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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These truths, regardless of whether or not they ever have been or ever will be instantiated in literal historical sequence, are the truths which set my heart alleluia-ing. The choice cannot be one between Jesus as symbol and the Risen Jesus. Jesus always is, and must be, both at the same time.
cjbanning: (Default)
This is the text I preached off of for the children's sermon at both the Church of the Holy Spirit and the Church of the Ascension. As you might imagine, the actual sermons I gave were significantly different than each other, as a result of having two somewhat different audiences.

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, which was on Tuesday. Most of the time we celebrate one saint at a time, or maybe two or three or a certain group of people, but on All Saints’ Day we celebrate ALL the saints. Does anyone know how many saints that is, how many saints there are all together?

Well, there were twelve disciples, right? And Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ mom and dad, so that’s at least fourteen. What other saints can you think of?

What about the saint we usually celebrate with a party at the beginning of next month? He wears red and sometimes likes to give presents to kids.

In this book [hold up Holy Women, Holy Men], there’s a couple hundred different saints that we celebrate at different parts of the Church year, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You know what that means, the tip of the iceberg?

Icebergs are big blocks of ice, right? And when they float in the water, you can only see a little piece of them floating on top of the water--most of the ice is underwater, where you can’t see it. The people in this book, and all the saints with “Saint” in front of their name, they’re the tip of the iceberg--the part that’s easy to see. But what makes an iceberg such a big deal is all that part that’s under the water, that you can’t see but is still there. With the saints, we call that entire iceberg--all the saints put together--the “communion” of saints.

In the passage [X] read from the Revelation, which is a very weird book from the very back of the Bible, St. John the Divine--there’s another one!--talks about a “a great multitude [that means ‘a lot’] that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

We don’t actually know how many saints there are, but there’s a lot of them, probably in the billions. That’s a lot of saints, isn’t it?

What do you think you need to do to become a saint?

Do you think saints make mistakes sometimes?

Did you know St. Nicholas punched somebody? He was at a big meeting of all the Church leaders, and they were trying to work out the Trinity--the relationship between God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Somebody said something he disagreed with, and he got so mad that he just punched the guy. That wasn’t a very good thing for him to do, was it?

Will you pray with me?

“Lord, we thank You for Your saints. We pray that we may be inspired by their example, so that we may join them in Your Presence. Amen.”
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Okay, returning to the train of thought inspired by Roger Olson's thoughts on universalism (if you haven't been following along, he's not sympathetic), I'm particular interested, for the moment, in these passages:
I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it? If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious. Barth’s universalism (yes, I believe Karl Barth was a universalist and I’ll post a message here about why later) did not arise out of those denials which is why he didn’t like the appellation “universalist.” The term is usually associated with liberal theology. In that case, as part of an overall liberal/modernist theology, I consider it very serious indeed.

[. . .]

When universalism is believed on biblical grounds (as in The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory McDonald–a pseudonym), it is much less serious than when it is believed as part of a liberal theology that denies the wrath of God and the sinfulness of all human beings (except Jesus Christ, of course).

[. . .]

There is egregious error and there is simple error. One kind of universalism (based on denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness) is egregious error. Another kind (based on confusion about God’s love requiring his overriding free will) is simple error.
I'm not a universalist, of course, but I am a modernist or a liberal theologian? I certainly don't think I'm a modernist, at least not by the definition given by D.A. Carson in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we know is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to be true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is antifoundational) and insists that we come to know things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion.
Am I liberal? Well, I'm certainly not illiberal. I've recently stopped identifying as a liberal theologian, deciding to instead to identify as a "post/liberal" theologian (even as I don't yet claim even a simplistic mastery of what that means). From the Wikipedia article on post-liberal theology:
In contrast to liberal individualism in theology, postliberal theology roots rationality not in the certainty of the individual thinking subject (cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am") but in the language and culture of a living tradition of communal life. The postliberals argue that the Christian faith be equated with neither the religious feelings of Romanticism nor the propositions of a Rationalist or fundamentalist approach to religion. Rather, the Christian faith is understood as a culture and a language, in which doctrines are likened to a "depth grammar" for the first-order language and culture (practices, skills, habits) of the church that is historically shaped by the continuous, regulated reading of the scriptural narrative over time. Thus, in addition to a critique of theological liberalism, and an emphasis upon the Bible, there is also a stress upon tradition, and upon the language, culture and intelligibility intrinsic to the Christian community. As a result, postliberal theologies are often oriented around the scriptural narrative as a script to be performed, understand orthodox dogmas (esp. the creeds) as depth-grammars for Christian life, and see such scriptural and traditional grammars as a resource for both Christian self-critique and culture critique.
At the same time, I use the virgule instead of the hyphen (i.e., post/liberal rather than post-liberal) out of an understanding that our post-liberalism needs to be firmly grounded in those aspects which liberal theology gets right. While Olson and I clearly agree that both overly modernistic theology (what I tend to call "liberal historicism" or--worse--"ethical Jesusism") and fundamentalism both rest on the same set of problematic assumptions which need to be removed beyong, reading over past posts by Olsen on liberal theology, modernism, and the Emergent Church movement, however, I get the sense that neither my postmodernism nor my post/liberalism are sufficiently different for his tastes than that which he considers central and problematic to modernism/liberalism (which is probably not the same as I what I see as central and problematic).

