the power and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is no salvation outside the Church. The previous two sentences draw on Christian language to express a truth which is universal.

What they do not say, however, is only people who identify as Christians can be saved. I hold the Second Vatican Council's position that "those who seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do [God's] will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too may achieve eternal salvation." In a sense, there is no salvation outside the Church precisely because the true Church of Christ is large enough to contain everybody, Christian and non-Christian alike.

Do you believe Jesus is going to return one day, descending from the clouds with an army of angels to fight the final battle between good and evil? Or are you focused on creating Jesus' kingdom "on earth as it is heaven" and not too worried about who's left behind or whether Jesus is coming back -- or perhaps never even left?

I suppose I don't dogmatically discount the possibility of a literal return, although I'll admit to my share of doubts. But I am a liberal postmillenialist who, yes, is much more focused on being the agents of God's liberatory kindom becoming established upon Earth, for we are, as St. Teresa famously wrote, the hands and feet of Jesus on Earth.

Do you think people who describe Jesus as prophetic mean that he had the ability to see into the future? Or do you think describing Jesus as "prophetic" meant that he was more of a prophet willing to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences?

Okay this is a question of what the word "prophet" means in the context of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And I don't there is any question that "making prophecies" in the sense of seeing the future is simply something that prophets were often supposed to have done, but was not their defining characteristic by virtue of which they gained their prophet status. Rather, a prophet was--and is--simply an intermediary empowered by God to express the will of God to the people. I suppose that "willing to speak truth to power and suffer the consequences" expresses this idea decently enough in a somewhat looser way.

Have you ever asked strangers if they've accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior? Or do you think of evangelism as more helping people in need and hoping they see Jesus in your actions?

As a purely factual question, no, I don't think I've ever asked a stranger if they had accepted Jesus as their Lord and savior, in part because that's such a darned Protestant question to ask! But I don't think either option given really encapsulates what we need Christian evangelism to be, which is a way of articulating what the Church of Christ has to offer to the world in the 21st-century world which doesn't reduce her down to being little more than either just a social justice organization or a Get Out of Hell Free card.

Were you inspired by watching Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" because you thought it showed how much Jesus was willing to suffer to save mankind? Or were you revolted by Gibson's film and thought its long and bloody depiction of Jesus' death reflected Gibson's obsession?

I have not seen The Passion of the Christ. The part where it's based on the writings of a female German mystic intrigues me somewhat, but knowing of "its long and bloody depiction of Jesus' death" and Gibson's prejudices and, yes, obsessions really kills any desire to ever do so. But by the same token, I can't honestly critique something which I haven't seen.

Do you think the most important biblical passage that distills Jesus' message is John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son," and that salvation is determined by your acceptance of Jesus as savior? Or do you think it's Matthew 25: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me," and that salvation is determined by how you treat the poor and vulnerable?

I found this question the most frustrating out of the entire set of ten because it actually asks two very different questions, one about Jesus' message and one about salvation. Let's take the one about Jesus' message first, and then tackle the soteriological one afterwards.

When we look at the overt teaching of Jesus, the things said and done by Jesus of Nazareth as written down by the New Testament, then I think the words that St. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying are a good distillation of that ministry: "Every time you did this for the least of my sisters or brothers or siblings, you did it for me. As often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me."

But! When we look at the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with the benefit of hindsight, through the lens of the evangelists and the other New Testament authors, a new significance emerges, one that can be seen as being articulated in St. John's words at the beginning of that gospel, a gospel not coincidentally written a good thirty years after St. Matthew's was, giving the early Church time to come to terms with that which was not only explicit but also in implicit in Jesus' ministry: "Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, so that those with faith might not die, but have eternal life."

Both of these messages are true. Both of them find their meaning in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And one of them is not more important than the other. The choice between John 3:16 and Matthew 25 is, of course, a false choice, for they each reflect different but equally important facets of Who Jesus Is. That's why we have four different canonical gospels, after all.

And yet we can see how these two important messages--both of them true--about the significance of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection could lead to a degree of confusion about soteriology. In the passage from St. Matthew's gospel, as in fact is quite common in the synoptic gospels, Jesus seems to be preaching works-righteousness, that human beings will be saved or damned based on their actions in this life:
To those on the right will be said: "Come, you blessed of my Divine Parent, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!"

