cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
In a very real sense, my spiritual autobiography is simple and short, less of a spiritual journey and more of a spiritual home: stable, secure, sheltering. I have been in my life a sort of conservative Protestant, a pantheist, a deist, a neo-pagan, and of course an Anglican, but never an atheist. That there is a beauty beyond this world which undergirds it, a divinity which is the source and ground of Being itself, is a fact which has always been manifest in my experience.

In this sense, my journey has been theological, intellectual, a fluid relationship with ideas as I learned and grew in theological understanding but always moored by an unshakeable relationship with the God, the One Who Is, whom I sought to understand. I have had no crisis of faith--sometimes I wonder if this itself is not a failing--simply a long process of rejecting and accepting various understandings.

At the same time, of course, in a very real sense the two journeys cannot be divorced from each other. The ideas and images, the meanings and metaphors, which we use to grasp the divine provide the form and structure for our relationship with God; my Anglican spirituality is mediated by the prayers, practices, and sacraments of Anglicanism itself, as a culture and a church, which I have come to recognize as conveying the deepest of truths. And in this sense, my spirituality has indeed changed radically several times over my lifetime as it matured and evolved.

I was brought up in a secular, “culturally Christian,” atheistic-agnostic household, but I was brought up a Christian. I was read the Nativity story from an early age, even if sometimes before or after works of secular fiction such as The Pokey Little Puppy or The Cat in the Hat. I was sent to Methodist Sunday school, I am told in an attempt to expose me to many different beliefs and practices (an attempt which proved to be abortive past that point). And I did what any child does when someone they trust tells them that things are true: I believed.

I was not, however, afforded any resources in how to believe, or even really in what to believe. My Sunday school curriculum consisted of Bible stories--Jonah and the fish, Balaam and the donkey, the garden of Eden, the flood--without being taught how to approach these stories or to integrate them into my life. And so when, around the age of twelve, the cognitive dissonance between what I was taught in Sunday school and my secular understanding of the world and the way it worked grew too great, it was natural for me to reject Chrisitianity. Christianity’s claims seemed too limited, too small to be able capture the majesty of the divine.

In high school, however, at the private Roman Catholic school I attended, I was introduced to many important things which laid foundations for later developments in my theological thought. I was introduced to higher criticism, learning how our appreciation of the Biblical message can be enriched through understanding the human, historical processes which shaped its production. I learned also about Catholic social teaching and its roots in liberation theology, putting forth a model of what a progressive Christianity might look like, and the lives of such saintly figures as Dorothy Day and Clare of Assisi who would later become my personal heroes.

But most importantly, I was introduced to the sacraments, and to a method of “doing religion” which emphasized the sacramental life of the community rather than the piety of the individual believer, where one’s relationship with God was primarily mediated through ritual--through lived experience and action!--rather than written text, a medium by which I could directly experience being present in God’s movement. This resonated for me, as I recognized a beauty and sacred character in the mass. In college, I attended the weekly Roman Catholic mass each Sunday night (they were held at 10:30 p.m.!) and, beginning the second semester of my freshman year, was a member of the Newman Board, the executive committee overseeing the university’s Roman Catholic community.

Throughout high school and college, I studied--both inside and outside the classroom--theology and philosophy. Liberal theologians like Paul Tillich and Leonardo Boff provided for me a framework within which to understand Christian practice and belief in a way which respected my intellectual commitments, while feminist theologians like Rebecca S. Chopp provided ways in which the truth and beauty of Christianity could be preserved without its patriarchal baggage. At the same time, seeing the ways in which the great atheistic philosophers of the last 150 years--such heavyweights as Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Jacques Derrida--were unable despite their best efforts to exorcise the transcendent from their philosophical systems provided philosophical justification for my developing theology.

Even as I found within Catholicism the type of religious truth I had not found in the Protestantism of my childhood, however, I knew that I would never be at home within the Roman church, feeling that it would not be possible as a convert to occupy with intellectual honesty the type of complicated relationship to the church held by “renegade” cradle Catholic theologians like Leonardo Boff and Hans Kung. Anglicanism’s combination of Catholic liturgy and practice alongside greater intellectual freedom and diversity thus proved powerfully attractive, and I was baptized in the Episcopal Church in 2007, at the age of 23, and confirmed by the Rt. Rev. George Councell in 2008.