That's fair enough; it's silly to get too involved in a debate over labels, and I didn't enter into this expecting to agree with a conservative evangelical Baptist theologian, after all. But I think it's important to locate the exact nature of Olson's critique--which is to say, is there a critique here of the way that liberal theologians might come to universalism which is independent of the overall methodology of (post/)liberal theology as a whole? Is the problem simply that liberals have allowed outside sources of authority (reason and experience) to color the way they interpret the Bible and come to a conclusion different to the one that some might claim one to in a purely exegetical reading (as if such a thing were possible)? Or is there a particular theological error ("denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness)") that liberals might be especially prone to, but which perhaps could be articulated without relying on any specific theological methodology?

If it is the former, then Olson and I are clearly on different side of the issue (no matter how much our final conclusions might seem in agreement) without any meaningful persuasion really possible; our starting premises are simply too incommensurate. I look to reason and authority, in dialectical conversation with scripture and tradition, as legitimate sources of Christian authority, and I don't think an interpretation-free reading of the Bible is possible even in theory (so that the attempt to perform such a reading isn't merely subject to human fallibility, but is profoundly mistaken at its heart).

If the latter however, then it seems there might be some starting-point for dialogue. What does it mean for a liberal theology to deny "God's wrath and human sinfulness"--and is it possible for a liberal theologian, using a liberal theological method, to come to universalist or quasi-universalist conclusions without so denying? Yes, there are liberal theologians who have clearly denied, in a non-controversial way (that is, it's not controversial whether they did the denying), that "sin" is a useful category for 20th and 21st century. I think they're wrong, and if that's all who Olson is critiquing, then I'll join him in his critique without reservations. But they, if anything, seem to be in the majority and, in particular. feminist, queer, and anti-racist theologies are very much aware of the fallen nature of humanity. A Christian theology lacking the concepts of sin and wrath seems to be lacking, in a very profound sense, just on purely practical grounds.

Yet it's not clear to me that Olson intends his critique to be that narrow; indeed, he seems to see the denial of sin and/or wrath as endemic to liberal Christianity. Is there, then,  a way that a liberal theologian can acknowledge that human beings are suceptible to moral evil and that God hates evil and wants to erase it from the world, and still count for Graff as denying the wrathfulness of God? One way would be to view the use of any knowledge of God's nature not derived directly from Scripture using an evangelical hermeneutic in order to come to conclusions about universalism as a de facto denial of God's wrathfulness. Under this understanding, then it'd be a tautology that any liberal theologian who was also a universalist would be, necessarily, denying God's wrath. Again, this doesn't really leave open any avenues for dialogue between the liberal theologian and the evangelical.
cjbanning: (Trinity)
I've talked a lot in this journal about the Trinity as "perichoretic dialectic of conversation," and the implications that holds for Christian community and our understanding of the relationship between scripture, tradition, and reason. I've also repeatedly critiqued the notion of individual salvation (although have stopped short of denying it altogether), most recently in the sermon I preached at Ascension last month.

What I haven't done, yet, is connect the two notions. But over at Realiter Loquendo, Paul Hunter does a good job of it:
the Trinity, which together with the Incarnation, is one of the central mysteries of Christianity, totally excludes individualism. It may be that there are individualistic Christians, but the Christian God is not a monad. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity teaches that God is personal, but God is not a single person, because such a being is finally unthinkable. To be a person is always to be in communion with other persons.

The practical meaning of this is that "individual salvation" is something of an oxymoron. As human beings we are made in the image of the Trinity, and so we can only be saved - in fact we can only really be human - by being in communion with others and with God. To be a human being fully alive we must pour out our lives in obedience and love to God, and service to our neighbors.
This is an elaboration of Hunter's previous explanation:
Christianity is the only religion I know of in which God is a community. God is Trinity and not a monad. Part of what that means is that individualism is totally excluded. A person alone is no person; if that is true for God how much more so for [God's] creatures.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
After spending two posts in a discussion on orthodoxy and heresy inspired by an exchange between Roger Olson and Eric Reitan on the orthodoxy of universalism, it seems that it makes sense to say a little bit, however briefly, about that particular test case.

First off, no, universalism is not a heresy--at least not by any meaningful standard. (Which is to say, "doctrine that Roger Olson thinks is wrong" is excluded as a workable definition of heresy, for the reasons given in my post Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Truth and in Reitan's On Heresy and Universalism. Although Olson does gives a more comprehensive and coherent, if still not totally persuasive--is there really a consensus, even just among evangelicals, that universalism is heresy?--account of his position from which universalism counts as heresy in a more recent post, Some random thoughts about that awful but necessary word "heresy") Robin Parry does a good job of working through the question of whether universalism is heretical in a series of posts (1 2 3 4 5), and persuasively comes to what seems to be the unescapable conclusion that the Church Catholic has never denounced universalism as such, although it has denounced the teaching of some particular universalists, such as Origen, while praising others, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa.

