cjbanning: (Default)
On November 8, 2016--the night Donald J. Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States despite losing the popular vote by a record number of votes--New York Times columnist Ross Douthat posted the following tweet:
This is apiece with many similar statements Douthat has made over the last year or so, responding in part to Francis Fukuyama's opus The End of History but also much more directly to the progressive and social liberal use of the famous line of uncertain attribution, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." For perhaps understandable reasons coming from a social conservative, Douthat objects to this sentiment, and those objections have served as a constant refrain within his columns, blog posts, and tweets. Two representative columns are The Case for Old Ideas and The Myth of Cosmopolitanism. I suspect there are blog posts which made the argument even more directly and concisely, but they fail to come up in a quick Google search.

In Checking Charlie Hebdo’s Privilege, Douthat argued that "Rather than a clear arc, [history] offers what T. S. Eliot called 'many cunning passages' — in which persecutors and persecuted can trade places, and even the well-meaning can lose their way entirely." But surely this oversimplifies, if not willfully misunderstands, just what progressives mean when they invoke the arc of history thesis. The belief is not, and never has been, in what Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, in a sermon published in 1853, called the "continual and progressive triumph of the right" (i.e., "the right" as in the morally correct, not the political right):
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
But progressives who accept the arc of history thesis also agree with Parker that from what we can see we are sure the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. We don't require historical omniscience to be optimistic about the direction of human history.

One can understand the argument that the ascension of Donald J. Trump, first in the Republican primaries and then in his surprise victory on Election Night, somehow refutes the "arc of history" thesis. But such an argument actually seriously misunderstands the thesis it attempts to refute, refuting only a caricature in its place. To believe to be on the right side of history is not to believe that one's position is infallible in the short term, incapable of losing elections. After all, one of the fundamental tenets of the arc of history thesis is that the arc of the moral universe is indeed long--and is not a straight line, either.

Insofar as Douthat is simply reminding us that those who believe they are on the right side of history can in fact be mistaken, it is of course difficult to disagree with his corrective. But by repeatedly (despite his own Catholicism) effectively denying the directionality of history altogether, he implies that just because progressives could conceivably be wrong on any given issue, we ought to assume we are wrong on every issue, and concede the debate to the religious conservatives before it has even begun. It's as if Douthat thinks a belief in one's own side's objective correctness ought to be somehow reserved for conservatives alone. And by attacking the arc of history thesis itself, Douthat sidesteps having to engage with the actual content of progressive and left-liberal arguments, why it is exactly we believe our positions to be on the correct side of history and those of conservatives on the wrong side.

For me, my belief in the directionality of history is a fundamentally Christian belief; before my conversion to Christianity, I understood history as being chaotic and directionless, but such a belief no longer seems to me possible, being incompatible with the fullness of the Christian hope and promise. And as a Christian, my new belief in the directionality of history is rooted in Scripture, in particular the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom:
It was Wisdom who delivered a holy people, a blameless stock, from a nation of oppressors. She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest, becoming their shade by day and their starlight at night. And when these just people stood in victory over the godless, they sang of your glory, God our Deliverer, and in one voice praised your power and called you their champion--because Wisdom gave speech to those who could not speak and brought eloquence to the lips of infants. (10:15, 17-18, 20-21)
The above passage is part of a larger narrative, spanning the 10th through 12th chapters of the Book of Wisdom, which describe Wisdom's presence at crucial moments in the Biblical narrative, beginning with Adam and Eve. These are shown not as discrete divine (or quasi-divine) interventions, but part of a pattern of Wisdom leading and guiding the people of Israel through human history. By constructing this greater narrative of divine presence in history via Wisdom, the author of Wisdom is thus putting forth what I call a "theology of history": a speculative account of the significance and directive principle(s) intrinsic to human history from a position within a particular faith tradition. As Peter Enns notes in Wisdom of Solomon and Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period ("Ps-Solomon" refers to "Pseuodo-Solomon," i.e. the author of the Book of Wisdom writing pseudepigraphically as King Solomon):
In the light of Ps-Solomon’s clear purpose—giving encouragement to a people facing the possibility of death—one begins to see a possible motive behind not only his reference to death as an “exodus” in the opening chapters of the work, but also his choice of Israel’s exodus experience as one of the primary themes of chs. 10–19. Israel’s exodus, her passage from death to life, as it were, is presented by Ps-Solomon as the prime biblical portrait of what Wisdom is doing now in the lives of these persecuted Alexandrian Jews—in their own passage from death to life, their own exodus.
Simillarly, in the Gospel According to St. John, Jesus promises before his death to send humanity the Paraclete (another name for the Holy Spirit, meaning "Advocate") to "abide with us forever"--that is, throughout the entirety of human history (14:16). According to the Episcopal catechism, the Holy Spirit is revealed in the New Covenant "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ."