Since then, my Anglican faith has only deepened and developed as I have attempted to live out my new identity as an Anglican and as a Christian and have more truly learned what it is like to exist within (rather than merely adjacent to), and be nourished by, a community of Christian believers. So too has it been enriched by my close contact with Circle of Hope, a network of Anabaptist congregations taking root in Philadelphia and South Jersey, as they have exposed me to a radically different set of practices and theologies, as well as providing me with many opportunities to work on strengthening my own faith, as they attempt to live out their lives authentically in Christ and in fellowship with each other and the world, “be[ing] a safe place to explore and express God’s love” and “birthing a new generation of the church” (as their website puts it).

While my Anglo-Catholicism persists undisturbed--strengthened even!--it has deepened my respect for the power of low-church liturgy and my gladness that Anglicanism has deep roots in both high-church and low-church traditions, providing it with an enviable set of resources in attempting to speak to the many different types of people with whom it finds itself in dialogue.
cjbanning: (Palm Sunday)
So, my friend Elizabeth has started a practice of writing "unpreached sermons": what she would say if she were preaching that Sunday, even though she isn't. I've really been inspired by the practice, and want to take it up in the new liturgical year as an intellectual/devotional exercise. So, while I'm obviously not licensed to preach in the Episcopal Church in this universe's reality, if I were to give a homily today, this would be it.

My goal is to have it finished by the Sunday it'd be preached on if it were going to be preached, so I can then compare it to the other sermons I'm exposed to that day: Fr. Nathan's, Nate Hulfish's (which is the odd one out in not following the liturgical cycle), and, of course, Elizabeth's. Then I can see how the trains of thought are similar or different. I expect them to be very, very different, even though Fr. Nathan, Elizabeth, and I will be preaching on the same texts.

1st Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

So, on this, the beginning of a new liturgical year, all of the readings are about endings. Which makes sense, of course; it's also the beginning of Advent, a season of anticipation, a time when the Church waits for the coming of Christ, as figured in the celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas, but also as figured in Christ's "second" coming: the coming again in glory. Advent is the time of the year when we look to the future.

And so, in the passage from St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus directs the attention of the gathered crowd to the eschaton, to the end of the world as we know it. The evangelist has Jesus begin by prophesying the destruction of the temple, an event which to St. Luke and his community must have seemed apocalyptic in its importance, and then goes on to remark on other signs of the end times: signs in the sky, and upheaval upon the Earth.

Now, obviously, a great deal of time has passed between St. Luke's time and our own, and a whole lot of history has happened in between. Empires have risen and fallen. Entire continents have been discovered by peoples previously ignorant of their existence. Human beings have set foot on the moon. The "time of the Gentiles," as St. Luke has Jesus call it, has lasted nigh-on two thousand years.

But even in the time when St. Luke was writing his gospel, it had already begun to become obvious that the notion of an imminent eschaton, of an end of the world that was just as likely to be twenty seconds in the future as two thousand years or more down the road, was already quickly becoming untenable. In the passage immediately preceding today's assigned gospel passage, St. Luke has Jesus say to the people:
"See that you are not deceived, for many will come, saying 'The time has come.' Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end."
A paradigm shift had already taken place, ushering in a worldview focused not on waiting for the end, but rather on living in the time in-between. And now, living in the 21st century, it seems much less clear that the eschaton will ever be an event within history, taking place this Tuesday or next Tuesday or indeed any Tuesday or any other day ending in -y.

But, then, what is the use of all of this talk about the end of the world? Is there any value that we can collect from Jesus' lesson of the fig tree? Is there even any point at all in thinking about the eschaton?

The answer, my dear sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ, is a resounding "yes."