For reasons about which I've posted before, I am not a universalist, or at least don't identify as such. Indeed, my reasons are more or less the same as Olson's (rooted in an account of human freedom), so it could be said that we share the same position: that universalism can be put forth as a "pious hope" but not a "confident belief." But Olson comes off as almost stridently anti-universalist, while I am deeply sympathetic to universalism.

Why the difference? It seems to be a disagreement over what, exactly, a "pious hope" looks like. For Olson, it almost seems to be little more than wishful thinking:
Of course, someone might argue that, in the end, every creature will freely offer love to God and be saved (e.g., Moltmann). I would just call that optimism. There’s no way to believe that true other than a leap of optimistic hope.

Whereas I would find that claim quite likely, given what we know about God's nature from scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, while at the same time agreeing with Olson that asserting as fact that everyone will be saved goes beyond our possible knowledge. But I'm a skeptic in general: asserting as fact that the sun will rise tomorrow goes beyond our possible knowledge. (For one thing, we might blow up the world in the meantime.) As the great author Robert Anton Wilson said, "I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions."

So the question becomes: how confident is overconfident?

Do I believe that, if there is a an afterlife, then everyone will experience salvation within it? At the end of the day, the answer to that question depends upon an epistemological dilemma: what separates a belief from a mere suspicion on the one hand and an overconfident assertion of knowledge on the other?

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: (Palm Sunday)
Proper 14 Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)

 Continuing the train of thought started in my last post on works-righteousness, it seems like "Justification by faith" and "Justification by works" both equally put a step in between grace and salvation: either way, there's something human beings need to do in response to grace in order to be saved, and I'm not sure why one type of justification is more problematic than the other. I just don't see how it's even possible to answer the question "Saved for what?" without falling into Pelagianism. It's exactly the point that we aren't saved for anything but rather despite everything.

It seems that if grace is resistable, then merely accepting God's grace should be sufficient for salvation, and both faith and works come afterwards; if grace is irresistble, then the mere presence of grace should be sufficient and, again, faith and works come afterwards.

I don't see how any account of faith in which "confessing with your lips that Jesus is Sovereign and believing in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead"  (Romans 10:9) are seen as justifying actions doesn't automatically turn faith into a sort of crypto-work. And then it's actually the sola fide proponent who ends up falling into Plagianism and violating sola gratia.

 

cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Putting aside for the moment the question of whether (and, if so, to what degree) it is condemned by scripture, what exactly is the problem with works-righteousness?

Some accounts I’ve read seem to imply that works-righteousness is implicitly Pelagian—that is, that it allows for righteousness (which can always also be translated as either “justice” or “justness”) to be earned either partially or totally independent of grace. (“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. . . .”) Now, to be clear, let me be the first one to stand up against the heresy of Pelagius and to acknowledge that it is only by virtue of the freely-given and unearned grace of God that we are capable of achieving salvation, of being put right with God and with God’s Church. But if we more closely examine the elements underlying the faith/works distinction the question of Pelagianism quickly reveals itself to be a nonissue.

I simply do not see any reason why we should be required to understand works-righteousness as either implicitly or explicitly Pelagian (or at least no more so than already inherent in a theological system under which grace is resistable, e.g. Wesleyanism)—unless we are working with some strange definitions of “works” and “faith” such that works are established a priori to be capable of being performed by a human agent independent of God’s grace, and faith as being something over which the person of faith has no control over or participation in. But I cannot for the life of me understand what would lead us to accept such strange and idiosyncratic definitions in the first place, and see several strong reasons, grounded in experience and scripture, as to why we should reject them.

In his letter to the churches of Galatia, St. Paul asks:
Does God give you the Spirit so freely and works miracles among you because practice the Law, or because you believe what was preached to you?
Here the choice seems to be between two actions capable of being performed by a human agent (that is, essentially between two types of “works”), not between an action and an unearned state of being. In his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, St. Paul actually refers to “the work of faith” (unsusprisingly, the NIV opts to translate this as “your work produced by faith”) of the Thessalonians.

Indeed, even under a strictly Calvinist account of sola gratia—in which atonement is limited, election unconditional, and grace irresistible—there doesn’t seem to be any inherent link necessitating sola fide or faith-righteousness. Instead, the two doctrines seem to function completely independently from each other, such that irresistible grace provided to God’s elect would manifest itself (without any cooperating effort on the part of the elected humans) as justifying works rather than (or in addition to) justifying faith.

Of course, I don’t actually agree with the Calvinist that anti-Pelagianism requires grace to be irresistible. But even if we are to stipulate that point, there is still nothing inherently Pelagian about works-righteousness, nor anything inherently anti-Pelagianism about justification by faith.

A Case for Hell?

Tuesday, 26 April 2011 09:19 pm
cjbanning: (Trinity)
I mostly agree with the argument that Ross Douthat puts forth in his New York Times editorial, A Case for Hell, with two major exceptions:

1. Douthat writes:
Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.
I'm not quite sure where this special license for atheists "to scoff at damnation" comes from. If there being a God but no hell denies "the reality of human choices" then how exactly does disbelieving in God solve the problem? It would seem that any account of the reality of human choices open to the atheist should also be open to the theist.

