Heresy, Cont'd

Thursday, 25 August 2011 03:48 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)

If there are different brands of Christian orthodoxy, then there are competing standards against which heresy can be judged. I think that's what is going on in a recent post of mine, when I spoke of "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." Obviously, in speaking of a "Protestant heresy" I was quite clearly positioning myself as an Anglo-Catholic, and from a broadly Catholic perspective that claim of Protestantism is indeed heretical.

At the same time, I think there's a very real sense in which I gave into a temptation I probably should have resisted. Taken to the extreme, the charge of heresy becomes indistinguishable from simple disagreement with the accuser; as Robin Parry notes, "More often than not those making such claims simply mean that the doctrine is, in their opinion, both wrong and dangerous." Such is the case when Robert Sanders writes about "the ecstatic heresy" in Christianity Today.

Simply put, there is no such thing as the ecstatic heresy. He made it up. Indeed, the claim that Sanders is interested in positioning as heretical--"that God can only be known in feeling, in ways that transcend the language of God or about God"--is actually one that is well-attested throughout Christian tradition, in apophatic theology and Christian mysticism, and developed in both Protestant and Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) theology.

What then, about ++Katharine Jefferts Schori's controversial accusation of heresy made at the 2009 General Convention, which I quoted in my recent sermon preached before the Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City:
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.”
As evidenced by her later need to clarify her meaning, Jefforts Schori clearly was not sufficiently clear or politic in her original statements opening the Convention. Now, I agree completely with her insistence that the understanding of salvation she calls out is a theological error, and perhaps would even go farther than her in my own critique of individual salvation. But--especially in the context of a church which, once upon a time, used to have "Protestant" in its title--"heresy" might be going too far. Indeed, I'm not even quite sure what it means for the U.S.-ian primate of a church founded in Philadelphia to speak of the "great Western heresy," as great rhetoric as it may be. Is she positioning herself with the perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy? The Early Church, pre-Westernization?

ETA: Then again, the Wikipedia articles on antinomianism does say "there is wide agreement within Christianity that 'antinomianism' is heresy," but it doesn't provide a citation, and since that term wasn't coined until Martin Luther, it's hard to view that sentiment as an expression of the universal Church. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia is more useful, although not exactly objective or unbiased:
Although the term designating this error came into use only in the sixteenth century, the doctrine itself can be traced in the teaching of the earlier heresies. Certain of the Gnostic sect — possibly, for example, Marcion and his followers, in their antithesis of the Old and New Testament, or the Carpoeratians, in their doctrine of the indifference of good works and their contempt for all human laws — held Antinomian or quasi-Antinomian views. In any case, it is generally understood that Antinomianism was professed by more than one of the Gnostic schools. Several passages of the New Testament writings are quoted in support of the contention that even as early as Apostolic times it was found necessary to single out and combat this heresy in its theoretical or dogmatic as well as in its grosser and practical form. The indignant words of St. Paul in his Epistles to the Romans and to the Ephesians (Romans 3:8, 31; 6:1; Ephesians 5:6), as well as those of St. Peter, the Second Epistle (2 Peter 2:18, 19), seem to lend direct evidence in favour of this view.
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.
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."

4th Easter

Monday, 26 April 2010 03:19 pm
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)

Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

"The Lord is my Shepherd," the psalmist writes, "I shall not want." These words may not seem to describe our lives today: we are constantly wanting. The new video game console which is faster, better, with better graphics and cooler games. The pair of shoes on half price at the mall. The fast food cheeseburger which all by itself constitutes half your recommended calories for the day. We are a culture which is constantly wanting, but--as the immortal Rolling Stones song tells us--we "can't always get what [we] want, / But if [we] try sometimes well [we] just might find / [we] get what [we] need."

So unless the psalmist lived a much luckier life than any of us here--where "luck" is measured by a standard of egoistic hedonism--we have to assume the psalmist meant the statement "I shall not want" not as a description of an operative state of affairs but as a moral imperative, the "shall" in "I shall not want" being the same "shall" as in "Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." The psalmist, like the Rolling Stones, is reminding us that we get what we need.

God provides for our needs. To explain how God provides for our needs, though, the psalmist turns to the metaphor of a shepherd. Jesus expands on this metaphor in the Gospel of St. John the Evangelist (as well as in the synoptic gospels), and St. John the Divine references back to it in his account of the apocalyptic Revelation provided to him. When we consider the metaphor further, we might gleam some further understanding of why and how we live in such a crazy world where our desires so often run counter to the reality which we find.

Think of the life of an ordinary shepherd. She wakes up early, takes the sheep from wherever it is the sheep might spend the night, in stables perhaps, and she leads them to the "green pastures" where they are set loose to graze. And that, my sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, is where all the trouble begins.

Because grazing sheep get into trouble. They need to be protected from predators, but also they need to be kept from wandering off and getting lost. Think of the sheep in Jesus' parables; they're constantly getting lost or otherwise in trouble, so that the shepherd must leave the flock behind and search for them. It's enough to drive our poor shepherd insane. But sheep need to be free to graze.

