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: (Symposium)
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
So goes our Confession of Sin, the prayer with which we began this service, which is structured to begin with confession and end with thanksgiving. It’s a familiar prayer to us, because it also appears in the mass, either at the beginning in the Penitential Order or before the Offertory as part of the Prayers of the People. Following the direction of St. Paul’s exhortation, we turn to God for forgiveness and absolution before approaching the Lord’s Table in the Eucharistic liturgy.

Amos had a vision of God setting a plumb line in the midst of the people of Israel, a weighted string used as a vertical reference line, metaphorically speaking a standard for judging their moral correctness at a time when their failure of that test was very much a foregone conclusion. So too are we as Christians called to a holiness we are fundamentally incapable of keeping through our own power. Thus the inescapable necessity of our confession and subsequent absolution.

When the authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer were working on the revised confession of sin prayer for the Rite II services, they chose to make explicit that the standard we were failing to meet was that of the greatest commandments identified by Jesus in today’s gospel passage: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

The first of those commandments would be one well known to Jesus’ audience, especially to the expert in the law who questioned Jesus. It’s a quote from the Torah book of Deuteronomy and appears in the Shema Yisrael--the one which appears in the Gospel According to Saint Mark, the first phrase of the shema is quoted as well:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.
To love God with all one’s heart, and with all one’s soul, and with all one’s strength, and with all one’s mind means to love God with one’s entire person -- physical, mental, and spiritual. But what does it mean to love God, in practical terms, when God’s very Being defies the very possibility of our comprehension? After all, as Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote long ago, si comprehendis, non est Deus -- “if you understand, that isn’t God.”

We live in an age where there are almost as many different, warring understandings of Who and what God is -- or isn’t! -- as there are people to hold to them. As a consequence of religious freedom and a long list of social factors, the diversity of opinion which exists on questions of ultimate reality and the sacred is truly unprecedented.

Over the last month and a half, we have listened in our lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures to stories of how different understandings of the divine quite literally warred with each other, often with massive amounts of violence involved. The way the story is told, it’s almost like a sporting event. There’s the home team: Elijah, Elisha, Amos. And there’s the away team: Ahab, Jezebel, the priests of Baal, Amaziah. When our team “wins” we’re supposed to cheer; when “their” team scores a goal we’re supposed to hiss.

But is it really supposed to work that way?

Jesus’ answer to the lawyer in our Gospel reading today might suggest otherwise to us. The Samaritans were a people who held a different theological understanding than did the Jews of Judea, different in a way which seems small and trivial to us but which was the world to the Jews and the Samaritans themselves. You might remember the Gospel we heard two weeks ago, in which Jesus was refused entrance to a Samaritan city “because the face of Jesus was set toward Jerusalem.” The disciples wanted to “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” but Jesus turned and rebuked them.

And now, a mere chapter later in the Gospel According to Saint Luke, Jesus uses a Samaritan as the example of the ideal neighbor, even above the puritanical obedience to the Jewish purity laws found in the refusal of the priest and the Levite to make themselves unclean by touching blood. Jesus is asked what is necessary to inherit eternal life, and the answer doesn't seem to presuppose that theological correctness is any necessary prerequisite.

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus is asked, and answers: the Samaritan. The Muslim. The Hindu. The Wiccan. The Buddhist. The Scientologist. The Daoist. The Satanist. The Mormon. The atheist.

Amos said to Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son,” denying “that he belonged to the class of professional prophets; his vocation is due to the personal intervention of the Lord.” God is not limited to expressing truth in those places where we already expect to find it. All people are among God’s children, for whom Christ lived and died, and the work of the Holy Spirit can be found in all peoples and places.

Furthermore, the deep spiritual and philosophical insights of those of other faiths, or of no faith at all, can often be used to deepen and enrich our own Christian understanding and spirituality. For example, the descriptions of an intellectually compelling “Zen Catholicism” put forth by the Roman Catholic monk and priest Thomas Merton in his writings on the intersections of Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism played a crucial role in my own conversion to Christianity.