And demonstrably, there are accounts of the reality of human choices which are open to atheists (and, I would argue, to universalist theists). Atheists are not all--or even mostly, or even signficantly--the fatalistic nihilists that sometimes theists might paint them as. Even if they don't believe that the world has intrinsic meaning (and it's hardly automatic that they would so disbelieve), that doesn't mean that our lives as lived are meaningless. Douthat even makes a feint towards recognizing this en passant: "Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary 'hellmouths' (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet." But he then retreats to the tired trope (particularly beloved of conservative Catholics) that meaning simply can't exist in the absence of a particular religious doctrine (here, hell).

As they say in Joss Whedon's television show Angel (in the episode "Epiphany"):
Angel: Well, I guess I kinda worked it out. If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters... , then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.
Kate Lockley: And now you do?
Angel: Not all of it. All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don't think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there's no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
Kate Lockley: Yikes. It sounds like you've had an epiphany.
Angel: I keep saying that, but nobody's listening.
Or, to put it another way, just try telling the little children playing baseball that the fact that nobody's keeping score means their game doesn't matter.

2. Just because we are free to say no to paradise--and, assuming for the moment there is a paradise to say no to, I agree with Douthat that we are so free; grace is resistable--doesn't mean that anyone has actually chosen or will choose that option. It's a logical possibility, not a practical necessity. This is, as far as I can tell second-hand, the implicit argument behind Rob Bell's controversial Love Wins, and it's my position as well. To claim that Hell is empty is to step beyond our human knowledge and usurp the Judgment which is God's alone, but the same is true of saying that Hell isn't empty. No number of appeals to the depravity of a Hitler or--and this is Douthat's innovation--Tony Soprano is going to change that.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Recently, I took a train up to New Brunswick to attend a young adult retreat hosted by the Diocese of New Jersey. There's a lot I could say about the event: I had a blast, came away renewed, and we did a lot of great hashing-out of the notion of original sin during the Ask-a-Priest period (in response to a young woman's question about the RCC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception) that ties into thoughts I've been thinking in such a way as to merit a post of its own. (Of course, at this point the topics which merit posts are legion, and the actual posts, not so much.) But for the moment to want to write a bit about a subject which came up during our lunch conversation.

Possibly in response to one young woman's giving up Facebook for Lent, we were discussing all the multitude of ways technology has shaped out lives. When one of our retreat leaders, the Rev. (and always awesome) Gregory Bezilla, asked if we ever thought about how Christianity fit into it all. I replied that I've often wondered just what what the implications are of Facebook (and of Dreamwidth and Livejournal and the cyberspace age in general) on the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body (affirmed in the Apostle's Creed, the creed of the baptismal covenant): if our body is that part of our selves which has extension in physical space, then isn't our Facebook, which can extend that self to a computer in California or Boston where a friend sees one's status update, part of our body? And insofar as it extends us through "virtual" space the way our physical body does through physical space, then doesn't it represent a "virtual body" just as real and as legitimate as is our physical one? Doesn't this blog allow me to express and/or mask what I am thinking in much the same way as my face does?

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger discussed a concept similar to this in his notion of Zuhandanheit ("ready-to-hand") in which a tool, through the experience of the user, is fused with the body. Heidegger argued that in using a tool (like Facebook, or the Dreamwidth blog I'm writing this) it becomes experientially invisible to us, an extension of our selves. The technology disappears completely as we focus on the immediate performance of the tool. (Full disclosure: most of the previous paragraph is recapitulated, often verbatim, from various websites, in particular this slideshow. It's been a couple of years since I picked up my Heidegger, although I do remember my professor, Tom de Zengotita, explaining this particular point.)

As I wrote above, I don't know what the implications of these thoughts are for the resurrection of the body, if it means that we should perhaps imagine the Facebook servers rising from the ashes on the day of the general resurrection. I don't know--but I do think the notion merits serious consideration

Now it is of course possible to think of information and communication technologies as something completely alien and foreign to our bodies and souls, as "the machine" which oppresses us. We can--but I don't think we should; indeed, I think doing so is seriously damaging to our Christian spirituality. We are not called to be alienated from that which God and/or human beings have created; at most, we are called to redeem it when it has fallen into sin.

There is a "strong" sort of transhumanism--where our humanity, and in particular our human bodies, is literally something to be transcended, escaped--which lies in conflict with our values both as feminists and as Trinitarian Christians, both of which should encourage us to celebrate our embodied natures. As feminists, we understand that the denial or devaluing of our embodied nature often represents a devaluing or erasure of femininity, femaleness, and/or womanhood (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article Feminist Perspectives on the Body for a comprehensive overview) by declaring it either irrelevant or inferior. As Trinitarian Christians, the above-referenced doctrine of the resurrection of the body tells us that our physical bodies represent a key component of the whole human person without which we are incomplete, that we are not destined to live out eternity merely as disembodied spirits. And the doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that Jesus glorified our human bodies by becoming one us, a human being, with a physical body which suffered and died on a cross. Indeed, it was the Gnostics of old who heretically denied Jesus's humanity, asserting that the Christ existed as a spirit only and that the death on the cross was an illusion.

