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: (Bowed Head)
As preached to the congregation of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Gloucester City, at their Morning Prayer service on the 8th of August, 2010. . . .

Proper 14 (Sunday Closest to August 10), Year C

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Many of my friends, including all of my housemates, are members of a nearby congregation operating under the Brethren in Christ, so most Sunday evenings I find myself worshipping with them at their weekly Public Meeting. Their style of worship there is fairly different than ours here; sometimes it seems that they think it is more important for sacred music to be loud than pretty. It’s really not at all my style of worship at all, really, and at times I find myself more alienated than uplifted.

Back during Lent, I was at the public meeting, and I’m surrounded by these energetic figures, fellow twenty-somethings who are just exploding with their love for Christ, and I’m left completely cold. And then I was blessed to look over to my right and I see a married couple I know, about my age, and on the husband’s lap is their then-eight-month-old daughter, gleefully smiling and clapping.

Holy Scripture talks about the hardening and softening of hearts. I think that’s the best way of describing what happened: the Spirit softened my heart. Seeing that baby girl take such innocent joy in worshipping the Lord helped me recenter my focus away from my own own nitpicks about the theology of the lyrics or the aesthetics of the melody, and back towards God.

When I got home, I got on my computer and posted a status update to my Facebook: “Cole Banning has been inspired by the faith of a child.”

It got me thinking about what that means, the faith of a child. The phrase is of course biblical: Jesus tells us in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that it is a necessary condition for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. But what is it, exactly?

Often it seems we use it to mean a totally uncritical acceptance, belief without doubt, so-called “blind faith.” But that’s not what happened in the case of Baby Lydia. Her faith was far from blind. Instead, it was a response to what she saw and heard in front of her. Even as a baby, even prior to her acquisition of language, she was able to recognize the goodness of God’s creation and respond by giving praise to glory to God in the simple ways available to her, by participating in our worship, in what our Psalm today calls “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

I wonder sometimes where that notion of a child’s faith being blind or uncritical comes from. I’m not a parent, but one thing I know about children is that they’re constantly questioning. It’s an iconic image: the young child, incessantly asking “why?” Why this? Why that? And when given an answer, responding to that answer with the question “why?” and if one is willing to answer that too, once again meeting the answer with “why?” unto infinite regress. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” This is not an uncritical faith but rather a faith which seeks to learn, to grow, to challenge what it is told.

In our epistle reading, the author of Hebrews talks about the great faith of Abraham and Sarah and their family. I think that Abraham had the faith of a child. When we think about Abraham, we tend to think about his obedience, obedience which was important and a right and goodful thing. But I think we can appreciate the passage from Hebrews best if we remember that Abraham’s faith was larger than just obedience, a relationship with God that consisted of more than just Abraham following commands.

In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures, there is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, the two cities which the Torah tells us God destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone. The Torah also tells us that Abraham argued with God over the fates of Sodom and Gomorrah: he negotiated, bargained. “Will you save the cities if there are 50 righteous people to be found?” “Will you save the cities if there 45?” “What abouty forty?” Talk about the faith of a child! I’m reminded of a child at a cookie jar: “Can I have a cookie, Mommy? Can I have two cookies? Three? Three and a half?”

Abraham, while always remaining obedient to the will of God, was at the same time willing to challenge God, to question God, in his attempt to understand God’s will.

Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson whom Isaiah also mentions, wrestled with the angel of the LORD at Penuel. When God revealed Godself to Moses, the descendent of Abraham and Sarah and the great leader of Israel who only saw the promised kingdom from afar, Moses too argued. He said, “I don’t think I can do this, God.”

And God said, “Okay, I’ll send your sister and brother with you to help you.” That’s dialogue: a process which consists of both give and take for both persons involved.

Moses constantly negotiated with God on behalf of the people of Israel. Indeed, we think of Sinai as this place where God’s will was committed to human beings, but it’s instructive to remember that Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Sinai before he brought down the Decalogue: they had a lot to talk about up there.

Isaiah writes: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.” The underlying metaphor in the Hebrew is that of a law court: Israel is standing trial for its sins. But it presents us with a call to enter into dialogue with God. The Inclusive Bible translates the line as “Let’s look at the choices before you,” while it is rendered in the New American Bible as “let us set things right”: this dialogic encounter with God opens an opportunity for a process of self-discovery that allows us to set order to the way in which we live our lives.

This then is, I think, the picture of authentic Biblical faith which Scripture provides us: a relationship with God which is primarily experiential, rooted in our encounter with the divine: in prayer, in service, and of course in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood -- back next week!

Thomas Merton reminds us that “faith is the door to the full inner life of the Church, a life which includes not only access to an authoritative teaching but above all to a deep personal experience which is at once unique and yet shared by the whole Body of Christ, in the Spirit of Christ.”

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff makes a similar point when he writes that “[f]aith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from the outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others.

“Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling -- the heart, the intellect, and the will.” “Close quote.”

I think this type of response, described by Boff, is the type of response which Jesus describes in our Gospel reading today, being “dressed for action” and having our “lamps lit,” making our treasure in heaven by our works of mercy and charity, through our voluntary poverty. So too in Isaiah when God tells Israel, and us, to cease evil and learn to do good; to seek justice and rescue the oppressed; to defend the orphan and plead for the widow.

This Wednesday is the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. Now, Clare is my favorite capital-S Saint because she’s the patron saint of television, which makes her in an indirect sort of way the patron saint of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Clare, who ran away from her aristocratic family to join Saint Francis in his example of God-devoted poverty, also models for us the Gospel call we’ve heard read today.

But let’s be frank: the type of response we hear called for in today’s readings, that we see in the life of Clare, is not one that can come out of obedience alone, a response only to the mere commands of a perceived spiritual authority. All the threats in the world will do no more than compel us to do -- reluctantly -- the very least of what is called of us.

And that’s not good enough. Isaiah tells how the Israelites’ offering of sacrifices and their keeping of festivals brought no delight in God, for the people had turned away from God’s will in spirit.

The radical commitment we’ve heard described is only possible through being transformed by the Spirt so that we may abide in the love of Christ Jesus. This transformation is the legacy of our baptism, but it is not a free ride. Neither is it some massive mystical revelatory encounter where Jesus appears and sets all our doubts to rest. God knows I wouldn’t mind one of those, but it’s not necessary.

No, instead it takes active participation, both by us and by God, in an authentic encounter grounded in the activities of our everyday lives: coming to church on Sunday, listening to Father and meditating on his words--without necessarily always having to agree with them; praying and reading Scripture throughout the week; performing service for all our sisters and brothers and siblings here on planet Earth through our works of mercy and justice-seeking social action; engaging in conversation and discussion with other members of the Body of Christ--a process which should begin at coffee hour but not end there.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We must work to develop our faith lives, to question why we believe what we say we believe and why we do what we do. We cannot be afraid of the difficult questions, or be ashamed of those doubts which are a natural element of a mature faith.

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.”

We are called to challenge too-simple truths, to reject fallacious authority, to argue with our God. God does not need or want yes-men and yes-women and yes-persons: God is God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God wants and needs a family of sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ--a communion of saints.

My hope and prayer for us, therefore, is that we may be inspired by the incredible faith of those who have gone before us that we may be empowered to follow the examples of the matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, and saints: that of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob, of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, of Clare and Francis, and -- perhaps most of all -- of that annoying little child, incessantly asking . . . “Why?”

Amen.

2nd Easter

Sunday, 11 April 2010 12:32 am
cjbanning: (The Bishop)
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118:14-29 
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

The second Sunday of Easter is my favorite Sunday in the entire liturgical year. Part of the reason is because the message it gives us is not simple to decipher or easy to hear; it challenges us, invites us to engage the story of St. Thomas just as Thomas engaged the physical body of the Risen Christ: fully, critically, and reverently. Even now, years since I've come to terms with this Gospel story (although my relation to it is still changing, never static), the challenges which it gave me in the past serve to enrichen and deepen my response to it in the present.

These are the words of Jesus the Christ to the doubting St. Thomas: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe."

In a world where ignorance and uncritical thinking are commonplace, where religious intolerance is rampant and fanaticism begets horrific violence, these are challenging words. It seems, after all, like the absolutely last thing this world needs is more uncritical belief without evidence.

But as I've reflected over this Gospel passage over the years, these are also words that have come to bring me much hope and joy. Imagine all the things Jesus could have said, but didn't. Jesus could have cursed St. Thomas, just as Jesus had cursed the fig tree which had not born fruit out of season. Words of reprimand, of condemnation, of anger or disappointment, could have followed. Jesus could have berated St. Thomas for his lack of belief.

But none of those things happened. Instead: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe."

But the truest, deepest source of joy isn't just that we aren't, say, damned to hell forever for our doubts, for our unbelief--as if we could ever possibly imagine such a thing of a loving and just Creator. It's this: that when Thomas reached out for a deeper, relational connection with Christ, to see and touch and feel Jesus, the Risen Christ appeared. We are not required to hold blind faith, to believe without seeing. When we need Jesus, when we ask for Jesus, Jesus shows up. Every time, without fail, just like Jesus did for St. Thomas.

Well, maybe not just like. If you expect Jesus to show up bodily in front of you, to give you a chance to put your fingers in Jesus' side, you're probably going to be disappointed--probably. I suppose I can't rule out the possibility completely--but if it happens to you, you're probably best off not telling me about it. If you're looking for some grand supernatural violation of the natural order of God's creation, you're going to be disappointed; at best, you'll get a violation of the established rules as we currently understand them. And if you expect "proof" for some set of propositional truths, to the exclusion of some other set of propositions, some final demonstration that you're right and everyone else is wrong, you're almost certainly going to be disappointed. Faith, at least as I understand it, doesn't work like that.