Our proper recognition of those elements of truth and sanctification found in all faiths ought not, however, be allowed to lead us into the sort of theological relativism in which Christianity is merely “true for us” and one faith is just as good as other.

When I finish this sermon, we will stand up and affirm our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, the creed of our baptismal covenant which we renewed just two weeks ago as we welcomed two new members into the Body of Christ. We will say “I believe” with confidence, pride, and thanksgiving, as is good and right. These are the truths, however we may understand them, that God has revealed to us through the person of Jesus -- who identifies Christself in the Gospel According to St. John as the “way, the truth, and the life” -- and through the writings of the Holy Scriptures and the traditions of Mother Church. We affirm these tenets boldly and without flinching.

To do otherwise would be to give in to the dangerous idea that religion is little more than personally meaningful -- or, at best, communally meaningful -- ritual and theology a discipline without a subject. That is the fatal quicksand which threatens to consume our “Spiritual But Not Religious” age. Our ultimate commitment must always be to the radical power of eternal truths and self-consuming love.

But it must be to truth and love even above tradition or doctrine. And those ends are always best served when people with different understandings can come together in humility, admitting that we each but “see through a glass darkly,” to teach and learn from each other without animus or coercion; to challenge the beliefs of others and have our own beliefs be challenged in turn, amidst a welcoming environment of respect and toleration; to love and serve one another as neighbors, as full citizens of the Kin-dom of God.

All people who seek truth and love with sincere hearts are on the same team, and that team is God’s team even if its members might not agree on just Who God Is -- or isn’t. Indeed, in many ways a devout member of a different faith, or a principled person of no faith, can be said to be doing the will of God much more perfectly than can a lackluster Christian.

Saint Paul writes that he and Saint Timothy have prayed without ceasing for the Christians in Colossae “asking that [they might] be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that [they might] lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to [God], as [they bore] fruit in every good work and as [they grew] in the knowledge of God.” So too ought to be our own prayer for ourselves! For all of us, no matter what our religion or lack thereof might be, have plenty of room to grow in our knowledge of God.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with the old joke about a group of people who, having passed from this world into the next, are met by St. Peter at the pearly gates for a tour of heaven. As the tour goes on St. Peter takes them through the Baptist section of heaven, where everyone is giving glory to God in fully staid dourness, and the Pentecostal section, a crazed ecstatic frenzy of dancing and speaking in tongues, and so on. They come to our own Episcopalian section, with is an elegant dinner party with fine wines and exquisite food. As they come to a certain group way off to themselves, St. Peter draws the group closer and whispers, "Now, for this next group, we need to be really quiet. They are the Catholics and they think they're the only ones here.”

I repeat this joke now not in order to single out our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers and siblings for criticism. Indeed, I would argue that it grossly misrepresents actual Catholic doctrine on the subject. But I repeat it because there is a sense in which we are all -- Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative -- guilty of acting as if we have an exclusive monopoly on salvation, of falling into the sin of thinking we have found the formula -- the words or the actions or the beliefs -- by which one can alone properly solicit the grace of God, that only we have gotten it right. When we do that, we idolatrously place our own conception of God in front of the infinite and ineffable reality of Who God Is.

And so, truly sorry, we turn to God and humbly repent, and ask that for the sake of God’s Holy Begotten One, Jesus Christ, God might have mercy on us and forgive us; that we might delight in God’s will, and walk in God’s ways, to the glory of God’s Name.

Amen.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Speaking from the pulpit last Sunday at the Church of the Ascension, I said that "[prayer] is a chance to enter into relationship with the Triune God who, as Parent, Child, and Spirit, always exists in and as relationship. True relationship works both ways, which means that in some mysterious way I do not pretend to understand, our prayers have the ability to transform God."

Looking over a recent post from Roger E. Olson, one of my favorite theo-bloggers among those with whom I typically expect to disagree, I see him developing this point by describing his youthful encounter with an essay by Reformed theologian James Daane called “Can a Man Bless God?”:
Like many seminary students, I was taught in my theology classes that God is immutable; nothing any creature can do can add anything to God. God is in every way always complete and unconditioned—incapable of being given anything he does not already possess in himself eternally. Traditional theologians like to pay God metaphysical compliments like that.