In contrast to that sort of transhumanism, I'm thinking of a sort of "weak transhumanism," something more along the terms of Donna Harroway's cyborg feminism--a "Cyborg Christianity," if you will--in which, rather than allowing us to transcend our humanity and escape our human bodies, technology allows us to dissolve the dualism between our selves and our bodies and more fully, rather than less, live out our embodied humanity.
cjbanning: (Default)
The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3:2-5, NRSV)
I want, of course, to respond to Saint Paul’s query with a simple negative, rejecting both horns of the apparent dilemma. It is neither because of my practice of the Mosaic Law (which, of course, I don’t make any claims to keep), nor by my believing any set of truth-claims which may have been preached to the church in Galatia, that God supplies me with the Spirit. Instead, it is a freely-given gift which I have done nothing to earn besides simply being one of God’s children created in the divine image. It is only incumbent upon me to not reject God’s love, as do the fallen angels in the Enochian-Miltonic Satan myth.

I note however, that what both the NRSV and NIV translates as “believing what you heard” the KJV translates as “the hearing of faith,” and this seems to actually be the more literal translation. That which was preached to the churches of Galatia and consequently needs to be received (Greek akoe, hearing) is pistis, faithfulness.

Wikipedia tells me that
many recent studies of the Greek word pistis have concluded that its primary and most common meaning was faithfulness, meaning firm commitment in an interpersonal relationship. As such, the word could be almost synomymous with "obedience" when the people in the relationship held different status levels (e.g. a slave being faithful to [their] master). Far from being equivalent to 'lack of human effort', the word seems to imply and require human effort. The interpretation of Paul's writings that we need to "faithfully" obey God's commands is quite different to one which sees him saying that we need to have "faith" that [God] will do everything for us.
Saint Paul continues:
Just as Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you." For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed. (Gal. 3:6-9, NRSV)
Since Saint Paul quotes the Hebrew scriptures, it makes sense for us to consider the context of the account of Abraham’s “belief” which is being put forth as a model for us so that we may become blessed with Abraham.
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” [God] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then [God] said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:1-6, NRSV)
It is clear from this passage what exactly Abram did that earned him blessedness, and it wasn't hold a specific set of beliefs in God. Instead, Abram simply trusted in God to keep those promises made by God--and God reckoned that trust to be a right and just work.
 
Similarly, God demonstrates the justice of the Gentiles (that is, God "justifies" them) through their faithfulness and their relationship with God (but not their beliefs about God) rather than their keeping of the Mosaic Code. Galatians 3:11 asserts that the justice of no persons is demonstrated before God by the Mosaic Code; Saint Paul quotes Habakkuk which says,
Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (2:2-4, NRSV)
The word translated by "faith" in the NRSV is the Hebrew emunah which, like the Greek pistis, means "faithfulness" or "fidelity." NRSV notes also an ambiguity in the way Saint Paul quotes Habakkuh; the Greek translation used by Paul can be translated into English either as "the one who is righteous will live by faith" or as "the one who is righteous through faith will live." While it makes sense that Saint Paul, a learned Jew, would be faithful to the sense found in the original Hebrew source, the added plurality of meaning made possible by the ambiguity is nonetheless interesting.
 
 
 
 
cjbanning: (Symposium)
This is the first of what will presumably be several posts on Kendra  Creasy Dean's Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, which is being read throughout the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey this January through June as part of its One Book program.

I blame Rod Dreher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so I find myself forced to do what I dislike the most, agreeing with Rod Dreher, if only on this specific lament:
the mixed blessing of unity )
a final thought )
cjbanning: (Trinity)
1. Godhead. The apophatic denial of God's non-existence.
2. Trinity. God is one Being in three Persons.
3. Chalcedonian Christology. Hypostatic union: Jesus Christ is two natures, one human and one divine, united into one Person.
4. Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as complementary sources of revelation.
5. The Sacraments. The seven sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation, ordination, marriage, healing) are the means of sanctifying grace, rites in which God is uniquely active, visible signs of an invisible reality.
6. Ex opere operato. The seven sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves, by the very fact of the actions’ being performed, because Christ is at work in them in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.
7. Baptismal Regeneration. The salvation of baptized persons (including those baptized by blood or desire, as well as by water) is uniquely mediated through the sacrament.
8. Real Presence. Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. (Radical transignification.)
9. Perseverance of Eucharistic Presence. Real Presence is not dependent on the act of drinking or eating and continues in the consecrated hosts beyond the celebration of the Eucharist.
10. Adorableness of the Eucharist. Worship may be properly rendered to the Blessed Sacrament.
11. One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the Church of Jesus Christ.
12. Apostolic Succession. The spiritual authority placed on the apostles by Christ is passed through history via the institutional rites of the Church, i.e. the consecration of bishops. The one Church of Christ subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate.
13. Ordained Presbyterate. God specially calls some people (of all genders, races, and sexualities) to undergo the sacrament of ordination; to represent Christ and the Church of Christ, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.
14. Free Will. God has willed that human persons remain under the control of their own decisions. For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within a human being.
15. Sin. The existence of corporate evil—sexism and racism, transphobia and homophobia; poverty and hunger; totalitarianism and fascism—such that human freedom is curtailed and diminished.
16. Sola gratia. Since human freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can the Church bring the relationship between God and human beings into full flower.
17. Resistability of Grace. The free wills of human beings may cooperate with God so as to prepare and dispose themselves for the attainment of salvation; human wills can also refuse complying, if they please.
18. Universal Potential for Redemption. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are for the benefit of all humankind, not just an elect.
19. Kingdom of Heaven. Through grace, humans are called to use their free will to pray for peace, fight for justice, and build God’s Kin(g)dom on Earth.
20. Intercession of Saints. It is proper to pray to the Saints and ask for their intercessions.
cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
Is X necessary for salvation?