In the Book of Revelation, St. John the Divine writes of a "millenium"--a period of time during which Christ reigns over the Earth. As a postmillenialist, I understand this to describe the current epoch of human history:
Postmillennialism holds that Jesus Christ establishes his kingdom on earth through his preaching and redemptive work in the first century and that he equips his church with the gospel, empowers her by the Spirit, and charges her with the Great Commission (Matt 28:19) to disciple all nations. Postmillennialism expects that eventually the vast majority of men [sic] living will be saved. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ's return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of men [sic] and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions Jesus Christ will return visibly, bodily, and gloriously, to end history with the general resurrection and the final judgment after which the eternal order follows. [. . .] Postmillennialism also teaches that the forces of Satan will gradually be defeated by the expansion of the Kingdom of God throughout history up until the second coming of Christ.
So in a sense, I agree with Douthat that history's only arc is the one described in Revelation--but I believe the millenium (understand to figuratively describe a long period of time rather than a literal 1,000 years) to have already begun. Postmillenialists take very seriously the third petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven." The millenium is thus understood to be characterized by increasing peace and social justice--the arc of the moral universe bending towards Christ, the Prince of Peace--as the Kin-dom of Heaven is established (through the work of the Holy Spirit) upon the planet Earth. This understanding of history recognizes the power of human beings, when empowered by the amazing and unmerited gift of God's grace, to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ.

Taking this Biblical understanding of history and synthesizing it alongside the great philosophers of history--Hegel, Marx, Kojève, Foucault, Kuhn, Fukuyama, et alii--yields the theology of history I tried to articulate in part in my essay, History and Christ. As I noted there, it is hardly an accident that Hegel also wrote of a "spirit"--geist--at work in human history. These philosophers helped to identify the dialectical mechanisms through which God is at work in human history. This is of course appropriate because the God of the Trinity is Godself dialectical: three hypostases in perichoretic conversation with one another. (The relational ontology of the Trinitarian relationship is of course prefigured by the relationship between YHWH and Wisdom in the Hebrew Wisdom literature.) To quote Karl Rahner, "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity" (and I would add, is the social Trinity): God's work in history is a reflection of Who God Is.

Linear history can thus be said to have a progressive nature--i.e. the changes from era to era (scientific advances, evolving moral norms, new forms of polity) can be said to represent in the aggregate objective improvements in some sense, even if what we are not always able to articulate quite what that sense might be. (I suspect both Wittgenstein and his cousin Hayek--a beloved philosopher of the intellectual right--might be helpful there, but that's another subject for another post.) I do not, like Fukuyama, think that modern liberal democracy represents the end of history. But I do think it is the pinnacle of what we have achieved so far, and I certainly do not claim to know what comes after. I also--again pace Fukuyama--do not think the project of liberal democracy itself has yet come close to achieving perfection, as so many important civil rights and essential freedoms remain under attack by structural systems of sin and injustice.

I do, however, see the expansion of civil rights and social justice which I've have witnessed even in my own life as a, however incomplete and impartial, unfolding of the Kin-dom of Heaven. And since my political left-liberalism is grounded in my theological belief in the human dignity of all people as divine image-bearers, I bear no apology for understanding this theological unfolding in explicitly political terms.

Yet if this is the case, how do we explain President Trump? I will not spend time here making the Christian argument against Donald Trump, as that has been done adequately elsewhere, often by religious conservatives (and thus, obviously not every anti-Trump argument linked here is one I personally endorse, since I was and am unequivocally pro-Clinton and many of these . . . aren't, to say the least): Yet we can accept that Trumpism and Christianity are mutually incompatible and still believe that history is guided by the providential hand of God's Holy Wisdom. Believing that God is present in the historical dialectic does not mean that God personally and directly micromanages every historical event. Given the concupiscient nature of fallen humanity, there will be setbacks and backlashes. Humanity will collectively stumble and fall.

And while I believe that God is present in the overarching dialectic of human history, I also believe that God respects the free will of human beings created by God in God's own image, that our free will is the exceptional sign of that divine image within us. The belief that there is an arc to history, then, does not require an ignorance of, or a blindness to, that arc's many curlicues.

But this is no reason to abandon those central virtues which define the Christian vision: faith, hope, and love. After all, the fact that the Hebrews stopped to worship a golden calf did not mean that God's Wisdom was not leading them to the Promised Land of Canaan; the fact that we have stopped to elect Donald Trump POTUS does not mean that She is not still leading us today to the Kin-dom of Heaven.

Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, writing in the Huffington Post in 2013, put it eloquently:
The moral arc of the universe is about the transformation of that which “is” to that which “can and must be.” That includes the redemption of every single life, transformed with the vision of a more just and equal world; a vision that [Martin Luther] King[, Jr.] dreamed of and preached about 50 years ago this week. The most dangerous mistake we can make is to be blind to the continued injustice or assume that the moral arc of the universe moves towards justice on its own and that we are not a part of the bending. [. . .] Believing in the moral arc of the universe that King talked about is more than a faith statement — it is a hope statement — and many people have lost their hope. But we are meant to be used as instruments and with God’s assistant [sic] we can help bend the arc.
And thus, motivated by faith, hope, and love, I reject Ross Douthat's cynicism towards the arc of history, and say with Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of other Christians that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend towards justice. Alleluia, alleluia!
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: (Palm Sunday)
"I ask not only on behalf of these [whom I have sent into the world, as you have sent me into the world], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Divine Parent, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
So prays Jesus in the Gospel According to St. John (17:20-23). For Anglicans, the unity of the Church--our prayer "that we all may be one"--does not in any way negate the beauty of the diversity to be found within Chrisitianity; rather "this Church does not seek to absorb other Communions, but rather, co-operating with them on the basis of a common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visibile manifestation of Christ to the world" (resolution of the House of Bishops, meeting in Chicago in 1886). And yet it is so easy to, often without realizing it, re-draw the lines which fracture the Church's essential unity. I was reminded of this recently when reading The Death of America's God by Stanley Hauerwas. He writes:
The great irony is that the almost pathological fervency with which the religious right in America tries to sustain faith as a necessary condition for democracy is the surest formula for insuring that the faith that is sustained is not the Christian faith.
The thing is, there is no such thing as "the Christian faith," solitary and unified. This is, I think, somewhat related to the Protestant heresy of the "perspicuity of the Scriptures," which implies that the Bible has one true meaning and that any seeming deviations from it (whatever it might be) are in fact distortions, and of course all those "nondenominational" Christians who claim that theirs is just plain Christianity and all the denominations distortions. But in truth there is no undistorted Christian message, because there are no undistorted Christians: we are all limited in our understanding. What there are is Christian faiths, plural, as diverse communities try to discern the will of God, the sense of the Scriptures, and the movement of the Spirit, and come to different conclusions. Some of these conclusions are better than others, and I think Anglicanism's (and post/liberal Anglo-Catholicism's in particular) conclusions are the best of the set; I'm no relativist. But what none of us gets to say is that any of these faiths, from Christadelphian to Calvinist, Unitarian to Episcopalian, Latter-Day Saint to Roman Catholic, Jehovah's Witness to Christian Scientist, falls short of being authentically Christian even in their error, that we're not all (or at least most of us, and who is and who isn't isn't up for us to decide) following Jesus as Lord in our own way and as best as we are able.
It is impossible to avoid the fact that American Christianity is far less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America's god is not the God that Christians worship.
Now, the only way I can see of reading that sentence is as saying that American Christians aren't "real" Christians (or else they'd worship the God that "real" Christians worship and not America's god), and I feel it's deeply problematic to try to throw ANY of our siblings-in-Christ out of the Body like that, no matter who they are or what they believe.

Now, of course Hauerwas isn't advocating violence or even intolerance towards those he has considered "really" non-Christian. But still, I know the pain of being told one isn't really Christian because of what one does or doesn't believe, and I can't accept that as an appropriate or loving response to anyone. It's absolutely possible to respond with loving correction to those whom one believes to have fallen into theological or practical error without having to deny such a deep and integral part of a person's self-identity.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
It's the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For some reason I cannot even name, the unity of the Church is a cause close to my heart. Adapting the prayer of Jesus in John 18:20-23, I offer a prayer:
Parent God: We pray, as did your child, Jesus Christ, on the night before the Crucifixion, that we may be one, as Jesus and you are one. As you are in Christ and Christ in you, may we also be in you, so that the world may experience your love. The glory that you have given Christ is given to us, so that we may be one, as you are one, Christ in us and you in Christ, that we may become completely one, so that the world may know that Christ loves us even as you loved Christ. Amen.
Yesterday, Benedict XVI (not my favorite person in the world) said:
[Unity] comes from [God], from the Trinitarian Mystery, from the unity of the [Parent] with [Christ] in the dialogue of love which is the Holy Spirit and our ecumenical effort should be open to divine action, it must be a daily invocation of God's help. The Church is [God's] and not ours.
Amen! Father Nathan preaches:
If a person is predisposed to see their own particular fellowship as the one true Church, of course, and to see all of the others as counterfeits or frauds of one kind or another, as less than themselves, as lacking in certain crucial qualities, than what is the point of meeting together? What progress can be made at all until that mental wall is smashed and torn down?

Rather than retreating into that softminded security of what is known and comfortable, you and I are called by the Holy Spirit to remain open, to see from God’s point of view, to be ready for the new thing that God will do in our midst.
I think one of Anglicanism's many advantages is that it is very difficult to think of the Episcopal Church, Anglican Communion, or Church of England as representing the one true Church, or even the only authentic voice to the mission of that Church. We're very aware we're only a single branch of the greater Church, which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
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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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