Against the stream of traditional Christian theism, and against the grain of his own Reformed tradition, Daane wrote that “[The] God of the Bible is not unresponsive to finite human condition. His freedom does not consist in being free from the touch of what is not God, nor is his immutability a change of relationship to the world that involves no change in God….” (p. 171) Daane asked why theologians came up with the idea of God as the “Unconditioned Absolute” and answered that they “lingered too long at the waterholes of Western rationalism.” (p. 172) He concluded that “In the biblical view God hears and responds to the cries of the needy, and is indeed so involved in conditional, contingent reality that he can be both sinned against and, no less, blessed by man in such a way that it makes a difference to God himself. But a God who is unconditional because he himself accounts for all conditions by virtue of his essence or decree is a God who cannot hear, let alone answer prayer.” (p. 173)

Daane was one of several Christian thinkers who together liberated me from thinking of God as absolute, unconditioned, incapable of being changed or affected by what creatures, by what I, do.
While I am as I said sympathetic with their premise to a point, I find myself only able to go so far with Daane and Olson. [And, for that matter, with Tony Jones.] I entered into my theism--such as it is--through Wittgenstein and Tillich. It was, in some important sense, at the very "waterholes of Western rationalism" that I learned to make sense of my belief in the Ground of Being. If we too divorce the God of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar too much from the God of philosophy, then the "Biblical" God we are left with may seem more like a superpowered alien than anything else, an empirical being which can be said to either exist or not exist and demands evidence, empirical evidence, for the claim that it exists. And that evidence is, to say the least, sorely lacking. Worse yet, it would always make God and our belief in God contingent upon that evidence--the God Who Might Be, and Who Might Not Have Been in some other possible world--instead of allowing God to exist in Godself as the One Who Is, the most-real reality which is primal and ultimate. If God exists, then God exists necessarily, for any being who exists other than necessarily cannot in truth, by my reckoning, be called God.

More importantly, even if we were to conclude such evidence did exist, little would flow from it. I do not worship a being simply because it is more powerful than I am. I do not consent to obey its edicts simply because it has the power to torture or annihilate me--or if I do, then I do so out of cowardice rather than virtue. Such a view of God degrades God in a way which makes theism unpalatable down to its core. Instead of the source of all goodness in which we live and move and have our being, we are left with a jealous tyrant in the sky.

Admittedly, I have subtitled this blog "A Messiah without Metaphysics." But I write that as a Wittgensteinian, so what I am trying to describe is not so much a God without metaphysics as it is a God which is past metaphysics. Both Wittgenstein and Nietzsche--two of the philosophers who have influenced me most profoundly--were not afraid to use "metaphysics" as a pejorative. But I think both of them also understood the subtle truth that the movement beyond metaphysics is itself in some sense always-already a deeply metaphysical move. We cannot escape the limits of our language even as we do our best to gesture at what lies beyond them.

But to believe in a truly unmetaphysical God in the sense I've laid out above--a God who is simply a contingent being who can be said to exist or not on the basis of contingent evidence--represents turning our back on millennia of theological tradition and Church teaching, as Olson plainly admits:
I came to believe that paying too many metaphysical compliments to God can de-personalize God. That trend was, I believe, unwittingly set in motion by some of the church fathers as they adopted Greek philosophical modes of thinking about God, carried forward by Augustine under the spell of neo-Platonism, deepened by Thomas Aquinas who borrowed from Aristotle to describe God as actus purus—pure actuality without potentiality, and brought into evangelical thought by Reformed theologians like Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge.
Now of course I do not assume that everything the Church fathers and mothers, or Augustine or Aquinas, wrote is inspired and authorative truth. Far from it! If anything, I am the first to critique what I see as an untenable neo-Aristotelianism in Roman Catholic theology since Aquinas.