In some ways, there's a tension between two ways of asking this question, revolving around what we mean by "necessary" and what we mean by "salvation." The question "is X necessary for salvation?" where salvation is defined as "not going to Hell" is, essentially, an attempt to game the system: it's trying to find out what's the absolute least we have to do without "losing the game," so to speak. For those of us who find the doctrine of eternal damnation problematic to begin with, it's asking the wrong question.

(On reflection, it's not eternal damnation per se which is the problem so much as the Reformation doctrine that we inherently deserve eternal damnation as a result of our total depravity, rather than damnation being something we bring onto ourselves by actively and knowingly opposing God and separating ourselves from God. I think the latter understanding is perfectly compatible with the orthodox understanding of original sin being our tendency to choose evil as a result of our wounded--but not totally depraved--nature, and with a robust counter-Pelagianism.)

The other way of asking the question is "what am I called to do in order to become my most authentic self (as a Christian)?" (where "becoming my most authentic self" is essentially what we mean by salvation) without assuming that falling short of becoming our most authentic selves is going to result in us being poked by pitchforks forever and ever, amen. In response to that question, I don't think there's anything absurd in noting that Church tradition is fairly clear in teaching (for example) that, yes, "a pubic display in which a little cup of water is poured upon your head" (whether as a child or an adult, and of course never denying that full immersion represents a valid sacrament as well) is necessary, that baptism by water is the fullest and best enactment of the sacramental infusion of regenerative grace, a good and rightful and necessary thing.
cjbanning: (Default)
David B. Hart has a nice piece in the First Things blog today which articulates something I've been trying to express at least as well as I've been able to:
Most attempts to describe the mind entirely as an emergent quality of the brain, or as another name for the brain’s machinery, not only fail convincingly to bridge the qualitative distance between sensory impression and coherent thought, but invariably bracket out of consideration a great deal of what any scrupulous phenomenology of consciousness reveals. Certainly they do not seem to explain the “transcendental” conditions by which consciousness is organized: that primordial act within and prior to all our other acts of mind and will; that constant mediation between thought and world that we both perform and suffer in advance of all experience or volition.

Consciousness has not been explained until one can provide a comprehensive picture of how the mind not only “fits” the world, but also “intends” and “constitutes” it as an intelligible phenomenon. And that is not the straightforward mechanical problem it is often mistaken for.

But these are matters that have been tormenting philosophers and cognitive scientists for decades, and they will not be resolved by any arguments or any science currently at our command. And, anyway, even if humanity should some day penetrate the ordinary mysteries of consciousness, the more extraordinary mysteries will probably remain, and continue to urge human beings to think in terms not only of the mind, but of the soul.
I think this is basically right. The conclusion we should come to isn't, of course, the Cartesian-Thomist superstition that there is some substantial thing which exists outside the emergent properties of the brain. I'm not advocating some fall into metaphysicalism. But I think that Hart is right that pure materialism doesn't quite explain what it's setting out to, either.

What is necessary is an enactment of a synthesis between empiricist truths and phenomenological ones.

Frederick Coppleston writes in his multivolume history of philosophy about how Immanuel Kant took it to be "a necessary condition for the possibility of experience that I think should be capable of accomodating all one's representations." Yet we must take into account the exact nature of the type of necessity that is operative. It is not, of course, a physical necessity. Instead it seems to be a truth about logic--about language, about the way in which we think. Coppleson goes on to say that it "is purely as a logical subject that the transcendental ego is then a necessary condition of experience. This is the case because "experience is unintelligible unless objects, to be objects, must be related to the unity of apperception."

However, "we cannot argue to the existence of the transcendental ego [. . .]. Scientific knowledge is bounded by the the world of phenonmena, but the transcendental ego does not belong to the world; it is a limiting concept."

Coppleston himself notes the affinity between this account of the rational subject and that given in Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein expands on the Kantian notion of self as a limiting concept in the Tractatus, but grounds it in a framework which is mystical rather than emergent.
cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
The other day, I posted the following as my status update on Facebook:
Cole J. Banning thinks that Thomistic soteriology's proto-Cartesian rational psychology is philosophically untenable due to its implicit metaphysical realism. Anyone know of any contemporary Christian soteriologies which do a better job?
Now, I was mostly putting forth as a joke because I recognized that it reads like unintelligible gobbledygook. But, at the same time, it is also something that I believe to be true, and I was (and am) open for recommendations.