"First of all," writes the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in his book Liberation and Ecology, "comes the experience of mystery, the experience of God":
Only afterward does faith supervene. Faith is not primarily adhesion to a teaching that gives access to revelation and the supernatural. Then faith would be tantamount to ideology, in the sense of an idea or belief inculcated in someone from outside. This extrinsic character of so-called faith can give rise to various forms of fundamentalism and religious warfare. All groups tend to affirm their own truths to the exclusion of all others. Faith is meaningful and possesses truth only when it represents a response to an experience of God made personally and communally. Then faith is the expression of an encounter with God which embraces all existence and feeling--the heart, the intellect, and the will.
This may well be the purest description of my personal theology as has ever been written; I know that ever since I first read Boff's words, in 2004, they have been written on my heart. And I cannot think about the story of St. Thomas without thinking of them.

Jesus' appearance to St. Thomas did not put an end to the possibly of doubt or disbelief. Imagine what we might wonder were we to find ourselves in Thomas' shoes. Is it really Jesus--and not, say, Jesus' identical twin? Could it be a trick with mirrors, or a delusion of the mind? Can we be sure that Jesus really died, and wasn't resuscitated by some scientifically-explainable process (and never underestimate the ingenuity of scientists in constructing explanations, it's what they do)?

Jesus' appearance to St. Thomas did not make these questions impossible. Instead, it made them irrelevant. Because in that moment, the reality of Christ's presence transcended all necessity to explain how or whether or why.

But if we cannot expect the Risen Christ to show up bodily in our living rooms and instruct us to touch Christ's wounds, then how, then, can we experience Christ in the modern world as twenty-first century postmoderns? How do we have the type of experience St. Thomas did? Where do we find this sacred mystery? Primarily, we can do this through the Sacraments, the outward and visible signs of inward, invisible grace--and most especially the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, where we receive Jesus Christself into us in order to strengthen and renew our identity as Christ's mystical Body. We encounter Christ communally and relationally, through our relationships with others, our work for justice and works of mercy: we see Jesus in the face of the stranger who is the least of our sisters or brothers or siblings. And also in solitude and contemplation, through prayer and sacramentals--but like with Thomas, our engagement with Christ must necessarily begin with our engagement with our community, in our challenging and being challenged by our sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ.

All of these things sustain us and make possible the type of holistic faithful response Boff talks about. They don't prove some truth claim and disprove some other; they don't have to, because what they're doing is far more important. That we know Christ is so much infinitely more important than that we know that Christ exists. That we know the Caretaker-God is so much more important than that we know the Caretaker-God exists. That we know the Spirit is so much more--well, I think you get the idea.

I don't always know what to do with all the belief-language in the Bible, especially the New Testament. I may never come to terms with it all completely. I don't speak or read Greek, and I don't speak or read Hebrew. So I don't know which words the Bible authors were using when my translations use a form of "faith" or "belief," and I don't know what those words would have meant to them, what nuances of meaning might be present, when what is being discussed is belief--which is to say, trust--in a person, or propositional belief in a fact, or perhaps even some other type of belief in something else entirely. I don't know to what degree belief and faith would have been thought of as synonymous or differing concepts. These are interesting questions, not because we must necessarily remain bound to the the understanding of the saints of two thousand years ago, but because they provide resources upon which to draw in our attempt at constructing, in enriching and deepening, a theology which is liberatory for all people today while rooted in our shared history.

I have no doubt I will one day learn at least some of these answers. Already I know more than I did a year ago, which is more than I knew five years ago. But in the end, I don't think that really matters, because in my heart I know that mere beliefs don't have the power to save, and never could. Christ, the person whom every one of us has the opportunity to know and befriend, is the One who saves.

Thomas rejected holding a truth claim about Christ in favor of knowing the Christ, feeling and touching and seeing the Christ. And Jesus showed up. Jesus always shows up. Jesus tells us that Thomas' type of faith isn't the only type of faith which is valid or acceptable to God: "Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe." This is no doubt an important corrective to the temptation to judge the faith of others, to declare it too uncritical, too simple, too uninformed or unenlightened. But I firmly believe--I cannot but believe--that those of us who are called to the faith of St. Thomas are blessed, too. How can we not be, when Jesus always shows up?

I love the second Sunday of Easter because it is this truth--that Jesus shows up, that Jesus always shows up--which fills me with joy like no other New Testament message can. The story of St. Thomas speaks to me so powerfully on a personal level, it is his story which fills me with hope like no other New Testament story can, because in Thomas I find a vision of a mature, questioning, critical faith which is not thwarted, but rather manages to find its fulfillment in Christ's Presence.

Jesus shows up. Jesus always shows up.

Alleluia.
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My Prayer

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

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


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