To those on the left will be said: "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels."
But in fact, this seeming confusion actually stems from the false binary the CNN quiz offers. It actually turns out that both of the possible answers the quiz gives to the soteriological question--both "salvation is determined by your acceptance of Jesus as savior" and "salvation is determined by how you treat the poor and vulnerable"--turn out to be heretical.

For the Calvinist, it should be obvious why this is so. Both possible answers share a certain assumption, that salvation is determined by our actions, whether by our acceptance of Jesus as savior or by our treatment of the poor and vulnerable. But under Calvinism, we actually have no ability to determine our own salvation. It's all determined by God, by God's decision either to extend the free gift of grace or to withhold it.

Of course, I'm not a Calvinist, and under free-will theism, the question becomes a little bit trickier, because under free-will theism, once we have been empowered by God through what is known as prevenient grace, we then gain an ability to determine our salvation or damnation. But it must be stressed that this determination rests solely upon our response to this free gift of grace, and not to any action we are capable of performing by ourselves apart from that gift. So by themselves, neither an acceptance of Jesus as savior nor loving treatment of the poor would have the power to save. Grace, and grace alone, has the power to save. Period.

The classic debate over the role of faith and the role of works is a question of what is known as "justification"--how it is that we become to be considered righteous in the eyes of God. But our justification is really a consequence of our salvation. It is not a precondition for it.

Have you ever rebuked an evil spirit in the name of Jesus? Or do you think the biblical stories of Jesus casting out demons were not literally true but metaphors for Jesus' ability to make broken people whole again?

I don't think I've ever rebuked an evil spirit in the name of Jesus. I think that the gospel accounts of Jesus casting out demons signify the ability of the Christ to make broken people whole again regardless of whether or not they were literally true. I don't see why understanding demons as "merely" metaphorical should prevent someone from rebuking them in the name of Jesus. As an Anglo-Catholic I tend to think that the richer the liturgical life of a religious community, the better, and I don't see any reason why an exorcism can't be a legitimate and spiritually fulfilling ritual. I think there's space for broadening the understanding of demonic possession to include the possibility of it supervening in cases with emprically-discernible causal determinants, without carving out a metaphysical realist niche for possession which I would be unable to see as anything other than superstition.

Do you believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead after his crucifixion? Or do you believe that Jesus' resurrection was symbolic and not dependent on his body rising from the grave?

I think everyone, regardless of whether or not they believe the bodily resurrection was a literal historic event, would agree that the event was symbolic in the sense that it has the capacity to act as a signifier. That doesn't seem like it should be controversial.

I tipped my hand to my own position in my post What I Want from an Atonement Theology: Resurrection Emphasis when I wrote:
I wasn't present at the Empty Tomb, so I cannot testify to what was there. If the Resuurection qua historical event was necessary to reconcile humanity to God, then that's how it happened. But what I can, and as a Christian must, testify to is the importance and indispensability of the bodily Resurrection of the Christ as a spiritual truth.
Note that I'm careful to include the bodily resurrection as part of the spiritual truth of the Risen Christ. Setting the bodily resurrection up against a symbolic one, as the question seems to do, has the capacity to lead us into Gnosticism, where the body becomes undervalued. Instead, the fact that Jesus' physical body was resurrected in the gospel accounts represents a critical element of the spiritual truth the story is signifying, one we ignore at very great peril.

Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

These truths, regardless of whether or not they ever have been or ever will be instantiated in literal historical sequence, are the truths which set my heart alleluia-ing. The choice cannot be one between Jesus as symbol and the Risen Jesus. Jesus always is, and must be, both at the same time.
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.

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: (Symposium)
This is the first of what will presumably be several posts on Kendra  Creasy Dean's Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, which is being read throughout the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey this January through June as part of its One Book program.

I blame Rod Dreher.

Rod Dreher was a blogger at Beliefnet.com, where he consistently provided a voice which was theologically, politically, and culturally conservative. Dreher was the sort of guy I would read in order to stay fluent in the best arguments in favor of those positions with which I disagreed, in service of trying to be someone who was a) generally well-read and b) intellectually honest. I didn't read his blog religiously, but I would stop by sometimes when I was in a particularly strong mood to disagree with someone, and some of the bloggers I prefered reading (Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan in particular) would also link to him from time to time.