For those who would like a lexicon to translate:
Thomistic = according to the theology/philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas
soteriology = the branch of theology which deals with the soul and salvation
proto-Cartesian = anticipating the philosophy of René  Descartes, who is famous for the credo "I think, therefore I am" and who posited the self as a substantial entity
rational psychology = metaphysical discipline which uses a priori reasoning to determine the nature of the soul
metaphysical realism = the metaphysical doctrine which asserts that truth can transcend the possibility of verification due to the existence of objects, properties and relations which the world contains and which are independent of our thoughts about them or our perceptions of them (e.g., Platonic "forms") (definition reworked from this article)

In short, the Thomistic account of the soul is as a substance (although further reading has led me to suspect this loses some of the true subtlety of Thomistic philosophy, and that a detailed reading of the Summa contra Gentiles is in order), slightly more holistic in its character than the Cartesian cogito but no less an existent metaphysical entity. It's this thing that I have (which has itself?--it is I). Obviously this understanding of the self as a thing still enjoys broad popular support, but it has been the subject of grave philosophical objections since Hume. (The soul as a thing to be posessed apart from the self also has some popular support--cf., e.g., Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its account of the soul as something which can be lost or regained).

Both Kant and Wittgenstein deal with this problem by understanding the subject-ego as a limiting concept, belonging not to reality but instead being a limit of reality.* This tends to be my own position. I'm not sure what the implications for soteriology ultimately are, however: what does it mean for a limiting concept to die and go to heaven (or to hell, or to a next life, or to any other conception of an afterlife). It seems we must assert with Wittgenstein that "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death."

Liberal Protestantism tends to interpret our soulfullness largely in terms of our innate dignity which demands justice on the part of society. I like and agree with this perspective, but it doesn't make any more sense for innate dignity to go to heaven than it does for a limiting concept to do so.

I guess I'm principally interested in how Christian soteriologists respond to Humean and post-Humean objections in crafting their account of soulfullness (and the afterlife) without retreating to metaphysical realism: "the soul exists, and is a thing, so there." (A healthy dose of mysticism, as in Wittgenstein, is just fine by me, OTOH--so long as it is not reified into a realism.) I haven't really seen any accounts which do this well. The Episcopal catechism's only mention of the soul is to remind us we're supposed to use it to love God. The contemporary Roman catechism's description of the soul is admirably holistic but troublingly vague. (I perform a fuller and deeper survey of conventional Roman Catholic tradition and understandings of the soul in my previous post, The Nature of the Soul: Synthesizing Tradition and Reason: Soul as Metaphysical.) Even Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 1 which has been a tremendous resource for me in explaining many points of theology (and the debates over them) in much fuller detail than I had previously understood them, has provided absolutely no account of what a soul actually is. (I'm only partially through Vol. 2, but so far neither has it.)

So my primary question is: what is a soul, and why should I care what happens to mine? (Note that the answer is not particularly central to my life as a Christian; I'm a Christian because Christ has reavealed Christself to me as Lord, and not to get into heaven.)

To lay my cards on the table: I think our own subjecthood, our unity of apperception, the fact that we experience ourselves as selves, is a subject of the deepest mysticism, which means so too will have to be the question of life after death. It's not that the afterlife does or doesn't exist, exactly, it's that our attempt to ask the question of what happens to us after we die necessarily falls into the nonsense of metaphysics, trying to put into words what cannot be said, but only shown.


*Wittgenstein actually uses "the world" instead of "reality," but this shouldn't be confused with the (deeply problematic) use of "the world" by many Christians to refer to "the satanic system which is hostile to God." Wittgenstein uses "the world" (die Welt) to mean "all that is the case" (alles, was der Fall ist). He actually uses "reality"  (Realitat) to mean something subtly different, but that's not particularly germane to our needs here.

cjbanning: (The Bishop)
I'm without a computer right now, so I'm not really upset about these not getting written; it's just the way things are. But for some reason this Sunday's took a hold of me, so here it is. As Elizabeth would say, written as if preached on the day (June 13).

Proper 6


1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

The Church is a community of plurality, billions of people--many races, many genders, many sexualities, many nations, many ideologies and political viewpoints, many denominations and theologies--who are united, through the sacrament of their baptism, into a single Body, the mystical Body of Christ, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The God we worship is a God of plurality, three in One, three Persons in one Being: Adonai, Messiah, and Chokmah. Jesus is a man of plurality, fully God and fully human. The paschal meal which we share today is a meal of plurality: to all outward appearances mere bread and mere wine, but in its most fundamental being it contains the Real Presence of Christ Jesus.

It is appropriate, then, and perhaps shouldn't be too surprising, that our Scripture is a book of plurality: many books, written by many authors from many different times and historical contexts, testifying to many different understandings and experiences of the divine, uniting into one canon, the book, la biblia, the Bible. Any single viewpoint would be far too limited to be able to contain the multi-splendored nature of God; the multitude of inconsistencies and incoherencies which run througout Scripture, from the two competing accounts of Creation onwards, give necessary testimony that no collection of words could ever contain the fullness of the divine. This richness is sadly lost to those who would approach Scripture as a single discrete text by a single divine author, using the various prophets and evangelists merely as secretaries taking dictation.