And as it is for sheep, it is even more so for people. God is raising a flock of free-range souls; the freedom of our wills is a gift from God, but so too is it a consequence of our being a reflection of God, the imago dei, created in the divine image.

God could, in God's divine omnipotence, order the universe such that our desires and our daily bread were always in harmony; God could run God's Creation like a well-oiled train station. But God chooses instead to allow us to exercise our freedom, recognizing in God's omnibenevolence that as the greater good. As Baptist theologian Roger Olson notes, "God is in charge of everything without controlling everything." Such are the actions of a good shepherd, or for that matter a good parent--or a good God.

The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church affirmed the importance of the doctrine of free will thusly:
Only in freedom can [a person] direct [themself] toward goodness. Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within [a human being]. For God has willed that [humans] remain "under the control of [their] own decisions," so that [they] can seek [their] Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to [God].

Hence [a person's] dignity demands that [they] act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. [A person] achieves such dignity when, emancipating [themself] from all captivity to passion, [they] pursue [their] goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and procures for themself through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end. Since [humans'] freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can [one] bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each [person] must render an account of [their] own life, whether [they have] done good or evil.
This is simply a reaffirmation, in somewhat--ahem--nicer terms, of the doctrine as articulated at the Council of Trent:
If any one shall affirm, that [the] freewill [of human beings], moved and excited by God, does not, by consenting, cooperate with God, the mover and exciter, so as to prepare and dispose itself for the attainment of justification; if moreover, anyone shall say, that the human will cannot refuse complying, if it pleases, but that it is inactive, and merely passive; let such a one be accursed.

If anyone shall affirm, that since the fall of Adam [and of Eve], [the] freewill [of human beings] is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing titular, yea a name, without a thing, and a fiction introduced by Satan into the Church; let such an one be accursed.

If any one saith, that it is not in [the] power [of a human being] to make [their] ways evil, but that the works that are evil God worketh as well as those that are good, not permissively only, but properly, and of [Godself], in such wise that the treason of Judas is no less [God's] own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let [them] be anathema.
If a person's dignity demands on their part a free choice not forced by external forces, however, then any attack against their freedom--whether by church, government, or culture--is an offense against that dignity, a sacrilege against the imago dei itself.

Our duty, then, is to oppose those structures in the world which would act to undermine the agency of our sister and brother and sibling human beings: sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism. We must stand in solidarity against that which would diminish the autonomy of the oppressed and downtrodden, against ideologies of fear, of hatred, and of control. We must not allow the voices of any people to be silenced. For the most fundamental freedom of all is the freedom to simply be who we are, who we are called to be by Christ: female and/or male and/or intersexed and/or genderqueer; gay and/or straight; white and/or of color; Jew and/or gentile. "I am woman, hear me roar"--the first line of the 1972 Helen Reddy song "I Am Woman" which became an iconic catchphrase for liberation and empowerment-- is a phrase we make fun of nowadays, but it bespeaks the truth that this freedom is not always easily won, and its exercise often transgressive. Sometimes merely demanding the right to be ourselves, and to speak with our own voices, can be radical in itself.

I am reminded of the radical freedom commended to us in the homilectic exhortation of Saint Augustine: "Love, and do what you like." The truth is, it is not possible to do one of these things without the other. Authentic freedom is always necessarily rooted in love, and authentic love is that which fosters freedom. And that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is within the love, which is boundless and abundant, of Christ the Good Shepherd for the flock which is humanity, that we find our most perfect freedom. Freedom from sin, freedom from fear, even freedom from death itself, but most fundamentally the freedom to be ourselves--all of these are the consequences of God's grace, of we and our robes being washed in the blood of the Lamb and made stainless.

Alleluia.

On Baptism

Wednesday, 14 April 2010 09:02 pm
cjbanning: (Symposium)
For baptised Christians, our baptism is the Sacrament through which our salvation is mediated. I believe, as a high-church Anglican, that this mediation is inherent in the Sacrament itself, and does not require any action on the part of the baptisand; this is why infant baptisms are efficacious. I also believe, however, that baptismal regeneration is non-exclusive. As the RCC Catechism states, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but [God] is not bound by [God's] sacraments." Anyone who "seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with [their] understanding of it" (a process which does not in itself require theism) can be said to have undergone (be undergoing?) an implicit baptism of desire which "brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament." 
 
The RCC limits this to those who are explicitly "ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of [Christ's] Church." I assume they mean the Gospel and Church of Christ generally, and not right teaching in particular, but I draw upon this to make a distinction between those who avoid Baptism out of (what, from a Christian perspective, may be seen as) incomplete knowledge, and those who do so deliberately and knowingly in order to oppose God's will. Only to the latter, I believe, will the fruits of the sacrament be denied.
 
Seeking the truth and doing the will of God in accordance with one's understanding of it can, of course, only be done through the grace of God; to assert otherwise would be semi-Pelagianism. But Christ's atonement* is universal, and God's grace prevenient (cf. Ch. 5 of the 6th session of the Council of Trent).

*I'm using "atonement" in the loosest sense, without any particular theology of redemption in mind.
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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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