But as an Anglo-Catholic, I am also far more wary than a Protestant like Olson might be to conclude that such constant and uniform Church teaching represents some sort of poisoned well. The solution is to put Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas in dialogue with Hume and Kant and Wittgenstein, not to retreat to some illusion of sola scriptura. This is especially important because I cannot see the Greek-influenced understandings of God's nature as being something separable from other key conclusions made by the early Councils, e.g. about the Trinity. I don't see how we can throw out the influence of Greek philosophy and still keep our understanding of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as described in the creeds and confessions of the ecumenical councils.

At the same time, I agree--as I said plainly in my sermon--that God's being in true relationship with humanity requires God to be able to be transformed by us and by our prayers. And Scripture does indeed seem to agree with this point and confirm it: even if we don't understand the repeated references to God changing God's mind in the Hebrew scriptures completely literally, neither do I think we can write them off entirely. Instead, I see them gesturing towards the higher reality of a mysterious God who is at once immutable and always changing, who is at once relational and absolute. And as I said in my sermon, I don't really pretend to understand this paradox, but I do think that either of our choices in trying to defuse it is going to end up falling short in one way or another.

A Response to #GC77

Sunday, 15 July 2012 05:34 am
cjbanning: (Trinity)
As many of you reading this may well already know, the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church happened this past week. And of course, the entire world is talking about how TEC reauthorized use of the 1979 lectionary as an alternative to the Revised Common Lectionary with the permission of one's bishop and reaffirmed the sacrament of baptism as the normative entry to Holy Communion.

Okay, pretty much nobody's talking about those things. But they probably should be. So it goes.

Admittedly, the things everyone is focusing on--those having to do with sex--are pretty important too. D019 and D002 were resolutions which explicitly forbid discrimination against transgender individuals for lay ministry and ordination, respectively. These two resolutions are, to my mind, unmitigated goods. The morning after the House of Bishops passed them, essentially ensuring their passage as it is more conservative than the House of Deputies, I was messaged on OK!Cupid by a trans woman asking about "what [your] christain church thinks about ppl like me???" I was proud to be able to tell her.

I am slightly more conflicted--but only slightly--about the progress on same-sex unions. A049 approved a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. Now, these unions are not marriages, but I think the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music correctly decided a revision of the sacramental marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer would go beyond the mandate given to them by the 76th General Convention. However, they did propose resolution A050 to create a task force on the study of marriage. They explained their reasoning as follows:
As the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music developed liturgical resources for blessing same-gender relationships, it faced repeated questions about marriage. What makes a marriage Christian? What is the relationship between the Church’s blessing of a relationship, whether different-gender or same-gender, and a union, “marriage” or otherwise, created by civil law? Is the blessing of a same-gender relationship equivalent to the marriage of a different-gender couple, and if so, should this liturgy be called “marriage”? Because the Church’s understanding of marriage affects so many of its members, the Commission believes it is important to engage in a Churchwide conversation about our theology of marriage.
To me, this makes a lot of sense. I think it is important that we as a church take time out to articulate our theology of sacramental marriage. What is the function of the sacrament? For many people, it is to differentiate between licit and illicit sexual acts, but I actually reject that answer as still far too socially conservative. But if it is not about regulating sex, then what is the purpose?

There are many ways in which the sacrament of marriage is the odd one out among the seven traditional sacraments. (I feel the need here to note in passing that the BCP distinguishes between baptism and eucharist as "sacraments of the gospel" and the other five as "sacramental rites.") I know I'm not the only one to find Mt 22:23-33 strangely in tension with Mt 16:18-19 and Mt 18:18-20. While the understanding of marriage as a sacrament dates back to at least St. Augustine of Hippo, the Church herself did not officiate marriages until the second millenium C.E. Now it is true that anyone can baptize and that within Anglicanism lay persons can hear confessions, so the non-sacerdotal application of the sacraments is hardly without precedent. But it still makes me pause in my considerations of just what the sacrament of marriage is, exactly, and how it works as a means of grace. I look forward to hearing the conclusions of the taskforce in 2015 with excitement.

In any case, I am confident the foundation is being laid for full sacramental marriage to be expanded to same-sex couples within TEC within the next decade. I look forward to that time.

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.
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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

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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