Our Lectionary exploits this truth about Scripture by juxtaposing these various voices within the context of the praise, worship, and study which is the Liturgy of the Word, typically--as in this week--a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a reading specifically from the Psalter, a reading from the Epistles, and a reading from the Gospels, but modified sometimes so as to fit the needs of various points in the church year. (For example, during Easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles and the Revelation of St. John the Divine.) Sometimes, we walk away from this juxtaposition struck by the unity of the message running like a thread through disparate portions of Scripture; sometimes, the passages stand in critique and challenge to each other.

This week we see in our Lectionary passages several distinct perspectives on the moral order of the universe, perspectives which speak to different moments in Jewish thought, each which their own historical context which it is important for us to understand. While many of the psalms in the Psalter are attributed to King David within the text itself, modern scholars tend to see them as the product of many different authors--a microcosm of the Bible as a whole, so to speak--most of them probably written some time after the Exile, for liturgical uses. The Books of Kings was probably compiled around the same time, sometime in the sixth century B.C.E., from earlier historical material. It is not surprising, then, that to a great degree the two works share a common worldview as to the nature of good and evil in the world.

Central to understanding the moral order operative in the Psalter and in the Books of Kings is realizing that our notion of an afterlife as punishment or reward for a life ill- or well-lived did not yet exist in the times in which they were written. Sheol for these Jews was a shadowy half-existence more akin to oblivion than to our notions of Heaven or of Hell; indeed, there is some evidence of the Jews thinking of the soul as being utterly consumed and obliterated within it. The Hebrews thus looked to the more-or-less direct intervention of God, working through prophets like Elijah, through nature, and through history, to upkeep the moral order, to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, within the confines of an earthly lifespan.

Throughout the Psalter runs the faithful conviction, held both in good times and in bad, that righteousness will be rewarded and wickedness will be punished. Psalms of celebration exalt the way in which those rewards are enjoyed today; psalms of lamentation nonetheless are firm in their insistence that it will come tomorrow. Note that a critical element of this moral order is the destruction of one's enemies; not only will those who are faithful to God be raised up and exalted, but those who persecute God's faithfull will be laid low. God "hates all those who work wickedness," abhors "the bloodthirsty and deceitful," and "destroys those who speak lies"--and the Psalms positively relish in that destruction, unapologetically revelling in the misfortune of others and viewing it as evidence of a just god at work in the world. "Love your enemies" is not a message which one finds in the Psalter, at least not on the surface, nor is the unconditional love of God for all people and races.

Around the second century B.C.E., however, a new paradigm began to emerge in Jewish thought, in response to the Maccabean exile and a growing frustration with God's tendency to side with those with the larger armies, and a belief in the resurrection of the dead, that the faithful--defined as those who upheld God's law by keeping the Jewish purity laws--would be rewarded in a future, messianic age in which our bodies would be restored to life and made immortal. One of the sects which held this were the Pharisees, in contrast to the Sadducees, the temple priests, who denied the resurrection. Acts 23:8 reminds us that “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three." The Sadducees were religious conservatives who interpreted the Torah literally; the Pharisees were religious liberals who democratized Judaism by transferring authority from the priests to the people. While the Pharisees are attacked throughout the Gospels for their legalism, they were in fact less legalistic in most ways than the other Jewish sects in favor during the time of the life of Christ.

Jesus was, of course, Christself a Pharisee, at least insofar as Jesus' thought and teachings can be situated within the context of any particular school of Jewish thought. Perhaps this is why Jesus' spends so much time criticizing them, holding them to a higher standard because they have already glimpsed some small glimmer of the truth.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus eats at the home of another Pharisee, Simon. Simon, like Jesus, believes in the resurrection of the body; he recognizes the hope of a resurrected life. This is a point they agree on, a common starting point in their paradigmatic understandings of the universal moral order which unites them as they break bread with each other, Simon eager to learn from Jesus as Teacher. Yet Jesus nonetheless presents a fundamental challenge and correction to Simon's understanding.

Simon's belief in the resurrection only pushes the earlier Jewish understanding of God rewarding good and punishing evil onto a future afterlife; it is still, essentially, a bribe for being good, a celestial equivalent to a mother telling her children she'll buy them ice cream if they behave at Grandma's. The fundamental system of accounting, so to speak, which we see operative in the Psalter and in Kings has not been changed. But when Jesus forgives the sins of the woman kissing his feet, Jesus explodes this calculus, turning Simon's world upside down in the process.

Jesus presents instead a vision of a world where we do good and act justly not because we hope to earn some type of reward, whether in this life or in heaven--what craven people we must be to need to be bribed to do the right thing! Jesus shows us a world where we do not avoid evil because we are afraid of a Hell where we will be mercilessly punished forever for our sins. Jesus shows Simon the possibility of a still third moral order, one in which we act lovingly not in hope of some reward but because we are filled with love, because that is our authentic response as Christians to Jesus' redemptive Presence. Broken free from the calculus of reward-and-punish, we sing praise to God not to incur divine favor, but because our mouths cannot bear to be silent; we pray to God because our hearts will not be still; we do the work of God because our hands cannot bear to be idle.

May it ever be so for all of us.

Amen.

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.
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

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


Find Cole J. Banning



Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Monday, 29 May 2017 03:48 am

Style Credit