Rod Dreher's blog is, I think, the first place (or at least the most memorable place) I heard of "moralistic therapeutic deism" (MTD), the "benign whatever-ism" which Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified as the dominant faith of U.S. teenagers in their book Soul Searching, the end result of the "National Study of Youth and Religion." According to Smith and Denton, MTD has five main tenets:
  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Dreher consistently saw MTD as a pervasive, corrupting influence polluting Christianity. Of course, that is also how he views liberal Christian theology, so there was always a part of me, reading his thoughts on MTD, that figured that anything which Rod Dreher detested so passionately couldn't be all that bad.

Looking back, I realize I foolishly and without realizing it bought into the implicit etiological narrative I was reading out of Dreher's posts that MTD was sort of a natural endpoint of the slippery slope of liberal theology started by Friedrich Schleiermacher, and continuing through Paul Tillich. Dreher says outright that MTD "is what I believe progressive religion generally is" and makes the link more or less explicit in, for example, this critique of "[p]ost-boomer Christians (PBCs) -- which is to say, young adult Christians":
a majority of PBCs -- 56 percent -- lean towards liberal Christianity. Only 38 percent call themselves conservative-leaning. But does that mean that tomorrow's Christianity will be more liberal? By no means: more than half of religious conservatives attend church weekly, while only 14 percent of religious liberals do. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which demographic is more likely to pass on faith to their children. Then again, perhaps they will pass along a kind of faith -- hello, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism -- just not a faith that would be recognizable by any meaningful historical standard.
More or less accepting this framing of MTD by Dreher led me to conclude that while MTD went much further than I would have preferred in discarding traditional Christian orthodoxy (cf. my statements in Theology and Emergence: "We [. . .] don’t talk enough anymore about the Trinity, about the Holy Eucharist, etc. [. . .] As Christians, we need to talk about these things much more, although probably as well as rather than instead of the more sexy culture war issues"), it was still far preferable to fundamentalism and conservative envangelicalism. As Ross Douthat notes in his response to a defense of MTD by Damon Linker, "The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law." (Let me note en passant that Linker is absolutely right in viewing those views on natural law as both philosophically untenable and socially damaging.)

After all, MTD wasn't sexist or homophobic. It didn't encourage to reject the findings of modern (secular) history or science, or to embrace supernaturalism. It didn't oppose the reproductive freedoms of women. It was tolerant of other religions. I found myself sympathetic to the teenagers who, in Almost Christian,
defended Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a worldview they were proud to own, a fair representation of what Jesus intended, if not what he actually said. Tom, a seventeen-year-old lifelong Presbyterian, wondered: "Doesn't the church want us to treat people fairly, be happy, solve our own problems, and get along?" Some considered Moralistic Therapeutic Deism an improvement over what Christianity has come to symbolize in much of the world, as people identify "Christian" with "American." Shawn, a sophomore on the church youth council, exclaimed: "Do I believe that God wants people to be nice and fair to each other? Yeah, I'd stake my life on that!" (27)
Looking at the five tenets of MTD,
  • #1 should be non-controversial to the vast majority of Christians (at least outside the fairly esoteric area of apophatic a/theology).
  • #2 should be as well, as much as the behavior of some Christians might lead one to think otherwise.
  • #3's egoism admittedly falls short of the altruism most Christians (myself included) see as being central to the faith (although it has much in common with those churches which teach a gospel of prosperity).
  • #4 loses the experiential dimension which is at the heart of Christianity's mystic core (as I un/preach in sermons here and here), but also tends to avoid supernaturalism.
  • #5, while simplistic as far as soteriologies go (and clearly bordering on works-salvationism), is also still far preferable to a Calvinism in which people in their total depravity are damned to eternal torment because God capriciously neglects to extend grace to them for what can only seem to be utterly arbitrary reasons, or an Arminianism which understands the acceptance of grace solely in terms of holding a certain set of propositional beliefs as true. Admittedly, it does, in positing a literal and non-mystical heaven, seem to assert some type of realist metaphysics which may not be philosophically tenable.
I entered Almost Christian with this almost knee-jerk reaction of wanting to defend MTD--not as ideal, but as a lesser evil compared to much of American religiosity--against the claims of heterodoxy. However, having finished the first chapter and half of the second, I've found myself pleasantly surprised. Dean primarily locates her critique (so far, at least) of MTD in #3 and #4, exactly where my own critique would rest, arguing not so much for a return to an ungenerous orthodoxy as for a new liberal orthopraxy. (Orthodoxy denotes "right belief"; orthopraxy, "right action.")