Stories need endings. What if we ended the old fairy tale with Red Riding Hood in the stomach of the wolf, or still on the path picking flowers? What if the prince were still out searching for the foot that would fit into the slipper of glass or gold? What if Snow White and Sleeping Beauty simply slumbered on? Without endings, we don't have stories at all; simply chronicles, mere listings of events. Endings are what allow us to take chronicles and fashion out of them a narrative, to deduce a moral. They are, as John Gardner put it in The Art of Fiction, "not simply the end of the story, but the story's fulfillment."

How we end the Christ story, then, is no idle question, even if it concerns events which exist only in the unrealized future, as the hope and dream of a human people. How we end the Christ story has powerful implications as to how we live our lives in the here and now, for the ending to that story has the power to transform the very meaning of what we choose to do in the present.

For some, the second coming of Christ can act as an excuse to defer dealing with our problems and our neighbors' problems on a systemic level, for surely Christ will take care of them when Christ comes. All that's important is that we hang in there, following God's commandments until either we die or the Rapture happens, whichever comes first. If we succeed at that, we win the game, and if the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket, well so be it, as long as we faithfully executed our own duties to spread the Gospel and save souls, as long as we've spent that time doing our works of mercy, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, as Jesus directed us. "Politics," the desire to engage power and wrestle it out of the hands of the oppressors, can become a dirty word.

This type of worldview has the ability to produce powerful saints: the Dorothy Days and Mother Teresas of the world, the St. Clares and the St. Francises, those who trust in God to take care of the big picture and go about living out their vocation by performing one small service after one small service, feeding the hungry one person at a time. "How the final solution will be brought about is in God's hands," wrote Day in 1959. "The immediate solution will always be the works of mercy."

These types of women and men are called to an important vocation, and their example is one which should inspire and uplift us, and thus holds in it the power to change the world. But it is naive, I think, to think that it can change this sick and fallen world all on its own, and to wait for Christ to have wrought these changes is to put God to the test over what can be performed by human hands.

Where would the Catholic Worker movement be without its newspaper, its attempt to remake the world, to shake it up even beyond the streets of New York City, to change society as a whole radically and fundamentally? We cannot forget that even as the fight for social justice is personal, so too is it political. It requires--as Day and Teresa and Clare and Francis all knew full well--an engagement with the world: rewriting laws, shifting cultural norms, changing the way we as a society use language by coming up with new vocabularies. Setting the example as Christians who love one another and care for our neighbors is an absolutely necessary prerequisite, but it is a beginning, not an end. We cannot rest on the laurels of our works of mercy. We must lobby; we must demonstrate; we must protest; we must agitate; we must vote and encourage others to vote; we must educate. We must not only feed the hungry, but also work to end hunger. Not only visit those in prison, but reform the prison system.

We must, as Mahatma Ghandhi said, be the change we want to see in the world. We must make social justice happen.

There's another way of telling the end to the story of Christ's involvement in the world, a way of telling it in which it is not a mere deus ex machina where the benign God arrives and sets everything right because we are too depraved to do it ourselves. It is an eschatology that's focused not on messianic expectations in a distant future, but an ongoing rebirth in the here and now: not a realized eschatology nor an unrealized eschatology, but an eschatology continually in the process of being realized. And we're the ones who are doing the realizing. The story of Christ's return, the lesson of the fig tree, the promises made to the Hebrews, these stories are important because they fill us with joyful optimism in telling us that a redeemed world is possible, to allow us to be a forward-looking people, but it falls to us to be active agents in the world's redemption.

It is not only Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, not only Christ, of one Being with the Parent God, who is called to "execute justice and righteousness in the land" in the apocalyptic vision of the Christian Church, to be the "righteous branch" risen up for David. It is the Church itself, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It is all of us. We are called to change the world.

The coming of Christ is not an event which exists solely in the past, in a Christmas night millenia past, or in the future, in a triumphant, rapturous return. The coming of Christ is, instead, a constant process which is always going on, a continual revelation of God through Christ and Christ's Spirit as God works in and through the world. The liturgical calendar recognizes this fact as each year we wait anew for Christ's coming in the season of Advent, and celebrate it anew in the season of Christmas. And we, the followers of Christ right here in this room and throughout the world, we the Church, we who are the Body of Christ, we are the agents, the vehicle of that coming.

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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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

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