Dean takes the title of her book (about which I will no doubt have much more to say, but this post is already overlong) from a quote by John Wesley (she is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, which was founded by Wesley). According to Wesley, the difference between an "almost Christian" and an "altogether Christian" was not belief in the Trinity or the two natures of Christ or the Real Presence or any other dogma, but an action: love (5). The problem with MTD, according to Dean, is "that in fact [it] lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship" (6) and is "so devoid of God's self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit" (12)..

Dean echoes one of my most persistent themes by making this lack of love the result of a pietistic Protestantism which focuses on beliefs rather than experience )

For Dean, then, the problem of MTD is that it is loveless (taking on #3) and that it is non-experential (#4): a critique which is firmly rooted in a position liberal mainline Protestant theology, as befits her UMC affiliation. Liberal theology then, rather than being the cause of MTD, is actually the antidote--but of course, it must be a liberal theology which is effectively articulated and communicated. And this, quite obviously, is not happening.

MTD's failure is that it seeks to deal with conservative theology (both Protestant and Catholic) not by engaging with it but by ignoring it. Its critics are right that that type of approach can result only in a weak, passive faith that is unable to stand up for what it claims to believe in (goodness, fairness, justice, liberation). The solution to the rise of MTD is for the mainline churches to be more boldly prophetic in asserting a liberal orthodoxy, drawing on the insights of Protestants like Schleiermacher and Tilich (and their 21st-century heirs, like emergent Tony Jones or feminist Rebecca S. Chopp) and on Catholics like liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether.

And yes, that involves being aggressive about teaching doctrine: that the relational nature of a Triune God models for us how to live our lives in loving community and how Scripture, Tradition, and Reason speak to us through a perichoretic dialectic of conversation. That the Incarnation informs our understanding of the goodness of the body, including sexuality. That the imago dei tells us that gender is irrelevant in the face of our common reflectiveness of the divine. We need to be much, much better catechists, and we cannot fool ourselves that that catechism does not come with a social and political agenda (centered on the liberation of the oppressed).

And so I find myself forced to do what I dislike the most, agreeing with Rod Dreher, if only on this specific lament:
the mixed blessing of unity )
a final thought )
cjbanning: (Symposium)
Baruch 5:1-9
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Today, St. Luke's Gospel introduces us to the very first Christian evangelist: John the Baptist. Our lectionary readings today are a good example of how we as Christians read John "back into" the Hebrew scriptures, as the fulfillment of messianic promises found in Baruch, in Malachi, and in Isaiah (among other places). And when John went out to be a voice in the wilderness, we can be sure it was with an understanding that he did so with this tradition at his back.

But what does it mean to be a voice in the wilderness?

The way St. Luke begins this passage might give us a clue: preaching in the wilderness means preaching independently from, and in opposition to, the established nexuses of power. John lived in a world where power ruled, and St. Luke tells us who specifically wielded this power: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas. And the list isn't restricted to one type of power, either: it includes the Roman emperor and his governor, local kings, and Jewish religious officials. Plenty of opportunities for John to ally himself with someone powerful who could offer him protection.

But instead, he went out into the wilderness, where he was free to speak truth to power.

That phrase, "speak truth to power," is one deeply rooted in the living out of the Christian vision, coming to us from the Quakers, who used it in 1955 as the title for a pamphlet advocating a new approach to the Cold War. It has since been taken up as a rallying cry by many of those who would tear down the hegemonic superstructures which prevail in our world: by Marxists and anarchists, by feminists and anti-racists. It is a call to be genuinely subversive in our approach to the kyriarchy, to the predominant cultural forces of--among other evils--plutocracy, patriarchy, and imperialism. The mountains and hills of our world must be made low, and the valleys filled. Liberation of a profound sort needs to happen.

Part of that means recognizing the immense cultural hegemony that Christianity enjoys in the United States and across the globe. Even as many Christians decry the commercialization of the Christmas holiday, for example, it nonetheless works to fashion the narratives of many non-Christians' lives into a form which is deeply rooted in Christian practices and forms in a way it is simply not possible for them to escape. Reflect for a moment on the following series of questions, adapted from a list by Lewis Z. Schlosser:
Can you be sure to hear music on the radio and watch specials on television that celebrate the holidays of your religion?
Can you be sure that your holy day is taken into account when states pass laws and when retail stores decide their hours?
Can you be sure that when told about the history of civilization, you are shown people of your religion who made it what it is?
Can you easily find academic courses and institutions that give attention only to people of your religion?
Can you be sure that when your children make holiday crafts, they will bring home artistic symbols of the Christian religion (e.g., Easter bunny, Christmas tree)?
Can you, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people of your religion most of the time?
Can you be sure that your children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence and importance of the Christian religion?
Can you be fairly sure when you hear someone in the media talking about "God" that they are talking about your god?
Can you be sure that people are knowledgeable about the holidays in your religion and will greet you with the appropriate holiday greeting (e.g., Merry Christmas)?
Can you remain oblivious to the language and customs of other religious groups without feeling any penalty for such a lack of interest and/or knowledge?
Can you display a Christmas tree and/or hang holly leaves in your home without worrying about your home being vandalized because of your religious identification?
How many of these questions are we Christians able to answer "yes" to? How often do we take being able to answer "yes" completely for granted?

How often in our evangelizing do we attempt to preach from a position of power, to ally ourselves with the Tiberiuses and Pilates, the Herods, Philips, and Lysaniases, the Annases and Caiaphases, of our time? How often do we use our control of culture as a weapon against those who are already powerless in our attempts to save souls and gain converts?

In some cases, even a small reduction of Christian privilege and supremacy can even get disingenuously painted by some as persecution--note the so-called "War on Christmas."

Reflect upon the words of the canticle prayed by John's father, Zechariah:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship God without fear,
holy and righteous in God's sight
all the days of our life.
This is what messianic expectation meant to people in the time of John. Baruch contains a similar sentiment: "so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God." Safely--not comfortably, not easily, not without sacrifice. Just safely. These were women and men frequently in fear for their lives.

How foreign to our experience as Christians today! Although there are of course still Christians on this planet who are genuinely persecuted (and let us continue to pray, with Baruch and Zechariah, for their deliverance), there are few of us here today who can say that we have ever known what it is like to be afraid at all, yet alone afraid for our lives, to worship our God in our way--because our way is dominant, unmarked, theway.

But what can we do about this situation? What can speaking truth to power look like today? I don't have a simple answer to this question, but I do have some thoughts.

Living out John's version of evangelizing in the twenty-first century requires giving up our privilege as best we can in our own trips "to the wilderness." It requires forming bonds of community with the disenfranchised, helping those who have been silenced speak for themselves. It requires fighting, always, for social justice.

Note well: John didn't turn his back onto the world. He went out to the wilderness, yes, but he used his position in the wilderness to preach, to teach others that there was an alternative to the world of the rule of power in which they lived. Speaking truth to power is an engagement with culture, with society, with the world, not a withdrawal. It requires a genuine, full encounter with the world in all its broken fallen-ness. And when we do this, we find there may be allies in places we at first might find it strange to find them. American--or any other--culture is not a monolith. Even as it indoctrinates us in hegemonic discourses of power so to is it the scene for opposition, resistances, and subversions. Often these are the parts of our culture we are taught to fear: the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, so to speak. As the writer Salman Rushdie once noted, "the music of freedom frightens people and unleashes all manner of conservative defense mechanisms."

On that note, let me quote the rock and roll theologian Sid Vicious: "Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.”

In some--and let me stress nonviolent--sense, John the Baptist didn't let them take him alive, either; we know that his practice of speaking truth to power ultimately would cost him his head. But it won him, and us, so much more.

Of course separating genuine subversion and change from cooptation is a process that requires serious discernment and thought. Chaos and disruption merely for the sake of chaos and disruption are no more creative than is the order they seek to disrupt. We need to be rebels with causes, to channel our anger and frustration into social justice reforms capable of empowering others and building genuine, loving communities across the borders of race, gender, and class. We need to engage the world critically, always looking for allies, for points where genuine connection and subversion can happen, but also ever cautious of the forces which seek to control us in ever so subtle ways. We need to pray the prayer of St. Paul in today's passage from the letter to the Philippians: "that our love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us to determine what is best."

It'd be so much easier if we could accept simple binaries: either live in the world or reject it. But, alas, my siblings in Christ, we cannot.

But today's lectionary readings remind us that that act, John's speaking of truth to power, was and will always be a necessary prerequisite for the Christmas experience, for messianic fulfillment of any kind. By speaking truth to power, we prepare the way for Christ.

Rock on.
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My Prayer

"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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